“You’re being so quiet!”- Language, power and vulnerability in Fleabag

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Fleabag – the show that is, not its central character- is obsessed with the idea of silence; how threatening it is, how uncomfortable to endure without some form of defence.

So uncomfortable in fact that places where Fleabag (the character) is forced to be silent reliably serve in both the first and second seasons as a way of  advancing the plot (a silent religious retreat and a quaker meeting respectively, the latter of which she is correctly told beforehand will be her “idea of hell”). Fleabag finds herself incapable of being silent, she speaks, truthfully and disruptively- chaos usually follows. For the other characters in the show, Fleabag’s occasional silence is a warning sign, she is being silent because she is about to speak in a socially catastrophic way (“I just wondered if you had a little show planned?”, her joyously evil ex-godmother asks her, keen for no more fake miscarriage revelations) or because she is speaking (sort of) but in a mode that excludes her from shared understanding with any of the people actually around her (“You’re being so quiet! Why aren’t you saying anything?”). That Fleabag doesn’t have anyone she actually communicates with is something her therapist seizes on with unprofessional remorselessness; “any friends? Someone to talk to?” But of course Fleabag doesn’t need to have actual people to talk to, she has ‘us’ or rather herself; she uses language not as a way of connecting, but as a way of distancing herself from others, as a witty and grimacy narrator separating herself from situations she doesn’t want to or is emotionally unable to engage with. And we, the audience, are complicit in this- part of the brilliant uncomfortability of the therapist scene is that, for the first time in the show, we feel guilty about enabling something that might not be the most healthy way of relating to the world of others, or to your own inner world of emotion.

What the ontological status of her linguistically-showy asides is, is almost irrelevant in this context (whether they are to herself, to us or to- as some commentators have suggested- the dead best friend) the function is clear, to emotionally cushion her from the drama. Fleabag’s incessant commentary reminds me (as I’m sure it has others) of what Leslie Jamison says about “post- wounded” women. That “their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever” as a way of guarding against  those moments “when melodrama or self-​pity might split their careful seams of intellect” [1].  Being able to speak the cynical languages of the “post-wounded” (particularly to an audience real or imagined) is a way of having power over your woundedness, of not allowing yourself to feel it, and bear the risk of being consumed by it.

But in much smaller ways throughout the show, Fleabag consistently disrupts one of the most frequent forms of quiet(ish) intimacy we can have with another person, during sex, and she does it (as with most things) not by talking to them (which would have opened it into another, different kind of intimacy), but by talking about them, to us. Mostly this is straight-up played for laughs, as with her opening monologue to the camera about anal sex, because we understand that sex is not something you’re meant to really talk during, and definitely not about whilst it is still happening. Notably her dependable, kind on-off boyfriend of the first season breaks up with her for the second to last time when he finds her masturbating to a video of Obama. Language is used for her as a buffer against the uncomfortably silent, shared vulnerability of sex; getting yourself off to a recorded speech whilst your boyfriend sleeps next to you at least seems like an archetypal instance of that process.

The connection between silence and sex (albeit one which Fleabag finds herself psychologically unable to engage with in in practice) is made clear when she is taken to Quaker meeting in the second season. “Quaker meeting…  It’s very intense. It’s very quiet. It’s very… very… erotic.” I was absolutely delighted when Quakers in Britain retweeted this as “[q]uite the endorsement” [2], not just because it seemed like something I couldn’t imagine another religious body ever doing, but also I took it as a clear public recognition of the fact I’d long expressed to highly amused friends, that what I liked about Quakers was similar to what I liked about one-night stands. Going to quaker meeting, at a particularly bleak point in my life, ended up somehow replacing some of the more self-destructive excesses of the casual sex I was having.  Or if not exactly replacing (in terms of reducing its quantity in a significant way) at least offering a counterpoint to it the next day, as another way of doing the same thing- to be around someone, a stranger, without any pressure to talk, to defend yourself with language, to have to give any kind of account of yourself. They were both places that someone with horribly bad depression and a shaky sense of self could go and just be allowed to be. Quakers was better in a lot of ways because you didn’t need to shower or put on mascara first and because you didn’t feel vaguely aggrieved at the other participants whilst it was still going on, but sleeping around was still very, very good.

This is the part of sex that Fleabag (the person)  is lacking, for most of the show; the place where you can occasionally find yourself temporarily without the power of language to shore up, express or defend your identity, and because of this you can end up uncomfortably dependent on another person.  Rowan Williams refers to this kind of vulnerability as being similar to the Christian conception of grace, that it involves a transformation “that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.” [3] He argues that “this means, crucially, that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am”, which entails a certain kind of helplessness, or dependence on another (even if the sex is “loveless” as he puts it).

The fourth and fifth episodes of Fleabag’s second season beautifully contrasts this kind of vulnerable powerlessness with another kind of powerlessness, that which results from domination. Being dominated in some ways feels a lot like being vulnerable- you give over control in some way over what happens to you, you are forced to put trust in another person who may or may not deserve that trust. However it is only the latter which involves an acknowledgement of yourself, a meaningful engagement on the other person’s part with what it is to be you and a genuine reciprocity. On one level Fleabag is clearly desperate for the kind of mutually dependant, trusting vulnerability she had with Boo, but she can’t express it in those words, instead she begs in the confessional booth for someone to control and command her (“I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life because so far I’ve been getting it wrong.”) The hot priest obliges with the word but not (I would argue) the spirit of or unconscious desire behind this request. He commands her to kneel, and then in one of the starkest visual representations of an imbalance in power I’ve seen on a TV show he towers darkly over her in the doorway as she kneels, and kisses her. Understandably (and justifiably) this had a controversial reception, however the fact that their almost-sex was so nauseatingly hot shouldn’t obscure the fact that it was interrupted (by God, no less!) The horrible, oppressive dynamics of that first (narratively halted) encounter serve to highlight the contrast with the second;  when they do actually have sex it is from a position of mutuality, she knows it is inevitable before he does, and the scene initially places her in a position of physical ascendancy over him (she is standing whilst he is seated). Throughout the series the hot priest has tried to wrestle her out of her asides to the camera (“what is that thing you’re doing, you just disappear?”) but what is notable about the sex between the two of them (unlike every other sexual encounter she has) is that she voluntarily decides to push the camera away during it. This is the contrast the show wants us to draw, between the coercion of having someone else’s speech determine what happens to you in a sexual context even if that is what’s requested (“I just want someone to tell me”…“Kneel!”) and from freely relinquishing the power of your own speech (her asides to us/herself) in order to let yourself be fully dependent on someone else. What she was grasping at before in a misconceived way in the confessional booth, is realised in this- mutually defenseless- encounter with him.

But of course emphasizing the strange and valuable intimacy of being silent with someone  is only half the story in a show as ethically and emotionally complex as Fleabag, silence is not just good in and of itself, but also as a necessary means to enabling the characters to finally speak honestly with each other (an idea key to Quaker theology.) The only time Fleabag expresses in words in either the first or second season how devastated and destroyed by life she is, it is after a bout of silence on her part. This silence (like that discussed in the above paragraph) is also voluntarily chosen; although she repeatedly violates the rules of her silent retreat, she then uses these rules as an excuse to not have to use words to communicate in a moment of solidarity with the sexually harassing bank manager. Her silence facilitates a surprisingly moving emotional outpouring on his part (“I want to take clean cups out of the dishwasher and put them in the cupboard at home and the next morning, I want to watch my wife drink from them”) at the end of which Fleabag replies with “I just want to cry all the time.”

Language- even in the upper class British and completely repressed world of Fleabag- does not always have to be used in defense, sometimes it can be used to reach out to others, and to create genuine intimacy with another human being. In her flashbacks with Boo the language of shared drunken jokes and winding each other up is used to construct a cosy togetherness which is the background against which she discusses openly her grief at losing her mother (in a way unrecognisable for the present Fleabag.)  The priest is the first person since then who she seems to intentionally use language – specifically humour (very specifically the ongoing joke about his fox-phobia) – to connect with as opposed to alienate herself from, or to set herself above. Their interactions are joyful to watch, in a way that hers and Boo’s also were, and also in a way that’s reminiscent of a line from Sally Rooney’s first novel where the narrator says that another character was “the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music” [4].  Their sensuously witty back and forth brings them closer together, however it is the silences between them (culminating in their sexual encounter at her flat), which are the training-wheels in vulnerability which give her the bravery her to finally open up to him (using words- and strong words at that) in the last episode. Silence is important, but it cannot – by itself- allow someone else to see the contents of your mind. Perhaps if you’re grieving, or depressed then being quiet (either during sex or not) can be the only way of being close to another person, but at some point it has to give way to speech. The most moving thing I found about the final episode was Claire’s pronouncement that Fleabag was “the only person she’d ever run through an airport for.” We as the viewer instantly know it to be true, Fleabag must on some level know it as well, but that doesn’t matter; what matters, what feels so joyful and triumphant and completely and utterly emotionally devastating about it is that Claire (who is so tightly controlled it is painful to watch) made the decision to share something so utterly sappy and out-of-character with Fleabag. Not that the content of it was in any way a big reveal, the shock comes from the fact that she says it out loud to her sister. I watched it with my own sister and we both absolutely howled.

Speaking honestly to someone about your emotions requires a deliberate relinquishing of power, you have to trust the other person will see your confession (and by extension you) in the right way, that they will respond in the right way. In the final scene, after the priest has left Fleabag alone on a bus-stop and has walked away, thus ending their conversation, the fox is sent by her final words -like a kind of  clumsy metaphorical question- after him into the dark. Perhaps that’s the only thing even more vulnerable than silence; to speak in a way which demands a response from someone in the full knowledge that it will not come.

References

  1. Leslie Jamison, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain https://www.vqronline.org/essays-articles/2014/04/grand-unified-theory-female-pain
  2. https://twitter.com/BritishQuakers/status/1110312862852022273
  3. Rowan Williams, the Body’s Grace, https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/the-bodys-grace.pdf
  4. Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends
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“Desperately Clutching onto a Leaflet on Depression”

“Jobseeker! Can of Strongbow, I’m a mess/ Desperately clutching onto a leaflet on depression/ Supplied to me by the NHS/ It’s anyone’s guess how I got here.” – Sleaford Mods, Jobseeker

In the run up to the 1968 US presidential election- and amidst all the political upheaval, civil rights protests and race riots of the late 1960s- Nixon created a winning campaign focusing on “law and order”, with a promise to be “tough on crime.” (Click here for his iconic ‘The First Civil Right’ advert.)

He argued, against the democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey,  that “doubling the conviction rate in this country would do more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for Humphrey’s  war on poverty.” And hence the beginnings of the modern american “’Tough on Crime’ movement; .. a set of policies that emphasize[d] punishment as a primary, and often sole, response to crime.”*  This continued partly through the efforts of Clinton, who diverted funds from projects investing in deprived communities into increasing policing and prison capacities; the modern legacy of which is the second highest incarceration rate globally, and huge racial and class-based disparities in sentencing (black men are statistically more likely to go to prison than complete high-school**). It’s also made police forces in impoverished, inner-city areas (such as the parts of Baltimore currently rioting over the murder of Freddie Gray) more akin to an “army of occupation”, than anything aimed at protecting citizens from the negative effects of crime.***

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Twitter

I now have it. Mainly so I can get angry at real people on the internet, instead of dead people in books.  https://twitter.com/TheBeetleBox

Don’t Think, But Look*

“She was not one for emptying her face of expression. ”  ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Before I got contact lenses (i.e., before I could see properly on a regular basis, since I always hated that fishtank-feel glasses have) I thought I had some kind of idea of what my life had been lacking without them.

In some respects, I wasn’t far off. My visual field lost its previous oiliness, where only things close up were concrete and distinct and the backdrop slipped and shimmied at will. I wandered around supermarkets, suddenly thick with texture, muttering Macneice (“I peel and portion/ A Tangerine and spit the pips and feel/ The Drunkenness of things being various.”) And it was a kind of drunkenness, a constant immersion in a strange and almost hallucinatorily bright world, that I couldn’t quite believe was just the normal day-to-day one that other people experienced.

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From the Box: Sylvia Plath

If we have our why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that. (Nietzsche, TI 12.)

Anchored misery, misery that has something external to the sufferer as as both its cause and its object can, in some ways, be easier to bear. At the end of her penetrating essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith quotes Julian Barnes on the subject of mourning: “It hurts as much as it is worth.” If we have a ‘why’ of suffering, it doesn’t diminish it or make it any lighter to drag around with us, but it does give it a place and an importance in our ethical lives. Misery is the appropriate response to loss of something valued, whether that is a person, a relationship, innocence or even a rosebush. Continue reading

Just Behavioural: Pain, Psychiatric Patients and Possible Responses to Them (Part Two)

[For Part One click here]

Perhaps more than any of the bad pictures of “pain” Wittgenstein attempts to disentangle people from in the Philosophical Investigations, the above picture assimilates our knowledge of other’s pain to our knowledge of stuff, of features of the external world. Here “pain” is a feature of the world (albeit of that part of the world taken up by someone’s body), one which we can know about with a high degree of certainty, or if we are uncertain about it is simply because we do not yet have enough factual information to hand. (“I’m unsure if she is in pain, I’m still waiting on the results of the scan.”)

Yet it stems from the same kind of unease also leading to those pictures which Wittgenstein does address: the thought that if the question “Are they in pain?” is to have any kind of bite there must be something called “a pain” to exist “somewhere” (whether physically or mentally). The “medical” solution (the one I have discussed above) is a picture which does enable us to know someone elses pain, and yet in doing so robs pain of its phenomenological content (and many of the instances we would refer to as pain.) On the other hand attempts to situate this strange object called a “pain” in the realms of “the mental”, have the unfortunate effect of meaning that we can never know if someone is ever in pain at all. Both pictures, however,  “yoke” knowledge (of another’s pain) to “certainty”: knowing something is being able to gather the appropriate evidence for it,  to be “sure” about it. Continue reading

Just Behavioural: Pain, Psychiatric Patients and Possible Responses to Them. (Part One.)

It seems like a weird question to ask how you can know if someone is in pain or not.

Not that this has really stopped philosophers from continuously asking it, and many of them answering along sceptical lines; you cannot ever know another’s pain, you can only guess at or surmise it. (PI 246)  But this is not what I’m talking about. As my philosophy tutor, Bob Hargrave, used to say, the only possible response to a philosopher who claims they can seriously entertain the possibility that someone screaming and writhing under a torturer’s implements isn’t actually “in pain”, is to back away from them slowly. (This goes along with a certain, and largely justified, fashion of seeing most philosophical problems as being abstract and irrelevant to our lives: of course we constantly treat other people’s pain as something obvious and indisputable, whatever the philosophers decide between them is hardly going to have much bearing on that.)

What I’m talking about, though, are the kinds of situations I now encounter all the time. Where a patient on the ward is doubled up, clutching their stomach and the response of the nurses and doctors is simply to label it as “behavioural”-  the polite, medicalized way of saying “they’re just faking it to get attention.” Instead of responding to their pain, instead of comforting them (or offering some other kind of relief),  we simply have to work out how to manage their problematic behaviour. They very much look like they’re in excruciating pain, but we know that they’re not, so treating them as if they are is inappropriate. Continue reading