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*

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*

 

CERKL Gene: My Newly Identified Eye Disease Is Not an Eye Disease, Essay 10 of #52essays2017

Last week I visited my ophthalmologist and learned that my blindness is caused by a mutation to the CERKL (pronounced like circle) gene, which, it turns out, is oddly not specific to my damaged retinas. At Genecards.org I read, “CERKL (Ceramide Kinase Like) is a Protein Coding gene.” And on Wikipedia I learn that “ceramides are a family of waxy, lipid molecules,” and that kinase is an enzyme, but I’m still not sure what this all means. I’m the wrong kind of doctor!

About a year ago I had a first round of genetic testing that came back negative. They had looked for more common (though still             rare) degenerative diseases of the retina like retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and Stargardt disease, and had shown that in the world of rare eye diseases, I have a doozey. Then a few months ago Dr. Tsang, my ophthalmologist at Columbia Medical Center, urged me to test again as great leaps had been made in the swiftness of identifying rare gene mutations. What might have taken two years to find in the last test, could now give results in a few months. That is exactly what happened. In a few months, I learned that my recessive mutation takes place on the CERKL gene.

When I was a kid, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), though, through the years of degeneration, my symptoms hardly presented like a typical case. The symptoms of RP are generally a loss of night vision and far peripheral vision that gradually constricts through the decades, leaving the sufferer with tunnel vision that grows ever narrower. This means that people with RP can often read normal print long after they have need for a mobility aid, like a cane or dog.

Back when I was in my twenties and still living in San Francisco, I went to an RP support group and heard a man tell how he’d been waiting for the train in a downtown BART station reading a newspaper with his guide dog, when someone came up and told him, “You don’t look blind.” To appease the stranger, the storyteller put on his dark glasses. We in the group laughed very hard. (In such groups, a good amount of time is spent talking about how silly sighted people are.)

However, that man’s experience was not mine, and I felt a little envious. I wished I could still read normal print and run around with a cute guide dog. Instead, my weird version of retinal degeneration went in another direction. I lost some peripheral vision, and experienced night blindness–both of which signify damage to the rods, which make up the majority of our peripheral vision and sense light and movement. However, I also had a tiny chink removed from my macula–which is preserved until late stages in typical RP. Specifically my fovea, the central point of vision that consists of densely packed cones, which are the retinal cells that detect color and detail, blew out early on, making it impossible for me to read normal print. I could still make out large print for a long time if I placed it slightly off-center focus. Hence, I began to look askew at things in order to see them.

For me, it was only a few years between when I could not read the writing on the black board from the back of the class to when I could no longer read normal print. And yet, in many practical ways, I still looked and functioned perfectly normally. I could walk around without aid no problem, and that created a lot of confusion and shame.

As a person with a degenerative eye disease, I have experienced pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, from normally sighted to nearly totally blind. In fact the vast majority of the world’s sight-impaired population is visually impaired, not totally blind. According to the World Health Organization ” 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision.” However, these statistics tell us very little about what the individuals in either category see.

Doctors don’t tend to ask what I see anymore. An assistant may ask if I can see their hand waving in front of my face, but I have to tell them that I can still see the ceiling light if I place it in my periphery just so. In addition, they certainly never ask what has come to replace my lack of vision. Do they know that my visionscape presents a blast of fireworks–probably the explosive last gasps of the photoreceptors in my destroyed retinas–or the constant hallucinations curtesy Charles Bonnet Syndrome? Or that, when I’m tired I see less, or when drunk I see more, but when hungover less. When I am in familiar environments, my brain fills in information and I see more–just like the blind spot is filled in normal vision, so that, especially when I had more vision, I saw dramatically less when I was in unfamiliar places. For more on how the brain fills in vision, read Richard Gregory‘s classic Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing.

Through my twenties and thirties my eye disease progressed in a haphazard way, but I still told people that I had RP, until recently, when I thought it seemed better, though more clunky, to describe my disease as a cone rod dystrophy, which explains the severity of the central vision loss at an early age.

It is a strange aspect of my slow march towards blindness that in the many years I spent as a visually impaired person, people often finished a conversation about my eye disease with the punctuation, “Is there a cure?” or “I’m sure they’ll find a cure.” Now that I’m basically a blind person, no one says anything about curing me. Of course, this could also be because I’m older. In any case, the irony is that now that I am older and blinder, there actually are glimmers of cures on the horizon.

From gene therapy to nanotechnology the possibilities of cure or cyborg-like augmentation are numerous and the darlings of the media. If you don’t believe me, check out the September 2016 National Geographic’s cover story “The End of Blindness.”

For about ten years, I did not have anything to do with eye doctors. It seemed to me useless. They simply confirmed the problem, but could offer no solutions. Then I started to get the feeling that things might be changing. Stem cell approaches were beginning to be a reality, even in the US, where stem cell research had been squelched by Bush and will likely be squelched by this Hydra in the White House, if the prolife heads prevail.

But now, with my CERKL gene identified as the culprit, I learn that curing my eye disease may have greater possibilities than stem cell therapy. In a CUMC blog post about his research Dr. Tsang is quoted as saying,

“Although gene therapy has shown promise in RP, it is complicated by the fact that defects in 67 genes have been linked to the disorder, and each genetic defect would require a different therapy. … Our study shows that precision metabolic reprogramming can improve the survival and function of affected rods and cones in at least one type of RP. Since many, if not most, forms of the disorder have the same metabolic error; precision reprogramming could conceivably be applied to a wide range of RP patients.”

RP patients as well as those like me who have one of the 200 mutations associated with other retinal cell degeneration have reason to be optimistic in this approach, since the rarity of the underlying cause will be less of a factor. In terms of research funding and focus, this is very good news for people like me who have odd mutations.

Hence my eye disease is a symptom that may be treated with drug therapy that may relate to many other kinds of problems. Dr. Tsang told me in the office that it may be treated with drugs someday, rather than surgery. In the article on CUMC’s blog he noted , “‘Further studies are needed to explore the exciting possibility that precision metabolic reprogramming may be used to treat other forms of RP and retinal degeneration.'”

The article mentions that some potentially therapeutic drugs may already exist to treat other conditions such as “enzyme blockers called thiomyristoyl peptides, a common plant pigment known as quercetin, and vitexin, a substance derived from the English Hawthorn tree.”

I personally really like the idea that hawthorn, a tree sacred to fairies, might someday provide me a cure!

For now, Dr. Tsang is recommending daily exercise, which has shown to be effective in slowing down the rate of degeneration in mice with RP. As one of Dr. Tsang’s assistants put it to me in an email:

“The article about SIRT6 found that, in mice with a similar retinal degeneration, better sugar metabolism (in the form of lactate) for the retina cells helped delay the degeneration. This is still in the animal/research phase of research so there is no specific recommendation we can provide based on this study right now. At this time we do not have a way to deliver lactate directly to the retina. However, daily exercise increases lactate transiently and was shown to be helpful for mice with a retinal degeneration. Since daily exercise is beneficial for many things anyways, we recommend it to our patients as perhaps it may also help their retinas too!”

Since exercise might have some impact on my eye disease, I thought I’d ask about diet, and Dr. Tsang recommended three servings of fish. I clarified, “A week right? Not a day?” He and his assistant laughed. “Then you smell like fish,” he said, which begs the question, would I be willing to smell like fish for a chance to see again?

The thought that all my terrible living has actually exacerbated my disease is unsettling. My whole life I’ve felt a victim of genetics, and now it turns out I may have accelerated my blindness by feeding the mutation with booze and youthful drug adventures, indifferent eating habits and not enough exercise. On the one hand it is good to know that I may be able to have an impact on how I see for the rest of my life and on the other, I am saddened at the thought that too much has been already lost, and that suddenly I find myself to be an author of that loss.

*This is Essay 10 of #52essays2017*

Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America, Essay 8 of #52essays2017

This is my answer to the Mall of America Writer-in-Residence application question “What would you like to write about during your writer residency? ” which doubles as my #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight, offering this busy week of state and house-hopping.

Youthful Godin in a Paris Disney teacup

I will write about beauty with all four senses and remembered sight. What is beautiful to the nose, the ear, the tongue, fingertips, and yes the eyeballs too? How do the senses fare in one of the most stimulating places on Earth?

I will explore the nooks and crannies of taste , smell, touch, hearing and sight, collecting organic material to run through my synesthetic still. For the harder perceivable clumps I’ll have to use my wordsmith’s hammer and anvil of insight to pound out the contours of desire and satisfaction.

Denis Diderot, the philosopher, encyclopedist and art critic who in his last moments on Earth reached for the cherry compote, that is, died wanting more deliciousness, wrote, “I consider that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the proudest, smell the most voluptuous, taste the profoundest and touch the most philosophical.”

In our daily musings at our desk, my laptop and I will test these hypotheses, and formulate new ones: If a pink flower is distilled into a bottle of perfume will my soul turn that hue upon my spritzing myself with it? Can a song-inspired designer make a dress that can teach me to dance? Can I ride choo choo trains to work and back again without hearing joy or sorrow? Can I write a love-letter to the tongues of universal taste? Will I touch my girlhood in a looking glass while wearing leather, or satin, or feathers, or ruby slippers, or in a tank of waving sea anemone? Can I enter my father’s boyhood, or my mother’s, more truthfully through taste, touch, or smell? Is there a perfect sight? A perfect sound? A perfect smell? Is asking for perfect sensations too ridiculous to entertain? What is the smell of laughter? Can you taste a smile? Can you buy lovely? Can you sell hunger? Where in the MOA can you find natural beauty? Unconventional beauty? Ugly beauty? Metaphorical beauty? Beauty for all the senses and the spirit too?

I once was sighted, but now I’m blind. Having lived on almost every notch of the sight -blindness continuum, I will comment about what was seen, what is to be seen and what might yet be seen with a little imagination and artistic cross-sensual translating.

Helen Keller wrote that our senses tell us very little without the spark of imagination: “Without imagination what a poor thing my world would be! My garden would be a silent patch of earth strewn with sticks of a variety of shapes and smells. But when the eye of my mind is opened to its beauty, the bare ground brightens beneath my feet, and the hedge-row bursts into leaf, and the rose-tree shakes its fragrance everywhere. I know how budding trees look, and I enter into the amorous joy of the mating birds, and this is the miracle of imagination.”

In my ramblings as the Mall of America Spectator, I will carve a path with Moses (my trusty white cane) leading others through the promised land of gratification. I will work the Mall’s sense organs, aesthetic appreciation, metaphysical gleemings, from the mind’s eye out. Together we will map the contours of ineffable, ineluctable, and sensational beauty. Together we will anatomize the feel of beautification, skin smoothers and brighteners, sleek lines of suits and stiletto heels, scents that attract men, attract women, woo the nostrils, and tickle the visual cortex. Like true adventurers, we will explore plush Furniture music, intricate lace movement, luxurious leather goods and thrills. We will hunt for the scented candle that reminds you of your professor’s library, of your baby’s cowlicked head, of your secret garden. We will hunt for the sound of mirrored astonishment, in the maze or in my sunglasses. We will do archaeological digs for glinting rocks, in nature stores and at jewelry counters. We will make a study of dolls’ dresses and dressing like dolls, as well as more sophisticated drone-toys and the taste of rose cocktail fizzes, truffle oil and high-piled hotdogs.

I promise to faithfully scribble down the gasps and whispers, truthfully set down the pleasures, curiosities and explorations, honestly pen the trends and heart-wishes of the Mall of America.

Adulterated Rose or, The Smell of Regrettable Youth, Essay 7 of #52essays2017

The guy with the hard metal name was beautiful in my degenerate eye. Beautiful with a girlfriend. And a Volkswagen bus. This was around the time of the earthquake of ’89, when the influences of flower power still loomed large in San Francisco. I’d been pining for so long and then he said they’d broken up. We climbed into his bus and he put rose oil (adulterated, I recognize in my mind’s now more refined nostrils) under my nose and kissed me. When I give myself a little credit, I remember thinking it a cheap trick. I was young, but I knew enough to recognize that when it was over the smell under my nose was gone.

Red and white vintage VW bus model.
Sheet Metal Car Camper Vw Bus Volkswagen Model Car

The guy with a name that reminds one of welders, returned to his girlfriend and told her what we’d done, which made her hate me. That hurt too. I then glimpsed adulthood, where quotidian comfort trumps experimental romance.

Then I moved from my mom’s place in the Richmond District to 1462 Haight Street. Out the front door to the right was Ashbury and below a diner. Lazing on Haight Street, breakfast eggs and potatoes stick in the craw. It is this stuckness of regrettable youth that stinks like All You Knead. To live above a mediocre diner, to smell its unclean smells, and still to eat there is a kind of willful anosmia.

Haight and Ashbury street signs.

Similarly, being 19, mostly ignorant and a masochist, I adopted the scent of fake roses, bought for 10 bucks down the street in a crystal shop or some damn woowoo place, as my own. Not sure if I made the connection, but I still loved the smell after the encounter with the guy named for a metal that was the material of which the VW bus that had so briefly cocooned us was made.

Recently, long since those days of low self-esteem and unrefined judgement, I’ve had the pleasure of smelling real rose oil, bought in a precious one milliliter vile, Rosa damascena, and it is sweet and innocent–pink flowered and pure. It is warming to the heart, not meant to bump you upside the head with a reification of sex.

These days I often look to aromatherapy books when I’m feeling grumpy . Keville and Green tell me that it was the poetess Sappho who dubbed rose the “queen of flowers”:

“The fragrance of rose inspired poets and lovers throughout the ages, and it has been used to ‘open’ the heart and ease grief, heartache, loss, and sadness. … Employed for relationship conflicts, envy, anger, and intolerance, it is comforting, supportive through crisis, and an aphrodisiac. It also helps alleviate depression, anxiety, fear, insomnia, and lack of confidence.”
Vial of rose oil on white background.I need to save my pennies for another tiny vial!

And yet, sometimes I feel guilty for my greedy nose, and wonder if it is, even now, worthy of the holocaust of hundreds of flowers. In Aromatherapy I read that it takes up to 60 rose blossoms to produce just one drop of essential oil.

Roses are difficult to raise organically, must be handpicked, and do not have many essential oil glands, so it is often adulterated.

In the essential oil of rose, or rose otto (usually distilled from Rosa damascena) there are hundreds of distinct chemical constituents. At the risk of boring you, but in the interest of proving my point, I will include a few here (from Essential Oil Safety): Citronellol (16.0-35.9%), Geraniol (15.7-25.7%), Alkenes & alkanes (19.0-24.5%), Nerol (3.7-8.7%), Methyleugenol (0.5-3.3%), and so on…

Many more exist in trace amounts, which gives rose its complexity, roundness and depth. Unfortunately, chemists working in the flavor and fragrance industry tend to ignore this fact. They isolate major constituents and reconstruct simple versions of a complicated fragrance. The distinctly rosy constituent geraniol, for example, can be added to rose oil to extend it, but in the process, flattens out the scent.

Isolating a single constituent of rose is like isolating a personality trait, and claiming to know something about the whole person. I doubt any of us would like that very much! Nobody wants to be thought of as only gregarious, only proud, only smart, only funny, only a pain in the ass, only pretty. A flowers unique essence is made up of many things, just as we are, and to pin a couple of trope constituents on a formula created in a lab and slap the term rose on it, is as unconscionable (and comes from the same sad impulse) as bigotry and the creation of stereotypes.

Artificial aromas and flavors are so one-dimensional. And we’ve grown used to it. Eat a cherry flavored candy and you may name it as such, but what resemblance does the cherry flavor candy have to the real thing? Almost nothing. And unfortunately so many of us are weaned on such artificial flavors that we must be reeducated. Even “natural” flavors ought to be suspect in our noses as what is meant by “natural flavors” are organic compounds isolated and reconstituted to create a one-dimensional and highly duplicable taste. Cherries taste all kinds of ways in nature but only one way in a Skittle.

Before I remove my teeth from this subject, allow me to worry the bastards over at Febreze.

I don’t know if you’ve witnessed their ad campaign centered around the tawdry word “noseblind,” but let me just say that as a blind person (extremely tolerant of the liberal use of blindness as a metaphor), I find this term infuriating. I am blind. It is not a great thing to be, but it works its magic in its own particular and mysterious ways. Don’t take it away from me because you are lazy, because you know no actual blind people, or because you fancy them so far away that they would not even be watching, sorry listening to, television.

Why not nosedeaf, thank you very much. Certainly viewers would sniff at the thought of it!

You, Febreze, peddlers of terrible synthetic smells, coiners of mean and unnecessary words, create that which you profess to mitigate. I’ve walked into stores scented with your fruity monstrosities and fell to my knees, praying for anosmia. Anosmia is by the way the word you are wanting, and I suspect a willful ignorance, and kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, who may be put off by a word they do not know, keeps you from using it.

AAAH! Sometimes I truly hate this world with so much contriving that the very truth one professes, is in fact its opposite. And people eat it up. With their thought deafness and their mind blindness, and, above all, their tastelessness.

Quit being satisfied with the fakes, people. Demand the real. It may cost more, but as I mentioned in Sandalwood Love, there is nothing wrong with embracing the scarcity and complexity of precious things. I think it is not going so far to say that if you can’t appreciate these things in a flower, how can you recognize them in a person?

Rosa damascena postcard by resolute

*This is essay #7 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “1984: Late to the Party Again” here*

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*