On Jenny Diski

Jenny Diski was my friend. We exchanged a flood of ideas during her preparations for her 2013 book, What I Don't Know About Animals. I am re-reading parts of our exchange now—the writing, by some sort of magic I’ll never really understand, continues to live. The preoccupations we shared, at least at the time, were: animals; humans; the vague boundaries of what constituted cannibalism (she brought up the rumor that Keith Richards had snorted the ashes of his own father, which plainly trumped my example of tuberculosis patients getting prescriptions, well into the 19th century, to drink the blood of executed prisoners); our reclusiveness; and, occasionally, our day-to-day accomplishments, travails, and happinesses.

1947–2016

Jenny Diski was my friend. We exchanged a flood of ideas during her preparations for her 2013 book, What I Don’t Know About Animals. I am re-reading parts of our exchange now—the writing, by some sort of magic I’ll never really understand, continues to live. The preoccupations we shared, at least at the time, were: animals; humans; the vague boundaries of what constituted cannibalism (she brought up the rumor that Keith Richards had snorted the ashes of his own father, which plainly trumped my example of tuberculosis patients getting prescriptions, well into the 19th century, to drink the blood of executed prisoners); our reclusiveness; and, occasionally, our day-to-day accomplishments, travails, and happinesses.

I do not think the book I helped Jenny to birth is her best, but its focus was also the focus of our friendship, so let me dwell on it. One important thing that I learned from her early in our correspondence (circa 2008), at a time when I was struggling to inhabit convincingly the social role of a philosophy professor, is that it really does not matter in the slightest what philosophy professors think. Why listen to them in particular? I had never considered this question before until I began writing with Jenny, who helped me to realize that it was perhaps the most important new question of my adult life. It had come up regarding J. M. Coetzee’s then-popular The Lives of Animals, and the enthusiasm with which philosophers had taken it up as a blunt pedagogical tool to introduce students to the moral dilemmas of meat eating. Jenny found the book “enragingly self-righteous—and a very lumpy piece of writing.” Then we discussed Martha Nussbaum’s advocacy for the cultivation of our moral faculties through literature.1 “Philosophers drool so easily over novelists,” she wrote. (She made an exception for Stanley Cavell, and what he has to say about animals and humans—Cavell, who does not drool over anyone, who, in Jenny’s words, did not have “a smidgeon of self-righteousness.”)

Much of our correspondence was devoted to discussions of the moral and metaphysical implications of meat-eating. I was at the time doing my best to be a vegetarian, while Jenny may have been considering whether to become one; but the discussion remained at a general level, on what it looked like to be a vegetarian. “Somehow, I can’t separate the position from its expression,” she wrote, by which she meant that vegetarianism as an insufferable social pose was inextricable from holding it as a private stance. This thought was of a piece for her with the one that followed it. “What kept me smoking for so many years: I never wanted to participate in the smugness of the ex-smoker.” Both of these thoughts, in turn, led inevitably to the tautology that underlay them like bedrock: “[. . .] we are what we are. It’s not possible (or attractive) to be better than we are simply by morally withdrawing from the mess.” So this is life, and this, it was starting to dawn on me, is philosophy. It is a bloody mess, and it is wrapped up, of necessity, with death.

Our correspondence tapered off after she finished her book and stopped after she was diagnosed. She produced some of her best writing while ill, really only making explicit in the new circumstances what she always knew: that she had been engaged in the sort of writing that is fundamentally a preparation for death, and that “keep writing” is the only item that could possibly belong on the “bucket list” of one like her. She is certainly not the first person to chronicle her own demise, but she is perhaps one of the few to demonstrate so clearly the continuity of this concluding project with what she had always been doing.

In a stunning testimony written for the Swedish Göteborgs-Posten in 2013, the year before her diagnosis, Jenny invokes the bleak wisdom of Beckett’s line, “Birth was the death of him.” She wonders with Nabokov why we do not worry about the infinite abyss a parte ante, before we were born. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Why should the one that follows this temporary interruption of nothingness be any worse? Well, the thing about it is that now we’ve wallowed in the mess of life, and only slowly, in the process of what is called “maturing,” come to feel the way death looms over all of it. Thomas Bernhard had said that death makes everything, notably all this spilling of words, “ridiculous” (Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt), but for Jenny the death-horizon was, if not exactly something to rejoice about, at least an existential condition that had its own consolation. It demanded that one not waste one’s life in boredom, nor get too distracted by, nor place too much hope in, sex, drugs, long walks, or anything else that “palls, eventually,” but instead that one must respond to death in writing, by being a writer.

She seems to have recognized the magic, to which I’ve already alluded, in the way our word traces outlive us, but found less consolation in this than I do, now, in reading her words: as long as there has been writing, there has been solid evidence that people, sometimes even people we’ve known and loved, have done perfectly fine in the world before we came along to join them. Weird, but aren’t these same records what bind the dead and the living? Aren’t your words, now, Jenny, a sort of afterlife? (Here, she would no doubt respond with an unattributed variation on Woody Allen’s line, that he does not want to live on in his works, but in his apartment.)

Jenny was a pessimist and a misanthrope of heroic dimensions. But let me qualify that. Let me redefine “misanthropy” for my own purposes, and for Jenny’s memory. Like many people who largely retreat from the world and have some trouble dealing with it, she was so much more lucid and funny about human strivings and failures than those who are happily immersed in it. I always think of her 2003 review of Catherine Blackledge’s The Story of V. Jenny describes her own efforts in the early 1970s to work with the 12- and 13-year-old boys in a juvenile halfway house, called the Free School, neighboring a London feminist center run by “bourgeois hippy adventurers,” and the differences in goals and desires that separated these two groups:

One night I was in the Free School late. I saw a light on in the women’s hut and went to have a look. A window had been forced open. One of the younger boys from the school was standing in the middle of the room, masturbating furiously, his eyes fixed intently on a large, full-color wall poster of a wide-open vulva with a sassy feminist slogan underneath about men not being required. It seemed not so much vicious as funny and sad.

Mocking of human self-seriousness but charitable to human beings themselves, Jenny offered a living example of how, sometimes, compassion can be born of misanthropy. That is the person who comes across in a passage such as this. The writer who comes across is the one who understands, as a writer must, that what is funny is sad, and vice versa, and the writer’s task is to draw out this identity, where the blunt-minded ideologue or ordinary person can only perceive the one face of things or the other.

Jenny had continental Jewish roots and a rough London childhood. She spent time in institutions, and was also taken in, and eventually expelled, by Doris Lessing. She had a daughter, Chloe, with a first husband, Roger Diski, who drowned while swimming in Sierra Leone in 2011. She had a second husband, Ian Patterson, to whom she always referred as “the Poet,” who by all accounts, notably her own, made the last eighteen years of her life the happiest ones. She wrote roughly a dozen novels, and seven or so works of non-fiction. One of her novels, Monkey’s Uncle (1994), is in part narrated by an orangutan named Jenny, who picnics with Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Her debt to Kafka, and to Mitteleuropa in general, comes through here, as also, I suspect, some evidence of her true position relative to her own species. She told me at one point how happy it had made her to learn that “Jenny” was a popular name for orangutans in 19th-century zoos. Her living body of work reads to me now like something of an extended “Report to an Academy”: an Academy made up of human beings who, for whatever complicated reasons (genetics, developmental psychology, destiny) always remained somewhat strange to her. And from the lifelong feeling of being not quite a human being, Jenny illuminated for us (with words that are still alive) the mystery of what it is, or what it would be, to be one.

  1. An earlier version of this piece referred mistakenly to Cora Diamond’s writings on Kafka. The writing referred to is about animals, but does not mention Kafka. We regret the error. —Eds 

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