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Aromatics of Desire

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Pheromones are the lineal ancestors of hormones as EO Wilson says. These chemical signals have several outstanding advantages. Small amounts can produce a signal that lasts for hours. They are energetically cheap to manufacture and can be broadcast quite readily. At one extreme they can cover barely a few millimetres. At the other extreme they can generate an active space of several square kilometres. And as to function, in algae, for example, they can be used by female gametes to attract male gametes much as they do in fungi. In Arthropoda they’re female sex attractants. In insects,male sex attractants and aphrodisiacs exist. In vertebrates, pheromones acts as dominance odours, and territorial & home-range markers. But do pheromones have any role in primates and in particular in human beings?

There is no strong evidence for pheromones in humans. The vomeronasal signal transduction systems are at the very most vestigial in humans. Nonetheless there’s some evidence of pheromone effects during the menstrual cycle where it may be that they act as primers, and in the maternal recognition of a newborn where they probably act as  signals and in mood displays as  modulators.

Well, that’s the science. It seems that with the development of colour vision in male primates and the visible sign of female oestrus, there was less need for chemical signals and hence the markedly reduced reliance on pheromones, or so it is argued. But, I’m not so sure that pheromones are that vestigial.

I can recall that long trip from Lagos out to the country. We were squeezed close together against the door in the backseat of an old Peugeot 304. And it was not long before the closeness of our bodies, the softness of her thighs against mine, and our breathing called to the deep well of desire and I for one was stirred. But, yet the awakened desire had to be muffled, battened down as we were travelling with other companions and it was not night but broad daylight.

That was when I first noticed the aroma of desire. I have no idea whether other people too know of this odour, this effluence that is at once personal and public. It had a cloying substance to it of musk, of sweat mixed with dampness and dusk. It was revelatory.

Many years before I had witnessed a fight, I had caught just the rarest glimpse of a knife flash in the sunlight, and then as if the bare skin was pulled tight and then sliced, glistening red blood welled up along the slice, beads on a string. But it was the smell of fear, something much like the sea, saline rinsed in sea weed. I have associated this rare smell with fear since then and I can smell it, an effluent from a grown man’s armpits. Sometimes it is rancid and sharp and sometimes sour but with a tang to it.

Well it was much the same, the aroma of desire wafted in the atmosphere, technically speaking, in an active space, but to my surprise the other occupants of the vehicle did not seem to have caught any whiff of how the aroused vitals secreted their inner mysteries, their secrets, broadcasting ardour and lust.

This talk of the past has brought back to mind memories that were until just now deeply buried. I can remember visiting my great grandmother in Isale Eko, within her agbole ile just off Eti Osa. We would park the car and then cross the road away from the canoes bobbing by the lagoon side, where the women had their crayfish stalls and fried crabs were sold. To get to her quarter you crossed over an uncovered gutter. Inside the quarter the residences were built along three sides of the courtyard. My great grandmother must have occupied a single room in this courtyard. I stayed with the Ss once, overnight. It was a single room with the parents’ bed separated off from the living space by a curtain that barely reached to the ground. We, the children slept on the floor together and the parents slept on the double bed of wrought iron. Sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken by the older boy who whispered that we look through a discretely torn hole in the curtain to look at the parents locked in an embrace that alternated between wrestling and rapid breathing and ugly and harsh noises. It was a mystery that only became clear many years later. Did the parents not realise that we were watching in tense silence?

Down the courtyard from my great grandmother’s was my mother’s aunt, aunty Mrs Johnson, or more precisely “anti”. She lived on her own, a frail light skinned woman. Her skin was yellowish and wrinkled, but not exactly. The skin seemed loose and too large for the underlying flesh. But it was her smell that I am always reminded of when I think of her. It is really an indescribable smell of dryness, of dandruff, of something ancient like parchment or the hollowed out earth where the drinking water pitcher was kept. She was my mother’s “anti” in the way that all older women were our aunties and older men were uncles. In the sense that all men, who were older in conversation were referred to as “my father” or “my mother” if female.

The correct use of language has bled my rich and profuse relationships of their vitality and vigour. Where I had innumerable brothers I now have one and my countless sisters and cousins are stripped to manageable single numbers rather than dozens. It is how the European norm of nuclear familyhood has eroded the entanglements of extended and luxurious fecundity, of the Niger Delta turning into the arid spittle like stream of a dried riverbed.

Mrs Johnson’s son, my mother’s cousin worked for the Lagos Municipal Transport Service as a bus inspector. He was always well dressed, when he visited at Xmas, in a suit with a white shirt and tie. He brought my mother two books on consecutive Christmases- both by Alan Paton- Cry The Beloved Country & Too Late the Phalarope– describing the impossible and intolerable situation of Africans in South Africa and one year he brought Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go. He must have been well educated and I mean in the sense of somebody who read widely and knew what to think when few people were aware of anything outside of the Nigerian situation. We lost contact with him when the houses, the land along the lagoon were requisitioned by the government for the development of the second Lagos bridge. The families were moved to brand new flats in Surulere without the courtyard design of their former homes. For the first time the families acquired indoor lavatories instead of having to use potties, etc.

In the same courtyard, across on the far side a young couple with a young daughter moved in. The daughter was reputed to have told her parents as soon as she could talk that she was not their daughter but that she had recently died and that her parents lived in Abeokuta. Apparently she named her presumed parents and their address and when inquiries were made it turned out to be true that such a family existed and her account was corroborated. How strange after all these years to recall this.

Much of my early memories are tied to real places that still exist except for the courtyard just across from Eti Osa. I think perhaps because the real places no longer exist there is a strange feeling of uncertainty about these memories, as if I have just woken up from a dream and that these places are somewhere in my imagination except that memories of smells persist.

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Aside from Mr Johnson’s odour, to get to Eti Osa you had to go across Carter Bridge from Ebute Meta to Lagos island. You turned left at the statue to the unknown soldiers, Soja Idumota. Here the characteristic smell of old Lagos clung to the nostril. This was where the night soil men dumped their ware after midnight or before dawn. The stench was of faeces mixed with the sea like marinaded compost. This smell was nicknamed “Sasarabia”.

To return to that trip. It was the first time that a thigh acquired a new value simply for being female. Even now at my age I am still mystified by the ability of a body part to acquire a heightened value and to provoke interest and desire for being female. But the aroma of desire has long ceased to be something that I consciously detect. Maybe age atrophies this sense just as it does hearing and sight. Maybe too, pheromones act at subtle levels of discrimination directing and limiting, ensnaring and sometimes provoking. Or, it might just be that I am past that age where nature cares much for my desires.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

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Icelandic Sagas- ways of living and dying

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I don’t know whether you know about Nkisi nkodi. It is a Kongo nailed figure, a container or statue of forces directed at an end. It is one of the most potent figures of African art. The nails are hammered into the wood whilst ritual curses are spoken. Each object may have dozens of these iron bits. An nkisi is an extraordinary object. The best way to think of it is as concentrated power actively and consciously employed to a goal. The act of forcing the iron into the wood requires muscular tension, sweat, the appropriate words and the requisite atmosphere of terror. This is an example of commitment to an act, to a purpose and is bounded by faith in the possible. Often, the power that is sought for is retribution, for vengeance, or simply to charge envy with venom. But, it is the concentrated commitment that interests me. Think Coltrane playing the saxophone, every note charged with commitment as if his life depended upon it. His breath and spirit, his very vitality and vigor directed at one aim, to transform what is unseen and unheard, what is impalpable into what is concrete and transient, into music.

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In Egil’s Saga, we find a Norse example

He took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland. Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole. Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, ‘Here I set up this scorn-pole and turn its scorn upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild’ – then turned the horse’s head to face land – ‘and I turn its scorn upon the nature spirits that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land’. Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.

 

I know that it is unusual to exemplify commitment to life in the very places that seek to deny life or invoke harm. But it is the focused attentiveness to an act that is alluring here. It displays for our observation, exposes what is often unobserved in the daring and courage of everyday life, the studious seeking of a goal. Egil’s life was lived with as much resolution as demonstrated in this act of poisonous hatred.

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My intention is not to romanticize the extreme violence of the Icelandic sagas or even to ignore the surprising amoral tone of the sagas. I am merely drawing attention to the manner of living, the transparency of intentions & how their guiltless and remorseless conduct displayed an arid moral landscape

Egil was paired against a boy called Grim, the son of Hegg from Heggstadir. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. When they started playing the game, Egil proved weaker that Grim, who showed off his strength as much as he could. Egil lost his temper, wielded the bar and struck Grim, who seized him and dashed him to the ground roughly, warning him that he would suffer for it if he did not learn how to behave. When Egil got back to his feet he left the game, and the boys jerred at him. Egil went to see Thord Granason and told him what happened. Thord said, ‘I’ll go with you and we’ll take our revenge’. Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days. They walked over to where the boys were playing their game. Grim had caught the ball and running with the other boys chasing him. Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain. Then Egil and Thord walked away to their people.

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In the Saga of the People of Laxardal, Unn, a heroine of this saga in her old age held a wedding feast for her favourite grandson, Olaf. At the feast

She entered the hall, followed by a large group of people. When the hall was filled, everyone was impressed by the magnificence of the feast. Unn then spoke: I call upon you, my brothers Bjorn and Helgi, and other kinsmen and friends as witnesses. This farm, with all the furnishings you see around you, I hand over to the ownership and control of my grandson, Olaf’. Unn the rose to her feet and said she would retire to her bedchamber. She urged them to enjoy themselves in whatever way they saw fit, and people could take pleasure in drinking. It is said that Unn was both tall and heavy-set. She walked briskly along the hall and people commented upon her dignified bearing. The evening was spent feasting until everyone went to bed. Olaf Feilan came to the sleeping chamber of his grandmother Unn the following day. As he entered the room, Unn was sitting upright among the pillows, dead. Olaf returned to the hall to announce the news. Everyone was impressed at how well Unn had kept her dignity to her dying day.

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There was an indisputable conscientiousness about dying, as there was about living in the Icelandic sagas. Unn’s death in old age followed a format that was well established and perhaps even rehearsed. And we have notions too of ‘bad deaths’-

Kveldulf asked Olvir about the entire incident in Sandes when Thorolf was killed, about the worthy deeds he had done in battle before his death, and who had struck him down, where his worst wounds were and how he had died. Olvir told him everything he asked, mentioning that King Harald had dealt him a blow that by itself would have sufficed to kill a man, and that Thorolf had dropped face down at the king’s feet. Kveldulf said, ‘You’ve spoken well, because old men have said that a man’s death would be avenged if he dropped face down, and vengeance taken on the man at whose feet he fell […]

 

In our time, the thoroughgoing commitment to a unifying social goal in a single-minded manner seems to be present only in individuals rather than as a set of values widely distributed in society. You find it in athletes, in some academics, in explorers and artists. But, in wider society the explicit display of concentrated idolatry is for wealth and material goods. Here, the nkisi nkodi is a bank account, meticulously anointed and worshipped, studiously examined and protected, the bank account statement has all the status of a fetish, a charm that opens the secret vaults of life.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Wub, swibble & pizzled- neologisms and meaning

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I’ve cycled to Quarteira from Vilamoura, distance of just under 5 miles. It’s a very warm morning. The sun is a strong even searing midday brightness glistening and bouncing off the sea. Even I with my dark eyes, have to squint. This is November but it could easily be midsummer.

 

The restaurants are deserted. It’s now out of season. There’s a group Spanish youth on holiday I suppose. They’ve taken a long table. I’ve stopped for lunch- chicken baguette and lemonade. I’m in the Algarve, and staying at the Tivoli, a grand 1960s hotel, center stage and facing the sea. Though my own room faces the marina.

 

Quarteira and the Algarve as a whole, is a winter asylum for elderly English couples. There they are sitting on benches along the walkway by the beach or on a sidewalk cafe or bar. It is all so sad, so tragic, to see these folk against the backdrop of a tacky seaside town, out of season, empty or emptying. I can’t see the attraction.

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The taxi driver who picked me up from Faro airport was talkative. He asked- were we more vigilant, more fearful in England in the wake of the Paris bombs? What did I think of the Paris attacks? He then launched into a history lesson of the Moors in Portugal and Spain, 700 years in Spain, 500 in Portugal! The Mussulman was on the way back- not that they hadn’t left good things in Portugal, place names for instance, albufiera, the “al” was Arabic and in Spain the Alhambra that was an achievement wasn’t it? And without the Mussulman where would Socrates and Plato be, all but forgotten.

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The Paris attacks have dominated conversation no end. And I haven’t been able to avoid commenting on Boko Haram. There’s that lurking anxiety about a world view that is not merely alien but in many regards defies logic. How does anyone shout “God is great” whilst launching an attack on innocent people?

 

I am reading Bernard Schlink’s ‘The Past and Guilt’. I am yet to read an exposition of the guilt of Europeans regarding the slave trade or the guilt of West Africans about selling other Africans into slavery. And definitely there is no examination of the contribution of Islamic teaching to the terror that pervades the world today. All one hears is that jihadism is a distortion.

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When I was last in Lagos, I walked behind a young woman, a street hawker, who balanced a wooden tray, rakishly on her head. Her back was erect, her arms thrown out like a tightrope walker for balance whilst she swung her bottom, her yanch as the Nigerians would say, in the most sexual, most provocative manner. Here was a picture of freedom, a woman encumbered by any moralizing Mullah’s viewpoint, simply, a woman who inhabited her sex and her identity totally.

 

Now, compare that against the absence, the emptiness that passes for a person in purdah. How the spirit cowers, how it seeks shelter from the light like a mollusk beneath a rock. How can a spirit come to know itself without the contact with others that determines the boundaries of the self, the materiality of one’s own body, the opposition of other views, the consolidation of one’s own character? Can one really be fully human, not as a recluse but as a prisoner enveloped in darkness? What is surprising is that being in purdah can open up another sense of freedom. One can become freed from the intense scrutiny, that invasive gaze that strips the female form down to its barest sexual essentials. Words and concept allow for alternative viewpoints. Ultimately it is values that determine what passes for acceptable convention.

 

This short trip to Vilamoura, to another language province and in the wake of what passes for violent misunderstandings across cultures, maybe even across religions causes me to think of words, their direct and immediate meanings, and then of foreign tongues, their opacity, their natural incomprehensibility. And again about neologisms in psychiatry.

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In Nicolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, the protagonist Poprishchin’s mind gradually disintegrates as the story progresses. It is perhaps the best account yet of decline into madness. There are many consummate descriptions of abnormal phenomena including primary delusions, olfactory hallucinations, systematization of delusions, etc. But, it is the use of neologisms, newly fashioned words that causes me to pause. Neologisms are a feature of schizophrenia and include the minting of new words but more commonly it involves the apparently surprising use of a well-established word in a novel manner.

 

The slip from common usage to strange and unusual word meaning was subtle and easy to miss in Diary of a Madman. This is Axenty Ivanov Poprishchin’s diary but the dating systems slips into the absurd: It starts with what seems like a simple error- “April 43rd 2000”, then “86th Martober, between day and night”, and “No date. The day didn’t have one”. Then follows- “I don’t remember the date. There wasn’t any month either. Damned if I know what it was”, “Madrid, 30th Februarius”, “January in the same year falling after February”, “The 25th”, and “Da 34 te Mth eary[…] 349”.

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Strictly speaking only “Martober” counts as a neologism. Axenty Ivanov’s other entries reveal what is otherwise concealed about words, that words are like a door letting light into dark passages, revealing corridors, alleyways, objects, flickering images, mirrors, panes of glass, but always moving in the direction of transparency.

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Now, when words become opaque, when rather than revealing they not merely conceal but close off inquiry, the purpose of language is defeated. What can “April 43rd 2000” refer to? When did the events of “86th Martober, between day and night” occur?

 

Diary of a Madman is often described as a comic novel dealing with the most tragic of events, the dissolution of a mind whilst we are observing it. The severity of the rupture in the use of the conventions that bind us all together is signaled by the obvious misuse of language. Yet, neologisms are adaptive language mechanisms that help to further the interests of language. Shakespeare, after all, invented 1,700 words, many still extant today. Such everyday words as “frugal”, “dwindle” and “lapse” were brought into service by Shakespeare. This fact alone ought to remind us that Pathological neologism is founded on a normal mechanism for language development.

 

As an aside, another abnormality described in schizophrenia, delusional perception, which is defined as a normal percept that has an abnormal/delusional meaning, is also founded on a normative mechanism- the attribution of meaning to an arbitrary symbol as in language. In schizophrenia, a person may see a rose and come to the sudden realization that he has risen from the dead. This spontaneous mechanism, the sudden emergence of new meaning, is identical to how an arbitrary noise, a word comes to stand for an object or idea. The only difference being that in the one the attributed meaning is shared and in the other it is idiosyncratic.

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Philip K Dick is another writer who has invented a number of new words- “wub”, “swibble”, “pizzled”, etc. In Philip K Dick, his neologisms tend to refer to objects. In other words, he is inventing nouns. The “wub” is an alien specie that superficially resembles a pig, but we later learn that it is capable of taking over the physical form of who/what eats it. These new words are required for the world that Dick is inventing, a world in which novel objects and systems exist, far different from the world that we inhabit now. These new words in some respects are opaque, to the degree that we have no immediate experience of the objects or systems to which they refer and we have to take them on trust. But, like all words we come to a ready familiarity in the twists and turns of usage and before long they become incorporated in our vocabulary and we understand what they denote even if we are yet to encounter these objects or processes in real life.

 

The alien tongue that indicate to us that we are on foreign territory are like closed doors. We are shut out of a language community. No light, no sliver of an opening beckons. The words whilst not being neologisms remain opaque and impenetrable.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

 

Variegation, difference and other matters

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Winter Blues: I begin to discern the profile of my death

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Oliver Sacks has just revealed that he has terminal cancer. This sad news from the voice of humane medicine put me in mind of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, an account of the last days of a great man, looking back and forwards, in a letter to Marcus Aurelius.

 

 

The letter opens

 

Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes…I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch. I spare you details which would be disagreeable to you as to me, the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart. Let us say that I coughed, inhaled, and held my breath according to Hermogene’s directions. He was alarmed, in spite of himself, by the rapid progress of the disease…

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Hadrian is 60/61 years old as he writes this letter. I am exactly the same age. In reading Hadrian’s memoirs and learning of Sack’s terminal illness, I am confronted by the inevitability of my own mortality. Aside from love, this is the most significant subject that human’s encounter, the fact of the limited span of our lives. And, this is amplified in the clinic as we face a doctor’s scrutiny

 

It is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as a man. The professional eye saw in me only a mass of humours, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph. This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master.

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In the clinic, despite the best intentions of the physician, naked, we are stripped not only of the garments that clothe us but also of the dignity that shields us from the slough, the mud & clay from which we come and to which we shall all return. This body which becomes a ‘corpus’ when it ails, an object that is distinct from us is, in the clinical encounter, objectified, “a mass of humours, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph” and suddenly it is alien, a foreigner who surprises!

 

It took Marguerite Yourcenar a quarter of a century to write Memoirs of Hadrian. She said

 

It did not take me long to realize that I had embarked on the life of a very great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention, and on my part, ever more silence.

 

What is inescapable for the reader is that Marguerite Yourcenar was herself a “very great” person. She was able to circumnavigate, to encompass and then to narrate in the first person, this extraordinary life. The writing was itself as challenging, and as courageous as the lived life of Hadrian. Again Yourcenar said

 

The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his blood. He knows, too, or ought to know, that the voices who speak to him are wiser and more worthy of attention than are his own timorous outcries.

 

Here, I thnk, Yourcenar is acknowledging that a) in speaking in another’s voice,  b) doing this with honesty, and c) in imagining the authentic voice of the subject, the writer has to give something of herself, perhaps a drop of blood as sacrifice and as magical ingredient, perhaps even her own life. She writes of Hadrian’s illness and of his dying with the same intensity as of his love and his triumphs. There is a message here for doctors, psychiatrists in particular: full engagement and understanding of the patient comes at a price. It requires losing oneself in the world of another person, it requires sacrifice, perhaps even a drop of blood!

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Hadrian’s medical condition deteriorates and we have that gradual but yet surprising disjunction between self and body

 

All my life long I had been on best terms with my body; I had implicitly counted upon its docility, and its strength. That close alliance was beginning to dissolve; my body was no longer at one with my will and my mind, and with what after all, however ineptly, I must call my soul…In fact my body was afraid of me…

 

And, then the question of death

 

One desires to die, but not suffocate; sickness disgusts us with death, and we wish to get well, which is a way of wishing to live. But weakness and suffering, with manifold bodily woes, soon discourage the invalid from trying to regain ground: he tires of those respites which are but snares, of that faltering strength, those ardors cut short, and that perpetual lying in wait for the next attack. I kept sly watch upon myself…Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is no longer what I seek.

 

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In describing his attitude to his approaching death Oliver Sacks quotes David Hume

 

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

 

The last word to Hadrian/Yourcenar

 

Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

Pirandello and social reality

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What is reality? How are we to know what is ‘real’ and what is merely imaginary? Pirandello (1867-1936) dealt with these matters in his drama. In Henry IV, he created a character, Henry IV, who was deluded. He falsely believed that he was Henry IV. His father, Marquis Charles Di Nolli, employed a number of young men to dress up as German knights of the XI century to amuse his son. ‘Henry IV’s” room was also set up as a throne with a Baldachin! However, unbeknownst to his father and family, Henry IV had recovered from his malady but enjoyed being waited upon, so much so, that he continued to pretend be ill and remained in the role of Henry IV.

 

This drama allowed Pirandello to examine, to question, and to interrogate the nature of social reality. In this particular drama as in all theatre, the actors are acting their roles. The ‘acting’ is going on at several levels. There is the straightforward fact of acting in a play. Then, there is the fact that the young men who oversee Henry IV are both acting themselves as well as pretending to be German knights and Henry IV who everyone believes to be mad, to be deluded is actually pretending to be ill. Where does the truth of reality lie then? Is it within the audience, or the young men or Henry IV? One of the young men, Landolph says

 

Cheer up, my dear fellow! We don’t any of us know who we are really. He’s Harold; he’s Ordulph; I’m Landolph! That’s the way he calls us. We’ve got used to it. But who are we? Names of the period!

 

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Here is an exploration of what it might mean to be mad, how madness might differ from logic and reason, and whether in truth any distinction exists between madness and reason. Of course, the implication being that the mad world alters how reality manifests itself before us. Delusions, abnormal and false beliefs determine how one perceives one’s status, one’s role, one’s relationship to others, and how secure one’s identity is. Abnormal moods and abnormal perceptions do just exactly the same, lending aberrant colour or hallucinated experiences to influence the character of reality. But the point that Pirandello strives to make in this drama is that  ‘reality’ is multi-layered; even without the cloak of madness, we live within an illusory world, an illusion that is so natural and full of stealth and enchantment that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be aware of its lure and power. Harold says

 

You ought to have known how to create a fantasy for yourselves, not to act one for me, or anyone coming to see me; but naturally, simply, day by day, before nobody, feeling yourselves alive in the history of the eleventh century, here at the court of your emperor, Henry IV! You, Ordulph, alive in the castle of Goslar, waking up in the morning, getting out of bed, and entering straightaway into the dream, clothing yourself in the dream that would be no more than a dream, because you would have lived it, felt it all alive in you. You would have drunk it in with the air you breathed; yet knowing all the time that it was a dream, so you could better enjoy the privilege afforded you of having to do nothing else but live this dream, this far off and yet actual dream!

 

 

But, what is the dream that we (the audience) are living outside of the time of the drama? Aren’t we too immersed in the multifold dreams created by our senses, the privilege as well as handicap of our brain, not to speak of advertising and propaganda: happy young couples, happy families, holidays that fulfill all needs, material goods that declare our status, prosperity and so on? And, is it possible to extricate oneself from such dreams as these, so pervasive, so captivating, entrancing to the extent that who needs a prison gate when the imagination would suffice?

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In All for the Best, Pirandello explored the same terrain but searching with other tools, examining what influence emotions and perspective have on what we perceive social reality to be. This is a story of a man, Martino Lori who continues to mourn his wife’s death and to worship his daughter. He is treated with utter contempt by his daughter and all around who are not aware that he does not know that for all their married life his wife had conducted an affair with his boss, Salvo Manfroni, and that his daughter is not his daughter after all but Manfroni’s daughter. When he discovers this, Martino Lori says

 

Your contempt. No, you none of you ever concealed it. So that was the reason? You all thought I knew, and that I was keeping my mouth shut? But why – tell me, tell me why should I have kept quiet if I’d known you were not my daughter? Why should I have pretended not to notice the scorn you all showed? Yes, I can see it now: I can see how you all despised me

 

It became clear that the others had thought that Lori was playing the role of the grieving husband in order to maintain his position with Salvo Manfroni, his boss. This realization further deepens Lori’s self-loathing.  What is interesting is that this pivotal discovery that his love for his wife was true and deep, changed the attitudes of the others towards him, suddenly he is admired for his enduring love for his wife. Whereas for Lori his love for her died

 

She dies for me in this moment, dies for me in this moment, killed by her own betrayal!

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There is no better demonstration of the role and influence of context in determining value and meaning. The grieving husband continues to demonstrate his love for his deceased wife because he does not know of her infidelity, others regard him with contempt because they believe that he is pretending to be a grieving husband for gain, for who could love an unfaithful wife like this? In this drama context is everything. Our feelings are fickle and inconstant. In the play we have a wonderful balance of emotions: Lori loves his wife but others treat him with contempt; he loses his love for her but he is admired for his enduring and constant love!

 

In the end Lori lies: he tells his ‘daughter’ that she is really his daughter when she is really Salvo Manfroni’s daughter. This lie acts to shore up her feelings about herself. Nothing in this play is what it seems.

 

Pirandello’s concern is to show that social reality, just like our perception of the sensory objective world is prone to error. The errors are differently determined; the one by social context, by values and imputed meaning and the other by flawed organs and tools.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode 

 

Pan(ic)demic

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What is terror? Is it that flash of white phosphorescent light that started in the innards and exploded soundlessly? First, a seizure quickened the pulse and the muscles of the heart, and then it dried the mouth, propelling every sinew, every nerve of the four limbs into a rush of running. It is definitely not like Lot’s wife at Gomorrah, there is no looking back. It is a straight flight, senseless, into the bayonet end. Let me recount, it is incendiary and blind. Lethal.

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If you know how, you can see the early signals. In Monrovia, young hooligans loot a hospital for the blood-covered mattresses of death. In Freetown, doctors and nurses are killed for the mere fact of bringing concern to bear on a pernicious disease. In Lagos, more die in the first week from salt overload in the mistaken belief that saline drinks were panaceas. In Madrid, animal rights activists, ironically, clash with the police over the putting down of a dog when the owner is already mortally wounded. In Texas, there’s nowhere to quarantine a family already exposed to death.

Volcanic activity, Waimangu

 

And, this is only the firing of the starting gun.

 

Faced with the astronomical we can only comprehend the sluggish innumerate ten of the fingers on our hands. What are airport checks worth when the real and relevant distances are measured in six degrees of separation and not in nautical miles? This is like geologic to historic time, measured in millions of years compared to a few thousand years of history. Wholly incommensurate!

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Tell me, what do you think about when in the centre of breathing, your breath catches on a snag? I lose all the thread of thought like geese flying formation style suddenly confronted by loss of air and unable to flap their wings or swoop through the warm current, plummeting, dropping like stone, like dead weight, their formation unraveling, so like my thoughts.

 

In this crisis, words miss the mark totally. As Camus said

even the sincerest grief [has] to make do with the set phrases of ordinary conversation.

The

current coin of language, the commonplaces of plain narrative, of anecdote and of their newspaper

must be enough since the anxiety & this sense of loss and of foreboding escapes the capacity of language. And hyperbole will not do. Yet, the extent of the disquiet, the panic and terror is extreme, very extreme.

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In Saramago’s Blindness, another novel about an epidemic, this time not of the plague but of infectious blindness, metaphysical blindness, not the clinical blindness of cataracts or glaucoma, the only person with sight says

 

If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals.

 

Here, we have a talisman to live by. In this precarious period, fraught with anxiety, pregnant with panic, there is a serious risk of elemental emotions driving the humane out of the human, a very serious risk that like desperate animals, we shall sink our teeth into the neck of the other, salivating in the process. Yes, there is a real risk that we shall live entirely like animals.

Beware.

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

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