Friday, April 26, 2024

An infinitely more physical way to touch

There was no touch as instantaneous and intuitive as the gaze. It was close to being the only way of touching without touch.

Language, by comparison, is an infinitely more physical way to touch. It moves lungs and throat and tongue and lips, it vibrates the air as it wings its way to the listener. The tongue grows dry, saliva spatters, the lips crack. 

Why does one thing resonate when another leaves me cold? Greek Lessons, by Han Kang, is an exquisite thing.

The first thing I perceive is time. I sense it as a slow, cruel current of enormous mass passing constantly through my body to gradually overcome me.

Why do I love this book? Maybe because it is about language. Maybe because it is about beauty, and favours the ephemeral over the eternal, turning Plato inside out. Maybe because it is cosmopolitan and urban, but intimate and quotidian. It reminds me of being in Greece. It reminds me of learning German. It reminds me of now. It makes me want to write. It makes me want to sculpt. It makes me cry. It puzzles me, how it unfurls.

Maybe because I read (most of) it on a plane. A friend of mine claims watching movies on a plane is a more intensely emotional experience, and I keep meaning to google this allegation, ascertain its science. Maybe it’s the same for books, only there are books I recall reading in flight that were less memorable, or at least memorably not enjoyable (which perhaps proves the point?). Maybe because I’m so high above the ground, I have a god's eye view, a richer appreciation of the earthly. (It turns out it's the air pressure, lower oxygen levels in the brain.)

I want to forgive this book everything. At about halfway (days ago, while still earthbound, nursing my ailing mother) I felt confused, but also swept away. I wanted to make sure, really sure, I understood everything, so I started over.

I want to read it again now.

He teaches Ancient Greek and is going blind. He pines for his first love, when his family lived in Germany; he regrets how rebuffed another friend. 

She is unable to speak, a response to trauma, not for the first time in her life. She's mourning her mother, but perhaps also grieving her own life. Divorced, she's lost custody of her son.  

How can these two people break through their isolation and connect?

I will for a few days come back to the thought that maybe I should study Ancient Greek (or some similarly inconsequential language), or that I should be crafting poetry. I expect this impulse will fade entirely within the week, but part of me hopes it doesn't.

I think about the lovely turns of phrase I’d like to borrow, to use as titles for sculptures I’ve yet to mould: "My eyelids quiver like stridulating insect wings." (The sensation he feels repeats her earlier state of being. "The woman’s eyelids tremble. Like insects’ wings rubbing briskly together.") "I will see the fabric of darkness, unraveled into bluish threads, wind about the city." "The latter part of his life began, which could not be called anything but a chaotic mess."

Now and then, words would thrust their way into her sleep like skewers, startling her awake several times a night. She got less and less sleep, was increasingly overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, and sometimes an inexplicable pain burned against her solar plexus like a metal brand. 

The most agonizing thing was how horrifyingly distinct the words sounded when she opened her mouth and pushed them out one by one. Even the most nondescript phrase outlined completeness and incompleteness, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness, with the cold clarity of ice. Spun out white as spider's silk from her tongue and by her hand, those sentences were shameful. She wanted to vomit. She wanted to scream.

There is clay, and there is touch throughout this book (and the colour blue). "Her face is thin and drawn, like the elongated features of certain clay sculptures." Touchpoints for me. "The flesh remembers." "A brighter and more concentrated stillness filled the dark clay jar of her body."

The sadness of the human body. The human body, with its many indented, tender, vulnerable parts. The forearms. The armpits. The chest. The groin. A body born to embrace someone, to desire to embrace someone.

We are earthy, and earthly. Everything we do or say has physicality. Language is physical. This physicality that Kang emphasizes makes everything sensual.

She no longer thought in language. She moved without language and understood without language — as it had been before she learned to speak, no, before she had obtained life, silence, absorbing the flow of time like balls of cotton, enveloper her body both outside and in.

The man across the aisle is playing chess. I am sad that I have no one to play chess with, or backgammon. This week I wondered if I could teach my mother to play backgammon, and then I rejected the idea. I consider playing chess online, at least it will exercise my thinking, my logic, my projection into the future, more than my daily sudoku anyway. I think about whether I prefer the blue labyrinth of the UK cover or the hexagonal pencil in cross section of the North American cover.

("She just didn't like taking up space. Everyone occupies a certain amount of physical space according to their body mass, but voice travels far beyond that. She had no wish to disseminate her self.")

Sometimes she thinks of herself as more like some form of substance, a moving solid or liquid, than like a person. When she eats hot rice, she feels that she herself becomes that rice, and when she washes her face with cold water there is no distinction between her and that water. At the same time she knows that she is neither rice nor water, but some harsh, solid substance that will never commingle with any being, living or otherwise.

"The Middle Voice"

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