October 2012

Elizabeth Bachner

features

A Blow Delivered by a Murderer: Reading “The Ego Trick”

Last weekend I saw someone I hadn’t seen in eighteen or nineteen years. He was a wonderful boy then, he’s a wonderful man now. In between the times I saw him, he’d been in an accident. His skull was crushed, he’d lost feeling in a leg, he’d been in a long coma. I had heard about all of this -- the accident, the coma -- and assumed everything would be different, that he’d be an entirely different person (whatever being an entirely different person means). But he was the same. The sameness was such a relief. He said, “I haven’t met you too many times, but I love you a lot.” I’ve been thinking about this -- people change, love changes, we’re all supposed to get used to all of it, or to get used to not getting used to it. When a wonderful boy gets his skull crushed in an accident, it’s hard not to believe in a prosecutorial universe.

I’ve been reading Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick: What Does it Mean to Be You?, about all the ways we are bundles of changeable neurons, all the ways we are series of physical actions, we are biological machines, we are amorphous parts of an amorphous whole, we are piles of thoughts and perceptions, chemically-generated, with egos that “create something which has a strong sense of unity and singleness from what is actually a messy, fragmented sequence of experiences and memories, in a brain which has no control center… There is no single thing which comprises the self, but we need to function as though there were. As it happens, the mind, thanks to the brain and body, has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve to enable us to do this. Because it succeeds, selves really do exist.”

I’ve been thinking about myself a lot -- my puffy, fragile ego, my always-dying body -- and about the other people I know, and the selves they create. I like to read theories about the self, the mind and the brain and the body and the ego, and I like to read theories about love, and I like to read theories about how and why the universe works, but ultimately my lack of a control center is clear, ultimately it’s clear at every moment that the others don’t have any control centers either. Ultimately maybe it’s exciting. Maybe all the plasticity and chaos makes this (this: my body, this: my ego, this: my artificially-bordered nation, this: my human-defined solar system) a right place to work. Ultimately maybe it’s exciting, but sometimes it feels punishing -- all the accidents and surprises, the never-ending shock that someone I’ve met a lot and love doesn’t love me, our outdated physiologies, our inappropriately-timed flight-or-fight responses, our dim explanations of everything.

There’s a lot of horror and beauty and tedium and wonder. My ego (or some other self of mine? a soul, bony fingers, a daemon, brain waves?) tries to write it down in fits and starts, to make it into a body of work, a thing that didn’t exist but exists now, or will exist someday. Bodies of work are like dark deities, they can get lost or damaged, mangled or punished, burned or transformed, but they don’t die ever, unlike the biological machines we are, or we inhabit. I’m thinking about this and reading Baudelaire’s poems about time -- his solution to its burdens, to its feeling on your sore back, to its presence when you wake up on palace steps or in a grassy green ditch, in your lonely room with your buzz coming off, is to get drunk again. I’m thinking about this when a friend texts me, You have to get here, and I meet her at a gallery on Houston Street where Kembra Pfahler has just performed, and the room is filled with pastel-colored penises and live body-painted dolls, and toasters and teacups, and watching the crowd is like taking a time machine back to the East Village decades ago, when everything was cracked open and happening or about to happen. Later, I’m frantically going through Alain Badiou’s Being and Event to find the part my lover read to me last night, something that explained everything, that explained axioms and beliefs and infinities and voids, but I can’t find that part, all I can find is all the other parts. In Roberto Calasso’s book on Baudelaire, it says, the opposite of tautology is evasion.      

According to Calasso, Baudelaire described Edgar Allen Poe as “a poet of nerves” -- a designation that was equally true of Baudelaire himself. If we use our bundles of neural connections to write, to respond, to live and to die, to imagine or to designate selves for ourselves or selves for others, then maybe we’re all poets of nerves, maybe poetry is just a nervous reaction. The word “panic” comes from the god Pan, a god of wildness and shepherds, who helped win a war by making a horrifying speech. Everyone was so terrified that they fled. Or, in other versions of his story, Pan would create mysterious sounds that came from nowhere -- flocks would scatter. People in crowds would feel contagious fear. Pan was the only Greek god who actually died. (Or did he?) Julian Baggini revisits the old saw, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” He thinks it’s silly -- of course there are non-believers who don’t suddenly turn to religion when faced with death. And of course, the ones who do suddenly flip beliefs aren’t being false or disingenuous, just “weak and human” -- and, “there are no theists at funerals.” There are poets in foxholes, there are poets at funerals, there are dead poets and still a few live poets, maybe there shouldn’t be any left, maybe poetry is panic.  

The writing of a book, according to Calasso, “gets underway when the writer discovers that he is magnetized in a certain direction… then everything he comes across -- even a poster or a sign or words heard by chance in a café or in a dream -- is deposited in a protected area like material waiting to be elaborated.” Life, the world, the self, becomes nothing but the not-biological building blocks that will be used to create a body of work. Baudelaire at the Salons “shies from his obligatory trail” suddenly, “like a skittish horse.” He writes: “Imagination is all the more dangerous the more it is easy and open; dangerous as prose poetry, dangerous as the novel… dangerous as all absolute freedom. But the imagination is as vast as the universe multiplied by all the thinking beings who inhabit it. It is the first come among all things, interpreted by the first to come; and, if this last has not the soul that sheds a magical and supernatural light on the natural obscurity of things, then the imagination is a horribly useless thing; it is the first come contaminated by the first to come. Here, therefore, there is no longer analogy…” The poet of nerves is one of the last links in a long chain of esotericists who worked with universal analogy, writes Calasso, the understanding of thought itself as “an immense keyboard of correspondences.” The difference, with Baudelaire, is that he does it using literature, so he can show us in ten lines what Swedenborg could only tell us in one hundred pages.

On analogy, writes Calasso, “we find the decisive word… in Goethe: ‘Every existent is an analogon of the entire existent; and so that which exists always appears to us isolated and interwoven at one and the same time. If one follows analogy too closely, everything coincides in the identical: if one avoids it, all is dispersed in the infinite. In both cases contemplation stagnates, in the one case because it is too lively, in the other because it has been killed.’ …How do you kill contemplation? And for Goethe this is tantamount to saying: How do you kill life itself? By avoiding analogy. Those who avoid analogy can mock the excessive liveliness -- febrile, almost delirious -- of those who instead abandon themselves totally to it. Everyone knows that analogy is not obligatory. You can simply ignore it. And this act of omission has a boundless power, like a blow delivered by a murderer.”

Maybe poetry is panic. I don’t know whether my self is more than a poem, or less than a poem, or just the exact same thing as a poem. I don’t mean to abandon myself. I’m thinking about that boy I hadn’t seen in nineteen years -- what makes him the same. He was skinny nineteen years ago, and now he’s a bit plump. He had the same beautiful little face, the same way of talking, but mostly it was the atmosphere around him, about him, in him, with him. It’s quite a trick to think he’s interchangeable with me, a dangerous trick to think we’re not-selves. Of course there are selves, right? Of course there are divinities everywhere, aren’t there? At least Pan, who obviously never actually died. At least the divinities that Baudelaire tells us to call to, when we wake up hazy and fuzzy-mouthed somewhere, not quite still drunk -- the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock -- all of the things in the world that fly (or in some translations, all things that flee -- fuit: avoid, escape, flee, cut-and-run) -- all of the things in the world that groan or roll or sing or speak. If we ask them what to do, Baudelaire says, they’ll tell us to get drunk again. To just stay drunk, on wine or on poetry or on virtue. I assume Baudelaire is the same as his poems. I don’t have the nerves to believe anything else.   

At the end of his life, Baudelaire was stricken by paralysis, reduced to writing “in an indecipherable way.” He was still working. He dictated.

I’m deciding that Baudelaire is the same as his poems, the same as his essays, his letters, his criticism -- the same as his spoken words, remembered or forgotten -- the same as the stories that people have written or told about him, apocryphal stories and true stories. I’m deciding his life is the same as his afterlife. I assume that (I decide that, I wonder if) I am the same as my unfinished body of work, a nervous body, a real thing and not an act of imagination, not any analogy at all, not any trick.

Roberto Calasso, whose book of essays on Vedic philosophy hasn’t been published in English yet, believes that Baudelaire was getting close to describing bodhi, “the awakening,” an opening of the eyelids to reality, the “monstrous increase of time and space.” I do not understand anything I’ve read so far about the Vedas or enlightenment or the meaning of life. If I did understand, would I be pulling a fast one on myself? A sleight of thought, a trick of magic or mechanics?

I’m reading an essay by Richard Grossinger called “A Phenomenology of Panic.” He writes: “Life is like flying. People don’t know how they fly, but soar they do, almost miraculously, through difficult events, experiencing things that make their life pleasurable and meaningful. If they quit flying, if motion stops for them, they can’t fly, and they can’t live. Life scrutinized at a standstill doesn’t happen at all, for there is no transformation…” At age eight, with a panicked mother and problems with bedwetting and terrors, Grossinger saw his first psychoanalyst: “Intellectually I believed him when he said that everything would be solved by his divination, but at heart I could not imagine being without my fears. After all, what was going to change the universe? Who was going to take away evil people and A-bombs?” As an adult, he keeps visiting this: “Witness the panic attacks of Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and greater Palestine. Panic can flee in blind terror, but it can also lead people to kill their neighbors, adopt fierce, counter-phobic personae, massacre their ostensible enemies with tanks and planes, cut open live captives, and blow themselves up in the discos and plazas of their enemies cities. All are acts of Pan gone wild, which is a tautology: Pan is always wild.”

I’m thinking about opposites -- the opposite of tautology as evasion, the action of the creatures that flee. “The only antidote to panic phenomenologically, the only cure,” writes Grossinger, “is love -- not romantic love or erotic love (though encompassing these sometimes), but selfless, unequivocal love. The sole basis of faith to live in a universe of hemorrhaging stars, predatory demons, occupying armies, and inevitable loss and grief is connection to other human beings, real connection. Otherwise, life is a march of zombies.”

I’ve been thinking about myself a lot, my dead skin cells and my nervous system, my spleen and my gooey ego. In The Ego Trick, there’s a photograph of a Tibetan Lama, Ringu Tulku, with the quote: “You don’t have to be afraid of your destruction because there is nothing to destroy.” But Julian Baggini explains, “The self is an illusion, but not just an illusion… The problem with talk of illusion, I think, is that most people contrast the illusory with the real, so to say the self is an illusion is to imply it is not real. But it is. There is an Ego Trick, but it is not that the self doesn’t exist, only that it is not what we generally assume it to be. Perhaps the simplest analogy is with a cloud. From a distance it looks like an object with fairly clear edges, but the closer you get to it, the more indistinct it becomes. Get really close and you can see it’s just a collection of water droplets. Does this mean clouds don’t exist? Of course not, it just means they are not chunks of cotton wool. The self is like a cloud that not only looks like a single object from the outside, but feels like one from the inside too. Knowing the truth doesn’t change the way it either looks or feels, and nor does it conjure it out of existence. It simply makes us recognize that at root each of us is an ever-changing flux, not a never-changing core. The solidity of the self is an illusion; the self itself is not. The Ego Trick is not to persuade us that we exist when we do not, but to make us believe we are more substantial and enduring than we really are.”  

I reach again for The Ego Trick, and instead I pick up La Folie Baudelaire -- I open it to a line, words found in the epigraph of a poem later published in Les fleurs du mal (without the epigraph): “After a night of pleasure and desolation, all my soul belongs to you.”

I think about the different selves (souls? images? representations? pure products of culture? analogies?) wandering around nineteenth century Paris, and now crawling drunkenly through the pages of my copy (one of many) of this Roberto Calasso book, like the bronze Tom Otterness figurines frolicking in the 14th Street subway station and along the Hudson River greenway -- completely human, and not even remotely human.

There’s Delacroix, who was “too much of a man of the world not to disdain the world,” and who was tormented by his body, “a silent, demanding, and eternal companion.” There’s Constantin Guys, who seemed “wholly indifferent to meaning,” whose art was impudent and insolent, who spent the last decades of his life “like a walnut shell floating on the water. The researcher finds almost solely silence and emptiness. There seem to have been no exhibitions, affairs, quarrels, loves, or relatives. He had few friends, almost all of whom died before him.” There’s Degas, trapped in obsession and repetition, who wrote (in an 1886 letter from Naples, when he was feeling very sick): “[Apart] from my heart, it seems to me that everything in me is aging in proportion. And even this heart has something artificial about it. The ballerinas have stitched it up in a little pouch of pink silk, rather faded pink silk, like their ballet pumps.” There’s Manet’s lover, Berthe Morisot, who got her heart not laid bare but broken and shattered -- Manet replaced her with a girl who didn’t only look Spanish, but was actually Spanish; who didn’t only look young, but was actually twenty. There’s Baudelaire himself, whose “verses flowed irregularly, welling up from a creaking device, often unjammed, and partly rusty”… Baudelaire who was “a specialist in humiliation,” to the point where Calasso wonders if he enjoyed it, if he was a masochist, Baudelaire who was “accustomed to the shocks of life… to countless, irregular, and exasperating stab wounds.”  

A newspaper printed a short piece announcing Baudelaire’s death fifteen months early. (He wasn’t dead. He had aphasia.) Julian Baggini says that the idea of the self as something fixed and pearl-like deserves to be cast before swine -- “Messy, complicated, amorphous bundles are more remarkable and more human than cold, hard gems.” But I’m not sure -- just because something is made up of droplets of water, and droplets of water are made up of quanta, and all the matter in our universe contains fragments of other matter, doesn’t mean a cloud isn’t also, equally, a cloud, doesn’t mean that Baudelaire -- his body of surviving work, his body of lost work, his human acts, the true and false images of him propagated mimetically, or by other consciousnesses, his chemical-biological-nervous body -- wasn’t, isn’t, won’t be, a distinct entity, completely different from all of the other entities.

I’m thinking about that boy I saw, now a man, and trying to figure out why it was such a relief, what about him was so much the same. All I could think was, “Oh! It’s you!” It was him. Someone I don’t know well, but I love a lot.

Maybe poetry is panic, a nervous-system action or reaction, our puffy, fragile egos delivering a blow to the universe, pulling a trigger. Baudelaire with aphasia, that’s a metaphor, that makes more sense than thinking about a cloud. It’s been a long night of pleasure and desolation, time and space are increasing monstrously. I’m flipping too fast through Being and Event again, looking again for those passages that explain everything -- is this it, page 321? “Leibnitz metaphorizes by declaring ‘matter is more perfect than the void’”? Or was it some other passage? I’m thinking of the difference between the pages of the book and the words read out loud in my lover’s live voice, held in his hands, the difference has a boundless power. I’m feeling evasive, half-awake. In a moment, a moment that’s over or a moment that hasn’t started yet, lost and in some strange, green place, I’ll ask the rolling, groaning, flying, fleeing world what I am and what I’m doing here, and then I’ll get drunk again.