fits and starts
Style is to sentiment what dress is to person. The effects of both are very great, and both are acquired and improved by habit. When once we are used to it, it is easy to dress neatly as like a sloven; in the same way, custom makes us write in a correct style as easily as in a careless, inaccurate one.
—James Boswell (London Journal, 9 February 1763)
* * *
Analysis is nothing more than the latest fashionable cut, and synthesis nothing more than the artful seam of a professional leather- or cloth-cutter.
—Johann Georg Hamann (‘Metacritique on the purism of reason’, trans. K. Haynes, ca. 1784)
* * *
Happy he who can look through the Clothes of a Man (the woollen, and fleshly, and official Bank-paper and State-paper Clothes) into the Man himself; and discern, it may be, in this or the other Dread Potentate, a more or less incompetent Digestive-apparatus; yet also an inscrutable venerable Mystery, in the meanest Tinker that sees with eyes!
—Thomas Carlyle (Sartor Resartus, ch. 10, 1836)
If one is not asleep when reading (or listening to) philosophical works, one notices that when Socrates appears, problems narrative and philosophical are never far behind.2 One is never quite certain how people and ideas are going to react. Reading Plato does not provide certainty, however; indeed, it creates more uncertainty – I tend to have less idea what he meant after reading than I had when I started.3 One is being forever wrong-footed (or out-witted, πάνυ γε, ὦ σοφὲ σύ), so I usually find myself edging towards the exit in the name of civic duty or domestic virtue4 – anything that allows a decorous departure from the game of large questions with unsatisfactory (impractical, inapplicable, contradictory) answers.5
This is partially because I don’t particularly care to have anyone tell me how or what to think – perhaps because I am very easily swayed into thinking absurdly or in absurdities, which means that logical footwork (as opposed to more modest verbal acrobatics) is not a skill I practice with much success. Admittedly, this Socrates of yours (or Plato’s) does not appear to care primarily about where the ideas are going, but rather about the process of getting there – a there which usually turns out to be someplace quite different from the place pictured when setting out.6
Not surprisingly, I tend to turn to the other Socrates(es), presented by other people; I mentioned Xenophon in a footnote, but there are more who have joined the gathering of shades – whether in company with Plato or wholly in the imaginary.7 Although nominally I am looking to these writers for orientation, I usually find that each thinker or reader or translator, like Plato’s Socrates, also points me in a different direction, which never quite seems to match the signposts from Plato. Nussbaum’s reading of the Symposium, for example, is one for which I always feel a certain affection, but it does not entirely alleviate the sensation of being jostled into a specific, determined approach towards thinking, as though one’s mind were crammed inside a too-full subway car travelling towards a station the name of which one cannot quite remember.
Some time ago I was reminded, quite strikingly, of a passage from the Phaedo; this dialogue, you will recall, occurs at a moment when the emotions of the speakers lie near to the surface, and it concerns the nature of the soul. There is a larger frame that one could think about, but the person telling me the story was focused on whether or not Socrates believes in the soul and whether he is afraid of being without a soul, whatever that might mean. It goes like this: What about, Cebês asks, when you are confronting the unknown, the unknowable, the uncontrollable? What, he asks Socrates, should you do then, when – well, ok, let’s not say you are afraid, let’s say some small part of yourself, the child within you, is afraid of the dark?8
ἀλλὰ χρή, ἔφη ὁ Σωκράτης, ἐπᾴδειν αὐτῷ ἑκάστης ἡμέρας ἕως ἂν ἐξεπᾴσητε.
πόθεν οὖν, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, τῶν τοιούτων ἀγαθὸν ἐπῳδὸν ληψόμεθα, ἐπειδὴ σύ, ἔφη, ἡμᾶς ἀπολείπεις;
Why then, said Socrates, croon lullabies to him every day until you’ve lulled the fear away.
But where, Socrates, are we going to be able to get hold of a good charm for those fears, now you… you’re leaving us?
Keep looking, Socrates says. Look everywhere. Spend all your money. Use all your time. Talk to everyone. Even look in yourself. Every search, no matter the object, is a search for this – for this charm, this lullaby – and the search never ends: until it does (77e–78a).
It is worth noting here that the instructions Socrates initially gives are for activities – to sing to someone, as for a lullaby (or murmur incantations, if you prefer that, with Jowett, as a translation for ἐπαείδω) until the fear is charmed away – but Cebês responds with a request for a noun (ἐπῳδός) – a charm or incantation, which can, at best, be construed as a substantive singer (a really good one, please) of such things – as though Socrates were a member of a company of wandering philosophical minstrels (or charming philosophers, if you prefer) who kept odes and epodes tucked into a scrip, as though truth were something external to be found and not the pursuit itself. Socrates takes him up on this usage, though, and follows in the direction Cebês leads: a dead end.9 And on the brink of this beautiful nihilism, Cebês cannot nerve himself over – he draws back awkwardly (Sure thing, Socrates, will do, but let’s circle back to an earlier point… / ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν δή, ἔφη, ὑπάρξει, ὁ Κέβης: ὅθεν δὲ ἀπελίπομεν ἐπανέλθωμεν…) and the conversation takes a turn.
This is not the end of the dialogue; indeed, it’s not even a third of the way through. But you know how it ends – you knew how it ended before it began: with the offering of a poor man and the only sure way to gain unchanging health. I do not know if what I have outlined here is Plato or if it is Socrates or if it is wholly the interpretation of my interlocutor – but it was, for the first time, a story I felt I would want to keep reading.
- I looked at quite a few images of votive offerings and was quite amused by all the different body parts available (imagine what one finds when searching for ‘greek asclepius votive cock’ – not impressive), but chose this, which is not a votive offering, because I liked it better. [↩]
- Partially because of a sort of shiftiness; in that essay, the locus of this unease is perhaps unfairly situated on Aristotle (by Callard and others), but I feel (I do not say I think or believe) that it is also true for Plato and his Socrates. Anyway, there’s a passage in Noémi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work (pp. 80f.) that kind of captures the feeling. [↩]
- This is less often the case with Xenophon and his Socrates, but it also is harder to pay any attention to him, perhaps because he is less distinctly tetchy as a character (I am thinking here of the Oikonomikos). I am pleased to be inconsistent with my transliterations. [↩]
- E.g., prepping the barbecue, washing the dishes, cleaning the toilet, counting the grains of salt in the salt cellar. [↩]
- Following the example of Kephalos in book one of the Republic (331d–e); Cela est bien dit […] mais il faut cultiver notre jardin, as another man put it. [↩]
- I have a similar difficulty with Heidegger, except – philosophically speaking – he always seems to have a clear destination in mind and is more interested in the reader, the thinker, the student putting his (usually his) foot just so upon the path. This characterization is unfair, of course, but that needn’t stop me. [↩]
- There are too many to name (more than I am familiar with), but range from Cornford to Valéry (and beyond). [↩]
- Cebês attempts, here, to liken the fear of death to the fear of μορμολύκεια, which is usually translated as ‘bogeyman’ – but one could probably weave an entire shroud around this particular nightmare. [↩]
- And still we are not thinking. [↩]
It was the mention of baklava that made me dubious. It was mentioned as quintessentially Armenian, yet baklava is a pastry I don’t recall encountering once in three years – except in Yerevan (admittedly, I don’t recall many weddings). I read the book quickly, enjoying the familiar but disoriented by details – famines and December earthquakes and wars that don’t quite fit into any chronology I recalled, as though history had been ensorcelled and stored away in a cellar to be pulled out and considered as a vintage or savored as a treat like peaches preserved in syrup, faintly pink.1 The cornels and mulberries, the aveluk and wild thyme (called ourts and mintier than the common run of thyme one encounters elsewhere – different from the bee-heavy thyme above Athens, for instance), the beet greens and matsun – all appeared in the story, solid details more evocative than a biscuit and more nourishing.
Reading the story, with its fairy-tale tenderness of a year and a day, I heard echoes of distant hospitality and saw in my mind’s eye a distant mountain town, which I last saw, in last year’s news bulletins, as the backdrop for Russian tanks on a peace-keeping mission towards Karabakh. Bits of the novel’s reported dialect seemed familiar – the distinctive endings for family names, always mentioned wryly as part of the local բարբառ, showing up in a story that seemed set too far to the north – or was it to the west, or some fabled place east of the sun and west of the moon or near the garden of the Hesperides? A look at Acharyan’s map of the distribution of Armenian dialects offers some explanation – the dialect in question runs through Sevan and to the east, encompassing much of the current marzes of Tavush and Syuniq, and stretching through the mountains to Baku. The Russified elements stood out, though – the omitted H on the names Hovhannes and Hakop (or Hakob), and the transliteration into English of the affectionate suffix ջան (from Persian) as dzhan stamped with its transit visa through the Cyrillic джан. Perhaps not a deep book, but one that entrances ‘like the ripples left by raindrops on the surface of a pool of water, where every event is a consequence of what came before it and it’s just that nobody is fated to guess those events other than the chosen ones who appear on this earth once, never to return, because they drain their cups all the way to the bottom the first time’ (254).
- Fitting as the story’s town is called Maran, and մառան or մարան means cellar or larder. I should perhaps mention that the title of this post plays on words. The novel considered is called Three Apples Fell from the Sky and khndzor is Armenian for ‘apple’; Khndzoresk is the name of a village somewhat similar to the one featured in the book. [↩]
Socrates. One has to choose between being a man and being a mind. Man can act only because he can ignore, and content himself with a part of this knowledge which is his peculiar extravagance, a knowledge that is somewhat more extensive than is necessary!
Phaedrus. Yet it is this slight excess that makes us men!
Socrates. Men? … Think you that dogs do not see the stars, for which they have no use? It would be enough for them that their eye should perceive terrestrial things; but it is not so exactly adapted to pure utility as to be blind to the celestial bodies and the majestic ordering of night.
Phaedrus. They never tire of howling at the moon!
Socrates. And do not humans strive in a thousand ways to fill or to break the eternal silence of those infinite spaces that affright them?
—Paul Valéry (‘Eupalinos, or the Architect’, trans. W.M. Stewart)
The question is, of course, whether a writer genuinely reveals anything, and whether a reader can discover what it is.
—Philip Rousseau (‘Knowing Theodoret: Text and Self’, p. 277)1
It is difficult to know how to read books about psychosis. Unless one has also experienced abnormal mental states, sympathy – in the sense of feeling or suffering with the narrator – is impossible; at best one can achieve empathy, but this is contingent (at least in part) on the force of the presentation. In the case of a ‘neurodivergent’ author, this involves either bridging the gap between ‘normal’ and ‘divergent’ or harnessing the divergence to fashion a simulacrum, a mask, with which the ‘neurotypical’ can, at least, begin to engage, if not to comprehend.2
It is with this in mind that I say I found it hard to know what to make (if anything) of The Collected Schizophrenias. I initially attempted to read it when it first came out, but was so disgusted by the arrogant privilege of the life presented that I had to set it aside. It continued to bother me, though – and I returned to it mostly to make sense of my own discomfort and explore the limen, as it were.3 There is a part of one essay where the author4 observes that, in multiple psychiatric evaluations, she was evaluated as having ‘poor insight’, and much of the collection seems to be an attempt to rebut that assessment. As might be expected, it is only partially successful in doing so, perhaps because she presents only her ‘best and most beautiful self, for the most part’. Self-image is not the same as self-perception – or self-knowledge.5
To my mind, the definition of childhood is very simple: belief in the stability and the goodness of the world. Take away that belief, and childhood comes to an end.
Am I overcome with emotion at the joy of innocence and childlike naivety? Not at all: I abhor that state of innocence precisely because it is ignorant of the real world in all its magnificence, horror and divinity. To accept the world and love it just as it is – herein lies the glory of mankind. It would be too easy to love a good world.
—Banine (Days in the Caucasus, p. 145)
Talk about the book (or at least such talk as I noticed) mentioned the ‘philosophical’ qualities of the essays, but although the experience of neurodivergence raises many interesting philosophical questions, it did not seem to me that the collection truly engaged with them. Instead, the text remains on the level of surfaces or appearances – or projection.6 This is perhaps a strategy necessary for the author’s ability to be in the world – questioning what reality is and if it exists is perhaps not a best practice when one is living in a liminal state between one’s personal reality and the reality commonly accepted by others (and watching a movie carries one across that threshold): ‘The idea of “believing” something turns porous as I repeat the tenets of reality like a good girl. […] I know what is supposed to be true, and that includes a reality without shadowy demons or sudden trapdoors’ (128). As a result of this disassociation between mental state and physical being, most of the essays present a mask, usually one edited for the situation (as in the talks she gives to different audiences, patient and practitioner, at a mental health clinic): ‘I believed that it made sense to playact normalcy’ (148). Play, as Huizinga and others point out, creates a real world, but it is also not real – and the uncanny essay in which the author talks about blurring the boundaries of games with her friends as a child creates unease: is the same thing happening in this text?7
…by none of my philosophical tendencies was I so carried away as by scepticism, which at one time led me to the verge of insanity. I imagined that besides myself nobody and nothing existed in the universe, that objects were not objects at all, but images which appeared only when I paid attention to them, and that as soon I left off thinking of them, these images immediately disappeared. In a word, I coincided with Schelling in the conviction that not objects exist but my relation to them. There were moments when, under the influence of this idée fixe, I reached such a state of insanity that I sometimes looked rapidly round to one side, hoping to catch emptiness (néant) unawares where I was not.
A pitiful, trivial spring of mental action is the mind of man! My feeble mind could not penetrate the impenetrable, and in that effort lost, one by one, the convictions which, for my life’s happiness, I ought never to have dared to disturb.
—Tolstoy (Boyhood, p. 197)
Books, by nature, move the reader out of reality and take one outside of one’s own lived experience at least in so far as one enters the lived experience of being a reader. There is the sense that one is being taken for a ride: not because one is going to be transported to any particular destination, but because it is necessary that one pay a fare, but here there is too much of a hard sell. There is a hint of desperation in the name dropping of universities, designers, and other markers of authority – as though adhering to a particular style, be it particular discontinued red lipstick or the conventions of the American Psychological Association – will make the world comprehensible.8 One wonders if this is because, as the author continually notes, being able to hold down a job is a mark of being ‘high-functioning’ (51, passim) and she needs to convince the audience, convince herself, that – through the success of the book, through being able to make a living through the book, through writing – she has succeeded in functioning for another day.
Perhaps part of my difficulty with the text is that it is unclear to me how artful it is. If it lacks the layers which can be read onto it, then it is simply a mediocre book – but that does not feel particularly fair. If it is successful as a creation (that is, if it is good as a book), then it seems less satisfactory as a moral object – but is the category of morality relevant in this particular context? I don’t know and, while there are many things that I don’t know, this makes me nervous. Is this intentional? Is the reader meant to be as disoriented9 about the limits of meaning in the text in a way similar to the author’s confusion about the limits of reality? Is interpretation hallucination?10
I feel myself open to the charge – ‘You don’t understand!’ This is an accurate assessment. I do not understand. Yet I wished to understand – which is why I read the book. But after reading it, I still don’t understand and, more disconcerting, I am not sure that there is something to understand and, if there is, that it would possible for me to do so. Perhaps my concern, though, is that a book is a mirror – and I do not particularly like what I see in this one.
- Please note that the quotations included here are not essential for illuminating what I have to say or the book in question – they seemed to me, being read at the same time, to resonate with elements of my difficulties in interpretation. [↩]
- ‘Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot,’ quoth Epictetus in The Encheiridion (§43, as translated by Elizabeth Carter). I am not sure that the idea of the ‘normal’ (or ‘neurotypical’) is one of the usable ones – please therefore forgive the scare quotes. [↩]
- This is not said without irony. [↩]
- There is perhaps a distinction between the author, the narrator, and the person. I am not interested in that here and use the term ‘author’ to refer to the first two without the distinction; the third is unknown to me and is, quite explicitly, not wholly communicated in this text, viz., the chapter in which the reader is told they do not deserve some specific details – this is naturally true, but it does not particularly need saying: any reading of autobiographical writing is by its nature voyeuristic, and some authors enjoy the exhibitionism more than others (thinking particularly of Augustine and Rousseau here). [↩]
- I should perhaps clarify that I do not believe myself to be speaking from a place of superior self-knowledge – or even self-perception. [↩]
- An example of what I mean. In one of the stronger essays in the collection, the author is helping her husband back out of a parking spot. At the time, she is experiencing Cotard’s syndrome and believes she is not alive. A stranger walking past turns his head to look at her – her response: ‘Yes, I thought, our eyes meeting, you may think I’m hot, but I’m also a rotting corpse. Sucks to be you, sir’ (154). Humor is intended here, but I find it troubling. How does one presume to know what someone else is thinking? Perhaps her lipstick was smudged. Perhaps her bra strap was showing. perhaps her hair was a peculiar color. Perhaps he was not looking at her at all but was lost in his own thoughts and turned his head for reasons that had nothing to do with her at all and the eye contact was accidental, incidental. The author presents herself as knowing what the stranger is thinking; she also presents herself as knowing that she is a corpse. What, then, is known? What does it mean to know something? I’ve been sort of noodling through (or around) Bergson and Locke lately, which forms the backdrop for this crankiness. [↩]
- Is this understanding the world as a child? Or have childish things been put away? It is not clear. [↩]
- The question of religion, too is an interesting one, which could have been expanded; in the chapter in which she contemplates a conversion to Catholicism (for marriage), it is the theatre of ritual that draws the attention. The wrestling with faith and belief mostly happens ‘offstage’. [↩]
- Others have noted the ‘pervasive disorientation’ in the text. [↩]
- That seems like the sort of horrible thing a person who has not experienced a hallucination would say, something that is connected neither to horror of the lived experience of hallucination nor with an empathetic reading of the text. [↩]
the forest path
Sometime near the end of last November or beginning of December I managed to hurt my left heel. For the first two weeks or so I didn’t allow myself to think too much about it and kept my daily routine of walking (usually some three to five miles, depending on the weather and my inclinations), but it became progressively more painful and around the middle of December I decided to make an effort to rest. No more walking.
It is a melancholy thing to give up (even temporarily) something one likes to do. Mostly I consoled myself with reading, which is very fine, but not quite the same thing. Finally, in the middle of February, I was able to go for rather short walks, only on level ground, just down to the ranger station and back. I couldn’t go every day, but I could go most days, and it was a start. I’ve been making progress, but there is a temptation to be lazy – is that a twinge I feel? Perhaps I should rest. It is not a twinge, though, just the side effects of disuse. I return to my walk.
The other day I went beyond my comfort zone and ventured up a forest path that I had never walked up before. It is not along my usual trail, but a spur off side road: no motorized vehicles allowed. Wide enough to accommodate a small cart, the path was quite steep. Fifty yards or so revealed its terminus – a water cistern, probably for fire-fighting. I continued up to the tank and walked around it; to the west there was a smaller trail branching off. It looked moderately well kept and I followed it a short way – only to discover it twisted off and up the ravine: more of an adventure than my still-recovering heel would allow. Worth noting down, though, for another day.
If I seek to explain away, whether to others or to myself, some unworthy act on my part, on the ground that something – the political or military situation, or my emotions or inner state – was ‘too much for me’, then I am cheating myself, or others, or both. Action is choice; choice is free commitment to this or that way of behaving, living, and so on; the possibilities are never fewer than two: to do or not to do; be or not be. Hence, to attribute conduct to the unalterable laws of nature is to misdescribe reality: it is not true to experience, verifiably false; and to perpetrate such falsification – as most philosophers and ordinary men have done and are constantly doing – is to choose to evade responsibility for making choices or failing to make them, to choose to deny that to drift down a current of accepted opinion and behave semi-mechanically is itself a kind of choice – a free act of surrender; this is so because it is always possible, though sometimes painful, to ask myself what it is that I really believe, want, value, what it is that I am doing, living for; and having answered as well as I am able, to continue to act in a given fashion or alter my behaviour.
—Isaiah Berlin (‘“From Hope and Fear Set Free”’, in Concepts and Categories, p. 178)