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Brandy Snaps and Battlefields

Clare Mullaney

I.  Brandy Snaps

I once had a professor write about brandy snaps.  She called her surrender to the tubular dessert an effort to embrace pliancy.  She marveled at their metamorphosing form—the way the puckered, circular sheets could both fold and fracture.  When placed under the pressure of a fork, the brandy snap shatters, but when wrapped around the edge of a wooden spoon the coagulated butter, syrup, and sugar assume the instrument’s contours, willfully succumbing to a firm, cylindrical physique.  It’s a dance of severance and solidarity. 

II.  Battlefields

I’m quite familiar with this effort to embrace elasticity.  Having struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, for most of my life, I’ve devoted much time—too much time—to living rigidly and respecting severity.  I succumb to a directive of rules and repetitions all in an effort to find security—to craft a world I’m sure is safe.  Yet in my endeavor to harness certainty, I find myself instead strewn, strewn across multiple worlds—the worlds of wellbeing and disease, uniformity and maelstrom.  I become a solider who has lost his way in the battlefield, trudging on the wrong side of the terrain, forced to walk among the debris of lost moments, mislaid opportunities.

III.  Words

I’ve learned a lot from that professor—not just about brandy snaps, but about text—how to crack open words and perforate ideas.  She’s taught me (along with many of my other mentors) that literature is subsumed with breakage—characters break away from norms they find stifling, poets break from conventional meter to kindle unfamiliar feeling.  To read is to both break and be broken. 

IV. Disability

break    verb     \ˈbrāk\

            a.  to disable

This particular definition of “break” is resonant for me given my recent investment in disability studies.  I’ve become interested particularly in how disability can productively inform this alliance of breakage and text.  Each time we “break” down a word to its etymological roots or work to “break” a convoluted theory into more understandable pieces, we engage in acts of disabling; we induce disability itself.  I’ve begun to wonder, what if “disabling” or “cripping” texts were to become an educational tactic, one which ambitiously strived to induce understanding—an understanding of language and self—through disfigurement and devastation? 

V. Methodology vs. Identity

I am reminded of queer studies, which in the 1990s emerged out of gay and lesbian studies, a field very much foregrounded in identity.  With theorists like Eve Sedgwick defining queer in terms of spatiality—suggesting that the term posits a means of being both “besides” and “across,” the field has asserted a determined investment in relationality and correspondence and has shifted away from mere homosexual identification.[1]  What if, like queerness, we began to preface disability less as an identity than an intensely generative methodology—a form of relation and exchange, an exchange embodied in the very crevices of breakage, the borderlines between abled-bodied and disabled worlds?

 VI. Company

In her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf describes illnesses’ prompting of discontinuity.  She writes, “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.  Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way.  There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.  Here we go alone, and like it better so” (12).[2]  I understand Woolf, her frustration at being apprehended, her resentment of companionship—her wish, instead, to stand solitary.  She sees misconception as solace, but in her vision, I think she—too—refuses to be broken.  She dismisses the latent leakiness of both self and other with the belief that our relations are insincere and spurious.    

VII.  A White, Porcelain Vase

When I envision breakage I picture a white, porcelain vase—a vase that has tumbled from its poised positioning as an object of ornamentation and debarked ruthlessly across a hard and unforgiving wooden floor.  Thirty-one pieces—each figuring its own land, its own country encumbered with distinct perimeters and peripheries. Through its irregular edges and fluid curves, each nation tells its own story of selfhood, its comforts and susceptibilities, its limits and prospects.  But is the vase’s blighting a mournful demise, or a mapping to how we all live?  Do the strewn white pieces beget a geography of preservation and subjection?  Are we all our own cartographers depicting our own humanity as a world construed of disabling breakage? 

VIII.  Waterways

But I would like to think, unlike Woolf, that others’ ability to imprint our souls is possible, but only if we take a moment to consider the spaces that exist between each of us, spaces galvanized by breakage—spaces carved by sea.  These waterways give life to our formation of self.  They both partition and adhere.

 VIIII. Lonely?

Breakage—inclining distinction and difference, or companionship?  Like the countries of the porcelain vase, we exist in proximity, unyoking and affixing ourselves to other lives—all similarly and defenselessly broken—laying nearby. What if, like the brandy snap, our own breakages prodded our supple shaping not just to the end of a spoon, but to those around us—those who too are afflicted with burdens birthed of deviation? 

X. “Besides Ourselves”

Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004) is very much invested in notions of proximity and classification.  She opens the second chapter of her book with the question of what it means to be human.[3]  She asserts that to be human is to be inherently vulnerable; she says that by virtue of being human, we are all “undone” by each other—our deficiencies and desires prompting a mutual and simultaneous breakage.  She argues the usefulness of considering any type of supposed difference or “abnormality” as being a state of existing “beside ourselves” (24), which prompted my consideration of how we all, in some way, are forced to straddle multiple genres, impelled to occupy the disjunction between a myriad of conceptions of self and identity.  If to be “undone,” or torn from ourselves, is in a sense to be “disabled” (or embody a body that is no longer cohesive, or what we might call “abled”)—then disability itself becomes a productive means of dismantling the rigid categories and classifications in which we often too easily place ourselves.  

XI.  “Always within never…”

I recently finished reading Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008)The novel’s protagonist, an astute twelve-year old, makes it her quest to find meaning in life before her thirteenth birthday: the day she plans to commit suicide.  In the novel’s final pages she describes the moment of hearing a piano’s melody in her apartment building, a moment that reminds her of someone, a moment that imbues her with hope: 

…I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about:  there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same.  It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something, suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.

                  Yes, that’s it, an always within never.  

                  …Beauty , in this world (336).[4]

It is a moment that arises from breakage.  This idea of “always within never” is, of course, paradoxical—how can something be always, or eternal, and never, or non-existent?  It’s a moment straddled in contradiction—a moment of polarity, indecision.  It’s here that the protagonist straddles the space between difference, reveling in the abeyant restraint that comes in a cross breading of genres, a melding of dissimilar emotions, divergent temporalities.  I realized that it’s exactly this moment—this “always within never”—that too gives me hope, impelling my realization that pain is productive and that it’s precisely through pain that we can find the will to keep living.  Judith Butler speaks to this idea in Precarious Life when she writes, “And if we have lost, then it follows that we have had, that we have desired and loved, that we have struggled to find the conditions for our desire” (20).  For Butler, mourning—which I also take to mean sadness and hurt—marks transformation.  As the brandy snap teaches us, breakage allows for reshaping, a sculpting of our scars, an aesthetic reconsideration of both our form and placing. 

XII.  Not Knowing

 Mary Oliver’s 2004 poem “Bone” ends with these lines: 


Though I play at the edges of knowing,

truly I know

our part is not knowing,


but looking, and touching, and loving,

which is the way I walked on,


through the pale-pink morning light.

The act of “not knowing” is to live without the cognizance of when breakage will come.  This futural obscurity is, after all, the only means we have to surviving in a world marked by a rash unpredictability, an unpredictability that renders us all ineffectual in our limitless attempts to shield ourselves from, as Butler suggests, a feared vulnerability.  

When the snapping and splintering of breakage begin—unannounced and unforeseen—we must courageously resist the urge to pick up these shards of disintegration and collapse and might instead consider the fissures’ productivity—what can these gaping spaces express about our proximity and relationality to others?  Can allowing these “edges” to dissolve provoke a snapping of our so often inflexibility constructed identities?  Can this act of “touching” to which Oliver refers allow for an informative interchange, one prompted by disability, between opposing worlds?  What is it that these exchanges can teach us about what it means to be human?

XIII.  Brandy Snaps

 I’m still trying to become more like the brandy snap, longing to embrace the sweet and sticky surge that comes with my own—and others’—breakage.  I, too, like my professor—am humbled by the brandy snap’s form, it’s agility in being able to “both separate and to unite” (a phrase which Alice quotes from I Chi in The Breaking Project’s introduction), to break and create, or transform.

You learn in treatment for OCD that the harder you try to gain control the less control you’ll end up getting.  Again, it’s a lesson learned in contradiction.  By breaking out of old patterns, patterns that box me into unyielding places, my own fragmentation at the hands of anxiety’s command will slowly—like the brandy snap—begin to congeal.  I’m ready to be supple, to more consciously embrace the contours—whether they be jagged or smooth—of others’ shorelines, their narratives of both breakage and triumph.  Embracing vulnerability and fear, I emerge anew, ready to learn the dance of severance and solidarity.

[1] See Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies (1993) and Touching Feeling:  Affect, Pedagogy, and Performativity (2003). 

[2] Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield, MA: Paris, 2002. Print.

[3] Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print.

[4] Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Trans. Alison Anderson. New York: Europa Editions, 2008. Print.



Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Clare Mullaney