Because They Wind Us Up

Daisy Lafarge, Lovebug

Peninsula Press, 160pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913512378

reviewed by Vittoria Fallanca

In an evocative passage based around John Donne’s famous poem The Flea, Daisy Lafarge discusses what she terms ‘the difficult meshwork of infection and intimacy’. The flea of Donne’s poem has sucked on the blood of the speaker and his beloved and acts as an opportunity for him to persuade her of a different kind of corporeal exchange. While feminist critiques of the poem note the silence or erasure of the female beloved, for Lafarge this interspecies interaction highlights how our bodies already intertwined with those of other living beings. The flea is not just a vehicle for male seduction in a ‘creepy hook-up poem par excellence’, but a stand-in for our enmeshment in ecological networks of interacting species, from microbiomes to the complex organisms they inhabit.

This image of co-mingling sets the tone for the rest of Lovebug, a deceptively slim book that in exacting, inspired prose, lays out what our relationships might have in common with the behaviour of pathogens and parasites: animals, viruses and bacteria that live, feed, or travel through their hosts. As Lafarge demonstrates, love highlights our fault lines, shows us our interdependence, our abjection, and in doing so it feeds on our desire for communion, for recognition. In other words, love sucks.

One of Lafarge’s aims is to show that many of our everyday metaphors and expressions for love and intimacy have an affinity with biological processes. One of these (‘I love you so much I could eat you!’) is reflected in ancestral microbial life and the phenomenon of symbiogenesis. Symbiogenesis — the fusion of two separate organisms into a greater single organism — is now widely accepted to explain the emergence of animal and plant cells in bacteria that began to ingest other bacteria when all their sources of food had been extinguished. ‘Symbiogenesis’ literally means ‘generated through living together’, but this process is not necessarily as harmonious as it sounds. For something to be created something else, or a part of it, must die.

‘Love is mixed in with death, the eater rises out of the eaten’, writes Lafarge, reflecting on the darker recesses of our attachments: love makes us monstrous; desire can devour us alive. Lafarge’s reflections on love’s cannibalistic dimensions lean on French feminist theory but they equally, implicitly, allude to the psychoanalytic concepts of the death drive and the pleasure principle. These two directions of our psychological compulsions — one toward closure, the other toward extension and multiplication — go hand in hand. There is no Eros without Thanatos, no multiplication without destruction, no erotic sucking without drawing a little bit of blood.

The metaphors that Lafarge ascribes to our discourses of love and infection are also apt for the kind of interdisciplinarity that she enacts through her writing project, as psychoanalysis, pathology, philosophy, and poetry co-mingle on the page. Part literary-scientific exposé, part lyrical memoir, Lovebug squirms from easy qualification like a worm under a microscope’s glare. The same ambivalence and vulnerability of intimacy are at play when one discipline ‘infects’ another, when the conditions for harmonious interlocution and perfect exchange are difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Lafarge demands a reader that is at home in the at times disorienting effects of this discursive polyphony.

This embracing of experiments in interdisciplinarity is a particular strength of Peninsula Press, which alongside Lovebug has published a number of authors, such as Lisa Robertson and Lynn Tillman, that embrace disciplinary restlessness. (One of the best descriptions of interdisciplinarity I’ve encountered comes from Tillman’s Men and Apparitions: ‘It’s how I can move between disciplines, by keeping the frame in mind’). But Lovebug also follows a spate of other non-fiction/memoir hybrids that deal in the currency of love and poetry, including Aaron Kunin’s Love Three (based on George Herbert’s poem Love (III) incidentally cited in the epigraph of Lafarge’s book) and Anahid Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse. What it has in common with these two titles is its valorisation of the murkier eddies of relationality, or what the theorist Lauren Berlant called ‘the familiar friction of being in relation’. Where it differs is in its refusal to affix its reflections on love, desire, and snippets of personal history to a wider analysis and discussion of a text or set of texts that culminate in an argument, or at least propose a way of reading.

‘Writing as someone who is known to have written poems means that my prose is at risk of being described as lyrical or poetic; I neither encourage nor resent this’. This might sound odd, given the rest of the book spends ample time with poets and poetry, making poetry one of the constant refrains of Lovebug’s dense literary web. Is Lafarge biting the poetic hand that feeds her prose? Lovebug shares this aesthetic of ambivalence with lyric, the most longstanding form for expressing both love and its opposites. The lyric ‘I’ relishes its position as ambivalent subject: both victim and vanquisher, both eater and eaten. And like all good lyricists, Lafarge’s ambivalence stretches to lyric itself. Lafarge refers briefly to the ecocidal story of lyric’s beginnings: Hermes’s slaying of a tortoise in order to empty out its shell and fasten to it seven strings, thus creating the first lyre. It’s a reminder that in love poetry love and death are primordially entwined, and that the lyric subject emerges from (the ultimate) negation

If Lovebug is not poetry, and also not memoir, nor biology, nor microbiology, nor ecocriticism, nor literary criticism, what is it? In other words, how are we supposed to read it? Genre boundaries are helpful in allowing readers of all disciplinary stripes to share a roadmap of a text, a set of communal assumptions or what we might call a horizon of expectation. When I gave Lovebug to a biologist colleague and friend, he lapped it up in the space of an afternoon. ‘How did you find it?’, I texted him, impatient to know his thoughts as both a specialist of evolution and animal behaviour and a lover of literature. ‘I like it and it winds me up!’, he replied, in a perfect expression of the ambivalence Lafarge proffers as integral to any truly intimate encounter, but also an understandable reaction to the slipperiness of Lafarge’s writerly posture.

One kind of reader might take issue with such an unanchored approach, rendered dizzy by the book’s sinuous journey between metaphors, theoretical texts, poems, films, photographs, novels, and the odd meme, sometimes presented without comment. We might empathise with this hypothetical reader’s desire for discussions of love to amount to more than so much shirking, and their likely insistence that ambivalence works best when it’s not an antidote to rigour, depth of understanding or even expertise.

In answer to such a reader, whose voice I often find myself grappling with, one might hark back to the process of symbiogenesis, which provides a further paradigm for theorising writerly form. ‘When one organism fused with another in this way, it also took on its genetic material’ — applied to disciplinarity, this could easily refer to the imperative to have mastered with specialist insight and technique the specificities, the ‘genetic material’, of a given mode of enquiry. But in symbiosis, bacteria are formal maximalists. They engulf the other organism wholesale, taking on all of its informational baggage, its instructions for how to survive.

In cross-disciplinarity what is carried over is not any set of reductive descriptions but rather the guiding questions, postures, and anxieties that shape what a discipline desires from the world. In constructing this parallel, I was reminded once again of Lauren Berlant, this time of their concept of ‘genre flailing’. ‘Genre flailing’, they write, ‘is a mode of crisis management that arises after an object, or object world, becomes disturbed in a way that intrudes on one's confidence about how to move in it’. When we genre flail, we ‘improvise like crazy’, making use of all available structures and modes of thought around us in order to make sense of a subject, or a moment, that defies readymade rules of interpretation. We make up a different set of instructions on how to survive.

Disciplinarily speaking, Lafarge shows that we shouldn’t be afraid to have our cake and eat it. And what is ambivalence if not itself a version of such unabashed maximalism? Part of the argument of Lovebug seems to be precisely that to like something, or to love it, is to take issue with its imperfections, to grapple with its shortcomings while allowing it to shed light on your own, so as to come to a fuller understanding of what it is you value in yourself and in other people. This extends to the language surrounding love itself: namely that our thinking is the better for its imperfect metaphors and translations, these often tenuous, sometimes violent, acts of carrying over. We like them, and — perhaps because — they wind us up.

This was the feeling I walked away with after setting the book down, a lingering admixture of positive feelings and irritations that added up to something I couldn’t quite bring into focus or categorise and made me want to return to Lafarge’s words again and again. This is nothing less than what Lovebug enacts, the intoxicating allure of contradiction, the peculiar recalcitrance of our imperfect attachments. Love sucks! Long live love.

Vittoria Fallanca researches and teaches Renaissance French literature. She is writing a book on Montaigne and design.