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Review: ‘Counter Reform’ by Charlotte Newman

Charlotte Newman’s Counter Reform is ostensibly a pamphlet about living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As Newman asserts: ‘It is not about liking things clean. It is about making a mess of human mechanisms, of trying to control metaphysics.’ For Newman, the pamphlet is a ‘not-book’.

The pamphlet is split into three sections: ‘Obsession’, ‘Compulsion’, ‘Resistance’. I wanted to understand the pamphlet as a lyric essay,  where every fragment or paragraph is a gesture towards a single question, a means of understanding what it is like to live with OCD. I took note of the patterns, Newman’s mentions of ‘200 glottal stops a day to mask swallowing’, how everything is ‘always divisible by four’, that ‘sixteen is usually the magic number’, and that Newman’s lists of surreal images of ‘things’ or ‘images’ of OCD are always eight entries long (and thereby divisible by four):

The immediate destruction of populism

Actual unicorns with Perspex horseshoes

Strawberry fields with actual strawberries in them

Manageable amounts of heartbreak

Perhaps my compulsion to call Counter Reform a lyric essay was to try to understand it on terms that aren’t its own. In trying to meet Counter Reform on my terms, I missed a crucial sentence in the third paragraph of the opening section. In writing what OCD actually is, Newman states: ‘It is a means of playing God.’ Counter Reform, with its now-apparent-to-me reference to the Counter Reformation, is deeply rooted in Catholicism, and a de- and re-construction of anti-religious and Catholic rhetoric.

The Counter Reformation, initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation to preserve the power and material wealth of the Catholic Church, also included a defence of the Catholic sacramental practice (i.e. believing that the wine does turn into blood). Newman writes:

It means that you can once again enjoy

episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer without having to recite in your

head the entirety of the dialogue from eight different scenes, eight

different times, for no reason other than it seems clean.

I took this at face-value. Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed almost inconsequential, the obvious choice of repeat binge-watching. But, as a friend told me, vampires belong to anti-Catholic rhetoric: Catholics believe they are consuming the blood and body of Christ. As there are complex, fraught relationships between Catholicism and vampires, the pamphlet’s intricate, troubled relationship with OCD and Catholicism began to emerge for me.

In ‘The Future of an Illusion’, Freud writes:

When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to  the figure of his father; he creates for himself a god whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection.

For Freud, religion – or God – is a means of robbing ‘life and the universe […] of their terrors’. In Counter Reform, OCD and religion aren’t conflated, but there is an attempt to find some deeper meaning, or a system that makes sense: ‘Pull yourself into a world that makes moral sense. It will not make sense to everyone, but remember that not everyone is a moral person.’ These pronouncements often swerve left, moving from thoughtfulness to flippancy, so it is impossible to know what should be taken seriously: ‘And all those dudes waxing unlyrical about Bob Dylan can fuck off and actually die.’

In Freud’s understanding of religion, the man and the father take central positions; the mother is ‘replaced by the stronger father’. For Newman, women are more important, and men take on an irritating, exhausting presence:

If you must simper over a man, let it not be one who wrote

Calamiterror. We are doing the work of God and Angela Carter,

avoiding and repairing her despair. No woman should crawl

for a man like that, and he should know intimately what it is to

crawl ignominiously towards the act of contrition and the state

of understanding that you are not owed anything.

Rather than a patriarchal Catholicism, which is ‘spectacularly bendable if you are a man’, Newman asserts her own Catholicism – a kind of feminist pattern-laden anti-Catholicism – through Boudicca (‘What would Boudicca do?’) and Salome, who demanded the head of John the Baptist:

There are patterns to sexual acts too. These are exhausting and

render the body unreliable. It is difficult to work the next day.

It is usually impossible to explain to a partner but usually they

can’t tell and mistake it for a kind of Salome-esque enthusiasm.

Despite these acts of violence and irritation against men, there is something of trying to understand the ‘eternal and impish images of flagellation, hammers and nails; mortification of the flesh and the spectacle of victimhood’ that a ‘Catholic upbringing’ has ‘burned into your childish brain’. For Newman, this ‘manifests in dreams were Willem Dafoe is on screen mutilated on a cross and you cannot find the mute button, or it doesn’t work.’ Here, Newman’s labelling of the pamphlet as ‘anti-confessional’ takes on a new light: it’s anti-confessional in the Catholic sense, not the poetic one. For Newman, OCD isn’t a reason for self-flagellation: ‘If being free of compulsion was available free and easy, at the click of one’s fingers, would I take it? Probably not’; in fact, it’s potentially another Catholic

almost neo-romantic act of overcoming that has to be done and

redone over and over again at every hour of the day and at every

station in life and whose imminent threat is forever translucent

like a bomb shelter window.

This became more apparent to me when I investigated ideas of Divine Economy, or the Economy of Salvation. ‘Economy’, while sometimes (positively) interpreted as a transaction, here takes on a meaning closer to ‘an organised system’. In my mind, the economy works as a loop or circle, and I think it might feature in Newman’s pamphlet in a similar way: references recur – from Boudicca, to a lickable ‘decaying foil package’. For Newman, her patterns provide ‘a sense of purpose’, in direct opposition with the platitudes of fate, even if, she concedes, ‘there is no pattern’. Perhaps this is why she irreverently announces: ‘Devoid of an Apocalyptic, a dating app is appropriate’; if the concept of ‘fate’ is empty, why not leave dating to algorithmic patterns?  For Freud, this kind of belief system is a means to allow us to ‘feel at home in the uncanny’ and ‘deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety’. As much as Newman claims that ‘God is most likely a fiction’, there’s a similar sense of trying to make meaning through patterns, and assert that those patterns are a legitimate way of living:

The strangeness is that enforcing patterns pathologically would

be scorned and deemed weird by most people, yet those most

people would be happily prepared to say that everything happens

for a reason when their life falls apart.

You can find out more about Counter Reform from Rough Trade Books.

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Wally Gobetz