Everybody by Olivia Laing
Impossible to categorise, this latest book from journalist/author Olivia Laing weaves together biographical studies of several notable twentieth century thinkers and activists to create an open-ended document about the body – our bodies, everybody’s bodies – as both the core of our experience and also the means whereby we are (mis)categorised, oppressed and denied essential freedoms. What other people see is not what we experience, and the distance between the two can impose such constraints that we fail even to know ourselves. “Every Body” examines the shifting cultural and political context in which oppression has been both acted out and fought against, but it does this in terms of personal histories that, even if the reader disagrees with the ideas of some of the individuals included (and it would be difficult to agree with all of them simultaneously) their stories remain telling and immediate. This is, after all, politics enacted at gut level.
Running through the argument is Laing’s own story of the inevitable alienation felt as the daughter of a Lesbian household attending school in Thatcher’s Britain, where the positive representation of gay relationships represented a dangerous strike against the all-embracing reinforcement of the “normal”. Protest became a way of life, with questioning that norm as necessary as breathing, but this autobiographical thread surfaces only through her account of other lives, other bodies and other contexts. The life of Wilhelm Reich, psychoanalyst, sex therapist and controversial promoter of “orgone energy”, is at the core of this spreading narrative structure, but we branch out to take in the oppositional ideas of Andrea Dworkin, Susan Sontag and Kathy Acker, to re-examine Angela Carter’s surprising stance on the Marquis de Sade and to consider the way Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings are reflections on the body in solitude. Attitudes to illness in the body are taken up and re-presented as aspects of sickness in the body politic, with devastating dissections of the toxic expression of racial prejudice. This is a book, though, about people thinking outside the box into which they have been placed, so Nina Simone sings and Philip Guston paints - and Olivia Laing writes, not as an historian but as someone currently living through the COVID-19 crisis, mourning the state of the planet and listening to her favourite music. There are no conclusions except for those drawn by the reader, and there are no neat solutions, but there are flawed, troubled human beings who sometimes change their minds and bungle their chances but who widen our options for a freer way of living with ourselves, our bodies and our society.