November 10: Sylvère Lotringer is dead. I gasp. I process what exactly it is I’m shocked by: The close proximity of a name I’m familiar with and the words “passed away.” Finding out about death via a screen is disorienting, though I’m used to it. It is like having a visceral reaction to the end of a movie.
I feel a pang of guilt when I realize that I didn’t even know Lotringer had been alive still. Not that I thought he was dead, but rather I hadn’t thought of him since I finished Torpor by Chris Kraus in July. I started it after having finished Aliens & Anorexia and I Love Dick. After a break up, I consumed her work as if it were a comforting box of chocolates. To me, Lotringer was a character whose realness I never really considered.
Torpor is about Kraus falling in love with Lotringer, an older man — a respected professor and literary critic — who was so traumatized by his family’s history in the Holocaust that he would never be as close to her as she wanted. “Sylvie sees her marriage to Jerome as a love story that could be summed up in just three lines,” Kraus writes. “There was an emptiness. It frightened her. She tried to fill it.” This is the plot of Torpor, and it is the plot of I Love Dick, and it is the plot of Aliens & Anorexia, etc.
November 10: Taylor Swift’s long-awaited Red re-recording is leaked. I gasp when my phone buzzes with a text from a friend I rarely talk to, because the message’s only content is a link and I know exactly what it is.
The international pop-via-country star has been revisiting old albums and recreating them after getting ruthlessly fucked over by her old manager Scooter Braun who sold her masters. Remaking her past work is a way of owning it, but it also naturally plays with time and retrospection. It can be almost nauseating for someone to be merely reminded of art that they made a decade ago, but digging deep back into it, immersing themselves in those intentions and feelings? That is an intimate, brave process, denying the bounds that time tries to enforce on us.
What is so special about this record in particular, though, is that it contains a 10-minute version of one of her most beloved songs, “All Too Well.” She once let it slip in an interview that this longer rendition of it existed; ever since, fans, including a young, early-teenage me, begged for it.
I click play. Already, the guitars and production sound much lighter than the original, almost weightless and hopeful, as if it’s not absolutely heavy and dismal lyrically. I shiver upon hearing some of the first new lines: “And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now / He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what it was.”
November 10: Andrew and I are texting, formulating plans for tomorrow, though they are, safely speaking, hypothetical. He often cancels; I’ve learned to keep my hopes low. I don’t mind it so much anymore, because I am just grateful that he is back in my life. I thought things between us were irrevocably damaged. Now it’s like nothing ever happened. He talks to me as if our connection is brand new and exciting.
We’re sending music links back and forth to one another. He’s asking me what certain bands are up to, insisting me to interview them and convince them to make new music specifically for him. Bands I didn’t even know until I met him: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, PS I Love You, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltin. About the last band, I say, “their song Anna Lee is my favorite. something about it is unforgettable.” Within seconds, he replies: “yeah that riff that repeats the entire song.” He is a problem-solver, always striving to provide an answer.
Our hypothetical date tomorrow is at a show for the band Tennis. I have never heard of them, but I trust him. I say I will work my magic to get us in.
Lotringer, when married to Kraus, was “18 years older than his ‘wife’—a term he never [used] without airquotes.” Kraus reminds us often of this “grudging” nature of their relationship in her books; she was ill, and being on his medical insurance solved a lot of problems. It was logical. But it left an emptiness.
When I met Andrew about a year and a half ago, he warned me that monogamy was not possible for him in the context of where he was at in his life, it wasn’t rational, didn’t make sense. I said OK. The first time I went over to his place, we drank wine, talked about art, and fucked, in that order. I returned a couple days later and we did the same thing. And a couple days later. Etc.
I was 19, and freshly out of a 2-year relationship with someone who was 25. Andrew was 31 (there were always these gaps of time between me and the person I loved and no one knowing what to make of it). What drew me to him was his confidence, the way he always knew what he was doing and what he wanted me to do, and he balanced this condescension and authority with a frequent reassurance that I was smart and equal in intellect. He told me that my classmates at Sarah Lawrence College who I thought were intimidating were just faking their way through it, and I could easily prove myself amongst them. He told me that people in the music journalism industry who took jabs at me were bored and jealous of my success, and I had to ignore them and persist. I began to find my voice and trust my ideas. My growth became visible, and I could only trace it back to him.
“Among the Ivy-educated trustfundarians of New York’s underground, Sylvie’s often been dismissed as scatterbrained and stupid, but she feels much more intelligent since she met Jerome,” writes Kraus. “She believes that he and he alone can recognize her certain—talent—for abstraction. She thinks his recognition is enough to draw it out and make it true.”
In October of 2012, when Swift’s fourth album Red came out, my house lost power due to Hurricane Sandy. I was selfishly happy that school was cancelled. With headphones, I skipped around the hardwood floors of my house listening to the songs about the beginning, middle, and end of love.
“All Too Well” was a fan favorite because of the lyrics. It was always that simple. It is detailed with cinematic scenes of “dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light” and anchored by a recurring motif of a scarf that symbolizes innocence (and which some fans speculate is a metaphor for her virginity). The second half of the bridge, though, is lauded as the most important element of the song:
And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
’Cause I remember it all, all, all too well
This is, after all, what most of us try to do when we make art: Capture. Capture every small thing, capture what it looks like, how it feels, what it smells like, what it tastes like, what it is like in any possible context. Not just so we can share it with others, but also so we ourselves can understand this thing, this anomaly.
In Lindsay Zoladz’s New York Times piece “Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’ and the Weaponization of Memory,” she notes that the song is “also, quite poignantly, about a young woman’s attempt to find retroactive equilibrium in a relationship that was based on a power imbalance that she was not at first able to perceive.” Art, in this way, is a form of time travelling.
Ever since I met Andrew, I could not write about anything or anyone else. Lines about him were all that rattled around my brain. Poems, essays, vignettes, lyrics, stories. I did what Kraus did with Lotringer; I turned him into a character. “I’ve been depicted in other people’s books,” she said in a 2016 interview with Elaine Blaire titled “Chris Kraus, Female Antihero” for the New Yorker. “If you know writers, it’s going to happen.” Whose responsibility is it to ensure the people inside the written words maintain their personhood? (Maybe when I saw that Lotringer was dead, I was surprised because I assumed he would live forever, safe as ink on pages.)
It wasn’t until a couple months ago that I sent Andrew something I wrote about him: A lyric essay entitled “Pet,” where I explored the ways in which I longed for him as if I were an animal and he my owner. I wrote about the physical pain I felt by being denied his attention or affection.
I didn’t think he would think much of it. But he replied the following day, saying: “i read it several times and i love your writing. there is a part of you in it that you don’t communicate in any other way.” The next time I saw him, his hands rarely left my body, his fingers swirling around my arms and my chin and my waist, his eyes looking deep into mine. I asked him half-jokingly, “Is something wrong? You’re being too nice to me. Do you need something? Do you need money?” My words about the past informed his behavior of the present. By going back in time, I altered the future.
“One of the novel’s main themes is the experience of waiting,” writes Elaine Blaire about Aliens & Anorexia. All of her books seem to have an unorthodox affinity with time; Torpor is intentionally jarring, constantly jumping around and devoting itself to being nonlinear and lacking cohesion. It is fluid. “There is a tense of longing and regret, in which every step you take becomes delayed, revised, held back a little bit,” Kraus writes in it. “The past and future are hypothesized, an ideal world existing in the shadow of an if. It would have been.”
It is the reason Lotringer—or, sorry, Jerome—would always be at a distance. Because of the war, he was not only perpetually detached from Kraus, but from himself. “Emotion becomes blocked because emotion just leads back to what you think can overwhelm you. Within this state, all future life is predicated by the past; becomes conditional,” she writes.
Another powerful line in the bridge of “All Too Well” is: “Well, maybe we got lost in translation/ Maybe I asked for too much/ But maybe this thing was a masterpiece/ ’Til you tore it all up.” She is reckoning with where it all went wrong; there are a handful of ways in which their demise was probably inevitable, but then there’s that one chance that it was a masterpiece, it was perfect. What if?
It was this I wondered in the summer when I broke up with Andrew because I couldn’t handle his rejection of monogamy. What if we were perfect? We could have been in love forever, happy, great, etc.
I wrote poems, wondering, grieving, remembering. I transcribed our conversations to try to navigate my massive sense of loss and to attempt to understand what happened. I kept track of every good feeling he gave me and every bad feeling he gave me; the binary was so obvious that it terrified me. I thought about all of the questions I never asked him. I thought about the 11 years he held over me (and what did all this time between us mean? Did it mean that I could not be the one to choose what it means?). I thought about the bits and pieces he told me about his past, about walking in on his father hitting his mother, about waking up on a bench in New York City not knowing how he got there, about striking side view mirrors with a baseball bat in Park Slope, about spending a night in jail in Texas, about drinking too much and working too much and flirting with death too much.
There was an emptiness. It frightened her. She tried to fill it.
“Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it/ I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it,” Swift sings. It seems as if time is the result of whatever’s inside of it, and we become victims of this unfair warp. To wish to be who we were before we met someone who caused us heartache is to wish for time travel. We desperately try to get the stain of living out of us, but at most we can get it to fade.
I resented that some of the things I loved about myself the most were what I’d received from knowing Andrew. Time deluded me; or, more likely, I deluded myself over time. Nothing happened between us for what felt like forever, and feelings of hatred were brought out in me. I felt as if the passage of time was rewriting the past, like his silence changed the words he had spoken to me months before.
In a Los Angeles Times obituary for Lotringer, a quote from Kraus describes him as being “an unbelievably good sport” about being a character in a work. This is kind of a given, considering the books were published on his press. “Sylvère always had a sense of humor and never took himself too seriously.”
The article also shares a family lore from when Lotringer was reunited with his parents in 1945 when World War II ended. He was six years old. In the town square where he lived, the French flag was raised. To his mother, he said: “It’s so beautiful I want to die.”
Sometimes our feelings are so overwhelming that we wish we could control time. Permanence is one of the strongest sensations on the planet, and mostly because it is an illusion. We use it as a hyperbole for this reason; in a lot of cases, we long for it just because it is unattainable.
Andrew, to me, was unattainable from the beginning since he told me he could not do monogamy (and monogamy, to him, reflects this human desire for permanence that is unattainable). In I Love Dick, Dick was unattainable to Kraus because she was married and he was very obviously elusive and uninterested. Lontringer proposed: “But even if his silence hurts you, isn’t that what attracted you to him? The fact that he was inaccessible.” Ah, yes. Men and their solutions and simple answers to the most inexplicable of emotions.
A new line in “All Too Well” that cuts deep: “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine/ And that made me want to die.” Unattainable. Condescended, but in a rational way. A certain amount of time being manipulated, weaponized to try to prove something about emotions. To ridicule something, call it nonsensical, as if anything isn’t nonsensical.
Sylvère Lotringer is dead. To me, he was someone I knew as a name in a novel or two or three. He was someone I projected onto, someone I grasped as a validator of my own frustrations. Like Kraus, he was my ex-lover. Ex- as in there was a time where things kind of made sense, but also they really didn’t, and they never will. Ex- is a name we try to give to the perplexing passage of time and the way it fucks with our feelings and ability to fill the emptiness.
(I read Torpor again after time passed. It’s the same, but it’s also different. File this under: Things that just don’t make sense.)
“All Too Well” is out, the elongated, even more gut-punching version. A relationship that decayed ten years ago, and probably feels like nothing now. Yet it has a colossal impact on millions of people, bringing on a wave of emotion to people who’ve never met who the song is about. It stings me as I associate it with the pain of Andrew, which I rarely feel anymore. That pain that felt eternal has been patched up, and I’m in love again. Art is a baffling, miraculous reminder that time is not real, and we’d be fucked if it was.
(At our hypothetical plans the following day: I am wine drunk, and Andrew probably is a little bit, too. I introduce him to a publicist as my husband, saying we’re married. Grudgingly, he adds: “Not yet recognized by the law.” It is the best joke he could’ve come up with in the moment when I completely threw him off guard and offered him no time to reject this faux-proposal; yet his response is barely a joke, and more of an implication, an accidental promise. The word “yet” repeats in my head for the rest of the night, ringing with possibility.)