The Metaphor of Wind, as Chaos Narrative

I’ve measured my adult life by affiliations with a succession of French intellectuals–Camus, Barthes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Latour, and now François Jullien. Jullien is a sinologist who writes specifically about the landscape painting of the literati, among whom Shitao (1642-1707) might be the culminating figure. For these artists, poetry and painting were necessary complements; they also wrote treatises on art. One of Jullien’s titles In Praise of Blandness describes the style of these paintings. On another level, Jullien is using painting as a medium for exploring radical cultural difference and the difficulty of thinking that difference. But I want to get to a specific quotation. What I am actually writing about is research, and beyond that, the problem of writing about people living lives at some extreme, suffering.

Late in The Great Image Has No Form (the book is about how to understand that enigmatic line), Jullien quotes the painter Tang Zhiqi. He describes, as all these treatises do on Jullien’s account (which I’m in no position to question), how the goal is to depict “the very aspiration to come about” rather than “seeking to describe and represent”. So: “If you want to paint the wind passing through the landscape, Tang Zhiqi continues, you will have to keep from trying to characterize it externally–picturesquely–by making all the branches bend in the same direction.” If you do that, or only that, “You will still not feel the wind blowing.” Here we reach a crucial question about both research on suffering and clinical work: do people want to feel the wind blowing? Or, I ask myself of what I read: is this another way of “characteriz[ing] it externally” so that you won’t have to feel it?

“If you are to feel it,” Jullien continues, “the image must contain internally the ‘impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it,’ as a tension running through it and orienting it intentionally.” That’s the key phrase for me: the impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. If I were asked what one single idea I might wish to preserve from all I’ve written, it would be the naming of the chaos narrative in The Wounded Storyteller. What I meant and mean by chaos is living with this impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. What cannot be faced head on is the condition that has brought someone to believe that only this way of speaking can evoke her life. But to write or speak of “the condition” is already to render it external. Chaos is embodiment coming to speech and speech resolving back into the body. It is the speech/condition relation, blurring boundaries. To depict chaos is to contest the separation of one into cause and the other into effect. In English we can contest that separation, but we can never fully evade it without losing syntax, which chaos stories often do. The epistemology/ontology relation of Chinese art can prepare us for that refusal, especially as Jullien shows how Western translations of the treatises reinstate a subject/object opposition that the Chinese is all about doing without, in the sense of simply not needing it. That last idea takes a long time, at least for me.

These thoughts lead me to King Lear, because if the next question is when, in language, has the wind of suffering ever been evoked, I turn to Lear. Lear opposes the storm; he rails against it, discovering a language. But he is undone by what he faces but cannot face; he resists but cannot resist. His chaos becomes madness, flowers in his hair. He is rescued temporarily by Cordelia, and then things get worse. In the original source story, Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. Shakespeare’s refusal of that resolution, when Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage, shocked the first audiences, literary historians tell us. Shakespeare went for an ending so without hope that for several centuries it was rewritten, because only that made the play tolerable, watchable.

The landscapes of Chinese literati painting are placid, bland, places to rest. Apparently. Shitao spent his life on the run; his royal birth made him a target for execution by those who had disposed his lineage. His is a Shakespearean story. The bland ink-wash of the scroll paintings is a form of witness to periods of horrific violence. If I can make any sense of this word resilience, it looks to those paintings, in which things are perpetually coming into being and fading back into mist, and there is no world beyond this one. King Lear is one solution to the depiction of chaos. The landscape in which all is internal tension is another.

I’m off to visit my 99-year-old father. Be back in a couple of weeks, if that is willed.

Another ‘Found’ Vulnerable Reading

This blog is about what I call vulnerable reading. But the point is not to claim to invent vulnerable reading. The point is to practice it, which includes appreciating others who express my project as well as I have. It’s reassuring that others already know what vulnerable reading is and can express it perfectly well. Not feeling alone is a significant goal.

My appreciation today is for Maura Kelly’s article published in the New York Times “Voices” series, February 6, 2019. Ms. Kelly begins with a darkly funny telling of a dialogue between herself and a crisis-line volunteer. She had called because she felt at risk of committing suicide. The volunteer is either a therapeutic genius or a lucky amateur, because after some false starts, she makes a life-saving suggestion: “Then how about, do you have something good to read?” In fact, Ms. Kelly does; it’s Anna Karenina, which she has read up to just before Anna’s suicide.

“Fear Anna’s darkening thoughts would darken my own, I’d stopped reading,” she writes. Given the way my mind works, that reminded me of reading Grimms’ tales to my daughters. A reasonable parental fear would be that taking small children through the dark forest of childhood–and often adult–fears would not be comforting to small people. But it is comforting; it has been for generations. Sensitive children listen peacefully to horrific violences (my favourite might be Snow White’s evil step-mother being put into iron shoes that had been baked in the fire, and then made to dance until she died–that didn’t make the final edit of Disney’s version). Then these children go to sleep. Nothing like a good story before bed.

“I knew Anna would kill herself by kneeling before a train,” Ms. Kelly writes, “so I urged her to stop and turn around: You poor fool! Look at all you have. Look at all the people you’ll hurt.” Then she expresses the value of vulnerable reading: “In saying that to her, I said something similar to myself: I’m not utterly alone.” Ms. Kelly does not exactly identify with Anna, although there’s an element of identification when she writes that Tolstoy “call[ed] on me to talk back to Anna, and to the Anna in myself.” That balance of identification–the “Anna in myself”–in tension with distance–“to talk back to Anna”–gets at the effect of vulnerable reading.

Ms. Kelly not only exemplifies the practice of vulnerable reading. She also offers a succinct statement of about as much theory as it may need: “A good novel is great company, less an escape from life than a different way to engage. A good novel is reassurance that other people have endured tragedies….It’s evidence I’m not alone….A good novel is a form of hope.” Nobody ever says it all, but that says enough. I especially like her phrase, “a different way to engage.” That may be, most of the time, as much as you can and possibly should offer people.

If I have any reservations about the Times article, these concern the sub-title, which I’d bet was written by a staff person, not Ms. Kelly herself. It subtly simplifies Ms. Kelly’s words: “A good novel can be a reminder that other people have endured tragedies, long ordeals, bad odd.” Except, Anna doesn’t endure. It’s in Anna’s non-endurance that Tolstoy creates an opening for Ms. Kelly to talk back to Anna, and to the part of herself that needs talking back to. A work of art becomes good when it offers characters, tragic or comic, enduring or not enduring, who can be companion-helpers to those who struggle to endure. I am being picky, but the Times subtitle emphasizes identification–novels’ characters as role models in endurance–and misses the need for distance.

Somewhere, in all those pages getting to Anna’s fatal moment, had Tolstoy been preparing his readers to be able to talk back to her? What was his implicit pedagogy that had such therapeutic force, to which Ms. Kelly is witness?

Late Style, Pending a Birthday

“Others are bright and clear: I’m dark and murky. Others are confident and effective: I’m pensive and withdrawn, uneasy as boundless seas or perennial mountain winds.”

That’s from verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by David Hinton, and it’s how I feel reading the scholarly journal articles that I’ve been working through recently. Some are on Shakespeare and some are on bioethics. They are all filled, brimming, with references to other people’s ideas, not that they don’t have plenty of ideas of their own, because they do. It’s writing I genuinely admire, but I read it and ask, couldn’t it be said more simply, and might it be more effectively said, if simpler.

Here’s another dark, murky fellow, Du Fu, known until recently as Tu Fu. “Tomorrow I leave my fortieth year//my life has started to race//downhill, toward its evening” (trans. David Young). Du Fu died at 58. In a couple of weeks I turn 73. I don’t feel I’m racing downhill. Unlike Prospero, my every third thought is not my grave. But I do ask who is going to keep doing this work. Then I remember that’s not my problem.

Six or seven years ago, in anticipation of retirement, I set before me Edward Said’s book, On Late Style. It was getting time to find my own late style, and that remains a work in progress. I ask people what late style means; I compile a list, which begins here: “And what is the use of caution//the value of constraint?” Du Fu asks, not rhetorically. Late style studies all that cautions and restrains, while–and more important–trying to model how to work without such restraints.

Last night I read a published exchange of letters between two Shakespeare scholars, one complaining about the other’s review of his book, and the other complaining about the complaint. “Let be” as Hamlet says. Each knows so much, far more than I’ll ever know, but their letters display their lower selves, in a metaphor I find useful. After so much Shakespeare in their lives, how could they not learn that? I felt cheated of all that they could have used so much energy to tell me. But the worlds in which they move make them feel they had to engage in such an exchange, writing that way. It’s their habitus, to fall back on Bourdieu once again. Which explains nothing and everything.

At this point, Du Fu would recommend getting drunk, which I gather is both a stock metaphor and literal practice among his circle. Late style gets drunk on its own simplicity; its intoxication is from stripping away. Late style defines itself by what it leaves out. Tell the stories, let the stories carry the argument, trust the stories. One of the great Taoist metaphors is uncut wood, its perfection, and what’s lost once it’s made useful by cutting it. Late style seeks to cut as little as possible. All these journal articles are so confident and effective. I am withdrawn and uneasy. Exchanging appreciations with a few friends. Just where I want to be.

Truth and Anger

After my digression in my last post, I’ll now get back to the theme of this blog which is appreciations. Last week, February 9 specifically, the New York Review Daily sent out the text of an interview with the French writer Édouard Louis, who has just published the third in his trilogy of what the NYR-D describes as having “generally been called autobiographical novels.” That qualification is serious, because Louis begins by pointing out that France doesn’t go in for genre distinctions to the extent that North America does. “We don’t have ‘nonfiction’ for example,” he says, “and we mostly use the term ‘memoir’ for autobiographies of politicians.” Given the frequency with which I refer to writers of first-person illness narratives as memoirists, Louis’ comments have the welcome effect of upsetting my categories.

Most people who think about writing realize that fiction/nonfiction distinctions work more as either claims or disclaimers (e.g., “no relation to persons alive or dead”) than they describe how much of the writing is direct reporting of what happened versus what’s called imaginative. And as others have noted, imaginations don’t just spontaneously appear in writers’ heads; they begin in real-world observations. That distinction thus blurred, Louis then offers one of the most arresting accounts of why writing in the first-person has distinct value. His point seems highly relevant in decisions about what to teach in medical humanities and narrative medicine curricula, for example. I quote:

“So when I write, I ask myself, How can I prevent people from escaping what I’m trying to show? And I think autobiography can be a tool to force people to see reality, because when you do autobiography, you say: ‘Look, this is what is happening now, this body I talk about is suffering now, while you read.” That makes me think of fairly recent books like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman or Christina Crosby’s A Body, Undone as writing that Louis describes precisely. But you could go back to Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life. I also think of illness narratives published posthumously, which say, to paraphrase Louis, ‘Look, I spent my last months writing this book, because dying clarifies, and what I’m tell you is necessary for you and others–you need to know this.’

The issue, maybe only one of the issues but I’ll give it pride of place, is anger. Louis has also written books about Foucault and Bourdieu, and I wish my French were good enough to read them; he might have something actually new to say. “Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault taught me something very important: that there is no truth without anger. That is the key to understand our world(s), that it’s maybe even the most scientific tool human beings invented.” Scientific tool–anger?–that’s worth thinking about.

Louis concludes: “Only if you are angry you understand that this violence is not normal. Anger is what allows you to take a step back and to understand the social structure you are stuck in. Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s books are full of rage, and so are my books, I hope.”

Louis does not exactly embarrass me, but he reminds me of what I continually forgot, because it’s dangerous to remember what he’s saying, if you want to get along in worlds of healthcare and medicine, to be asked to give lectures and to publish, much less to hold a job in a clinic or attract funding to a program. Healthcare is all about cooling out anger, to use Erving Goffman’s great phrase. The prose of academic journals has no allowance for expressions of anger. At most, there can be policy recommendations, but not anger. I had not put Louis’ books on my reading list. But I realize the same reasons why I don’t want to read them are why I should. I need his version of Bourdieu and Foucault, not the cooled out versions that sell better in the venues where I try to get along. I need to remember that “there is no truth without anger.”

Two Solitudes of Humanities in … What?

People of the academy love disputes over terminology; it’s so much easier than, well, doing a lot of other things we might be doing. And so, feeling like doing something easier myself, let me offer a comment on the ongoing question of whether it’s medical humanities or healthcare humanities.

First, I agree with something Rita Charon once wrote that neither usage is commendable English, and using language that is commendable ought to be a core objective in this work. Neither medical nor healthcare is a felicitous adjective–even a minimally meaningful adjective–to modify humanities. We should say either humanities in healthcare or in medicine. But we probably won’t. So at least add my objection to Charon’s.

Of more interest is which adjective to use. Medical is the older term, so far as I know. The objection, in this context as in others, is that medical at least privileges physicians and at worst is exclusionary of non-physicians. Healthcare came in as the more inclusive term, promising a bigger tent, welcoming everyone. Tess Jones and colleagues published the Health Humanities Reader, but I now gather that health humanities is disfavoured, which is fine with me, although maybe new editions of the book should be retitled. Point is, until now most of the usage controversy was over a mostly symbolic adjectival signifier, a question of word choice. I see that changing. The politics are intensifying.

Some of my recent experiences disturb me. I’m seeing medical humanities and healthcare humanities not as two names for what was fundamentally the same enterprise, but rather as two distinct enterprises. Distinct in terms of what is taken as important topics for study, what counts as a good or publishable study (writing templates and expected citations), what counts as being a proper study at all in terms of meta-reviews, who is accredited as doing the work, whose work is accredited as counting for what, and what the credited publication outlets are–which journals count and whether books count at all. That’s a partial list of what separates academic cultures. Of course there are still significant overlaps in what’s of interest and in who’s doing the work. But I see an increasing drift that I hope will be talked about and written about. What is at issue is central to the politics of the medical-academic complex.

To complicate matters, narrative medicine, with the Columbia program as its flagship, seeks to bridge both, especially the social-justice concerns that are central to healthcare humanities and the medical-education focus of medical humanities. The limitation lies in both words, narrative and medicine. Many of the projects and media of interest to both healthcare humanities and to medical humanities are non-narrative except in such an inclusive sense that narrative loses all specificity of reference. And the possibly exclusionary designator medicine remains, although nurses and other non-physicians study at Columbia and call what they do narrative medicine. I’m interested that the phrase narrative medicine just doesn’t appear on some institutional websites that proudly present their medical humanities work. I count that as what’s lacking in those programs, but for now my point is that straddling both worlds may get more difficult, not less.

If what I see is representative, and there are increasingly two solitudes of healthcare humanities and medical humanities, I’d count that as a loss to everyone. Inter-professional education, by which I mean occasions when students from different healthcare disciplines learn with and from each other, each valuing the other, is something everybody is supposed to approve of, although I have trouble finding venues where it actually takes place (I’d appreciate news of such happenings, which I’m sure are there, somewhere). Humanities in improving care for the ill, and in improving the lives and work of all persons working in healthcare, would seem like the ideal opening for inter-professional education. Can humanities be the level playing field where everyone’s expertise, especially the expertise of persons living with illness, can be valued equally? Because that’s the issue as I see it. Can medical/healthcare spaces offer equal respect for multiple forms of expertise, acknowledging in which moments one expertise or another may be most relevant? It’s all about hierarchy, and the insidious ways that hierarchies are perpetuated, including conventions of academic work, as well as program funding and much, much else.

Or will commitments to sustaining forms of hierarchy create a further drift into two solitudes, neither reading or listening to the other, alternatively suspicious of each other and tacitly deprecating each other? I truly hope my perceptions are skewed. I’d love to be wrong about this.

Praise of Minimal Criticism

A problem shared by social science research and literary criticism is how much to say about the voices that are … what? Text, data, stories, material, sources–each of these words implies a different response: texts and data are to analyzed; sources are points of departure, to be elaborated; stories, at least on my account, are to be responded to. A central problem of the project of vulnerable reading, which this blog is trying to figure out, is how to write in dialogue with, rather than about. It goes back to what I recommended in 1995 in The Wounded Storyteller. How do we think with stories, rather than thinking about them. The dialogue is two sided. On one side is a work of literature, maybe Shakespeare, not as a text but as partner in conversation, to which you leave space to talk back (apologies for that syntax, which I can’t immediately improve). The other side of the dialogue is your reader, who also deserves space to talk back.

All of which is why I respect how the eminent critic Harold Bloom chose to write his King Lear: The Great Image of Authority (2018), in Bloom’s “Shakespeare’s Personalities” series. What’s worth noting is how little of the text (as in words and column inches on the page) is Bloom’s words. It’s more measurement work than I’m up to, but it would be interesting to count both what proportion of King Lear Bloom quotes–I’m guessing at least half–and what proportion of Bloom’s book is quoted Shakespeare; I’m guessing more than half. Bloom’s primary critical method–call it his late style of criticism–works by representing Shakespeare in chunks that Bloom has chosen, interspersing those with minimal commentary, and thus slowing down our reading, calling on us to see and hear as we have not before. What matters is not his ideas but our seeing and hearing Shakespeare. This is pedagogy without ego. It’s also elegant publishing by Scribner.

At the most crucial junctures, Bloom steps back, choosing silence. After quoting the reconciliation scene in Act IV, when the rescued Lear wakes in Cordelia’s tent and recognizes her as he returns to himself, Bloom simply says, “We are at the limits of art. Even Shakespeare never surpassed this. The love of daughter and father reaches absolute expression.” Then he allows himself this bit more: “I sometimes think that all of Shakespeare moves toward a reconciliation scene, one that would be total and transcendent.” Thus he lets Shakespeare be. No interpretation, just his own admiration bordering awe. Bloom allows his readers their own intimacy with this moment, their own form of reconciliation. He enables them to feel a measure of what he allows himself to feel.

The idea of the writer allowing him or herself to feel, and thus enhancing the reader’s feelings, would still be regarded as a niche enterprise in social science; in medical scholarship, it would require editorial gestures of containment. In the 1970s feminist sociologists especially became rightly concerned with honouring the voices of those whom they studied; the shift in anthropology to more participatory forms of research reflected the same ethical awakening. Today, humanities in healthcare struggles against the pervasiveness of the dichotomy between professional and patient, knower and known, active and presumed passive. What’s gained or lost in this struggle may be what defines this work. I would love to read a journal article about illness experience that just stops and says, as Bloom does, ‘we are at the limits’. That would be honouring the stories of the ill. And yet Bloom is always with his reader, guiding us, opening for us.

Bloom’s model is only one way of practicing dialogue in writing; consistent with the idea of dialogue, there is no last word. I am also grateful for those scholars who say a great deal more, filling in historical and textual details. But there’s a purity to Bloom’s approach that is deeply moving to me; a respect. He makes the ending of Lear, on the page, more emotionally resonant than I have found excellent stage performances to be, because–I think–Bloom gives me more space to feel. It’s minimalism in the finest sense of achieving so much more with so much less.

The Model of Care

I felt a wave of nostalgia–a Proustian moment–when I opened the package from the used-book company and extracted a pristine copy of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Seeing the cover portrait of Shakespeare drawn by Ben Shahn took me back to my undergraduate years at Princeton, when my better-read classmates carried that book around. The cover of my copy shows a price of $1.45, and on the back there’s a blurb from Alan Downer, who was chair of the English department in the mid-60s when the book was published, and who taught the undergraduate Shakespeare course that I never took. Mr. Downer was ill by then and not at his best. In all my reading during the last several years, I’ve seen no reference to his work. Sic transit gloria. But Kott’s book stands the test of time.

Kott was born in Poland in 1914, lived in Paris during the 30s and associated with avant guard artists, fought in the Polish army in World War II and then edited an underground newspaper. He was committed Marxist who became disillusioned. “The measure of realism in a literature is the understanding of the historical process in its contradictions and its development, the truth about man who creates history and who is subject to its laws: moral truth and psychological truth…”, so he wrote in 1957. Vulnerable reading seeks this realism that preserves Marx’s core insight that people make their own history, but not in conditions they themselves have chosen. That’s true of both being ill and practicing the healthcare professions. It’s the dual perspective that any medical humanities has to sustain.

Kott’s Shakespeare lives and breathes because Kott reads by seeing a performance, which might be a memory of an actual staging or an imagined performance. He reminds us that Shakespeare did not write texts; he wrote words to be played, and a good deal is left to the players. Kott is good on all of Shakespeare, but I found him most original when he understands King Lear as prefiguring Samuel Beckett. He describes the scene in Act IV when Edgar, now disguised as a peasant, leads his father, the recently blinded Gloucester, toward what Gloucester believes is the cliff he intends as the means of his suicide. “It is easy to imagine the scene,” Kott writes. “Edgar is supporting Gloucester; he lifts his feet high, pretending to walk uphill. Gloucester, too, lifts his feet, as if expecting the ground to rise, but underneath his foot there is only air. The entire scene is written for a very definite type of theatre, namely pantomime” (page 142).

I quote that passage as a model both of critical reading and of care. Kott reads closely, but he doesn’t do what’s usually called close reading. He reads through visual imagination that sees the scene being reenacted; he directs the staging of that reenactment, making himself a participant in the scene. In this instance as elsewhere in Kott’s readings, the actual words play a supporting role to the physical enactment, which the reader is called upon to reenact.

What is reenacted is care. Edgar has been brutally wronged by his father, whom he now he cares for, as later Cordelia will care for the father who wronged her. Edgar allows his father to choose, while deferring what he chooses, which is death. He allows his father to live through his own suicide, to get his wish and then live to think better of what he has chosen. In this version of care, autonomy is honoured by an enactment that defers. The pantomime works. After his supposed fall from the cliff, Gloucester says his great Stoic line: “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction till it do cry itself ‘Enough, enough,’ and die” (IV, 6). Edgar’s care enables Gloucester getting to those words by acting out what he chooses, yet Edgar holds him in that enactment, containing it. The subtlety cannot be described much further. We can only see the scene again and say, this is care.

Kott deserves the last word: “The Shakespearean precipice at Dover exists and does not exist. It is the abyss, waiting all the time. The abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere” (146).