Jane Feaver on Tracey Emin


Every Part of Me Kept Loving You, 2018 © Tracey Emin


Stupidly good: Satan, Tracey Emin and me


Preamble


In Paradise Lost, Book IX, Satan, intent on the destruction of mankind, comes across Eve on her own, and can't believe his luck: she, he well knows, is the weaker, more susceptible of the species. The rest (as we all know) is history. But the way Milton goes on to relate the encounter affords us a magical suspension of that foreknowledge. He entertains the distinct possibility that things might turn out differently for her (and for us), revisiting, re-imagining the moment when Eve's very presence, her beauty, her innocence...


"…her every air

Of gesture or least action overawed

His malice, and with rapine sweet bereaved

His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:

That space the evil one abstracted stood

From his own evil, and for the time remained

Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed,

Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge..."


The scene is woozy with oxymoron – "rapine sweet", "stupidly good" – a device that puts two seemingly contradictory elements into a ring and watches how they play out; a spontaneous, textually discrete interaction that gives the impression that what transpires is down to the character and agency of each word, preserved from the interference of author, fate or gods. It is exactly the freedom accorded in this moment to Satan and Eve.


Stupidly good


In a force field of opposition, words have only their own resources to fall back upon. At one moment "good" dominates, good as the axis of a moral universe with its chemical power to draw "fierce" from "fierceness", "evil" from "devil"; "stupid" driven back to its latinate root, stupere – to be stunned, dazed, intoxicated. The oxymoron provides a narrative stasis, a concussion that returns Satan to childlike innocence.[1]


But, in another moment, like a see-saw, the weight is on the other foot. "Good", weakened as it's been by overuse (as one of the most commonly applied adjectives of all time), is effectively punctured by "stupidly", producing a reading where to be good is to be stupid. The cynicism is Satan's, but, in our postlapsarian state, it's a point of view readily available to us, too.


I studied this part of Paradise Lost for A level decades ago and, of all the scenes, all the books, I have read since, this one has stayed with me, "stupid" and "good" rolling around in my head as a north and a south, as if by those words a life had been governed.


Case study

Tracey Emin and I were born fifteen months apart, she in 1963, me in 1964. We could have been sisters, except, in the biological sense, of course we are not. She was the second of twins; I the eldest of four siblings. She was born in the south, to a seemingly well-off family: her father had been successful in property and at that time owned a seventy-bedroomed hotel on the Margate seafront. I was born in the north into a family where our father had given up the security of a job as a teacher to try his hand at journalism.


At around the age of ten, Tracey's family had combusted. Her father, who, in the end, had featured only fleetingly in her life, had gone bankrupt, leaving her mother with nothing and with two children to bring up alone. Our family at that time was ostensibly intact. We'd moved to London when I was nine, and, though we were trained to believe we were poor, we had a roof over our heads, attended church schools and were cushioned by grandparents who were essentially middle class.


I was a good girl; incredibly good. As the eldest, I was expected to set an example, and took my role seriously. I didn't cry or make demands; wasn't fussy about food. Good girl: a pat on the head, the imprimatur of satisfactory behaviour – something or someone, as the dictionary puts it, worthy of approval. There was a time when, seriously, I worried I might be singled out for the next virgin birth.


But it was Eve who was the original good girl, the good girl who made a stupid mistake for which any of us brought up within orbit of the myth, and made in her image, would feel the need to atone. From the earliest age I was armed with a lively sense of shame, a warm and glowing element easily activated. Stupid, in our house, was the worst thing you could be. Stupid, gormless, moronic, the very antithesis of our father, whose cleverness and judgement were beyond compare. Gormless was his word. "Don't be so gormless" when my sister in her last year at primary school couldn't tell him the dates of the Second World War. It was worse than ugly, worse than bad. Stupid cow was bandied between the two oldest of us girls as a kind of casual acknowledgement that the other was in the room. Between the four of us we developed our own feral monitoring system: bloodyfuckingshitandhell, our mantra, though it was often remarked upon by visitors how extraordinarily good we were, lined up quietly on the sofa like little Victorians.


*****


I wouldn't have come across Tracey Emin had she not been famous; famous at first for being bad, and, if certain arbiters of the art establishment were to be believed (and I was primed to believe them), for being stupid. She had a celebrated squalid bed, a tent into whose walls were stitched the countless people she'd been to bed with. She and I lived, or so it seemed, distinctly non-contiguous lives, and yet, over the next twenty years or so, every now and again she'd brush up against the walls of my own nondescript tent like a creature in the dark and on the loose.

In the late 1990s I watched her on TV, drunk and disorderly after a dinner for the Turner Prize. She was floundering in a room of men, a type immediately familiar to me. Our father, who, some years before, had left home, spectacularly, before any of us did, was now a successful art critic. It would have been no surprise to find him there, one of the pundits called upon to address the question, "Is painting dead?".


"How many artists are here?" Tracey slurred, pointing her finger, muttering about wanting to be with her friends. "Who's watching this programme anyway?" she asked. "Are they real?" The critics weren't engaged or listening any longer. "Get this fucking mike off me!" she clucked and squawked. They were as dismissively amused as I, on their behalf, was appalled. So indoctrinated was I in the art of propitiating such men that her behaviour seemed a kind of blasphemy. Stupeo, stupere, stupui, stupidum.


While Tracey was sounding off, misbehaving, I joggled a one-year-old daughter on my knee. I'd got pregnant and hastily married the baby's father, a man who knew everything, as undomesticated and unknowable as Heathcliff, as Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger. I was schooled in such men, setting myself the allotted task: to get him to love me, determined I was good for it, that my persistence against all odds would make it good.


Until this baby came along, nothing else had come close to curing me of the infatuation or the belief.[2] When she arrived, in the unprecedented concussion of childbirth, it was a shock so powerful it woke me up: as if a birth could be in effect a re-birth, a passing down of the original birth from Eve, through a multiplicity of great-great-great grandmothers, to a grandmother, a mother, to me, to me as mother, to her. A jolt strong enough to re-set the clock. A is for Apple. Before stupid, before good: this was love, pure and unadulterated, before the apple was ever eaten.


*****


In 2007 Tracey Emin's career was crowned: she was only the second female artist to be chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. I knew this because our father had married the woman whose job it was to choose the artist. Apparently, they'd all become great friends. Tracey this, Tracey that, Tracey worrying about the thread count on Egyptian cotton sheets. It made me wonder how she could be in favour and get away with the things that had been denied to us – being loud and demanding, drinking, misbehaving, having sex.

I'd barely been abroad; I'd never been to Venice. I'd become what I'd never envisaged I would be, a divorcee, a single mother, and the shame of being so was ten times greater in rural Devon, where we'd come to live, than it had been in Peckham. This is what it felt like to be tainted, to be bad: I was called "Mrs" with religious irony; at the school gates, I was warned off husbands. God the father, God the son. It had been everywhere, at home, in my so-called education, my job, my every relation to the world, a constant grooming that had given me a taste for subjugation, for annihilation even; it was laced into my DNA. How easy now it was to revert to type, taking to the task of proving just how good I was and living like a nun.


But, secretly and furtively, I'd begun to write. That childhood; those three siblings; the toxic breakup of our parents' marriage; the wreckage of mine. I was trying to explain how it felt. My novel, thinly disguised, was published, and a modest success, favourably reviewed, though not by my father, who didn't speak to me for years.


*****


I was feeling bad, and I was feeling buried. In a bid to try harder at writing, which seemed to me the one and perhaps the only way I could right it, I enrolled in a course at the local university. There was a glorious frisson to being a novice again, a heightened state of receptivity, recognising from my youth the testosterone mustiness of an academic library. Pleased to meet you.[3] Our professor, who came down from London, was reassuringly familiar, hailing from that tribe of intellectually superior men who were tricky to handle and always right. It seemed a remarkable coincidence that one of the tales he told us was the story of how he'd fallen out with Tracey Emin.


Tracey Emin?


Yes. The same Tracey, who, for all our father saw of me, might as well, for all he saw and talked of her, have been his daughter (I know; I know. Put away childish things!).

In a review of a show of hers, our professor had asked: "Is it possible to be a conceptual artist and also very stupid?" A public feud had ensued. Incontinence pads, among other things, the professor claimed, had turned up in his post. I was agog. Here was a man with the same intellectual heft as my father, who saw in Tracey exactly that quality I'd been brought up to despise. And, because by my father I had been ghosted, sunk, it was some petty form of redress: if I was trained to acquiesce, pathologically unable not to please, there was nothing to stop me switching allegiance from one clever man to the next. Never mind suffrage, feminism and sisterhood: who did Tracey Emin think she was?


*****


Why am I telling you this? Until very recently, I didn't give Tracey Emin another thought. We were, after all, poles apart, she busy swerving "good", me "bad"; each of us trying in our own ways to bat off "stupid".


In September 2020, I bought a second-hand copy of Strangeland (2005), a collection of her autobiographical writing. It is irresistible in its rawness and eagerness to lay things bare, documenting a childhood in Margate; a reconnection with a feckless, charming father; ambition and abortion, bodies and how they do or don't function. But it is not until the third and last part of the book that I am brought up short. "For years", Emin confesses, "I was ashamed of my name. Tracey was synonymous with 'stupid'."

Stupid cow! I hear it like an echo at the bottom of a well. How it trips off the tongue, this casual misogyny. It's in the tiny particles we breathe, it's in our bloodstreams, and the knowledge of my own susceptibility, pandering all those years to powerful men, radiates through me like a golden dye.


I was looking out reviews of Strangeland, when, quite by chance, I came across one by our father. It is pre-Venice, and the tone is characteristically sardonic: "Why not go easy on all that baggage?" he asks, a question that finds its mark as if it might just as easily have been levelled at me.


Baggage. The word enters the language via French in the fifteenth century: the packages of property you'd take with you on a journey. By the sixteenth century its uses, in describing those things that are burdensome, have become irresistibly figurative: rubbish, refuse, putrid matter, meanings that, though deemed "obsolete", persist like greasy stains. By the seventeenth, baggage has settled on its preferred gender: "a worthless good-for nothing woman… a strumpet". It is applied "familiarly or playfully" to any young woman, the dictionary tells us, "especially in collocation with artful, cunning, sly, pert, saucy, silly, etc." That "familiar"; that "playful"! - are we to be reassured? As if, though all those attributes resound with negative or manipulative intent, no harm is meant. Duplicity, frivolity, stupidity is what, after all, since Eve we have done best.

Baggage: it is the fall-out of our female lives, messy, squalid and faintly ridiculous[4]. Baggage: the things that should be kept under the bed or taken to the bottom of a garden and discreetly burned.


Why not go easy on all that baggage? A simple question – flippant and dismissive – by which, all these years later, we find ourselves, Tracey and me, quite by accident, framed in the same telescopic lens. As if, hitherto, it has been in some party's interest, all those years, to keep us apart.


Nearing an end


Over the last few months, I've actively sought Tracey out, watched interviews, videos of exhibitions and documentaries. Like other artists and writers, dead or alive, whose reputations make their work accessible, I've been able to get to know her in a peculiarly intimate way. We are both beyond that flush of youth when life seemed eternal. She has married (as I would marry in a flash) a stone, a rock she has fallen in love with at her villa in the south of France. Just before Christmas in 2020, I catch her on the radio, the distinctive lisp and lilt of her voice. The purpose of the interview is to talk about her new show, an exhibition of her own work alongside paintings by Edvard Munch, an artist who, for his power to evoke feeling, she has long admired. But what the interviewer can't resist is a question about Emin's own recent illness, an aggressive form of cancer. How is she coping?Tracey speaks openly and matter-of-factly about the necessary butchery that has been done to her body; she's had multiple organs removed; has had to have a stoma. But she explains how happy she feels now; happier, she says, than she's ever been. She says that if she could make a Faustian pact and were offered the choice between keeping her organs or giving them up and being happy she'd chose the latter.


This has me by the throat. Something bursts; something melts. Belief floods through me at a bravery that isn't distinct from her art, a boldness to show it as it is, a willingness and ability to use herself as a conduit to unlock for us our own neuroses. I am reminded of George Eliot's writing on empathy, and look the essay up: the idea that the artist ought to provide "a picture of human life…[that] surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves..."[5]

In an online version, "apart from" is rendered, "a part from". The slip in this case is instructive. It allows a reading that is less didactically and morally inclined than Eliot's, and perhaps more psychologically true: art triggering a response in us that heightens our attention not to something that is "apart" from ourselves but to that "part" in ourselves; it's like an inoculation, a heightening which in turn, as Eliot says, accentuates and extends our sympathies beyond.


There's a moment, when, in Oslo, searching through Munch's watercolours, Tracey has to move away from the table, overwhelmed by the connection, her tears in danger of contaminating the paper and its delicate paint. It is an emotional, embodied response, the jolt of being up close, the separation between her and him so fine it is almost transparent. Strong stuff, like whisky: those who develop a taste for it, thirst for it.[6] It is a relationship predicated on an expectation of and commitment to searching out truth, a fermentation, a distillation; a willingness to be put on and in the line of fire.


Conclusion


The text of "Why I Never Became A Dancer" is reproduced as a poem in Strangeland, but its true life and energy is generated by the flickery, evocative images that accompany and extend it in the short film Emin made in 1995. The camera is hand-held, shaky, corrupted with hairs and fluff and leaking light. A soundtrack opens with running feet and breathlessness, the camera arriving at the school gates as Tracey voices over, "I never liked school – I was always late". We have no choice but to inhabit her viewpoint, the "I", looking out on the world as she does through the Technicolor images of the film she presents us with. Unlike the very personal arc of her story, the film maintains the generalised objectivity of a travelogue, whose intention appears to be to foreground Margate, not Tracey. There is a playfulness between the disjunction and coming-together of these strands, voice and image weaved together to provide an oblique commentary, one on the other. Over a hotch-potch of sand and sun, of promenade, of eateries and amusements, Tracey relates how, at thirteen, she leaves school and discovers sex. She enjoys it, she says, the freedom and escape of it, though it isn't always a happy experience. It's not until she's fifteen that she begins to question the motives of those mostly older boys and men who seek her out. Instead of sex, she throws her body into dancing, which she's good at, so confident in her ability that she enters the regional rounds of the British Disco Championship.


Although the images remain saturated in the particularities of place – The Mermaid Grill Restaurant, the phallic tower of the Lido leisure centre – the story has taken on the familiar structure of a morality or fairy tale. While the camera is occupied outside, Tracey relays to us the drama going on inside the hall: she's doing well, she's being clapped, she thinks she might just win. Until a chant starts up at the back of the room from a gang of blokes, "most of whom", she says, "I'd had sex with at some time or other": "SLAG, SLAG, SLAG." They don't let up, and soon the cry overwhelms the people clapping and she flees the dancefloor. At this point camera and voiceover, which have been divertingly out of kilter, meet up again. The camera dives with Tracey down the steps out of the dance hall as she tells us she's decided to leave Margate for good. In a final whistle-stop tour of the town, a disco track is cued in, and, over it, a litany of names. "Shane, Eddie, Tony, Doug, Richard", she says, "This one's for you!".

As reproduced in Strangeland, the poem ends here, and, with nothing else in our sights, we are thrown backwards, assuming that "this one's for you" refers to the creation of the poem itself. It doesn't quite work: the writing isn't strong enough to generate or bear the kind of triumph implicit in that declaration. But the film is an entirely different matter. Over the joyous falsetto of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", we are transported to a change of location, a bare studio, nothing but a boombox on the floor from which the song is seen to emanate. There's a big shift in point of view. Subject (Tracey) becomes object (Tracey). Where, before, Tracey has been the consciousness behind the camera, now the camera is placed in our hands. We are invited to watch and document a performance. There was a time, when I'd have resisted: called her a show-off; too much in love with herself. All my screwy internalised puritanism – the requirement to be good; to be inconspicuous – would have kicked off. Because, by accepting the camera, you are put in place of a friend or a lover or a sister who has no choice but to follow Tracey for the last extended part of the film.


She is older, though still young, and is dancing on her own. She didn't win the competition, but, evidently, it didn't stop her dancing, dancing in cut-off jeans and a red shirt, dancing as if she's tumbling the length and breadth of the room. Every now and again she catches our eye and smiles in wry delight, a thumbs up that irresistibly includes us. You make me feel mighty real. There is something poignantly contradictory about having a disco, which conjures a crowded dancefloor, on your own. When most of our narratives drive us into the arms of someone else, the ability to be alone, and be happy to boot, is a triumph. The story has been overturned and taken possession of. The disco moment is prolonged, pitching the film's title, "Why I Never Became A Dancer", against evidence that spells out the contrary. This time she is dancing on her own terms, able to co-opt the quality she discovered in teenage dancing – a freedom that as she puts it defied gravity – and make it stand as a condition for life.


Why did it take me so long to come round; to recognise in Tracey not so much a rival or a threat but a necessary part of myself? It isn't too late (only habit makes it seem so), clambering out of the oxymoron into which our two heads have been knocked, picking myself up as Satan does, "gratulating" (that lovely word, which means to express joy at something, to welcome, hail, salute). Not squashed, not abandoned, not reduced. Not God's; not anyone's. This is a glimpse of how it feels to be real: to be alive. The dancing is singing, is writing, is throwing paint; the histories and the legacies, that wretched requirement to be good, swept up and off their feet.


[1] Compare: "He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex – a guy revealed like that." "Cat Person", Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker, 4 December, 2017.

[2] This little babe, so few days old, has come to rifle Satan’s fold! [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfgmjtukS7g

[4] A handbag! Oscar Wilde deploys it as the most comic of female objects, the bottomless pit in which manuscripts and babies become interchangeable.

[5] "The Natural History of German Life", Westminster Review, 1856

[6] For a writerly example, see Tove Ditlevsen's Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency (Penguin, 2021)



Jane Feaver is a novelist and short story writer, most recently of Crazy (Corsair, 2021). Her essay "What am I? On reacquaintance with John Clare’s ‘I am’ in times of Covid-19" was published last year in Poetry Review.