To Rescue Means to Love Things

Austin means warm winters, means that seasons aren’t distinguishable. They infest each other, graft onto each other’s decay. Fall rots into a sodden trail of grey highway horizons and road kill that bakes more slowly than usual. The sky—even downtown its stars hang like snowflakes, frozen against the black. Last Christmas I saw a twisted crow carcass snagged on roadside shrubs, pushed upward by the rush of air from passing cars. It was a plastic bag, actually, but this is what I’m trying to tell you. I saw a twisted crow carcass and frozen snowflakes and so the bag and stars were somehow still, horribly, me: a stretched thin surface-tension-self coagulating.

A priest I know says that depression is spiritual, that it comes from and points to the sacred. She thinks we lose something in medicating sadness, that even paralyzing despair is generative. But it’s easy to romanticize melancholy, harder to believe that stagnation contains potential. Depression is ossification: fossilized numbness. It’s a sterilizing kind of sadness. All-pervasive yet inaccessible. I felt nothing—emotions didn’t come. Or they did, but I couldn’t recognize them. It’s hard to romanticize, because I don’t know how to talk about it. Words never came, but exhaustion did. I was irreparably tired. I couldn’t sleep enough. I didn’t sleep enough. I can’t write this because I don’t trust that you’ll believe me. I don’t trust that I’ll believe myself.

I didn’t get help. I didn’t want it to be named. Diagnosis was reification, an abstract, ineffable sadness reduced to a malfunctioning body. And stupidly, selfishly, I didn’t want my sadness articulated as treatable. Things are choked out by concretization—depression meant that my mind was rendered subordinate to my body. It meant that this pain, all of it, was nothing more than defunct neurotransmitters. Diagnosis meant loss, loss of the chance for meaning. Diagnosis was cold, arbitrary. Diagnosis might have been negative, in which case self-pity might have given way to self-loathing. I wanted death—not my own, but one that felt personal. The perfect sadness: one justified by the object lost. I wanted to be granted the total collapse of grief.

***

“The world, monotonous and small, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!”
Baudelaire, “The Voyage,” Trans. William Aggeler

Oasis suggests interruption, the potential for shattering the inertia of ennui. It also suggests boundaries, such that interruption is not shattering, rather a puncture. Perhaps naming horror means to corral it. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut writes of Anne Sexton, “she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.” [1] We could argue about poetry, say that it is a means to approach the transcendent rather than a way to imprison it, to hold it captive in order to encounter it. But the naming seems an act of reification. To name is to assert something over the abstract, to be able to do things with the abstract. To write terror means to circumscribe it, and so reification means loss—of purity, of power, of transcendence. Of autonomy.

Simone Weil did not encounter the stories of mystics until she herself had articulated her own experiences. She said she was grateful for this, that she escaped reifying her own abstract into the form of someone else’s divine encounter. I read too much about a numbing despair: Rilke, Sexton, Plath. Too much about self-loathing, about disappointment, about divine transformations. I have too many words, too many chances for encounters with myself in someone else’s writing. The problem is that a line of poetry might be almost-but-not-quite my sadness, and still I assume the language as my own. The problem is that then the not-quite becomes internalized too, the problem is that I recognize this but can’t extract the surplus words, the problem is that I know this is happening but can’t fix it. The problem is that I cannot trust my own sadness, cannot trust that it belongs to me.

***

“I am torn in two
but I will conquer myself.
I will dig up the pride.
I will take scissors
and cut out the beggar.
I will take a crowbar
and pry out the broken
pieces of God in me.
Just like a jigsaw puzzle,
I will put Him together again
with the patience of a chess player”
Anne Sexton “The Civil War”

In unassembled pieces, Sexton’s god is at once there and absent, “like an island [she] ha[s] not rowed to.” [2] God dwells in her, but she cannot encounter him until she makes him whole. To build God, then, means carving out his pieces. An obliteration for reconstruction, interiority moved to the outside. The poet must dissect herself to assemble him.

I could not conduct my own dissection, because I could not find my pieces. I did not have language for them and so they existed without form, were boundless. Depression is Sexton’s god-containing self, the toxicity of complete, consuming isolation. The infected self spread thin across the exterior world so that everything, even the transcendent, suddenly becomes the suffering I. I becomes the total, suffocating ennui.

The scariest part, then, is that “to rescue means to love things.” [3] Love means the engagement with that which is not self, to save self means to puncture it. To heal the pieces of self worth loving means ripping into this all-consuming I, refashioning its borders or obliterating them completely. Love means relationship. Love interrupts but does not cure. It is relief through reprieve. But how healing that relief.

Depression is physical: an abstract sadness that comes from a body, that affects a body. Like depression, love names some sensation that is at once physically dependent and transcendent. Both climax at the point of their host’s degeneration—depression catalyzes physical death, love erases the emotional boundaries of self. In love’s consummation, one gives up their “I,” another sort of dying. But unlike depression, love loves toward something. It moves outside of, it is at once relational and rooted. If depression represents reification that pulls away from other objects by disguising them as self, love is union as interruption.

Ultimately, the divine lives apart from Sexton’s jigsaw puzzle: “The Awful Rowing Towards God,” her last collection of poems, ends by naming God the “Dearest dealer,” whom she “love[s]…for [his] wild card, / that untameable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha.” [4] God-as-dealer exceeds the bounds of her conceptions, is potentiality realized in the flash of his hand.

***

The closest I ever came to telling anyone was during office hours, during church, during coffee. Every time, I was sitting across from someone in a dusty chair on the other side of a dusty room, a pew on the other side of a pulpit, a wire chair on the other side of a table. I was always terrified. I didn’t know how to say it: “I need love.” “I need help.” “I need you.” My need was sickening. All-consuming. I wanted to be held. I never know how to say this. I’m still not sure if everyone walks around feeling this way. If it’s greedy for me to ask when we all want the same thing.

I didn’t ask for love, because I didn’t have anything to offer in return. My love for other people festered, became impotent. I was too exhausted to express it, and so my love, imprisoned in the reification of language and bodies, went silent. Trapped inside, it rotted, turned fetishistic. I ached for people, physically hurt with my wanting to be touched, but I could not overcome my own withdrawal.

I was loved anyway, in spite of this. In office hours: “you seem upset. Is there anything I can say to make things better?” A hug. From behind the pulpit: prayer, wafers placed into hands. From Dirt Cowboy: a cup of tea. In spite of myself, there was interruption.

***

Saussure suggests that “our thought-apart from its expression in words-is only a shapeless and indistinct mass.” [5] Thinking demands language, an act of reification. “There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” [6] But the relationship of language to this formless mass is an arbitrary one—there is no essential connection between a linguistic sign and its content.

This lack of connection implies that there is no difference between an idea—or a feeling, let’s say love in this case—and its articulation in speech, but it also implies that there is an inseparable gulf. Love is dependent on words for our recognition of it, and yet there is an uncloseable gap between the sentiment and its name. Derrida says this gap means the end of logocentrism, that there is no such thing as purity of concept—every uttered concept, and thus every word, has inside of it the distance that renders the word representation rather than presence. Because ideas only exist through language, they too contain their own absence. Nothing is whole.

So what does this mean for loving well, for loving at all? Maybe love depends on reification because it exists as the oasis, the interruption—Derrida’s distance. Perhaps love is what lies inside the gap, what moves between two people, what is realized in flowers, poetry, the hug, the tea—a strange sort of filling that demands three orders of reification. First, the internal recognition of it, what Saussure means when he says that to carve out an idea means to name it. Then the communication of this idea, its re-presentation in the form of poetry, “I love you,” flowers. And finally, the object of love—as if in closing some gap, love becomes embodied. Perhaps this connection is not arbitrary.

I don’t know how to love people in ways that aren’t tangible. The reification—to say “my love,” to give flowers as love—becomes a necessity. To ignore it, to succumb to the purity of a love that is not bound to form, not expressed, means the insanity of ecstasy or the sort of passion so intense it leads to separation rather than union. The sort of love that you feel ashamed of because it runs so strangely, bizarrely, dangerously deep.  

***

Union, then, requires bodies. And bodies change. They decay, break, wrinkle. People, these bodies, change too. And we fall out of love with them. The abstract is no longer grounded in the object. It is no longer palpable. We break-up and separate and divorce and leave. We return.

But in spite of this decay, we sometimes stay. Why? One decides to love. It’s not that simple. It’s impossibly simple. We choose to stay. I do not mean to say we should always stay. I mean to say that there are people I love even in the absence of feeling. Even when reification turns to ossification, when the pulse of feeling calcifies. I love them, these friends, these people, because I have decided to. The transcendent, somehow, always honors my decision by reappearing. Not always. But enough.

***

Reification as a way of loving things necessitates its own failure. Decay might be inevitable, but it is also necessary. If love can be bounded, permanently, it cannot also be transcendent. To contain the abstract is to destroy it. Vonnegut’s terror cannot remain terror if it is merely circumscribed, domesticated, rendered amusing—it remains terror only because it is released again. Love seems to argue at once for and against its own disintegration.

Maybe what we want, what I want, is to collapse entirely. To dissolve entirely, to succumb to depression, to decay, to succumb to diagnosis, to reduce ourselves to ruin. Maybe what we actually want is total disintegration, the rot that infests the material—and we want love to emerge transcendent in the choice to stay. We want to break and still continue loving. We want to collapse and be loved.

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[1] Kurt, Vonnegut, Foreword, in Transformations by Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1971), vii.
[2] Anne Sexton, Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Boston: Mariner Books, 1999), 417. 
[3] See Patrice Haynes, "'To Rescue Means to Love Things': Adorno and the Re-enchantment of Bodies," Critical Quarterly 47, no. 3 (2005): 69. Accessed September 20, 2015. 10.1111/j.1467-8705.2005.00650.x
[4] Sexton, Anne Sexton, 472.
[5] de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill 1966), 111. 
[6] Ibid., 112.