Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Lost in Thought" at Kalamazoo

Just returned from a truly wondrous Kalamazoo medieval congress. Not quite able to let go of the powerful experience of speaking on the "Lost" panel, gathered by Jeffrey Cohen and peopled by an intensely attentive audience and speakers who shared beautiful ideas and writing with a gladness and vulnerability that will stay with me for a long, long time. Here was my contribution.

There's a phrase in French when you're out at a restaurant and the food is too salty: "The chef is in love!" Growing up in Switzerland, I remember older aunts and uncles, stunned at the sting of their super salty fresh lake perch, saying "Ah ben là, le chef est amoureux!" For a long, long time, I would think of love as a salty thing, a surprising too much that shocked older relatives and awakened a winking secret. It was only much later that I understood the scenario behind the phrase, the chef in love over-salting the food because of being lost in thought – mind gone to blissful memory or sublime fantasy, while body performed mundane tasks in repetitive rote for ordinary things like people and food; a Cartesian divide in the kitchen.

But what if it's not a divide? What if it's a trust? What if it's the body's desire to be suffused with memory or fantasy? The mind's yearning to materialize touch and daydream? And objects, then, become portals, agents of transfer, from one time and scale to another. When Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot follows the lady-in-waiting off trail in the forest, he is "pest de son panser qui molt li plest" ("lost in his thoughts which please him very much"). He is completely taken with the ivory comb he finds upon a rock, its gleam glinting with the flaxen strands of hair intertwined within it, and he stands there, "molt longuemant," holding it, feeling its weight, thinking the weightlessness of the hair. He stands there so long that the horses start to paw the ground and the lady-in-waiting laughs – and teases him out of his reverie and into a delirium when she reveals that the hair is Guinevere's. Lancelot almost loses it, almost faints, is almost really lost in thought – but the maiden catches him before he falls from his horse, brings his body and his mind back to their here and now, and they continue in the forest.

We joke about being lost in thought, or gently laugh at those who are, calling them back, because the thought of being truly, irrevocably lost in thought is pretty scary. Those we can't call back, those who don't return to find themselves in the mainstream of time and space, are deemed… different, unabled, mentally ill. My father lived the last eight years of his life with a brain injury that left him lost, deep in thought, his body mis-guided by his mind soaring in all directions. At some point in conversations with him about North Carolina waterways, the Hong Kong dollar, Fidel Castro in the hills, the not-so-zen paradox of being lost only if you can or want to be found again, came to me. Are you really lost if you've forgotten to be found? My father's wanderings, his ramblings and roamings, and his circumlocutions (and that's a technical term of traumatic brain injury, but it's also what I love most about what we're all doing here at Kalamazoo in gathering and tendering words to each other), his circumlocutions, were rationalized for us with various metaphors: "His mind and his brain are just taking off in different directions;" "He has all his marbles, they're just scattered" – metaphors meant to create a rational distance between our normal and his weird. There was one that truly helped: "He can't see the forest for the trees." I tried to be lost with him, no longer beholden to a big picture, to walk with him among endless metaphorical trees free of the discursive frame of forests: elephants on the beaches of Ceylon, bringing buttermilk to someone named Solomon, snatches of Portuguese, his long silences.

And so when Jeffrey's lost pine branch came to me in the mail, I felt for the first time I think, the collapse of metaphor into reality. This twig was, might as well be, from my father's expanse of forestless trees. This twig could skip, might as well travel, through arboreal generations and literary time, and elide with those in the paths of all those knight errants stumbling through forests: dear delusional Don Quixote brushing up against trees, scattering needles; the Fisher-King brooding by the shore, the trees of his domain parched and barren behind him; Yvain sleeping on twigs and branches in an endless forest, eating hermit's bread. Sometimes, the allegory reaches up for the reality: in the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, René d'Anjou's dreamer and his Heart are two knighted companions on a quest for Lady Mercy. They wander lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, tricked by Jealousy; Desire comes to give them companionship and encouragement, and helps the Heart disarm and lay aside his sword. And Desire and the Heart, lost in the forest, talk long into the night beneath an aspen tree.

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers her take on the etymology of los, the Old Norse word meaning the disbanding of an army. "This origin suggests," she writes, "soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." Loss, lost, losing, loosening – that moment of disbanding, not necessarily to find home again, maybe just to wander a wide expanse, to get lost in thought. There are those who seek to be lost: the mystics lost in the thought of Christ, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing - persistent questers of lostness.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins in the mind of a brooding God, hovering over everything, sweeping over the waters. What unknowns stretch out within its hesitation? Maybe the tehom of the deep in the original Hebrew, the etymological descendant of "radiant Tiamat" of Mesopotamian creation, was so beguiling and wondrous that God stopped rushing in, stilled the wind, and remained suspended – a lost god, unsure. A doubtful, distracted, day-dreaming deity before the time of days, poised over the deep, intimate with darkness, lost in thought, without sign, or referent, or scale. And then God stopped trusting His lostness, and started making distinctions and divides.

Later, much later, after the tree and the apple and the accusations and the denials and the wailing and the leaving, there would be gathering around a fire, and dazed by survival, we humans would start to stare into the hearth: its crackling warmth, its mesmerizing dancing flames, its complicated light. Gaston Bachelard, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, prized the reverie we enter when we stare into the fire and become lost in thought. He called it a "hypnotized form of observation," wanted us to think about it as a way of seeing the world. In reverie, we might well see the world in all its salty love and grief among trees and forested wanderings; we might well re-emerge within the trust to be lost in thought.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By the river with 7th graders, Mary Oliver, and Fafnir

There was an outing today. 150 kids, the entirety of the 7th grade, a drive out of our small town, and through Amish country to one of our glorious state parks. Warm, breezy, clear air redirected by cries of glee and teasing, kids running ahead, kids lagging behind, the incredible energy of this age. So here, a few impressions of working with these children who live on a thrilling cusp, somewhere between wonder and self-consciousness, moving across the gulf from 12 to 13 years of age. Mac said it beautifully, about what it was like for some of them to read the poem by Mary Oliver with which we started  - "It's as though some of them didn't want the words to be fully in their mouths." They spoke hurriedly, brushing over the sounds of their own voices - feeling (maybe) the words too strange, the idea of standing by the river in a circle reading one line of the poem each too disorienting. Much rejoicing at the invitation to make structures. The river was too high for us to have access to the stones that make good cairns, so we expanded our materials. The circle above of big and little standing stones surrounding seashells was made when the mud was still soft in the morning. We all loved thinking about how far the seashells had come - to wash up in crazy, misplaced plenitude on these inland shores.

The science teacher had suggested this next idea, which was an intense one, actually: stand blindfolded for five minutes and observe the environment around you without the sense of sight. I started thinking "There's no way that I could do this with college students" and I'm still not entirely sure I could put my finger on why. Bigger discussion, but I am wary of making my students too vulnerable - somewhere between 7th grade, and college, hurts and distrust accumulate. Here, there was willingness - and these kids' trust was very poignant to me. Those who wanted to stand in the quiet rush of the river were the most still. I thought that that was so cool: to purposefully stand where the ground would shift beneath your feet. Then, after big gasps of air as the blindfolds came off, they wrote (of birds and water and sensing others nearby and many many things).

There were three Sigfrids, one for each group of kids who gathered to hear the tale from the Völsunga Saga. Each time, when Mac called for a hero, one stepped forth. And a human Fafnir and a dragon Fafnir, and birds and Ragnar and Otter and the Other Brother and more. Sometimes (here) a crutch was the sword, others a stick long dead. Each time, Fafnir met his doom and then we'd all line up on the beach and throw rocks (Fafnir's gold) into the river at the same time, the sinking stones' expanding circles disassembled by eddies swirling past. The third time we did it, Sigfrid from the second group came back to join in the story again - to hear once more about gold making men mad, and dragon's blood revealing the language of birds, and wild throws by the river's edge.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Concerted Effort

A predecessor of my wonderful
biochem professor, teaching
geometry (key for structural
diagrams!) in a 14th c.
Euclid mss. (British Library)
Today was the last day of Biochemistry for me. The students will valiantly review for their exam on Wednesday, and I will be walking away with my head full of a new language. It's been very interesting to learn the language, rather than the practice, of biochemistry. I have not spent time in the lab, spending the past month thinking about the work (operations) of art (really, visual surfaces) in Chaucer's dream poems, and the idea of being "lost in thought" as well as the insistence of matter in medieval art. But I've consistently been trying to find my footing within biochemistry's language about the structure and function of proteins. Having studied amino acids and enzymes and carbohydrates and all kinds of saccharides and lipids and finishing up with RNA and DNA, I walk on the very dynamic ground of millions of biochemical reactions a second. Looking at these reactions up close, in human time and scale, I can understand how a protein folds, how RNA can be self-folding - all sorts of things. I can understand that there is a tremendous amount of randomness and reactions that go nowhere, and I can understand that what makes my body work is an enormous series of things "recognizing" each other, and fitting together to produce the reactions that we call living.

Zodiac Figure within
cosmological and
molecular possibility;
Très Riche Heures, 15th c.
(Bibliothèque Nationale)

Where wonder supplants perception is in my inability to conceive of these millions of reactions happening all at the same time, and in concert. I know that they are happening, as I think and type, but I cannot possibly keep track of them all. And yet, because reactions at the cellular and molecular level are happening in concert, I live and breathe. A comment made by my collaborator on this article about how humans live with/overcome/negotiate the (poignancy of) the limits of human perception comes back with full resonance now: cellular reactions don't stop happening with death; cellular activity is as frenetic and energetic as in life - but now, the effort is no longer concerted. Death is, indeed, disconcerting. The idea that hydrophobic amino acids keep right on clustering inside the cell, that carbons are still looking to attach or disconnect, that proteins are still probably somewhere folding is different for me to think through than decay and decomposition. Those two sad terms are written from the point of view of human life. We would need other words to describe cellular activity once it is no longer in concert for the sake and experience of human life. Metabolic persistence? Molecular stamina? Cellular reactions keep happening arguably forever after death. They are eternally persevering in their energy and randomness; they "recognize" each other, however, for purposes other than human living. There is perhaps no greater presence of the post-human than in our own cells. We are always (yes, already) displaced by the energy that preceded us and will endure beyond us. Knowing more about how enzymes operate in antibiotics and laundry soap (for example), opens up thousands of other questions, blunt questions asked obviously. What are the biochemical reactions in operation when I cry? when I feel pleasure? when I'm tired? when I remember? How can I begin to conceptualize the permeability of what I call my body to biochemical reactions in my environment? (microcosm-macrocosm is a start but after that? we are very, very permeable indeed - at all times, in every moment). What are the worlds (let alone proteins) unfolding within the concerted effort of my person without my knowledge or control?  How much of my existence is beyond my perception? That one we've been asking for a while, but it really never gets old, and there are always new answers.