Category: Nuar Alsadir

since feeling is first

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
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Nuar Alsadir considers ‘embodied knowledge’,  Janet Malcom and Audre Lorde  in her essay ‘since feeling is first’, featured in Granta:

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’.

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Nuar Alsadir: An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett for The Honest Ulsterman
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Maria Isakova Bennett interviews poet Nuar Alsadir for The Honest Ulsterman. They discuss Alsadir’s ‘night fragments’, psychoanalysis and spontaneity.

Maria Isakova Bennett: Nuar, after I first heard you read in Liverpool in 2016, I couldn’t get the idea of writing at 3.15 a.m. out of my mind. I wonder if you could talk further here about the process and about the use / value of writing from the unconscious?

Nuar Alsadir: My night fragments were written during a creative dry spell—I began to use a method of accessing my interior which involved going to bed with a notebook on my bedside table, pen marking a blank page, setting my alarm for 3:15 a.m., and, at hearing the alarm, waking for a few seconds to write down whatever was at the top of my mind. I reoriented my process so that, rather than trying to construct thoughts, I was listening for the thoughts that were already there. Psychoanalysis approaches the mind similarly, as does the art of clown—which I discuss in a recent piece I wrote for Granta https://granta.com/clown-school/. When you enter a session or take the stage, you’re not supposed to operate from your expectations, have an agenda or idea of what you’re going to do. Without a plan, you can listen—and, if you trust and follow what is before you, you’ll realize that the dryness in any dry spell likely has less to do with what is available to you than your approach.

MIB: It sounds a fascinating method. I wonder, are there other methods to access the interior, other ways of listening for the thoughts that are already there? What I mean is, are there methods that can be used in the daytime ?

NA: Psychoanalysis, for one! Or clown school. Once you tune into your inner voices, you hear them all the time, during the day as well. This approach was helpful to me in generating material—though it did not always yield work that I would show to anyone else.

MIB: Has this approach (no agenda, trusting and following what’s before you) replaced your other approaches, or improved them? 

NA: Writing night fragments hasn’t replaced other approaches—it was a particular method I used during a particular period of time. I’m not writing night fragments at the moment.

MIB: Nuar, in your Granta essay about Clown school, you talked initially about spontaneous laughter and the link with honesty. What do you think is valuable about spontaneity for a writer and can you talk a little about the link with honesty?

NA: Slips of the tongue, parapraxes, outbursts of laughter represent escapes from the unconscious, as do my night fragments. I use the term “spontaneous” in the piece to point to what emerges from within in a way that retains its form without being matched up to social (or poetic) codes. I carry this idea across clown, psychoanalysis, and poetry to political action. In relation to poetry, I talk about the importance of resisting the urge to write what Derek Walcott termed a “fake poem” even if it receives accolades, and call for the poet to, in Sylvia Plath’s terms, allow themselves to ‘grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to [their] own gnomes and demons’. Honesty, in this context, is accuracy—representing what is within without adjusting it to fit pre-existing forms, as expectations surrounding the dominant perspective are often revealed through form. This kind of honesty is critical, I believe, when it comes to work that expresses a different subject position than the mainstream, so that the writer resists the pressure to explain, tweak the work to make it accessible to a general reader. It is radical—indeed political—to hold on to your perceptions and not adjust your perspective for the comfort or recognition of a particular audience.

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Clown School

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
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Featured in Granta Magazine, Nuar Alsadir’s essay ‘Clown School’ examines selfhood and performance: 

After my first day of clown school I tried to drop out. The instructor was provoking us in a way that made me uncomfortable – to the nervous smiley woman, ‘Don’t lead with your teeth;’ to the young hipster, ‘Go back to the meth clinic,’ and to me, ‘I don’t want to hear your witty repartee about Oscar Wilde.’

I was the only non-actor in the program and had made the mistake, as we went around the circle on the first day, of telling everyone that I was a psychoanalyst writing a book about laughter. As part of my research, I explained, I’d frequented comedy clubs and noticed how each performance, had it been delivered in a different tone of voice and context, could have been the text of a therapy session. Audience members, I told them, laughed less because a performer was funny than because they were honest. Of course that’s not how all laughter operates, but the kind of laughter I’m interested in (spontaneous outbursts) seems to function that way, and clown pushes that dynamic to its extreme – which is why I decided to enroll in clown school, and how I earned the grating nickname ‘smarty pants’.

But if I dropped out, I’d lose my tuition money. So I decided to stay, and, by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed.

 

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There’s a knee-jerk tendency to perceive provocation as negative – like how in writing workshops participants often call for the most striking part of a work to be cut. When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up – we lose our habitual bearings, and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in. Habit protects us from anything we don’t have a set way of handling. As it’s when we’re off-guard that we’re least automatous, it’s then that we’re most likely to come up with spontaneous, uncurated responses.

It turned out the perpetually-smiling woman was sad, the hipster (who didn’t even do drugs) acted high as a way of muting the parts of his personality he was afraid we would judge, and I found it easier to hide behind my intellect than expose myself as a flawed and flailing human being. Each role, in other words, offered a form of protection: by giving off recognizable signals to indicate a character type, we accessed a kind of invisibility. We cued people to look through us to the prototypes we were referencing. When the instructor satirized those roles, he defamiliarized them so that the habitual suddenly became visible. His provocations knocked the lids off the prototypes we were hiding inside of, in a similar way to how many psychoanalysts, in the attempt to understand a person’s conflicts, begin by analyzing their defenses – what is being used as cover – before moving on to what is being covered up and why.

Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning – though in radically different ways – create a path towards the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in Nietzsche’s terms, to ‘become the one you are.’ Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott considered play ‘the gateway to the unconscious’, which he divided into two parts: the repressed unconscious that is to remain hidden and the rest of the unconscious that ‘each individual wants to get to know’ by way of ‘play’, which, ‘like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation’. In clown school, the part of the mind that psychoanalysis tries to reveal – by analyzing material brought into session, including dreams or play – is referred to as a person’s clown.

 

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Each of us has a clown inside of us, according to Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of The Funny School of Good Acting, where I was taking my two-week, six-hours-per-day workshop. The theatrical art of clowning – commonly referred to as ‘clown’ – is radically different from the familiar images of birthday party, circus or scary clowns. Bayes’ program helps actors find their inner clown. The self-revelation that results provides access to a wellspring of playful impulses that they can then tap into during creative processes. His method stems from the French tradition developed by his former teachers Jacques Lecoq and Phillippe Gaulier – the kind of training the fictional main character of Louis CK and Zach Galifankis’ TV series Baskets seeks, and that Sascha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Roberto Begnini underwent early in their careers.

Lecoq, who began as a physiotherapist, believed ‘the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant’ – a phrase that could be applied to the unconscious.  The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that had been there all along – or in Winnicott’s terms, your ‘true self’.

 

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