So, as I’ve promised myself a few times before, I’m finally going to try to make this blog, at least until the dissertation is completed, primarily a space for me to think through the important texts I’m reading for my research. This will likely not be terribly interesting for many folks, so I won’t advertise these posts on Facebook and Twitter. If you’ve subscribed to the blog (hi, Poppy!) feel free to skip these reading journal-type posts – I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.
In this first post of this type, I’m writing about three books I read in December, January, and February, one recommended to me by my advisor, and the other two by one of my friends/mentors/additional readers. My plan is to try to make these posts a book at a time from now on, but these somehow became a set, even though they’re not entirely connected. Hopefully, by writing out my responses to the books, I’ll be able to get a better sense of both how to incorporate them into my dissertation, and, on a larger scale, how their topics and approaches intersect with my own.
The first book at hand today is The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind, by Giovanna Colombetti. Recommended to me by my advisor in light of the sizeable component of my research focused on emobodiedness, and, in particular, embodied emotion, Colombetti’s work combines the fields of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and affective science (the science of emotions). If I’m honest, some of the cognitive science went a bit over my head, as that is not my field of expertise, by any means. I’ll also happily admit that my understanding of the basic theory of emotion – the theory that all humans have a certain given set of basic emotions, universal across cultures and out of which more complicated emotions are built – was dramatically increased by my having seen Pixar’s Inside Out. I was, however, able to understand enough of the science for the philosophy of mind and embodiedness to make sense to me.
At the heart of Colombetti’s work are the interlocking ideas that the mind is always embodied and that emotions are always interpersonal. The syllogistical conclusions to be drawn are that emotions, as part of the mind, are also always embodied, and that it is these embodied emotions that are necessarily interpersonal. In her final chapter, “Feeling Others,” Colombetti discusses the ways in which the emotional actions we explicitly define as interpersonal, such as empathy and sympathy, are inherently embodied and “felt” in ways beyond simple cognition. Through sympathy and empathy, of course, all of the emotions constitutive of the human experience become shared in an embodied way, as we feel our companions’ tension, anguish, excitement, etc.
As, in the process of writing my dissertation, I have found myself exploring the importance of pain to the vulnerable/bleeding experience, I find Colombetti’s analysis of the embodiedness of emotion, especially in reference to its inter-relationality, particularly helpful. In what ways can vulnerability, even when no physical wound is present, be experienced as corporeal pain, and, more significantly, when do we experience someone else’s vulnerability with our own sensation of anxiety and pain? Likewise, does our experience of pain in our personal past aid us in comprehending the anxiety experienced by someone else encountering their vulnerability in the current momrnt? Finally, for my project, I ask, are there emotions that render us as corporeally vulnerable, and connected to other people, as bleeding does? If so, how do those figure into my understanding of bleeding in medieval romance, and the attendant anxieties and pleasures of vulnerability?
The next book I read, one of two recommended to me by the inimitable Eileen Joy, described somewhat insufficiently above as a friend/mentor/additional reader, was Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness & Ethics. One of (if not the) most moving works in the narrative medicine/medical humanities field I’ve read so far, Frank’s book examines the importance of storytelling to the experience of illness. Drawing on his own experience with cancer and, even more, the vast amount of stories he has read and heard from other patients since he began his work in the field, Frank tells of the crucial ways in which ill bodies tell their stories – or, rather, the ways we tell our unwell bodies’ stories, and the vital necessity of telling those stories. Frank’s core question, at least in my reading, relates to the ways in which those stories – and our bodies – interact: “What is my relationship, as a body, to other persons who are also bodies? How does our shared corporeality affect who we are, not only to each other, but more specifically for each other?” (p. 35, emphasis original).
Frank writes of four types of bodies, distinguished by the ways they interact with other bodies and themselves: the disciplined body, defined primarily by self-regimentation; the mirroring body, defined primarily by consumption; the dominating body, defined primarily by force; and the communicative body, defined, as its descriptor suggests, by communication. Frank is careful to note that, while all of these types are ideal types, rather than concrete categories, this last is also an idealized type, “an ethical idea for bodies” to strive towards (p. 48). Each of these bodies understands its story differently from others, and shares that story with other bodies differently as well. By the process of striving towards being a communicative body, Frank suggests, a person will share his or her story, and come to appreciate and realize the Levinasian ideal of being for the other.
While Frank’s title refers explicitly to wounds, only his final chapter, “The Wound as Half Opening,” discusses wounds outright, and even then, he metonymically uses the word “wound” to refer to suffering, rather than a site at which the flesh has been perforated. Overall, his book focuses on the sick body, the body that is afflicted – by cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia – from the inside, and I want to apply his theory to my work on wounds – violence and suffering inflicted on the body from the outside. The two types of afflictions – illness and wound – are often approached very differently, with illness often taking on a sense of association with the entire body and person, while wounds often maintain a greater degree of specificity and isolatableness. How, then, are the stories we tell about our wounds different from the stories we tell about our illness? And where do those stories cross over when it comes to, for instance, stories of illness caused by things introduced into the body deliberately (as in Frank’s discussion of women suffering from diseases caused by leaky breast implants), or stories of wounds made deliberately for the purpose of alleviating the symptoms of and treating illness (as in the work of phlebotomy practiced by so many medieval physicians, at the center of my dissertation)?
Finally, also recommended to me by Eileen was Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay. As the title suggests, Shay examines the trauma of Vietnam vets, with whom he works as a psychiatrist, through the lens of the Iliad. The argument at the heart of Shay’s book is that Vietnam vets (as well as Achilles at the beginning of the Iliad) were especially traumatized by what they felt to be a “Betrayal of What’s Right” (p. 1). By tracing similarities and differences between the wars in Vietnam and Troy in areas such as the grief allowed for fallen comrades, the “berserker” warrior state, and treatment of the enemy, Shay brings to light the ways in which the trauma suffered by Vietnam vets was, in its experience as a breaking of moral order, crucially different from that suffered by veterans of World War I or II. Shay then goes on to argue that community – “being able safely to tell the story to someone” – is necessary for the healing of that trauma (p. 4).
Shay cautions in his early chapters that his book will be hard to read, and I found his caution an accurate one. Reading the veterans’ recountings of their battle trauma was, in its own minor way, a traumatic experience for me. But what I took away from the book mostly, at least for the sake of my own work, was Shay’s insistence on the need for community, particularly a community of telling, for the process of the healing of trauma. Especially in cases in which sacrifices that were expected to feel productive and beneficial in fact wind up feeling empty and hollow, and contrary to, rather than in accordance with, the moral order, communion with others is a requirement for the processing of the trauma incurred. When Achilles, Shay’s Vietnam veterans, and, for an example directly applicable to my own work, Gawain, find their wounds to have been suffered in vain, that sense of vulnerability will be left to fester in its sense of self-wrongness unless the veteran can share his story, and have his or her vulnerability acknowledged and accepted as part of humanity.
Next up on the recommended reading docket is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By – I expect to have that post up in about ten or so days, give or take some grading time.