Monday, August 15, 2011

Blind Spot

There's an old trick where you place a dark spot on a white wall, then sit back and with one eye open, look slightly to the left or right, and at some point, the spot will simply disappear from view. This marks the small area (scotoma) on the retina where there are no visual receptors (no cones or rods) because that's where the optic nerve connects the retina to the brain.

I think we each have points like this is our psychic landscape, which cannot be approached in the direct way we know how to approach most of the world, not because they are too painful (that's another story—see below) but because they simply contradict our ways of understanding; they are incomprehensible because they are in the blind spots of our comprehension.

The annihilation of being is the big one for most people. Of course we can see death all the time; all living things die. But we cannot understand what it means to die, because it would be to imagine not imagining, to think about not thinking—ever again.

We construct all sorts of ways to bridge this blank spot, but at root it is almost impossible to understand a world without a self. That is to say, a story with no narrator, a picture not drawn from a point of view. So when a character in a story (or, in the particular case I'm thinking of, a play I saw last week) considers his or her undoing, and the creator is portraying this as straightforwardly as possible, there comes a kind of gray moment, when the artist (and character) is simply lost.

All of this assumes that the "soul" does in fact die, that consciousness, the self, does not have an immortal component. And I suspect that the power of that "blind spot" is a big part of the impetus to discover alternatives to total death of the self, whether immortality of the soul, or reincarnation, or some other process by which something happens after the end.

Well, something does happen to the body of course: it decomposes and—one way or another—is eaten. And that eating is a root of horror. There was an interesting discussion on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning recently, with the author of the hot new werewolf novel, The Last Werewolf. My question for him was about the horrific effect of having a sympathetic character become meat, how viscerally painful this is for the audience, and how he as a writer used—or at any rate dealt with—this horror. He said that specifically it was being eaten that to his mind was the horror: that all you have worked for in your life is summed up in being a meal for some other creature, and that this was in a way the key to horror as a genre and as a tool. I think he was spot on. Like death, the prospect that we (or our bodies if our sense of self is gone) will be consumed elicits a visceral turn of the stomach.

It is not, however, as powerful a blind spot, because we can in fact imagine being captured in a great monstrous maw like a bird in a cat's jaws. It's painful and horrible but the horror is comprehensible.

I wrote earlier about Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock, and about my troubles with the ending. In the denouement, she pulls from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets an image of Nowhere as a place, in her book an eddying gray horror, a pool at the foot of a garden, the maw of Hell — not a fiery place but an utterly empty negation of everything, good and bad. I think this is the blind spot, and perhaps this is why I find the ending of the book unsatisfying: it takes us up to the lip of a visible impossibility, and then uses a sort of rule-manipulating trick to turn us away, pull us through and out. In the end, that horror is simply left behind, unaddressed.

I recently read William Styron's Darkness Visible, an account of his own deep clinical depression. The book was recommended to me as the truest and clearest description of clinical depression a friend had ever read. It is an excellent book, but one of the things it makes very clear is that depression in itself is indescribable: you can approach it, you can say something about it, but it is a pain of absence, an experience of void, and as such is not really possible to put into words, because the words fill a space in the audience's heads that are simply missing in the sufferer. Depression is like a blind spot of the self, a place that by definition cannot be held and looked at directly. It can be described in the descent, and—as Styron notes, quoting Dante in his return from the Inferno—in the ascent back out of it, but because description is itself something, the void cannot be captured in words.

Is there any way out of these blind spots? If the analogy were perfect, one could just open the other eye. If one trusted the vision of others, one could ask what they saw, but no-one else can truly see our selves from the inside, or be a sufferer of depression for the sufferer. People describe near-death experiences, but these experiences are unsatisfactory because they are about someone else's negation, not ours. Our blind spots are places where our frame of understanding is fundamentally personal, and because we are conscious in some essential way within our own bodies, there is no sure-fire way to add the equivalent of parallel vision. Even a close companionship like Styron had with his wife can't bridge the disease, though of course it sure can't hurt either. It probably saved his life—his realization as he considered suicide that he couldn't just do this selfishly to those he loved. But it didn't cure or offer a window to his condition.

Buddhist practice, with its focus on non-self and non-being, maybe comes closest. But here I fall short, never having really studied such practices. And my understanding is that in Buddhist meditation, the goal is a stilling of self so one can experience the not-self, not the prospect of the soul's extinguishment.

Perhaps the key to addressing these blind spots is to think of them not in terms of their being things we see, but products of how we look. That is to say, it is not self-negation, or death, that we cannot see, but our way of seeing that keeps us from seeing death. The idea—and this is really just an untested idea on my part—that depression is similar in kind to the gray space around the idea of the absence of self, suggests that there is something organic in us, as there clearly is in depression, that makes our seeing unclear. If we saw the world differently—as some who believe in an immortal soul do, for instance—that nothingness would not be a gray and shimmering horror.

What the blind spots do show pretty definitively to me at least, is that description, the set tools we use to say what the world is, has inherent paradoxical limits. It's not that we won't look at them—in the way we won't look at being eaten, or at any of a number of bogeymen and women we set up as furniture in our psychic household—it's that description itself is housed within a finite, mortal frame and cannot therefore see the absence of that frame itself.