It is now decidedly Autumn. The leaves are about all turned or already fallen off their branches. The pavements have that irritating layer of sodden, rotting leaves. Our back garden has the wonderful show of brown and reddish yellow, of mustard and red pepper, of berries and the yet to be plucked speckled apples. It is even more glorious in Hebden Bridge, looking upwards towards the valleys, especially with this late October sunlight that burnishes the bronze and golden, making them at once trophies to be worshipped.
Strangely, this variegation of autumnal leaves has put me in mind of the nature of identity but with emphasis on difference and its markers, its ambiguities, its horizontal barriers, its slurs and barbarities, and how it shapes narrative structures and experience.
Julius, the protagonist in Teju Cole’s novel Open City, is a psychiatrist in training and fully understands how the nature of difference is at the centre of psychiatric practice: Is psychopathological difference a matter of degree compared to normal experience or is it significant qualitative difference? In other words, is melancholia an extreme version of sadness or is it radically different? Or, is delusional belief a specie of beliefs or as Karl Jaspers would have it “ununderstandable” and hence incomprehensible. Julius never discusses these matters- his emphasis is on identity, ethnic or racial difference. Nonetheless his approach and standpoint are relevant, for example, he says
“Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories…” This issue arises in the prelude of Julius discovering that in someone else’s version of personal historical events he is a villain.
In psychiatry the issue is quite separate. It is that the psychiatrist uses him- or herself as the gauge, the thermostat, so to speak of normalcy. As Jaspers would say, by way of the empathic method, re-presenting to oneself the subjective inner world of another person we come to judgments about his normality or otherwise. This, of course, is a conscientious judgment, fraught with problems, not least the frailty of our own inner life and the fragility of the arbitrary boundaries demarcating normality from psychopathology.
Ascribed difference whether denoted by language, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, race, tribe or whatever is a serious matter. It is at the root of some of the most malevolent actions that human beings take and the perversions of spirit exercised towards the Other. To fully appreciate the extent of the malign influence of ascribed difference Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird is the text that best explores the darkness of this territory:
Strange things happen in the farmyard. Yellow and black chicks hatched out of the eggs, resembling little live eggs on spindly legs. Once a lonely pigeon joined the flock. He was clearly unwelcome. When he made a landing in a flurry of wings and dust amidst the chickens, they scurried away, frightened. When he began to court them, cooing gutturally as he approached them with a mincing step, they stood aloof and looked at him with disdain. They invariably ran away clicking as soon as he drew closer. One day, when the pigeon was trying as usual to consort with the hens and chicks, a small black shape broke away from the clouds. The hens ran screaming toward the barn and the the chicken coop. The black ball fell like a stone on the flock. Only the pigeon had no place to hide. Before he even had time to spread his wings, a powerful bird with a sharp hooked beak pinned him to the ground and struck at him
What is this a metaphor for? That difference makes us more visible to attack, more vulnerable, less likely to be protected. As the Japanese say- the nail that sticks out is more likely to be banged in. Standing out from the crowd, not conforming, is risky business.
Difference, then, can urge on the self-aggrandising impulse, taking hold of the will to crush under the hooves of a steed (whose intention is wholly malign) the dignity of the Other. Marked and ascribed difference, the difference that is aimed for by the eye or the ear, that is clarified in the subtleties of bodily movement, gait, stance, dance! Difference that hangs in the air as a vapour, a nuanced coloured essence, an odour that steams and invokes hate as its passion. This is the difference that is sought for in the sheer presence of the “not self”.
Finally, after prolonged scrutiny, he would choose the strongest bird, tie it to his wrist, and prepare stinking paints of different colours which he mixed together from the most varied components. When the colours satisfied him, Lekh would turn the bird over and paint its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wild flowers. Then he would go into the thick of the forest. There Lekh took out the painted bird and ordered me to hold it in my hand and squeeze it lightly. The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads. Our prisoner, hearing them, strained toward them, warbling more loudly, its little heart, locked in its freshly painted breast, beating violently. When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner. It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock. For an instant the birds were confounded. The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them. But, dazzled by its brilliant colours, they flew around it unconvinced. The painted bird would be forced further and further away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock. We saw so afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground dead
Lekh in his anguish had exploited an innocent bird’s knowledge of its kind to put it at mortal risk. The actual attack was prompted by visible difference. Again, difference is at the heart of violent attack.
Kosinski is writing in the aftermath of WW 2. But, his gruesome account of superstitious reasoning, of paranoid anxiety, of vicious and unthinking malevolence towards people who looked different is still relevant today, perhaps even more so, given the response to refugees from Syria in Europe characterised as it is by suspicion.
Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie also deals with the same issue. Laura Wingfield is loosely based on his sister Rose who suffered from schizophrenia. Laura is courted by Jim O’Connor. He visits at the invitation of Tom, Laura’s brother. Laura shows him her glass menagerie, and he looks at a small glass unicorn, the only one of its kind amongs the horses. Whilst Laura and Jim are dancing, Jim accidentally knocks over the unicorn and the unicorn loses its horn and Laura says
The horn was removed to make him feel less- freakish! Now he will feel more at home with the other horses, the ones that don’t have horns…
Later Jim says
Has anyone ever told you that you were pretty? Well you are! In a very different way from anyone else. And all the nicer because of the difference too…The different people are not like other people, but being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people. They’re one hundred times one thousand. You’re one times one! They walk all over the earth. You just stay here. They’re common as – weeds, but – you – well, you’re – Blue Roses!
Tennessee Williams’ treatment of Laura is delicate, sympathetic and full of understanding. For Williams, Laura was not merely emblematic of difference, she was not a symbol, but drawn from flesh and blood. Yet, even he overvalued difference. But, better this than to stigmatise difference.
I return to autumnal colours. The variation in colour, the magnificence of rich and exquisite shapes and hues are a source of marvel, not of incomprehension or envy. There’s no active desire to destroy or injure. The sky is suffused in an iridescent shimmer of light. Darkness is rapidly on the way as the day closes. For a quick last glance the Pampas grass has its flowers glistening like ostrich feathers in the light before succumbing to the night.
Photos by Jan Oyebode