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Attending to the Present

by Ananya Agustin Malhotra

The Life of the Mind

Christine Smallwood, Random House, 2021

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s course for students begins with a session called ‘Keeping the Body in Mind’. In the assigned reading for that week, Mark Williams and Danny Penman write, ‘we can easily spend so much time “in our head” that we almost forget we have a body at all … the body becomes something of a stranger.’

A familiar phenomenon to most of us involved in the world of the gown: we think; therefore, we are. Success in the world of professionalised learning is based ostensibly on the precision of one’s thought; in reality, it is more like a slot machine heavily mediated by privilege, pedigree, and access. Dorothy, the protagonist in Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, The Life of the Mind, is an adjunct English professor in New York City at a private university with a sticker price twice her salary. The novel follows her prolonged miscarriage and stifled career and meanders through her hyper-analytic, stream-of-consciousness anxieties. Dorothy wonders what happened to the calcified tissues at the bottom of her (second) therapist’s tissue box and stresses over what the children of the emergent future who live on a raft will say when she confesses to them that she didn’t even compost because she ‘didn’t like the smell’.

These anxious internal ramblings about the future and past — mostly on themes of accumulation, waste, and impending climate disaster — are accented by Dorothy’s curiosity about the mundane grotesqueness of corporeal existence in the present. She picks her nose, ‘screwdriver style, to release a single flake of snot,’ wipes ‘back to front’ out of habit and tastes the blood from Day 6 of her miscarriage. Her body is, indeed, a stranger, an odd combination of blood, bile, flesh and hair jerking her into the now.

Her miscarriage can come off too easily as a straightforward metaphor for deferred dreams of tenure and professional stability, yearning for the time when ‘wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want’. Dorothy’s anxieties linger in this limbo of an earnest past and a destitute future — the ‘epilogue of wants’. She quickly marks all the papers in her class ‘Writing Apocalypse,’ good or bad, with an A- so she can move on to writing the book chapter that would ‘get her the contract that would get her the job that didn’t exist’.

But Smallwood is working less with metaphor, I think, and more with matter. I don’t read the text as a frenetic juxtaposition literalising the cut between mind and body, but rather as a reminder that such a divide is impossible. Smallwood puts minds back into bodies, attending to the extremely unglamorous material realities of precarious academic existence. Her miscarriage is not only allegorical; it’s a banal insistence on corporeality, one of many throughout the text. Several scenes take place in campus bathrooms, such as the ‘single-occupancy bathroom by the critical-theory reading room’ — where a handle rattles the door while she stares at her phone. Twice, she yells, “I’m in here!” before exiting and drinking water from a chewing gum-clogged fountain. Her hotshot advisor from graduate school, Judith, is simultaneously omniscient and clownish, with garish red lipstick drawn well outside the bounds of her lips, dry and flaking. ‘How naïve’, Smallwood writes, ‘Dorothy had once been to believe that there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind.’

The physicist Karen Barad, in their article ‘Invertebrate Visions: Diffractions of the Brittlestar’, argues that we might give up all dreams of an objective dominion of the mind, and instead begin to think with the brittlestar, a sea animal without a brain which is made up only of eyes. The brittlestar has no mind, only a body. Its ways of knowing are dictated not by a brain but are entangled with its ways of being. Attending to the body, as Smallwood regularly does to punctuate Dorothy’s creative internal onslaught of anxieties, is a way of breaking free of the mind and its incessant ruminations and worries about the past and future.

The other force dispersing Dorothy’s cumulative anxiety is Smallwood’s acerbic farce. Like an analyst poking fun at her patient’s neuroses, Smallwood doesn’t let us take Dorothy or her world too seriously. The novel’s ludicrous situational humour forces the reader into the present moment — suddenly, you’re laughing. In a flashback to the anxious years of graduate school, Dorothy overhears Judith, her lipsticked advisor, commenting that the work of Alexandra, Dorothy’s peer, is ‘significant’. Waiting outside Judith’s office, Dorothy chaotically annotates Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction with a flurry of marginal checkmarks, to indicate just how much she understands the text, while fuming that her own work had at times been called ‘clever’ or ‘promising’ or even ‘stylish’, but never significant. When Alexandra significantly holds open the door to Judith’s office, Dorothy sullenly notes how the act metonymously draws attention to Alexandra herself, as her work was on, (what else) doors. Not ‘what they were about just that they were. The fact of them.’ At an academic conference (where else, but Vegas with its slot machines), Alexandra asks an audience of her peers, what are the politics of doors? What power relations do they indicate?

Absurdity wins. The phenomenology of the “life of the mind” for the many who lose at its lottery is one of material precarity. Smallwood probes the dismal “here and now” between a nostalgic past self and a dashed future, accented by catastrophic fantasies about the long stretch of history creeping towards climate disaster. The endtimes are not of a bang but a whimper, ends which ‘came and came and … did not end’, a stagnant, liminal future as unfulfilled as miscarried blood which drips for weeks, continuously flushed away. The apocalypse is interrupted, however, by moments of sharp humour, a bit of levity which makes the text sparkle with an addictive vitality despite its depressive mood. The Life of the Mind keeps good company with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Jenny Offill’s Weather — cerebral novels whose highly-educated protagonists are too witty, too anxious, and too real.

It’s funny that it’s called “mindfulness” — it’s not really about the mind at all. Like the brittlestar, a body covered with eyes without a brain, it’s about attending to the present moment, awake. To put the mind back inside the body. To meet ruminations and worries with “ah, anxious thoughts are here,” and “thanks very much for your input, anxious thoughts, but I’m listening to my breathing right now”. A bit of play; being, not thinking; befriending; letting go.

ANANYA AGUSTIN MALHOTRA is a graduate student in history at the University of Oxford. She is working on staying present while studying the past.

Art by Maisie Honey

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