Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Philosopher's Daughter & the Ugly French Dude.

A few weeks ago, buoyed by a comfortable illucid flush, I was talking with some friends about Body Image—its standards, its harms—when I found myself saying something rather odd, even for me: "I don't feel like I'm a part of my body." What an awkward line—at once maudlin & surreal, like something mumbled by the tripping square in a health class video—& yet, as soon as I said it, I knew it was true. I don't feel like I—me—what I would call myself—am connected, in any meaningful way, to my body.

At the time, of course, I laughed it off, talked it away, willing as usual to let sleeping dogs lie (or, rather, to sedate them with their regular dose of Denial)—but then, the other day, I found a video of Ken Robinson's TED talk, in which, as a way of questioning the direction & process of education, he looks critically upon those whom he deems its ideal output: University Professors, that elite & eminently mockable breed from whom I derive, both in biological & step-parentage. "They tend to live in their heads," he begins—a cheap shot, an understatement—but then he furthers the metaphor: "They're disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads."

There it was, again—a truth so resonant, so impossibly exact, that it pierced some cerebral bullseye I had barely known was there until it hit. As I'm a certified black belt in self-delusion, it might have been possible to ignore this thorn in my brain for another month or so, but this also happened to be the week in which I was to read Descartes's Meditations for class—&, like baseball & Beetlejuice, the dilemma couldn't resist when called out thrice.

See, I wasn't unfamiliar with Descartes to begin with: my mother is a philosophy professor who was still earning her PhD in my early years, so, if just by osmosis, I managed to glean some high-concept seeds in my single digits—the most radical of which, I can say with some confidence, were those three perilous nonsense words (or so they seemed at the time): Cogito, ergo sum. "I think, therefore I am"—the one kernel of truth to which Descartes could cling in a world where everything else is proved uncertain.

To run quickly through what is admittedly a masterful line of reasoning: at the opening of the Meditations, Descartes asserts that the current understanding of science is built on faulty foundations, & that, in order to form a correct system, we have to demolish even our most base conceptions of the world—anything that can be doubted—to find the one core, undeniable truth from which we can build up again. With this in mind, he begins the process of Methodological Doubt—that Cartesian Skepticism called on in our most mind-bending pop culture—in which he proves the unreliability of the senses, which can easily make mistakes; of Reality, because dreams present an equally convincing picture; & even of God, because He could be an evil deceiver, who tells us that 2 + 2 = 4, when, in fact, it's been 5 all along.

It seems, then, that nothing is certain: we can't trust our senses, our perceptions, even basic universal truths—until Descartes pulls a hairpin turn before the cliff's edge in a truly remarkable rhetorical spin, one I can't help but find beautiful in its simplicity: "But doubtless I did exist, if I persuaded myself of something." This very process of doubting is evidence of his existence as a "thinking thing"; even if everything sensory is a lie & we drift imperceptibly through dreams & all of this is just a product of God's deception, still "there is no doubt that I exist, if he is deceiving me"—because I think, therefore I am.

Of course, this is last-week's-assignment-Anneliese talking. As a kid, I was much more able to grasp this argument's sci-fi correlate, the Brain in a Vat Theory: that it's possible that your entire life—all of your sensations, your actions, your understanding of the world—are neurochemical reactions generated by scientists prodding at a brain in a vat. You are nothing but a lump of gray matter, incapable of choice, existent only through imposed illusion. Heavy stuff for an eight year old, sure, but I loved it, churning it always through my overactive imagination: were the characters who populated my life drawn from these scientists' own histories? Scenarios from their own experience? Was the fact that I learned about this theory even further proof of their existence—so that they could fake me out, while also gaining data on how a mind deals with recognition of its own limitation?

Looking back, I realize it's here I learned to read my life like a story—paving the way for my obsession with metafiction, my tendency to look on God like a screenwriter, my susceptibility to full-on paranoia after watching The Truman Show (talking to mirrors like cameras, panicking that my loved ones were actors). Yes, to fanciful young me, the Brain in a Vat theory was infinitely more evocative, more great & terrible than those three nonsense words from that guy on that book in my mom's office—the one who, because his name didn't conform to the pronunciation I was learning at school (Dess-kart-ees), I took to calling "the Ugly French Dude"—but we must give credit where credit is due, even to unfortunate-looking Europeans: for this notion of man as "nothing but a thinking thing ... a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason," we have none but René to blame.

Up until recently, I didn't really see this argument as anything noteworthy or divisive, no more pressing on my everyday thought processes than, say, gravity—but when you get to later lines in the Meditations, like "it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, & can exist without it"—or, when you start mumbling oddities in social situations & get overemotional over a throwaway line in an education lecture—then you start to wonder at the price of feeling disconnected, in this fundamental way, from your physical self. I certainly did, & found myself face to face with an example I hadn't thought to consider:

When I was in my senior year of high school, I joined the Theatre Company—a group of about 12 seniors (& two choice juniors) who had made it through the ranks of the performing arts program to arrive at its pinnacle, where we were to create an original, experimental show based on a certain source material. Of course, I all but wet myself when I realized that this year's chosen subject was Allen Ginsberg's "HOWL," the mind-exploding epic of sheer Beat abandon that caused such a stir after its publication in the 50s—& in my head, after I first read it as a burgeoning teen. I was so excited, so sure that I would have a million & a half ideas to contribute—that is, until we really got into the work, & it became clear that what I had to offer wasn't nearly enough.

I could talk your ear off about alliteration, about the un-nouning of nouns, the visceral, raucous, raunchy images that hit somewhere deep in the stomach; I could write you a 30 page paper about everything this poem made me feel, but when asked to make a shape that represented "orange crates of theology," I balked. When told to walk with a certain emotion—to pose in response to a painting—to leave my researched printouts in the corner & choreograph a four-part dance that represented the mental disorder I had chosen, I would inevitably cringe & half-ass self-consciously, always grimly certain that my classmates were infinitely more capable than I—that I was a lesser person, a lesser artist, because I couldn't stop processing everything through my head long enough to really feel. That's how it seemed, at least, & no matter how many times my friends told me that I was crazy—that I was clearly capable of feeling, because I was being such a sensitive twerp about the whole ordeal—I remained convinced of what I had known all along: that I was, at my core, a brain, a thinking thing, defined only by a cheap, cerebral cleverness.

This angst really came to a boil on the day that, as he was wont to do, our director halted work on the show to lead us through a guided meditation: we were to stand, spread-eagled, as he talked us through recognizing each part of our body—being in it, knowing it was there—before transcending it, leaving it behind—realizing ourselves outside who we were physically. The exercise was, I imagine, meant to be revelatory—to bring the average person to a state beyond normal—but it only made me understand, fully, finally, that I would give anything to shed my body, to live always outside myself & at long last be rid of this clunky, extraneous piece of matter—the form of transport for my head.

Of course, there's a piece of the story I'm leaving out—because it's personal, frustrating, not polite conversation—but, ultimately, it's the key to understanding this mess: by the middle of my senior year, after four straight months of dangerously restrictive crash-dieting, I had developed a fairly serious eating disorder; I couldn't stand the thought of gaining back the 50 pounds I had fought so hard to lose. Yes, despite eating about the same as my friends growing up, I've always been overweight—cursed with the metabolism of a snail through molasses, I guess—so it's no stretch to see how thoroughly encouraged I've been, from all sides, to make my body secondary to how I think of myself, to focus instead on my "inner beauty."

It's a seductive trap, of course—& a well-intentioned one, I'm sure—because it's so perfectly logical: while your body is a product of the genetic lottery—so much colliding plasma, nothing you can control—all the elements of a "thinking thing" are precisely the opposite. You can't choose how you look (unless you want to pay millions & be made of plastic), but you can choose who you are, if only within the domain of your skull. When faced with this reality, those of us not properly endowed to pose for Vogue tend to rely on this purported "inner beauty"—to hype it, hone it, &, as we're told to, define ourselves through it, compensating furiously, until the self as fully realized is nothing but a distant memory.

This is not news, of course: pop culture touchstones are available by the dozens. Think of supervillains, cast out, disfigured—from the Joker to hunchbacked Richard III—who use their intellect to gain power & prestige; think of Cyrano de Bergerac, who dodges jibes about his giant nose with the quickest of wits. Hell, even Socrates, most famed Lover of Wisdom & the Form of the Good, is mocked throughout the Symposium for being hideous, decrepit—but Agathon fawns over him still, because of his beautiful mind.

& therein, perhaps, lies a bright side to the bullshit: as Wall Street jock McDermott from American Psycho philosophizes, "The only girls with good personalities who are smart or maybe funny or halfway intelligent or talented, though God knows what the fuck that means, are ugly chicks ... & this is because they have to make up for how fucking unnattractive they are." Or, put more kindly by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln on South Park: "Because he's ugly, he gets nothing handed to him. He has to work at making something of himself. But that work is going to pay off when he's an adult. He will have character—something kids who are hot rarely develop." Again, it's an attractive argument: logical, apparently accurate—& yet, I can't help but remember how, chock full of character & personality, I spent lunchtimes hunched over toilets & couldn't seem to succeed in the physically emotive world of theater.

But then, a change: that four-part mental disorder dance became a Company-wide sequence, &, before I could protest, Patti Smith's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" vibrated the air, so we moved, loosely choreographed, to the music. For six minutes every night, I became an asylum patient, trapped in sterility, begging to be free—a role so close to my own body-bound angst that I took to it with violent sincerity: throwing myself around the stage, hurling bruised kneecaps at the unforgiving ground, scratching my forearms until they bled, leaving scars, staining the costume department's white button-down.

&, as I did, something began to happen: I felt, for the first time, like I was attached to my limbs by more than necessity—that I was unified, finally, with my physical self. & moreover, I now know that I wasn't alone: even after proclaiming mind & body necessarily distinct, Descartes stumbles & back-tracks slightly, noting the two are inextricably linked through pain—because "if this were not the case, then I, who am only a thinking thing, would not sense pain when the body is injured; rather, I would perceive the wound by means of the pure intellect"—which, as anyone who's ever suffered a fleshwound will tell you, is not how it goes.

It's easy, then, to look upon pain as the Grand Unifier for those of us crammed into our heads, either by academia or unwieldy shape—as I know I did, with every subsequent act of self-destruction. There are an infinite number of reasons why people self-harm, of course, but a common thread seems to be feeling "alive," translating the cerebral to the physical—transcending the prison of our skulls. Think how many contemporary fairytales (Fight Club perhaps paramount) suggest pain as a cure for the numbness of modernity—how many cultures require agonizing rituals as a passage to adulthood.

& still, this is no solution: five out of five doctors, the man in the street—& especially my mother, who, if she's reading this, is surely wringing her hands—will all say that intentionally hurting yourself is not a healthy release. &, honestly, I agree: it's intense, & can feel almost divine, but it's not unique, & ultimately, it totally sucks. Seriously: there's a better way to unite yourself.

If you had asked me three weeks ago what this was, I would have said writing—& it's true: there is a deep & profound catharsis to telling your story, knowing it's read & understood by others' eyes, even knowing it's somewhere outside yourself at all. But there's still something lacking in this approach: writing is the act of the thinking thing, language just one big euphemism for gut & loins & flesh on flesh. Words have tremendous power to obscure & in this way are perilous to a life lived bodily—are what originally made me think myself unfeeling. We could move before we could speak, punch before we could conjugate—& while this could, of course, lead one to believe that the contemplative life reflects the ultimate evolution of man, there's a way in which it proves the opposite: that we lose something necessarily human by foregoing our base physicality in favor of Pure Reason. I always think back to E. M. Forster's Maurice & the choice of its eponymous protagonist: to leave Clive, who has a cerebral, Symposium-driven understanding of homosexual love, for the illiterate gardener Alec, who will actually touch him.

So, for my answer, I turn back to Ken Robinson & his TED talk, in which he notes that no education system on earth teaches dance with the same rigor as they teach math. It's an arresting observation—because, of course, why would they?—but, when you think about it, why not? Ultimately, this point helps illustrate how modern schools simply aren't built to cultivate creativity—but it also highlights the fact that we've forgotten how to live physically, or at least how to find this mode of existence valuable—&, of course, how absurd that is. "We all have bodies, don't we?" he wonders, cheeky, rhetorical. "Did I miss a meeting?"

Indeed, looking back on my revelatory theater experience, I can see that I only picked up on the loudest part—the bruises, the scars—& ignored what was actually occurring when I got them: I was dancing—moving, precisely, with intent—a pastime I hadn't dared take seriously since before the self-conscious overthrow of middle school, when I realized "how everyone else saw me" & quickly quit the troupe I had so enjoyed since childhood.

Dancing—responding bodily to music—is perhaps the most gloriously primal form of communication, entirely free from the tendrils of the thinking thing. & I'm not even talking about choreographed performance: if you watch people on the dance floor at a party, flailing at a concert, you'll notice that each has their own specific method—their own "move"—a distinct place where they feel the beat. Dance is as individual as writing style, & yet almost nowhere will you be told to dance the way you feel: therapists ask you to talk, teachers ask for a paper—even sympathetic friends would probably balk if presented with choreography.

& maybe that's a good thing: interpretive dance is, I'm willing to admit, sometimes silly. But I absolutely assert, with every fiber of myself, that in order to be truly healthy, truly whole, it's important to dance, a lot. Descartes & his dualism remain celebrated, hailed as the foundation of modern philosophy, a pillar of the Enlightenment—&, therefore, have a hand in the foundation of modern education systems, & a hand in all of us. Though I imagine my case is more pronounced than others—hit, as I was, with early-onset philosophy & an unlucky physical lot—I don't think it's radical to claim a decent percentage as affected by this rift: the understanding of body as transport & even pain as a cure. So, to combat our separateness, I say, we have to repeatedly re-cement the connection, like glue-sticking a peeling scrapbook photo, by taking the time to move uninhibited, wordless, to music.

"If you want real evidence of out-of-body experiences, by the way," Robinson digresses, joking, "get yourself along to a residential conference of academics & pop into the discotheque on the final night. & there you will see it: grown men & women, writhing uncontrollably, off the beat, waiting for it to end so they can go & write a paper about it." Final jab aside (as, of course, it hits me squarely), I think this is exactly the antidote we need—one that I'm apt to partake in daily. Even last year, when I lived directly across from Frat Row & didn't understand how to close my blinds, I couldn't give it up. In fact, I was liable to be seen at any odd hour by the brothers of Phi Kappa, jiving, twirling, in various states of undress, muscles acid & hair ringed with sweat.

Because in these prized minutes of instinct & motion, I can leave behind the head that so often traps me—& think only, perhaps, of my Ugly French Dude, reclining alone by the fire, all too eager to shuck off his body & romp, endless, through the mind. I think of him, & how hard it is not to look right—how random is Nature & how ordered is Reason—& I wish, desperately, that I could ask Descartes to dance.

[ POST-SCRIPT: I realize that it's easy to read this post as "Philosophy fucks you up 4EVER," & while that's partially true, in that it certainly influenced me—& I say this specifically to calm the philosophers who raised me—it's not to blame, by any means. Seriously: alongside Descartes I got Beauvoir & Plato & Stanley Cavell, who have only shaped me for the better—nay, the best—I swear. ]

[ POST-POST-SCRIPT: That said, the Brain in a Vat thing is pretty fucking trippy. ]

Today's Headphone Fodder:

This song is apt for exactly five reasons:

1) I found it while writing this post.
2) Their subject matters match, if partially.
3) It's awesome.

4) It harks back to the recent lyric debacle post: I honestly thought, the first time-or-so through the original, that Reznor was saying "my Swedish friend."
5) I am finally,
finally—after FIVE MONTHS of scraping away at it, like Edmond Dantes & Abbé tunneling to freedom with a spoon—almost done with my Mondo Bowie Entry, the one in which I rehash, point by point, exactly what I find so great about my musical messiah.

So, use this track to get pumped (which is, I think, the only time anyone has ever said that about this song in the history of ever). Because it's coming. Oh, yeah. You betcha. Uh-huh.


  1. Yay! Dancing prose, soaring thoughts! Though not sure I know what an "illucid" flush is, I can certainly empathize with feeling disjoint from the body to which you've found yourself forever chained! So many lovely phrases: "certified black belt in self-delusion,""like baseball & Beetlejuice, the dilemma couldn't resist when called out thrice," "so much colliding plasma," "hit, as I was, with early-onset philosophy & an unlucky physical lot." I think your terpsichorean prescription for an attack of Cartesian dualism is sage advice worth following. Not that you can address everything in a post that's already long & laden with riches, but you don't explicitly address the other prescription for Cartesian dissociation that your invocation of Forster implies: to give yourself over to absolute pleasure, swim the warm waters, etc. After all, it's not only painful sensations that can serve to translate the cerebral to the physical. . . . :)

    Really great post, my love! So interesting, & wise, & moving! Oh, yeah. You betcha. Uh-huh. :)

  2. lol. i can't believe the captcha i was given to post the last post:

  3. Aaw, thanks, Boo!

    & yes: I was trying to find a polite euphemism for "not lucid," but all of them sounded a little stupid, so I invented a word. Now, of course, I realize I may have obscured too much...

    As to the implications of Forster: I thought I'd stick with the writings of the Ugly French Dude, who mentions nothing of the warm waters. An unfortunate side effect of relying on Inner Beauty is that you often aren't getting any. Such is the cross of modern teens & Early Modern philosophers alike...