Wednesday, 13 August 2014

On Having A Travel Plan

I did an interview about my novel on Deborah Kalb's book blog last week. One of the questions she asked was "Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make changes along the way?" This is my answer.

Imagine you are a young man taking a trip to Paris. You tell your best friend that you are going to spend time in Paris and he says: “Are you going to go up the Eiffel Tower?” and you say yes, you definitely will go up the Eiffel Tower. Being an organized guy, you even have a definite plan. The schedule you have made up for yourself says that you will go up the tower on your third day in Paris, just before you go to the Musée d’Orsay to see Manet’s famous painting of a nude women having a picnic with two formally dressed men, 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe'. But on your second evening in Paris, you find yourself in a little jazz bar that happens to be near your hotel, where you meet a wonderful woman with dark shiny eyes wearing too much bright red lipstick, who announces, after a couple of drinks and an intense and wonderful conversation, that you and she should take a train to Berlin together tomorrow to see an exhibition on the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși that just opened there. Because she is beautiful and you want an adventure and you are young and you love Brancusi too--and because that excess of bright red lipstick somehow just works on her, even though you had always thought you hated that look--you do go. So you end up spending time in Berlin rather than Paris, drinking German cocktails in dark German jazz cellars, and making love to a beautiful French woman in the reddish glow of a bedside lamp with a light silk scarf thrown over it, in a cheap hotel room that the two of you have decorated together by propping up postcards of works by Brancusi on every available horizontal surface. It is the best vacation of your life. 

When you get home and your friend asks you how the Eiffel Tower was, at first you can hardly even understand what he is asking about. Your trip had nothing to do with the Eiffel Tower. It was about red lipstick and a beautiful bright-eyed French woman and Brancusi sculpture and Berlin jazz cellars.

Writing a novel is just like taking that trip to Paris.

Monday, 4 August 2014

On Where Pain Is


"We must learn to suffer what we cannot evade; our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrary things- of diverse tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, sprightly and solemn: the musician who should only effect some of these, what would he be able to do? he must know how to make use of them all, and to mix them; and so we should mingle the goods and evils which are consubstantial with our life; our being cannot subsist without this mixture, and the one part is no less necessary to it than the other."
           Michel de Montaigne / Of Experience

I was recently diagnosed with the syndrome of transverse myelitis, which is an inflammation of the white matter (which is white because it is covered by a fatty sheath called myelin) in the spine. It can be diagnosed with an MRI, which makes the (in my case, tiny) region of inflammation visible. The symptoms of myelitis are sensory and motor problems, including muscle cramping, muscle weakness, and an interesting variety of different flavors of pain. There is no cure but the symptoms usually disappear by themselves after a few months. "Touch wood", as my mother would say.

My own symptoms came on suddenly and were of bewildering variety. They eventually stabilized around two primary symptoms: left leg weakness and pain in various places on my right side, especially the sole of right foot, extending (in what seems like an unnecessarily ignoble touch) especially into my right small toe. 

When I learned that that all this had been caused by a tiny speck of disorganized neural signalling, I was interested in the illusion that the pain that was caused by a lesion in my spine clearly felt like it was nearly a meter away, in my right foot. I began thinking about the question: What would we lose or gain if we said that the pain is actually in my spine, but it just feels like it is in my right foot?

One thing we lose is the generally inalienable right to ownership of our own phenomenology. If we cannot even tell where our own pain is, what are we?

One thing we gain, of course, is salvation of philosophical integrity. Typically a pain and the lesion that caused it are coincident in time and space. That is the whole point of the pain system.

We also gain a stark proof that pain is not even real, that it is ultimately just a signal running over an electrical line. Pain is being computed by a buggy program  that will tell you the pain is a metre away from the lesion, in a part of the body that is in fact entirely uninjured.

It is after all easier to ignore static on your phone line than a laceration of your flesh.