White Light/White Heat, by Moyra Davey

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May 2020 Issue [Readings]

White Light/White Heat


From “Burn the Diaries,” an essay in the collection Index Cards, which will be published this month by New Directions.


In a volume of interviews, Jean Genet reconstructs the story of his life. The narrative differs in his various retellings, swayed by discrepancies of memory and the desire for an ever more perfect story.

The white of the paper is an artifice that’s replaced the translucency of parchment and the ocher surface of clay tablets; but the ocher and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mar them.

The murkiness and ambiguities of a life take on weight and authority by virtue of the published document. Perhaps this is what Genet meant when he said that there is more truth in the whiteness surrounding all those black characters than in the meticulously transcribed words themselves.


Asked about the moment when he realized he’d be a writer, Genet told of buying a postcard in prison to send to a German friend:

The side I was supposed to write on had a sort of white, grainy texture, a little like snow, and it was this surface that led me to speak of a snow that was of course absent from prison, to speak of Christmas, and instead of writing just anything, I wrote to her about the quality of that thick paper. That was it: the trigger that allowed me to write.


Christopher Hitchens was brave in death and said he had no regrets about the drinking and smoking that caused his illness: writing was the most important thing to him, and the late nights and the talk were part of it. Genet, Dennis Potter, Hervé Guibert, Hitchens, and David Rakoff wrote prolifically through terminal illness. Writing was all they cared about. From Genet’s The Declared Enemy:

I had to work almost in a blaze, and almost day and night.

On the endpapers of a notebook from 1988, a year before he died of AIDS complications, Mark Morrisroe wrote a litany of fuck-yous to all his friends, including Pat Hearn.

Still another thing: I don’t have any more paper . . . Would you try to procure some (preferably a very thick school exercise book, because I write on my knees since there’s no table).


From Hermione Lee’s “How to End It All”:

When the ambulance arrived, [Larkin] looked up at Monica wildly, begging her to destroy his diaries.

The dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold on to time. The inversion of this neurosis is the anxiety of being read, the fear of wounding, and just as strong, the dread of being unmasked. William Godwin kept up a daily discipline and passed it on to his daughter, Mary Shelley. But Godwin’s diary was the furthest thing from waste: he was cryptic, minimalist in the extreme, using dashes and dots to indicate sex. On the day Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died, he simply recorded the time of death.

Dennis Potter:

I put my papers in order.

Virginia Woolf, suicide note:

Will you dispose of all my papers?

Sigmund Freud:

He destroyed his papers.

I think of burning, but I prefer the image of burial and water, as either of these seems slightly less absolute, in the sense that the book might survive, albeit in an altered form: as per Genet, no words or letters, just the bluish white of the page. Maurice Toesca, quoted in Genet by Edmund White:

Today I transmitted to Genet a packet of blank pages on which he can write.


Except for a brief walk by the stream, I live on the couch with Prisoner of Love, Genet’s last book. I also methodically read through the diary I began on April 2, 2011.

In an email, Alison asks: “What is the connection inside you between Genet and the hills of Wyoming?”

I instantly think: sun, heat, desert, bleaching white light. The white of the page. For Genet, it was the Middle East and North Africa, where he’s buried in the sands of Larache, overlooking the sea. A note scrawled in the dark while watching Lawrence of Arabia:

What do you like about the desert? It’s clean.


Susan and I shared books and dolls, before one day, without a word, she began having sex and was no longer a child—and not much of a friend. I was left in the dust, until the moment she said she hoped I would sleep with her boyfriend because he was so gentle, so caring, etc. I did, and I told her about it (a hasty, joyless affair at a drunken party), and she told me to fuck off.

From my diary, oddly, just below a mention of the Genet title The Declared Enemy:

I knew Susan ages 10–18. After that we briefly shared an apartment in M. I was always out and she was lonely. Our positions had become reversed: now I enacted the dominant role she’d held with B when we were teenagers. Later she became an artist, went blind, got very sick. And I was not really available to her as a friend anymore. I failed her.

I didn’t attend Susan’s funeral. I couldn’t face her mother, a Catholic service, or O (the city where we grew up).

Susan made a bonfire of all her diaries after her boyfriend B broke up with her when she was only fourteen or fifteen; two years before she died, she shredded all her papers.


Light seeps through the pages and cracked spine of a paperback, Susan’s copy of Genet, which is now in urgent need of repair. I did not intentionally damage it.

When the 1 train goes elevated at 125th Street, sunlight from the east lights up an open book. For a brief moment, it is nearly impossible to look directly at the page; its surface is made blindingly white and radiant; all characters are blown out, erased.

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