Extracts from Michael Amherst’s essay, Go the Way Your Blood Beats, published by Repeater and winner of the 2019 Stonewall Israel Fishman Award
Suddenly you were gone and your replies to me were brief. Maybe just a word. You can’t row with silence. You can’t make good with it either. I’ve learnt the trouble with asking questions of an eternal absence.
Yet I see you all around. Much more than before. I find myself talking to you. Those first nights it was in bed. I found myself rolling over to the left and realised that, while I have nothing of yours, I still have your-side-of-the-bed. Sleeping on your side of the bed is as close as I can get to holding you again.
Now I talk to you in the street. Usually you take the piss, usually you tell me to lighten up. And to show you’re not being wholly cruel, you’ll rest your head on my shoulder, as you used to do, and take my hand. Sometimes I’ll ask you about those texts. I’ll say, why did you do that? How could you leave me with that as your parting gift? But you simply smile, and turn your face so your cheek rests more comfortably on my shoulder. I see you all around. Much more than before. I find myself talking to you. Those first nights it was in bed. I found myself rolling over to the left and realised that, while I have nothing of yours, I still have your-side-of-the-bedBecause of course, it doesn’t matter, does it?
The morning you left we took the overground. You had to change at Highbury and Islington, to get the bus back to Oxford, while I was to go on to the Royal Free Hospital. It was just before nine, the carriage was packed, and as we pulled in you hugged me and kissed me goodbye and even then, in that moment, with people pressing around us, trying to get out of the open doors, I worried about what people would think. You looked so alone, isolated in emptying space[/epq-quote]And I hated myself for it, at the same time as I felt your tongue in my mouth and my face against the warm sheen of your coat. You got off the carriage and already the crowd was ahead of you, as you slowly ambled along the platform. I watched you all that time: thinking you had a slightly bow-legged gait, something of a shuffle, in your Doc Martens; and observing the chunky headphones that brushed the hair around your neck, how they hugged you like a scarf.
I feel something sad and poignant about that scene, with your backpack jumping lightly on your shoulders. I remember wanting to press the button to open the doors, to run after you, to kiss you goodbye without fear, without worrying about it. You looked so alone, isolated in emptying space. But there was my appointment at the hospital and it would be ten minutes before another train. And as we pulled out of the platform, I watched your retreating back and reckoned that would be the last time I’d ever see you. Only to dismiss it as a piece of melodrama.
But it was true. I never saw you again. That was my last sight of you. And now I’ll always wish I’d run after you, down that platform.
A recent exhibition of Paul Nash’s work at the Tate featured an undated typescript titled ‘Dreams’. Nearby were his depictions of the spring equinox and summer solstice, images that feature both the sun and the moon, each present in the same sky. Nash writes:
The divisions we may hold between night and day – waking world and that of the dream, reality and the other thing, do not hold. They are penetrable, they are porous, translucent, transparent; in a word they are not there.
Similarly, I know that the divisions between heterosexual and homosexual, masculine and feminine, are artificial. They too are penetrable, porous, translucent and transparent. That is my experiential certainty. The categorisation and commodification of desire results in a poverty of experience.
In defending literary language against the forces of positivism, Paul Goodman invokes Percy Bysshe Shelley and his Defence of Poetry as the only thing that can liberate and bring together our fragmented world, a world in which we know through the imaginative faculty more than our science can tell us:
Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination…We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know: our calculations have outrun conception…The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionately circumscribed those of the internal world
Art’s power lies in its paradoxical relationship with truth. As Garth Greenwell observed, ‘There is a kind of special power or efficacy in fiction and in imaginative art precisely because it so staunchly and uncompromisingly defends itself from the claims of truth.’ Yet, at the same time, it is this freedom – freedomAs Garth Greenwell observed, ‘There is a kind of special power or efficacy in fiction and in imaginative art precisely because it so staunchly and uncompromisingly defends itself from the claims of truth.’ from assertion, freedom from argument – that allows art to make claims of its own. As Goodman argues, these claims are not, and can never be, the truth claims of science:
How do these traits and powers of literary writing add up to a warrant to make true statements, in the sense that scientific statements are true? They don’t. But there is no alternative. There is no other discourse but literature that is subjective and objective, general and concrete, spontaneous and deliberate, and that, though it is just thinking aloud, gives so much attention to language, our chief communication. [His italics]
Writers are not committed ‘to find confirmable and replicable truth’, Goodman observes. Like Nestor in the Iliad, artists work to make sense of our experience, our being: at no stage did Nestor dissuade the Greeks, but Goodman argues, ‘it was no doubt a good thing for them to go to their doom with open eyes.’
You taught me to be playful. You told me I was sincere and earnest – and that meant people would want to take advantage and wound me. You said you were sincere but never earnest, which meant people never took you seriously, and that hurt. I resolved to take everything you did seriously, which was maybe my mistake. Of course, I also resolved to try and be more playful, which is the most fucking earnest response I could have had.
Negative capability requires a stepping back, a withdrawal from assertion, an acceptance of limited understanding. It is an acceptance of our not knowing. At the same time, it is also a paradoxical act of faith. For it both accepts a half-knowledge, while believing in the potential for a fuller understanding that transcends those limits by our acceptance of that very same uncertainty, limitation and doubt. As Paul Ricœur observed when arguing for a synthesis of interpretation, the contrary of suspicion is faith:
No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, postcritical faith… It is a rational faith, for it interprets; but it is a faith because it seeks, through interpretation, a second naïveté… ‘Believe in order to understand, understand in order to believe’—such is its maxim.
On expanding the point, Ricœur argues that ‘the mytho-poetic core of imagination’ is at stake.
Maggie Nelson describes Anne Carson giving a lecture in which she introduced her to ‘the concept of leaving a space empty so that God could rush in’. This is an acceptance of our negative capability, the limits of our ability to know. It is an acceptance akin to Coetzee’s notion of grace. An acknowledgement of reason’s limitations – a withdrawal from the false promise of a hyperconscious rationalism – leaves room for doubt, uncertainties, but one with creative potential. This potential is for an intuition beyond reason, a space empty for what Ricœur calls the ‘grace of imagination, the upsurge of the possible’.
Coetzee expresses his sympathy with those whose thinking is ‘disordered’. He speculates that ‘People rarely – in fact almost never – act on the basis of reason: people act on the basis of impulse or desire or urge or drive or passion or mood, and dress up their motives afterwards to make them seem reasonable.’ Whether or not we agree with him, what is undeniable is that desire itself is not part of the reasonable, rational realm. That is part of its particularity. And for that reason, again, I come back to the sense that universal proclamations about our desire, our sexualities, as though these things have a common frame, are meaningless. To attempt to codify and delimit desire is to deny its very nature. heterosexuals: they do not need to account for themselves; their desire does not need to be reduced to the language of politics, of stanceThis observation has the greatest force for those in some way bisexual, whose way of thinking about our desire – our way of speaking with the language available to us – can only ever be disordered.
The imperative placed on queer people to account for ourselves is a discriminatory act that demeans our human dignity. It is not a demand made of heterosexuals: they do not need to account for themselves; their desire does not need to be reduced to the language of politics, of stance. As Greenwell told me, ‘Art is the realm in which contradictions can be held and not resolved, but held in a kind of beneficent stasis.’ That is like sexuality, desire like art: a creative act that reveals something of us anew in each act of desiring. Anything less is a compromise, a distortion of ourselves and the rights we should be afforded. I will not accept that the heteronormative may love in the language of art, but I may only love in the language of politics. So, at one and the same time, my refusal to answer is a recognition of the unknowable nature of sexuality, and a paradoxical political stance that rejects the imperative to be political. As Nelson said of a friend, ‘How can I tell her that not trying has become the whole point, the whole plan?’
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, Selected Poems and Prose (London: Penguin Books, 2016).
 Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry (New York: Random House, 1972).
 Paul Ricœur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).
 J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, ‘“Nevertheless, My Sympathies are with the Karamazovs”: A Correspondence’, Salmagundi, Volume 10, Issues 166–7 (New York: Skidmore College, 2010).
 Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Melville House UK, 2015).