the buddhist by Dodie Bellamy (in review)
$24 softcover; $10 DRM-free ebook
Late in the buddhist, Dodie Bellamy surmises of her relationship with an emotionally abusive lover, “That I could love so deeply when given so little, does not mean I’m pathetic. It’s a testament to—if not the largeness of—the creativity of my heart.” This revelation highlights Bellamy’s ability to genuinely “see” beyond someone’s personal feelings, a quality that sharply contrasts the book’s titular character, a cad and spiritual teacher who trolls the circuits trying to crack through his own hardened narcissism.
Bellamy initially detailed her relationship with the buddhist‘s title character (intentionally spelled out in lowercase letters) on her blog alongside entries that reveal a complex and intelligent woman deeply engaged with her world, both culturally and interpersonally, a woman who arguably should know better than to entertain a toxic romance. It starts out well. Bellamy, who is in a legendary and unconventional marriage with the writer Kevin Killian, finds someone who for a time becomes “her person,” and a very heartfelt connection ensues.
“How did this happen? The Internet of course,” she writes, giving due respect to the incomprehensible power of the Web to penetrate the most private realms of our lives. When things begin to turn sour and Bellamy receives emails from the buddhist criticizing her character in cold, spiritual language, she posts some of his sentences on Facebook. Friends comment on her posts, offering support along the lines of Bellamy being too good for his sorry spiritual ass. In going online, her personal rejection becomes a semi-public happening and, when she took it further with her blog, a literary event.
Bellamy’s writing includes such things as her cats, walking to class and noticing delicate mushrooms, as they remind her of how Virginia Woolf found things “too beautiful” right before a breakdown. She ruminates on the miraculous lesbians subverting the male gaze in the film Miss March, and of her tenderness towards a friend who cleans his room while listening to a Clutterer’s support group on speaker-phone. In one particularly dazzling entry, Bellamy writes about R&B legend Bettye LaVette singing about her “desire to be seen, to really be seen,” and hold it up in sharp contrast to the gaze of Kathe Izzo, a.k.a. The Love Artist, as she peers out from her video, “beckoning the longing and tenderness we all crave. Her engagement is so intimate it’s difficult to maintain your distance, to remember that this gaze isn’t meant for you. And when you do remember, you’re thrown back into a primal Lacanian sense of lack.” This gaze reminds Bellamy of the buddhist.
Pretty much everything reminds Bellamy of the buddhist and she’s really suffering, not just from personal heartbreak but because of what it does to the writing. Is it making her “too slight, too femmy, too sloppy?” Her self-consciousness skirts the edge of what seems to be a very real self-loathing, a specifically female kind of shame for specifically female kinds of feelings.
I identified with Bellamy’s vulnerability so fiercely during the real time blog phase of what would become of the book that I spewed in the comments section a long confession about my own recent abusive relationship that had left me in shreds. I was mortified that I had posted something so emotional and specific in a public forum. I spent days wondering if and how I should erase it. But then Bellamy wrote back saying that what I had said had moved her. It was such a simple, kind response and it drew me further into what became perhaps the most profound and mysterious relationship I have ever had with language, with what a text can do in the world. Her blog permeated the fabric of my daily life in a way that caused genuine personal transformation. I am saying this because I know I wasn’t alone in this feeling and that many people, women mostly, were engaging with Bellamy’s blog on an intimate level. Judging by the generous reponses to her posts, the author reached many readers on a similarly personal level. The communal love established online translates to the print version of Bellamy’s account where she reflects on technology’s role in the increasingly blurred line between text and author.
As a response to a dialogue with her husband Kevin Killian about her relationship with the buddhist she writes, “And I wondered how much my relationship with the buddhist, how much of my relationship with life in general, is a literary exercise—whether I write about it or not. How being a writer and living in a postmodern world, all life is a text. Of course this has been theorized up the wazoo, but I’m not talking about theory here, I’m talking about a cognitive shift, a gut level viewing of life as a text.”
One of the things I find the most charming about the book itself that you don’t experience it quite the same way as on her blog, especially the humor that belies her attempts to stop writing about the buddhist. Every few posts she claims she’s done with it, over it, enough already but then she returns, still annoyed, pissed off and grieving, needing to keep on.
Bellamy is the proverbial open book. Online and in print, she opens up to the reader, spilling almost every excruciating detail of her painful relationship. She counters this near oversharing with more subtle confessions—that she has left out his name and specific details that could publicly identify him. Most importantly, she hasn’t chronicled every little single shitty thing he did, in fact most of her writing about him is an attempt to be truthful, open minded and ethical about a situation that has brought about deeper questions, namely of writing itself and its tricky relationship to public and private realms:
“To reveal or not reveal—this is a core question for many writers. This business of women not suffering in public, of having a gag order when it comes to personal drama, such as a break up, connects back to larger histories of suppression, such as the literature of victimization, women not daring to speak of rape or incest (and I’m in no way suggesting that my current situation is in any way comparable to those violations), a harkening back to the whole notion that domestic space is private, what happens behind closed door stays behind closed doors, and somewhere in there is the history of the wife being owned by her man and therefore she better keep her trap shut, and bourgeoisie notions of suffering with dignity – or dignity itself, how oppressive a value is that?”
In this post she calls out women from their private relationship hells to “gesticulate and wail” and “light your cigarette and say, yes, that son of a bitch doesn’t deserve you.” This was the post that undid me, that had me throwing myself in the comments section, wanting to stand on an imaginary street corner with Bellamy and light her cigarette. I wanted to be on that street corner more than any place in the whole world. I hardly have an objective perspective on the buddhist as a text separate from the blog, but Bellamy’s previous books, including Barf Manifesto, Cunt-Ups and The Letter’s of Mina Harker, were also texts that became something “other” in my world, something living—books that became catalytic events that changed my whole perception of writing’s power to transform the reader.
The final chapter of the buddhist, entitled “Lapdance,” does not appear on the blog and is a long missive in response to a poem written by Ariana Reines that touches upon Bellamy’s marriage to Killian. The mention of his name invokes their sanctified bond and provides a wholesome jumping-off place for Bellamy to dive into what is a brave and visceral free fall into a beautiful dissonance of connections—the buddhist’s cock, the sexiness of a laptop, her friendships, God and glamour, and black holes that live in photographs and people’s shoulders—that feel psychedelic in their symmetry and power as she shreds any notion of a neat and tidy ending to something so complex as this: an affair experienced as a theft of the soul, and a love that was real enough (at least for her) to not reject without a fiercely wrought and intricate wail.