“The Lonely Letters” is an autobiofiction in which I attempt to think the relationship of quantum theory, mysticism, relationality, and blackness together by considering the sound and noise of Blackpentecostal spaces. Building on the work in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility—as the project began before and was written during and after the academic book project—the “The Lonely Letters” attempts to think together what might seem to be disparate ways of thinking worlds known and unknown, the religious and the scientific, the noisy and the musical, with hopes of considering the epistemologies of quantum physics as Blackpentecostal. It is about love and heartbreak and hope and joy. It is about sound and subjectivity, about desire and movement. It’s about the sociality of life against the repressions of anti-black, anti-queer violence and violation.
ArtsEverywhere is publishing a selection of these letters. Published thus far: Letters to Moth I
Here’s a quote from this great essay about Ralph Ellison, Albert Einstein and George Jackson written by Lindsey Andrews:
I was lonely and I found these three lonely men. Oh, Ellison: ‘To paraphrase myself, I love you, write me, I’m lonely.’ Dearest Einstein, his ‘lonely ways.’ And Jackson, ‘alone in the most hostile jungle on earth.’ The fundamental condition of writing, of study, is enforced solitude, loneliness. I’ve been thinking of Michael Cobb who writes of the queerness of loneliness, of being alone. And through him I think the queerness of this binding, these men bound together by me is queer in me, through me. And here, too, all the women who are communing with each other, and with these men, as ghosts and at the same time materially real and so far from one another… Lonely, we have come to study together, to write each other.
I’m into this, writing and study about loneliness, aloneness. But, I guess, I’m also bothered by it. It is perhaps why I have been writing you letters, why I have been reading letters – James Baldwin to his nephew, Celie to God and Nettie, N to Angel of Dust, M NourbeSe Philip to the dead who are yet with us. I have been thinking about a theory of the letter and how it is a search for what N calls a broken claim to connection where what is sought after, what is desired, is relationship, what is sought after, what is desired, is that which exceeds the broken claim for and in the service toward establishing connection. And I guess I’ve been thinking about blackness and mysticism because there’s something about the practice of noise making that Blackpentecostals perform that is so mystical to me, that announces a fundamental and deep and moving and abiding connection with one another and the creaturely world.
In such a world, nothing is inanimate, everything moves and vibrates. But western mysticism seems to be so much about renunciation, of the flesh, of the social, before the possibility of discovery of the divine, of the intangible but perhaps felt world. One has to leave the flesh, the social, as a first move in order to hear more precisely, to feel more properly, before reentry into the social in this sorta mystical tradition. We keep thinking that mystics talk about leaving the noise of the world to hear more clearly but what would the noise have been in the medieval era? Certainly not the same noise as one hears in the world today with electricity and cars. It worries me. What was bothering John of Fécamp so much, in other words, that he had to lament?
I’ve been reading lots if Cedric Robinson and have been moved to tears because what he establishes is connection by a reorientation to direction, by just giving up on linearity though he goes through linear history to show its ruse, its uselessness for thinking the black radical tradition. So don’t think I’m picking on Eckhart or Theresa of Avila or St John of the Cross or John of Fécamp.
Robinson and the way he talks about the limits of Marxism helps me think about the radicalism internal to the mysticism even of European traditions but also the delimitation that they cannot get beyond though they move in the path of such an approach. For example, Eckhart believed in the differentiation between the divine and creaturely worlds, that there is a fundamental separation that can perhaps be bridged. There is a difference immeasurable for the divine and the creaturely. But this immeasurable difference emerges from a way to think worlds that presumes difference that is categorical, that such difference could be maintained. So with western mysticism, perhaps similar to what we find in Robinson’s Black Marxism, is the beginning of racial thought and categorization. All right there in European mystical thinking. This immeasurable difference as being possible, as being possibly maintained, as being possibly maintained and thus pure and categorical, would come to mark racialization to come, precedes and functions alongside racialization internal to European thought.
But I’m also thinking that Robinson kept talking about maroons and that perhaps he’s pointing to something that I’ve been ruminating on over and over again. Maybe marronage is a mysticism to which we can attend, a black mysticism, a mysticism of afrodiasporic, indigenous possibility. Maybe I’m after a way to think a mysticism that is about renunciation of the singular, the renouncing of individual-divisible being, the retreat into rather than away from the social, the retreat into the social as the centrifugitive movement away from the subject.
I never wanted to possess you, I wanted to be with you, make the
fact of our entanglement audible, felt, make the fact of our being
co-constituted in otherwise spacetime known. A marronage, with
you, in and as you and I as otherwise than separable. Could it be?
It, the sorta practice of marronage I’m thinking, is against John Locke’s concept of possessive individualism.
And it’s because I’ve seen Moonlight and have been thinking a lot about intimacy and the failure of western epistemologies to capture excess. This, of course, is the gift of excess.
So. Did I tell you about the dude I went to undergrad with that was, this year, flirty as hell with me but also straight(-identified), so wouldn’t own his affections or desires but he kept projecting everything on me? The one I gave a copy of The Price of the Ticket – he said he was a Baldwin fan and I was feeling nice that day and bought him a copy, had it mailed to him. He read a part of it and after he’d read some, called me on the phone – and we’d never talked on the phone once in our lives? – just to talk, about the book and other things? And told me how he couldn’t stop thinking about this one essay, “Here Be Dragons,” how he kept talking about it to everyone he was encountering, so of course I wanted to talk more about it to him. He’s the one that, after talking that one time for about 45 minutes late at night, a week later I sent him a message joking with him that he disappeared after that first convo and he replied that he was “running out of politeness” with me? The one that, after that comment, I haven’t spoken to since because I refuse to be disrespected because he can’t deal with his emotions and desires?
Well, I woke up thinking about him because, I don’t know, that shit hurt my feelings. And I think about it every now and then. I liked him, sure, but I wasn’t making things up. I know it – whatever those brief moments of intensity and interaction – were reciprocal and likely overwhelming for him but I was never never never intense or even too flirty. I guess it was my writing in the book something like “to my new friend” and closing with “xoxo” but why are straight(-identified) men so afraid of shit they start but don’t have the will to finish?
Then it hit me after watching Moonlight: it was the intimacy that bothered him. What’s been so astonishing to me about intimacy, about the way folks talk about Moonlight as “emasculating the black man”™, that intimacies between black men are cause for lament and terror and should be shunned is this: intimacy means connection is possible, that sexuality isn’t something that can be explained away with biogenic conceptualizations of the human, of evolutionary development. Intimacy means that there is something ephemeral that is sought after, desired, that cannot be put into charts, metrics, it cannot be measurable in some sorta “scientific” way. And this, it seems, is the problem, specifically in a world that presumes that science can answer all, a world predicated upon disciplinary knowledge, predicated upon the what Sylvia Wynter calls the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom.
I’m just trying to say: we exist in a world that’d much rather have a scientific explanation for sexuality but intimacy is such that it resists such easy analytics. And this, intimacy, is a gift. It is the gift of resistance. It is the gift of being resistant to being incorporable into western knowledge regimes.
And, truth is, I enjoyed talking to him because I’d been feeling alone and lonely. especially a lot lately. Though you and I have been talking more, it’s still not the thing we had or could have and so loneliness seems to creep up on me in ways I’m not in favor of. And this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy my friends, that their relationships are not sustenance for me; they are integral to how I’ve been able to live. But too much about me.
I enjoyed talking to him because of my feelings of loneliness that often feel like a sorta dispossession or a displacement of sorts. And I’ve been exploring mysticism because I don’t want to be lonely and I was intrigued by the call, the almost forced inhabitation, of loneliness. That’s why I’ve been thinking about Eckhart and John of Fécamp and all those others, to be honest. But then there’s intimacy and it seems to me to be against the kind of forced solitude I’ve been reading in terms of mysticism.
Tell me if I’m wrong, I guess, but maybe intimacy is also about entanglement:
Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance—instead, a quantum state must be described for the system as a whole.
Though quantum entanglement can be measured, what I’m into about it is the way entanglement means that divisibility and seperability emerge from within certain epistemic assumptions about the world and its behavior. Such a world and the assumptive logic is normative. But what of the non-normative? Quantum particles literally queer, they defamiliarize the so-thought familiar through otherwise relationality, what is considered to be normative interaction. Little, Chiron and Black all entangled to and with and in Kevin, all three stages and phases were reducible to Kevin as a sorta grounding for him, for them.
It’s about connection and I write a lot about possibility because I’ve been so disappointed in the world, in both big world historical ways but mostly on the level of the personal. How much is one supposed to endure, is something I think about a lot. It isn’t easy talking about the things I write about because they emerge from so much disappointment. Everything said, everything written, is in search of a connection.
But, admittedly, I’m still learning.
Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist, and Queer theories. His first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.