It’s seldom the party I remember, but some small moment on the way. Such was the case one piercingly cold March night walking through Clinton Hill with my friend Sophie, a poet based in Edinburgh. I can’t recall where we were headed; she had been staying with me in Brooklyn while in town for a few literary events, so I accompanied her to readings, drinks, spontaneous dancing in the back of The Half King. She is one of those rare people I became close friends with simultaneous to our having met due to some ineffable sense of – what? resonance? recognition? I don’t know the appropriate term for the waves that carry the energy I’m trying to describe, or even the kind of matter it must pass through in order to be perceived. But when I tried, falteringly, to articulate it to Sophie during our walk, she immediately understood what I was grasping for and handed me a Dutch term vast enough to contain my slippery attempts. Uitstraling, which translates as ‘out-shining’, means to glow, radiate a kind of aura or charisma – although none of that, she explained, is exactly right. It’s difficult to pin down a definition of this sensation without leaning on phenomenological or loose terminology. But that doesn’t matter much in the end, as words and thoughts become unnecessary in its presence.
Thinking, according to psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, is ‘called into existence to cope with thoughts’. He explains this counterintuitive precept through a scenario involving a hungry infant who yearns for the breast to suddenly materialize and satisfy her need. When the infant feels hunger and expects the breast but no breast turns up, instead of the yearned-for satisfaction, she feels frustration, which then leads to a thought (‘the breast is not there’). The ‘development of an ability to think’ occurs as a way of coping with the thoughts that crystallize from frustrated feelings – or, in philosopher Emil Cioran’s terms, ‘Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation’. With breast – or its metonym – in mouth, however, there’s no need for thinking. You are free to feel.
For most of us, this felt reality – along with the sense of satisfaction it carries – is experienced only in bursts. However, Oliver Sacks writes in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about a set of autistic twins for whom this state was sustained. Despite being unable to perform the most rudimentary mathematical calculations, they had an extraordinary ability to ‘see’ prime numbers – breasts of sorts – in ‘an entirely sensual and non-intellectual way’, and to ‘savour’ them through play ‘with almost holy intensity’. Others quoted by Sacks with similar sensory relationships to numbers experienced them as living things, like the ‘unanalysable essence of all musical sense’ based on tones that are like ‘“faces” for the ear . . . recognized, felt, immediately as “persons”’. This recognition, ‘involving warmth, emotion, personal relation’, is akin to the recognition of a friend. ‘3,844?’ Sacks quotes a mathematician saying. ‘For you it’s just a three and an eight and a four and a four. But I say, “Hi! 62 squared”.’
Certain feelings – like that of the mathematician encountering numbers – keep thoughts, and thus thinking, at bay. I have a framed photograph on the mantle in the front hallway of my home, a portrait of sorts, of the unanalysable essence of a moment I wanted to capture while studying at Oxford. I had just decided to drop my neuroscience major and was there to immerse myself in modernist texts after having experienced, through James Joyce’s Ulysses, the excitement (I will yes) of being close to a mind that had not been calibrated to ready-made forms. In discussing photographs, Barthes describes the part of the image we understand and can connect to contexts of meaning we know, the ‘studium’, and the ‘punctum’, the part that pierces us, resonates with our interior to evoke strong feeling. Barthes’ punctum is similar to Joyce’s idea of epiphany, ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation’ that allows us to apprehend what we cannot access intentionally. Reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, listening to music, smoking cigarettes in my sunlit room at Trinity College, I was suddenly seized by an acute sense of my being. I wanted to record the moment, but realized, upon opening my notebook, that no words attached to the experience. So I took a picture. When people ask what the photograph is of, I say, happiness, even though I know that’s not quite right. But what am I supposed to say – holy intensity?
Occasionally, while moving through the studium of existence, I am pricked by a sense of profound feeling, like the beam of light Krzysztof Kieślowski shines into his protagonists’ eyes to indicate communion with another level of being. While reading, for example, I sometimes stumble upon a passage so evocative that it spills over the edges of my intellect and the surplus is transformed into a bodily sensation that compels me to slam the book shut, stand up, walk around. Work that excites, rushes out of the intellect and into the body – what Jorge Luis Borges calls the ‘aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading’.
Meaning moves between body and mind: thinking can transform into feeling, a frustrated sensation can become a thought coped with through thinking, and psychic energy too overwhelming may be repressed, made unavailable for contemplation. What gets suppressed in the unconscious becomes accessible to the conscious mind only in coded form, whether converted into a dream image, parapraxis, or bodily symptom – the latter a process Freud called hysteria, or conversion disorder. This embodied knowledge can be communicated unconsciously, from one unconscious to another, bypassing reason – though what is picked up on bodily is able to be converted into a rational form through, for example, creative or psychoanalytic processes.
Intuition, the most familiar kind of embodied knowledge, often has the adjective ‘feminine’ preceding it. Hysteria, likewise, is often seen as a feminine disorder (its etymological root is hystericus, or ‘from the womb’) and carries a negative connotation associated with an emotional excess that obstructs reason – being too much. Even my beloved Joyce reportedly said, in response to being asked what he thought of Gertrude Stein, ‘I hate intellectual women’. We ‘have been raised’, according to Audre Lorde ‘to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings’ because it threatens any system that calls upon us to prioritize external logic over internal knowledge. Trained to suppress what Lorde calls the erotic power of ‘non-rational knowledge’, we settle for lesser understanding, permitting essential meaning to be lost.
When Granta approached me asking if I’d be interested in writing about Janet Malcolm on the occasion of the reissue of three of her books (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer), I jumped at the opportunity. Malcolm, who started out in the 1960s as a poet, began her writing career publishing pieces that covered the domestic sphere, then moved on the following decade to the rigorous journalistic work for which she is now known and celebrated. I hoped writing about these books would help me figure out how she manages to produce work that is valued by intellectual communities even as it remains attached, as I see it, to erotic knowledge.
‘A painting has to be the experience,’ Malcolm quotes David Salle saying in ‘Forty-One False Starts’, ‘instead of pointing to it. I want to have and give access to feeling. That is the riskiest and only important way to connect art to the world – to make it alive. Everything else is just current events.’ This feeling of aliveness is a preoccupation across Malcolm’s work, though it appears cloaked in terms as various as ‘soul’, ‘essence’, ‘presence’, ‘insight’, ‘eroticism’, ‘animating impulse’, the ‘human’ or the ‘real’. One can see the stirrings of this feeling stretching back over half a century to her first publication in the New Yorker, a poem titled ‘Thoughts on Living in a Shaker House’ (1963), in which she imagines a domestic tableau that places the occupations of ‘busy little souls’ in contradistinction to ‘ordinary grief and cares’, much as Salle opposes feeling to ‘current events’ and Barthes separates the studium from the punctum.
But taking up the punctum, this sense of aliveness or ‘spiritual manifestation’ (uitstraling?) – easy to detect but embarrassingly difficult to verbalize – is, as Salle puts it, risky. It’s much safer to write about current events, the studium of recognizable griefs and cares, than to include in rigorous thinking this more numinous aspect of our being, even as most people acknowledge the emptiness they experience without it. What is at stake, as Salle points out, is connection – to art, others and ourselves.
This feeling of aliveness is most often communicated unconsciously. Eroticism – one of Malcolm’s stand-ins for this feeling – courses through her subjects, whether on the witness stand, rummaging through a cabinet in Anna Freud’s house for her father’s unarchived letters, or in the consulting room. Layered beneath the characters and explicit narratives in Malcolm’s books are archetypal ones that, like the unconscious – impossible to access directly – can be deduced indirectly by tracking sensations of aliveness, the shadows of feelings, animating impulses. It is perhaps these transmissions at the level of feeling that provoke the most passionate objections to her work, as with Jeffrey Masson’s libel suit against Malcolm following her depiction of him in her 1984 book In the Freud Archives. He argued that Malcolm ‘ma[d]e me dislikable via words that she pu[t] into my mouth because she believe[d] that at one point they were in my unconscious’.
Of course, Masson strategically framed his allegation and the details of the case were far more complicated, but it’s interesting, nonetheless, to consider how the use of unconscious communication might help in grasping a fuller understanding of a person. Unconscious communication is depicted in Malcolm’s 1980 book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession through Aaron Green, the analyst Malcolm meets with for regular interviews about the psychoanalytic process. Green relays a vignette about feeling sleepy in a session with a patient who was ‘defending herself against [the erotic transference] by making herself uninteresting and dreary’. His sleepiness was an ‘unconscious’ response because, though on the surface her ‘free association seemed to be full of the richest and deepest analytic material’, it was, in fact, ‘shallow and hollow’ and he ‘was bored because of what was missing – namely, the sap, the juice, the eroticism that is in everything and that makes for life and interest, that keeps us awake and alive’. His physical sensation had less to do with being tired than with feeling compelled to close his eyes to something he was colluding with the patient not to see. Communications from the unconscious, the realm of the punctum, are often received through bodily sensations, like the twins’ ‘entirely sensual and non-intellectual’ game with prime numbers.
Communicating outside of words makes it possible to get at felt realities without distorting them to match linguistic forms, which provides us with a more direct way of giving others access to our interiors. Abstract art operates in a similar way: like representational work, it is mimetic, but it represents feelings, images, percepts from the interior. The tricky part is that, for unconscious communication to work, the recipient must have the capacity to pick up on and process a transmission in its unprocessed, uncalibrated form – to apprehend it. This involves the body and the emotions, and points to a more nuanced way of understanding than does reason on its own. In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains that ‘an account of human reasoning based only upon abstract texts . . . is likely to prove too simple to offer us the kind of self-understanding we need’, and therefore calls for us to ‘think of emotions as essential elements of human intelligence’ and part of our ‘reasoning capacity’.
Malcolm, like Nussbaum, demonstrates how essential emotions are to our ability to reason in The Journalist and the Murderer. What Salle calls feeling and Green terms ‘the sap, the juice, the eroticism’ is in this book the ‘soul’ or ‘core’ of one’s being. The book centers around the case of Jeffrey MacDonald (the alleged murderer) vs Joe McGinniss (the journalist who wrote the best-selling ‘true crime’ book Fatal Vision based on the story of the alleged murderer). MacDonald’s original lawyer who drafted the contract outlining McGinniss’s rights to his client’s story added a clause stating that permissions would be granted ‘provided that the essential integrity of [MacDonald’s] life story is maintained’. The case attempts to get at what, if anything, McGinniss missed of MacDonald’s ‘core’ or ‘essence’, and whether any failure to create a full portrayal had been deliberate and deceitful. The jury’s assessment of the journalist-defendant’s character then hinges on their ability to sense that sap at the core of his being, to pick up on the quality of his animating impulse, which is emitted like radio or light waves but with a frequency outside of measurement, corresponding to a ‘soul’.
By signaling possession of a soul – the mark of which, according to Malcolm, is the exhibition of feeling – defendants are able to communicate to a jury that they are ‘”real” human beings’ and not ‘soulless monsters’. The jury saw MacDonald, who had already spent a significant amount of time in prison, ‘as a kind of nearly, if not fully, redeemed soul’. Whereas they saw in McGinniss ‘a strange absence of feeling’, which then became the stand-in for the crime: ‘it was this hardness – McGinniss’s apparent incapacity for feeling compassion for MacDonald . . . that came to seem monstrous to the jurors’. They couldn’t connect to McGinniss after witnessing the fundamental disconnect between him and the alleged murderer. McGinniss, in not maintaining MacDonald’s essential integrity and then showing no compassion or remorse, ‘was guilty’, Malcolm asserts, ‘of a kind of soul murder’.
Malcolm explores the phrase ‘soul murder’ at length during In the Freud Archives, the story of three men jockeying to get control of Freud’s archives. The term, significant in psychoanalysis, was also invoked by various playwrights in the nineteenth century, including Henrik Ibsen, who used it to mean the destruction of another person’s love for life. Soul murder targets a person’s internal life as opposed to their physical one, and can be seen as a kind of straling-snuffing.
To foreground a person’s internal reality over their external one is a radical and controversial move. McGinniss focused on external factors in his analysis of MacDonald’s guilt, basing it on what one interviewee called a ‘pedestrian theory’ that MacDonald ‘[s]wallowed too many diet pills and therefore offed his family’ and, in so doing, created ‘middle-class, unerotic pornography’ – unerotic because it incorporated nothing of MacDonald’s interior, sap, the eroticism that keeps us awake and alive. On the other hand, the jury’s focus in coming to a verdict on the notion of an essential integrity – on ‘feeling’ rather than fact, psychic over external reality – coincides with a hierarchy many psychoanalysts similarly subscribe to: that the ways in which external events become represented and embedded in the psyche are more important in the consulting room than a corroborated truth of what happened. Malcolm describes this controversy as ‘the debate concerning “reality” which has polarized psychoanalysis since its earliest days’. In understanding a person’s patterns of thought, it is less helpful to look solely at what actually happened than to also incorporate what a person experienced as having happened, as a way of enlisting other modes of perception that play into reality even as they are more difficult to articulate.
Many analysts, like many poets, resist making their pursuit solely the factual part of what happened and go for psychic reality instead – what happened and how it was represented internally—not to deny or mitigate reality but to incorporate levels of perception that most people pick up on but are unaccustomed to valuing as meaningful. The unconscious, like poetry, is most often communicated by way of bodily feeling – as when we say we are moved – though its transmission is difficult to translate into rational understanding.
Still, psychoanalysts and artists – anyone, for that matter, analyzing information – willing to enlist their unconscious minds, as well as their intuition, are most able to break ground because intuition often leads to insight. Jeffrey Masson, whose access to Freud’s papers hinges at one point on his ability to impress Anna Freud, gains her favor by pointing out an error in the published translation of a letter. His discovery was based on a gut feeling: ‘I had asked for that particular letter because while reading Jones I had had the feeling that something was wrong – it just hadn’t sounded right. But finding the error was a piece of incredible luck.’ Gut, or bodily feelings – which could be considered another mode of processing – are significant in analytic sessions, poetry, art works, problem solving, predicting violence and perhaps every interpersonal interaction. Bodily sensations, as Bion describes, circumvent thinking and create other forms of knowledge that exist outside of words.
When you have access to feeling – the metaphoric breast in mouth – there’s no need for thinking, just as in good films, according to Susan Sontag, who famously called for an erotics of art, ‘there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret’. That directness, or out-shining, delivers us from our interpretive itch because thinking that emerges to cope with thoughts is not necessary when the ability to feel has not been frustrated. When feeling, we experience within a different mode of cognition – one that allows us to incorporate systems of sensual thought, such as intuition, insight or creativity. It is within this mode that we are able, as Walt Whitman writes, ‘to feel the puzzle of puzzles / And that we call Being’.
The twins that Sacks writes about were eventually separated ‘for their own good’ to prevent their ‘unhealthy communication’ and in order that they could ‘come out and face the world . . . in an appropriate, socially acceptable way’. Living in halfway houses, working menial jobs, able to navigate the world under close supervision and direction, they became ‘quasi independent’ and deemed socially acceptable. But, deprived of their communion with one another – that rare connection they thrived on – they lost their ‘strange numerical power, and with this their chief joy and sense of their lives’. If that isn’t straling-snuffing, then I don’t know what is.
‘Creative work in any established system of thought,’ writes Malcolm, ‘takes place at the boundaries of the system, where its powers of explanation are least developed and its vulnerability to outside attack is most marked’. It is, of course, risky to throw yourself into the puzzle of puzzles, operate outside of the demands and rewards of systems holding power, but the cost of not doing so is to make yourself vulnerable to inside-attack, soul murder.
A communication from the soul, the unconscious – any form of uitstraling, for that matter – that provokes feeling in the body will not only amplify rational thought but, because it will inevitably be encoded by the specific body it passes through (with all its genetic, racial and desirous markings), will have the potential to expand our modes of experiencing and relating to one another. This is not to say, of course, that emotions should not be subject to rational criticism, merely that operating on reason alone is like flying with only one of your engines. In response to reading a letter from McGinniss that MacDonald had covered ‘with savage marks’, Malcolm ‘felt the presence of a terrible anger and hatred and desire to do injury’. The two-dimensional marks on the page had been animated into a live presence, as had, Malcolm writes in ‘The Real Thing’ (1997), similar savage marks in works by photographer E.J. Bellocq. In discussing an exhibition of Bellocq’s work, whose glass-plate negatives found in a drawer after his death were used by Lee Friedlander to make prints for the show, she focuses on a number of prints ‘derived from plates that have been defaced not by time and weather but by a deliberate hand’, in that the faces of the subjects were covered with ‘savage black scrawls’. In one print, Malcolm writes, ‘[a]s the eye moves upward from the fair-skinned body, which the camera has tenderly modeled (and whose pubic and underarm hair it has recorded with a kind of reticent conscientiousness), to the blacked-out face, it recoils as if before a scene of rape’. This image, literally defaced by these violent marks, is, Malcolm concludes, ‘the real thing’, accompanied by ‘the unwanted truths leaking out of [it]’. And herein, perhaps, lies Malcolm’s gift – not recoiling, sitting with the savage complexity of unwanted truths, taking in and recording their uitstraling.
The way we manage erotic knowledge is connected to our handling of unwanted truths, much as hysteria shuttles into the body, and out of conscious recognition, what feels too difficult to confront. By trafficking in logical understanding, we short-circuit embodied knowledge in exchange for intellectual currency – but with costs that extend far beyond closing our eyes to the dimensionality of a truth, ‘the real thing’. When we move from the apprehension of specific details to the comprehension of an abstract idea, we risk shifting from erotic to programmatic interpretation. To be comprehended, through the use of logic and reason, is very different from being apprehended (you feel me?). Without tuning into the frequency of unconscious communication, you lose access to the most meaningful, exhilarating, confounding, vulnerable and courageous way to connect to yourself, others, and the world.
Image © the author