Olivia Laing on the Pain, Pleasure, and Power of Inhabiting a Body

Her latest, "Everybody," is a comprehensive and contemporary look at the struggle for bodily freedom

Black and white photo of feminine head, neck, and shoulders, seen from above so that it resembles an abstract shape
Photo by Jairo Alzate

To write about the body can be a difficult task—inhabiting a body is something that we all experience (albeit differently), and yet pinning down what this is like can feel like trying to grab hold of smoke. There is something especially perilous or perplexing about navigating the ways in which the body is at once a site of pain, anxiety, and fragility, as well as one of immense pleasure and potential, the site at which we make contact with and even reshape the world. 

It is this knot that Olivia Laing untangles with care in her newest book, Everybody: A Book About Freedom, with an eye toward both the history of bodily struggle in the 20th century, and the unique challenges of a contemporary world in which the body feels acutely under threat. Everybody chases after the vexing ideal of bodily freedom, asking how our bodies mediate the experience of our surroundings, carry our histories and affects, and might also be used to propel us toward better, more equal and open futures. Reading it at this particularly precarious moment feels like unearthing some long-held, buried truths about ones’ own body and the embodied histories in which we are always entangled.

If you have encountered Laing’s writing before—she is best known for The Lonely City, as well as the novel Crudo and last summer’s essay collection Funny Weather—then it will come as no surprise to you that Everybody is both timely and attentive to the long roots of history, both complex and accessible, as well as lyrical and instructive. Armed with a wellspring of research that spans 20th-century Germany, Britain, and the United States, from philosophy to psychology, art, medicine, and activism, Laing cuts a path through the difficult business of our bodily lives. Her writing is as incisive as ever, and alive to the intricate, often messy and traumatic, realities of being a human in this fragile and fluctuating vessel through which life takes shape. “A free body need not be whole or undamaged or unaugmented,” she writes in the final chapter. “It is always changing, changing, changing, a fluid form after all.” Laing imagines what a world without the constant threat of bodily harm might look like and offers object lessons in how we might reach for it.

I spoke with her over Zoom at the end of April, not long before the publication of Everybody, to discuss her understanding of bodily freedom and its bearing on our current moment.

Tia Glista: So the book begins and ends with recollections of your own coming-of-age and coming into the body itself. I wonder what it was like revisiting that person, that version of yourself or period in your life, and trying to unearth something about your own past, amid this larger network of stories and bodies?

It feels as if people will always want to limit other peoples’ freedoms based on the kind of bodies they inhabit.

Olivia Laing: I keep joking that I could have called the book My Nineties because it feels like so many of the preoccupations that I’m exploring have their roots in what I was doing in my twenties, during the 1990s. That includes things like protest, but also working as a herbalist and being very involved in illness. Sick bodies and resistant bodies. So the large themes of the book were really set up back then. My books always contain elements of memoir but are never actual memoirs, because I find writing memoir both difficult and boring. It—”it” being the investigation into the subject—isn’t about me. What I do think is important, though, as with previous work, is to declare my own investment. If I’m talking about other people’s experiences with mortality, with sexuality, with violence, then it feels right and ethical that I should take the same sort of risks with regard to revelation, in order to lay bare the difficult regions of our bodily lives.

TG: The idea of bodily freedom can sound so huge and nebulous, though. I am curious, firstly, how you found your path through this topic, and secondly, how your notion of what bodily freedom is changed from when you started the project, to its completion?

OL: It’s definitely the hardest book I’ve written and it felt like I had an enormous amount of very difficult material to process. But there was also a technical problem when I started, which is that it was the beginning of the Trump years, the beginning of the rise of the far right and Brexit, which is to say a very febrile period in history. It felt like the news was so unsettling, and that the entire concept of truth and reality was being undermined. I didn’t feel like I could write from the stable platform that nonfiction requires. This is why I ended up writing Crudo, to pour out some of those feelings and try and pin down what that unstable, unreal, intensely frightening moment felt like. After that, I was able to draw back and start writing Everybody. 

Really, it was the character of Wilhelm Reich who allowed me to tell the story in a coherent way, because his own life strayed through so many resonant regions of bodily experience. He takes us through illness, through sexuality, through sexual violence, anti-fascist activism and imprisonment. Having him as a guide meant that I could organize the material, and stray out to encounter other characters, who, it must be said, I sometimes found much more sympathetic or alluring than Reich. What really drew me to him was two things—his belief that our bodies are affected by and contain the traumatic material of our past, both personally and politically, and his belief that our bodies are full of power and can change the political structures in which we are embedded or entrapped. As a writer, I was also drawn by the enormous range of his life, and what sort of places he as a subject could take me to.

What a freedom movement needs to do is enlarge freedoms for all bodies.

In answer to your second question, I went to some very troubling places while researching Everybody, including an enormous amount of material on torture, sexual violence, genocide and incarceration. I wanted to look back at the 20th century to understand why our bodies are so difficult to inhabit, why certain types of bodies are subject to so much violence and limitation, but I also wanted to draw out materials from the history of the great liberation struggles that might be useful for people now: for readers now and for activists now. The real lesson of the book is that none of this stuff has gone away. I mean, it’s publishing into the moment of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. It feels as if people will always want to limit other peoples’ freedoms based on the kind of bodies they inhabit, and so the struggle for liberation continues, because it must. In some ways, that’s the most depressing lesson of the book but I also think there’s something encouraging about it. Once we relinquish the notion of permanently secured victories, once we accept that these are going to be ongoing struggles, then I think it becomes easier to play your part without giving in to despair. The struggle for freedom has not been lost. It continues and continues, well before and well beyond our individual lifespans.

TG: One of the many things that I found so clear-eyed and important about your approach to the subject of freedom was how you are very careful to parse the ways in which what might feel like freedom or a transgression of the rules, isn’t necessarily the same thing as a kind of political act of making freedom, or of making room for other bodies, and can even go so far as to harm other bodies. And so in the book there is both this kind of gap between a personal, embodied sense of freedom, and a larger political struggle for freedom, but they are also interlocked. Can you say more about this relationship and how you make sense of it?

OL: I’m really happy you picked up on that—you’re the first interviewer who’s drawn that out specifically, and it feels very important to me. Freedom isn’t just about doing whatever you want, and it is so interesting to be thinking about this in terms of the protests against wearing masks that are happening at the moment. “I don’t wanna wear a mask, why should I wear a mask?” Because the wearing of the mask is something that protects other peoples’ bodies! So there’s a sense in which freedom movements that are about being able to do what you want but involve limiting other people’s freedoms cannot be regarded truly as a freedom movement. What a freedom movement needs to do is enlarge freedoms for all bodies. Making that distinction felt really crucial to me and part of the way that I did it was by looking at, of all people, the Marquis de Sade, a figure who is sometimes celebrated—perhaps particularly by literary men of the 20th century—as the great voice of freedom, the libertine who explored what liberty means. Looking at de Sade really helped me to differentiate between these two models of freedom, and to see that if your liberty involves taking liberties with other peoples’ bodies, again, it’s not a freedom movement. This is so alive right now with movements like #metoo—we are seeing it all the time.

TG: Absolutely—and you write about incarceration and movements for prison abolition, which are importantly coming up more now as well.

So, speaking of the Marquis de Sade, there is quite a cast of incredible people and voices featured in the book, from Reich, to Susan Sontag, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Freud. I’ve heard you say that much of your work is about the idea of “contact” and I wonder when you write so intimately about these historical figures, whether there is a kind of sense of contact or friendship that you experience in any way, and more broadly, have these figures continued to accompany you in your life and thinking, after the writing process?

OL: Yeah, I wanted that cast to be present in the book really physically as bodies and I kept pushing that. So Freud was there in the beginning as a really quite abstract presence, as the fountainhead of ideas, when actually so much of what was going on with Freud and Freud’s battle with Reich is to do with Freud as a sick body. Freud was somebody who was in intense pain—he had cancer of the jaw and in the final decade of his life was often in agony. Look, ideas don’t emerge from nowhere, they arrive embodied. They come from people who are living bodies, who have sexual lives and domestic lives, who may experience pain or violence in different ways, and I wanted to make that aspect of the history of ideas visible. So these are big thinkers of the 20th century, but they’re also there as physical presences, who get sick, who have sex, who suffer, who experience wild pleasure.

As for the sense of company or contact, when I said that I was probably referring to The Lonely City and its central character, David Wojnarowicz, with whom I felt an enormous connection and with whom I had a special kind of intimacy because of working in a very specific archive, where I could listen to his voice, handle his materials and so on. But the people in Everybody are much more difficult characters. In a lot of ways, they’re less likeable, and at the same time I felt real tenderness for them. I mean, Nina Simone came across as just a heroic figure—a difficult figure, but a heroic figure. The other person who I felt startlingly drawn to was Andrea Dworkin, who I didn’t know all that much about. I remembered her from the ’90s as somebody on the other side of the porn wars and as somebody who feminists of my stripe really felt antagonistic towards. Coming back to her now, in the light of the world we’re in at this moment, reading her on domestic violence, reading her on rape, on sexual violence, and reading her incantatory, weird, chilling, sometimes hilarious writing style, I just felt electrified by her. Once again, I didn’t always agree with her. But her writing was extraordinary and her courage was extraordinary. She gave this talk “The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door,” over and over again, and every time she gave it, people talked to her about their own stories—she became the repository of this enormous amount of communal pain and she held that in her body. I think everybody who dismissed her or who mocked her really needs to pull back and think about what it actually might be like to carry that weight of testimony inside them. So that was somebody I felt immense tenderness towards.

TG: There is something that I think will especially resonate with readers right now about bodily freedom, in the midst of continuing lockdowns. What do you think that the idea of bodily freedom might mean or look like in a post-pandemic world, and on a lighter note is there anything that is at the top of your list to do again when it is safe to do so?

Ideas don’t emerge from nowhere, they arrive embodied. They come from people who are living bodies, and I wanted to make that aspect of the history of ideas visible.

OL: In England, we’re just coming out of a very, very long lockdown, so we still can’t have people in our houses and we’re quite limited in what we can do. It’s been fascinating watching the lockdown protests. Seeing that worldview feels very disturbing, seeing all of the anti-vaccine stuff, and again, this suspicion around the idea of having to do something that might be communally good but individually frustrating. Sometimes, for the larger freedom, we have to limit our own individual freedoms. Freedom is not a zero-sum game and I think that’s something that is really important to remember when people are saying “I don’t want to give this group its freedoms, because it’s going to limit mine.” To me, the work of freedom sometimes includes an element of relinquishing the very individualistic desire for particular personal freedom, which is permanently fed by capitalism, and thinking much more about how we exist as a network, how we exist as a community, how we exist globally. This is especially true in terms of climate change—the freedom to drive or fly everywhere also equals the freedom to destroy the planet.

As for what I want to do… I want to see my friends! I want to see my friends, I want to talk in rooms with other people, I want to be able to be back into the swing and seduction of a bodily life, and especially an urban bodily life among strangers as well as people I’m close to. That’s what I feel like I really long for.

TG: You end the book by taking up the ways in which the student protestors in Hong Kong substituted the word “dreaming” for “protest” to get by censors, and then you deploy dreaming a few times as well. Can you tell me more about that ending, and about where dreams are taking you now? For example, I have heard that your next project is on utopias and it seems as though the end of Everybody really sets up such fertile ground for that idea.

OL: I feel so sad about that ending because I wrote it when those kids were still free and their stories have changed so much now—they’re facing prison sentences and very frightening futures. I think they’re so heroic and extraordinary. That’s an aside, but it feels really important to say because it troubles me each time I read it. Their brave dreaming.

I feel like my books always end with an unanswered question or an emerging preoccupation. When I finished The Lonely City I realized there was a huge amount going on with people’s bodies that I wanted to look at more explicitly. And this book very much ends with the question of the future a free body might create. Well, what is this paradise? What is this better world that we can build? What would it actually look like? So my new book is about paradise and utopia, and especially the question of whether there is a possibility of a common, communal shared paradise, a society for all. So I’ll be looking back and asking what kinds of dreams people have had, not just in the 20th century, but in the 17th century, the 18th century. What were the medieval dreams of paradise? What kind of Eden could we dream in a climate change world? And so that’s the question that I’m looking at now and that’s the kind of dreaming that I want to think about. It’s utterly necessary to protest the catastrophes and cruelties that are happening in our own times but a part of us also has to be thinking about the kind of future we want to build, or I think we’re always fighting rearguard actions and that becomes very draining. We must dream too.

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