Exclusive Excerpt from AND YET, a book-length speculative essay by Jeff Alessandrelli

An innovative work of speculative fiction, Jeff Alessandrelli’s And Yet interrogates contemporary shyness, selfhood and sexual mores, drawing out the particulars of each through personal history, cultural commentary and the author’s own restless imagination. And Yet builds off the work of authors as disparate as Michel Leiris, Marguerite Duras and Kobo Abe, while quoting from and alluding to texts by Susan Sontag, Young Thug, Young Jean Lee, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück, among others. At the same time, however, And Yet is entirely itself, with a nameless, self-questioning Millennial protagonist simultaneously proud and afraid of his formidable interiority. “Love is a thing full of anxious fear,” especially when what you ultimately love and fear is your self,” writes Alessandrelli, and And Yet draws such a notion down, out and around again, finally arriving at its own idiosyncratic answers.

from And Yet

*         

I don’t fear sex. Or love. Not exactly. Rather, I fear not truly understanding the title of Jane’s Addiction’s classic 1988 album Nothing’s Shocking, where Perry Farrell’s reedy, distinctive yelp on songs like “Jane Says” and “Mountain Song” euphoniously marries itself to Dave Navarro’s nimble guitar lines, to Eric Avery’s syncopated slap-bass and Stephen Perkins’ steady percussion. Of not understanding Nothing’s Shocking album cover, a (not) shocking sculpture of nude female conjoined twins, large breasts prevalent, on an oversized rocking chair with their heads engulfed in billowing flame. Laden with tributaries, I fear having—or choosing—to exist in the glibness of those previous sentences because of what I might lack.              

*  

On the occasions when someone has sent me a nude pic, I’ve studied and studied, then sent it right back to them. Their response has told me far more than their physical nakedness has. 

*  

In a world where one’s erotic capital increasingly matters as much as one’s economic capital, prudery is shocking, no matter if one is young (18+) or old. Sexual shyness, reticence, priggishness, puritanism, some unfleeting exclusiveness to one’s own endless self. But where, in Western culture at least, sex is everywhere, ubiquitous— streaming, scrolling, swipeable— such unthinkable states and emotions are increasingly prevalent. Compared to the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X, Millennials become sexually active later in life and sleep with fewer people. Dating and marriage occurs later in their lives, as does childbirth. Sexual prolificity is less important than personal identity, comfort and security.

*   

As a Millennial, what I want is my self, my freely-sustained fully-possible self, and the path to such knowledge dwindles the more I fuck you. And you. And you.      

And you.

*   

I’m selfish in other words, but only in relation to my estimation of what everyone else lacks.  

*   

Is it a privilege to write about what one fears most? To freely open oneself up to all attendant interior apprehensions and plug ahead anyway? 

*   

Rapper Young Thug on his sexual inclinations with former fiancée Jerrika Karlae: 

‘“We wasn’t doing it on like no it’s too early to have sex shit,’” he explains. ‘“I don’t care for sex that much. I’ve never actually had sex with her. Never ever. Our first time doin’ grown stuff, she did it. She pulled me to the room and was like ‘come here.”’

“‘Karlae stated that initially she thought he was “weird” for not having sex, but went on to explain why that made her more attracted to Thugga.”’

To be fair, Young Thug—born August 16, 1991—has six children by four different women and in 2018 announced a new name change, to SEX.

And yet.

*  

“She was a brain researcher and an authority on the scientific basis of love. He, too, was a neuroscientist, but with an expertise in loneliness. She was in her mid-30s, he in his late 50s.

Both were wedded to careers in separate hemispheres—until they happened to be seated beside each other, serendipitously, at dinner on the last night of a neuroscience research symposium in Shanghai.”

So begins the New York Times obituary for John Cacioppo, co-author of the seminal text Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections. The piece ends with a quote from the widowed Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo (née Ortigue): “I did not know what true love was until I met my husband. John taught me what true love really means. And now, thanks to my husband, I am on the verge of knowing what true eternal love is.”

*

Is it a curse, such a privilege?

True eternal love. A type of love that I can only assume becomes eternal by din of a passion—physical, emotional, spiritual—that refuses all manners of temporal cynicism. Still, there’s that verge to consider. What happens if Dr. Cacioppo never makes it around the bend, instead capitulating to mere earthly love, a love that, twenty-five years from now, her husband in the ground for twenty-five years, suddenly falters. What if she meets the second love of her life tomorrow and does not have the wherewithal to recognize it?                               

“The closer I come to you
In reality
The more does the key sing in the door of the unknown room

There is a silk ladder unrolled over the ivy
There is
Hopeless fusion of your presence and your absence
I have found the secret
Of loving you
Always for the first time” 

From his poem “Always For the First Time,” these are the Surrealist poet André Breton’s thoughts regarding love in this life and the next. By wholly loving, Breton asserts, we lose what any definition of love might be; innocence piled upon innocence takes its place. 

Eternally true.

*

Is the ultimate privilege of all being able to choose what one fears most?

*

A noted misogynist—”The problem of woman,” he wrote in 1929, “is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world”— André Breton was married three times. Although artistically talented in their own rights, each of his wives—Simone Collinet, Jacqueline Lamba and Elisa Bindhoff—was habitually referred to as “Breton’s wife” or simply “her.”  

*

Prudence is the ability to govern and discipline oneself via the use of calibrated reason; to be prudent is to be marked by wisdom and judiciousness. Thus prudery, by extension, should be a laudable concept, some much-commended character trait entailing sagacity, tact and decorum. I thought I’d try and redefine the word in order to accommodate my own reservations about it! But then I realized.

*

Published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 1997 by the psychologist Arthur Aron (among others) and regularly cited since, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings” is a primer of scientific inquiry on comfortability and intimacy, one that, at its end, lists thirty-six “closeness-generating procedure” questions. Made famous by Mandy Len Catron’s 2015 Modern Love essay “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” Aron’s inquiry includes questions such as 11. Take 4 minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible, 10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be? and 32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

As originally conceived, however, “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness…” and its probing thirty-six questions were not designed to induce love but familiarity and closeness; “we had not created the 36 questions to help you fall in love” is how Elaine Aron, Arthur Aron’s wife and a co-author of the paper, put it. No matter how close you are with someone, closeness is never love, and love is never truly about itself.

In this way those thirty-six questions resemble Andreas Capellanus’s 31 Rules of Love as identified by the “King of Love” in Capellanus’s 12th century volume The Art of Courtly Love. Although some of King of Love’s rules are, of course, chivalric products of the author’s particular time and era—VII. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor and XXV. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved—many of them are abstract and amorphous, of the ilk that can still be read today in supermarket magazines and tabloids: XIV. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized. XIX. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives. XVII. A new love puts flight to an old one. Although such proclamations might seem cliché now, in Capellanus’s era they were eye-opening, regardless of whether one believed wholeheartedly in the rules set down by the “King of Love” or found them suspicious, insistent on too much and too little at the same time.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, many of the 31 Rules involve qualities of apprehension and vexation, with jealousy being the most common through-word. II. He who is not jealous cannot love and XXI. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love and XXII. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved and XXVIII. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved. In the same way that Aron’s thirty-six questions to help you fall in love were not designed for that purpose, wrongly conflating closeness and comfortability with passion and ardor, Capellanus’s 31 Rules of Love leave the present-day reader with the idea that true love, eternal, is less a matter of endearment and affection and more one of uncertainty and indecision. To never truly know and to be, happily or unhappily, forced to live—love— in that unknowingness, life entire.    

*

Then I realized that most redefinitions only serve to reinforce the bald articulation of the primary definition, that one most well-known.

*

And yet.

*

“When boys tell me I’m a prude, I say, ‘You’re absolutely right. I cultivate it,’” imparts Magdalen, one of the characters in Mary Gaitskill’s famed story collection Bad Behavior. She says it with a zest simultaneously becoming and unbecoming of a young woman intent on her own destruction. She says it with the profligacy of a young woman who isn’t sure who she is and aims to find out by fucking, lying through her teeth and fucking.

*

That type of cultivation, the only type.

*

Tentative, unsure, constantly navigating the contours of what one wants to do vs. what one thinks should be done, insistent on being honest and forthright while yet taking care to coat such candor in a veneer of proprietary deference inlaid by rigorous sculpting, living in a world of imagination that strains to correspond with the world actually based in reality—then and now, true love’s definition calls to mind a common one for a person self-obsessed with their many different selves. “Love is a thing full of anxious fear” is how Ovid put it over two thousand years ago and since then little has changed. The only difference is now there are more ways to be anxious, more ways to enact fear in one’s heart and mind. 

*

One of my own definitions of prudery entails wearing a tightly cinched trench coat while clothed in shorts and t-shirt beneath, standing at the corner of two busy intersecting streets. With great interest and diligence, scrutinizing each passerby, then flashing those found most inviting and alluring. Staring deep into each person’s eyes as their mix of reactions flushes through, great cavalcade of emotion from shock to anger to, upon realizing, amused annoyance. Then, focused only on the public beauty of my own private self, scouring past to find and entice the next one.    

*

To want attention and affection to such a degree that the more it’s received the more it’s repudiated and desired. Shameful, true, this is my crucible. 

*

More of the King of Love’s Rules from The Art of Courtly Love:

X. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.

XV. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

XX. A man in love is always apprehensive.

*

According to a 2017 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/National Center for Health Statistics study, the average heterosexual American male (aged 25-44) will have sex with four to eight partners in his lifetime; the same number set holds true for the average heterosexual American female (aged 25-44). Just over 21% of heterosexual American males will have sex with more than fifteen females in their lifetimes and just over 10% of heterosexual American females will have sex with more than fifteen males in their lifetimes. Exotic, depending on the person, in their sparseness or in their abundance, these numbers haven’t changed much in the past twenty years. What’s changed is the amount of sexual content one comes in contact with over the course of a lifetime.  

*

In her book Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love (1979), psychologist Dorothy Tennov elucidates what exactly happens between love and lust, lust and romance. According to Tennov, limerence is, at the most basic level, the desire for emotional reciprocation from a love interest or potential love interest. Although the desire for it, of course, plays some role, “[s]ex is neither essential nor, in itself, adequate to satisfy the limerent need.” When limerent there is instead acute sensitivity and intensity of feeling. Whether the beloved is receptive, averse or indifferent, the lover is deeply in the throes of their entire person, every way and every whim. Limerence is being forced to live in a constant state of inconstancy, grasping, greedy, without self-will.   

*

And it all depends on the individual; no two cases are alike. Everyone is needy while limerent, and for some this manifests itself in flower bouquets or carefully crafted mix tapes, given to the object of one’s affection at a well-lit French bistro or outside an independent record store. Attempting to decimate their need, others go on the offensive, hoping to “tie down” (phrasing!) the love interest and thus rid themselves of their limerent grief, its unsureness. Using words like believe, one and everything, these types are direct. They want to know because, if not, they want to move on.

Still another group deals with their limerence by negotiating a shyness both public and private, near-mute in front of the object of one’s desires and while later lying awake in bed, thinking only about that near-muteness. He should know how I feel, she has to know how I feel, but outright saying something to the object of one’s desire is, of course, impossible. There’s the fear of rejection, sure, but also something greater than that, an absolute involving the self and, elsewhere, everyone else. Lovesickness that mazes around and into and back around again, omnipresent but silent.

*

Facts! Data! History! Definitions and redefinitions and anecdotes! All just words, silly and little, masking, masking.

*

Even now I still don’t know how to write about L, so I’ll describe her bedroom. It was small, ordered. In it there was a sense of frivolity mitigated by a queen-sized bed that sat sentinel in the center of the room like some oblong lump of dissuasion, dirty headboard a solemn shield. Brown comforter, maroon pillowcases enclosing aggressively feather-less pillows, clean white sheets. The bedroom’s ceiling and walls were painted a beautiful deep blue, hardwood floor stained with a million past tenants’ spills and haste. I don’t really care about the contrasts. Interior decoration is a waste of time she said to me early in our relationship, as if my questioning of the room’s color selection was tantamount to admitting that appearances matter only to fickle people who allow them to matter. They mattered to me.    

L was a writer and musician, one interested in critical theory and experimental music. Her desk was covered with neatly organized papers and books. Using the past tense is a cowardly means of allowing myself emotional distance. L is a writer and musician, one interested in critical theory and experimental music.  

*

A distinct childhood memory of mine: aged five or six and preparing to cross a street with my father on my right and my mother on my left. “Hold my hand, sweetheart,” my mother said. “Hold your mom’s hand, honey,” my father said. Turning to my mother, I blanched, made a face, then proceeded to put my own right hand in my own left hand, staunch in my independence. “I can do it myself,” I hissed.

*

We dated for two and a half years, L and I. I fell in love.

*

With her? Or with my self?

Out now from PANK Books

Jeff Alessandrelli on writing And Yet

Jeff Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the poetry collection Fur Not Light (2019), which Kenyon Review called an “example of radical humility … its poems enact a quiet but persistent empathy in the world of creative writing.” Entitled Nothing of the Month Club, an expanded version of Fur Not Light was released in the United Kingdom in 2021. In addition to his writing, Alessandrelli also directs the nonprofit book press/record label Fonograf Editions: jeffalessandrelli.net.

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