Saturday, November 6, 2010

Some Random Thoughts about Bodies and Words

Trying to get myself out into the "philosophical world" again, I have been formulating ideas for conference paper proposals (on the subjects of embodiment, illness, writing ...) over the past couple of weeks. Putting the heart into language is difficult, even if, ironically, the call to put my heart into language has been incessant for me since the weeks soon after my surgery. Or maybe it's not that it is difficult, exactly, but when I really start to ask the question: How DO I write about this? immediately revealed is that strange slippery space where language and body meet.

Depending on what your definition of language is, words may simply, transparently, point to the object being written; words may actually shape the written object; or words may both shape the object written and be shaped by the object written, and thereby disrupt the subject-object dichotomy altogether. As far as what I think language is and does, I fall into the third camp: Words shape flesh as they write flesh and are at the same time shaped by that very flesh. Our language is an echo of our socially located biological from.

If I unravel this thought and follow it all the way to where it leads, for me, this means my way of writing about my heart attacks and heart surgery, will be shaped by the events themselves. "But, of course," you might say, "this isn't any real epiphany." Yes, of course. But, what I mean here is more than a superficial sense of having a new topic to write about, but that there is an actual way of writing that will be an outcome of what happened. A language that feels like the pulse of the events themselves. This is where the difficulty comes in: as soon as I start to think about it, I wonder what such a language will look like. And again I think about that slippery space between language and the body. Because, even given everything I have just written, there is always for me that sense that a bit of what I am trying to write slips past the words I write. Is the reverse true, I wonder: when writing about my heart, do the words I write also slip past my heart just a bit to evoke something beyond it, even at the same time it doesn't completely capture the heart?

These are some of the random thoughts I am playing around with this early Saturday afternoon. I have more questions than I do answers, but I am a lover of "the question" so that is ok with me, and I think its more honest anyway. I admit I am uncomfortable with anyone who approaches me (and yes, this has happened) to tell me with certainty that they know what my heart attack and survival "means." As if there is meaning to be found in any intrinsic sense in the events themselves. Really, what happened is just something that happened to me as a biological being. And I am with Christopher Hitchens: instead of asking "Why me?" it's more like "Why NOT me?" Bad things happen all the time; it's easy (and seductive) to think you won't be included in that. But not honest. This doesn't mean I haven't "Made Meaning" of the events or learned a lot about myself in the process, but simply that the heart attacks themselves had no Meaning with a capital m. I like it better this way: as it give me more room to negotiate this "after."

I just went off on a tangent that I didn't expect. This is one of the things I love about writing. Just start: pen to page or fingers to keyboard and if you let the words takeover you will just end up .... where? You don't know; and that's the gorgeousness of it!

As far as what I have come up with for those conference paper proposals, I had the thought this week (and included it in a proposal)  that, for me, writing about the experience of almost dying is a meditation that begins on the surface of my flesh. One place it begins is on the six-inch scar that runs between my breasts that is at once an end and a beginning, a line of demarcation designating a before and after. I start with the scar because it is the jarring echo of unscarred flesh; to notice it means I remember a time when it wasn't there. This meditation also begins on the surface of my heart, which, as I have written about in a previous blog, I have seen resting bare, vulnerable, and exposed to the world in a photograph my surgeon took during my operation. The picture of my heart is a memory though (as all photographs are). It is a heart that is no longer, a moment before any slice has been made. But it is also a memory that doesn't feel like mine; in the picture, my heart is a stranger to me, not least because my surrounding body is invisible. The bare, silent heart, the beating of which has been temporarily stopped, is anonymous, disembodied, stripped of gender, skin color, and identity. And yet, this organ without a body is the one that must live for me to be.

Writing about my heart—as a woman, a philosopher, a painter—is something I have been compelled to do. Obviously, it's been another way to process what happened to me. Psychoanalytically I could say that I have been conducting my own little fort-da. Gathering my heart and shaping it again, gathering another time and reshaping it again. I suppose I have been fort-da dancing since I first woke up unable to walk but a few steps across the hospital room. Painting, naturally, has been another way of processing, often (through the weeks of the Watersketch Prospectus) providing a window that reveals a glimpse of what I am feeling that words alone don't.

When last summer happened, I had the experience of being betrayed—by my body, my heart—I found myself caught in an ambiguous, yet all-too-familiar dichotomy (and a very Cartesian one to boot): on the one hand, I felt myself to be drowning in the pain of “mere” and overwhelming, crumpling-into-itself flesh, while on the other, I felt myself to be profoundly disconnected from that very flesh. My damaged heart called to me as a stranger, and I wanted to turn away. Turning from the stranger was impossible, however, because it was a voice that was my own. In the haze of an unexpected after, my stranger demanded gestures—in words and paint—that listened to it and took it seriously, even if I wanted to look the other way.

I consider the line of my scar and the image of my heart as surfaces that unfold to become metaphors of the Möbius strip as offered by Elizabeth Grosz (who borrows the metaphor from Jacques Lacan.) Expressions of my stranger—in words and paint—become gestural loops, continuous motions informed by damaged/healing flesh that reach out into the world to return back to my body to reach out to the world again. My near death experience and my newly strange/estranged heart prompted me and continue to prompt me to revisit Hélène Cixous' call for women to write their bodies. Wounded, my body demanded a tactile language, and in those first months after surgery it became apparent to me once again that expressive articulations always begin in the flesh. My scar and the image of my heart had simply thrown into high relief the often terrifying strangeness of the biological interior that already was.

And just as my scar intrudes on my skin to remind me of the teeming heart-world beneath, I consider my 'scar of intrusion' as a metaphor for the place where biology and language meet, one oozing out onto the other, continually feeding the fleshly loop of embodied language.
All of this takes me back to the question: what does a this language I am after "sound" and "read" like? To throw another kink in the mix, is it a language of only words, or do I need a language that includes words and image in conversation with each other: not set up so one eludcidates the other, but to continually feed a continuous dance of evocation?

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