April Eileen Henry’s Instagram account, Texts From Your Existentialist, makes memes of our collective suffering. Here, April and Kristen Cochrane talk bad breakups, Godard, and being held hostage by human consciousness.
A lot of our pain is self-inflicted — we romantically pursue people once we realize they don’t like us, we treat our bodies like toxic waste disposal units, and we don’t have savings accounts. Actually, even when we don’t do these things, we still have a hard time with life, relationships, and human existence (a lot of my most admirable, healthy, moneyed friends can’t get girlfriends and boyfriends and constantly feel devastated about it).
Since life is so tragic and therapy is expensive, what is a chronically sad person supposed to do? What happens after you’ve read all of Albert Camus’s unabridged works, even learning French so that you can read them in their original language to get the real meaning from our favourite nihilist (not to be confused with an existentialist)?
In the best pun of the 21st century, Los Angeles poet April Eileen Henry created the Instagram account Texts From Your Existentialist, a play on the Texts From Your Ex Instagram account. She has 255k followers as I write this, which says a lot about our collective suffering. April uses her understanding of collective suffering and as her vast knowledge of 20th century philosophy and Jean-Luc Godard to playfully comment on modern life, using stills from Godard’s films and random paintings from throughout the ages with iPhone text bubbles imposed on the images. And unlike your ex, you’ll actually want texts from your existentialist. I recently chatted with April about alienation through the ages, Nietzsche’s reliability, and how we all want a rebellion.
Kristen Cochrane: What led to the genesis of Texts From Your Existentialist?
April Eileen Henry: Honestly, I was going through some feelings with a guy, and normally I’d write poetry about the dude and call it a day. But for some reason, putting pen to paper wasn’t helping like it used to. I was thinking of another release of emotions and realized text is the ultimate release. I started texting myself all the things I’d wanted to say to him and little quips from my inner monologue. Also, I’ve always loved art and wanted to share the pieces I loved. I then I was just bored one day at work and made the Instagram. It started gaining a following organically, and I thought I could use it as an alternative to talking to a shrink.
What are some of your favourite posts?
A lot of my favorite posts are ones dealing with a man being bad for me or the ones where I feel imprisoned by reality and the daily doldrums. Two of them I specifically love a lot are: “The only body image issue I have is that I inhabit one” because we constantly attack ourselves to have a perfect shape, but maybe it’s a discomfort of being in general. Also “Consciousness keeps popping up in my dreams like an unsolicited dick pic.” And one I made very recently where I say “I don’t know who I am, so can we just keep partying until I figure it out?”
Your current Instagram description says “Nietzsche all on your mouth like liquor?” Why Nietzsche, and not Sartre, Camus, or de Beauvoir?
This is gonna sound like a “tag yourself I’m Nietzsche” meme, but I was always so drawn to his philosophy — like how I felt I was never good at anything and wouldn’t be appreciated in my lifetime, much like him. Also, during the inception of TFYE I was a teetotaler and I knew that he didn’t drink because he thought it dulled suffering. He also had a mental breakdown when he saw a horse being beaten in the street and I’ve always been such an empath—so much so that some days I couldn’t leave my house because I would sponge up everyone’s emotions and had a lot of mini breakdowns seeing all the hurt in people around me and injustices that plague the world. So I relate to him a lot. The other thinkers you mentioned are super important too, but I’m in a writers’ salon for the first time and I feel like I’m at my Café de Flore moment now. So the Sartre and de Beauvoir relation will sink in sometime soon.
I love the recurring theme you have of imposing our fantasy of what we crave in a partner onto random people, which is basically what constitutes most relationships, whether they’re monogamous ones, committed ones, or purely sexual ones. A lot of people act like their world has been turned upside down when this is explained to them. It’s like Jacques Lacan’s dictum of “Il n’y a pas de relation sexuel / There is no sexual relation” which argues that we are just bodies masturbating onto each other, projecting our ideal of desire onto other bodies. What compels you to post about this particular socio-sexual quandary?
I’m just so fascinated by illusion and reality, mostly in terms of relationships, and we live it all the more now. We live in such narcissistic times where we seek a projection of our fantasies and expectations in others. Sartre once said, “I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself.” And Simone has this awesome quote that says, “a man attaches himself to woman, not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself.” I was reading both of their works in tandem and related those quotes to modern times and it felt so new because that’s how we live now.
I know you’re a poet, but do you have a background in art history? You have used an array of paintings from various eras.
My art history knowledge is purely autodidactic. I’ve always loved art and I constantly study old, new and lost art eras and I wish to share them with the masses, so I try and learn all I can about them so I can explain their meanings extemporaneously.
You have a lot of posts with Anna Karina and with other French New Wave icons. I also love how you style your hair and makeup like Anna, and you pull it off really well. Why do you choose the French New Wave actors in particular, and not, say, Italian New Wave stars like Monica Vitti or other Antonioni girls? Or even Spanish provocateur filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s chicas?
Speaking of imposing fantasies, I just love the world Godard’s films inhabit. He wanted Anna to be this wholly other person and when she wouldn’t submit in real life, he’d write a script and have her act the way he wanted her to. My favorites are examples like Le Petit Soldat when he was just meeting her — he has several closeups of her and he would flirt with her through the lens. And when they finally became an item, she met someone else and he wrote Vivre sa vie with her as a prostitute and ultimately killing her character off. And in Alphaville, which is my favorite, the theme of the movie was to have her character relearn how to say “I love you.” Richard Brody, Godard’s most prolific biographer said it was an example wherein he was so desperate for life to imitate art. I love the other filmmakers you mentioned — but there’s something about the juxtaposition of style and pop art and literary pedantry in his films that just guts me.
One of your posts (which is so relatable, whether you grow up today or in the 1950s, probably) says “Sorry, I only like dudes who are bad for me.” Why do you think many of us only like “bad” lovers?
We all want a rebellion. And that’s what the post means for me. We have all been courted by the good man, but the bad dude holds a poetic frequency for us that we all lust after. It’s a self-destruction fully realized. You know how Lana Del Rey sings about a man who’s born to lose? It’s a constant theme and it transcends time. Men and a want for sexual rebellion go hand in hand, and as a self-destructive woman, the bad boy is a mirror image of this. But I may just be projecting.
You live in LA, but you told me you are planning on moving to Berlin. Can you tell me about that and why you are choosing Berlin? Does it have a good poetry scene?
There’s a huge contemporary art scene in Berlin — Central Berlin to be specific. And I’m not a trust fund kid, so I can’t currently make a living on my art in Los Angeles while working my day job as well, and I hear in Berlin you can get by making your art and live rather comfortably. Berlin’s old mayor said the city was “poor but sexy” and I was drawn to that philosophy and the freedom it could bring me. And as a purely hedonistic thing, I read an article about Berghain and how you dance to techno for a whole weekend and you never stop. It’s not my usual style, but there’s a freedom there that I admire and that I want to experience.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.