“I Could Live Without Speaking:” on Chelsea Hodson’s Autoportrait project

def. Autoportrait: 1. a likeness of a person, esp. of the face, as a painting, drawing, sculpture, or photograph…

Earlier this year I purchased Tonight I’m Someone Else – Hodson’s collection of (mostly) braided personal essays. Her work struck me as something so original – but I couldn’t put my finger on how. Did it have something to do with honesty? The way she captures emotions and intimacy?

Then I discovered her project “I Could Live Without Speaking.” Hodson writes in the preface to the project – available online at Hazlitt: “But the written word is what has fascinated me for most of my life, hence my interest in essays and its ability to capture one person’s line of thought at one point in time. It seems so specific, so small and quiet, and yet certain voices travel through time, reaching us when we need them.”

Hodson’s project is a written interaction with the book Autoportrait by the late, French writer Edouard Leve. She has written part 1 of 4 of her own personal autoportrait using the sentences of the book but replacing just some of the words with her own.  

“Each sentence uses at least one (but usually three or four) words from each of Levé’s sentences, and I’ve followed the order and number of sentences exactly. So, for example, the first sentence is in Levé’s book is, ‘When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die,’ and mine is, ‘When I was young, I thought running away was the answer.’ In carefully following his sentences, they became like rapid-fire prompts…”

It strikes me as a brave experiment in writing that someone like Hodson, also a performance artist would embark on.

“It was almost as if I was being supervised as I wrote.”

In an interview with Melissa Broder at San Diego City Beat – “She is drawn to guidelines and restraints. In this way she is like a performance artist whose medium is words.

‘I do think of the book as an art object,’ she said.

And certainly – her work expresses a haunted quality. She is being haunted by Leve in the experience of careful and partial mimicry of his words – while her own voice shining through  echoes that of a past self – one that will never exist in the same way again. I think this is in part due to the declarative form of the sentences.

“The ending of a book rarely satisfies me. I eventually forget the source of each grudge. I’ve been to a prison where none of the inmates had killed anyone.”

Reading her work, one also begins to feel the need to confess and extract these sharp and exposing elements of a self. While some lines do echo one another in context, most stand alone in their resonance. Reading them as Leve’s own work was organized, in a long block of text – a rhythm in the reading develops gradually – which I think is best described by Hodson in the preface to “Autoportrait:”

“But, when read together, they begin to take on a human quality, as if the text itself is out of breath—desperate to get everything down before it’s too late.”  

Before it’s too late is also referring to Leve’s Autoportait being published just two years before his suicide in 2007.

I’m reminded of Maria Popova’s summarization on the impact of photography in her book Figuring: “Photography, born out of a scientific battle against the ephemereality of light and shadow, grew into an art contesting the impermanence of existence itself.” The photograph gives us something so accurate we are faced with our own mortality – not, necessarily, a fictional ability to “outlast” time through a frozen image. I think Hodson’s autoportrait in prose also expresses a mortality – a life and a death simultaneously.

Declaring that one could live without speaking seems both a testament to living through writing – and to the depth with which we think we know ourselves in a given moment. The myth of an essential self. Every one of these lines can stand alone; I tweeted one recently and will probably tweet more. Their declaration sings the fleeting ego of an ever-changing self.

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