Barbara Browning + j.j. Mull
Author, performer, and critic Barbara Browning and I don’t know one another—at least, not really. A couple of months ago, I sent her a cold e-mail introducing myself as a “little poet” who manages a “little bookstore,” and asking if she might be interested in striking up a correspondence. She responded within a few hours, explaining that she would be on sabbatical in Normandy for the next few months and that she’s switched all personal correspondence to the written kind. Her “office,” she explained, “is a plastic picnic table in the garden, and the internet connection here is blissfully feeble. Although I seem to be answering your email very quickly, that’s just because it’s almost noon here and you were all I found of interest in the inbox when I opened it just now.” Barbara and I went on to send two handwritten letters simultaneously—a form of correspondence that really only retroactively constitutes a conversation. We touched on the origin of my name, Elvis Presley, Madame de Sévigné, and group psychoanalysis, among other things. —j.j.
I haven’t received your letter, so this one will cross it in the mail. You’d suggested such a possibility yourself, which I liked—like two people speaking to each other at the same time without being able to hear each other, but maybe later it will sound like a conversation. There are other kinds of ostensibly “failed” correspondence that I like to think about—the most extreme being the “dead letter,” which I’m sure you know about. Then there’s the purloined letter, which people have theorized up the wazoo, including me. And then recently I did a pretty extended exegesis of Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender.” My interpretation was partly influenced by a blog post by a lawyer who pointed out some inconsistencies in the logic of the lyric. But his final piece of advice was not to pretend not to live at your legal address, even if you’re pissed off at your lover, because you may stop receiving the mail you actually want.
Here’s what I have from you: two brief e-mails, and a self-description—“a little poet” who manages a “little bookstore.” Being a minimalist myself (at least, sort of), and on the small side, both of these terms appealed to me. I didn’t want to over-research you (I’m an academic with a bad habit of going down rabbit holes), so when I googled j.j. Mull, I only opened one page, which was an Urdu-English dictionary. The English word “Mull” was preceded by some Urdu script which was apparently interpreted by Google as “jJ.” Although I managed not to over-research you, I did over-research Urdu, and it looks to me like the script above “Mull” ends in zhain gaf. “Mull” in this dictionary is defined as, “Thin plain muslin, meddle, mess,” or, alternatively, “Make win [sic] into a hot drink,” which should obviously read “Make wine into a hot drink.” I would have said, “Think things over,” or even “Over-think things.”
Well, having said I researched both Elvis Presley and Urdu Script on the internet, I guess you’ll find suspect my claim that I was virtually off the internet here in Normandy, writing all my correspondence longhand and sending it in the mail. But, in fact. it’s true! The internet was freaking me out a bit, what with everybody holding forth, leaping to judgement, Russian bots wreaking havoc and our idiot president ramping everything up. This summer I read the Letters of Madame de Sévigné, in a musty old volume I checked out of the library. I came here and made this policy of slowing down my correspondence to a snail’s pace.
As I told you, my collaborator and I are here writing a book—I’m on sabbatical—and in between we’re making some travels. I’d predicted it might make it hard for me to write in September as you’d proposed, and in fact we’ve now adjusted our schedule and are traveling soon. I’ll try to respond later this month. But as I said, there’s something, to me, sort of nice about a cross communication.
I’m currently writing you from the Mill Valley Public Library in Marin County. It’s secretly one of the nicest libraries in the Bay Area (no doubt because of its location in a removed, mega-affluent enclave, more or less inaccessible by public transit). I have access to my roommate’s car this week, so I figured I’d treat myself to a little trip. All in all, it’s been a very pleasant day, although I drive so infrequently, I always forget just how bad and nervous a driver I am. It wasn’t a particularly long trip from Oakland, but it entailed driving across a bridge and along some small, curvy roads, all of which provoked some anxiety in me. I have a relatively nervous temperament in general. Whenever people play those conversational games where you go around saying what kind of animal you would be, I inevitably opt for ones that are small, trembly, and nervous (i.e. bunnies, chihuahuas, mice, rodents, etc).
I guess this brings us back to my self-identification as “little” in the initial e-mail I sent you. I presented myself as a “little poet,” which is typical—I’m prone to describing myself in the diminutive. It’s a central self-conception (smallness), that in some ways really determines how I move in and inhabit the world. You may have noticed that my handwriting is quite small. I’m also relatively small physically and am the youngest of a big, working class family (I have four siblings, one of whom happens to be my twin—a whole other can of worms). The five of us kids practically lived on top of each other in a tiny three bedroom house with my parents (until they split) and my uncle Clifford. Being the youngest (in addition to frail and near-sighted) always made me feel like the runt of the litter.
“j.j.” (as you may or may not have guessed) is a chosen name—one which I identify with mostly on account of its smallness (two little lower case letters in a row). I mean, it’s sort of a chosen name. It was originally a childhood nickname given to me by my sister as a semi-cruel, semi-playful imitation of what was, at the time, a debilitating stutter (my birth name is “Jason,” thus when trying to speak my own name as a kid, it would come out as “j…j…j…,” etc.). It’s only been within the past year that I’ve fully reclaimed it as a name. In part, it feels like this way of taking back and owning the stutter—taking something that was, for the first fifteen some odd years of my life, a source of humiliation and shame, and finding a way to incorporate it, make it new. Around this time last year (September 10th, to be exact), I also suffered what ended up being a pretty severe mental break, so the adoption of “j.j.” as a name felt like a way to usher in a new era. For me, it represents the onset of a renewed dedication to mental health, calm, and slowness.
Anyways, here I am, writing to you from the Mill Valley Public Library. This is probably the closest I’ve come to writing a “fan letter,” although so far it doesn’t look anything quite like that. To be totally honest, prior to a few months ago, I hadn’t read all that much of your work, and only had the vaguest associations of you. On a lark, I picked up a copy of the The Gift and was immediately enamored with the sense of presence it facilitated—the feeling, as I think you put it, of “inappropriate intimacy.” “Inappropriate,” perhaps, because unexpected, or at least because it falls outside the frame of what we ordinarily conceive of as “intimacy.”
Coincidentally, while reading your book I was simultaneously reading an old edition of Experiences in Groups by Wilfred Bion that someone had recently sold to the bookstore I manage. Despite it being a relatively short, fleeting moment, the fact that Bion appears briefly in The Gift totally delighted me. I was like, “Oh my God! She’s referencing Bion!” It was honestly this little Bion moment that made me initially want to get in touch. It triggered a whole swirl of associations between your work and a set of thoughts I’ve been steeping in over the course of the past year.
Let me explain: so, recently I’ve becomes interested in (low-key obsessed with) a group psychoanalytic practice developed by Bion. “Group Relations” is the intellectual frame, broadly, with “Tavistock” being the set of methods associated with it. Maybe you’re familiar? I attended my first three-day Tavistock conference in the spring and have been more or less incapable of talking or thinking about anything ever since. Each conference day lasts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and is divided into what are called “here and now” events, meaning the supposed task is to remain in the emotional present tense. There are two large group sessions a day, which consist of all participants (in my experience, 45 people) sitting in a spiral formation, with three trained “consultants” scattered throughout the room. Over the course of the day, you also have several hour-long small group sessions (eight members, one consultant).
As a side note: incidentally, my small group consultant over the course of the weekend was performance scholar and artist, Andrea Fraser. I mention this not to name drop or anything, but simply as a point of interest. It’s really something particular about these events that you end up having these really intense, emotional experiences with a pretty wide spectrum of people. Andrea’s involvement brings in a whole contingent of art world-adjacent folks, but there are also mental health professionals, analysts, psychology undergrads, etc. Not having much legible credibility in either academia or the art world, I had difficulty at first feeling legitimate in the eyes of the group, which, of course, was grist for the mill.
The whole frame is really different than any other therapeutic context I had been in up to that point. Seeing as the ostensible task is to remain in the “here and now,” you don’t generally end up revealing all that much biographical detail. By the end of the conference, I was left feeling extremely close to a group of people who, by and large, I knew almost nothing about. It produced this very particular strain of condensed intimacy. I think this is why your work resonated with my experience in Tavistock. It was on a different scale, but reading your novel left me with a similar set of feelings. I haven’t fully fleshed it out for myself, but I can’t help but feel that the two experiences are related in some way…that they’re engaged in a similar practice. I’m not sure if that makes sense…
Sorry if this is too rambly or associative! I hope to hear from you soon, in any case, and I hope things are pleasant in France. It pleased me to hear that you’re over there, given the fact that, as a younger person, I was a total francophile. I studied French literature as an undergraduate and eventually wrote my senior thesis on Proust. It feels a little embarrassing in retrospect, although I think it was all essentially an early attempt to mask my working class roots. The unconscious thought was something along the lines of: “What’s the most bourgeois possible thing I can study?” All of that to say, I’ll cop to still loving Proust.
As requested, I’ve included a poem, although, as it so happens, most of my writing isn’t all that “little” at all. For the sake of (some) brevity, I’ve included whatever excerpts of a longer piece could fit onto a postcard of Frank O’Hara.