Tragic Transformations: Part Two

Nor Is the Sun Setting Softly

I don’t understand this craziness what was dealt
don’t know if I built this myself, or was I born into it how I can’t do what I need to do the restlessness, but nothing happens just waiting for someone to take me in hand I’m not what I seem

- Patrick Friesen, “The Singer,” You Don’t Get To Be a Saint[xxxiii]

Sometimes, still, I hear voices. But to give you a glimpse of them, I should need to describe the condition that the APA classifies in the DSM-IV under 300.23. Society anxiety is characterized by a persistent, unreasonable fear of embarrassment in social situations. An unreasonable fear. And I know it, too. I know that I’m not actually under physical threat when I walk into a crowded room; I know that most people aren’t looking at me, and most likely won’t even notice me. Those are things I know. But for some reason — low levels of serotonin, or perhaps norepinephrine, in my brain, a traumatic experience in my childhood, a confluence of the factors that make up my identity — my body tells me otherwise.

Anxiety attacks are charitably described as a response of the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. Stimuli causes the body to release, inter alia, adrenaline into the bloodstream, which, in turn, increases the rate of heartbeat, dilates the bronchi, and redirects blood from non-essential systems — skin, extremities, and the higher processing centers of the brain — to the liver, skeletal muscles, and motor control regions.

So abstracted. So scientific. So far from my world. As Joshua Shenk explains, “When we funnel a sea of human experience into the linguistic equivalent of a laboratory beaker, when we discuss suffering in simple terms of broken and fixed, mad and sane, depressed and ‘treated successfully,’ we choke the long streams of breath needed to tell of a life in whole.”[xxxiv]

The beginning of an anxiety attack is, perhaps, like any other stress-induced panic. The sweaty palms, the shaking, the bitter taste of adrenaline in my mouth. A growing feeling that the only thing that matters, the only thing in the entire world that matters is to get away. Dizziness. But the fear persists. I tell myself this isn’t real, there is no threat. I tell myself to think rationally, to access what I can see and hear. I try to breathe slowly, and hold onto thoughts. But the fear persists. I hope that no one notices me slip away from the world of reason and science. That scientific explanations do not fully describe my experience is not to argue against a reality of chemical interactions and bodily responses. But when we understand social anxiety as merely a medical condition, and treat it as such, we alienate the patient from the symptoms. Further, such alienation is not simply separating, but also marginalizing, as the discourse becomes less about the experience and more about what is independently observed of the experience. As Milan Kundera writes of a related condition,

Today, of course, the body is no longer unfamiliar: we know that the beating in our chest is the heart and that the nose is the nozzle of a hose sticking out of the body to take oxygen to the lungs. The face is nothing but an instrument panel registering all the body mechanisms: digestion, sight, hearing, respiration, thought.
Ever since man has learned to give each part of the body a name, the body has given him less trouble. He has also learned that the soul is nothing more than the gray matter of the brain in action. The old duality of body and soul has become shrouded in scientific terminology, and we can laugh at it as merely an obsolete prejudice.
But just make someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble, and the unity of body and soul, that lyrical illusion of the age of science, instantly fades away.[xxxv]

Brain functions deteriorate, the world becomes more and more externalized, and time itself seems to lose cohesion. I hyperventilate, my vision blurs, and desperate thoughts reify as whispered voices in the corner of my consciousness. “Stop, please stop, slow down, think, wait, stop, just — “

Nothing I try, nothing I do, can make it stop. “My screams have no voice no matter how loud I shout.”[xxxvi] A pain like none other swallows my consciousness, and it’s here, at this border of reason and insanity, that language changes. It loses its shape, its content, and, finally, it meaning. “Pain is not ‘of’ or ‘for’ anything — it is itself alone. This objectlessness, the complete absence of referential content, almost prevents it from being rendered in language: objectless, it cannot easily be objectified in any form, material or verbal.”[xxxvii] David, a schizophrenic, explains that it “leaves you with fear; you lose all sense of yourself as a person among persons. You feel yourself dissipating; your distinctiveness vanishes.”[xxxviii] As T.S. Eliot notes,

We have lingered in the chamber of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.[xxxix]

And we drown, in silence, in solitude, in suffering.[xl]

Sometimes, still, I hear voices. And they are nothing more — and nothing less — than the anxieties and fears and disjointed, irrational thoughts made manifest. They aren’t always clear voices. They’re rarely that, in fact. Usually, they appear as the gnawing at my stomach, glimpses, distractions, ghosts, perhaps, out of the corner of my eye, and a plain fear of uncertainty, of knowing that something is not right. But sometimes, still, I hear reified voices, at the border of reason and insanity, and I have come to see them as not abnormalities, or symptoms of my defection and my resistance to normalization, but rather as ghosts on the horizon, the gentle, and sometimes painful, reminders of the multiplicity of the self, of the reasons why wholesale discipline and normalization should be resisted, and of the need to complicate discussions in political theory about who to include, and how we should go about doing that. To that end, I started a manila folder, as a side project, to assuage the botherment of the voices not by denying their legitimacy or medicating, normalizing, and disciplining their symptoms, as I have always been encouraged to do, but to explore the questions they prompt, and to find, if I can, a hospitable memory, out of concern for justice, in which they can live peacefully. But as my projected Plan began to deteriorate under the weight of my questioning its legitimacy as a subject for me to “study” and “learn about,” and with that questioning also applying equally to the dilemma of existing with a multitude of sometimes differing voices within myself, I found it harder and harder to close the manila folder after depositing new material. And then, one day, I couldn’t. My entire Plan changed.

Bearable Lightness

It would be disingenuous, I think, to say that one book changed my entire course of study; a variety of factors, and sometimes just feelings, mixed and fermented in my manila folder. If we were to do a genealogy, though, and try to find the proverbial straw, that eventualization, to recall Foucault, we would come to J. Peter Euben, and his readings of Greek political theory and tragedy in light of the rift between modernity and postmodernism. By viewing classical political theory through the lens of tragedy, Euben argues that ancient Greeks anticipate many of Foucault’s critiques concerning the modern world; in the theatre, problems of power, exclusion, and the very nature of theory are highlighted and examined in a way that steps outside of the traditional decision-making arena, allowing for contemplation and deliberation of otherwise ignored or repressed issues and providing a warning “about the tyranny of mind with its passion to transform enigmas into problems with solutions, dissolve mystery, and impose one voice on the debate.”[xli]

While theory attempts to simplify and explain the world, tragedy reminds us of life’s complexity, and asks us to reach for the whole of the experience. “By offer[ing] messages or insights into human society beyond the analytic power of reason,” engaging both the minds and passions of the audience, tragedy informs us of this experience on a myriad of levels. First, tragedy rejects moral choices as such, insisting that options are rarely, if ever, all good or all bad. Rather, we are faced with tragic choices that involved mixtures of good and bad, and justice requires that we explore and deliberate on those choices, struggling in an oftentimes painful way to find the best choice, and knowing that whatever we ultimately choose, we will have to account for the negative effects of that choice.

Second, tragedy moves beyond the realm of language, to a place where language is insufficient, and requires us, as an audience, to “[suspend] the defining structures of the culture, forcing the mind to reach beyond them in the painful search for other principles of order.”[xlii] The duality of sight/ sound on the stage provides a way of not only conveying meaning beyond the confines of language, but also juxtaposing what is said with what appears before our eyes. Through this, tragedy is able to subtly, and sometimes ironically, argue against democratic and enlightened rhetoric by highlighting exclusion visually, while simultaneously denying it verbally.

Third, and related, tragedy illuminates exclusion by keeping the other as other, rejecting the impulse to either dismiss or incorporate it.[xliii] Dionysus, in The Bacchus, remains different and other, despite the actions and intentions of Pentheus, who represents the authority of the community in Thebes.[xliv] Ultimately, Pentheus’ attempt to integrate Dionysus leads to his own destruction. The audience, as active spectators, learns of the inherent dangers in attempting to banish the other, and suggests to them (and us) that the door be opened for dialogue with the other, in line with Foucault, accepting otherness as valid, rather than insisting on the need to cure it. At the same time, by complicating the intentions of Dionysus, Euripides demonstrates how tragedy resists the alternate urge to romanticize and exotify the other into a concept beyond interaction.

Finally, tragedy provides us with a “moment of concentrated awareness of irreversibility, of that which nothing can undo, in the light of which life, for any survivors on stage and off, including the audience, will henceforth be lived.”[xlv] It is this “tragic” quality of life that reminds us of both our limitations and our mortality, and asks us to examine, thoroughly, the choices that form our lives, while also providing acknowledgment of certain factors that always lie beyond our grasp or control.

Tragedy and Praxis

Tragedy can examine the complicated choices in life, highlighting what has been otherwise excluded or marginalized, but it, much like the poststructural critique, doesn’t provide answers pro forma, or commit to concrete, specific solutions. In Greece, tragedy functioned distinct from political activity, and allowed for the recognition and exploration of issues, themes, and otherness that were constrained and excluded from political discourse. At the same time, however, the audience, as a part of the theatrical structure, engaged, even participated, in deliberation over the meaning of tragedy in their lives, both individually and as a member of the polis. Tragedy, then, not only allowed for an expression of otherness, but also provided a forum from which that expression could influence political life.

Drawing on this, Euben rejects the postmodern resistance to community, arguing, in a vein similar to Haber, some form of community is needed to constitute a viable polis. Any community will necessarily create boundaries, exclusions, and others, of course. Indeed, even the self is composed of competing and contradictory voices that constantly problematize the construction of a coherent subject. But if plurality and difference are conceived of in necessary tension, we need not conclude that community is inherently unjust or terroristic.

Following Aristotle, Euben suggests that some agreement in needed on what actions are most worth replicating and which people are most worth exemplifying. “Such agreement is not opposed to diversity, but makes it possible.”[xlvi] In so doing, we allow for the ability to evaluate differing regimes of power and judge helpful from harmful modalities. These agreements, however, must constantly be subjected to self-criticism, and we must remain vigilant to the exclusions that seem essential yet imperil us as a just society.[xlvii] Such an awareness helps us engage in constant deliberation over the necessary boundaries, ever mindful that exclusion invariably coexists with suffering. We must “think the difficult dilemmas of postmodernity in tension, to imagine the contradictions within these categories… as fruitful ground for exploration, rather than as obstacles to be overcome.”[xlviii] In this way, the process of examining and reexamining exclusionary boundaries is continuous, and allows for the redescription of those boundaries in light of unjust or unnecessary exclusion.[xlix] While realities of living necessitate some formations of theory and politics, they must remain dynamic and responsive, cautious of critical theorists’ attempts to idealize certain universal foundations.

My impetus to provide a hospitable memory for my voices, and the reason behind the manila folder that first trailed, and then overtook, my Plan, is a concern for justice. But the procedural justice of the modern world is of little use to my purpose. Based on a priori definitions, and strict adherence to procedural conditions, it seeks justice by following certain rules and guidelines, rendering a judgment contained within the confines of the established system. More importantly, the “quality” of justice administered is determined by the degree to which the pre-defined procedures were followed, rather than any substantive change.[l] But what can justice mean if we approach concepts with a suspicion towards a priori definitions? How can we understand justice outside of such a procedural framework?

Justice is, on some level, the imposition of order into a chaotic world. It is necessarily normative, and requires judgments rendered from a set of values. As such, any foundations of justice are built within a certain discourse, and specific to a certain time/ place, and we should be mindful of the a priori factors we insist upon, leaving them always open to critique and change.

Drawing on tragedy, Euben articulates four attributes of a justice understood as light on procedural preconditions and heavy on substantive judgment. [li] Such a conceptualization of justice requires, one, reconciliation, and, by implication, active collaboration. Two, it needs reciprocity, including an “imprecisely defined sharing of authority, which doesn’t posit equality, but precludes domination.” Three, justice demands recognition, especially the taking into account of others, giving them due consideration and respect. Finally, justice insists upon judgment, rather than retribution; judgment entails “a question of balance and proportion, of evidence and reflection,” and allows for resolution by transforming all of those involved and constituting the polis anew.

Justice entails reconciliation, reciprocity, recognition, and judgment. And so far, this story I’ve told you — about a manila folder that sat on my desk, about a search to understand voices in my head, about an attempt to find some just memory, as a way not to forget, but also not to be trapped by the lingering haunting of things that stay on the border of recognition and understanding — is missing many of these elements. I have spoken for the voices, translated their own articulations, appropriated them when they suit my needs, ignoring them more often than not, and maintained a clear system of suppression. Worst of all, the transformation involved here, the process of shifting my Plan to be more authentic, more meaningful to me, is murky, at best. We have a story instead of a paper, some thoughts instead of a thesis, but is this much different, in substantive terms, than a research method? Aren’t I here, still, with voices in my head, and no hospitable memory, using them as a topic to type up, with a little statement appended, “submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts Degree,” so that I could go on with my contemplation, in a secret and secluded world, on what it means to say that life is complicated? This is what Foucault meant by the all too often co-opting of resistance.

My manila folder is a thing, it sits on my desk where I work, where I collect things to put into my Plan, but it is more than a thing, too. It is an idea, a process, a way of understanding how I came to sit where I do, and write how I do, and think in brilliant and confused fashions about voices I’ve only begun to talk with, voices I’ve only begun to bring out of the shadows, out of the silence where we store the things we want nothing more than to hide forever. But might it not be better to try, as Patricia Williams suggests, “to utilize the memory — respectfully — so that is does not harden or haunt us in unbidden ways… [T]hat is what it means to witness our history, or to never forget.”[lii]

The Daffodils Are Late This Year

Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.

-Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Memories are tricky things, though. They are “produced out of experience, and, in turn, reshape it.”[liii] I remember something that happened, on a cloudy day in an April long ago, but that memory, itself, is constantly recreating the experience as I recall it, subject to the influence of new experiences and new interpretations of what happened and is happening. Memory is dynamic, and as much a part of the present as it is the past. I remember visiting my doctor, whom I had met only once before. I remember him asking me questions.

“Did you take the Depakote?” “It made you nauseous?” “Are you still taking it?” “Are you eating much?” “How is your sleeping?” Questions, scientific, abstracted, removed from where I sat. I became apprehensive of his inquiries. I felt myself dissipating, my distinctiveness vanishing, just as David noted. If I could have gotten away, for a little while at least, rested at home, alone, in a dark corner where I had so often gone in the past, if I could have had a little bit of time to let the anxiety attack pass, I would have been okay. If I could have had a little bit of time.

My doctor stood at the threshold of the examination room, and motioned to a colleague passing by in the hallway. A few whispers in the ear, the subtle wording required by the procedural protections of Oregon law — that two doctors must agree I may be a danger to myself — a nodding of the head. The colleague looked at me silently for a moment. “Yes, I agree.”

If I could have had a little bit of time.

Maybe it happened like this, and maybe it didn’t. I can’t say for certain, for this is only how I now remember it. This is how it hardened; this is how it haunts me now.

My World, Your Help, Timeless as Rain

You are being held in this hospital because someone is concerned that you may hurt yourself or other people. Anything the staff of this hospital observes you do or say while you are in custody here may be used as evidence in a court of law to determine whether you should be committed as a mentally ill person. You have a right to legal counsel. If you cannot afford an attorney one will be provided for you by the court.

- Warning issued to those on emergency psychiatric hold, as required by Oregon Administrative Rule 309–033–0540

Quiet as it’s kept, some Aprils last longer than others.[liv] I arrived at Good Samaritan Regional Mental Health Center not in an ambulance — it would have cost more money, and neither my doctor nor the EMS personnel thought I required it — but in a squad car, with my hands restrained behind my back. I was assured that the handcuffs were to protect me, that they were required whenever anyone was transported in the backseat, that they were for my own good. They said I wasn’t capable of making decisions for myself anymore.

And then I wasn’t.

“No matter how… biological or chemical the origins of severe mental illness may be,” James Glass writes, “what exists beyond brain chemistry or genetics are persons who express feeling, who assimilate experience, and who live among other persons.”[lv] Foucault noted, decades before, the similarity between hospitals and prisons, and, in particular, mental patients and criminals. And with mental patients — as with criminals — institutions more often are concerned with objectified brain chemistry and normalized social behavior rather than persons as complex, feeling, assimilating individuals. This was my experience within the walls of a mental institution.

They gave me many things. They gave me a metal plate, small, with rounded corners, imprinted with my name and a number, not unlike a military dog tag. They gave me a file, with their observations and notes and recommendations. They gave me anti-psychotics through an IV, after I refused to swallow the pills. They gave me nightmares and flashbacks and memories I never wanted. They took away many things, too. They took my blood, in four small vials. They took my jacket and wallet and cell phone, and put them in a closet. They took three days of my life, and charged me for the trouble. They took my dignity and sense of security and ability to walk through buildings without the fear I will never find the exit fast enough to escape.

I saw a psychiatrist, and filled out a form. I promised to take drugs and see a therapist, to do this and that and something else too, and to call my doctor if I needed more help. They left me outside the hospital with two quarters for the bus, thirteen doses of Remeron, and a little more pain than I arrived with.

This is how we help others.[lvi]

Elaine Scarry writes that pain “first monopolizes language, becomes its only subject,” and then destroys language altogether, leaving the person in pain without voice whatsoever.[lvii] Unrecognizable sound, the space anterior to language itself, or even silence, becomes the only articulations of communication. “One of the most frightening aspects [of pain],” she continues, “is its resistance to objectification.” That is, while pain is undoubtedly real to the sufferer, it is unnoticed and unreal to others.[lviii] Pain is isolating.

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