Stupid

The last six posts have presented raw material for the reflections to follow in the series From the pain of aphasia to the aphasia of pain.  Of course, the material is not really “raw.”  I have selected the incidents and framed them, both in the context of this project and from my perspective within each incident.  This self-reflection is appropriate to start the next few posts, which will address the methodology of this series and of this blog in general.

Letting Laura get smacked by the bank door was not the only time that I acted or felt stupid during this experience, though it’s certainly high on the list.  I seemed to be dense about three of the four things Laura said that I am using to frame this blog:

  • The three kiss-offs
  • Whoever you are, I love you
  • I will miss you.

When I would express my questions, one of Laura’s friends or relatives would sometimes say, “Don’t you think she might have meant ….” or sometimes more bluntly, “Of course, it’s obvious she meant ….”  But just as my continuing uncertainty about the flat tire incident is not about getting it right or wrong, my continuing denseness about what Laura meant is another part of the experience.  Another version of the aphasia of pain.

In fact in her book Suffering, the German Protestant theologian Dorothee Soelle includes stupidity as one of three ways to approach questions about suffering when such questions cannot be asked or answered in scientific language. (She’s hung up on Wittgenstein at this point.)  These practices are:

  • use scientific language as much as possible,
  • commit to love and cut out anything that gets in the way of that commitment, and finally
  • just repeat what can neither be stated in scientific terms nor “put aside as superfluous.” (Soelle (1975) 5-8)

Describing the operation of naming or repeating as blöde, Soelle writes,

I’m using the word blöde (‘stupidly’) first in its older sense, namely, ‘feebly,’ for our feeble eyes are not capable of seeing what we are speaking about.  Then, too, I’m using the word in its current sense, because repetition of sentences we neither understand nor think through is a sign of stupidity.”

Many times during her illness and since, I acted blöde because I only repeated Laura’s words, not getting any deeper into what she meant, nor moving closer to where she was.  My Blödsinn was most evident in my initial reaction to each of three of her statements.  (Even if it’s German, I need to flag my use of an abstract noun to describe what I did and do.)

Note the distinction: “what she meant” and “where she was.”  I am not aiming for some scholarly gloss on words, nor what Virginia Woolf calls “the mystic quality” of words during illness.  Rather, I am moving towards their

sound … color … stress … pause … scent … and … flavor, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate, the nostrils, like some queer odor.  (Woolf 21-22)

The urge to submit comments like aha! or the smell of bullshit! will tell you when we’re face to face.  This pursuit of the sensual as well as the sense also underlies what may strike some readers particularly as bullshit: playing with word associations, etymologies, and translation within and across languages.  This word play does not claim to be poetry or poetic, but its methods and aims are similar. Perhaps the Greek word poiēsis from which “poetry” comes may be more appropriate here. Poiēsis refers more generally to making. In this case, shaking myself in the writing and the reader in the reading, stirring things up to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what falls out.

Our meaning-seeking minds feel blöde as we come closer “sensually” to what someone is saying, as we find that these words “do not merely reflect the world but do something in it and to it.”  When we begin to accept our stupidity in treating these words as “repositories of ideas,” we can begin to work with them as “strategies for the encompassing of situations.” (Kenneth Burke, quoted in Newsom (2004) 16)

Of course, I must still attend to the U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. in comparative literature and former college professor who critiqued the love poem I gave her during our first summer together.  Fifteen years later she was still urging me not to waste my time scribbling.  I’ll keep trying to live up to her standards.  In fact, in many ways the close reading of texts, words, etymologies and translations that goes on here is done to make her present, however weak these attempts may be in comparison with her scholarship.

(Note on poiēsis.  For reasons already mentioned, it would be more accurate to use the infinitive poiēein than to use the more common noun poiēsis. Poiēein would also avoid associations with Aristotle’s distinction between poiēsis and praxis (NE 1140a), and all the discussion around Arendt’s and Heidegger’s writings on this theme.  I do not mean to pull in all that baggage.)

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