It’s now been more than 20 years since the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel hit the literary scene with Prozac Nation, her memoir of depression. In the duration since she’s become a controversial figure on the periphery of pop culture who has often been considered narcissistic, self-indulgent and even a little crazy. While the author’s focus is herself and the consciousness she can’t placate enough not to have to write, there is something refreshing about her self-steeped candour.
In January 2013, the writer tackled her history in an article for New York magazine with the conspicuous title, “Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life”. While easy to read and in her familiar style, one of the criticisms of the article – which lines up with many of the criticisms of the writer – was her gratuitous use of the word “I”; some commenters even resolved to count the number of times it appeared in the length of the article.
The “I” comprises us; it’s more intrinsic than our own name because we say it all of the time – “I love…”, “I hate…”, “I need to go to Starbucks.” While we remain in the bubble of ourselves as we grow up, the expectation exists that the worst parts of our egoism will fall away some time after youth, to be replaced by an awareness of the world outside that works to keep us in check. In this way, I can understand the hesitation with which the “I” is approached, and some of the frustration that Wurtzel is regarded with, but what of the self and its necessity for honesty?
In the 1950’s, the “I” was brought to the forefront in the form of confessional poetry, a style popularized by the poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Utilizing personal experience, it served as an exploration of the landscape of human emotions ranging from self-reflection to depression to death, and never deviated far from the inquiries into the self. While the style was controversial for its rawness and was considered indulgent, it became an influential form of American poetry that has impacted the work of many writers, poets and artists.
Ironically, given the times, confessional poetry seems like a more solid means of expression than many other forms of indulgence that seem so commonplace. There have never been so many people grappling for attention as they post Instagram photos and update Facebook, shouting out the moments of their lives in 140 characters or less. There is nothing but “I” in all of this, bursting unapologetically with all its minor details as it gasps for air and attention. If anything, then, shouldn’t the crowd love Wurtzel? Shouldn’t they fall at her feet, expounding the genius they can see themselves in?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the “I” that offends people, but the singular perspective chained to it that cannot be so easily empathized with. Wurtzel’s indulgence can rankle, but – like any person on the outside must – she has laid claim to her “I”, perhaps from feeling like her most primal self was shaped on the fringes. If you spend a large part of your life forming the patterns of apartness, you will be made to feel that devastating friction between you and the rest. You’ll always be aware of all the windows you’re standing outside, and maybe, much too commonly, you’ll feel like the Albatross in Baudelaire’s poem, stranded on a boat and laughed at, “borne down by its giant wings”.
While Wurtzel’s recent marriage has likely changed her perspective, there is something to be thankful for in her honesty. When you’re staring out at the crowd, ascertaining the difference between you and them, what remains but the most austere of words in the English language – the incongruent, vexing and piercing “I”?