On the Domestic Sublime
Where one has no song, the other is only.
— Solmaz Sharif
It’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in another world (a person, a job, a culture, even another language), and not lose your original identity. Post-structuralism would tell us there was no there there — no stable identity — to begin with. But philosophical speculation aside, for anyone who has ever had an experience that threatened to physically or psychically “erase” them, we know that a certain abiding sense of self, as recognized by others, is necessary to be a healthy and functioning person in the world.
Without exaggerating the importance of the individual self, it’s necessary, in other words, to both “have” and to “make” (allowing for the truth that both women and men are not born, but made), a name and flexible “I” with which to assert agency and willpower.
Is this overstating the obvious? Not as languages are concerned, especially those that establish identity through relationships (e.g. “I” am the daughter of my father, before I am “I”).
In English, the pronoun “one” is used infrequently. One longs for precision. One never knows. “One” indicates formality. In French, on the other hand, “one” is even less formal than “we.” Nous allons à la plage — we are going to the beach. On va à la plage — one goes to the beach (or, more precisely, we go, as one, to the beach).
What can one write about or reflect on, as one — the universal particular? Another language, for starters. Most recently, Jhumpa Lahiri popularized her account of language immersion in her autobiographical memoir In Other Words, describing her relationship with the Italian language, and her eventual move to Rome to read and write in Italian.
On her linguistic metamorphosis: “Metamorphosis is a process that is both violent and regenerative, a death and a birth. It’s not clear where the nymph ends and the tree begins; the beauty of this scene is that it portrays the fusion of two elements, of both beings. The words that describe Daphne and the tree are right next to each other (in the Latin text, frondem/crines, ramos/bracchia, cortice/pectus; leaves/hair, branches/arms, bark/breast) . . . It expresses in the mythical, I would say primordial, sense the meaning of being two things at the same time. Of being something undefined, ambiguous. Of having a dual identity.”
A dual identity, like dual citizenship, in Lahiri’s words, isn’t grafted on — it’s a fusion between two parts, a bifurcation of the original “whole.”
In an interdependent relationship, or a cultural experience that allows you to retain your own individuality while adapting and evolving, 1 + 1 = 2. Finally: progress.
The 80s was rife with literature tolling the dangers about codependency, as distinct from interdependency. Codependency is a fusion of selves whose result is mutual annihilation: of personality, independence, autonomy. Interdependence, whether between people or nations, is the ideal relationship: an open acknowledgment of reciprocal need, utility, and benefit. There is a math to these configurations: in a relationship with a narcissist, the other doesn’t exist. Therefore 1 + 0 = 1. In a codependent relationship, 0 + 0 = 0. In an interdependent relationship, or a cultural experience that allows you to retain your own individuality while adapting and evolving, 1 + 1 = 2. Finally: progress.
I am not a dual citizen — I am an American, with Permanent Residency status in Canada, currently living in Francophone/Anglophone Montreal. A majority of the population here is what is referred to as “perfectly bilingual”: both French and English are their native languages, or they’ve had immersion in their non-native tongue since a young age. A significant amount of the population, furthermore, are polyglots, speaking a third or fourth language in addition to French and English. Montreal is an anomaly within the province: in the townships of Quebec, mostly French is spoken.
As for the research that bilingualism makes you smarter, that depends upon how one defines intelligence. Generally, speaking two or more languages improves the executive function of the brain (as distinct from intelligence). Executive function helps us manage time, pay attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, and draw on our experiences; it allows us to focus on what’s relevant and to ignore distractions.
One might think that it would be difficult for fundamentalisms to coexist in countries where a majority of the population is bilingual or polylingual. And at least in theory, this holds true. People who are bi- or polylingual implicitly understand that there are two ways to communicate the same meaning. And, if each language represents a way of seeing, two (or more) ways of seeing the world.
Intimate relationships take up what is arguably one of the most precious resources available to us: time. What they give back cannot be measured by any standard of measurement, whether temporal or material. Intimate relationships teach us trust, patience, self-acceptance, and love — they even, one could argue, make us who we are. Marriage, in particular, is an institution that gives more than it takes. Marriage, or a committed partnership, is a celebration of the joining of two lives, two identities. Same with a bilingual culture. This bilingualism is often protected: in Quebec, through strict laws governing imported products and labeling, on goods as well as signage.
The discourse of individualism runs so deep in American culture as to be a part of our unconscious imaginary, wherein victim blaming and right-wing party platforms can structure how many think about social and sexual violence, reproductive rights, and welfare.
Every (wo)man for him/herself: unless a community or new paradigm can be built that defies that masculinist structure of going at it, alone.
If digital culture helps create greater systems of interdependence, and independence, it would seem to be by developing internet access around the world and thus access to information. The downside? We become more dependent upon the world wide web for information and peer-sharing sites like Wikipedia for “knowledge.” We run the risk of hiding behind pseudonyms or even internet personalities, because anonymity feels safer.
Is similar safety found in the universalizing gesture of the “one,” in English?
Marriage, as a sacrament or vow, resists easy assimilation and regurgitation. Marriage resists slick packaging and low-risk return policies.
The flip side of evolution and innovation, especially in the digital age, is obsolescence.
Languages, romantic love and media, at first glance, seem to share similar destinies. Think of the life of VHS, tape cassettes, or CD’s. Media has become increasingly sophisticated — and etherized. Along with sculpture, we have digital sculpture. Google maps are the new cartography, Google street view the new voyeurism. Along with efforts at language preservation — for the world’s 7,000 or so languages — we have globalized English.
And along with abiding affection — or what Eileen Myles calls “advanced” sentiment — we have a databank of memories (photographs, videos, text messages, email), stored on our devices.
Some relationships, however, outlast their archive, such as marriage or committed partnerships. In marriage, there is a principle of shared commitment, a kind of protection against the built-in obsolescence of capitalism’s disposable goods. Marriage, as a sacrament or vow, resists easy assimilation and regurgitation. Marriage resists slick packaging and low-risk return policies.
My husband Michael makes videos from time to time, documenting our lives. I like looking back on the life we are making together: the brutal Montreal winters, the gorgeous other three seasons, our work, our home lives, our social lives. But because Michael is behind the camera, and because I rarely take, or make, videos, he won’t get to see the footage I see in my mind: him playing guitar or cello at night, or hunched over his computer, working on a project for school.
We attended Easter services together this year. Listening to the pastor, I began thinking about spirituality and poetry, spirituality and math. Listening to Scripture, I got to thinking about the Bible. I thought about flesh as grass, love as blind, death as mere shadow; I thought about the difference between Holy Writ and the kinds of language writers are taught to avoid.
When feeling uncertainty, I tend toward epigrammatic or aphoristic styles of prose (poetry is already a condensation of the highest order). Why broadcast my doubt or murky thinking?
Cliché: a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
Proverb: a short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.
Axiom: a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
The domestic and the social are as erroneously separated as are poetry and politics — neither binary is strictly outward- or inward-looking. The domestic has more pejorative connotations than the social, obviously. Domesticity, domestic noir, domestic security, domestic abuse. A “domestic” can even be framed as a job (a housecleaner or nanny). A word with similar resonances — and conflicted history — is “home.” Homemaker, homefront, home is where the heart is, homewrecker. Like the word “God,” the words “home” and “domestic” have been deconstructed beyond recognition as proper nouns. As if kaleidoscopic portals in a Virginia Woolf novel, the words “home,” and “domestic” now refer less to a place, or space, than a state of mind, just as words like “healthy” have replaced heteronormative, classist lifestyle terms such as “normal,” “ideal,” or “right.”
Growth requires adversity and challenge, difficult to achieve in a culture of homogeneity.
A general rule of thumb in deciding whether a relationship is healthy, I’ve heard, is asking oneself: “Does this person bring out the best in me?” If the answer is yes — proceed. In the 1980s, positive psychology and Carl Rogers’ unconditional positive regard was all the rage. This is also worth thinking about in the contexts of personal relationships: if you are with someone who validates you and loves you unconditionally, where is the incentive to change, and grow? Growth requires adversity and challenge, difficult to achieve in a culture of homogeneity. America is largely monolingual; we tend not to read the literature of other countries; and we tend not to know as much about other countries as they seem to know about us. There is incredible diversity within America itself, but in international ties and affinities, the bond is weak. No other country is as well-known for its hubris as the U.S., or its achievements, however; this remains a paradoxical fact.
Remember that game played among young girls, MASH? At the end of the game, it was determined whether you would be, as an adult, living in a Mansion, an Apartment, a Shack, or a House. My friends and I played it in our 80’s decorated, carpeted bedrooms, shrieking for joy when we landed on “mansion,” and bemoaning our fate when we landed on “shack.” MASH decided more than your future abode; it also decided who you’d marry, what kind of car you’d drive, and how many children you’d have.
Always there is the factor of unknowability — Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle writ large.
It’s almost impossible to know, when life is being lived, what’s around the next corner. It is in that space of not-knowing, before descriptive language has calcified, or cooled, that art is made.
There is a ratio of novelty to known realities that the mind holds in balance. Via contemplativa and via activa, in harmony, like reality and the miraculous “as if” of aesthetics that allows us to live beyond our immediate experience.
What is the domestic sublime? … It has to do with caring, and care-taking, and support, and freedom from sentimentality. With learning how to ask for what you need.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Our memories are not elephantine.
What does the discourse of the sublime look like, in relation to the experience of moving to a new country, whether as an immigrant, ex-pat, or refugee? Learning a new language and a new culture is at first terrifying. The ratio between self and world is inverted; our consciousness becomes all world, like an infant. We return to consciousness of self, as distinct from world — and only overcome the alienation effect by degrees.
Yet is one always better for the experience? Where, and how, does the “I” inhere?
There exists a plethora of sublimities: the mathematical sublime, the dynamical sublime, the negative sublime. Kant divides the sublime into the mathematical and the dynamical. The mathematical sublime is an experience of overwhelming vastness; it is caused by objects that appear infinitely large. It confounds reason. Kant used pyramids as an example. The dynamical sublime is an experience of overwhelming power brought about by objects that seem to have absolute power over us.
The alienation effect caused by immigrating to a new country or culture invokes, at times, the negative sublime — a process by which one’s unique self is lost, either by reason (e.g. Kant’s mathematical sublime) or in attempted empathy with an external object (e.g. Keats’ nightingale).
If the postmodern sublime is concerned with discursive and cultural representation, how can those power systems be rescripted in actual, measurable ways? Or is social media, with its alluring promise of social reification, the new postmodern sublime?
Perhaps. There is also the domestic sublime. What is the domestic sublime? Answer: I don’t know. It has something to do with the safety the epistemological category of the “known” provides in a post-empire world, where little is left to the imagination but new apps and technologies. With breaking apart when you think you have no more breaking left to do. It has to do with caring, and care-taking, and support, and freedom from sentimentality. With learning how to ask for what you need. With small graces, and kind words. With being loved into existence, into a community of people.
Sometimes, to reveal vulnerability is to grow.
An ode, in poetry, is a song of praise. Its occasion is celebration.
The domestic sublime, too, is a song of praise. To the dual identity. To the self in triplicate. To the evasion of disaster. To the nuclear family, variously designed and described. To the actual, because the domestic sublime is not a metaphor for homeland security. The domestic sublime is what you don’t see, or only see glimpses of. Whether you live in rural Wyoming or in a high-rise in Manhattan, the domestic sublime is, or can be, the hope that in giving so much to one other person, or one’s family, that one is somehow enlarging rather than narrowing the world.
Speaking as “one,” is not so different than opting to use the plural pronoun “we,” or “they,” instead of “I.” It brokers less tyranny than using “I,” when that “I” presumes to speak on behalf or persons or communities one cannot directly know. This is, to use a contemporary example, an interesting tension in Roxane Gay’s excellent nonfiction book Bad Feminist. Gay criticizes writer Kate Zambreno, among others, on Zambreno’s silence in her experimental book of literary criticism, Heroines, surrounding race and class and heterosexual privilege. Yet Gay also decries the misrepresentations and racial stereotyping in American culture, including in the movie The Help, thus: “In The Help, [Kathryn] Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know but actually know nothing about.”
We are constantly rewriting our version of the world. And yet there is so much that is beyond our control.
The domestic sublime, like any sublime, is a question of perspective. And perspective can be a question of focus.
In both Eastern and Western traditions, attention is considered holy. Eighteenth-century Scottish pastor Thomas Boston said to “Read with a holy attention,” to get the most out of Scripture. But is there such thing as too much focus, too much single-mindedness? Could there be considered such thing as holy inattention: a wandering of the mind, a transversing of the I, a widening of the aperture, just enough to allow for a different perspective or paradigm shift?
We are constantly rewriting our version of the world. And yet there is so much that is beyond our control. The pitfalls are many, the confusion only worsens. Meaning refuses to stabilize, as we know, in postmodernity.
It’s like learning a language. Before you come to mastery, you are aware only of the extent of your ignorance, the wide chasm between your baseline competence and desired fluency.
Fluency: the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately. Or, the ability to express oneself easily and articulately.
How can two become one and still remain two? This is a question for nuclear fission, marriage and committed partnerships, and language families. Or for Wallace Stevens, who famously said that French and English are essentially the same language.
I will lose myself in another culture, in another language.
I will awaken to find that I have gained more than I lost. I will go beyond cognitive reframing to neurobiological reframing. I will awaken to, in Elisa Gabbert’s words, the “self unstable.”
For whosoever loses themselves will find themselves. I/They/We/One can try.