A matter of surprise

“For myself I am neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’, nor ‘a civil servant’. It is often a matter of surprise that the invalid or cripple can put up with himself. The reason is that such people are not for themselves deformed or at death’s door. Until the final coma, the dying man is inhabited by a consciousness, he is all that he sees, and enjoys this much of an outlet. Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others…”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception”

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Around two weeks ago, two things happened that I didn’t expect.  I went to the funeral of a dear friend.  Norman was a phenomenally curious and wise man, and while I was trying to pull myself together to write a eulogy, I was reminded of his blogs.  One of them, “A body’s in trouble: some resources on the lived body in philosophy and the arts”, was in a way a parallel to the journey I’m on with this blog, though it’s much more a reference point, containing some key resources and insightful juxtapositions.  This is where I found the astounding Merleau-Ponty quote above.

Is it a surprise that I can put up with myself?  Do I have a hunchbacked-consciousness?  Do I know myself only through the (imagined) eyes of others?

maurice merleau-ponty smoking

I know almost nothing of the life and physicality of Merleau-Ponty.  Here he is smoking.  The phrasing of the quote is intriguingly ambiguous.  He says he is neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’.  That these words are held in quote marks seems to me to potentially imply that he is these things, yet is not defined by them.  Consciousness is consciousness, shaped not by itself, but by its position in the world, in relationship.

At the funeral, I had the sense that my friend was not in the coffin, or in heaven, or anywhere else but in the bodies of his family and friends.  It was as if, without the central consciousness, his core of being, all that was left was the reflections, resonances, seeds, which we held in us.

The day after, I was offered admission to a PhD program, with scholarship – my proposal was titled “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”.  I’m planning to write a thesis and a series of poems which will “attempt to outline the mechanisms through which poetry can generate a productive, bodily encounter with the Other”, drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Tobin Siebers, and the work of a few of my favourite poets.  I suspect that poetry is uniquely placed to incorporate (pun intended) the consciousness that arises from unusual bodies.  We’ll see.

I’ll be writing in the context of a community of friends, poets and thinkers that have come before me, and are around me now.  Perhaps they are my others and I am theirs.  Which makes this richly complex and unpredictable.  So, I don’t know what will come out of this, though I’m certainly looking forward to the privilege.  Here’s where you’ll find sporadic updates and minor insights…

Am I my own other?

Should I have been surprised that a meeting about marketing poetry would lead to sobbing in a toilet and pondering phenomenology?

One of my “day jobs” is at Australian Poetry, and of late I’ve been organising the 2011 itinerary for our mobile poetry library, the “Omnibus”.  Basically, we take poetry books around to regional towns, run workshops, put on readings, give people the chance to browse, read, talk about, and buy books they may not normally get a chance to.  I had organised to meet with Marcus Powe, RMIT’s “Entrepeneur-in-Residence”, to chat about how to position and promote the Omnibus, but also how to think about it.  And, no Marcus didn’t make me cry.  The meeting wasn’t the problem – it just put me in a certain place.

I’d arrived earlier than I expected, so I sat on the lawn outside the State Library of Victoria, one of the few green areas in the CBD of Melbourne.  On fine days, it’s bathed in sun and swarming with students and workers of all shapes and colours.  Pigeons and seagulls jostle for crumbs.  The atmosphere is casual; friends meet and greet, some kind of communal recognition just below the surface, we’re all here to rest and take in the sky while the trams rattle past.

One guy, in his mid-thirties, baseball cap and 3/4 length pants, slows down as he passes me, looking back at me with bemusement.  He turns around, walks up to me, directly.  “What’s that?”.  He touches my back, then lifts my shirt, looking and poking.  I can’t remember exactly what I say, but it’s something like, “It’s me.  Do you mind?!…”.  And, as he’s walking away, “maybe you should ask before you touch someone…”.  To that, he says, “don’t fuckin’ talk to me like that”.

Let’s get two things out of the way first.  He wasn’t insane in any way.  He was just your run-of-the-mill working-class tough guy.  And me, I have a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome – it’s reasonably rare, and within that rarity, my particular manifestation is visually obvious spinal curvature.

I spend a quick half-minute in the bathroom, try to push out some of the excess emotional energy, before the meeting.  You could call it sobbing.  I am sick of being people’s object, people’s Other.

This encounter, both mundane and extraordinary, raises some critical questions.  What does it mean to have a body?  What is normal?  Why is it that now and then something happens to rupture our habitual ignorance of embodiment?  And, do I, as an apparently different-looking person, have a different sense of self?

From my meagre understanding of him, French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that we engage with the world not as subject examining objects at a distance, but synesthetically and implicitly.  Our body opens onto the rest of the world, is the very condition of our experience.  Our senses resonate with a unity of perceptions.  In a way, the world is made for us, through the medium of our bodies, bodies that are situated and inescapably relational.  Experience is a continual, complex flow, where meaning and relationship is ongoing and always incomplete.

So, in that vast rushing flow of experience, as a universe of different bodies surround and pass us – the gaggle of school-girls, a ragged man rifling through bins, a meticulously groomed business-woman, towering Somalian boys, waddling overweight children, people of all shapes and colours and ways of moving – some kind of sense of “normality” emerges.  Edmund Husserl believed that our bodies seek always to normalise, to assimilate, to incorporate abnormality within the realm of the expected, through understanding or empathy.  Oh, that person is blind, this man is drunk, that woman must be lost.  We build our understanding on familiarity, push experience into categories, to ensure that we can move on, ready for our next encounter.  And, yes, sometimes that process of normalisation stalls; the person appears so other to us, we stare, in confusion, discomfort, anger.

When I mentioned my experience outside the library to people, the overwhelming response seemed to be “how rude!” or “what’s wrong with him?!”.  Fair enough.  What I want to know is this – what does what he did reveal about abnormality in our culture?  What sort of experiences help us to recognise self-hood in others?  How is it we can fail to recognise self-hood in others, or disregard their bodily integrity?  And what does poetry encourage?

Alexander Kozin, in his article “The Uncanny Body: from medical to aesthetic abnormality” (Janus Head, vol.9, iss.2, 2007), says that the experience of some bodies are purely unassimiliable.  He seems to have his epiphany at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“It is there that I saw a person whose appearance broke any and every anticipation of an embodied human being…    She was a collage made of odd objects; her arm stub and her twisted legs looked as if they came off from a non-human creature…  Her body, small and fragile, half a body, appeared to be torn apart by some mechanical mangler of flesh.  This strange assimilation of incompatible parts made her movements as bizarre and as majestic as if she was a royalty raised from some underground dream-world, invading one’s peace and usurping it, leaving us with nothing but emptiness in the wake of explosive astonishment and awe…”

I’m tempted to say, Alex, calm down.  This woman, whose mother took the drug Thalidomid during pregnancy, can hardly be said to have “half a body” – from her perspective, her body is entire.  And I doubt she came from an “underground dream-world” – more likely, her home in a typical German suburb.  But what he is says is revealing, on many levels.

Earlier in his essay, Kozin asks “How can abnormality of the body be available to us most generally?”.  Whether he realises it or not, just who is implied within this “us” is absolutely critical – and it is this that is potentially the most “explosive” element of his encounter with abnormality.  Think about it.  Does he mean “those of us who have normal bodies”?  It seems to me that the person he calls “the Contergan woman” is not included within the “us”.  By definition, she can’t be.

Based on what I know from my own experience of having an unusual body (though certainly not as unusual as hers), I expect that, to her, abnormality is normality.

I also know that the normality of an abnormal embodiment doesn’t cancel out it’s abnormality.  For some, of course, certain tasks, movements, journeys are immensely difficult or impossible, due to their bodily situation.  But even for those of us who are not “disabled”, we get our sense of self through our interactions with others and the world.  If I am continually reminded of my otherness, then I am other.  Self and other simultaneously.

I see people with unusual bodies and, yes, they are other to me.  Yet very often, something in me also feels a tone of recognition, affinity.  Self and other.

Kozin also unwittingly tells us something about poetry, too.  Whenever he discusses the appearance of “the Contergan woman”, he shifts from academic philosophical language into a heightened, almost ecstatic tone.  He crams his sentences with metaphor, analogy, hyperbole, disjunctions.  His experience of her body can’t be assimilated, doesn’t make sense – instinctively or deliberately, he drops the authority and detachment of rationality, dives into a disorienting, passionate poetry.  Then, as an academic should, he composes himself and returns to discourse.

What exactly is otherness?  What make us look at other people as Others?  Is that “making other” inevitable, primal, tribal?  Is it fuelled by an inability to empathise, a simple lack of familiarity, or a kind of shock at seeing repressed aspects of ourselves in other people?  And is poetry the natural home for that space between self and other?

By myself, I have no answers.  But then, I’m not by myself, am I?