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  • Aesthetic Depersonalization in Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room
  • Gavin Miller (bio)

The Scottish author Louise Welsh's crime novel, The Cutting Room, was published in 2002 to immediate critical claim and commercial success. 1 The Cutting Room is part of a strand of post-war Scottish writing that focuses on the phenomenology of personal relations, and on how, in particular, other people may be depersonalized, rather than encountered in an "I-thou" relationship. An awareness of this tradition, rather than that of depth-psychoanalytic Freudian ideas, is, I argue, required in order to appreciate the links that The Cutting Room suggests between a depersonalizing attitude toward others, and the pleasures of aesthetic contemplation.

Although The Cutting Room is amongst the most recent and most successful of Scottish novels to take issue with the "gaze" that we direct upon others, even a brief survey over the last few decades can reveal texts with similar concerns. Toni Davidson's Scar Culture (1999), like The Cutting Room, takes photography as a metaphor for depersonalized experience. One of the narrators of Davidson's novel, "Click," deals with his experience of parental abuse by focusing on the representation of his life in "consciousness." The "real" Click sits in the chamber, or "camera," of his head, viewing with an aesthetic eye the images which are flung upon its walls for his appreciation. Instead of living his life, he observes it as if it were a dramatic representation: "There was a screaming match going on, a very one-sided event with me the sole audience, the lone frightened spectator [End Page 72] . It could have been funny at first, some worn kind of slapstick that all three of us at some point had sat in front of the television and laughed at. [italics in original]" (Davidson 29).

Zoë Strachan's Negative Space (2002) also links suffering, depersonalization and art, but uses painting and life-modeling as its metaphors. The narrator, a young woman whose brother has recently died, finds relief in the psychic punctuation afforded by self-injury:

Before I even knew what I was doing, I was driving the blade into my left palm, slowly and calmly until my hand started to bleed. The pain cut through the fuzziness in my head, so awkwardly I took the scissors in my left hand and gouged the point into a criss-cross of palmistry lines on my other palm, until it bled as well.

(Strachan 26)

Strachan explicitly connects this self-destructive urge with the satisfactions of the narrator's job as a life model in Glasgow School of Art, where she was once required to pose as a corpse: "They put this goblet full of red wine beside me, knocked it over and cleaned it up every day. It was meant to be poisoned, I was meant to be dead. I liked it." (Strachan 27).

Such issues are also anticipated in Alasdair Gray's contemporary Scottish classic 1982 Janine (1984), where the protagonist Jock McLeish similarly cuts through despair with pain, as he recalls the failure of his first marriage:

I thought I was smart in that suit but no I looked prim and dull which is why I chose GLAMOUR, chose Helen. Liar. Helen chose me oh, I will gnaw the fingers of this hand to the bone.


That hurt. Calm down. Where was I? Thinking about rape.

(Gray 58)

This self-harming pattern is accompanied elsewhere in Gray's fiction by the contemplative depersonalization of other people. I have argued that Duncan Thaw, the artist protagonist of Gray's Lanark (1981), "protects himself by ceasing to attend to others as living beings, instead regarding them as pure sense-data lacking life or significance" (Miller). Gray's interest [End Page 73] in depersonalization is, I believe, partly due to his knowledge of the intersubjective anti-Freudian existential paradigm developed by the Glaswegian psychoanalyst R.D. Laing (1927–1989) in works such as The Divided Self (1960).

Laing's ideas appear in Gray's work because of the latter's knowledge and intentions. However, there is plenty of room to use Laing's work as a theory with which to read literature in the same...