Sunday, April 30, 2006


My therapist recently gave me "an assignment" -- I was to visit a bookstore and purchase a novel that I would read for pleasure only. This meant no highlighting, no note-taking in the margins, and no letting my mind drift toward the ways in which I might use the book in one of my papers. This inevitably also meant no Jewish books. The problem is that I love Jewish literature, and after about ten minutes in Border's I found myself armed with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and something by Nadine Gordimer. I was elated, but it was shortlived when I realized that I wasn't allowed to read these, not for pleasure anyway. After walking around Border's for awhile, my indecisiveness kicked in, and so I called my most trusted source for advice on what books to choose. I decided to take advantage of the "buy 3 for 2" deal, and so I bought three for the price of two: Jose Saramago's Blindness, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, and a collection of Alice Munro's stories. Walking out of the bookstore with three books that are outside of my field of literature felt like a shameless indulgence, and somewhat of a betrayal as well. I felt as if I had plotted against Philip Roth when I put his book down and chose someone who has actually won a Nobel Prize in Literature (Saramago).

But I'm rambling. The next morning I flew out to Florida for a conference in multi-ethnic Amerian literatures, and chose to take Blindness with me. I took the highlighter out of my carry-on bag. I put it back in. I took it out. I finally put it back in -- but only, I told myself, in case I needed to highlight something in my Claire Katz book on Levinas, which I was also bringing (and which stayed in my bag all weekend). A woman at the conference later told me (not in relation to this highlighter episode) that I'm neurotic enough to be Jewish. Whatever could she mean? But what a fantastic compliment.

More rambling. Blindness is amazing. If I could, I would highlight three quarters of it. It was recommended to me by most trusted literary "friend," and I have yet to see him falsely identify a book as spectacular. He knows good writing. Saramago is a Portugese writer (b. 1922), and this book is about an epidemic of "white blindness" that overtakes an unnamed city. The government tries to quarantine all of the "blind" people, but eventually nearly the entire world becomes blind, with the exclusion of one woman (so far, anyway, since I haven't finished it). It's unclear whether it is spread to others through touch or sight or something else -- one friend reminded me that in many medieval stories the gaze is a material extension of the body, and so I think what is happening in this book is similar. It seems, though, that anyone upon whom a "blind" one sets his or her sights, purposely or inadvertently, becomes overcome in a veil of white milkiness. The writing is absolutely amazing and incredibly provocative, but there is something eerie about this book. It's ripe for Levinasian analysis, because it is very clearly about the breakdown of ethical/human responsibility. In many ways, it seems so far to be a book about the Holocaust if we think of the Holocaust as the ultimate example of the breakdown of ethical responsibility. The ways in which the "blind" of the book stumble about and try to carry on as if they had never lost their sight is chilling. But what is terrifyingly familiar about this story are the ways in which people who were good, ethical people for the most part before their "blindness" become criminals -- thieves, rapists, murderers, liars -- when they realize they are in a world in which nobody can identify their face, and in which, subsequently, they also cannot see the face of the other.

An interesting passage, spoken by the only woman who has miraculously retained her physical (and spiritual, it seems) sight: "...please, don't ask me what good and what evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act when blindness was an exception, what is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that which we have with ourselves, one should not trust the latter...I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see it. [Her husband says,] 'If I ever regain my sight, I shall look carefully at the eyes of others, as if I were looking into their souls" (276)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Mental Orgasms

I've been re-reading Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem, and I can't get over how many things about this book make sense to me -- how many of the things in this book are me, to be exact. The main character, Renee Feuer, is a grad student in Philosophy at Princeton, and she ends up marrying a guy named Noam Himmel, who just so happens to be a completely famous mathmetician. One of Renee's consistent philosophical musings is something she calls the mind-body problem. My favorite passage reads: "There's been so much serious discussion devoted to the profound question of the vaginal vs. the clitoral orgasm. Why doesn't anyone speak about the mental orgasm? It's what's going on in your head that can make the difference, not which and how many of your nerve endings are being rubbed."

I think this true, beyond words, but it's also not just about what's going on in one's head -- it's about how the mental orgasm can heighten the physical one. I don't think Renee gets that, but I do. Or maybe it's all in my head.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Night Terrors

Long before I fell in love with Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, I experienced night terrors. It has nothing to do with terror of the night, rather with terror experienced in the night. When I experience a night terror episode, often there is something faceless and unnamable that I sense pursuing me; I intuit this as death, my impending death. When, in my sleep, I sense this, I awake, and still I sense it, see it even. And so I scream until the back of my throat is raw. Sometimes I run, shaking, but with the strength of ten thousand men. Last month I kicked my hip out of joint as my leg lunged and kicked toward the faceless nothing that appears only in darkness.

I can't help but think that such an innate experience was prescient in regard to my future love affairs with the aforementioned philosophers. Blanchot in particular understands the darkness of night as illuminating, perhaps more so than the brilliance of day and its daylight. And Levinas talks of the "there is" -- the something that exists in the same way that the "it" exists in the phrase "it is snowing." But Blanchot is also obsessed with "the disaster," which in one sense is our awareness of death, and that it waits for us as the ultimate "disaster," and informs our thoughts, whether in waking or dreaming. And yet darkness illuminates.

Yet, I still wonder why death must repose in my own personal darkness, my space of sleep. No, actually, it's not my space of sleep, nor is it my space of wakefullness; rather, it's something in between those two spaces.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Doomed Lovers

In The Writing of the Disaster Maurice Blanchot is suspicious of language. Well, not all language, but some language -- particularly language that is narcissistic, when the voice speaking it is caught up in its self-sameness, its own sound. The speaker of such language is doomed because he/she cannot locate in that language anything other to love. This, apparently, is also the fate of lovers who "touch each other with words, whose contact with each other is made of words, and who can thus repeat themselves without end, marveling at the utterly banal, because their speech is not a language but an idiom they share with no other, and because each gazes at himself in the other's gaze in a redoubling which goes from mirage to admiration" (128). But it also occurs to me that this isn't so much about the language, as it is about what the language obscures, in this sense. The transgression of Narcissus was one of seeing -- that is, of seeing only himself. The gaze on one's own self, then is the seeing that is transgressive. And so I wonder, then, if there is a way out of the lingual disaster -- a way that the two presumably doomed lovers who "touch each other with words" can continue to touch each other in that way without it becoming narcissistic. A way in which the seismic shuddering of their verbal exchanges can avoid the phenomenon of redoubling.