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All in the Body

Kit Fryatt’s fascinating talk on concrete poetry in the Hugh Lane Gallery on 22nd April 2012 made me think of a brilliant and mind-altering book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, an odyssey that kept me on its waves for the better part of a year, taking it in small sections. It has the look of a text book, but doesn’t introduce so much linguistic or philosophical theory that it can’t be read by a stranger to the disciplines. George Lakoff is a linguist and Mark Johnson a professor of philosophy.

The essential premise is that the mind is a physical creation. That appears obvious, as no mind would exist without the pre-determining body, but not so. We’re still careering in the post-Bang collateral of Descartes, who gave us a distinctly divided existential topography, now described as dualism—the mind-body split.

Buddhists say that only consciousness can create consciousness. Like begets like, so the mind, they say, is spawned from world-mind and has its own defining properties. The monotheistic religions posit a triad – mind, body and soul. The notion of soul has never been a clear entity in my head – not that it’s conceived as an object exactly – but after much mystification I began to visualise it as a kind of light bulb, a tap on the global electricity or energy that is switched on at an individual location by the existence of a host body. But those who believe in souls say they live on after the body dies, therefore after the ‘tap’ has been switched off. My brother goes so far as to say that the soul is the ‘real’ Máighréad, that the individual Máighréad cannot be destroyed, almost by virtue of her individuality. I argue that it is precisely the individual Máighréad that will not live on, but that the communal Máighréad – that which is physically constituent and constituted, the chemical conglomerate that I share with the rest of the world – will survive in dissipated form. Soul to me equals ‘world-soul’, and is all the better for that. If ‘soul’ is a metaphor for something, I don’t quite perceive.

I have never experienced a separation between thinking and feeling. Thinking and language yes, because one can set experience into a hypostasising verbal grid and find it clawing at the seams, eventually detonating in an act or affect that one can’t imprison. (I think of the first novel that profoundly illustrated guilt for me—The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, where a ‘sin’ is committed that can’t be explained by received, believed morality.) Thought is a kind of inner action that I have felt it necessary to declare or perform. We are aware, nevertheless, through numerous avenues – psychological, neuroscientific and enthusiastic—that language affects the way we feel and act. We think it affects the way we think, but, according to Lakoff and Johnson, thought is the way we talk.

Metaphor, they say, is embedded in the brain. We think in metaphors. The traditional thinking on metaphor is that we are yoking together two unalikes in order to make a new picture. This presumes an old picture. A ‘balloon’ is simply a balloon; it is not a ‘luminous purple world’. To call it a luminous purple world is to surprise reality by re-applying words. The old thinking is that there is an objective reality that we can describe in language, and metaphor transgresses this reality.

On the contrary, we construct the definites of the world according to our constitution and perception. This seems self-evident. We are instruments with certain capabilities, and can only sense what is in our programming. But the argument in Philosophy in the Flesh is that we use the same neural mechanisms for abstract reasoning as we do for perception and movement. This is not absolutely proven, but there are grounds for thinking it so, and the book spends its absorbing 600+ pages elucidating. Now, there’s an example: ‘elucidating’ – meaning ‘to make lucid or clear’, ‘to throw light upon’, arising from Latin ex ‘out’, ‘away’ and lucere ‘to shine’. The notion of the equivalence of understanding and illumination is what the authors would call a primary metaphor. We presume it be so before we begin to speak. We casually ask, ‘Don’t you see?’ unaware of the metaphorical application of vision to comprehension, and that it is not necessarily ‘inner sight’ that gave blind poets their abilities.

Similarly, we think of time as having a physical position on some conceptual landscape. The past is behind us, the future ahead. Life is a journey on a path within that landscape. Love is a journey, expected to ‘go somewhere’, coming upon ‘dead ends’, ‘going round in circles’, ‘reaching crossroads’. These are simple concepts, but complex abstract reasoning is founded on a culture’s shared perception of the world, and that perception is rooted in our bodies, where else?

Elseness has to exist, I think, simply because we're limited, but we don’t have to reach a conclusion on what it is. Speculation on what's 'out there' is the natural region of mysticism, fiction, poetry, and the patrimony of religion and philosophy. Speculation is one thing, reification another. And if one were to truly speculate (speculari ‘spy out’, specula ‘watchtower’), one would have to jettison the historically constructed meanings, which is impossible. After all, you ‘spy out’ from a location, and we can only ‘see’ what we’re programmed to see. More and more, reality appears illusory and the Buddhist view that Nirvana is incommunicable seems correct. It is not new in poetry to say that all language yearns towards silence, and that the contradictions arising in many poems lead one to a salutary state of bemused impossibility. My poetry is relatively clear, I think, but to read Philosophy in the Flesh is to wonder about any notion of clarity and where it lies.

Concreteness in poetry is hard to isolate, because text is in itself ‘concrete’ and sound is ‘concrete’, and their effects both concrete and indefinable, but I don't think poetry begins in ideas. I think it begins in the concrete flesh. I read this book feeling vindicated in my performance practice—which has to do with joining immediacy to plan—and also in my reluctance to accept received meanings and structures. Sometimes I can’t read sentences because I get snagged on each word individually and can't see how they’re relating to each other. Several meanings crowd in all at once, or none at all. Newspaper headlines are my nemesis in this regard. That's one reason why I write, and why I like to dance.

your fingers want to be longer
how much must you travel
to know this world
your brain itself unknown
therefore your instruments
the depths of sea less travelled than space
and this space
that is cave
has no end
even when with greater calculation
you boldly go
and are swept in....

-- from ‘Space’ © Máighréad Medbh


Reference: Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark: Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 1999


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