Thursday, March 18, 2010

Self-reliance and Catharsis Part 2

Today I'm no longer interested in healing as some triumphal return, a rise to the surface to tell one’s story. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee... It may still be the book one makes out of the body’s passion—I haven’t let go of that yet. But to treat it as a triumph—or failure—of the individual, a journey of self-transformation or self-invention, is to remain captive to a peculiarly American enterprise.

To be the hero or victim of one’s story is to deny the lines of power that innervate and enervate our bodies, charge us with relation. One need only consider the opposition to universal coverage to be reminded of how self-reliance, that core neoliberal doctrine, so thoroughly informs beliefs about health and healing in this country—and informs much of contemporary literature associated with it.

What would an anti-cathartic poetics of healing look like? Am I ready to let go of catharsis? Or, ready to bring it back to the visceral rather than the sentimental, a counter to pernicious influence?

I dreamt we were susceptive to language

that care might be agency’s complement

and form never more than condition
passing as body

(from Armies of Compassion)

Self-reliance and Catharsis

I once liked this quote from Paul Metcalf so much, I used it twice in my dissertation:

Integration and disintegration are not equally interesting. Pathology is not as interesting as health, the journey to chaos is not as interesting as the journey to order. The poet may—in fact must—plunge into disintegration, pathology, chaos, maintaining as best he can his own freeboard, his balance—but it is the return to the surface, the return to sanity, where the experience may be recorded, that confirms our interest. Ishmael survived the sinking of the Pequod.

Because, if you drown, who cares? And if you don’t plunge, who cares?

- Paul Metcalf, Where Do You Put the Horse?

To return to the surface. To start again. To reinvent oneself. To be anything. This is frontier logic, Frederick Jackson Turner’s pioneer time: “perennial rebirth..”

Metcalf wrote his way through that frontier logic. In Genoa: A Telling of Wonders, he travels the New World as a body in pain, bearing all the scars and glyphs of imperial method allegorized by Melville, his great-grandfather. But Genoa turns method inward. Post-whale, we see a body in pursuit of understanding its own compulsion to document, its neurasthenic labor…a nervous book of "feminine" interiority, where the protagonist, a non-practicing physician, a house husband who literally sits in the attic, can follow the prescription to "go west" only as a reader investigating American nervousness (see Silas Weir Mitchell, see Tom Lutz’s great book on the subject.)

If redemption is to come in making a book out of wounded flesh, how can that be separable from the commodification of laboring bodies, from blubber or oil?


Amphitheatre does not mean a space where people speak, but one where many see. A sacred word will silence those assembled there; it need not even be a word, sometimes a wordless gesture is all it takes to render them silent: a kind of ritualized mime, and silence overtakes the collective hearing as all eyes focus as one. Transfixed, one's organs are at peace: this is healing. Sometimes music is all it takes, and nestled in the hollow of hearing the orchestra listens and watches, the assembled throng heals itself by listening to its own harmony, observing it in silence, nestled inside the immense marble ear; what it hears is its own social contract.

-- Michel Serres, The Five Senses, tr. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley