Idle Pleasures of Zoning Out

Priya Dileep

(India)


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Remember James Thurber’s Walter Mitty? That timorous, awkward geezer who slips into a fantasyland, courts danger, and performs a series of heroic feats, while actually running banal errands like buying overshoes or puppy biscuits, or while dodging the reprimands of his prissy wife? Objects, characters, and entire episodes marked by a tantalizing quality tumble out, as if by magic, from the quirky by-lanes of this otherwise mousy man’s mind. He zones out to turn into what he is not in real terms, and intimately, even vicariously experiences the mystique of what his life woefully lacks. But magic and mystique I suppose are outdated concepts in a time when words can be neatly arrayed like opposing armies on a battlefield, one labelled good, and the other not just bad, but offensive, and hence long past its expiry date.  

Or consider a mind traveller of a different kind: nervy, schismatic, and estranged although not timid. Rodion Raskolnikov is in his room. One of his acquaintances tells him that a pawnbroker in the neighbourhood was murdered. Nastasya, his landlady’s house help who is also in the room overhears the conversation. She suddenly blurts out to no one in particular, “Lizaveta was murdered, too!” [i] She then turns to Raskolnikov to add a harmless reminder that Lizaveta did once mend a shirt for him. She is only trying to jog his memory but what he feels is a jolt. Saying nothing in response, he instinctively turns to a wall. And directs his attention to one clumsy, white flower with brown veins on the dirty yellow wallpaper pasted on it. He then begins to examine it in detail, the way one would an artwork in a gallery. How many leaves did it have, how many serrations on each one of them, how many lines…? His limbs are already numb. He cannot move. He just stares at that flower on the wall instead. We know what he is trying not to think about. Maybe he sees nothing other than that pale flower. Or maybe he has visions of Lizaveta repeatedly running a threaded needle across some yawning tear in his shirt. Or perhaps something else. Only this much can be said: he stares at the wall to escape that room which has turned sinister as if filled with noxious fumes, and the other room he just got reminded of, in which he had committed the crimes.  

*****

Without doubt, all of us wander in our minds. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes out of volition to escape boredom. Without that instinct to drift away, we wouldn’t have dreams, and nothing to remember. Nor would we be spinning stories— a habit that concerns not just writers— or create anything for that matter. But zoning out in the two instances above, while retaining a distinction from casual daydreaming, doesn’t seem identical, at least in practice. Mitty seems to glide into his fantasies with great ease. It seems to not matter where he is, what he is looking at, or even whether he is moving around, or sitting still. Thurber doesn’t explain. He only takes us through Mitty’s simultaneously unwinding journeys. In the second instance on the other hand, we are not at all let into the images in Raskolnikov’s mind while he is dissociating from his reality. But there is something that binds their respective straying into other realms. And what they share is the studied deliberateness with which the propensity to wander finds shapes, contours or territories, a kind of deliberateness boosted by practice, and turns into a habit, whether such proclivity is a defensive response learned when young, or a trick picked up at some uncertain point later.

Maybe, the dithering oddballs among us— those who lumber around as if a shell were attached to their vertebrae to quickly duck under, and those who make others crinkle their nose as if they reek of mothballs— are more prone to develop such a habit. These kooky creatures might even enjoy chasing their own missing caudal appendage once they have reconciled to their roles as spectators rather than actors. For, they tend to be spectators even in action from where possibly issues forth the habit of staring with distant or glazed eyes. In this idle pursuit, which makes them protective of their interiority, probably also dwells their vanity which makes its presence felt, as it does in everyone else, at some point or other, no matter what its source turns out to be. As strangers not just to the world, but to themselves as well, their mind is a ragbag, a jigsaw puzzle from which too many pieces with jagged ends are perpetually lost. Prone to vacillate, they brood in wordless scrutiny, which, no doubt, adds to their apparent surliness and actual unpopularity, but can also shape-shift into mostly ill-timed garrulity. Maybe the milder cases among them, resigned to their own ghostliness, and wary perhaps of their own capacity for delinquency keep away from cohorts, cliques, collectives, fraternities, or sororities while a few, apart from being asocial, might develop what are understood as antisocial tendencies, or even nurture a misanthropic outlook in general. Either way, they do not buzz around or make honey. They are sleepwalkers on the rim of the world of actions. While that sounds unnecessarily bleak, in some cases at least, it might be a source of comedy as well, releasing a kind of laughter directed in more than one direction which, perhaps, is the risible throat-clearing of bafflement, a next-door neighbour to the cackling babble of absurdity and incomprehension. 

By now, it should be clear that all that is listed above is intimately experienced, and drawn from obsessive brooding itself. In fact, I spend so much time by myself, without stepping out from the immediate precincts of my home, while the mind prowls around on strange back alleys where I have no business that, it’s not totally wayward to wonder if I could’ve turned into a sociopathic serial killer. Is one still allowed to crack morbid jokes without inviting collective wrath though?

*****

Some years ago, around the time stalking had already acquired a sense of normalcy as what we do on social media, even though that might not have prompted what came to pass, I briefly stalked a man for no particular reason. Well, almost. Odder perhaps is the fact that I had completely forgotten this incident until it resurfaced, of all places, on a page in a book by Kenneth Clark. My response, of course, didn’t have much to do with the finely carved figure on that page. Like every other black and white image in that thoroughly engaging book, it too wore a grainy, bleached-off-life dullness. But that seemed to no longer matter. 

The image was of Nicola Pisano’s famed sculpture, Fortitudo which I discovered therein, happens to be the central figure of the hexagonal pulpit at the Baptisery of Pisa [ii]. I might not have gazed at that image with a gaping mouth and starry eyes. But it surely drew me in because some dim part among other dimmer parts within had made a strange connection. The nude figure in the image, in spite of the knitted brows on its broad face, retains an impassive air. But its most riveting feature is something else: its feet, a large pair in the usual contraposto stance with toes as long as its fingers, and curving against the base of the sculpture like mighty talons on some prehistoric bird. And Hercules, as Pisano had imagined him, recalled the hazy memory of a man who possibly had as much to share with the legendary giant as I can claim to, in turn, with Nell Trent. 

Another irrational association, I suspect it might be that, that memory itself is knotted with half-recollected images of the visit of a diplomat-turned-politician to some event organized by my university department. That event, like most other events, was uneventful. The politician who enjoys flaunting his fancy accent, and has a habit of flicking back the hair falling on his brow with a carefully careless sweep, was the epitome of suavely packaged charm. The odd Malayalam phrase or two that escaped his happy mouth actually sounded cuter than his English. The same people who otherwise opposed all instances of authority and hierarchy had made sure that every rule in the old book of protocol was followed. Everyone reaffirmed their commitment to saving the world. Even the somewhat dour, burned at the edges, and not-young-anymore among the crowd of researchers like me, intoxicated with promises of many kinds of liberation. It certainly didn’t occur to me to wonder why ideals tend to part with their noble sentiments right in their execution. Or how it gets increasingly unclear what drives those actions: keeping a good conscience, or asking questions that demand attention.  

Anyway, I was on my way from the meeting, and had just got down from a bus, the same one I took most days of the week. And I saw him while winding my way across a busy intersection some fifty steps away from home. The man was tromping towards the bus stop, or at least in that direction. It wasn’t fully dark yet. Light had just begun its quiet withdrawal into the gutters and caverns of the capital city. Canted beams of more stubborn light from the busy road were repeatedly spilling on the pavement in a ceremony of scrutiny. 

I cannot now recall a single detail of his face except that his eye level went way above my head. And he was lanky, and of uncertain age, or that’s how I remember him. But what really set him apart from others milling about was that something flapped in the air behind him like a pair of enormous wings in a whirl of colours sucked back into an orderly whiteness at its fringes. Aflame now, in the mighty light that fell on him from the road, and then, dimming in the thickening dark around. They seemed to pull him back from the direction the rest of his body took. And as if to tear through that pull, his large feet encased in rubber slippers hit the pavement with a fierce stamp, neatly echoed in the slapping of the footwear on the flesh of his heels. In fact, he seemed less like a man, and more like some creature out of time. Something that had renewed a long-lost kinship to the first beached creatures with lungs and bony-limbed fins which had, after several failed attempts, managed to creep over the wet shore, only to be surprised by the unfamiliar hardness of the land. 

But what had resembled mighty wings, I discovered soon, was only a set of maps and picture charts: a flurry of images in runny colours printed on glossy paper, of land and water, flora and fauna, kinds of automobiles, tools, geometrical shapes, and so forth that one finds on the walls of a kindergarten. He had just slipped their top loops, made of coloured nylon strings, around his bony forearms. It didn’t seem odd at all. They gleamed on his dark skin as naturally as bangles in the brightest shades, on a little girl’s hands.  

I averted my eyes when I walked past him. And then turned back, having decided from some sudden impulse to stalk him. To be sure, a shrewd calculation went into the way I adjusted my pace to his. I was behind him by a good ten feet. But then, I suddenly halted as if someone had pushed a pause button in my head. Some bit of me had perhaps caved into other bits to process the still inchoate mess in my head. And a mounting sense of annoyance which couldn’t be bounced back to something else had already washed over a sentiment that was perhaps a combination of foolishness and recklessness. But the heady thrill of a chase, me at one end of the rope, and him dangling at the other end! Back in motion, back to start and play. But also to get back, back into the skin, its shell, to skedaddle, to turn tail.

I watched him slink his way through the crowd at the bus stop. At the crossing, as he waited for the signal to change, he seemed to be orientating his ears, rather than his eyes. He then marched on in that steady pace that seemed to ignore everything around, past the grand entrance of the headquarters of the Forest Department, past the hole in its wall from where they sold ‘natural’ honey, and then, the new garment shop, and soon, the rusty red post-box covered in layers of bird shit that loomed like a totem from another time… The middle-aged couple behind their pushcart which was not yet ready for hungry passers-by, I suspect, squinted at him. And the more steps he took, he seemed to grow bigger in size, like the flock of sheep in William Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective. But then, he vanished as abruptly as he had appeared. Sucked back into the air he had emerged from, or some myth I would have loved to fix him in. I was already at my doorstep you see. And my mind and its rope wound safely back into my body. 

Only then did it occur to me that I could have bought a chart or two from his fare for my little boy. Curiosity (a writer’s in this case, and not a murderer’s as far as I know, or maybe they aren’t all that far apart) perhaps has deeper roots than charity. She doesn’t mind being naked, although she may not reveal her heart, if there is one, unlike her nobler cousin safely swathed in the higher status she keeps for herself. Dogs, I think, are the kindest, the most compassionate of all creatures. I haven’t so far met a charitable dog though, have you?

*****

Over the last few years, my husband, who never had a dog for company as a child, has put together a special argot of intimacy with our canine. For reasons neither he, nor anyone else can explain, he calls it Chinese, and which, Theo seems to approve. A language that’s as tactile as it’s verbal, and composed of the poppet’s favourite words, which happen to be the names of his favourite snacks, interspersed with a lot of long-stretched vowels, and palatal or alveolar consonants that together form nonsense words. But of course, all of that is accompanied by belly rubs and scratches behind his big, flappy (the dog’s, not my husband’s) ears. Maybe, none of it’s nonsensical to the little fellow. Maybe to him, it’s a smelly, touchy-feely, drool-worthy something called Chinese. Maybe, we all carry around a personal dictionary that lists all the nonsense words we tend to use in our head, and which we cannot think of as nonsensical.

*****

During his short stint as a teacher at an elementary school in a village in Austria, in the spring of 1923 to be precise, Ludwig Wittgenstein made his young pupils take up an odd project. He got them to compile their own dictionaries listing words they had trouble with, or those that were part of their common vocabulary. Dictionaries available in the market then weren’t exactly available to his students as personal possessions. Their parents had more urgent demands on their earnings. Each one of the booklets the children thus ended up compiling contained a large portion of words drawn from colloquial usage and dialectical variations specific to that region of Austria. Their teacher meticulously proofread and corrected the booklets the children had bound together with red ribbons. He then combined them as a handy study material to be used by all students in the locality. This final compilation also featured a Preface written by him. But the District School Inspector whose official sanction was needed for its publication raised objections to the Preface, and also reeled off a set of suggestions in ‘correct’ German to what he understood as Wittgenstein’s faulty usages. In that Preface which eventually was discarded at the above-mentioned official’s order, the philosopher is noted to have said that, “[n]o word is too common to be entered” [iii]. It’s less a general pronouncement on the philosophy of language, and more a practical comment drawn from his exposure to the way children grapple with their mother tongue in early childhood. That said, this intimate experience seems to have influenced his later philosophy of ‘language games’ as demonstrated in his repeated observations on the way children learn, found across his mature work, to point to how meaningful communication happens in specific human exchanges of words [iv]. The dictionary he had compiled from his students’ work was never republished. Today, it’s a curious object of interest to his scholars alone, or those who are still fascinated by his thoughts. 

Another ‘dictionary’ from another time: “a personal dictionary” for Milan Kundera’s novels, one which listed his “keywords”, his “problem words”, the words he loved, and so forth [v]. The invitation to compile this highly individualized dictionary came from his friend, Pierre Nora, then the editor of the magazine, Le Débat after personally witnessing the author’s consternation at how translations of The Joke had turned out to be a big joke in practice, and a sad one at that. Kundera was vexed by ornamentations added to his style, omissions of reflective passages, and elisions of musicological digressions which some translators had deemed irrelevant to the plot of the novel. The list he thus compiled for Nora’s magazine is familiar to us today as a chapter of The Art of the Novel, and is called “Sixty-three Words”. It’s a treat to anyone who has loved his novels. In his entry on ‘Beauty (and Knowledge)’, he writes: “Beauty, the last triumph possible for man who can no longer hope. Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” [vi].

Poet and essayist Francis Ponge may be considered a compiler of a mock dictionary as well. His Voice of Things is a playful romp through any commonly used dictionary in French. Each word, through staggering leaps of attention to what it refers to, reads like an opportunity to plunge into unfamiliar worlds that hum around everyday objects or entities. An archaeology of words that has exchanged its usual dullness for poetry.  

I read Lorna Crozier’s delightful The Book of Marvels as a long-lost twin to Ponge’s book. An alphabetically arranged compendium of everyday things that is full of mischief. It makes you want to look at everything around with new eyes, or as many eyes as possible, also to reckon with what we miss when we use the words that refer to them as well.  

Each one of these ‘dictionaries’ points to the word’s arbitrariness, the ways in which it mutates through various existential codes, perhaps a reminder at once of the word’s potency and its fragility. Now consider the intrepid efforts of today’s ‘sensitivity readers.’ 

One thinks of the missed irony in anyone presuming that they possess enough sensitivity to embark on a career as a detector of offence in other people’s works. Try googling that concept, and you will see reams of suggestions on how to get a job as a sensitivity reader (at times referred to as a booming business, at others, as an act of charity that only aims at making the books they work with read better), coming from the proverbial horse’s mouth itself. Often the gist of the advice goes thus: ‘Identify your area of specialization, hone your skills in that area, offer such readings to writers, collect appraisals from them, and start applying at various publishing firms’ [vii]. That, as far as I can think, in spite of its goodwill, amounts to being insensitive to anything other than the group they identify with, and even worse, a lack of self-critique. 

Today, it’s difficult to read Kundera’s eloquent defence of Cervantes published twenty-three years ago without being hit by the prescient appeal of his insights. He considers what gets misplaced in prevalent habits of reading literature which instead of sustaining a spirit of inquiry hungers after clear-cut moral positions. He notes that while the desire for a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished is an intimately sensed human need, and which religions and ideologies are founded on, this “either/or” impulse reveals an inability to tolerate the relativity and ambiguity of things human, even to look squarely at the absence of the supreme judge [viii]. In that case, if to be mad is to completely lose the language of the other as it happens to the protagonist of a Clarice Lispector novel [ix], might it be said that assumptions about possessing the language of all marginalized or oppressed others via one’s empathy or convictions is about being god? A return perhaps to the mythical time before the tower of Babel where there was only one holy language? 

Insistence on correctness, as far as I can think, rings the death knell to art because instead of the throbs and tremors of an individual voice in which rests the pulse of a book, it privileges an even display of goodness, an optics which demands no interiority, no reasoning, nor any self-questioning right when agency is claimed. That perhaps explains why it can be borrowed as a token gesture by anyone wanting to promote their agenda, or their business. It makes one wonder how any communication can happen anymore, when words seem so unreliable right when they are bandied about, and bracketed as good and evil, as if they lug along their definitive, singular meaning automatically. As if all the words in human languages were sucked back into the objects they referred to, like birds in mid-flight suddenly morphing into the fish they had been, that nonetheless continue to merrily swim among clouds. 

I suggest that sensitivity readers from various specializations around the world should unite, and compile an upright e-dictionary in English of the bad words they keep discovering, one which is updated every month, and also ensure that it has maximum reach, by promoting it via non-profit charities so that the less-aware among us can play catch-up! That I suppose, even though my tongue is firmly in my cheek, is offensive. Or maybe, progressives of this kind could make an attempt at some deliberate zoning out from their certainties.

*****

The easiest and most inconspicuous way to drift away that has worked for me while travelling on any means of public transport is to plug my ears with some music while staring at my palms. At the risk of resembling a mummified clairvoyant staring at her own destiny, it would surely keep one’s hands from fidgeting while the mind went wherever it did. This indeed was the case until my hands started looking like someone else’s pair. Second-hand, by all means. I must have changed the salt sometime then. Not the ‘salt of the earth’, or the thing that measures someone’s worth, or the figurative thing rubbed on some equally figurative wound. I mean the white, powdery thing we routinely consume. Well, it’s pale pink now. The colour of clean fingernails. I switched to the powdered, pink salt to make amends, even though several other things could have been swapped, when I noticed that I was sporting more than one weird, but harmless mutation. 

The first of these had made my nose longer by a centimetre, and took the shape of a dry, and hard as a tree’s bark, protruding growth right on its tip. I was in the habit of telling too many lies perhaps, but that, I suppose, is the liar’s predicament and paradox. And then, instead of good fortune, greyish-purple patches suddenly started surfacing on my palms as if I had spilt some stubborn ink on them. By the time a couple of my fingernails began to sport ridges and started falling off, the salt in my glass jar was definitely pink. Of course, it had little to do with any of the above developments. I must have nursed a hope that the new salt would bring in some placebo effect. And not to be doubted, I thoroughly enjoyed using them— my ugly palms, not the salt— as a means to wallow in self-pity for a while. I might have even resembled the martyred St. Ursula as she appears in Caravaggio’s last work, staring at the arrow on her chest surrounded by her stupefied, splayed fingers. Incidentally, this work features several pairs of hands, and every pair therein seems to say something different from every other set.

But then, I accidently discovered that my palms without fingernails were a good means to scare people away, particularly those I would rather do without. Like the comely woman who appears at my door-front magically, as it were, one week before every festival from Holi to Halloween. She enjoys organising festive get-togethers and must be a fun person to be with. I find it difficult to attempt the former, as for the latter, the better left unsaid. But without her help, I wouldn’t have discovered that my new, but old-looking palms were perfect tools for exorcism. You just need to display them while pretending to wipe your forehead with the back of your palm. Add to that a severely constipated look, and the work is done. The flip side to it is that I can no longer zone out while staring at my spotty palms even though the nails have grown back. But wanderers always find terrains to meander on, don’t they? 

*****

In stark opposition to the ubiquitous cant on mindfulness that self-help gurus, yoga instructors, and motivation speakers in the corporate sector preach, more than a couple of recent articles that probe the psychology of zoning out advocate what they call ‘mindlessness’ [x]. Before it sparks an outrage, let me add that in this usage, the word doesn’t mean unconcern or apathy as it otherwise suggests. Instead, it’s a description of what internally happens when the brain goofs off. It takes a few moments to rest; although not completely, it retires from its frenetic activity to comfort itself. Akin to sleep but not yet there in that the duration of such vacation is generally short, and not as deep. But it’s a mode of relaxation, even escape from stress, and a means of pleasurable release. This must be why zoning out is also identified by some studies as one of the means to aid the creative impulse in humans, if not its very source. A world to temporarily get away because one ends up returning all the same. 

How often does it happen that a tune gets stuck in your head, and no matter how many times you hum it to yourself, you can’t recollect the words of that song? But voila, it returns precisely when you are no longer thinking about it, but doing something as random and mechanical as frying fish for dinner? A song, the number of a house you once lived in, a movie’s name, the shape of the half-moons on your childhood crush’s fingernails… Like how writers sometimes experience the magic of a happy phrase or a well-wrought sentence, or some quirky habit of their characters coming to them in sleep. So maybe ‘mindless’ wandering isn’t exactly a crime, is it, in this recurring season of outrage minus self-interrogation, intended to imply sensitivity but, in unintended irony, betrays its opposite. 

*****

And for those among us who prefer to stay with a sense of wonder, no matter how bewildering it’s, no matter whether as a reader or writer, one way at least to internally stall the pervasive assault on words is to borrow a little something from a medium where words aren’t the primary mode of communication at all— the visual arts. For, nothing possibly reveals the conservatism of the work of sensitivity-sleuths, and its alliance with historical instances of the suppression of art, than a consideration of its application on visual arts. Imagine someone somewhere deciding from the strength of their goodwill or their convictions— both of which start off from the position that everything worth understanding is accessible, or even already accomplished— that images shall only depict ‘good’ subjects, representative of some progressive cause or the other. What apprehension of beauty, what shock of recognition, and what otherness precisely would morality allow, when it turns everything into a reflective surface with its own ideal image? 

Now, anyone who has experienced a distinct sense of losing one’s bearings before a great piece of art gets a taste, if or when they reflect back on it, of its uncanny nature, its status as a special mode of human communication. Isn’t it akin to how we sometimes feel the need to close a fine book we have been reading to quietly hang on to the discord of thought-feelings that a potent passage therein has set off? A kind of intoxication that allows a temporary forgetting of the very selves one desperately cocoons in, or an engagement with them at the very least? 

It might be the case that my flirtation with intermittent evacuation of the usual sense of being via art is simply something that suits my perpetually scattered mind. For, some bit of my maternal grandfather’s clownishness seems to have wriggled its way into my head. His penchant for often being elsewhere, his capers that caused his serious wife much embarrassment, or even the way he unintentionally played a joke on himself the day he died. One among his many irrational habits, ever since retiring from his job as a sub-inspector in the police department, was to change the date on his calendar to the following day, after listening to the mid-day news bulletin on his beloved Murphy radio. The calendar was conveniently mounted on the wall above the ancient instrument which emitted human voices and scary hisses of static with equal indifference. And that calendar was just a tin sheet with stacked cards in slots fitted to its base in varying heights which had to be manually changed. They denoted the date, the day, and the month with no reference to the respective years. So to cut to the chase, the afternoon he died, at least to him, it was already the following day. I remember staring at that calendar dry-eyed, next to my wailing mother, and surrounded by otherwise snooty relatives, while obsessively worrying about the shiny, improper salwar suit I had chosen to wear. 

So much for the rationality that underpins actions even when in the grip of deep emotions. That being said, here’s a mature defence of the visual arts from a maverick more equipped to comment on their impact than me. In a fine essay titled “The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in the Media Age”, Camille Paglia speaks of the importance of including visual art studies, its history along with an exposure to the works of individual artists, as a general component of an education in the Humanities. Writing from her thirty years-long career as a classroom teacher, and going against the entrenched moralism of ideological readings with their chosen frames of reference alone, she speaks of how intimate encounters with images can foster habits of visual attention right when they are being eroded, and strengthen its span so that students might stay with the mysteries they evoke, and then use words to record their impressions vis-à-vis evaluations of these images across history [xi]. I’m not sure how much of this would apply in the case of those whose encounters with the repository of visual arts are erratic and idiosyncratic as it’s in my case. Maybe, as long as it’s followed up with some diligent reading of art history, it helps.

That takes one to the amusing, but befuddling question: how to make sense of the spell that a great work of painting or sculpture, or even a photograph casts? It’s like trying to answer why we fall in love, or what its experience is perhaps. Consider someone saying, “I love cheesecake”. Now consider the same person refusing to use that four-letter word while actually acknowledging its thrall within when they say, “Wonder why I’m always thinking of this man who has a frog’s eyes, a witch’s nose, and a devil’s wit!” Reasons might abound, just as theories on human reception of art abound, but none seems enough. There’s always more to add, the apprehension that there’s something else to it. At once intimately sensed in both cases, but steeped in mystery and irrationality as well. Which is perhaps why the title given to a work, even when it’s titled, ‘Untitled’ can seem like a paltry distraction before the pull of the visual. 

The eyes yield to the riot of colours, the play of dark and light, the bodily symmetry of the figures portrayed, or its absence in a violent fusion of forms as in a nightmare, or perhaps to the allure or disquiet that things or forms in juxtaposition incite, the suggestion of animation and movement in stillness, the illusion of depth on a flat surface, or the suppleness of skin even when carved on stone, and so forth. So exquisitely sensorial that it feels like its opposite, a taste of sublimity. That possibly explains why concepts like affective and/or cognitive arousal [xii], or even what experts call ‘piloerection’, or goose bumps, and ‘aesthetic chills’ [xiii] are sometimes mentioned in behavioural and psychological studies as indicative of initial stages of art reception. Who was it that said that we perhaps learn the way we love?

The world of expectations we bring along collides with the world that the work seems to represent. It then sets off unprocessed bits of thoughts, emotions or even meta-cognitive emotions, not always necessarily pleasant. For, the pleasure of zoning out with a great image is as often an approximation of understanding, the feeling that one ‘gets’ whatever it’s conveying, as it’s of trying to address the confusing questions it throws up. Whether unsolved queries that a work inspires lead the attentive viewer to edit their self-image as some studies suggest or not, frequent overtures to them do seem to shape normal habits of looking, even if it might not, of seeing. Magritte perhaps sensed this when he placed the act of looking itself against the looked upon in that intriguing work, Not to be Reproduced which features a man standing before a mirror staring at his own back reflected on its surface, unlike the book on the mantelpiece which escapes that inversion. Or maybe Manet did, when he placed a distorting mirror across the background of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère implicating the viewer/s along with the male customer before the remote-looking barmaid who is frontally captured like a religious icon, but who could also be a prostitute. 

It’s certainly possible, for one with such an inclination, to stake a moral claim on the attention that they pay to the world as Susan Sontag did [xiv] at the expense of the flummoxing contradictions that run through Simone Weil’s thoughts on that concept, as it does through much of her philosophy. But could that account for the giddiness of being consumed from without, in aesthetic experience? Or the way we find psychological compensation in the beauty we detect in a work of art that depicts gruesome violence while still processing the disturbance it provokes? Or even how indeterminacies of a work remind us of the uncertainties we look from, and operate with, even as riddling them out continues to delight? 

I stare at a photograph of Giovanni Pisano’s sculpture titled Temperance, and wonder what that title has got to do with the figure’s Venus Pudica pose with exposed genitals. I giggle to myself at finding the answer in a book that explains how the sculptor had christianized the image simply by making her look up, perhaps to the promised world, while retaining the ancient Venus’ other attributes [xv]. I browse through a catalogue of Goya’s grisly works, and foolishly try to ferret out the method in his madness that made him leave behind his Black Paintings on the walls of his home. Or why the centre figure of Courbet’s Dressing the Bride/ Dressing the Dead Girl has a mirror stuck into the crook of her left elbow although her eyes are closed, and while the rest of her body seems utterly bereft of life. Or what in the world does the title of Bill Stoneham’s The Hands Resist Him mean: which pair of hands, the limp ones of the little boy’s, the half-cracked pair on the doll next to him, or the eerie ones without bodies rapping on the glass door behind him? I don’t understand much when I look at the works of Remedios Varo or Bosch whom I only recently discovered. I still like staring at them. Maybe we consume art as the last bastion of the individual vision or voice because it reminds us of the world, the real ek-static time-space we inhabit, but cannot help being its images within.  

*****

That perhaps is a dark thought to live with. It might not bring about revolutions. For, it points to the sad comedy of the human condition, of creatures that strut around trying to escape their creatureliness because we are rational animals, because we possess something called conscience, and which feels real, but happens to be composed of word-images. 

I once watched an uncle of mine, at some uncertain point since dementia had been eating into his brain, fighting with his wife over what he went on describing in varying formulations of “that black thing, that fucking black thing”. The word ‘phone’ and many of its properties had already disappeared from his mind. Aphasia had preceded the stage where people around him started resembling other people.  

Was Samuel Beckett ruminating on a similar predicament in the last work he ever wrote? A poem, a babble titled “What Is the Word” in English, and “Comment Dire” in French? He had fallen unconscious on the floor of his kitchen, and was discovered lying there in a comatose state. Beckett wrote the poem in the hospital he had been admitted to, once the temporary aphasia that had set in withdrew. It’s a terrifying contemplation full of repetitions, elisions, and what resembles a stutter, and which begins with the word “folly” in lower case, and closes with what rings like a reverberating howl left dangling in the final lines without any punctuation mark [xvi]:

….what –

what is the word –

seeing all this –

all this this –

all this this here –

folly for to see what –

glimpse –

seem to glimpse –

need to seem to glimpse –

afaint afar away over there what –

folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what –

what –

what is the word –

what is the word [xvii]

Maybe, that question without a question mark deserves attention before collectively putting a duct tape on words in books. Maybe, it helps to stay in conversation with words therein that offend, to trace their wayward journeys, their fuzzy shapes in individual usages. For, how indeed does one ground any living language? To what pole of morality does one tie it without making the same abhorred words, like anything else that’s banned, acquire a dark allure, a ghostly, underground life with added charm? Perhaps it helps to wonder how much violence has been deployed, historically speaking, precisely for the good things [xviii].

*****

Disclaimer: The writer of this ramble doesn’t recommend zoning out while frying fish, or while crossing a busy road. Nor does she endorse stalking for that matter, even as she continues to wonder if stalking is only walking, and talking to oneself when attempted by a woman, and a writer at that. She doesn’t advocate exorcism, or forced removal of fingernails. Those are convenient things, the fingernails, not exorcism, at least to open beer cans. And what else would you bite on, in situations that demand nail-biting?   

 

End Notes

[i] Dostoyevksy, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Penguin, 2003, p. 162.

[ii] Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Doubleday Anchor, 1956.

[iii] Qtd in Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Vintage, 1991, p. 227.

[iv] Weber, Desiree. “Wittgenstein’s Dictionary, Re-discovered”, https://www.britishwittgensteinsociety.org/6731-2/. 3. Jul. 2017. Acc. 10. Nov.2023.

[v] Qtd in Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel, translated by Linda Asher, faber and faber, 2005, p. 122. 

[vi] Ibid

[vii] “What Is a Sensitivity Reader and Can I Become One?” https://writerunboxed.com/2018/06/24/what-is-a-sensitivity-reader-and-can-i-become-one/. 24. Jun. 2018. Acc. 15. Nov. 2023.

[viii] Kundera, Milan. “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”, The Art of the Novel, translated by Linda Asher, faber and faber, 2005, p. 7. 

[ix] The Apple in the Dark, translated by Benjamin Moser, New Directions, 2023.

[x] Dahl, Melissa. “In Praise of Zoning Out”, originally as “In Praise of Spacing Out” in New York Magazine’s Science of Us. https://newrepublic.com/article/120034/zoning-out-may-be-key-creativity-and-there-no-shame. 30. Oct. 2014. Acc. 13. Nov. 2023. 

[xi] Paglia, Camille. “The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in a Media Age”, Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex and Education. Vintage, 2018, pp. 347-366, p. 350. 

[xii] Silvia, Paul, J. “Emotional Responses to Art: From Collation and Arousal to Cognition and Emotion”, Review of General Psychology, Iss. 9, 2005, pp. 342-357. https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Emotional%20Responses%20to%20Art.pdf

[xiii] Silvia, Paul, J. and Emily C. Nussbaum. “On Personality and Piloerection: Individual Differences in Aesthetic Chills and Other Unusual Aesthetic Experiences”, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Iss. 5, No. 3, pp. 208-214.  https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/P_Silvia_Personality_2011.pdf

[xiv] Sontag, Susan. “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning”, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. Penguin, 2008.

[xv] Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Doubleday Anchor, 1956.

[xvi] Salisbury, Laura. “‘What Is the Word’: Beckett’s Aphasic Modernism”, Journal of Beckett Studies. https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/pdf/10.3366/E0309520709000090. Acc. 12. Oct. 2023.

[xvii] https://www.samuel-beckett.net/whatistheword.html. Acc. 20. Nov. 2023.

[xviii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Michael A. Scarpitti. Penguin, 2013, p. 48.

Priya Dileep

is a

Contributor for Panorama.

Priya Dileep is a writer based in Bangalore, South India. Writing her own 'author-bio' gives her stomach cramps.

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