Walking the Walk.

Paul Hallam with Gary Wickham in Istanbul (photograph by Sandy Snyder) 2When I met him in 1995, Paul Hallam appeared to me at first as a bundle of shiny, fractured surfaces; a collection of my own scattering projections and self-reflections. Right away, I envied his apparent refusal to think or write or work in the shadow of anybody else’s expectations. But I was also alarmed by the sort of strength and sacrifice I imagined that entailed. Paul instantiated a way of being-in-the-world that I both aspired to and feared. He was cracked and cracking; broken, yet also brilliant and brave. Although I didn’t know it right away, Paul was operating during those years at a peak of creativity. Various films, writings and plays (like the author, himself, on occasion, no doubt) were being feverishly chatted up and chatted about; some slapping on their heels and a bit of rouge after making it all the way to Cannes and Toronto. Happily, if improbably, Paul had decided to decamp in Binghamton, New York for a few weeks. The Book of Sodom had come out by then (as a text, but also as a debutante and a queer), and one of the reasons for Paul’s visit was a talk he’d been invited to give about his book at the University I attended.[1] His schedule during the decampment was intentionally unhurried, leaving snatches of unclaimed time for chats and drinks and, more importantly, for the occasional stroll. In his life, Paul forges deep and lasting connections with places by walking through them. Moreover, the textual narratives he generates frequently unfold within the context of roaming through a region on foot, investigating it, disclosing inherent meanings many less tenacious travelers miss. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate this piece of Paul as more than just an incidental itch.

Paul Hallam with Gary Wickham in Istanbul (photograph by Sandy Snyder) 1The peripatetic impulse, the urge to wander, to be on the move, appears in many of Paul’s texts as a search for communion, for a kind of love or jouissance, that is always ultimately, and maddeningly, deferred. This deferral, however, reveals itself to be not the contingent result of, say, bad luck or quirks of character (although these abound in Paul’s texts), but rather as a constitutive absence lurking at the very heart of the search for love, itself. Stephen Punter, for example, in Caught Looking, finds to his frustration that he is unable to sustain the sexiness of any of the potential lovers he encounters in a series of virtual, and apparently ‘miscellaneous,’ sexual scenes.[2] No matter how swimmingly the encounters begin, the subjectivities of the eroticized others always transgress the limits imposed by Stephen’s gaze. They invariably reveal themselves, for example, as too eager, too needy, too maudlin, too funny, too private, too young, etc. Within this scopophilic economy of desire, an encounter with a particular other is not, and never can be, the apotheosis of the search for love. Or, rather, if it is, we would never know it insofar as communion with the other is always already haunted, ruined, by the paradoxical nature of the quest to achieve it. Caught on the horns of an existential dilemma, at the very moment Stephen attempts to acknowledge the others as subjects, they transcend his ability to sustain them as objects of erotic appropriation. Sexual subjects eventually defy an objectifying gaze; sexual objects never gaze back. It’s not surprising, then, that when Stephen Punter, lonely and ‘tired of window shopping,’ finally decides ‘to risk it,’ to actualize his desire in the direction of a particular other, he finds that his 22 year old, Tunisian, novelist thief suddenly disappears along with the entire virtual landscape in which the seduction has played out. Here, if the idea of putting down roots, of a caesura, of coming home is a foundational part of every flâneur’s itinerary, it is only ever able to serve that grounding function as a trace; as the detritus of an always, already foreclosed arrival, as the impossibility of its own achievement.

Extrapolating from poor Stephen’s travails, there is, we might say, a fundamental and almost unbearable loneliness – a void – lurking at the foundation of our communion with others. But if this void – the always present possibility of the absence of the other – is intrinsic to the erotic relation and not simply its by-product, an existential and not just a sociological or psychological phenomenon, some of us are nevertheless on more intimate terms with its mundane manifestations. In a word, existential loneliness buggers some of us up the arse. Gay folks, certainly, are given big hints, often at a quite early age and from those who try to love them, about the constitutive absence at the core of the possibility of community. There are the myriad, everyday rejections and refusals, of course. ‘Others’ of all sorts tend to get more of these than their normalized neighbors. It’s baked right into the proverbial pie. And of course there remains – always – the appalling and unthinkable erasure of untold numbers of us over the years to HIV disease, married, as this horror often is, to the correlative social wish that we were never here at all. Efforts in recent years by well-meaning liberal democracies to redress these injustices have proven both a blessing and a curse. Narratives of tolerance and inclusion have successfully delegitimized efforts to hide LGBT lives from public view. Situated within systems of representational or identity politics, however, these narratives have been harnessed to a corresponding social demand that gays identify with conventionally sanctioned forms of social organization (traditional marriage, for example), and then seek permission (grudgingly given, of course) to be folded into them. Construed as a melting pot, community gets created as an effort to suture and secure the social space; as a disavowal, from within liberalism itself, of the important difference differences make.

Sometimes, though, you have to retreat a bit, stop being so strident and resolute. You can’t always confront the abyss head on. It’s too exhausting. It knocks your wig off. As Paul signaled years later in If You Look at It Long Enough. . ., this recurring need to (a)void the void might explain some of the anodyne effects of taking up the identity of a voyeur. It might, in other words, shed some light on what else Stephen Punter was up to right before his Tunisian disappeared. ‘I can tell only of my own experience,’ Paul writes, ‘and at some of the bleakest moments in my life, when all else seemed to fail, [porn] obliterated, if only for half an hour, all thoughts of the deaths of family, the deaths of friends.’[3] Porn is a jealous and demanding lover. It makes us toe the line, keeps us from falling into an abyss. Admitting, as it does, ‘of an absolute focus,’ it allows, perhaps even requires, the viewer to shut everything else out. Sadly though, the salutary effects of this maneuver are only transitory. Flâneur-style, they tend to wander off after only the briefest of stays. The pornification of memory, like any ruse we employ to circumvent the ontological void at the heart of our being-for-others, has the inauspicious and ‘sneaky habit of reminding you, perhaps after the viewing, of the very thought it seemed to shut out.’[4] As Sartre once put it, all our modes of ‘bad faith,’ of managing the void, even the fun and clever ones, eventually have to shut down the disco lights and head home.[5]

I’m thinking now of China in The Dish, alone in his flat, pontificating about his plates. How chipped they are. How cracked and used. How he ‘never bothered much about condition.’ How he always preferred ‘the odd ones, the strays,’ the ‘flea market fakes,’ the rejects from the ‘rummage runs.’[6] Each one unique and irreducible, the pieces of China’s collection are connected, through his desire to save them, by a relation that is not an equivalence, a non-relating relation. They don’t belong together in any obvious or preordained way. None of them cancels the other out. This is not a set. Going for sets, China explains, is a waste of time. One of them always breaks. And what’s the point of even trying? Who would an old queen leave them to when she dies? Her ‘pink poodle?’ ‘The nation?’ Possessions, China hints, not just people or pets, can become orphaned, need looking after. They refer – in their having once been loved, hated, forgotten or given away – to the void, to the groundlessness of the ground of human community. They refer to other, infinitely irreducible singularities (to the woman in Estate,[7] for example, whose mismatched drinking glasses nobody wants; to China’s old beaus; to Paul’s own, dearly loved, Mother) who have absented themselves by dying. Paul has helped me understand this, not just in the texts that he creates, but in the life that he lives and the practices that he produces to recollect it. It’s precisely the things that no one else wants or thinks to keep around when you’re gone that continue to signify the most intensely, that have earned the right to be cherished. Seeking out perfection is false and fake, like unconditional love. Being perfect and being loved unconditionally, they both empty you of content; make you substitutable, replaceable by another whom you imagine would be equally perfect or loved. Like the men from the disco Jim collects, night after night, like sets of plates in Nighthawks,[8] each of your relationships then becomes the same. Imbued with identical import, they’re all equally pointless from the start.

The failure of the effort to establish a sutured and seamless communion; the ever present possibility of death, absence, silence, separation, betrayal, abjection, misunderstanding, non-equivalence, etc., is not, then, the failure of community. We do not manage to seek love despite these things. Rather, only insofar as these founding negations exist can love emerge as one of our existential possibilities. In this context it’s possible (though by no means necessary) to understand the valorization of the damaged and the dirty in much of Paul’s writing as an effort to acknowledge (even, and especially, in the mode of sublating them) the difficulties that facing up to the abyss entail. What’s more, none of the texts that Paul creates, none of the desires he articulates, seem willing to organize themselves around a logic of redemption. Incompleteness and imperfection are not just problems to be overcome. There’s always, as Jim reckons with at the end of Nighthawks,[9] one more dance to be danced. A flâneur doesn’t
always get (or want) to go home. That’s life.

Intentionally, then, or at least unsurprisingly, to this point Paul has not imposed a grand, organizing principle on his collection of texts, his labors of love. The only possible exception he’s previously allowed appears to be an aesthetic one based on color or perhaps shape.[10] Certainly not an arche-principle whereby his and others’ writings are kept separate based on what belonged to whom, and when. As with love, it seems there is a built-in resistance (a non-necessity) to establishing individual identities within an economy of detritus, a deliberate dislike of sorting things in a way that establishes clear and definite boundaries. Too much order can feel like a violation, an imposition that distorts more than clarifies. If there’s the trace of an impulse in Paul’s collection to reconstitute a sort of community, to establish a network of familial relations and resemblances, it’s not the sort of community he interrogates in Estate: the kind a person feels responsible to fix firmly in place and then reproduce, ad infinitum.[11] Paul is not interested in trying to narrate the truth of people’s experiences. Not even his own.

On the Bishopsgate Institute’s blog, Paul has framed the recent bequest of his collection as both a ‘release and relief.’[12] More than just an agreement or transfer, the creation of a Paul Hallam Archive at the Institute’s rich and remarkable library means the collection is, in an overdetermined yet undeniably triumphal sense, finally coming home. No longer banished to ‘a metal cage in the bleak beauty of a Purfleet industrial estate,’[13] the collection has been freed from diaspora, its period of wandering and resettlement decisively overcome. For all the talk of voids and displacements, of pink poodles and itinerant flâneurs, the collection finds itself part of a larger signifying economy, part of a family of other collections at the Institute. This does not mean, though, like a set of perfect plates, that it is now complete. As part of an incommensurable community, it will continue to merge and morph in relation to the inexhaustible needs and desires of the interested others who are fortunate enough to get to know it. Moving out of the cupboard and into the streets, the meaning of the archive – the various ways it will be understood and put to use – will necessarily overflow the ways in which it is reflectively organized and presented. No longer (only) an orphan, its coming home to Bishopsgate (and the correlative homecoming of the absent others to which it refers) does not signify the end of a journey so much as a limit or boundary: the beginning of exciting new adventures. Home is as much a point of departure as a point of return.

Gary Wickham
Brooklyn, New York
December 2015

[1] Paul Hallam. The Book of Sodom. Verso, 1993

[2] Caught Looking. Dir. Constantine Giannaris, Water Bearer Films, 1991. Written by Paul Hallam.

[3] Paul Hallam. ‘If You Look at It Long Enough. . .’ Eclectic Views on Gay Male Pornography: Pornucopia, Todd G. Morrison, Ed. Harrington Park Press, an imprint of The Haworth Press, Inc. (2004): p. 73. New book edition, with a supplementary essay by Paul Hallam, introduction by Gary Wickham, edited by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, design and Illustrations by Chagrin, 2015.

[4] Ibid, p. 74

[5] See Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness. A Washington Square Press publication of Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1966, pp. 86-116.

[6] The Dish. Dir. Bruno Santini, 1993. Written by Paul Hallam. starring Bette Bourne. BBC Radio 4 adaptation, 1998.

[7] Paul Hallam. ‘Estate’ essay In Estate: Fugitive Images. Myrdle Court Press, 2010.

[8]Nighthawks‘, A film by Ron Peck and Paul Hallam, 1978. Distributed on DVD in the USA by Water Bearer Films, 2006 and on a Double DVD, “Nighthawks” and “Strip Jack Naked”, BFI, 2009. With many extras, and an extensive booklet.

[9] Ibid.

[10]See, for example, The Last Biscuit. Dir. Paul Hallam and Andrea Luka Zimmerman, 2009.

[11] Paul Hallam, ‘Estate.’ In Estate: Fugitive Images. Myrdle Court Press, 2010.

[12] Paul Hallam Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. 22 February 2013. http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/

[13] Ibid.