Thursday, August 06, 2009

Make me whole

Laura quotes Sandra Simonds:

There is something to be said for someone like, say, John Ashbery with his linguistic ease.I think of my friend Amber who says that she is not afraid to do things such as flying in a plane. She says she is not afraid to go crazy because she does not see herself as a "solid" person but rather as someone fragmented and so when something strange happens she just "goes with it." People who see themselves as solid or whole, according to Amber, breakdown when they find that they are not. I am not surprised that Ashbery has lived a long time.

My comment:

There is something morally disturbing about this though, isn't there? I mean, what counts as "something strange"? How do we distinguish this from when "something bad happens"? (Something that might make us less solid or whole.) Are there not times when we admire the "solid" person for their, say, courage, and when someone who "just goes with it" looks basically cowardly?

More formally, "not solid or whole" = "broken". So it's sort of tautological that someone who thinks himself whole "breaks down" in the discovery that he is, in fact, broken. But we'll never know what came first: finding that we are broken or the breaking itself.

My basic view is that good things make us more whole, bad things less so, and strange things are strange precisely in their ambiguity qua good/bad. "Just going with it" when things get strange has probably a 50/50 chance of breaking you down.

I don't think brokenness is a yes/no condition. We are not broken or whole, but more or less broken, more or less whole. So Amber's "people who see themselves as solid or whole" is a bit of a caricature, a straw man, and actually somewhat uncharitable. Are there really people who would be shaken by the mere possibility of their own imperfection? Well, perhaps. There are certainly people who overestimate their strength.

But there are just as certainly people who underestimate their strength and, to make matters worse, valorize their weakness as an "openness" to "strangeness" that "solid people" are unwilling or unable to face. Moral experience is a complicated matter. The important thing is that we do the best we can.

I'm reading Harold Bloom these days and am looking forward to getting to the part about Ashbery's "strong" poetry.


Sandra Simonds said...

Well I suppose the idea that bad things make you less whole / good things make you more whole is very questionable for me. If something bad happens, it can actually, I think, make the self much more unified as there would be much more of a need to be unified. The desire for the self to be unified I think can be problematic. I will take my own fears as an example here. I have really bad phobias---I am not trying to “valorize” my weakness here as they can be quite debilitating. The thing is what always scares me the most is the idea that I will “lose my mind” or that I will break in some way. But when I talked to my friend I found her perception of herself very refreshing. What she said was that she already sees herself as broken or fragmented—the self as fluid so it does not bother her in the least to face certain situations. Perhaps I was attracted to this idea as I am quite the opposite.

On Ashbery---what I said about him was that there was a kind of “ease” in his writing. He seems to approach the self with this kind of acceptance or at least tentative acceptance of the strangeness of the universe that I find intriguing and somewhat foreign and also admirable.

Well, I don't know what else to say. I wonder if we always want to be something we are not.

Thomas said...

I think we agree on the connection between bad and whole. Like you, I think that "when something bad happens" the unity of the self is threatened, i.e., "there would be much more of a need to be unified". That's what's "bad" about it. And my suggestion is that the impulse or desire to "keep it together" is a distinctly moral one.

I think the fear of losing one's mind is a real and serious one. Knowing neither you nor Amber I don't know if her suggestion is serious, but I can imagine someone, in the luxury of her own unquestionable sanity, saying to someone else, on the edge of hers, that "fluidity" and "fragmentation" are "okay" too. I think this would trivialize both the original phobia and the fear of its longer term consequences. It can be (but I stress that I'm not saying it is in this case, since I don't know either of you) like the rich girl who imagines that poverty "wouldn't be such a bad thing". Or even a "let them have cake" moment.

I'm guessing Bloom will say that there is an "anxiety of influence" under Ashbery's "ease". "He seems to accept the strangeness of the universe" but is really, like all strong poets, in the grip of a "rage for order". However carefree he may appear (however immune to influence or unconcerned with fame) he is struggling to define his "poetic character".

Bloom talks about a "loss of strength" as a desire to return to a time before "the catastrophe of vocation". It may be possible to read that as the catastrophe of character (i.e., the discover that one must be a unified self).

Thomas said...

(With apologies for/to the third person.)

Amber "is not afraid to do things such as flying in a plane" and "she is not afraid to go crazy because she does not see herself as a 'solid' person but rather as someone fragmented".

Sandra has "bad phobias" and "what always scares [her] the most is the idea that [she] will 'lose [her] mind'".

Notice that Amber does not have phobias, she is not afraid of flying. Notice that what scares Sandra is not so much the flying but the fear of flying, which, she fears, might drive her into madness.

It seems to me that Amber has perfectly good reasons not to fear going mad: she's nowhere near mental illness. Sandra, meanwhile, has a number of irrational fears. That's not in and of itself an indication that she may be losing her mind, but certainly a reason to be worried (she has a perfectly legitimate concern).

I don't see why Amber's underlying mental attitude about being pre-emptively "broken" should serve as a model for Sandra. It's easy to say "I'd be okay with going insane" if your mental life is perfectly normal. Those who actually have some experience with debilitating forms of irrationality can with some justification be a bit less flippant about sanity.

People who actually "come apart" when they get onto a plane (unless they are heavily sedated or making a gargantuan effort to "keep it together") will not, I would think, find it useful to hear someone calmly say, "Oh yeah, I feel like that all the time. Doesn't bother me. I'm not a solid person anyway." That is, they would be right to suspect that the feeling isn't quite shared.

My thoughts here may be repeating certain gestures in that famous article, "Why I'd Like to Bite R.D. Laing."

(Once again: I know the third person is odd here. I'm just trying to mark the fact that I will not soon know enough about these people to talk about them as anything other than textual personae.)

Sandra Simonds said...

Well Thomas, I am going on a few planes today. Wish me luck!

(since, according to you, I will need that and a lot more)

Presskorn said...

In defense of Amber.

Amber (which admittedly is nothing but prose to me either) might also be seen as indicating that the desire to be ”solid” is an irrational desire to begin with, whereas you seem to taking her as calmly acknowledging that she broken “anyway”. That is, indicating that something is an illusion rather than acknowledging a condition of her own. This might be a helpful indication for someone like Sandra.

(Modern psychology, not to mention philosophy, also suggests that Amber is epistemologically, if not morally, right.)

Also, just “going with things” could in some situations count as genuine courage.

But, of course, just “going with things” could also be a sign of what I’ve often called “spectral” attitude to life. In the double sense of ‘spectre’ and ‘spectator’: Life is seen as a series of strange ghostly apparitions and you just sit back and watch it with a reflexive distance. This is the sort attitude you are describing, when Amber sits in a plane and says “Doesn’t bother me.”… Amber might on some level be feeling the same irrational fears of flying, but instead of acting on these feelings, she watches them like spectator saying “Well, this is no more strange than all the other spectres of life.”…. Although surreal, I have no disdain for this sort of attitude: In a sense, Amber is doing something “healthy” here; namely articulating her feelings in a reflexive form.

Thomas said...

Good luck, Sandra, and have a nice trip.

Thomas said...


I think it is the presumption that people who want to be whole hold the irrational belief that they are whole that I'm after here. I think the desire for wholeness (not the belief in it) is the foundation of, well, integrity.

There is something troubling about people who do not find some things stranger than others, somethings more real, interesting, concerning, or moving than other things. People with phobias are moved excessively by less than dangerous circumstances (like getting on a plane).

Phobics I can have real sympathy (at times empathy) for. Surrealists, not so much. (Which is how I thought the surrealists wanted it.)

Sandra Simonds said...

Sorry for the delay. I am in los angeles now...hahaha....made it here


But Amber's position, her attitude towards life proves that integrity can actually emerge from something that sees itself as broken. If it is not a challenge for her to fly due to her attitude, then doesn't that mean that it is in fact her lack of desire to be whole that gives rise to a kind of integration?

The absolute desire to be whole can lead someone to become crazy---a kind of loss of integrity that stems directly from that desire.

A person who is phobic is phobic because they feel a loss of control over the self in certain situations. Then the self desperately attempts to overcompensate and anxiety becomes overarching. The self questions why the self is not integrated, not whole so to speak which creates more anxiety like a feedback loop.

A practical example:
It is interesting that the best thing to do in these conditions is to take a passive attitude towards the anxiety--i.e., do absolutely nothing and that seems to actually decrease symptoms as they usually pass. The worst thing to do is to demand control over the symptoms as this will only make them worse.

This is in line with say an Eastern approach to the mind/body. In Tibet, for example, the idea that one can control the mind is ridiculous---one should simply listen and respect the demons that arise and move on. This is a sort of passive stance that I find interesting (though I do see the moral/ethical problems that might arise from such a stance).

Thanks for the interesting feedback.

Thomas said...

You know Amber better than I do, so I may just have to defer. But in order to prove anything, her insouciance would have to help her face, not flying, which is a completely ordinary activity, but the fear of flying, i.e., a phobia.

I don't need any special attitude to fly because I don't suffer from any special phobia about it. My argument is that if Amber is okay with flying it might be not because she's "broken", or even solid, but because she's just normal when it comes to flying.

I'm happy to hear you arrived in L.A. all in one piece. ;-) I'm going to continue this in another post. I think I've got a way of bring Tony Tost's work into it, and coming back around to Ashbery.

Sandra Simonds said...

Okay---well I will try to respond! I am one of those ancient people who needs to actually print out comments and think about them for a while before responding---so you will need to forgive me if there is a delay.