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  • Tillman's Turbulent Thinking
  • Eric Dean Rasmussen (bio)

Reflecting on the art of fiction in her 1995 essay "Telling Tales," Lynne Tillman repeats a familiar narratological claim—conflict is essential to storytelling—but expands it to encompass "theorizing," indeed cognition itself, which, she emphasizes, includes an affective dimension. Using vocabulary reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's philosophizing on affect in What Is Philosophy? (1994), Tillman notes that "turbulence," the "wordless conflict" from which language likely emerged, is everywhere. This omnipresent turbulence, however, is easily overlooked. Writers, she proposes, work with words to make this turbulent activity present—that is, not just perceptible but communicable:

There may be imperceptible conflicts, actions, events—I think, thinking is an activity. An emotion may produce an action, be an action, or be a re-action. In some form the writer addresses some kind of event. In some way there is a problem, an event, an action, a thought, an issue, an emotion, to be resolved or left unresolved; there's a problem to be solved, or incapable of solution, a problem engaged or contemplated. There's a kind of adjudicating, whatever the writer does.

As Tillman's fictional art critic Madame Realism observes in The Madame Realism Complex (1992), "[S]tories do not occur outside thought. Stories, in fact, are contained within thought. It's only a story really should read, it's a way to think."

Madame Realism aptly summarizes Tillman's cognitive aesthetic, which posits literary writing as a way of thinking through imperceptible conflicts. And though this process involves making critical judgments, literary adjudicating entails more than conscious ratiocination—more than predominantly logical operations occurring in the mind. Tillman regards storytelling, indeed all modes of intellection, as a thoroughly embodied activity in which meaningful comprehension results from complex, recursive processes involving both cognitive and affective operations.

A survey of the short fictions in This Is Not It (2002), which collects some of Tillman's many collaborations with contemporary artists, reveals that, throughout her career, she has been experimenting with ways of registering the effects of imperceptible intensities, of tracing in language the recursive processes through which asignifying affects resonate, give rise to, and interfere with signifying emotions—the "subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience, which is from that point onward defined as personal," as the Deleuzian theorist and translator Brian Massumi puts it in Parables for the Virtual (2002). Consider for instance: the struggle to articulate adequately the intimate bond between Julie and Joe, the couple who co-habit but are no longer lovers, in "Living With Contradictions" (1984); the description of the depressed man's behavior at a dinner party as a tropism in Madame Realism (1984) ("Indifferent to everyone but his object of the moment, upon whom he thrives from titillation, he blooms. Madame Realism sees him as a plant, a wilting plant that is being watered"); the narrator's identification of herself as the "obstacle," the "swelling of emotion" that "becomes physical," stuck in the writer Paige Turner's throat in "To Find Words" (1992); the ecstatic, dizzying dance Madame Realism is moved to perform before the tombstones on Normandy's Omaha beach in "Lust for Loss" (1994); or the man's struggle to grieve, "the most private act a human being could do, next to shitting," which only finds release during masturbation in "Hold Me (9 Stories)" (2002). This effort to articulate, in unconventional, quasi-parabolic, prose forms, the "relationship between the levels of intensity and qualification" (Parables), i.e., the generative disconnect between affect and emotion, has become increasingly central to Tillman's cognitive aesthetic, which makes apparent that negotiating the contemporary crisis of belief requires subjects able to practice a measured "response-ability" when experiencing the excess of affect circulating in neoliberal social systems.

In the "Next to Nothing" passage from No Lease on Life (1998), a tragicomedy depicting the socioeconomic tensions affecting a New York neighborhood, imagined as a fragile urban ecosystem, Elizabeth Hall only becomes truly committed to a cause, fighting the illegal rent increase imposed by her unscrupulous landlord, after an intensely affective encounter with her upstairs neighbor, Ernest. Elizabeth catches her aptly named...