since feeling is first

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
14774694911_ecb97fa184_o

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’.

(…)

The Neuroscience of Pain

Nicola Twilley for the New Yorker
180702_r32362

Nicola Twilley looks at current research into the neural patterns behind pain in the New Yorker:

On a foggy February morning in Oxford, England, I arrived at the John Radcliffe Hospital, a shiplike nineteen-seventies complex moored on a hill east of the city center, for the express purpose of being hurt. I had an appointment with a scientist named Irene Tracey, a brisk woman in her early fifties who directs Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and has become known as the Queen of Pain. “We might have a problem with you being a ginger,” she warned when we met. Redheads typically perceive pain differently from those with other hair colors; many also flinch at the use of the G-word. “I’m sorry, a lovely auburn,” she quickly said, while a doctoral student used a ruler and a purple Sharpie to draw the outline of a one-inch square on my right shin.

Wearing thick rubber gloves, the student squeezed a dollop of pale-orange cream into the center of the square and delicately spread it to the edges, as if frosting a cake. The cream contained capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the burn of chili peppers. “We love capsaicin,” Tracey said. “It does two really nice things: it ramps up gradually to become quite intense, and it activates receptors in your skin that we know a lot about.” Thus anointed, I signed my disclaimer forms and was strapped into the scanning bed of a magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) machine.

The machine was a 7-Tesla MRI, of which there are fewer than a hundred in the world. The magnetic field it generates (teslas are a unit of magnetic strength) is more than four times as powerful as that of the average hospital MRI machine, resulting in images of much greater detail. As the cryogenic units responsible for cooling the machine’s superconducting magnet clicked on and off in a syncopated rhythm, the imaging technician warned me that, once he slid me inside, I might feel dizzy, see flashing lights, or experience a metallic taste in my mouth. “I always feel like I’m turning a corner,” Tracey said. She explained that the magnetic field would instantly pull the proton in each of the octillions of hydrogen atoms in my body into alignment. Then she vanished into a control room, where a bank of screens would allow her to watch my brain as it experienced pain.

During the next couple of hours, I had needles repeatedly stuck into my ankle and the fleshy part of my calf. A hot-water bottle applied to my capsaicin patch inflicted the perceptual equivalent of a third-degree burn, after which a cooling pack placed on the same spot brought tear-inducing relief. Each time Tracey and her team prepared to observe a new slice of my brain, the machine beeped, and a small screen in front of my face flashed the word “Ready” in white lettering on a black background. After each assault, I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of 0 to 10.

Initially, I was concerned that I was letting the team down. The capsaicin patch hardly tingled, and I scored the first round of pinpricks as a 3, more out of hope than conviction. I needn’t have worried. The patch began to itch, then burn. By the time the hot-water bottle was placed on it, about an hour in, I was surely at an 8. The next set of pinpricks felt as if I were being run through with a hot metal skewer.

“You’re a good responder,” Tracey told me, rubbing her hands together, when I emerged, dazed. “And you’ve got a lovely plump brain—all my postdocs want to sign you up.” As my data were sent off for analysis, she pressed a large cappuccino into my hands and gently removed the capsaicin with an alcohol wipe.

Tracey didn’t need to ask me how it had gone. The imaging-analysis software, designed in her department and now used around the world, employs a color scale that shades from cool to hot, with three-dimensional pixels coded from blue through red to yellow, depending on the level of neural activity in a region. Tracey has analyzed thousands of these “blob maps,” as she calls them—scans produced using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Watching a succession of fiery-orange jellyfish flaring up in my skull, she had seen my pain wax and wane, its outlines shifting as mild discomfort became nearly unbearable agony.

For scientists, pain has long presented an intractable problem: it is a physiological process, just like breathing or digestion, and yet it is inherently, stubbornly subjective—only you feel your pain. It is also a notoriously hard experience to convey accurately to others. Virginia Woolf bemoaned the fact that “the merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” Elaine Scarry, in the 1985 book “The Body in Pain,” wrote, “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

(…)

Why Did I Teach My Son to Speak Russian?

Keith Gessen for the New Yorker
Gessen-How-I-Taught-My-Son-Russian

In the New Yorker, A Terrible Country author Keith Gessen writes on bilingualism and his decision to teach his son Russian:

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments, and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

Before I knew it, I was speaking to Raffi in Russian all the time, even in front of his mother. And while at first it seemed silly, because he didn’t understand anything we said, in any language, there came a point when I saw that he did. We started with animal sounds. “What does a cow”—korova—“say?” I would ask. “Moo!” Raffi would answer. “What does a cat”—koshka—“say?” “Meow.” “And what does an owl”—sova—“say?” Raffi would make his eyes big and raise his arms and pronounce, “Hoo, hoo.” He didn’t understand much else, though, at a certain point, around the age of one and a half, he seemed to learn that nyet meant “no”—I said it a lot. He didn’t understand me as well as he understood his mother, and he didn’t understand either of us all that much, but still it felt like a minor miracle. I had given my son some Russian! After that, I felt I should extend the experiment. It helped that people were so supportive and impressed. “It’s wonderful that you’re teaching him Russian,” they said.

But I had doubts, and still do.

Bilingualism used to have an undeservedly bad reputation; then it got an undeservedly exalted one. The first came from early twentieth-century American psychologists, who, countering nativists, proposed that something other than heredity was causing Eastern and Southern European immigrants to score lower than Northern Europeans on newly invented I.Q. tests. They proposed that the attempt to learn two languages might be at fault. As Kenji Hakuta points out, in his 1986 book, “The Mirror of Language,” neither the psychologists nor the nativists considered that I.Q. tests might themselves be useless.

In the early nineteen-sixties, this pseudo-science was debunked by Canadian researchers in the midst of debates over Quebecois nationalism. A study by two McGill University researchers, which used French-English bilingual schoolchildren in Montreal, found that they actually outperformed monolingual children on tests that required mental manipulation and reorganization of visual patterns. Thus was born the “bilingual advantage.” It remains the conventional wisdom, as I have recently learned from people telling me about it over and over.

(…)

On the Farm

Daisy Hildyard for the London Review of Books
Daisy Hildyard credit Barney Jones

For the LRB, Daisy Hildyard’s essay ‘On the Farm’ examines animal behaviour and animal rights in the UK:

In November, the government voted to let go of a European law which declares that animals are sentient beings. At that time of year the cattle on my father’s beef farm in Yorkshire come inside for the winter, and we had recently separated a group of young bullocks from the rest of the herd. The bullocks went into a barn and the others were supposed to stay out for a few more days, but they didn’t like it, and expressed their dislike loudly. We had to move the bullocks’ mothers to a distant field far from the barn. Where we left them, there were several hedges, fences and closed gates between the cows and their offspring.

The following morning the mothers were standing outside the barn, bellowing. During the night they had jumped or broken through every hedge, fence and closed gate to get there. My father hadn’t thought this possible: the same barriers had, for years, kept all the animals in. The escape seemed to reveal that the cattle were able to get out at any time, if only they wanted to badly enough.

There is an argument that domestication is a regime men have imposed on other species to project a human idea of power onto a more-than-human relationship. But what if we thought of farming as an innovation of opportunistic animals? From that point of view, it is people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of cows. Leaving aside the compromises that cattle would be making in the circumstances, the argument isn’t easily disproved. The actions of other living things are cryptic. The farm gates look different to the farmer and to the animals. If a mother cow does not run through the hedge every day, it is not that she lacks the ability to do so, but that she has no cause to do it.

Because of this, the breakout didn’t make me feel that I understood these cows any better – in fact, the opposite. It was something like the experience, during the days following a birth or a bereavement, of looking out of the window and being surprised to see the neighbours going to work as usual: there is a sense that normal life is supported by a set of assumptions which are necessary, but not necessarily right. Derrida felt ashamed when he was caught naked in his cat’s gaze, and embarrassed, in turn, by this feeling of shame. My father repaired the gates.

(…)

Art Across Borders: The White Review Panel Discussion

Hotsted by The White Review and Hauser & Wirth
34413050_1716332671737159_155417347270639616_n

In the first of three talks as part of a new collaboration between Hauser & Wirth and The White Review, Tom McCarthy and Kate Briggs discuss internationalist perspectives on art and culture, the exchange of ideas between disciplines and across borders, and the nature of translation. In a conversation moderated by Founding Editor of The White Review, Ben Eastham, the two authors will consider how, even and especially in a global political climate of reactionary nativism, no art is ever ‘pure’ but rather informed by currents of intellectual thought that flow across national, economic and even linguistic boundaries.

The panel will take place on Tuesday 19 June from 6.30-8pm at Hauser & Wirth, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET. Tickets are free and can be booked here.

Tom McCarthy is among the most celebrated writers working in the English language today. He is the author of four novels, two of which – Satin Island and C – were shortlisted for the Booker Prize and works of nonfiction including Tintin and the Secret of Literature. He is also known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as general secretary of the International Necronautical Society, a semifictitious avant-garde network. He is a judge of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Kate Briggs is a translator and the author of This Little Art, a genre-bending, book-length essay celebrating the practice of literary translation. Stemming from her experience of translating Roland Barthes’s lecture notes, This Little Art threads different stories together in a portrait of translation as a means of understanding the inner lives of other people. In additional to her work as a writer and translator, she teaches at the American University of Paris and the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.

 

Photo credit: Stephen Spender

Steeped in Literature: Megan McDowell on Translating Alejandro Zambra’s NOT TO READ

meganmcdowell

Following the recent publication of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Megan McDowell discusses translating Zambra’s works in interview with Splice:

Not to Read is the fifth book you’ve translated from Alejandro Zambra’s body of work, but all the others so far have taken the form of short stories or novels. How is Zambra the essayist different from Zambra as a writer of fiction, and how did this experience of translation differ from others such as Multiple Choice?

I’ve learned through the few non-fiction books I’ve translated that having to stay faithful to actual facts can certainly feel limiting. Your comparison to Multiple Choice is right on, because that’s an experimental book that would have been impossible to translate ‘literally’, but lent itself to adaptation to fit the English language. Since that book is so dependent in parts on wordplay and cultural references, there was no other way it could have worked, I think, but to play fast and loose with ideas of ‘fidelity’.

With Not to Read, the challenges were different. It involved a lot of research — there are a lot of quotations of other works, and if a translation of any of those works existed, I wanted to use it. In the cases where I did have to translate the quotations because none existed or I couldn’t get my hands on them, I was very worried about getting things wrong. When you’re only translating a short excerpt and you haven’t read the work, there are all kinds of things you could misread. I think I drove Alejandro a little crazy asking him to double-check those translations.

.

Were there any particular rewards?

The rewards were readerly: I have a broader panorama of Latin American writers, and an interesting to-read pile beside my bed. Also, as you mentioned, I’ve translated several of Zambra’s books, but it’s been a while since Multiple Choice came out, and it was a joy to get back into his voice.

.

In your introduction to Not to Read, you mention that the original text, No Leer, has gone through several incarnations since its publication in 2010, “of which this English version is only the most recent”. This version, you add, “includes additions and subtractions to the nucleus of the original book”. First of all, can you elaborate a little bit on what has been added?

The original Spanish version compiles short reviews published in the press relatively early in Alejandro’s career. Since the last Spanish edition in 2012, Alejandro has written several essays and presentations that we included in Not to Read; I wanted the book to span the whole of his career, and we took the approach of including all kinds of non-fiction.

I went to see Alejandro give the talk that ends the book, ‘Free Topic’, when he was invited to the Cátedra Bolaño at UDP in 2016, and I immediately thought we should put it in the collection. We went back and forth on whether or not to include it, but in the end I’m very glad we did. In general, I liked the notion of including more personal essays that compliment and build upon the shorter criticism. They give us an understanding of how Alejandro introduced certain ideas in some of the earlier pieces and fleshed them out in the later ones.

We also added some pieces just for fun. For a time, Alejandro wrote parodic pieces for the newspaper The Clinic; the idea was to review books that weren’t literary as if they were high art. So there’s a review of a wine-tasting manual, a book of poems by Karol Wojtyla (otherwise known as Pope John Paul II), and a book of horoscopes.

(…)

Self-Improvement

Sophie Mackintosh in The White Review
14577619218_a1997f5fae_o

‘Self-Improvement’ is a new piece of short fiction by The Water Cure author Sophie Mackintosh, featured in The White Review:

 

I had been sent back from the city in disgrace, back to my parents’ house in the country. It was a traumatic experience. Though not as traumatic as what had preceded it.

 

My parents’ house was a squat, sprawling thing painted light pink. Elaborate grounds sank into the landscape around it. In the garden, a turquoise pool was sludged with leaves and dirt which my father hoovered every other day. I listened to the sound of it from my old room on the top floor, spread-eagled on the bed with the white crochet covers, where I thought about P and wept. I had been allowed just one small keepsake, and only that after I had really pushed for it. A passport photo of his sallow moon face. His brows knitted over his eyes. He was still the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life, six foot five and silent as a column. I wondered what would happen to him now. And yet I already knew – he had become infatuated with someone else. She was his childhood sweetheart, invited over to the house by his mother when he had gone back to visit. I had not been allowed to visit with him. The other girl’s hands, what had been done to them, looked expensive. He had shown me photos of her as if to say: look, give up all your hope. Which at least saved me the trouble of rooting around in a debased manner to find the pictures myself. He was kind like that.

 

P had been the one to ring my parents too. Soon they arrived in their roaring car, big enough to seat six. My mother cried, and my father wore sunglasses but I’m sure his eyes were watering too, with the shame. I told them once I was sat in the car that I could have taken the train, that I wasn’t a fan of all this fuss either. I could have packed up my suitcase and come back quietly. But my mother would not think of it.

 

 

My mother implied that when I was re-released into society, things would be different – we were going to do it properly this time. No more finding your own way. The first time I left my parents, I had P, and it had seemed like a surefire thing. But complacency is the enemy of romantic love, so the magazines told me afterwards, the ones my mother bought in an effort to be helpful. It was important to keep thinking about how to shed your skin and emerge a finely-tuned, better version of yourself. The softness of a thing that had cast off a carapace.

 

I was put on a strict nutrition plan. No more protein, for example. I had always had a healthy appetite, though P had encouraged me to eat less. Instead I had just eaten in secret. Small cakes, slices of cold meats. I couldn’t help myself. All that had to stop, according to my mother. Now I was allowed only diced tropical fruits, marshmallows, slices of white bread, and a glass of skimmed milk each day for my bones. Once a week she measured my biceps and thighs with a tape to see how much muscle I was losing.

 

I was hungry all the time, but it was okay because I was encouraged to lounge. I didn’t have to do chores the way I had done before P chose me. Instead I spent a lot of my time lying on the couch in my room, watching television shows about rich men and the women who loved them. I became very invested in these shows, grew to love the faces of their blonde women, the scooped lines of their jaws, their expressive eyes. Most of all, I loved the speechless woman with her eloquent hands. All the men wanted her too, it was plain to see. Even the married ones with fantastic wives, wives with elaborate necklaces, golden teeth, other markers of love.

(…)

 

Bach at the Burger King

Theodore Gioia for the LA Review of Books
phpThumb_generated_thumbnail-2

Theodore Gioia considers the position of classical music in contemporary society for the LA Review of Books:

At the corner of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.

Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.

This tactic was suggested by a cryptic organization called the Central Market Community Benefit District, a nonprofit collective of neighborhood property owners whose mission statement strikes an Orwellian note: “The CMCBD makes the Central Market area a safer, more attractive, more desirable place to work, live, shop, locate a business and own property by delivering services beyond those the City of San Francisco can provide.” These supra-civic services seem to consist primarily of finding tasteful ways to displace the destitute.

The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

Experts trace the practice’s origins back to a drowsy 7-Eleven in British Columbia in 1985, where some clever Canadian manager played Mozart outside the store to repel parking-lot loiterers. Mozart-in-the-Parking-Lot was so successful at discouraging teenage reprobates that 7-Eleven implemented the program at over 150 stores, becoming the first company to battle vandalism with the viola. Then the idea spread to West Palm Beach, Florida, where in 2001 the police confronted a drug-ridden street corner by installing a loudspeaker booming Beethoven and Mozart. “The officers were amazed when at 10 o’clock at night there was not a soul on the corner,” remarked Detective Dena Kimberlin. Soon other police departments “started calling.” From that point, the tactic — now codified as an official maneuver in the Polite Policeman’s Handbook — exploded in popularity for both private companies and public institutions. Over the last decade, symphonic security has swept across the globe as a standard procedure from Australia to Alaska.

(…)

Darling

Chelsey Minnis for Granta
download-1

From Chelsey Minnis’s poem ‘Darling’, featured in Granta 143: After the Fact:

Oh, it’s you.
I never could resist anything that belonged to someone else.
I suppose you feel the same.
That’s a very promising black eye.
If you want one, fix it yourself.

 

You wear a big, gold belt buckle with your name on it.
Now, I really like your eyes when they look at me with that look.
The one that is so fair-minded.
It’s dangerous like a very powerful doorbell.
Or a portrait covered with a blanket.

 

You didn’t lock your door.
You never were very particular about your associations.
Does it give you a lovely guilty feeling?
To me you’re a national disgrace.
Please act accordingly.

 

I didn’t hit you very hard.
It all depends what you want out of life.
Never mind talking.
I know I’m a bad woman.
I think you’ll find it to our mutual benefit.

 

Sure, I’m decent.
I’ll have to try that sometime.
Don’t shout, darling. I’m not used to it.
I need my hand back now.
When I don’t like something, I give it back.

 

 (…)

 

An Irish Problem

Sally Rooney for the London Review of Books
download-2

Sally Rooney’s vital essay on abortion and women’s rights in Ireland and the upcoming Eighth Amendment referendum, featured in the London Review of Books:

In 1983, a referendum was held in Ireland to establish a constitutional right to life for embryos and foetuses. Abortion was not legal in Ireland at the time; it never has been. The referendum was the result of a campaign by conservative religious groups aimed at preventing any future legislation permitting abortion in any but the most extreme, life-threatening circumstances. The Eighth Amendment passed, gaining 67 per cent of the vote. On 25 May, another referendum will be held on whether to repeal that amendment. This one won’t pass so easily – if it passes at all.

So far the campaign has been distinguished by acrimony, falsehoods and a media obsession with ‘balance’ – an insistence that both sides must be given equal respect and consideration. Though campaign funding is strictly regulated by Irish law, there are questions about how effectively these regulations are being enforced, and in particular about the ‘No’ campaign’s links to anti-abortion organisations in the US. A group calling itself the Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, made up largely of American volunteers, has attracted media attention by protesting outside maternity hospitals in Dublin with banners showing dismembered foetuses. The group is connected to a US organisation called the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, whose leader, Gregg Cunningham, visited Ireland in January.

Across the country, ‘Save the Eighth’ posters depict gigantic, robust babies, as if the referendum concerned the health of six-month-old infants. But the subtext is clear: no matter what’s going on in a woman’s life, it’s always a good time to have a baby. One poster produced by the ‘No’ campaign shows an ultrasound image of a foetus below the caption: ‘I am nine weeks old. I can yawn & kick. Don’t repeal me.’ The Together for Yes campaign, which crowdfunded its largely text-based posters, has opted for slogans like: ‘Sometimes a private matter needs public support’.

By providing the foetus and the pregnant woman with an equal right to life, the Eighth Amendment prohibits abortion in all circumstances unless the life of the woman is at substantial risk. The threat of serious, permanent injury or illness is insufficient grounds for a termination. In 1992, a 14-year-old child who had been raped by a neighbour became suicidal as a consequence of the resulting pregnancy. After the attorney general issued an injunction to prevent her from travelling abroad for an abortion, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, holding that suicidal feelings constitute a risk to life. Much of Ireland’s abortion debate since then – including a referendum in 1992 and another in 2002 – has hinged on whether the possibility of suicide does in fact constitute a sufficiently immediate risk. In 1992, 35 per cent of the population believed it did not.

The criteria by which doctors gauge a risk to life, as distinct from a risk to health, are still unclear. In 2012, a woman called Savita Halappanavar developed sepsis during a miscarriage. Aware that her pregnancy was no longer medically viable, and increasingly unwell as the infection spread, she asked for a termination. The request was refused, because the risk to her life was not deemed substantial. By the time she was ill enough to be allowed a termination it was too late. Halappanavar died of a cardiac arrest caused by the sepsis. The decision to hold the upcoming referendum was sparked by the public outcry that followed her death. Months after the story broke, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed, setting out the processes by which pregnant women whose lives were endangered could access terminations – before then, no legal guidelines had existed for doctors or patients. In 2016, as demand for constitutional change continued to grow, the government set up a Citizens’ Assembly to look into the issue. The Eighth Amendment was no longer just about abortion; it was now about public health. Discussion focused on the most egregious consequences of the law: the fact that pregnant women with cancer had limited rights to access treatment that might endanger the foetus; that women had to continue with pregnancies that had been deemed non-viable; that children (and adult women) who had been sexually abused were forced to bear their rapists’ offspring.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions