Saturday, May 5, 2007

My Damn Brain...

I’m a great believer in figurative language. It’s much easier for me to describe something – particularly a situation or a feeling - with a simile, metaphor, or image than it is with a long string of adjectives. I can write analytically with great precision. But when I try to produce a verbal description or explanation, my brain responds with – and here’s a great example of my inability to describe – something between a snapshot, painting, and movie. For example, when I consider how to understand bad news or some personal setback, I see/think “river.” With that one image, I remember that the current will remove an obstruction and, if I can just be patient, the stream will again flow clear. But it takes so many words, so much explanation, to communicate that simple picture to someone else.

One of my fascinations with neurology (it’s my secret twin’s fantasy career) is my brain’s inability to communicate thought processes, succinctly, in words. I guess it’s that hemispheric conflict between linear and spatial. The part of my brain that could create visual art, or even fiction, has a glitch somewhere between origin and expression I guess.

In literature, they call this the “objective correlative.” Here’s T.S. Eliot explaining it far better than I could:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

If you want to see this in action, read Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the Rain.”

Yesterday, the phrase “I’m just barely hanging on” and its variants (“by the skin of my teeth,” “by my fingernails,” “end of the rope,” “on my last nerve,” and so on) kept popping into my head. These all imply that the failure to “hang on” would cause the subject to plunge into some undesirable state or situation; the “hanging” prevents crisis or destruction.

The visual image that came along took a totally different spin. The person in that picture was not hanging on to something or off of something with her hands. No, not at all. She was hanging on with her toes. And the abyss did not threaten chaos. It offered relief.

Think of the pools of your childhood. Remember what we called the “high board?” Think of your toes gripping the end. Or being perched on a cliff, grabbing the edge of the earth with your feet. Now you’re with me.

The high board always terrified me. The jumpers were having so much fun. They squealed. They laughed. They popped up like corks and climbed again for more. Me? I sat there stewing, wanting to climb but knowing it wasn’t going to happen. This had nothing to do with fear of heights. It was all about the fall, the impact-driven submersion. It was, I suppose, fear of a plunge into bliss.

I have this friend (am I talking about myself here or about someone else? Doesn’t really matter; it’s a convenient construct) who is gripping the edge with his toes. The water below looks delightful. It’s clear and deep, and the current is slow and gentle. He’d like to think of the fall as a slow-motion plunge through soft summer air, the submersion as a clean knifing into an altered world, the result as a back float down a sleepy river through dappled sunlight. But what if, what if, what if….?

Feel the grit of the board on the balls of your feet. Feel the pads on your toes as they grip the smooth front.

Why can’t you just uncurl and let go?

If you'd like to read T.S. Eliot's essay, "Hamlet and His Problems," go to this link:

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