In his book of 1894, Les accidents mentaux des hysteriques (The Mental Accidents of Hystericals) the psychopathologist Pierre Janet (1859-1947) wrote of the manner in which a (sadly unnamed) woman, one of his patients, walked down the street. Every few steps she lapsed into a short dissociative episode in which she half-pounced.
During the course of the woman’s treatment, Janet learned that she was reenacting her suicide attempt: a jump into the Seine. In Janet’s classification system, “Accident” was one of the terms given to hysteria. The other was “Stigmata,” a state in which the enduring symptoms of a psychological disorder are evident and yet not entirely registered by the patient. “Accidents” are transient but acute physiological reactions, experienced and fully-felt. They are often the only evident representation of a traumatic event in the life of the individual.
The woman was suffering from a primary idée fixe (fixed idea). A closed system with its own trauma – water, fear, compulsion, doubt—that sent messages elsewhere. To the waking-state body that survived. Survived to slightly jump, and jump again. An involuntary tic just like all the other cases reported by Janet – faux paralysis, convulsions, hyperesthesia. The woman’s suicide attempt was amplified, but in a series of minuscule jokes. I read this, and wondered about the (or any) underlying fixed idea that creates a secondary symptomology. And of course you can eliminate a behavior, but its origin still exists.
I think the mind tries to be a restive apparatus; but it nevertheless continually scans the past and recalibrates trauma. And that’s as far as I get. I won’t risk a discussion of psychopathology, its history or recent developments, or further analyze stress-activated responses to an event. I just think of that woman, the way in which she chose to die, and the form it later took.
I’m writing a collection of poems on how we, as supposedly sentient beings, cannot always choose how to remember. Memory is not simply a repository of elements that we can sift through and discard. Or fully navigate in therapy in order to re-access trauma and understand its effects. To say “I remember.....” is actually a bold claim. It implies certain awareness of how a particular event is organized in the trajectory of one’s life. However, incidents can return to inhabit us in the least-imagined way. Maybe I’m suggesting that attempted/strained recollection is insufficient. Ultimately futile and perhaps delusional. Because, for example, the body reacts as animal. It falls sick to remind us we were once hurt by someone. Consider the nature of somatoform disorder: The patient with vague complaints...a year-round exhaustive medical history.... Imagined tumors, imagined insanity, genuine agoraphobia. Headaches, pelvic pain, pain in the chest.... Poorly localized abdominal pain, joint pain, erratic menstruation, frigidity, blurred vision, pseudo-seizures. Never lingering for long enough on any specific symptom to give an adequately detailed account. As if to say, keep it in or you’ll open up to certain destruction. Let it move around your quiet-war body.
Janet’s patient may have looked at the sky before she jumped, may have observed her own reflection, may have cried or not, may have thought very little or a great deal. But the body overrode that personal synthesis. It initiated a different memory. One of preserved action, not recollection.
I like writing these poems that are now beginning to circle around an event wherein some kind of loss occurred, but I do not know what the event is. I only know the process by which the poems are trying to cheat the body and the mind from deciding where/how such an event took place. We prefer to locate phenomena, we like narrative. We want the post-ideated image or an unresolved story to belong somewhere. In our personal history, that is. We often ask, what is the best way to describe what happened? “When was it, that I felt....when was it real?” As if we can decide.
If you actively suppress a flow of emotion, it bleeds up somewhere else. We can revisit parts of an event many times, but externalizing it takes many forms. It is as though we are deciphering a message from storage cues. Those that were set in place before the hope/assumption that accessing pain or fear or love is logical and linear. The configuration is deeply embedded, galvanized by surface qualities like the sight of a face or a familiar route, whereupon a kind of resonant oscillation happens. The poems I’m writing repeat one another in many ways (vocabulary, topic, tone), but all have different perception values since the event, after the time of its occurring, continues to reverberate in several spaces: as aforementioned, the body (SOMATOFORM) also in a physical environment (ABODEFORM) in a digital configuration (WAVEFORM) and the literal act of inscription (CIPHERFORM).
As in Janet’s patient, whose secondary symptomology echoed but did not point to its source, there is no unilateral relationship between what is remembered and what is subsequently written down. In the words of Eric Vos, “[c]ommunication’ must not be read as denoting a process the success or failure of which depends on whether the intentional objectives of a ‘sender’ are ‘understood’ by a ‘receiver.’”1
“Even memory was not usable” writes Rosemarie Waldrop in “Accelerating Frame” (1993). And later:
I thought I could get to the bottom of things by taking my distance from logic, but only fell as far as the immediate. Here the moment flaunted its perfect roundness and could not be left behind because it accelerated with me, intense like roses blooming in the dark whereas I was still figuring out: are red roses at night darker than white ones, and all cats gray? But at some point we have to pass from explanation to description in the heroic hope that it will reach right out into experience, the groundswell flooding my whole being like heat or pollution, though the haze outside always looks as if it could easily be blown away.
The experience/event/trauma is found in all the components present during its validation, the “piling of instants” (as termed by Waldrop) that “may amount to a dimension.” But which one endures? By that I mean, which component did we forget only to have it recur? Logically ordered ‘telling’ becomes too simplistic and/or vague – the arbitrariness of the re-enacted. I’m mostly standing back from a project that is likely to break down and telling myself that is indeed the point. At the end of each section (which has become a closed system of its own, by dint of page numbering, poem-length, etc.) the FORM by which the event is remembered is...not the right one. But another section begins as if to say – I need to define the event so I can feel its potency again. To give it form, whether that form not even be a lasting form.
I try to locate the action, to describe the procedure, and another writer says to me: “Folie à deux? I have in my mind two people, crawling on their hands and knees, dragging bricks to build a ‘house.’ But where was the house? Where were they ‘housed’?” The answer is, in the capacity of an imagining. In a blur of particles. In projections, and power dynamics and fantasy. In the role-playing that becomes natural. People will do anything to build a house wherein attachment can occur, particularly if it’s disallowed or difficult to attain. And that’s when our need for narrative and reasoning gets the better of us, asking “When was it, that I felt...when was it real, where did it happen and become indelibly associated for me with that place?” In the nomadic world of digital technology and its text that proliferates; those word-strings that occlude meaning and generate fears, hopes, assumptions? Can the event take resident in the body and be accessed that way? An abused body? In another’s body? Or is it most potent in the memory of a short-term actual place – the Bachelardian structure, haven, shell, prison, a dreamscape with its remembered objects and markers? In The Art Of Memory (1966), Frances Yates quotes Aristotle on mnemomics:
It is necessary for reminiscence to take some sort of starting point, whence one begins to proceed to reminisce. For this reason [humans] may be seen to reminisce from the places in which something was said or done, or thought, using the place as it were as the starting-point for reminiscence; because access to the place is like starting place for all those things that were raised in it.2
Building. Screen. Body. Screen. Building. Body. Or – and this is becoming ever more possible – can the event be most accurately rendered in a certain method of ‘telling?’ That the details of each location need to be accessed instinctively rather than compartmentalized? Yates further argues for artificial memory reliant on definition and association. I think of the sub-sections to this/my project that I inserted and then removed.
Zone | Haunt | Stage | Flow | Drift | Silence | Evasion | Intimacy | Hate |
All of which seemed to be elements I used to advance an idea, not entirely helpful in formulating the event. More static than etheric. By etheric I mean a state where words are transmissible and never-quite-grasped. They may be lost, half-apprehended, mutated and erratic, but they are transformative. They can relieve a memory-image of its rigid lines, or divert a spoken sentence into a line of poetry that reveals the intent behind what was said.
It feels like a communicative space that has, again, little to do with the efficacy of what is sent from one point to another. A space comprised of a process that has little to do with choice. A space larger than the sum of its parts, which the/my project has nevertheless tried to compartmentalize – and ultimately (rightly) failed in doing so.
Like the ether, a few traces remain. For example, I discard-complete the section on building – a ideal site for the inversion of reality and fantasy owing to its solidity, its matter – and try to consolidate symbols, letter, numerals. But as before, each new form of the/my project retains “instants” of the previously foundered section. Words and phrases that recur and refuse to be supplanted by others:
“august ... abscissa ... derange ... snow ... sand ... strays ... arc ... still ... reel ... objects that fall ... abscissa ... aclinic ... mint oil ... butterfly.”
It is almost as if, in being written, the poems are constructing the details of the event in advance; an event that cannot be realistically and faithfully be reported in the aftermath of its happening.
I’ve written a poem called “Route” that follows the pattern of a question-and-answer session. The line “What is attenuation?” is followed by “Loss. Not resonant. Lying.” Officially, attenuation is the act by which the force or effect of something is diminished. I like to think that the body of Janet’s patient did not wish to stifle the act of her suicide attempt, and so it sublimated the moment. Pain was channeled into repetition. In extending this suggestion, it might be said that we have to fall further from the immediate – as Waldrop offers – in order to revive the incidents that have shaped us. Even though they cannot be fixed in place.
As I recalibrate/realign/recast/recompile and re-route three times in this project of forms that tries to find something lost over and over again via those forms, I think the poems are somewhere between the destabilized “then” and the impermanent “now.” And through their strange unfolding, their accepted distrust of memory, I understand one aspect of poetry – that it is, in all its manifestations, both reactive and intuitive. Actuality vs. artefacts and residuals. The present vs. the revisioning. The accidents.
1Vos, Eric. “Media Poetry – Theories and Strategies.” Media Poetry: An International Anthology. Ed. Eduardo Kac. Chicago: Chicago University Press. (2007): 200.
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2Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. London. Routledge and Kegan Paul. (1966): 48.
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