From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.

 

THE PHILOSOPHE’S DREAM

Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*

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Jung, Individuation & the Collective:Unconscious, Essay 18 of #52essays2017

One cannot help but be aware of Jung; his collective unconscious is ubiquitous, and , for me, symbolizes the literal birthplace of my artist at Collective:Unconscious. My metamorphosis from an academic to an artist began at Rev Jen’s Anti-Slam, which took place every Wednesday night at Collective:Unconscious, a black box theater on Ludlow, before the Lower East Side squeezed out the artist with trendy bars and high-rise apartments.

Godin performing at Collective:Unconscious circa 2005.
Without any exaggeration, I can say that that place changed my life–whether for the better or worse is, I think, undecided. And yet, if I take a Jungian point of view, better or worse is not the point. The point is individuation. In that case, walking into Collective:Unconscious, signing up, and getting up on stage with Millennium my first guide dog, and performing a little monologue which I thought was a comedy routine at which nobody laughed, though the reception after was heart-warming and encouraging, represents one giant step on the path of becoming me.

My new friend Florian Birkmayer, a psychiatrist who finds an alternative to the biomedical model in Jung’s conception of individuation, explained this to me in an email:

” The Jungian view says that each of our lives is a unique opportunity to individuate, that is to become fully ourselves–our symptoms and struggles can be transformed into meaningful experiences on the journey of discovering our Personal Myth. Individuation offers a lifelong path of evolution, embodied in each of our Personal Myths.”

In my reply, I mentioned that I was inspired by his words to finally pick up Jung and was starting with Man and His Symbols, which he wrote in the last years of his life with the lay reader in mind. Florian also recommended what he called Jung’s “mythobiography” Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

The term mythobiography immediately resonated as a reversed version of an online class I’d recently signed up for with Sofia Quintero called Jumpstart Your Biomythography, and so I downloaded the book and in the prologue found this resonating quote:

Portrait of Jung, unknown date.“Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my
personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories.’ Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.”

Mythobiography/biomythography gives a name for what I’ve done in so many of my blind literary projects: Helen Keller on Vaudeville was the first time I incorporated myself into the blind myth as an artistic endeavor. But the process really started earlier with work in graduate school: a paper called “In her Crooked Way,” about the visually impaired barbarian girl at the center of Coetzee‘s Waiting for the Barbarians, who has an eye disease that presented awfully similar to my own at the time of writing. And In my master’s thesis Écriture Nocturne and in my dissertation The Spectator & the Blind Man: Seeing & Not-Seeing in the Wake of Empiricism, which was turned into the stage production of The Spectator & the Blind Man: Stories of Seeing and Not-Seeing,” and now flash-fictions, which are ready, I think finally to be incorporated into my very own mythobiography. Although every blind character, fictional and “true,” has been to some extent me, that is no more or less true of all the sighted characters.

Because I’m as much a sighted person as a blind one–having lived my life on pretty much every notch of the sight/blindness continuum–they are all me–from Helen Keller to Louis Braille, from Marie Antoinette to Denis Diderot, they are all seeing and not-seeing, as are all of us.

*This is Essay 18 of #52essays2017. Read #17, “Rocky Mountain Coyote Motel” here*

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The Hand That Extends: Lacan on Love, Transference, Plato’s Symposium, Essay 14 of #52essays2017

Lacan portrait.I first encountered the work of Jacques Lacan in my first year of grad school; I can think of no other theorist who more painfully highlighted my inadequacies by the impenetrability of their words. And the late nineties were not exactly a time in literary circles for transparency, if ever there was one. Derrida was still alive and well and guest lecturing at NYU and elsewhere–I was there! I even went to his office hours and spoke with him for about two minutes. Very nervous and about as far from the rigor of his thinking as a striving academic could be. But Derrida another Jacques, is beside the point today. Today it is Lacan, and specifically my newfound interest and dare I say love for him that will occupy this little essay.
My dear friend and companion in visual impairment, Dr. Caroline Kasnakian, has been telling me about Après-Coup, a psychoanalytic association in NYC dedicated to the teachings of Freud and Lacan, for several years, but it was the writing of a story–a twisted little psychological horror piece (still under construction) that provoked me to go with her to one of their lectures last week.

Caroline Kasnakian chez Lacan.The lecture, delivered by Après-Coup’s founder Paola Mieli, was “On the Subject and Transference,” and this provoked me to pick up and begin again to read Lacan, tentatively and with much trepedation.

If you’ve no experience reading the works of this famously oblique psychoanalyst, I should start by saying that most of what you will read by him are transcriptions of his seminars delivered in Paris from 1953 to 1981. There is no doubt that Lacan does not make for beach reading, but at least in the earlier lectures, his brilliant, playful voice shines through and can make reading them, especially as I do, out loud, quite enjoyable. As a tiny sample, I offer the following quote, taken from the opening lecture of Lacan’s Seminar VIII: Transference (1960-61):

“The hand that extends toward the fruit, the rose, or the log that suddenly bursts into flames – its gesture of reaching, drawing close, or stirring up is closely related to the ripening of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, and the blazing of the log. If, in the movement of reaching, drawing, or stirring, the hand goes far enough toward the object that another hand comes out of the fruit, flower, or log and extends toward your hand – and at that moment your hand freezes in the closed plenitude of the fruit, in the open plenitude of the flower, or in the explosion of a log which bursts into flames – then what is produced is love.”

Because this lecture is on transference (and because it’s Lacan), I think we can be fairly certain that we are not to understand this beautiful little passage as being primarily (or at all) about romantic love. And because this metaphor struck me so forcefully that I continued reading this difficult text to the very end, I take the metaphor to be about the intellectual hand that extends–Lacan’s voice that comes through the pages of the lecture so charmingly–as a reward for extending my hand towards the fruit and the flower and the fire.

Plato's Symposium, painting by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869.

It turned out that this was the perfect seminar with which I should reacquaint myself with Lacan because it begins with a reading of Plato’s Symposium, the odd   and rather sexy Philosophical dialogue that I know about as well as any book because I’ve taught it many times. How can you not adore the lighthearted sketch of Socrates and his buds drinking and flirting, their speeches on love interrupted by the dramatic entrance of the ultimate lover boy Alcibiades and his pack of rowdy revelers? For more on Alcibiades and his apparently truthful account of his romance with Socrates, I refer you to Lacan, who makes much of this interruption, with which so many commentators through the centuries have struggled in vain to comprehend.

Another ancient perplexity is that Agathon, the tragic poet and host of this particular soiree, gives a speech on love, which is funny and quite dismissed by Socrates as fluff, while Aristophanes, the comic playwright, gives one that is quite touching even if it contains some clowning around. Aristophanes, the comic and I should add bawdy playwright  ought not even to be at the symposium with Socrates nor allowed to speak so eloquently because he was no fan of Socrates–he rips Socrates a new one in The Clouds, which may have contributed to the trial and execution of Socrates. However, Aristophanes is there and Plato allows him a charming speech on love and desire, providing an explanation for the lack we all sometimes feel: the jealous gods split us from our other half…

While Agathon, from the opening pages of The Symposium, provides Socrates with ample fodder for teasing correctives:

“‘How splendid it would be, Agathon, if wisdom was the sort of thing that could flow from the fuller to the emptier of us when we touch each other, like water, which flows through a piece of wool from a fuller cup to an emptier one. If wisdom is really like that, I regard it as a great privilege to share your couch. I expect to be filled up from your rich supply of fine wisdom. My wisdom is surely inferior – or rather, questionable in its significance, like a dream – but yours is brilliant and has great potential for growth. Look at the way it has blazed out so fiercely while you’re still young…” (The Symposium)

In parting, dear reader, I admit all I’ve done this time is, at best, to take your hand around the fruit and the flower and the fire. Perhaps this is all one can expect from these weekly essays. In any case, Lacan assures me that going around and around or by some sleight of hand is the only way to see truth:

“Here I am merely repeating once more the merry-go-round of truth on which we have been spinning since the beginning of this Seminar. …It is, of course, characteristic of truths to never show themselves completely. In short, truths are solids that are perfidiously opaque. They don’t even have, it seems, the property we are able to produce in certain solids, that of transparency – they do not show us their front and back edges at the same time. You have to circumnavigate them [en faire le tour], and even do a little conjuring [le tour de passe-passe].”
*This is essay 14 of #52essays2017. Read #13 “Origins of Sludge” here*

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Origins of “Sludge” in Lady Mary Wroth and Life, Essay 13 of #52essays2017

Almost exactly ten years ago, I had an unfortunate lapse in judgement of the sexual variety, which had at least one terrible consequence and one pretty good one: The terrible shall remain my secret, but the good I happily claim, namely, a song called Sludge, destined for my band gutter & spine. At that time, playing drums and singing in a punkity-rockity band represented a distraction and fun outlet from writing my dissertation and teaching. It is no coincidence that most of my other lyrics for gutter & spine songs (d’Orca, Ode to a Mofo) also have their origins in early modern literature. It may even have been that I was teaching Renaissance Poetry that semester, which is why, the morning after, feeling gross and hungover, I wrote the lyrics to Sludge with almost no revision–something that basically never happened before or since.

Portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert, circa 1590. Wikimedia.
Mary Herbert

I can’t remember if I had Wroth’s sonnet “When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove” open before I started, but I believe I turned to it while I wrote. The lyrics give voice to a time when bad life choices were so intermixed with good, that sludge seemed an apt existential state of being.

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) was born into a noble
and literary family. She was the niece of the famous Elizabethan poet and courtier Philip Sidney, and of Mary Herbert (Née Sidney), a poet in her own right and a great patron of the arts who encouraged and inspired the young Wroth in her literary endeavors. and although she enjoyed accolades from the great male authors in her lifetime, such as Ben Jonson, her poems (unlike that of her male counterparts) fell into obscurity. As the Longman textbook with which I used to warp young minds tells me:

The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania title page, 1621. Wikimedia.
Urania title page

“Appreciated by the finest poets of her time, her writing was neglected for the next 300 years, she has only recently been rediscovered as one of the most compelling women writers of her age. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus the first Petrarchan sonnet sequence in English by a woman, was first printed in 1621 but was not reprinted until 1977.”

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus provided me the fodder for Sludge in its first scorching sonnet:

When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,

And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire

From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move

Swifter than those most swiftness need require:

 

In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire

I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,

And at her feet her son, still adding fire

To burning hearts, which she did hold above.

 

But one heart flaming more than all the rest

The goddess held, and put it to my breast.

”Dear son, now shoot,” said she, ”thus must we win.”

He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.

I, waking hoped as dreams it would depart;

Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.

[From Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition, La Trobe University]

Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth, circa 1620, holding a theorbo. Wikimedia.
Mary Wroth

Although I stole a few key phrases, for instance the martyring of the heart, unlike Wroth, I address the song to the love-object (bastard), while Wroth is unconcerned with him, at least in this poem. However, we know that there is one, since the cycle is called Pamphilia (the all loving one) to Amphilanthus (the dual lover). In other words, the female speaker in the lyric loves completely one man while her lover is divided in his affections. Infidelity and jealousy preoccupy the speaker in the lyrics, as well as the women in Urania, the romance to which the sonnet cycle is appended. And yet, in this first poem, the lover is nowhere to be seen. Only love, the daughter and son team, shoot the already burning heart with more desire–eternal desire perhaps, and enclose it in the poor speaker’s breast.

In this first sonnet, the speaker hasn’t any obvious gender, however Wroth sets up the Petrarchan love sonnet cycle with a difference by having the woman (Pamphilia) write to the man (Amphilanthus). Typical Renaissance love poetry, written mostly by men following Petrarch’s model, presented the love object as the unattainable, idealized and silent lady.” But as the first essay in Re-Reading Mary Wroth suggests, Wroth reverses the roles by giving the silent lady a voice and goes even further than her male counterparts by paying little attention to their presence:

“She silences the male beloved even more completely than is usually the case with the Petrarchan lady, omitting many of the usual Petrarchan topics: there are no praises of his overpowering physical beauty or charms, no narratives of kisses or other favors received or denied, no reports of his words or actions, no blazons praising each of his parts, no promises to eternalize him, no palinodes or renunciations of love.”

Facsimile of Sonnet 1 "When night's dark mantle..." from La Trobe.
Sonnet one

Pamphilia does not bother to extol the virtues of Amphilanthus, because, for one thing he does not turn out to be virtuous, but rather inconstant–no surprise considering his name. It is also that, as in so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the interest lies within the psyche of the speaker/poet and not with the beloved. The beloved is but an impetus for shaping strong passions into poetry.

Perhaps that is where the speaker of Sludge offers the most affinity with her Renaissance counterpart. Although she takes some little time to denegrate the bastard that is her love object by indulging in a death-metalesque blazon of the unworthy scoundrel, she is more interested in her own feelings of shame that is the consequence of being dragged into the mire by an unworthy lover:

Up from the depths of the murky sludge,

You rise and stand in your glory, all thumbs

And metal, you look like some badass jesus

And you’ve come to martyr my poor heart today…

*This is essay 13 of #52essays2017. You can read #12 “Drinking Monarch Nectar” here*

 

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1984: Late to the Party Again, Essay 6 of #52essays2017

Menacing cover of a Czech copy of 1984In the year 1984, I was in sixth grade, a scholarship child in a private girl school. The eighth graders were reading George Orwell’s 1984 and had plastered the walls with images of our headmistress that read, “Big Sister is Watching YOU.” We didn’t know what it meant, but we understood that it was witty and smart and that that group of girls was particularly beloved by the teachers, headmistress and principle and could get away with such things. Our class, dominated by girls whose anger and sadness ruled their intelligence, was not, I understand now, so beloved.

Though I’d started having trouble seeing the blackboard back in fourth grade, it was not until sixth that I began having trouble reading print. One time in history class, which I loved, I was taking a pop quiz and stared at the purple ditto ink, astonished and afraid because I couldn’t make out a single word. I raised my hand and told Mrs. Clark in a nervous whisper that I wasn’t able to read it. She turned the paper over and there was the quiz! We laughed. I told that story many times in those years when my eye disease seemed merely an odd anomaly, a predicament that presented problems easily solved in a class of 40 with smart caring teachers.

It was also in sixth grade that I was presenting a book report with my friend (with whom I would in another year or two vandalize the school one night with shaving cream), reading notes we’d written with pale blue ink that I suddenly could not read, and I stumbled over my part of the presentation. She laughed and snatched the notes away. It was not mean-spirited. She simply took control of what I’d not been able to do. I stood, as I would so often stand through my teens and twenties, very still, mortified. It was my great shame not to be able to read anymore.

In earlier grades, I’d been a great reader, a cocky little reader who’d gleefully raise her hand to read aloud and took pride in reading ahead while my classmates labored. I’d show off the adult books I was reading, pilfered from my mother’s bookcase, Agatha Christie mysteries, Gone with the Wind.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of reading in special places. I remember finishing Little Women while sitting in the branches of a tree in the huge shared backyard of my grandmother’s apartment complex. I remember reading the end of Jane Eyre, tears rolling down my face in the window seat of the library on 9th Avenue, where I’d wait for my mother to get off work at the clothing boutique around the corner on Clement Street. And I remember reading Poe stories on the bus ride out to the SF Zoo to volunteer on Saturday mornings.

By the time I was in eighth Grade, and it was our turn to read 1984, reading was no longer a pleasure but a chore. I never finished it. I bluffed my way through. If I had good lighting, was not tired, and did not mind how slow it went, I could still read for another year or two, but mostly, the act of scanning words with eyeballs had a hole in it. Where the words should be, there was nothing.

I did not get into the fancy high schools of my peers. I went instead to my neighborhood public school, where my mother had gone before me. I received no help and my rebel self wanted none. I had my smarts and the classes were not challenging. They sucked and I hated it all except for ninth grade English Honors.

Mr. Davis squeezed a few more reads out of me–I remember being particularly engrossed by Green Mansions. He had us watch Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, which made a lasting visual impression on me though I could not read the subtitles. He also kept alive for a little while longer the pleasure I took in writing–I’d thankfully taught myself to touch-type the year before on my mom’s manual typewriter. For his class I typed up the last story I would write for a long time. It was about two girls who’d run away. They sat smoking in the McDonald’s on Powell Street. Only one had a pang of regret for the childhood lost and the certainty she’d never go back. I believe that was my last A until college.

Some paltry years of learning flew by, with little school attendance and much teenage debauchery. I cut classes and smoked cigarettes in a café down the street with my best friend–the best friend I still have and the only good take away from that school other than Honors English. I still fancied myself intelligent, a writer. I think I even sometimes dreamed of getting a doctorate someday.

But words and faces were slipping from me: wandering the used bookshop with my friends meant faking it. Looking in used record shops meant looking for recognizable covers with large print. Watching TV meant pretending to see what was going on if it were more than a few feet from me. I took it all in as shame and anger and nursed it with booze and candy.

Doctored newspaper clipping of Tony Randall handing RFB&D Achievement Award to GodinWhen I finally dropped out of high school, it was in order to move on to City College. High School was not working. Finally I got help. Finally I learned about an organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic from whom I would receive an achievement award upon my college graduation some years down the line, handed to me in a fancy ceremony in NYC by Tony Randall. Now RFB&D is called Learning Ally and students don’t have to wait for their digital downloads–blind kids are so lucky these days!–but back in the pre-digital stone age, they sent clunky blue boxes of recorded books on tape cassettes via snail mail.

The first book I remember listening to on the plastic companion cassette player was 1984, the aborted read from years earlier. I was completely hooked and listened to it over the course of a night. The best part about reading by listening is that you do not have to worry about your eyes getting tired.

But those little blue boxes were limited. It takes a long time to have people read books onto tape and to process them. It took time for them to arrive in the mail, a delay of one to three weeks. So that sometimes, by the time I received them, I’d forgotten what prompted me to order them. I could not borrow books from friends and I could not often even get ahold of those they were reading, but at least I could read some. Eating chips or smoking while listening to novels was my great escape.

It was wonderful to have access to books again, but there was shame in those blue boxes, shame in listening to books with my ears instead of reading with my eyes. I hid them away from my friends as much as possible.

Although I still listen to books, having them come to me in a digital file that I listen to in a ubiquitous and perfectly quotidian iPhone has changed everything. The shame is gone, or nearly so. There are so many books available to me through blind organizations such as Bookshare, or through universally available sources such as Project Gutenberg and Kindle, that I can get ahold of most everything I want to read quickly and easily. Others I can scan. In fact, I have so many books on my phone that it has, I’m afraid, made me a little more deficient in attention than I once was, but I’ll take the downside with the many upsides of being able to be current with my intellectual interests. And also able to keep up with what’s going on in the world’s intellectual meanderings, such as they are.

This time, when the call to read 1984 shot around the internet, I was able to download and start reading it immediately. Naturally I’m horrified and darkly amused by the ludicrous behavior of this president and his lackeys with their “alternative facts,” but in some ways I’m more concerned about the hypocrisy of so many of my peers who seem already to have forgotten the jokes and apathy that led up to the election. It is trendy to bash this sad sack in the White House but unthinkable to question one’s own culpability.

Honestly, I’ve shied away from the news since the new presidency. An avid listener to NPR since the Gulf War in 1990, last fall found me angry at my radio for the first time for taking Trump seriously on the one hand, and as just an impossible joke on the other. That so many people I knew felt mostly apathy before the election and have turned fanatical since also feels like a betrayal on the order of 1984 itself. “‘The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories.'”

The connections between 1984 and the current state of affairs in politics that put the 68-year-old novel at the top of Amazon’s Bestseller list is obvious, but it ought to be recognized as complicated, as our hero Winston Smith is complicated. If Trump being in the white house suggests the regime of Big Brother, I think we ought to allow for the possibility that we are like the very flawed Winston who can in one breath cling to his humanity as the only weapon against the Party:

“‘If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.'”

And in the next throw away that humanity in the thoughtless acceptance of rebelling:

“‘You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases–to do anything which is likely to cause demoralisation and weaken the power of the Party?’

‘Yes.’

‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face–are you prepared to do that?’

‘Yes.'”

These words will come back to haunt Winston in the Ministry of Love even before the final betrayal, suggesting an irony that in the very act of rebelling he steps that much closer to those he is rebelling against, towards their destructive utilitarian philosophy that deems the most heinous acts worthy if they further the cause. To lose one’s humanity in the face of fear and anger is too easy and more dangerous if left unrecognized.

 

*This is essay 6 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Ylang-ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory here*

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Ylang-Ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory, Essay 5 of #52essays2017

Cananga odorata illustrated in Francisco Manuel Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. 1800-1803?. Public domain from Wikipedia.When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.

Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.

I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.

Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.

That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.

The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.

Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.

Godin brushing hair reflected in antique vanity mirror

Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.

But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:

” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”

Jar of Yes Organic Ylang-ylang rose night cream on antique vanityLiving now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.

I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.

And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.

My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.

She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.

If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.

The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.

The trick is not to panic.

The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.

 

*This is essay 5 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics here*

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