My First Sentence

“Fuck the baby,” I shout, with glee from the toddler seat of the shopping cart my mom pushes. It’s my first sentence, announced with delight at San Diego’s most expensive grocery store, Jonathan’s. Nanny is taking my mom shopping, to celebrate our new life without Charlie, my father, who’s probably in prison by now.

Jonathan’s od school logo and architecture capture its particular brand of elite pretty well.

 

“Fuck the baby,” I shout again. My mom and Nanny are quiet, squelching the laughter rumbling under their ribs. They give in a little and let the laughter splutter. Jonathan’s is huge, a chaos of clean light. The aisles are polished so severely that my sentence bounces off the jars and cans that line the shelves.

“Cathy, shut him up.”

“Me? Why me? Just find the Grey Poupon and let’s get out of here.”

“Because you’re his mother, for godssake.” A pair of women in their sixties, with penciled eyebrows, pearls, and pocketbooks round the corner. “Fuck the baby.” My mom reaches a hand over my mouth. The women have stopped rolling their carts to observe. I yelp a muffled four syllables. If you’ve heard me already, they’re unmistakable.

I don’t remember this, but I knew what I was doing, they’ll tell me later. I was conscious of their embarrassment, egged on by their blushing and laughing.

“Let’s get out of here,” Nanny says to my mom, and the laughter bursts again. The women with pocketbooks push their carts, careful to avert their eyes.

“Okay, we just need bread and a can of salmon,” my mom says, rolling the cart at top speed, hand still over my mouth.

“And a bottle of wine,” Nanny says. “I think he’s finished anyway. He wore himself out. Didn’t you, Unigagin?” she says, pointing a finger at me. (Unigagin is her nickname for everybody.) They collect the salmon, seven-grain, and Chianti, and head for checkout.

“You finished, Boog?” my mom asks.

“Fuck the baby.” All eyes are on us—women shopping, checkout clerks, the pharmacist thirty feet away. Nanny and my mom are beyond controlling themselves. The laughter shoves its way through their lungs and ribs, scratching their throats.

“Sssh. Jason, shush,” my mom says.

“For godssake, Jason.”

My mom’s hand is back on my mouth. Nanny has tightened her face and reached into her purse for her wallet. She presses her lips together as she pays, but the cashier’s stare lets her know her laughter is still visible.

One of the gleaming aisles at Jonathan’s.

The three of us are collaborators in this scene. We’ll pass the blame around later. I was just a baby. Who’d I learn the words from, anyway? I’ll say. Certainly not me, Nanny will say, not even convincing herself. Yeah right, my mom will chime in. Who was the one laughing? The truth is we all want the blame. We love this idea of ourselves, a trio of rabble-rousers enjoying the clean-lit luxury of Jonathan’s while raising our middle fingers to its propriety. If “fuck the baby” really was my first sentence—as my mom and Nanny will insist it was—it’s almost too good to be true. How could I, at eighteen months, have found a sentence wry enough to bundle the terrifying, liberating, and hilarious chaos of being raised by Southern California hippies during the 1970s, in a family that had just fallen from wealth and celebrity, trying to figure out how to live as the counterculture revolution evaporated like a dream?

When I moved to New York in 1993, I found myself telling people about my California hippie childhood. Geographical distance seemed to loosen my lips. I talked about the near abortion, living on a converted school bus, my heroin-addict father in prison. About growing up hippie and poor in the shadow of celebrity and wealth. About Ralph, my famous jockey Grandpa who squandered his fortune, about Nanny (or Midge), his wife, whose best friend was Betty Grable. About the drugs my elders swallowed and the addicts they became. I listed diagnoses of mental illness and described our endless moving from house to house, my mom’s many abusive boyfriends, her many marriages and divorces. “Why aren’t you more fucked up?” people kept asking me.

At first, I’d shrug. My family’s lore had done its job. While the sensational details are largely true, they’ve also been refined, through decades of retelling, to provoke questions like this. Of course, what people really meant was, “How did you survive?” and “Why do you seem so different from the people who raised you?” The first question is the one the lore is designed to elicit. Its answer casts us as unlikely heroes, survivors. The second is less self-serving, a version of an undeniable philosophical question that haunts us all: “How did I become me?”

However you phrase it, the question is hard to answer. You might say it started with that first sentence, my entry into language and the new relationships it made possible. You might say it started earlier, with my mother’s decision not to abort my fetus. You might say you have to understand California in the seventies, or the tenderness of both my mom and Nanny, or genetics and human physiology. You might have subject me to a battery of brain scans at various stages of childhood to chart the series of adaptations I made to my surroundings: shoot x-ray beams through my head and develop cross-sectional photos of the meat inside; slide me into a noisy fMRI and measure the oxygenation of cerebral blood flow; tape electrodes to my skull to see how it conducts electricity; saw through my skull and insert tiny electrodes that measure localized energy exchanges among particular neurons; inject me with radioactive materials so the PET can measure their emissions as they decay; and poise a halo of helium-soaked coils over my head to measure the faint magnetism of the electricity buzzing around in there. Even if this were possible, the yield of information would likely be modest. You might learn some things, and some of them might be telling. But despite what some of the neuroscientists think, neural networks and selfhood are not the same thing. They are fundamentally related, and their relationship is fascinating. But neurons alone do not explain self, and even if they might, we are not even close to knowing how.

In the meantime, here’s my plan. I can tell the story, with the benefit of my unforgiving memory and the brain science that’s beginning to offer new ways of understanding the development and experience of self.

(This is an excerpt from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism, the memoir I’ve been working on.)

Interview with Heather Houser

9780231165143Heather Houser’s book Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP 2014) moved and fascinated me. Houser writes about ecology and sickness in fiction by some of the most influential contemporary American writers, including Jan Zita Grover, Marge Piercy, Richard Powers, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Foster Wallace, and David Wojnarowicz. Houser’s writing is lucid and engaging. She does an amazing job of showing how these writers elicit particular feelings—anxiety, wonder, disgust—and motivate readers to environmental consciousness. We read fiction to lose (and find) ourselves in worlds invented by writers. How do those invented worlds help us think about feel? How do they reflect the bewildering thing we call the real world? Can they motivate us to ethical engagement? I’m delighted that Heather Houser agreed to talk about some of these questions with me.

Ecosickness in U.S. Contemporary Fiction is the winner of Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Book Award for 2015. It will be published in paperback this spring.

Jason
In your book, you describe fiction as “a laboratory for perceptual and affective changes that can catalyze ethical and political projects.” Your focus is works of fiction that tell ecological stories, about forms of illness and suffering that link human bodies with environmental factors that play often mysterious roles in making them sick. I love the way you borrow the word laboratory from science here. A lab is the place where experiments happen, and scientists conduct experiments when they want to learn something about something that remains mysterious. I would love to hear you talk about an example of a work of fiction as a laboratory—one example that really shows what mean.

Heather
Your characterization of the meanings of laboratory precisely matches what I was thinking with this. One of the claims of Ecosickness is that authors depict and deploy emotions like disgust and anxiety in ways that don’t predictably conform to an environmental ethic or politics. So, just as the etiologies of the sicknesses that authors like David Foster Wallace and Leslie Marmon Silko depict aren’t cut-and-dried, the trajectories of emotions are uncertain. Let’s take Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) as an example. In Ecosickness I run through how this enormous novel’s precise and relentless detailing of the horrors of racism, genocide, and environmental degradation generates anxiety in characters and readers alike. I think of Almanac as a laboratory for anxiety because the outcomes of this emotion are as uncertain as the outcomes of the exploitations and rebellions the book narrates. Will anxiety be politically motivating or will it tip over into paralysis? I find this uncertainty productive for literary analysis for the same reasons I assume it’s productive for authors: it’s not predictive and this encourages the critic to examine aesthetic strategies like plot structure and metaphor as kinds of tools or methods in the experiment with affect. How does, in the case of Almanac, the novel’s sprawling geography and character set influence the production of anxiety? How does a conclusion entitled “Home” calm this disturbing feeling?

safe

Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995) has become an iconic take on eco-sickness in our time.

Jason
How do you define ecosickness? What’s the origin of the term? I ask because it seems to me that all illness involves relationships between an organism and an environment, but I think you mean something more particular—both conceptually and historically.

Heather
Most illnesses have environmental factors that shape them, even if they don’t cause them. But you’re right that I mean something more particular here. “Ecosickness” refers to the interplays between human bodies and the more-than-human world that manifest materially through dysfunction and conceptually, culturally, and politically through our tropes and narratives. This has an historical dimension because, I argue, innovations in technoscience such as genetic modification and biosphere engineering helped intensify the damages through which the imbrications of body and environment become visible. They have also intensified the affects that attach to transformations to life itself. The term “ecosickness” emerged from conversations with my writing group and mentors as I was writing the dissertation that became the book. I was using “sickness” to capture my meaning but was running up against the fact that this word typically calls up either the human body alone and/or moral judgment. By adding “eco-,” I thought I could retain but augment those associations. Most importantly, I hoped readers would come to think of dysfunction as pervasive and as necessarily engaging numerous systems—biological, social, political, etc.

Jason
I’d imagine many people suffering from various forms of ecosickness have a hard time finding answers about the causes of their symptoms—and that people build communities to help each other find answers, and solace. Are there any particular community groups or projects that stand out to you for the ways they help people cope with the uncertainties you discuss in the book?

Heather
I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this, but I’m aware of a number of citizen science networks that monitor the environmental conditions that might correlate to lived sickness. There’s often a distance between the institutions and experts that examine the human body and those that research environmental pollutants and other factors. To fill this gap and connect dots–if only for themselves–people become naturalists of the “unnatural” and diarists of their own body’s functioning. With new technologies, citizen science is becoming more quantified and integrated. For example, the Air Quality Egg project provides devices for detecting and reporting on air pollution. Stacy Alaimo, Steven Epstein, and Giovanna di Chiro have all written tellingly of these grassroots ways of establishing environmental and medical expertise and how they hook up with political and social justice fights. The Human Toxome Project is building communities and citizen knowledge of environmental sickness.

Jason
Your question about anxiety—will it motivate or paralyze?—rings true to me. It seems to me this is a feeling most people I know live with every day. Your book’s focus on ecosickness connects so many of the contemporary realities that provoke anxiety: the pollution that’s transforming the earth, economic and social injustice, geopolitical inequities, mortality, the possibility of extinction or apocalypse. The list could go on. You’ve read and thought about these subjects more than most. In your reading, have you come across ideas or actions or suggestions that strike you as antidotes to personal and political paralysis?

Heather
Truthfully, I think enduring antidotes, especially ones that come in the formal of external motivation, are hard to find. Disgust at injustice and antipathy toward inertia are the strongest antidotes for me personally. Ann Cvetkovich’s book Depression: A Public Feeling offers remarkable reflections on both these spurs to involvement, and I’m continually inspired by those like my UT colleagues Robert Jensen and Snehal Shingavi who never fail to organize and speak out. I share her sentiment, voiced there, that there will be days when we throw up our hands and sit it all out. And then there will be days of activation when we see alternatives to the realities you describe and want to do our damnedest–through protest, lobbying, teaching, conversation, writing, meditation—to make those alternatives know. To my mind, the strongest sources of paralysis are perfectionism and fatalism and just doing can stave off both tendencies.

Jason
Can we talk a little more about perfectionism and fatalism? I think you’re absolutely right that both lead to paralysis. Both tendencies seem to involve a yearning for certainty. Perfectionism is a fantasy that we can do something just right, fatalism that it doesn’t matter what we do. In your book, you made a conscious choice to write about works of fiction that don’t offer any clear cause-and-effect explanations for the relationship between sickness and environment. I’m guessing here, but your point about just doing seems related to that decision. You’re writing about works of fiction that seem less about solving problems that living with, through, or beyond them. In other words, doing. I’m curious to hear about how you made the decision to focus on texts that aren’t explicit or definite about environmental causes for sickness. Did you know all along that this was what you wanted to do, or did you realize it some time later in the process of doing your research and writing? What difference does it make when works of fiction don’t represent definite causes for the sicknesses they portray?

Heather
This is a rich question with a number of rabbit trails to follow. Ecosickness initially emerged from a broader interest in representations of disease in 20th-century fiction. I certainly investigated stories in which diseases–or potential diseases–had environmental causes (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge), but I also found stories in which disease and environmental decline were seemingly running on parallel tracks. I didn’t know quite what to make of this at first but wanted to explore whether there was some feature of the works–representational strategies, ideological investments, historical conditions, etc.–that bends those parallel lines and make them converge at a level other than plot. In doing my readings, I found that the feature that bent the lines was narrative affect, which I define in Ecosickness as emotions attached to formal dimensions of texts that draw conceptual and experiential homologies between somatic and environmental damage. 

Highlighting narratives without definite causes helped me think outside of the “solution” model of ecocriticism and political criticism more general. The upshots for an environmental politics of books like Infinite Jest or North Enough aren’t always tidy or uplifting. If much political criticism of the 80s-00s looked to literature for its subversive potential or ability to resist oppression and exploitation, the criticism of the messy narratives in Ecosickness instead shows the obstacles to more politically assuaging (for some) readings. Looking outside of cause-and-effect models also encouraged attention to formal mechanisms like metaphoric systems (primarily what I call throughout my book medicalization) or how narrative structures and characterization mesh (as in the case of Almanac of the Dead). This allows for a criticism in which formal attentiveness is in the service of eco-political, ethical, and affective interpretation.

As with any project, some pragmatic things also motivated my choice of narratives that aren’t invested in rooting out causes or drawing vectors between cause and effect. That was to build on rather than reduplicate some of the excellent scholarship on environmental health culture and history that appeared as I was conceiving the project. I’m thinking here of magnificent titles by Stacy Alaimo—Bodily Natures–and Linda Nash—Inescapable Ecologies. While both studies are explicit about the impossibility of pinpointing etiologies in environmental health matters, the kinds of texts and phenomena they examine raise an expectation for that discovery even if they don’t satisfy it.

Jason
Let’s talk another feeling—wonder. You discuss wonder in novels by Richard Powers, including The Echo Maker. I should tell you that I’m a huge fan of the cranes in that novel, which you write about. When I first read your gorgeous interpretations of the cranes, I thought, “Oh, shit, I’ve been scooped.” Then I realized that there’s plenty of room for your reading and mine, and that yours will only help me make mine stronger. Anyway, you discuss wonder in some surprising and complex ways—not simply as a great feeling that helps us cope or hope. Can you give readers of the blog a preview of your take on how wonder works in our emotional and literary lives?

Heather
Wonder is just everywhere in environmental writing. I’m encountering it over and over as I work on my current project (called, for now, “Environmental Art and the Infowhelm”) for which I’m reading classical natural history and “the new natural history” of the past 30 years. In studying Powers’s The Echo Maker for Ecosickness I found that, for as much as wonder motivates the science-curious characters and science-driven plot and, in fact, is the essence of inquiry, it also shares features with projection and paranoia. Showing how wonder can slide into these relations, Power’s story of neurological damage and habitat destruction also shows that even feelings like wonder that seem productive for environmental care can have other outcomes.  I want to continue thinking about the trajectories of wonder, especially as it arises from curiosity in my current project, but there I’ll be focusing especially on its effects on ways of attending to and knowing the more-than human.

Jason
So we have something to look forward to. I, for one, am excited to read anything you write—but especially if it’s about wonder and curiosity. I imagine we’ll all be thinking about all things more-than-human in the near future. I’d imagine you teach some fascinating courses. I’d love to hear about how your teaching relates to your writing about eco-sickness and about the cultural work of feelings in general. 

Heather
I taught a course called “Imagining Contamination” in which we discussed Todd Haynes’s film Safe (1995). The idea for the course was to think about medical, environmental, cultural, and social contaminants and how one type can become the others. Safe is a particularly challenging film to watch and to teach, not least because it is deliberately irritating–the soundtrack, the color palette and lighting, some characters’ seeming vacuity. Viewers can easily become polarized about the status of the protagonist, Carol White’s (Julianne Moore), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Some students readily fell into the “it’s all in her head; she’s hysterical” interpretation and read Carol’s disease as Haynes’s indictment of suburban domesticity and consumerism. Others considered features of the film such as mise-en-scène that suggested environmental causes to the symptoms Carol develops that ultimately lead her to leave her family and San Fernando Valley home to live in the desert with others affected by MCS. Safe to me is a laboratory for thinking and feeling because of its unpredictability. Haynes’s aesthetic strategies combined with his refusal to preach—to be avowedly and identifiably environmentalist—set in motion the experiment in which my students participated. Without denying the validity of their divergent responses, I tried to steer them to think about how even what’s “in our heads” has a reality, not only because the feelings it produces in the so-called hysterical person are embodied and experienced but also in that toxicity–actual and perceived–has sociocultural origins. In any case, Safe might be the work I’ve taught that most makes students feel experimented upon precisely because they are so uneasy in the act of viewing and in their ensuing interpretations. It gets at one of the points with which I conclude Ecosickness: “Uncertainty about the outcomes of affect makes it hazardous terrain, for the artist and for the critic.” And for the teacher and student.

Sesame Street’s Missed Opportunity

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

–Junot Diaz

In her careful, compassionate critique of Sesame Street‘s new attempts to represent autistic kids on the show, Erin Human, quotes Junot Diaz, from a speech he gave to New Jersey students. Diaz sees his job as a novelist as “making mirrors” for people who aren’t represented much in mainstream culture.

That is what Sesame Street is trying to do with autistic kids. In “Not in Love with Julia,” Erin Human has spent a lot of time with the show’s various materials and she’s evaluated them, thinking about whether she’d want her own kids to see them. Sesame Street has created an autistic character, Julia. She’s intended to be a positive representation, to help kids understand neurological difference. But Julia isn’t a full-fledged muppet. She only appears in animated sequences. She doesn’t speak for herself, and the narratives she’s involved in are all aimed at educating so-called neurotypical kids. They don’t really speak to autistic kids on their terms.

I want to share Human’s article about Sesame Street, because she’s a master rhetorician. She offers a serious critique without attacking anybody. She’s a model of civil discourse, and we need more of that in the world. I also want to share it because autistic people’s lives will be improved if our cultures produce mirrors like the ones Diaz describes. The same goes for people who embody all kinds of difference, neurological or otherwise.

Because Human–whose name is amazing!–is such a compassionate critic, she ends with a sort of rallying cry:

This website is not good. There’s too much that’s bad tipping the scales toward ableism and stigma. I hope Sesame Street listens. I think they can still fix this. Go back to the drawing board (literally and figuratively) with Julia, scrap everything else. Yep, scrap it. You made an autistic muppet, awesome. I love that she does happy flapping and loves to sing. Make her a real muppet. Make her part of the Sesame Street family. Let her talk instead of just talking about her. Let autistic kids see their reflection in her and feel that they are real people too, not monsters. Let them tell their own stories. Sesame Street has always known how to let kids be kids and they can do it again, and they can start now.

It would be amazing if the people who make Sesame Street hear Human’s message. They have a chance to do a better job. I would love to see them rise to the occasion.

Joseph LeDoux: On the Radio

9780670015337In my other life as a DJ, I had the pleasure of spending two hours on the air with Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist and frontman for the band The Amygdaloids. My show is The Mixtape, on 90.5 FM WJFF in Jeffersonville, New York. Usually, it’s a music show, but last week it was a combination of music and interview. In his new book,  Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Anxiety, LeDoux argues that we need to understand consciousness if we’re going to understand fear and anxiety. Along with the book, LeDoux’s band The Amygdaloids released a CD also entitled Anxious.  During the show, we play several tracks from the CD and music about anxiety and fear from the pop music archive. We also discuss the biology of emotion, the “hard problem” of consciousness, and therapeutic treatments for anxiety (among other topics). You can listen here.

Caitlin Kuhwald: Jane Eyre’s Watercolors

Jane-Iceburg-Final

Caitlin Kuhwald, “Iceberg.” Watercolor. 2014.

 The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

 

Jane Eyre fans, get ready. Illustrator and watercolorist Caitlyn Kuhwald is revivifying Jane’s art. Jane Eyre spends a lot of time daydreaming worlds even more menacing than the ones she lives in. A prolific artist throughout the novel, she documents some of these daydreams in watercolor. Of course, drawing and painting would have been essential skills for a Victorian governess, who needed the “accomplishments” of the ruling classes in order to instruct her pupils in them–music, art, a breadth of reading from the classics to the contemporary. Ekphrasis–the literary depiction of a work of art–has a long history, including Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad, the frescoes in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the Grecian urn in Keats, the masterpiece in Zola, Dorian Gray’s portrait in Wilde, Icarus falling in Auden, The Goldfinch in Donna Tartt. Like these, Jane Eyre’s drawings are central to plot: Through them, Rochester learns that he has not hired a run-of-the-mill governess, setting in motion is compulsion to seduce her.

The terror of Jane’s watercolors strays pretty far from the routine landscapes or portraits of your ordinary governess. Like an heir to William Blake and a foremother to the surrealists, Jane Eyre is preoccupied with mystical landscapes and morbid bodies. Kuhwald’s recreations tell the story. I’ve included two finished pieces, “Evening Star” and “Iceberg”–as well exploratory illustrations for “Corpse,” a work in progress–along with Brontë’s descriptions of the watercolors from the novel. This is an ongoing project for Kuhwald, who is also considering illustrating some of the dreams and fantasies Jane doesn’t draw in the novel.

Evening-Star-Final

Caitlin Kuhwald, “Evening Star.” Watercolor. 2015.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze.  Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine.  The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail.  On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

 

corpse-sketch

Caitlin Kuhwald. Sketch for “Corpse.” Ink on paper. 2015.

The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land.  One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart.  Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn. –Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Caitlyn Kuhwald is known for her use of bright color, the precision of her detail, and her ability to re-envision the aesthetics of other eras. She’s an artist whose visual voice is ideal for the job of giving visual form to the terror and beauty of Jane Eyre’s artistic vision. 

 

The McGill Pain Index (and Its Metaphors)

If you’re in a lot of pain, you’re likely to visit a doctor who will ask you to complete a questionnaire based on the McGill Pain Index, which gets its name from the venerable Canadian University where it was developed. Pain is subjective, and the index is designed to generate something like objective statistics about our collective experience of physical pain.

I can’t help thinking the project is hopeless. How can people know how to rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10? In relation to what? The history of our own pain? The pain of others? The most severe pain I ever experienced was when I was in middle school. I’d sprayed my hair lavender to go to school as a punk rocker on Halloween. I guess I sprayed too many fumes up my nose and ended up in the nurse’s office barfing with a migraine (the only one I’ve experienced). I guess I’d rate that pain a 9. It probably saved me from getting my ass kicked that day, which saved me from physical pain that probably would have rated only a 5 or 6. (And plenty of unrateable humiliation.)

But the McGill Pain Index doesn’t just rate pain. It categorizes it. Pain can flicker, jump, drill, stab, cut, rasp, burn, or shoot.

full-image

Nearly every category of pain on the index is a metaphor. Pain is a knife, it’s a hammer, a fire, a drill, a gun, a piece of sandpaper. Virginia Woolf complained that “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache. . . . The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” The McGill Pain Index was launched in 1971, 30 years after Woolf’s death. I wonder if she would have appreciated it.

In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry remarks that “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” We can’t share pain. It reminds us that we’re alone with our pesky subjective experiences. Based on this, Scarry observes that another person’s pain is always doubtful. We can’t share it, so we can’t believe it, not viscerally. Our own pain, she writes, is “a certainty.” We know it. It dominates us.

But we can share pain, through metaphors. This makes me wonder: Has the McGill Index unwittingly turned the clinical experience of diagnosing pain into an aesthetic exercise?

In the words of Emily Dickinson,

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is an obliterating certainty. It dominates consciousness. It suspends time. It sees itself everywhere. But when we atomize it, with the McGill metaphors, we fill in the blanks and interrupt the infinity. That’s what aesthetic experience does: It hijacks consciousness with experience created through engagement with an artist’s tools for simulating experience in paint or words or video.

I don’t remember if the school nurse talked the fake punk rocker in her office that day through the McGill questionnaire, but from memory I’d call that pain icy. The projectile vomit, on the other hand, was rasping.

My Body Remembers

I pause when I reach the porch. Stanley sees me. My current step-dad is prone on the couch, hairy in boxer shorts. The light from the TV blinks on his face and chest. His mouth is moving, like he’s talking to the screen. I open the door and walk in, looking straight ahead at my room. He stinks, of course, like musty sweat and alcohol. If I can walk past without provoking him, maybe we can skip what I know is about to happen.

“Hey kid, where ya been?” Walk.

“No hello for your old man. Would Mommy like that? Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” she mimicks my high kid’s voice. “Fuckin’ momma’s boy.”

“I’m here,” I mutter.

“What was that? Huh? Whatever. You missed the fuckin’ game.”

“I hate football.” He knows that. of course.

“I hate football,” He mimicks. “Fuckin’ wuss. Go play with your Barbies.” He’s up, hairy and staggering toward me, red and grinning. “Commeer. Commeeer. You scared? I just want to talk to you.” He picks me up. My body is stringy and uncoordinated. He shakes it. I start to cry.

“Whatsamatter, kid? I didn’t do shit. Toughen up. Learn how to fight. Fight me. Fuck.”

“I hate you,” I say. He drops me. I try to stop my heaves. I rub my face on the floor to dry the tears. I struggle to compose my face. I can’t stand that contorted crying face.

“Look, you goddamn sissy ass faggot. You want a fight? I got the belt. Look.” He’s grinning but yelling too. Fun and fury are all mixed up in Stanley. “Nobody ever teaches you a lesson. Your old man’s a fuckin’ loser. He’s not around to teach you anything. That’s your problem. I’ll teach you.” I feel his foot nudging me, like I’m a dead animal he wants to turn over. I freeze. If I remain still, it will eventually end. I know this from experience.

Stanley didn’t beat me up all the time. He mocked me constantly. He played a game that involved swinging me around in the air, against my will, while I cried for him to stop.

I don’t know how accurate the memories are. Time gelled them. Writing warped them. But my body remembers–something. I’ve had enough therapy to make emotional and intellectual peace with Stanley’s abuse. I even confronted him in an oblique way, at my Nanny’s funeral. There was slight satisfaction in that.

It wasn’t until I was about forty that I realized my body is almost always on constant alert. If somebody cutting my hair nudges my head, it’s an effort not to resist. If a masseur or doctor tries to move my limbs or torso, I have to make a conscious effort to move my body the way I think it’s supposed to go. I often get it wrong. I can tell this perplexes people. A couple of years ago, a man much larger than me confronted me in a physical way that swept my body right back into those rooms with Stanley. When I see this man, it’s like that frozen and contorted kid emerges from my cells and occupies my muscles and nerves. Bones too. The alert also means I’m pretty good at navigating traffic on a bike and at catching falling glasses before they break.

I decided to write this today because my body’s memory fascinates me but also because I’m a little tired of it. My best guess is that my body learned to freeze, like a threatened rabbit, and held the pose at the ready. Just in case. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s some kind of physical practice that might loosen the fear out of my muscles.

I’m fine. I love my life. I’m not looking for condolences or sympathy. But if you have ideas about the relationship between childhood physical abuse and body memory, I’d love to hear about them.

Adapted from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland, Donadio & Olson).

Breaking: Telepathic Passionflowers Are Felt to Undergo Suffering

passionfl

I. MOOD OF PATIENT? CHECK APPROPRIATE BOX: 

a. APATHETIC [_]
b. IMPATIENT [_]
c. DISPASSIONATE [_]
d. ANTHROPOPATHIC [_]
e. PASSIVE [_]
f. OTHER [x] *

II. THE BLOSSOM OF THE PASSIONFLOWER RESEMBLES MANY THINGS. IT NEVER RESEMBLES ITSELF. 

Imagine a series of over-layering discs. To unlock the axis of the blossom, you need to know which numbers to dial. You need to know how to rotate each disc. Otherwise the passionflower will never share its secret with you.

Not everyone can unlock the blossom of a passionflower.  It takes practice. It takes apocalypse. It takes a certain genius.

Passionflowers are mauve and blue. Sometimes they’re orange. Sometimes they’re red – as red as blood; as red as a 911 emergency phone call.

I myself have never seen a passionflower. Not with my own eyes. Not in this lifetime. Or so I’ve been told.

III.  TRANSCRIPT OF VOICES OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS

MD1: “The transcranial magnetic sessions are clearly helping.”

Professional hair cutter: “When was the last time you got a haircut?”

MD2: “I would urge you to stop the transcranial electromagnetic sessions. They seem to be making you worse.”

MD3: “You are on too many medications.”

Radio in hair salon: “I feel stupid. And contagious. Here we are now. Entertain us.”

MD2: “Maybe you’re on the wrong combination of meds. Have you considered changing them?”

Friend: “You seem to be functioning pretty well.”

MD1: “Who told you that?”

Radio in salon: “I’m worse at what I do best. And for this gift I feel blessed.”

MD3: “I’m surprised you haven’t yet died from an interaction of these medications. No wonder you’ve been vomiting.”

Self: “I always cut my own hair. Well, except for today.”

MD1: “Another alternative would be hospitalization.”

Friend: “Since when have you been vomiting?”

MD2: “It could be due to another condition altogether. Maybe you should take a medical leave. Get thoroughly checked out.”

Radio: “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous!”

MD3: “Do you consume gluten and sugar? If so, you should remove them from your diet.”

Professional hair cutter: “When was the last time you got a *real* hair cut?”

MD1: “ECT is also extremely effective.”

Acquaintance: “If you were reincarnated, what would you want to be next?”

Self: “I don’t remember… Maybe a decade ago.”

MD3: “I encourage you to overcome your fear of acupuncture needles.”

Self: “You don’t understand. I can’t take a leave. It is impossible. I need this job.”

Radio: “Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hello, hello, hello, hollow.”

MD2: “Have you tried Latuda? Studies have shown that it can do wonders for bipolar patients.”

Professional hair cutter (while shampooing my hair vigorously): “Ohhhh… So, an accident?”

MD1: “At least finish this round of treatments.”

RN (in a soft voice while taking my blood pressure): “Personally I think you should try medical marijuana.”

Acquaintance: “A leaf? Why would you want to be a leaf? No one wants to be reincarnated as a leaf.”

Hypnagogic voice: “…passionflower tea will soothe your nervous system naturally passionflower tea will soothe your nervous system naturally passionflower tea will… ”
Self: “Accident? I don’t understand. What accident.”

MD3: “I’m looking at your chart and these meds are toxic.”

Professional hair cutter (while rinsing my hair): “Yes, brain damage?”

MD2: “These meds are keeping you alive.”

Radio: “And I forget just why I taste. Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. I found it hard, hard to find. Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

Acquaintance: “Why not aspire to be a beam of light in your next life?”

Self (confused by the towel in which my hair is tightly wrapped): “What are you talking about? And what is this thing on my head? How do I turn it off? Why does my head hurt?”

Friend: “Wait. You spend how long writing each letter of recommendation? Damn. Having OCD must suck.”

Radio: “A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial”

Self: “A beam of light. That would be nice. A beam of light. A beam of light.”

* DISCLAIMER:  NONE OF THIS HAPPENED. SOME OF IT WAS REAL. ALL OF IT IS TRUE.

 

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Seo-Young Chu is intrigued by the etymological resonances between and among (in alphabetical order) ‘anthropopathic,’ ‘apathy,’ ‘dispassionate,’ ’empathy,’ ‘homeopathic,’ ‘impatience,’ ‘passion,’ ‘passion-flower,’ ‘passive,’ ‘pathetic,’ ‘pathologist,’ ‘pathology,’ ‘pathos,’ ‘patient,’ ‘sympathy,’ and ‘telepath.’

Mona’s Trip

“Ma’am, I’m Agent Brown and this is Agent Blonde. Secret Service.” They flash their badges at my mom. “Your dog seems to be in some distress.” Mona, our black lab, has been acting weird for a couple of weeks. We’ve all gotten used to the yelping, but you have to admit the lunging toward the sky is pretty weird.

“I’m taking her to the vet,” my mom says. I wonder if it’s true.

“But that’s not why we’re here,” Blonde says. “We’re here to discuss a Stanley Messin. We believe you were married to him.”

“Yeah?” she says.

“Mr. Messin was heard making a threat on the life of President Ford.”

“What?” my mom says. They’re going to arrest Stanley. I’m really starting to like police.

“Goddamn Stanley Messin kill the fucking ex-President?” my  mom’s friend Cheech says. “Now that’s hilarious.”  Cheech waitresses with my mom at the Seafood Market. She’s Portuguese too. She’s got the same shag as all the Yourgales guys who own the restaurant, except even blacker and more wiry. Her Portuguese skin is darker than ours, and her nose is bigger. She could easily be a man. She talks like one. She and my mom hang out all the time now.

“We take these threats seriously,” Brown says.

“Not this one, Honey,” Cheech says. “It’s a fuckin’ joke.”

“Cheech,” my mom says, shooting her a shut up look.

“Is that your impression, ma’am,” Blonde says to my mom, “that the threat is not serious?”

“Stanley just likes to talk. He gets drunk and talks.”

“Thank you for your time, ma’am. We’ll be in touch if we have further questions.”

“Okay,” she says, shutting the door.

We all go to the window and watch Brown and Blonde pull out of the driveway, Mona’s yelps deepening to a growl as she tries to leap in the direction of their car. At the side of the shed, we can see JP and his friend Sonny looking down at the ground like two archeologists who just found buried treasure. JP’s been living in our shed since he got out of prison. Everybody but me knows he OD’d on PCP, which is why he’s been acting weird. Between him and Mona, our dusty yard is like a psych ward.

“JP is out of his mind,” Cheech says. “He buy you that sheep yet, Jas?” JP and I are going to start a business. He’s going to buy me a sheep, and I’m going to use it to make money mowing people’s lawns.

“No,” I say, starting to think he never will. “I could have been making money by now.”

“Don’t count on it,” she replies.

“Cheech,” my mom reprimands.

“Well, he’s out of his fucking mind. He shouldn’t get the kid’s hopes up. What the fuck are they doin’ anyway?”

When we get down there, we see that they’re kneeling over a pile of dog poop. Mona poop. “What’s up?” Cheech asks. What’s up is that the poop is dotted with shreds of what looks like construction paper with colored patterns on it. “Oh, shit,” Cheech says.

JP’s eyes are wide like a toddler’s. His mouth’s a little open. “We found it,” he says.

“What?” my mom asks.

“The acid Sonny buried.”

“That was two-hundred hits,” Sonny says.

“What?” my mom says.

“That’s it. In Mona’s shit,” JP says, pointing at the pile of dried up Mona poop from which Sonny is prying little bits of mangled orange and blue paper.

“Goddamn dog ODs,” Cheech says, “and the cat leaves another dead fuckin’ rabbit at the back door.” Everybody looks. Misty’s not around, but her gift is curled up on the back step, its tiny ear sticking up and its white ball of a tail. Mona’s on her side now, exhausted, whimpering.

 

Mona wags her body down Lake Drive, a frothy rage growing out of the discomfort she feels with the freedom. JP and his wife Sue Ellen were sitting on the porch, sunning their new baby, Jimmy Freddy. Mona had the same idea. When the sun is straight up at the top of the sky, it makes her black fur shine in this way she can feel beneath the skin. She likes to lay with her two front paws stretched straight out in front of her snout. The baby was right in her line of vision, on Sue Ellen’s lap, naked, a pink ball of fat with droopy blue eyes. It was something about the squishy velvet of his skin. Mona pounced in one straight glide, her teeth bared so that all she had to do was clamp and she could feel her teeth sink in before Sue Ellen, screaming and hitting her hard on the top of her head, pulled the baby into the shack.

She can still feel the sun under her skin, and she can taste the baby’s blood under her tongue, where some of it lodged itself. She passes Riley, whose lanky Irish Wolfhound gait and greasy matted fur intimidate her into snarling. When he just trots past, she releases a high-pitched bark, the kind that makes an animal sound like she’s lost control.

She’s just passed the mile point when she sees the cage—a wooden rectangle on stilts covered in chicken wire. She has to climb a bank of ice plant to reach it, but the fur poking through, a light grey dusted with cocoa at the ends, is worth the effort. Her paws get tangled in the vines more than once, but she just keeps her eye on the fur, which moves almost imperceptibly every few seconds, like good bait should.

The humiliation of the tangled ice plant still in her eyes, she reprises her pounce, diving straight at the cage and breaking one of the old wood posts that it holds together. The angora inside is trying to adjust to the new slope in its floor when it sees Mona’s snarl invade. Barking maniacally now, Mona goes straight for a mouthful of wide round eyes and droopy cocoa ears. The crush of bones and the stringy resistance of muscle become the sum of her reality while she chews at the carcass, until she hears a scream a lot like Sue Ellen’s, but deeper. Without bothering to see the gray hair or turquoise necklace attached to it, she dives straight down the ice plant and lands her pads hard on the concrete of Lake Drive. Her mouth is a matted mess of cotton-dry fur and salty blood.

 

From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).

25 Things about Boyhood

I watched Boyhood again during a very long plane ride, returning to the U.S. after some time in two very different countries: the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka. Sometimes I like to imitate the list style of Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things about Me Too. I love that book, and I enjoy imitating other writers. And long plane rides seem to inspire short bursts of writing.

1. Stories about mean stepfathers make me feel raw.

2. If you want to understand America, this movie is a good place to start (whether you’re American or not).

3. The soundtrack: Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Phoenix, Cat Power,  Gotye–and, yes, Britney. I could do without Coldplay’s “Yellow,” but it felt pretty true to the moment. I guess they probably couldn’t get the rights for Beatles songs.

4. Smart works of art with vernacular voices comfort me; they make feel like I have a place in the world.

5. I’ve never seen a Richard Linklater movie I didn’t like.

6. I still think the movie is about how hard it is to become a decent man in America, one who isn’t goaded into feeling like a failure under the pressure of American masculinity, one who doesn’t take that failure out on other people. This helps me think a little differently about the mean stepfathers in my own past. But as I mentioned in #1, it also just makes me feel raw. I guess feeling raw is important.

7. Like Before Sunrise,  this movie is also about the balancing acts of life: earning a living, chasing bliss, respecting others, pursuing and maintaining integrity, having fun, living with the unknown, figuring out when to forgive (and when not to).

8. Patricia Arquette is very appealing.

9. The movie is about girlhood and womanhood as much as boyhood. They’re all hard.

10. A lot of characters express casual homophobia. It’s clear we’re meant to see they are casually wrong. I don’t think any movie can do everything, so I’m not complaining, but there’s not much in the movie to counteract the casual homophobia.

11. College should be fun, and it should be fun on students’ terms—not packaged for them by a university. The fun is important to making the learning meaningful and lasting.

12. The editing between the various eras of the characters’ lives is elegant.

13. There seems to be a pattern to the editing: We get a scene that involves hard questions about the future, and then we cut to a reality where the characters have aged and their lives have changed, answering those questions (obliquely).

14. The movie is also about kindness, but kindness is complicated. Without mutual respect, it becomes condescending or controlling. Respectful kindness involves a negotiation.

15. Arquette’s charisma has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a little bit stout and a little bit fragile. Also, her speaking voice. Also, she reminds me of my beloved friend Kenna McRae.

16. I met only one American in Sri Lanka. He was about my mom’s age and lived in Encinitas, California—where I lived as a little kid. He talked like my uncle and was planning to stay in the Weligama for five months.

17. This movie is a melancholy transition after a short sojourn outside the U.S.—during which the country erupted into violence because of the very public injustice of the dismissal of Darren Wilson’s case and some outrageous announcements from powers that be, who seemed intent on provoking the violence.

18. The evolution of hairstyles for all the characters is entirely convincing. Did the same crew work on hair and makeup during every phase of shooting, over the course of twelve years?

19. The “mama for Obama” character is hilarious.

20. One guy in Sri Lanka told me Obama is black but great. I chose to believe the “but” was a language issue that meant something more like, “It’s a big deal that America has a black Preisdent.” I think I was right about that, but I’m not sure. Another guy told me that Obama is complicated because he seems to be a man of good character, but he oversees a military that invades other countries. This guy wonders if one day country as big as the U.S. might decide to invade Sri Lanka for some reason. Perhaps India.

21. American masculinity involves a set of ideas that govern everybody’s lives, starting pretty much from birth. I think Linklater’s saying we’d be better off without the pressures of these ideas, but you can’t simply change them at will. It’s up to people to live daily lives that create alternatives ways of being (and thinking). And feeling.

22. I’ve learned a lot about American masculinity from talking to Ken Nielsen. He’s eloquent on differences between American masculinity and the meanings of manliness various other cultures. I have a feeling Ken will write a book about this, and we can all learn from it.

23. Finally a portrait of a professor (Arquette) who is neither a HEROIC SAVIOR or a SCHEMING SOCIOPATH.The scenes with the gardener she inspires to go to college come close to casting Arquette as the savior professor, but they sill make me cry. (She does become the heroic single mother, even though she marries a bunch of assholes. Heroes aren’t so bad, though, and she’s a complicated one. Single motherhood is really hard in our world, obviously.)

24. I’m pretty sure I spotted a cameo from the guy who played the autistic kid in Waking Life, and I’m also pretty sure Mason’s college roommate was imitating Speed Levitch during the scene where they were tripping in the desert.

25. “It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

Margot’s Brain Shelf

by Kevin Ferguson

I’m currently writing about how the cinema affects memory, looking at how writers have invoked specific spaces—such as the attic, boarding school, or riverfront—to function as sites of memory in cinematic ways.

Virginia Woolf got me started. Born before motion pictures were invented, Woolf in her one piece of film criticism (“The Cinema,” 1926) expresses a skepticism towards the new art of cinema that is at odds with her later autobiographical writings about the possibilities for film technology to serve as a memory prop. For instance, in 1939’s “A Sketch of the Past,” she fantasizes that in the future “some device will be invented by which we can tap” the existence of the past. “I see it,” she imagines, “the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. [. . .] I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past.”

The device Woolf imagined is common today, and even in 1939 her “long ribbon of scenes” evoked film, even if she wasn’t aware of it. Woolf’s imagining of a “ribbon of scenes” as a utopian technology of memory overlaps with the materiality of the filmstrip. Woolf intuits there and elsewhere that memories need a “base” to rest upon, and this base can be both a concrete memento as well as a general location, such as her childhood home. For Woolf, the “ribbon of scenes” is a powerful, second space where memories can be located.

Talking about this idea and how it might relate to the “extended mind thesis” Sebastian Groes wrote about for californica, Jason pointed me to Temple Grandin, who begins her memoir, “I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” Grandin used a metaphor of video technology to explain how her autistic mind works differently from language-based speakers. But she actually shows again how easy it is today to perceive mind and memory as movie-like. In this account, the development of cinema technology changes the mediation of memoir’s central conflict between self and world as memoirists and their readers begin to internalize cinematic conventions.

So, I’ve been thinking about these things throughout my days, and reading up on them at night, and talking about them with work friends. But I was surprised to hear my four-year-old daughter answer a question by telling me, “well, I just looked at my brain shelf.” I had asked her how she knew a particular fact (something about the weather). It was actually a disingenuous question on my part; I was really fishing for information about how her day at pre-k went. Children are reticent (or maybe just unconditioned) to give the kind of summary-of-the-day adults have over dinner, so I was playing junior lawyer and trying to get her to connect some trivia with some event from the day. I had assumed she would answer something like, “Mr. Tse taught us about clouds” or “Ms. Francis had us do an experiment with water,” but instead there was this wonderful conception of the “brain shelf” as a source of information that otherwise could not be accounted for. Was she describing something like “intuition,” or was she becoming aware of rational thinking as something that requires mental effort? (I bet a child psychologist could answer this for me.) And then: what was her mind like before she had her brain shelf?

Margot's Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.

Margot’s Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.

 

Margot:  My brain shelf tells me lots of information.

Kevin:  Like what?

Margot:  Like, um, like books tell me information that I want to know.

Kevin:  What kind of information does your brain shelf have?

Margot:  Like if you ask me what the weather is my brain shelf knows.

Kevin:  What’s your brain shelf look like?

Margot:  It looks like a rectangle.

Kevin:  Is it big?

Margot:  Yeah…a big rectangle.

Kevin:  When did you first learn about your brain shelf?

Margot:  I don’t know, but I forget. I learned it on a crazy, wacky day. *Margot talks in a goofy, deep voice, imitating her Brain Shelf*

Kevin:  Where is your brain shelf?

Margot:  In my brain.

Kevin:  Where’s that?

Margot:  Where in my brain?…In the middle of my brain.

Kevin:  Does everyone have a brain shelf, or just you?

Margot:  Everybody.

Kevin:  How do you know everyone has one?

Margot:  Because my brain shelf told me. My brain shelf can talk.

Kevin:  When is your brain shelf most talkative?

Margot:  At nighttime.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Because it sleeps in the morning and not in the day.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  It’s nocturnal.

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s nocturnal?

Margot:  Yeah.

Kevin:  Does it keep you up at night?

Margot:  No

Kevin:  Why not?

Margot:  Because it whispers.

Kevin:  Tell me something bad about your brain shelf.

Margot:  It never does bad stuff.

Kevin:  Only good? How come?

Margot:  It never hits me.

Kevin:  So how does it work?

Margot:  There’s a red button that you have to push, like three times.

Kevin:  No, seriously, you just made that up. Tell me how it works.

Margot:  No, I tell my brain, and my brain pushes the button. It’s sleeping in the morning so I whisper to it and I wake it up. It can also tell me math questions. In *goofy voice*: “What’s two plus two?”

Kevin:  Is your brain shelf cranky in the morning or happy?

Margot:  Happy. Because his mom always makes him dinner. And he loves it. It’s always his favorite dinner, but it’s always the saw thing.

Kevin:  What does he have to eat?

Margot:  All of his favorite stuff. Like Brussell sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and he also has chickpeas. [Margot refuses to eat the first two things]

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s a boy?

Margot:  A girl.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Cause it talks like a woman. It’s a woman.

Kevin:  Do you think your brain shelf is going to be any different next year?

Margot:  Yeah. Because it’s stretchy, and whenever I grow it stretches and goes. Actually, it likes to do Legos.

Kevin:  Could you name your brain shelf?

Margot:  Yeah. Dick. Sally. The Cat in the Hat. Lucia [school friend]. Lucy [cousin]. Margot. John Robert [cousin]. Baby Jack, I mean Big Jack [cousin]. Nana and Pa [grandparents]. Mimi and PopPop [grandparents]. Computer. Getting Videos Taken Away from You. [We go on a digression here because she had “videos taken away” as a punishment, but then realized she has more fun without them: “Daddy, It’s fun when I lose my videos. It’s fun when I have my videos, but it’s even funner when I get my videos canceled because I do other stuff and sometime I get to make Legos.”]

Kevin:  Anything else you want to tell me about your brain shelf.

Margot:  No. That’s it.

Kevin:  Thanks.

Margot:  You’re welcome.

* * *

Dear Kevin and Margot,

I wish I could have been there for your brain shelf conversation. I have so many questions:

Faust_image_19thcentury

This nineteenth-century engraving from an edition of Goethe’s Faust, the homunculus captures a perennial confusion about where the mind is. Is it inside the person who thinks and feels? Or outside? Or nowhere at all, as the fantastical element of the engraving might suggest?Illustration from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ depicting Mephistopheles creating a homunculus, 1854 (engraving). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library. 

Has Margot been reading extended mind theories that suggest that some of the tools we use to think become so integral to our thinking process that they should be thought of as aspects of our minds? What does Margot think of Paracelsus’s sixteenth-century alchemy writing, in which he proposes the idea of a homunculus–a little human in the brain who controls our consciousness?

Margot seems a little impish about her brain shelf, like she knows she’s confabulating. She takes an image of a bookshelf and transports it from the external world into her brain. It seems possible to me that a four-year-old might not yet have absorbed the interiority metaphor.

For most adults in the western world, it’s almost impossible not to think of our mental states and the narrators of our consciousness as “inner” phenomena. We talk about our inner selves and interior monologues–and when we locate them this way, we mask the mystery of their origins. Many religious traditions solve this problem by locating them in a soul–usually conceived as a substance that transcends the human body but resides within it. So it’s both inside and outside. But if you don’t believe in a soul, where do you find consciousness? Woolf seems to do something similar by ascribing memory to a “ribbon of scences,” like film reel.

You should also know that while Margot is four, she’s got the personal style (and poise) of a Godard heroine. Godard, I would argue, locates consciousness outside his stylish characters’ bodies, whose nonsensical behavior seems motivated by their cars, glances, dance moves, and well-tailored clothing.

Jason

 

 

 

 

 

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