Type
Article
Category
Essay
Long read

The disappointments

My vagina disappoints me, I say to myself once a month or so.

Fairy says, my vagina is not a good judge of character. We both have to be reminded that vaginas are not agents, they are not even agentic, which changes my grammar to something like, I am disappointed in my vagina, but Fairy refuses to change anything. She won’t hold herself responsible for her libido and the disappointments entailed in her desires. She wants what she wants, I cannot do anything about it, she says.

Is volition the disappointing difference between my vagina and Fairy’s vagina, I ask myself. One doctor looks at my vagina and says, ‘yes, well, that’s the sort of vagina you got on the public health in 1972.’

Dr Eugene Schrang also looks at my vagina, in Wisconsin, and says, ‘it’ll cost you $5000 to improve things a little but at this point all those revisions all that scarring, there is a limit, how old are you, are you sexually active, you might have to get used to a disappointing vagina. Look on the upside: the rest of you is gorgeous.’ Dr Ron Barr says on camera in 1983,

many psychiatrists who have been involved with transsexuals have come to be more cautious, and er, and er, er, er, er, more doubtful about reassignment surgery especially in view of the fact that the, ah, surgical results, are, er, often not very good, disappointing, and, er, it’s difficult to know what to make of that but I suspect that this question of getting a functional vagina is a problem in different hospitals around the world.

But since 1969, you fool, I say to the screen, Stanley Biber had been creating vaginas that usually did not disappoint at Mt San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Colorado.

My mother says, ‘there are better things to be disappointed about than a vagina, some people are disappointed with God, of all things.’

*

In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza was raised devout. His childhood God was the God articulated by Maimonides: unitary, the first and final cause of human existence. Intentional, with a personality and a definite character.

It cannot have been easy to let go of this God, and I wonder if Spinoza felt some disappointment as his philosophy destroyed the God of his fathers and his youth. Was there some nostalgic rue akin to the letdown of there is no tooth fairy, Santa Claus is not real, the stork does not bring babies, you are adopted as he wrote the Ethics in between grinding lenses for the microscopes and telescopes of the Huygens brothers in his workshop outside The Hague? Perhaps it was all intellectual triumph for Spinoza to demonstrate that God is a universal substance and not some sort of divine template of human beings. Not even alive necessarily in the way human beings understand alive, but something entirely ineffable. Not a celestial overlord planning every detail of life on Earth: the stone that falls from a cliff and kills a man leaving his wife and children to starve is not a part of God’s great plan. Pancreatic cancer is not a part of God’s plan.

Certainly, even if Spinoza was not disappointed at his subjection of the God of Maimonides to this post-Cartesian revision, many of his peers then and later, and even more of the makers and guardians of both Jewish and Christian theology, were furiously disappointed by the possibility of an indifferent, haphazard God and terrified, too, by the downstream implications of Spinoza’s philosophy which threatened the vertical structure of human power and self/otherism itself, upon which all European realities were based.

*

Disappointment with a version of God that was not Spinoza’s version of God turned me on to prognostication after fifteen years of listening intently to the promise of God’s love and being ever-vigilant for signs that progress toward the Second Coming was accelerating.

I took to mystical signs and portents upon getting the message that the Seventh-Day-Adventist Wagga Wagga God had no love for someone like me and that, when the Messiah came again, I would not be included in the assumption and eternal life at His feet in the New Jerusalem. ‘Fucking boring, that will be,’ Julie Foch whispered, but I was fascinated by the possibility of a future that did not look like now, and Julie’s big nose.

The problem with God’s love was, it seemed, that I was not made in God’s likeness. The God of the church on Coleman Street was an extra-human man from whom the template for all women and men came. But since I was neither man nor woman, not boy nor girl, nor yearned to be either, the Heavenly Father could not be my heavenly father. This meant that I was doubly fatherless. My earthly father was dead, his ashes had been cast into the Tasman Sea from where they vaporised to cloud and reincarnated as rain nourishing a kahikatea tree in New Zealand.

Without any father, I felt myself drifting out into smooth space. It was too soon for me to know that this drifting out anticipated a planetary life. It was too early for me to know who Spinoza was and that we are not in the image of God, which is some other category of being, unimaginable, and human love impossible for it. I was disappointed and without guidelines.

My mother came to see if I was ready for church. ‘You are not dressed,’ she said. ‘I won’t be going again,’ I said and something like, ‘it’s meaningless for me.’ My mother was wearing a little pillbox hat she had made with white rabbit fur, and she said nothing except, ‘well then,’ and left in her Morris Minor, and I lay on my bed drifting and wondered how to get from the Riverina to the Bay Area and the Summer of Love. Mary Brown had given me a greasy set of the Rider Waite Tarot with a little booklet of interpretations losing its staples and while my mother sang ‘Rescue the Perishing’ without me for the first time, for the first time I laid out a carefully obtuse Celtic Cross and tried to find ways to relinquish my disappointment and speed into the future.

*

If God is not an über-human, then Heaven is not a place, or if Heaven is a place, it is radically heterotopic, a place so different we can’t recognise it as a place; if we could recognize it as a place, we might be disappointed or frightened to death. Disappointment is forever a possibility with all places, but especially famous places, places with a reputation, places we long to see or believe we should see. In Japan, lists of places are kept. One list is for the most disappointing places.

The Three Great Disappointments of Japan

One: Sapporo Clock Tower, 1878

Perhaps foreigners find Sapporo Clock Tower charming – a bit of New Hampshire Live Free or Die architecture dropped in Japan – but most Japanese are disappointed. The building is an Important Cultural Property that doesn’t seem important. The building is part of a grand story about Japan bringing modern civilisation to the frigid wilds of Hokkaido, but it seems now too small to be an important part of any epic, its clapboard walls white and its clock chiming the hours at the bottom of a thicket of office towers, too anodyne to show its complicity in Japanese destruction of Ainu First Nation society and culture. If the weather is warm, many visitors give the place a beseeching glance then wander down the tree-lined boulevard or stalk off toward the distant grail of the shopping mall at Sapporo Station. In winter, which is often even colder than any New Hampshire winter, disappointed tourists grumble to each other, really very small, I can’t see the point of that, and climb quickly back into a heated bus or car.

Two: Kyoto Tower, 1964

Kyoto Tower is so disappointing and has been so disappointing for so long and to so much public remark, that the disappointment itself, which is triggered by the incongruity of this space needle edifice at the heart of a city dedicated to history before space needle was even possible, is now an expectation of Kyoto in and of itself, at least for Japanese visitors and for those of us for whom the city is a home or a stamping ground. International tourists still pull faces and what the fuck is that as their bullet trains pull into town, but for me, the visual dissonance of the white and orange spire on its glass podium with the great and old tiled roofs of Higashi Honganji beyond and the pagoda of Tōji further off up on the slope of the eastern hills is a welcome sign. This is a kind of disappointment worth having and I suspect my Japanese friends feel similarly, or they no longer notice.

Three: Harimaya Bridge, Kōchi

Harimaya Bridge is disappointment itself. Japanese tourists visit it just to experience the disappointment. Its official reason for existence is commemoration of a tawdry and disappointed romance between a monk vowed to celibacy and a young woman of the town but, in all its glossy spotless red and black tiny splendour, not a single trace of passion can be found at Harimaya Bridge. The little tragedy upon which the place depends is missing, and history is absent too, since the prohibited romance story is almost certainly apocryphal. ‘I have never been more disappointed,’ writes one Japanese contributor to Trip Advisor, and appends a very happy emoji.

There are many there are perhaps millions of people who know by now that there does not have to be there. Gertrude Stein refuted the thereness of Oakland, she did not let it, not because she was disappointed with the place but because Gertrude Stein the writer did not want Oakland to have the thereness necessary for disappointment to arise. She was probably aware directly or via William James or somehow of Niels Bohr’s view of there of the argument that entities have only probabilities until they are observed at which point, probabilities become properties.

Upon her return to Oakland after many years away, Stein refused to let Oakland be more than a probability:

anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

At least Japan’s Three Great Disappointments list admits that there is a there there at Sapporo Clock Tower, that there at Kyoto Tower is there and even the ineluctably pathetic Harimaya Bridge has an undeniable thereness, thereness of a disappointing place being, of course, the prerequisite for any disappointment there provokes.

*

Mt Disappointment is there, in the Kulin nation’s forest lands not far north of Melbourne, and got its name, which is certainly not its true name, when a couple of British explorers/conquerors slogged to the summit expecting a grand panorama all the way to Port Philip Bay, only to find that old growth forest occluded any view. How disappointing. Kumpupintil, in the Western Desert region of north-western Australia, was called Lake Disappointment for more than a century after another settler/explorer/conqueror needed fresh water and found only a large salt pan.

At Kumpupintil, disappointment turns out to be a political condition as well as an emotional state: Martu people, to whom the land irrevocably belongs, never called Kumpupintil Lake Disappointment. They found the name affixed by the white man demeaning, since the lake is the site of Martu creation and complex dreaming, but it took politics until 2020 to convince the government of the state of Western Australia to remove ‘Lake Disappointment’ from the maps forever and reinstate Kumpupintil.

French Polynesia has the Îles du Désappointement, a group of small coral islands in the Tuamotos. Japan has tiny Gakkaritō (‘Disappointment Island’) off the coast of Iwate Prefecture. In the United States there are Disappointment Peak in Wyoming, Cape Disappointment in Washington, and also a town in Oklahoma, not disappointing but just Okay. ‘Death in Disappointment, Kentucky’ is the title of one of Peter Ketchum’s found monochrome photographs, over-dyed and marked with colour and shadow. It appears to be an image of a young man being choked by a disembodied hand but, when I drove through Disappointment on NK-11 on one of those sprightly autumn days you get in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it did not seem to be a place for strangulation, let alone disappointment. Disappointment Island lies in the subantarctic waters of the Southern Ocean, more then 400 kilometres south of Aotearoa New Zealand. Ninety-five percent of all the world’s white-capped albatrosses live here.

Albatrosses are the least disappointing of all living creatures. By wingspan, but not by weight, they are the largest animals in the sky under their own power. They fly high, very far, and very fast. They cruise on spread wings for hours and hours, barely needing to use their flight muscles. Albatrosses may stay aloft for days, avoid land for months, coming only to rest for short times on the surface of the sea and to breed.

Unlike other birds that fly, albatrosses do not avoid storms; they seek the ocean squall, the typhoon, the cyclone, the El Niño hurricane. They fly into the shrieking turbulence. They mount the thunder and ride.

The white-capped albatrosses on Disappointment Island wander skies from the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean to the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific. ‘Vagrant’ white-capped albatrosses can be seen hovering over ships in the South Atlantic Ocean and cruising the lapidary shores of the Falkland Islands from where they return upon the winds and clouds of storms to New Zealand waters and to Disappointment Island to reunite with their lifetime mates and make chicks. In their search for food, David Sims says, albatrosses use a mathematical fractal called Lévy flight; they patrol the seas and the shoreline in a pattern of long flight segments followed by short hops in random directions.

This appears to be not some random instinct. Albatrosses deploy a Lévy flight path to optimise foraging just as human beings use Lévy path fractal to optimise bidding in online auctions, engineering procedures, data analysis, and financial decisions. If transmigration is real and if one can make a choice about the body into which one’s eighth consciousness, one’s alayavijnana, moves, I might choose the storm rider body of a wandering albatross, and not just for the flying but for the albatrossian ability to stay away and be never disappointing.

When W starts calling me The Albatross and sends me beautiful watercolours of albatrosses and poems he has composed and set down on the watercolour in handwriting so arabesque it is calligraphy, I take it as a Romantic gesture, see nature in me, adore me as I flirt with cyclones and fly alone, but it soon becomes clear that W’s translucent washes of colour and his artful serifs in ink encode the romance of violence, for by this time, W is working off The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Are you a girl, W says when we first meet at that party and both of us about to have our eighteenth birthdays and we spend the night together in the host’s guest room because I am technically homeless and W lives with his parents, still. When I undress and W realises, not that I am not a girl, but that I am not the kind of girl he imagined me to be, and then he realises that me being not the kind of girl he imagined is more troubling than he had imagined it might be, he is disappointed, although not disappointed enough to go home and stop kissing me and touching me, and then he is disappointed that he desires me, and I am disappointed that W is troubled by me, and disappointed, too, by my own disappointment which has a self-blaming edge to it, that’s what you get.

The relationship goes on in that disappointing and disappointed way for the next three years. W cannot stay away from me. He cannot be with me for too long without disappointment. W wants me to hide my dick, put it away, he says, but I will not. I am not at the point where my dick seems like a bad thing, I never get to that point. My dick in relationship to my tits and my beautiful skin and face is the point, I will not put it away. So, W goes away but eventually returns and we do it again. We go on like this, like a set of disappointing lungs heaving in, rattling out, trying to find a decent breath in a brume of thick want and repulsion, expectation and disillusionment until the albatross poems and pictures start to show up in my letterbox and I see W standing in the street outside my home at three in the morning staring at the front door, until he hammers on the door raging at me, I could kill you and even dead you’ll drag me down and I pour hot water on him from the upstairs window. I am the Coleridgean albatross and W is the seaman who kills the albatross in a fit of rage and is then blighted by its death and this goes on for a year until W meets Kris who is a close friend of mine and is ashamed of her penis and only too happy to keep it out of sight for such a handsome man, ‘ice blue eyes and black hair and smart,’ she says, ‘and a good job.’

A couple of years go bygones. Kris and W invite me to their flat in Bellevue Hill for dinner with a view of Port Jackson. When Kris is doing something with gravy in the kitchen, out on the terrace, W grabs me, the lights of boats on the harbour squint to see, and he wrenches up my blouse and bites me seven times on my stomach, drawing blood around the marks left by his beautiful teeth. Less than a year later, hiding her penis turns Kris into a kleptomaniac, she lifts a Blackglama mink stole from David Jones and ends up in the men’s prison and then a locked psychiatric ward and then she vanishes into a black hole, beyond the event horizon, and W becomes a moderately successful architect and an artist who paints to manage the desires that disappoint him, and he is still very handsome.

*

Edward J. Kempf, who was a psychiatrist at the St Elizabeth’s Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, DC and wrote charmingly in 1916 about humanoid cognition in the conduct of six macaques named, much less charmingly, A, B, C, D, E, and F – apparently the desire for food is stronger than the desire for sex among macaques – and also wrote, but not at all charmingly, about two bisexual women with schizophrenia, who he also named according to the letters of the English alphabet; this man, Edward J Kempf, devised the concept of homosexual panic which has since been taken and bowdlerized by lawyers, police and court systems to justify and excuse violence, including murder, against gay men, lesbians, and transgender women and men.

‘I was disappointed and then got real angry that she didn’t tell me she was born a boy,’ US Marine Lance Cpl Joseph Scott Pemberton said after he strangled and then drowned Jennifer Laude, her beautiful face in the toilet bowl in a room in a motel in Olongapo which is a port city about 200 kilometres from Manila. ‘I went into gay shock syndrome,’ he told the court, and his mother informed the media that her son’s sister ‘is a lesbian so he wouldn’t hurt any LGBT person, ever.’ The judge sort of agreed and downgraded the charge from murder to homicide. Lance Cpl. Pemberton had acted out of passion and obfuscation, the judge opined in 2015.

The death penalty did not thus apply but the man who killed a woman because her obfuscation disappointed him when, as Edward J Kempf would have explained, it was Lance Cpl Pemberton’s disappointment in himself for desiring Jennifer Laude that triggered his attack, his rancour, a kind of ressentiment of what she had, by which I do not mean cock but the immanence that haloes every human being who commits their body to the war against the cruel and false binomial gender order that most of humanity has come to accept as natural despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, that man was sentenced to ten years.

Lance Cpl Pemberton spent five years in a Philippine military detention centre, quite comfortable at Fort Aguinaldo, then, at the behest of the Trump administration, President Duterte issued a full and unconditional pardon, and Lance Cpl Pemberton went home to Massachusetts in the middle of the 2020 SARS-Cov2 pandemic.

*

My mother seemed disappointed by most things but never by who I am, although it is said that after I called her reverse charge from a phone box outside a strip club and told her, ‘I’m not a man, Mum, I’m not a woman, Mum, I am a space in between, Mum,’ and pretended to cry, and after she said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you,’ she spent a few days locked in her bedroom. She then came out and sent me a letter poste restante: ‘I love you, you are my child, come home anytime, I’ll make Chops Mexicana for dinner.’ Yet, she was otherwise a disappointed woman, and over the years, her disappointment curtailed her expectations which grew smaller and smaller until there was nothing left for my mother to want or to expect, nothing she could imagine she deserved except a laugh with her three sisters, the bargains at the supermarket, and a visit to one in the chain of dollar shops in Australia called The Reject Shop.

After she died, I found boxes of things my sister and I had given her, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Christmas, all completely unused, stuffed to the dusty back of a storage closet: three millilitres of Jean Patou Joy, Extrait de Parfum, unopened and still in its elegant box and two packs of Nioxin system for thinning hair still in its Christmas gift wrap and a card, Merry Hairy Christmas, Mum. A string of Mikimoto pearls and two large tubes of L’Occitane Shea Butter hand cream and a burgundy and grey Princess Galitzine silk scarf. One Mexican handwoven cotton and alpaca throw blanket and a black cashmere cardigan with gold buttons. Six tubes of Mor hand or body cream, two Moleskine notebooks – ‘I am going to make notes so you can write my story’ –, a cashmere shawl in rust and olive-green leaf pattern, and one Arita porcelain bud vase from the Fukugawa kiln with the neck broken and repaired with Super Glue.

*

As though there were not already a surfeit of disappointments available, ‘gender disappointment’ has been added to the disappointments. Gender disappointment is not one of many disappointments available to transgender and gender diverse human beings who might be assumed to experience at some time some disappointment about the gender assigned to us at birth or even the gender we have confirmed, once the realities of embodied manhood or womanhood settle down on us. (It’s not a bed of roses.) Nor does gender disappointment describe the feelings of family and friends of a transgender or gender diverse person who announces their intention to transition from the gender assigned at birth. Instead, gender disappointment is the disappointment triggered when the biological sex of a foetus or a post-natal baby fails to comply with the wishes of one or both parents.

When we found out the baby was a boy, I felt a sense of loss, even grief, over my lost daughter. I felt like she’s been replaced by a stranger even though logically I knew that I was carrying the same baby the whole time, I suddenly felt really disconnected from my pregnancy.

Of course, disappointment in the sex of a baby is nothing new. Henry VIII put away his first wife and created the Church of England because she disappointed him with only a girl baby and his second wife lost her head after giving him only a girl baby and a miscarried boy. Japanese peasant families in the 18th century practiced infanticide. The majority of the infants killed were girls, although boy babies would be killed, too, if the family already had too many boys or if the last baby to die naturally was a girl, since it was thought bad fortune would come from the deaths of two infants of the same sex one after the other in the family. The Indian government has passed laws prohibiting sex identification of foetuses during antenatal ultrasound, but some researchers say that half a million female foetuses so disappoint their parents they are aborted each year even with the bans in place.

Even so, gender disappointment has not been a category until very recently. These days, however, scholars get tenure wondering in print and at conferences whether gender disappointment is a new type of mental illness. IVF clinics promote sex selected embryos as a way of avoiding gender disappointment, and the gender disappointed or those hoping to avoid gender disappointment have a website called genderdreaming.com.

*

Even after I had been gone from my mother’s home for years – after I had learned the 1970s pleasures of Greek food in South Melbourne, cevapcici and polapola at the Balkan Restaurant near Taylor Square, and Chinese food in Sydney’s Chinatown that wasn’t sweet and sour pork or chop suey and consumed amid bigoted jokes that also felt like threats for some reason, ‘be careful they eat cats,’ risotto at the Italo-Australian Club before a two-step with some charming man from Catania with careful but abrasive hands – even after these first cosmopolitanisations of my comportment, whenever I went back to Wagga Wagga to see my mother, I looked forward to dinner. (She called it tea and so did I until I obtained my first pretensions and went to dinner and it was delicious.) Then, much later, I came back from Vermont to her house in Nelson Bay with a far view of the sea and ‘I’ll make all your favourites,’ Chops Mexicana, Curried Sausages, Rice-A-Riso if I can find a yabbie, Lima Bean soup, and I don’t know if the way my mother cooked had changed with age or if she’d maybe lost the knack or if my palate had altered with years of great distance, but I could barely get through it. The food she gave me disappointed me and my mother saw it but her own disappointment about herself was so pervasive by that time that my disappointment in a curried sausage could not figure.

*

It is unsurprising that the man who renamed Kumpupintil ‘Lake Disappointment’ did so because he had not found water there; it goes without saying that the mountain now called Mt. Disappointment north of Melbourne disappointed Hamilton Hume and William Hovell because they could not see the wide and flat expanse of water that is now Port Phillip Bay from the summit, for water is what white settler Australians want. Even when the streets swirl with floods and cats and sheep and old ladies drown, some bloke will say to the local ABC-TV journalist, at least it’s not a drought, sorta thing. Water fails to disappoint. In 1959, the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga Wagga rose to 9.17 metres and North Wagga and parts of the old town were submerged. My mother took me down to see the torrents. ‘Water,’ she said, ‘there it is,’ like an explorer whose expectations had been met. ‘Water.’

There has never been a time when I did not understand zoos as prisons, a kind of bedlam, or isolation wards like the one at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital where I spent three months locked up with scarlet fever and was watched and managed, but for many years, aquaria and their fishes and other marine animals appeared to me innocent, benevolent, an entrancing set of opalescent worlds shining and sinuous in the gloom, enticing. If airliners can be dryly libidinal, aquaria are lubricious.

In Japan, couples court and flirt in aquaria. The Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colorado regularly offers Valentine’s Day dinner and aquarium tour packages sold as Romance Under the Sea, and I wonder if anybody asks what an aquarium is doing in a city more than 1.6 kilometres above sea level with prime view of the Rocky Mountains to the west.

I once permitted a sex act delivered in a deep shadow from where I had an exquisite view of a tank with octopus at Sea Life Munich. I held hands with Daisuke in Osaka while we watched Big Bellied Seahorses move through pearly water vertical and, since seahorses disprove all the lies about fixed sex and gender roles and distinctions, the males bear the children, I finally plucked up the courage to come out to Daisuke which meant we never held hands again, but went straight to sexual encounters in love hotels all over the Kansai region, very disappointing, although I did not blame the aquarium for truncated romance.

*

I bought a pen from a serious little boy on the black sand beach at Lovina, on the north coast of Bali. Upon the success of his pen-selling skills, the serious little boy carted me off to meet his father, I-Wayan, who was a fisherman with a small, red, white, yellow and blue jukung outrigger canoe.

I-Wayan offered me a snorkelling trip including breakfast and equipment and I promised him I had snorkelled before and did not add that my previous snorkelling had been confined to Hanauma Bay and the enclosed reef at Kaimana Beach on Oahu, both of which are like aquaria but with natural sunlight and fewer chemicals in the water. I agreed on a sum and we returned to the beach at four the next morning, the night still thick upon the sea.

After an hour and a half sailing on a morning breeze, I-Wayan’s serious little boy lit a Sterno and fried some bananas in coconut oil and a couple of eggs and put them atop a small, neat dome of pre-cooked rice on a melamine plate already marked by a fiery spot of sambal ulek. We, all four of us ate, and the jukung sailed on with its lateens full of dawn. The sea ran thick, slow, shining and a pod of dolphin, their curving backs like rainbows in the morning light, trundled along with us and making eye contact until I-Wayan lowered the sail and dropped the anchor, which was a great lump of coral tied on the end of a rope, and it was very quiet. To the north, only the Bali Sea. To the south, nothing of Bali itself except for the cone of Gunung Merbuk, no more than a watermark on the far sky.

‘Dive here,’ I-Wayan said, and when we said, ‘really,’ he nodded and grinned, and over the side I went into the open sea, great heads of brain coral dappled by sunlight, hosts of reef fish, shadowy chasms where swam teams of shining tuna, a sea turtle, a small school of hammerhead sharks lazing in the warm water, and beneath, where the light struggled to reach, an abyssal world seductive and terrifying at the same time. Back on the boat, Harry said, ‘it’s an aquarium,’ but I knew without knowing that where I had just been and how that place lives, its being, is nothing like aquaria, and I was ashamed, not of getting a girl blow job where a tank of cephalopods could see me, but of finding libido and romance and pleasure in the site/sight of an enslavement of sentient beings.

Some realisations disappoint. Others act like epistemic rocket fuel and blast you into learning something new.

Back in Honolulu, I spent months reading everything I could find in the university library on the effects of life in tanks. Aquaria are carceral and unnatural in their nature and the marine beings in them are half laboratory specimens, half clowns or strippers, they cannot live naturally and are forced to change their ways. Animals that hunt, forage, and mate at night are forced to into the light – all aquaria creatures must do the day shift. They hurt when you take them out of the water, put a hook in their mouths or gills, chop their heads off, and stick needles in them to draw blood, perform vivisections on them. Jellyfish, molluscs, sea snails, anemone, crabs, shrimp, sea slugs, eel, sea horses, even corals may feel pain, hate being looked at, dream of escape. Whale sharks and sea horses and everything in aquaria between whale sharks and sea horses, the great to the minute, live in fear, traumatised and subjected. They labour for their keepers, the scientists, the owners of the aquaria, and for you and me each time we go to gawk and wonder. Great concentrations of knowledge and technology are required to keep them alive and sort-of healthy. Each beautiful tank is an intensive care unit struggling to keep the animals alive.

Sometimes I think I am a beautiful tank trying to keep myself alive and I write letters to my congressional representative asking them to ban aquaria and Fairy says, smirking, ‘you should be banned.’

*

‘You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of Births Deaths and Marriages,’ the clerk said when I applied for an identity document showing my new legal name in 1971. ‘You think you’re a bit smart, doncha, using ‘a’ for Vivian instead of ‘e’ but look at yourself, it’s obvious you’re one of those transsexuals and the government is not going to give you any document to help you hoodwink people into thinking you’re a woman or whatever the heck it is you’re trying to be, and it’s no good telling me with an ‘a’ is a bloke’s name and I’m breaking the law. We do have a policy,’ and then he said he was sorry, and sometimes people were, but not him.

I went back the next day and tried again with a different clerk but got the same response, only less kind and without the apology. ‘Births Deaths and Marriages is not going to help you further your delusion.’ I went back the next day and, after the same refusal, I sat in the waiting room until closing time in the Federation Gothic building built of golden Sydney sandstone, and the next day the next day the next day the next day, Monday to Friday, for three weeks. ‘You are acting illegally,’ I told them, ‘I have not asked for you to change my sex on my papers and my new name is the male version with an ‘a’, capital v-i-v-i-a-n, I demand to speak with the registrar-general, how am I expected to live?’

On the fourth day three cops arrived, two big men and one reedy little man smelling of Old Spice and asked me to leave and when I refused, the little one took me gently up into his scent and deposited me out in Queen’s Square. ‘I’m not a queen,’ I said, ‘put me out on Prince Albert Road at least.’ ‘Then what are yer,’ one of the big cops said. ‘Whatever it is, stop it.’

After that, every day the same: ask for the paper of identity, dispute the refusal, sit, the cops, until I grew tired of it and disappointed at the repetitious character of political activism – my trannie sit-in – and on the Thursday of the third week, I went to Wattamolla Beach with M instead and took a tiny pane of LSD and jumped from the cliff into the mysterious water over and over again, laughing in the glittering sun.

*

Lana fled from Bundaberg where her father was a labour organiser for sugar industry workers and, according to Lana, a fucking Stalinist, and we were both still kids, really, sixteen, and we ended up sharing a room at the back of a rooming house next to a shelter for homeless men in East Sydney. Lana called herself Lana Luxemburg. I said, ‘isn’t Luxembourg a duchy between some countries in Europe?’, and Lana said, ‘don’t try to be clever, darling, that’s with an ‘o’ but I am Luxemburg without the ‘o’ as in Rosa Luxemburg,’ and she told me the story of how Rosa Luxemburg had been at the vanguard of an outright socialist revolution begun in Germany in 1917 by sailors sick of the war and finished in 1919 by the traditional Prussian aristocracy and industrialists supported by military units known as Freikorps, and how Rosa Luxemburg had been bashed in the head and shot by two officers of a Freikorps unit in Berlin and her body dumped in a canal.

‘But her revolutionary thought lives on,’ Lana said. She was attracted by Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on spontaneity and creativity in revolutionary change, and Lana was, like the rest of us, like me and almost every transgender person I have ever known, almost obsessed with embodiment and with appearances, so her revolutionary activities consisted entirely of suddenly screaming at astonished men in bespoke suits and shocked women in expensive dresses, hat and gloves, ‘your end is fucking coming!,’ outside David Jones department store on Elizabeth Street, and then we’d run off into Hyde Park laughing.

The aircraft carrier, USS America, visited Sydney from South Vietnam and Lana went out at night to make some money so she could have a rhinoplasty and was found floating in the water two days later, her face so battered, her nose punched into her head, she had to be identified from the fingerprints taken upon a previous arrest for solicitation and indecent behaviour which was wearing makeup, big hair and a lime green mini dress on Darlinghurst Road. A story went around that Lana Luxemburg’s Stalinist labour organiser father had refused to acknowledge Lana as his child and left her to be buried in a potters’ field. Believe it or not.

*

Spinoza advises relinquishment of final causes and a sort of Stoic management of disappointment in general, but do try to understand, he says. Understanding why cisgender women still think they need to instruct me on how to be a woman fifty-four years after transition does nothing to alleviate my disappointment, but it is no disappointment to understand, that in Spinoza’s world, there is no point in asking, why me, or even why not me.

Rosa Luxemburg is in prison again, this time for two and a half years in German prisons in Posen and Breslau for the crime of writing illegal anti-war pamphlets signed ‘Spartakus’. She has reasons to be disappointed, although not in her incarceration, which, as always, she uses to write increasingly acute and visionary polemics and to clear her thinking.

Rosa Luxemburg will not allow disappointment to board the vessel of revolution, not only because to be disappointed is to be defeated, but because revolutionaries, particularly socialist revolutionaries, do not allow themselves any expectation of personal satisfaction accrued from their revolutionary activities. The only expectation permitted Rosa Luxemburg is solidarity with comrades from which grows commitment to political activism and the ability to make personal sacrifices for the future. In a letter that is almost as loving as it is scathing, written in a cell at Wronke Prison outside Posen, Rosa Luxemburg excoriates her close friend and political comrade, Mathilde Wurm, who has written a disappointed letter to her:

My dear Tilde, I am answering your Christmas letter immediately, while I still feel the wrath it caused me. Your letter made me terribly, wildly angry, because, for all its brevity, every line of it shows that you have again totally succumbed to the environment in which you move. This tearfully complaining tone, this self-pity and wailing over the ‘disappointments’ you have suffered — you say you have been disappointed in others, but why not look into the mirror, where you might discover the whole misery of mankind accurately portrayed.

She goes on:

It is fortunate that the history of humanity was not made by people like you, or there would have been no Reformation and we would probably still be living under the Ancien Regime. But so far as I am concerned, while I have never been soft, I have recently become as hard as polished steel and from now on I will not make the slightest concession, either politically or in personal relations.

Yet, after more of this furious railing against disappointment, Rosa Luxemburg turns all warm and proposes to Mathilde Wurm a position in relation to disappointment:

To be a Mensch, that is the main thing. And that means to remain steadfast, clear, serene; yes, serene despite everything. To whimper is the business of weaklings. To be a Mensch means gladly to throw one’s whole life, when need be, onto the ‘great scale of destiny.’ And it means, as well, to find pleasure in each clear day and each beautiful cloud.

*

Disappointment is at its trickiest after revolution: Theda Skocpol showed us long ago that the great modern revolutions in France, the United States, Russia, and China eventually fell back into new forms of authority and new elites encrusted with the right to power, which disappointed the revolutionaries themselves and disappointed large numbers of the citizenry, who could not be blamed for thinking that the future promised by the revolution now looked rather like the past. In Poland and Hungary, neoliberalism has not met all expectations, and disappointment with the democracy revolutions of the early 1990s has produced clouds of nostalgia for a past that never existed, extreme nationalism, neo-Fascist groups and political parties, and fear.

*

Terrorists may be the most disappointed people on the planet, not because they are disappointed more often than the rest of us, but because disappointment is the vital essence of the terror project.

Terrorism and terrorists themselves begin in disappointment and, with a few notable exceptions, such as the instrumental role of terrorism in securing the independent Israel state between 1947 and 1949, end in disappointment. Aum Shinrikyō was founded by Asahara Shōkō, a man bitterly disappointed with life in Japan as a disabled citizen – who would not be? Disappointed Basques founded Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) after Madrid banned use of the Basque language. On an Al Qaeda mission, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka The Underwear Bomber, tried to destroy an airliner bound for Detroit. Before he took off with explosives in his Y-fronts, he was all disappointment online:

I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me, and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do.

After the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway and arrests, Aum Shinrikyō terrorists were disappointed that Asahara’s promise of a new world order was not going to come true. They were disappointed, too, because they were broke, having handed their savings over to Asahara. ETA terrorists were disappointed because all the killing and property destruction changed nothing and changes to Basque status in Spain came from a new Spanish democracy in Madrid, which was not the enemy. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was disappointed that the airliner did not explode. He must be even more disappointed now, still with no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support him at United States Penitentiary ADX Florence, the super-maximum-security prison in Colorado where he will live in terrible isolation for rest of his life. Even Osama bin Laden must have felt some disappointment to end up dead in a rambling house in a minor Pakistani city with his promise of an Islamic Republic free of foreign influence quite unfulfilled.

It is not often that former terrorists get to be interviewed rather than interrogated, but when they do, they tend to go into a kind of ostranenie: their leaders, their mission, their actions become strange to them. They defamiliarise their own histories and withdraw themselves from the disappointment itself: commuters were killed by what Asahara Shōkō did; I was being controlled; orders.

*

At my age, the dust of my own mortality falls upon me from dark and waiting stars and there could be much to be disappointed about. I could be disappointed with how difficult it has been to understand what a half a lifetime of being insulted and hit and objectified and the butt of jokes and fired and illegal and stereotyped and kept back and kept down and assaulted and rejected has meant for me or what half a lifetime spent afraid of insults, punches, objectification, jokes, dismissal, arrest, stereotypes, rape, inequity, rejection, medicalisation means for me. I could be disappointed that I am afraid of myself, that I was never a happy partner, never liked being fucked, never a successful academic with my bottom in an endowed chair and an office with a view of Beverly Hills or even the scrubby Queensland coastal bush at Nathan. I could be disappointed that, even now, most of my writing goes down like a lead balloon, that I do not own my own home, that I am not yet a critically successful novelist, that The Drum does not invite me to share my senseless opinions with other senseless opinions, that This American Life has never called to tell me Ira Glass wants my life, that I have forgotten what it is to live in the countryside – and I am disappointed by all this and much more, yet ostranenie is not for me, even though there are a couple of people consigned to oblivion. I know what I have done.

Prognostication begun when I realised God would have nothing to do with me continues to be part of my existential strategies, though less as a way of managing disappointment than as an aide to reflection. The Devil in any tarot reading really makes you think. Instead, I approach disappointment with the compassion one has for the worst conduct of an unruly yet beloved cat. I am kind to disappointment itself, there you are again, come in, come in, a cup of tea, perhaps, that chair is more comfortable, take a load off, I say, I know you can’t stay long.

‘Nothing happens,’ the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa says in English just before he dies. It sounds a hopeless sort of thing to say on a death bed, but the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa’s visitors, who are all monks from his inner circle, smile and laugh, and grief beams on their faces like suns in a noonday sky as their beloved leader slips away. They no longer know how to be disappointed.

 

Header image by Hao Rui

Image of Sapporo Clock Tower by Miki Yoshihito

Image of Kyoto Tower by Alejandro Barba

Image of Harimaya Bridge by Maarten Heerlien

Albatross image by Nik Borrow

Image of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz station in Berlin by Conan

Aquarium image by Dwayne Sanson Tin

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Vivian Blaxell is a former teenage sex worker, mental health nurse, and professor of history and politics. She is cofounder of Tiresias House, now The Gender Center, in Sydney. She now lives in Melbourne.

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Comments

  1. I am moved.

    I love the way you have woven your own narrative on the theme of disappointment with the historical context of disappointment. Personal narrative makes history come alive for me. As a teacher, you made this true for me. I am reminded of it now, and gratefully so.

  2. Which is more dis-appointing, and why!?

    “A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel.”

    Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot.

    “A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel.”

    Joyce, Ulysses

    “It is not often that former terrorists get to be interviewed rather than interrogated, but when they do, they tend to go into a kind of ostranenie: their leaders, their mission, their actions become strange to them. They defamiliarise their own histories and withdraw themselves from the disappointment itself: commuters were killed by what Asahara Shōkō did; I was being controlled; orders.”

    Channels ‘the big lie’, does it not? Wins hands down.

    • just to ram home the point in a dis-appointing way …

      Defamiliarization or ostranenie is the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way so they could gain new perspectives and see the world differently. According to the Russian formalists who coined the term, it is the central concept of art and poetry.

  3. Stunning really. The unflinching honesty. The strands. The connections. The pioneering history before it became fashionable. Above all, a great writer articulating and making sense of a life fully lived but the narrow road away from the accepted wide path. A voice that should be heard

  4. Extraordinarily beautiful writing. Every sentence makes one stop to think. It needs reading over and over to take in its meaning. Thank you.

  5. Well dear friend, it may be a long time coming but surely if written before now would lack the depth and ‘knowing’ you bring to this prose. It left me aching for more and in awe of your depth and width of images and knowledge. Truly magical wordsmith, I say well done it has great elegance and never fear it is no way ‘disappointing’.

  6. Vivian

    I remain hopelessly enthralled by you. Such writing!
    I remember my first grad seminar with you, was it with Mike Shapiro? The power and intensity of your intellect was so vividly on display. I was initially quite intimidated, until I realized the entire room was filled with intimidating intellectuals, and articulate was a basic presumption. But still you stood out. I also then discovered that we lived together in what had been the “girl’s” dorm, Hale Kuahine, small as dormitories go. And we went on to more seminars, and loads of laughs in the kitchens of HK, not to mention Kaimana beach, our local escape.

    Your writing is ever and ever better. I genuflect.

    To me, you are forever a wonderful and lovely friend. And I am still enthralled by your writing and company it provides.

    In my eyes, you have always been a big success.

    Thank you.

    Big hugs from afar.

    Owen

  7. Holy cow! V! Still on the planet weaving miraculous words and stories into something that wakes us up!

  8. Mmmm … nice article and all … not all that sure of the albatross trope though – ‘I am the Coleridgean albatross and W is the seaman who kills the albatross in a fit of rage and is then blighted by its death’ – considering albatrosses are one of the most threatened birds in the world and are now being fast tracked to extinction through human overfishing, amongst other things, after having been presumed extinct in 1949.

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