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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