On Body-Mind Feedback Loops: How is it That the Affect of Writing is?

Feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavours.

The idea, in essence, is that cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling.

— Damasio (2018)

How is it that the act of writing feels? That is, what is it that the ‘affect’ of writing is on the writer, this writer, you, the writer? There is a body-mind feedback loop, a phenomenological quality and an organic sensibility, to the kinaesthetic lived experience of somehow creating words on page or screen where, once, a short moment before, there were none. It is a magic transformation in multiple ways.

John Banville writes, in review of Antonio Damasio’s new book, The Strange Order of Things (Pantheon, 2018):

For [Damasio], as for Nietzsche, what the body feels is every bit as significant as what the mind thinks, and further, both functions are inextricably intertwined.

— Banville (2018)

On a cold winter day, with the hint of lightest rain in the air, I take a notebook out to cover within it the intermittent pencil markings of my observations: en plein air, in media res. It is the way to capture not just the words that may form but also the feel that shapes the words. There is a shiver in the pencil markings, I see, back in the warm. The shape and weight and thick- or thin-ness of the notebook affects: how it needs to be balanced if it’s portrait-aligned, if it does or doesn’t fit neatly in the palm — words pressed therein are directly connected to such factors and more: weight of page, colour, texture, the way the weather plays with all of these, and so forth.

When we write we consciously choose our media of expression. The pencil will have its fragility, its potential for mortality, its scrape or its smear. There are sensory extensions to these choices that we make. The pen will either scratch or roll, stick in the grease or flow through our consequent disregard for cursive connectedness of individual and collective letters. Our conscious cerebral selves, or our semi-thinking selves, will affect our near-future affected, body-feeling selves. There is a feedback loop at play.

When we touch our fingertips to the keyboard, lightly rest our fingerprints in the barely perceptible but entirely intuited dips at the centres of the individual little squares, press down, make a perfect sound, repeat, repeat, pick up speed, we feel the spring back, the push on and on, and words vibrate. On the magic of the flat screen, somewhere ineffably deeper, pixels that might as well be the size of bacteria form themselves into meaning. We see it all take shape and what is it that we feel?

How we feel isn’t about merely what we touch, or its extensions: it is what touches us, abstractly, distantly. This is how art works. At the National Gallery in London there is a painting by Paul Delaroche (The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833). It is a huge work and on-screen versions don’t do it the proper justice. Standing beneath the depiction of the eponymous character, faltering as she does, being guided as she is, towards the block, floods me with a sense of awe, not so far removed — I suspect — from the anti-rationalist awe of the Romantics’ views and sweeps on nature.

The creation of art, the process and the standing back from what transpires, has this potential for abstract touch. How is it that we are, when we stand back and look on ourselves, into ourselves, when we have created? We may engage in the intellectual exercise, this is true, but there is mind and body at play on such occasions: how might we walk, see, sense, hold ourselves, stop and pause, feel in our nerves and weight of our limbs, after the writing is good and done? If we don’t write, if we haven’t written, we won’t know: you won’t know.

Ultimately, our body — in all its multifarious manner of messages — will connect to our consciousness, to our minds of electrical analysis and chemical fluidity, and we should pay attention: affect begets words begets affect begets words . . .

How is it that the affect of writing is? Writing is more than merely just the product of an art.
 
 
References:

Banville, J. (2018), The strange order of things by Antonio Damasio review — why feelings are the unstoppable force. The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/02/strange-order-of-things-antonio-damasio-review (Accessed Feb 4, 2018)

Damasio, A. (2018), The strange order of things. New York: Pantheon.
 
 

In the Nature of Nature: Notebook Stitchings

It snowed: I snowed. It rained: I rained. As if in some pre-verbal state, whatever ‘it’ was, I was too. I was warm in May because the sun was: I couldn’t tell the difference. I was all the world and all the world was me, saturated with presence. Grass. Blue. Tree. Water. Wind.

— Jay Griffiths, Kith: the Riddle of the Childscape (2013)

I can tell you about the search for perfect words but, really, do you know just how those words can have affect for this mind and body and for this sensitivity? Words are like the weather.

The dust and particles of sand blow up from far in the south, from the deserts, across the seas, and high into the stream of the sky. The air turns dense, a sepia-yellow. The wind blows through. The children in the playground whip around. It feels apocalyptic, but it’s the tail of the storm.

Or, sometimes, in moments still and wide, words are great gashes, sweeps and strokes: all dimensions crammed into two. Words are in the vast theatre-flats, the sets of the world.

Through the raindrops on glass, the sky is a thin wash painting: one of Rothko’s experiments, perhaps. Spread below the thick dark grey, a weak orange, a washy yellow, a bright pale blue and a weathered tinge of green — bands that mark beyond the black bare trees.

I can tell you about the need not to break the lovely ghosts of words, but I would need to whisper this. Words are the china-delicacy of time.

The morning is quiet before the day sets in. Let’s just stop time. Here we can be supple, maleable, soft. Things are possible, but just now, in mornings.

We may talk, you and me, but we might not fully comprehend: our own thoughts fall in the way. Words are water, the art of attention.

The river listens to the liquid conversations we have with ourselves: silent us and silent it. Occasionally it speaks, in ripples, but mostly it just waits and hears.

Or, words are a blurring, out and out across the land and sea, back and back through geographies and histories. Words are like waves, hypnotic, sloshing and smearing us out and away.

Here at the sea, the long sweep along the coast to other places known, and what was this rock thousands of years before we built on it? Later, still far back for us, the early travellers are out on the waves.

I can tell you many things, but I don’t have the wisdom of the trees. Words are such as these.

The trees speak, in languages other than words, in words other than sound, in sounds of colour and light. The trees speak in poetry we have to read by standing still.

I can tell you about the search for perfect words but, really, it’s all written in the stars. Or maybe we don’t believe in matters of astrology.

Perhaps in our written words we’re starlight: we should concentrate all efforts on precision and arrangements. We never know who might look on us — how we can be seen.

In the end, at this end, at this moment, I suppose, it is in the nature of nature, the world and its weather, its sets and time, its waters, seas and trees, its in the stars, if we’ll see, that perfect words can be.
 
 

In the Times of Paper

I wake slowly . . . my thoughts entangled. Soft grey light seeps round the edges of the shutters into this wide and cluttered space, outlining the shrouded furniture and feeding my struggling consciousness as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

— Iain Banks, The Bridge (1986)

. . . in the chilly chapel . . . the slick material of the blouse trembling in the light from the translucent panes overhead, black silk hanging in folds of shade from her breasts, quivering.

— Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Twenty years or so ago I collected such offerings as I considered delicate, or striking, though didn’t attribute them to their authors. I kept them in a small notebook bought with my final Deutschmarks in the pre-Euro west of Germany. These snippets would be like pressed flowers, slowly desiccating in between the dark pages. However, they would, I felt sure, retain all their flavour all the more if the author wasn’t marked alongside them. When I creaked open that notebook, I needed to know who had written these flavourings. I had inklings, but I needed to be sure.

We didn’t have the world wondrous web back when notebooks and pens and paper were alive and well. Now we can find what we need instantly. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Banks had written the former offerings. There is a poetic resonance to these words which, all this time in the dark, I find still taste of something rich and smooth. Vonnegut, on the other hand, struck me from the pages of a recent reading: he wrote in times of paper and how things just were, it seemed.

In the time of paper amazing seeds were being sown, I found: did I have some unconscious attachment to certain ideas inside me all along, or is it just co-incidence to find threads of plots or themes or scraps of thinking from twenty years in the dark manifesting in the more mature writing of now? Either way, I find that a little disconcerting, eerie, spooky. Maybe some writing takes all the time between the necessary closing and the necessary opening of a notebook to be. If we believe in such things, when the notebook urges itself to be opened this is the time when everything is ready . . .

What did the writer of twenty years ago know? Still nascent loves and early wanderings of the world could only fold out into words in ragged ways. What does the writer of now know? Love and form and knowing how to see may well have evolved, but his words are just as ready for the pressing into dark pages as scraps of twenty years ago were. One day, when the time of paper will return for sure, something unknown and unknowable will blink out into the early morning light, slowly, as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.