I was walking along Mt Royal the other evening when I happened to spot a former professor of mine eating at Subway. I was mildly surprised to see him consume the processed sandwich meats, wilted iceberg lettuce and white bread. The restaurant chain with its hard plastic seating and oh-so-ordinary comestibles do not seem ambitious or cerebral enough to satisfy such a formidable mind. A block later as I was passing beneath a stand of trees the head of a baby bird fell to my feet. I was struck by the temporal proximity of these two events. Such potential for metaphor.
Alison’s salt cure for the envy of placid beasts
When the pure presence of anxiety in the form of an agile grimace nips at your heels like a mangy dog and silence is inhabited by the monstrous swarm that surrounds and deafens take an irregular cloth and rub your flesh until it is warm and disturbed. Use salt that has been dried in the oven with saltpeter and spices to quell any secret rapture of hideous nakedness and the monstrous shapes of delirious animals that betray dark rage. Lay on a wooden table, splayed like a carcass, and allow one’s ego to be beaten and pressed by the knowledge that any suffering from the shadow of loss is merely the narcissistic wound of abandonment. Biting cares, perturbations and passions, sorrows, and foaming should let off with the application of the salt mixture. Stoke the fire, and remain in a hot room for 3 days. This should suture the conceptual hole and lessen the horror vacuus. Turn over once a day. At the end of 3 days transfer one’s self to a cold cellar and apply a little extra salt. The cellar should be disinfected, else the many-headed beast will rear once again and discontents, discords and treacheries will return. Remained sealed in the cold room until any chafing, cursing, and pathetical adjuncts dissipate. If one’s eyes are still grisly to behold, skin ashen to unfold, and the horrible fear of existence persists upon ascend, repeat the treatment.
So much has been written on the subject of identity in recent years that I hesitate to broach the topic. But the question of what constitutes selfhood is one that has occupied my thoughts over the years a great deal. It has, of course, provided fodder for writers and academics alike for time immemorial, yet it remains an open question, an enigma that can never be resolved. Most recently thought has seized on the concept of identity as being something fluid, something that is modified, renovated, and rescripted with the accumulation of new experiences in the material world. While I do not refute this understanding, it has long been my belief that identity is essentially unstable, I have some hesitation in accepting the implied premise that identity is merely a potage of experience, desire, memory, and imagination. The question that arises is one that addresses what we might call the essence of a self. Can we claim that there is some fundamental nature that functions to give a framework to a selfhood? If so, how do we define it? How do we even recognize it?
I want to begin this discussion by suggesting that identity is largely formulated through language with the means and ends being a desire to compose a narrative that has a plot. As such, the construction of identity can be understood as a literary event. We perceive and understand the world and ourselves by way of a narrative that involves the organization of experience into a temporal succession. We seek cause and effect, beginnings and conclusions, motives and operations as ways of moulding the raw stuff of life into something comprehensible. Desire as such, is integral to the process of sense-making. It is what drives us forward and onward and functions as the motor of actions. This assertion is complicated by the psychoanalytical understanding that desire is inherently unsatisfiable and linked to memories that are inaccessible to the consciousness. Thus our desire for significance and narrative is one that arises from the unconscious and phantasmic scenarios of satisfaction. As intriguing as this proposal is, it offers little in the way of helping us identify some core of a selfhood. Are we to understand identity as something that arises from the reproduction of infantile need and quest for gratification? I would hope not. Such a proposition seems to reduce the complexity of the human to early childhood experiences with little regard for the roles of imagination, emotion, individuality, potentiality and affect in the construction of identity. It disregards the accumulation and impurity of experience. We are in continual contact and interaction with the material world, shaping and being shaped by language, tools, and the geography in which we live. Thus, to assert the concrete cornerstone of character is largely borne of infantile experience neglects the potentiality, the possibilities of one’s own existence. It seems to crystallize identity and designate it as something that lies within, but always out of the reach of consciousness. It cements character while positioning it outside of one’s control. This is an unsatisfactory model of character for a number of reasons, primarily, as mentioned earlier, it negates the possibility of experience having an indelible effect on one’s selfhood. Surely traumatic events leave some residue upon one’s character that cannot be reduced to a psychoanalytical model that focuses on infancy. What I am suggesting is that affect, that is the experience and repetition of sensation and action, surpasses and undermines what we often regard as identity while supporting, energizing. and containing it. Paradoxical to be sure, but it is in our interactions, our desire for sense-making, our search for meaning and individuality that the notion of identity is challenged and defined. This seems to lead us back to my initial discomfiture with selfhood defined as a hodgepodge of beliefs, experience and drive for wish fulfillment, yet I want to suggest that this discussion has not been entirely a fool’s errand, that some understandings have arisen. The first is that identity is under constant construction, it is not something cemented in early life experiences with little interaction or malleability, nor is it the sum total of encounters with the world. Identity seems to reside within the vocabulary, the syntax in which we use to narrate our movement through the world. Language facilitates the composition of identity, yet it extends beyond any one individual, entering what we might call the realm of the non-human. It relies on the human to exist, yet it surpasses the human in its timelessness and endless potentiality. What I would like to suggest is that identity is an intersection between language, affect, and desire. That our relationship with words and syntax, our movement through the material world, and our desire for narrative and sense-making are the primary constituents of what we might regard as selfhood. Thus the framework upon which the essence of selfhood rests is one that is build out of one’s familiarity and use of language. We are the language we speak. Just a few, scattered thoughts on this Sunday afternoon.
Alison’s salt cure for maladie anglais
Begin treatment by scraping, preferably with a mussel shell, the surfaces of one’s body. This will dispose the running sores caused by the promiscuity of the soul more readily toward treatment. Apply French salt liberally. To abate fermentation of flesh and decomposition of morals one must avoid confined spaces, particularly those situated underground, and seek the sun. It is recommended that one lie on a wooden form for at least 4 hours after initial salting. This will aid in the neutralization of tainted exhalations and any putrid fevers. The application of dried calve skin and river stones on the chest and torso will relieve the effects of irresolute attention and a vacillating soul. Wash well with fresh water to cleanse one of the longing to suffer and dissolve the friable alkaline particles that penetrate body and heart. The mind disturbed by the search for truth will should find some comfort in the binding of the body. If disputes of unreason and passions of obstinacy continue, the best course of action is to be stamped on by a youth of 15 years or thereabout for an extended period of time. It is well known that shame fetters turpitude. Avoid shadowy places and darkened mirrors for 40 days.
The question put to me on a daily basis by my 10 year old child generally revolves around the query, “what is your favourite animal?” A variation, if not a departure from the general theme, is “if you were an animal, what would you be?” And most recently, “which animal do you feel most sorry for?” I have learned over time that there are more, and less, appropriate answers to these questions. For instance, it is considered absolutely unacceptable to wish to be a housefly, unless one is willing to face a mob of irate 8-10 year olds and their little webs of reasoning and feelings. Nor is it adequate to name paramecium or amoebas as one’s favourite animal. There seems to be a distinct bias toward multi-celled organisms with fur and large, doleful eyes. Last weekend I was faced with two indignant children accusing me of cold-heartedness when I said I do not feel sorry for any animal. “But what about the polar bears?” protested my daughter, “or the dolphins? or the cats that get run over by cars?” I suppose I should have humoured her and said pandas or gorillas, but the question of empathy and intelligence with has been on my mind a great deal lately. I could not offer her a simple, thoughtless answer. The idea that we have the ability to know an animal, know enough of its consciousness to conceive how it might feel in any given situation is questionable. This is not to mean that I condone cruelty to animals, but rather I deliberate on our capacity to do what empathy seems to demand, that of stepping into another’s shoes, so to speak, for an animal. Other than the salient fact that animals don’t wear shoes, there is the issue of “knowing” a reality or world that exists in a different time and space than ours. To disengage from the reality in which one lives and enter into some more “natural” world where living is simpler is not only a fool’s errand, it fails recognize the complexity, the diversity, and fullness of animal life. It hovers on a type of anthropocentrism, or the very least, a sort of “petishism” in which we look at animals as reflections of our ideal selves. It seems to me to deny the level of calculation and deliberation necessary to sustain life for any entity. We cannot live or think like lions, because we do not live with the same relation to space and time as they do. We may observe them, interact with them, admire them, but their relation with the world is radically different. They do not move through the world in same way we do. To claim to “think” like an animal, or even authentically empathize with one, is to neglect not only the complexity of their world, but to practice a sort of self-deception. Our thoughts, and the way in which we direct, moderate or express emotion are dependent on language and culture. The way in which we interact with the world, has evolved as a response to the world in which we live in, and as social beings, we have developed a high levels of emotional complexity and means of communication. These allow us to infer, to create choices, alternatives to merely acting on the drive for self-preservation. This is not to claim animals do not have the intelligence to make choices, but rather we are not as occupied with the things at hand, such as the hunt for sustenance or the hunter’s rifle. We examine, reflect and conjecture.
I have long been interested in the role of affect in the literary aesthetic experience; that is, the way in which an emotional experience allows for meaning to rise from the relations between a reader and a text. I believe that affect is deeply embedded in language and literary form, yet because of its slippery nature, its refusal to be pinned down and assigned one stable definition, it is largely ignored by the humanities. This oversight is also the result of the western world’s privileging cognition over emotion, and I think the dichotomy of cognition and emotion is a western construct and must be interrogated. Western academic writing has long held the position of being disinterested, or sceptical, thus muting affect, but I cannot help but to question this stance and wonder about the implicit losses. By understanding affect as a way in which people relate to the world, as type of intelligence, we open up new understandings, new possibilities, of the manners in which we interact with literature.
Nigel Thrift in his immensely interesting book, “Non-Representational Theory” suggests affect is crucial in the cultural construction of the relationship between the individual and society, thus having political, cultural and social implications. I suggest it is also a highly gendered issue. Affect has an important and unacknowledged mediating position for research concerning gender, culture, and language. Women’s communicative style is often labelled as being more affect-laden, allowing for the socialization of women to engage in “emotion management” and be shunted toward low-status service employment where positive affective displays are valued and access to power and economic resources are limited. But what does this imply for literary studies? Are texts by women writers read and interpreted differently? Do women readers interact with text more emotionally? Or would any perceived discrepancies be the consequences of a relationship between women and literature that is fraught with complexities and contradictions. It would be interesting to trace and map women’s interactions within literary tradition with an eye on the role of affect. I think of the long withstanding sense of alarm regarding ‘silly women’s” novels and the potential threats to women that romance novels are perceived to have. The soft and impressionable condition of women’s minds are so much more vulnerable to the dis-ease of romantic notions and ideals. Only a woman can confuse reality and reason with fantasy and respond irrationally.
Affect is something that permeates all levels of linguistic and communicative structures, yet it is routinely shuttled to the sidelines as irrelevant and irrational. To be sure, affect is often irrational, and it is difficult to make qualitative statements about, but it is something that floods linguistic form (think of synecdoche, metonymy, metaphors, deviant stress patterns, and phonological statements as specifically ‘designed’ to invoke an emotional response in the reader). It is what allows for a text to provoke aesthetic feeling, and to be expressive in an abundant and vibrant way. It is what enables us to “sing” a poem. It is what gives us the capacity to engage in the constant process of becoming (Deleuze). It has the potential to”pierce” social interpretations and expectations, scrambling both and offering a threshold from which to envision and enact social transformation. As it traverses the public and private, biology and philosophy, yet remains a “vital element of a body’s apprehension of the world” (Thrift), it is explicitly political.
Alison’s salt cure for melancholia
He said life needn’t be a conventional humdrum, and in a quest to master his inner world he sought the recipe for truth and clarity.
She said truth and clarity are relative, and all should be afforded proportionate compassion.
He said few have the vanity and self-confidence to believe that they can inspire deification.
She said only those suffering from existential nihilism or inexorable idealism need worry of such things.
He said fascination is founded in language, and its potential to be turned and twisted.
She said the remedy is in auspicious meetings.
He said a faithless curse, cavernous greed, and the black hole of want stole his good intentions.
She said it is foolish to indulge in martyrdom.
He said he love is the most important thing in life and that all else was absurd.
She said love might wind itself through the dark forests of your being, it might pulse beneath the tender skin of your wrist, it might breed like mycelium in your blood, or haunt you like a dark night, but you are still always there, waiting, there waiting.
He said that a world will only blossom between two individuals that have the courage to go to the extreme.
She said as an ungainly, ill-mannered girl, she only sought to be a sun-warmed plum in the palm of a loved one.
He said he needed the rush of the wind, the turn of the wheel of stars, and the touch of divinity to be.
She asked, then, what of desire? Is it hidden among the constellations? Does it reside within? Is it in the moments of incomprehension? Is it something to be squandered or savoured?
He said love needs to be selfish to be authentic. It should reduce the world to two selves who become one that can never be divided.
She said love may swallow up the world, leave you bereft and alone at the centre of the universe, but it is never an excuse for building walls.
He said he lives for the hills and valleys of romantic entanglements and trust lay in the gesture of exposing yourself to harm.
She said the grace and poetry of life lay in the small moments, in the scent of wild mint, in the glint of sunlight on a swift river, in the feel of the earth beneath one’s bare arms.
And she thought nothing can be gained without yearning. Existence is like swimming in a boundless sea of waves of desire and loving is being captive of a moon rising full on the horizon. The world is like a thorny bush, you have hardly disentangled yourself from one set of thorns, before you are caught by another.
Violent, devouring, goddess of doom’s night. Black as the charcoal of a funeral pyre, dark wild eyes, unbound hair and a garland of men’s heads, she feasts on the blood of the slain with insatiable appetite. She is feminine rage manifest.
Ultimate destroyer, ready to devour forces the world in a mouthful. Drunk on conquest, she dances with frenzy and abandonment on the bloodied, charred battlefield, threatening cosmic stability.
Standing on Shiva, she extends her tongue, joins with him in viparitarati.
Violent, passionate, she is the embodiment of ecstasy of emotion. Her appetites are dangerous and require the sacrifice of male life. Desire that can only be quenched by conflict, she consumes. Shiva’s prostration under her, signifies the “inertness, the soul unbounded and indifferent to the eternal.” As creator and destroyer, she is the dynamic form of Siva. The energetic principle of cosmos, she manifests the unmanifest with the union of consciousness and energy. Her sword severs ties to the world and allows the supreme bliss of non-existence.
She is Prakrati that seduces you into the web of maya, the unending circuit of desire, birth and death. She is martial Guarnatrix of the cosmos that protects against the recurrent threat of chaos. She is Sakti, an abstract cosmic force and immanent aspect of human female body, power and stregth. She is Kalmata, mother of time, and Kalaharshini, destroyer of time. She is Satchidanandaupini, bliss of existent consciousness. She is Chandika, Bhovaneswari and Rakteswari, the blood goddess. “Oh lady shining like tender leaves. Oh holy one. Oh lady with a shining body I shall praise you to cut the throat of the living demon.” She is Adyakalika, the source and end of all yoga. She is Mayayogini, the creator, preserver, destroyer of the universe.
“The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same; The infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali”. Sri Ramakrishna
Om aim hrim klim camundayai vicche svaha