May 26, 2012

Musing: The Red Wine Freud Da Game

image credit: arpla
Tuesday night I cut my foot. Usually, when I drink with my roommates I keep the glassware downstairs and the conversation confined to the kitchen. Not this time. After the "party" had dispersed I took a tumbler of red wine to my room and no sooner had I sat down to talk to my friend Patrick on the phone had I knocked over the damn tumbler and kablam! -- shards of glass everywhere. Not one to do manual labor after the sun goes down, I merely plopped myself on the bed and told Patrick good night.
     He is a filmmaker and was about to go on location to shoot a short film that I had had the original idea for so I was emotionally invested (but I digress). Perhaps it is not an accident then that in the morning when I woke up I stepped right into the pile of broken glass and cut my foot open.
    Was it an unconscious motivation to kick up creative ideas out of my pain? I had told my shrink I use pain to promote creativity. I felt the glass cut my foot. It did not hurt so much as pour like cream out of my body so I carefully hopped to the bathroom and put my foot in the toilet. A toilet is not the cleanest apparatus to immerse an injured foot into but it had to work since blood was pouring onto our apartment's fine bath mat. I calmly waited for the blood to coagulate, dried off my foot, got dressed and hopped to the subway station. The trauma of hopping could not be sustained by my body so about midway across the Manhattan Bridge I could feel warm liquid coursing through my sock and into the lining of my shoes.
    I calmly looked down to see if blood had leaked out onto the subway floor. It hadn't. I looked up and smiled. Commuters looked the same they always do at 8:16 on a Wednesday morning. We were all evenly dispersed throughout a busy subway train and I was slowly bleeding out of my right foot and nary a person could recognize my suffering. The pain was my secret. It is in those incongruous moments when daily life meets the intrusion of the real that I feel most calm. I could have bled out completely and like Kobo Abé's Box Man no would have noticed my isolation and pain. Thankfully the blood coagulated again and I was able to carry myself to work.
     In the bathroom I threw away the blood-soaked sock and fastened a bandage around it I had located in the school's First Aid kit affixed next to a poster of Garfield sleeping on a pile of textbooks before an exam which read "Studying does not come through osmosis." Although no one noticed I was bleeding in the subway car (and it had been my little secret) I could not help but dissolve a nasty philosophical problem that I have always had an issue with in the past. Even though pain is a private experience the shareability of pain with others is possible. Yes, my pain was private but even if I had not shown anyone my cut foot and said to the mister leaning on the pole, "Could you call the ambulance my foot is bleeding," any normal response would be yes to that request.    
     The baby born into the world is not happy. She experiences the pain of the cold open world and it is that primordial knowledge that allows her throughout life to acknowledge the pain of others. Pain is in no way a mere mental representation. Listening to a pregnant woman describe her birth pains caused me to feel an inchoate tug in my gut. There is a scientific word for the experience. It is rather unlike empathy because it is visceral rather than a feeling of shared emotion. I am not sure why philosophers get tangled up in the problem of other minds. Pain is a paradoxical lesson. It's private but shareable. We know this at a level prior to thought itself which is why it is common for folks to decry philosophical questioning as navel-gazing. But the philosopher has something important to say that should not go unheard. We have a tin ear to the suffering of others. It is not that we cannot understand or "know" another; it's rather that we decide not to reflect on the suffering of the other.
    It is a mistake to think man's inhumanity to man is based on some story about evil. Rather man's inhumanity to man is caused by lack of proper reflection. Before I begin to sound moralistic, as if to say we do not reflect enough, let me clarify something. It's probably a good thing we have numbness to the pain of others for if we truly felt other's suffering as much as we know our own it would be akin to getting nothing done. I really don't subscribe to a metaphysical narrative of evil and I truly think most moral wrongs are caused by ignorance more than anything else. The hope for a good God is problematic in a world where people suffer and lighting sometimes strikes twice. If God exists the reason he does not do anything about it is because most likely he stubbed his toe.
       I can solve the problem of other minds but I cannot solve the problem of evil. Sorry. I can say something else though. The reason creativity comes out of pain is simple. To be in pain actually brings you deeper into your self. When in pain it is a totally preoccupying condition. Try to do a math problem in pain and it is just not possible. Pain is a kind of self-absorption though that differs from plain jane narcissism. Pain touches on our shared mortality. For a second we know we will die and are okay with it. The pain subsides and we go back into our dealings with others and living in a shared world with its set of concerns. To cope is somewhat like writing with a pencil -- it works and we barely pay attention to it until it breaks in mid-sentence. A cut into the world of our shared concern happens and we have to fix it to get right with the world. Back on the phone with Patrick, I told him about my cut and he said it would make a bad movie and that perhaps I should write my idea down on paper. I asked him why it would be a bad movie and he said it would be hard to film the scene of me on the train with a cut that only I knew of and no one else. Movies lay bare. Novels harbor secrets. It was at that moment that I knew why I love movies but bleed into words on a page. The thing about art is that it all comes from feeling. The difference between the filmmaker and the novelist is simply one feels one way and the other another. Literature can only die if we stop finding ways to communicate secrets. Movies will fall on tin ears if everything becomes exposed. The photograph can only evince attraction if it has nothing inessential.
     The funny thing is I like to shock people. I took off my shoe with my shrink to show her my cut. She simply leaned in with grace and nodded her head. The flood of students who left my classroom on Friday -- the last day before summer break -- rushed both towards their uncertain futures but still caring for something. I had left the pile of shard glass unswept on the floor. With only one able-bodied leg I cleaned up the mess. Full disclosure (if you thought I intend to give advice): I am unsure what I want to do. Lately, I have been like a pregnant woman nesting. I threw away the shards of glass along with every inessential thing in my room. I live like a monk. Only a map of Brooklyn and a crucifix from Germany hangs on my wall. It's not so much that I abstain from pleasure but rather I hate holding onto things. To gain pleasure is not so much to eradicate pain but to stop and consider the unpleasure as sometimes as good as it gets.
     Freud was clever to notice that logically the pleasure principle should overtake the reality principle. Trauma victims, however, do not dream of rainbows and sexual orgasms, but they relive the pain of their trauma. Freud had asked why and was piqued by a game his grandson play where he threw a spool attached to a string across his playpen and cried but when he drew the spool back he was pleased. In a nice turn of interpretation, Freud says his grandson's game is analogous "civilization." Of course, pleasure and pain are a mysterious pair because even Freud has to surmise the death drive (which comes in and fucks it all up). I don't pretend to be an expert on Beyond the Pleasure Principle even though I read it several times. I wonder if it was some combination of pleasure/pain that brought my encounter with a shard of glass into motion. Maybe it is not so much that we rather die but it's this idea that lies at the gut of us that says we only live once and we know at an animal level that death is the great equalizer.

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