Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Some letters

All hail to osteopaths, those competent hands gently ribboning the spine so everything goes crrrrick and back into place. May they be blessed forever, amen. Yes, my neck is back where it should be, and that means no more procrastinating. I am now 12,000 words behind my quota, so I better get on with it.

Today I'll post a couple of interesting responses from Anny Ballardini and Rebecca Seiferle, which I might get around to discussing if I'm a good girl; though maybe my proposed post on "feeling" might be the way forward. Though this is beginning to be as full of good intentions as Coleridge's notebooks.

First, Anny:

-the felt world of that person is secret-
(I don't know if I would have written something similar, we know that empathy if processed - the fact that someone knows how to is another chapter - opens the doors to all perception)

Yes...and no. I was thinking about Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain this morning (for obvious reasons); it opens with a discussion of the difficulty, even impossibility, of communicating physical pain, which is sometimes a question of crucial importance in, say, medical diagnosis. We are forced to use various systems of rules of thumb: it is like a needle, it is a dull ache, on the scale of one to ten - but here where subjectivity rules supreme, language hits its real limits. Empathy (love) is the imaginative attempt to bridge that gap, the only recourse we have being that of language (of all kinds: here I include the language of sobs, cries, screams, gestures). But, no matter how much we try to imagine, we cannot actually know what the other person is feeling: any more than we can know whether the colour "red" that we perceive is the same colour that anyone else does. We simply agree that this shade which we both see is red. Which is not in the least to devalue empathy or love; maybe the reverse. I don't see what else is going to save us. I probably value it higher than any other human quality: but it does have to be untangled from simple projection, which is the enfolding of the other into ourselves. Love is also greatly a matter of tact: which sounds a whole lot more prim than what I actually mean.

Yes, here Alison there is material for me. And it all sums up with my refusal in toto of the medical science, not to mention psychiatry, psychology even worse (sorry Mark, don't take it personally, as a matter of fact since poetry IS above the other sciences, and you being a poet, there are great possibilities for you to be an excellent psychologist). Unluckily in order to be a good doctor one needs, besides the technical information university provides, an enormous knowledge of the human being. Arts usually give this opportunity to those who are able to understand/approach them. And yes with you Alison, empathy is love. And that is why a person who loves can be a guerisseur, someone who cures, wins the dis/ease, which has so many causes: spiritual, psychological and finally shows itself on and inside the body. And yes again, it has to be untangled from our projections, that is why it is so difficult for an empath to carry on with an ordinary life, and also why some artists or poets were considered the "mad" of our society, or at their best, treated as outsiders. And another big applause for your mentioning "tact", which has not to be confused with "good manners" even if they are useful to refine children to the knowledge and perception of it.

-the I is what a person makes when translated into feeling which is released from the constraints of exterior gaze-
(will there ever be a freedom from the constraints of exterior gazes?)

Even in our most private selves, we are witnessing our selves. But I think it possible to think of the possibility, even if it is impossible. And there are degrees of freedom from the constraints of gaze, from the total imprisonment that leads to narcissism (for narcissism seems to me an emptying of the self into the gaze rather than engorgement, a self-poverty) to the freedom of unselfconscious solitude. Which may be, when I think about it, when we are all gaze, all eye/I.

Yes, I like this turning around the concept of "seeing". It was Virilio, if I am not mistaken who spoke consistently about the "régard" (gaze), should refreshen a little what is by now all forgotten.

And now the inestimable Rebecca:

Dear Ms. Alison Croggon,

I hope it is not untactful for me to say, I am so sorry to hear that you suffer from headaches, as I do. And you may be right that headaches are mystical experiences, I'm thinking of Simone Weil and her migraines and how it was during a particularly blinding migraine that she said Christ first possessed her. And I think her emphasis upon an exacting attention, that so directed gaze, as being the gaze of God, as well as the only ‘real' gaze that one person can give another, an attention which she said was like a prayer, is partly a gift of migraine. Though I guess too headaches could be experiences of derangement, bringing hallucinations and odd liminal states of being, or so they have seemed to me as long as I have had them. Anyway I hope my sending some sporadic and unfinished reply that your thought- (not headache-)inducing that your blog today prompted in my already overcrowded mind isn't itself something of a headache.

I am wondering about your comment "we cannot actually _know_ what the other person is feeling... we simply agree that this shade is red." Doesn't it depend upon how you define ‘knowing'? By emphasizing the quality of agreement (occurring in a conversation) you seem to identify knowing with a particular activity of mind, connected to reason and thought and enquiry? Perhaps the most customary way of using the term. . To say I know the way or I know how to fix this or I know the equation is to claim a kind of possession by apprehension and perception. And surely part of your preoccupations with the witnessing of oneself even when so privately within oneself or being free of the exterior gaze (as Anny Ballardini questioned) is based upon that idea of knowing as a kind of possession by apprehension and perception. By apprehending and perceiving, one possesses not only knowledge within oneself but in, a sense, the thing itself, knowing how to use it or append it to one's own purposes--one can use it correctly or find the right route or solve the math problem, etc..

But this seems to me merely an aspect of knowing, pragmatic, reasonable, the "sense" of knowing and it is an agreed upon, assumed, communicated, sense. But beyond this, I think there is a bodily knowing. Here's this short quote from the Compact OEDtalking about how "know" has roots in several verbs:

From the fact that _know_ now covers the ground
formerly occupied by several verbs, and still
answers to two verbs in other Teutonic and Romanic
languages, there is much difficulty in arranging
its senses and uses satisfactorily. However as the
word is etymologically related to Gr...(and Latin
etc) "to know by the senses," it appears proper to
start with the uses which answer to those words
rather than those which belong to the German _wissen_
"to know by the mind."

That knowing by the senses is often subsumed in the "sense" of knowing by the mind, in that the actualities and realities which are perceived and apprehended by the senses are then known in the mind. But I think there's is more to that knowing by the senses, a knowing through them, a kind of bodily knowing, which is both private and related, and not a possession by apprehension and perception. This sense of knowing by the senses seems to be essential to the sort of knowing that happens in poetry or the sort of knowing in relationship or the knowing of pain. Scarry in The Body of Pain notes, as you say, the _impossibility of communicating pain_ but this is impossibility of knowing within the definition of "communicating." It doesn't seem to me that it necessarily follows that one cannot know the pain of the other, merely because it's impossible for the other to communicate it, in words, in screams, in facial expressions. The pain and difficulty that is often associated with medical care by someone suffering greatly is the pain and difficulty of incomprehensibility, not being able to communicate what one feels, the inability of the other to perceive or know it, either by mind or by the senses. But this is why many prefer health care from those who have similarly suffered, there is no longer incomprehensibility, communication is no longer so necessary for knowing, one knows and the other knows one knows.

And mysticism, as well, which is a knowing of what one cannot know. A different kind of knowing. When Vallejo writes "There are blows in life so powerful...I don't know!/Blows like God's hatred," there is the knowing of that blow in the bodily sense, though one does not know how (the Spanish conveys this more strongly, of not being able to figure it out, to not know how is to not be able to put it to use or sense or to possess it). That "I don't know" has, as you say, a knowing within it. Just as the line it echoes from Saint John of the Cross "in whatever they relate of you/ an I don't know what remains behind their babbling." It is an I don't know what because it is impossible to communicate it, to render it into a word, or a series of words, but still there is knowing of that I don't know what; the stammer simultaneously suggests the impossibility of communication and the knowing of the other presence. This other knowing is both absence and presence. It's not really a gaze, it's not really an I, I am and am not in that I don't know what.

Thanks again for a most interesting blog.

Tactfully yours,

Rebecca Seiferle

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