Of Care and the Self

  • Bahar Orang
    Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty. Book*hug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Eva-Lynn Jagoe
    Take Her, She’s Yours. punctum books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Consider two gauges of well-being: taking someone’s pulse and offering psychoanalytic reflection. Psychoanalysis is a reader’s art, elevating those favourite activities, interpretation, revelation, and surrender. Care resides in attention (and inattention); the analyst provides the reflective surface, and the analysand’s own self-attention leads to new readings of old behaviours. Measuring someone’s pulse by hand requires attention not only to the patient, but also to the taker’s own internal state; the pulse is felt not so much on the fingers as within them, evoking the clinician’s own interoception. Care is attentive and embodied.

Bahar Orang, the author of Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty, is a physician-in-training planning to become a psychiatrist. She also holds an MA in comparative literature. Eva-Lynn Jagoe is a professor of literature who writes, in Take Her, She’s Yours, about her experience undergoing analysis. The symmetry is not quite exact, yet Take Her, She’s Yours and Where Things Touch enter the larger conversation of care from complementary angles: practitioner and patient.

Orang’s book is presented to the reader as “part lyric essay, part prose poetry,” Jagoe’s as the fusion of “memoir with critical theory,” aligned with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (or Bluets, which, in one of several points of contact, is mentioned in Orang’s book). The two books gather similar ingredients—memoir, literature, curiosity and doubt, critical theory. Orang’s essay draws on memoir to illuminate how beauty manifests in a queer life of care; Jagoe’s memoir tracks the poetics of sexuality and intimacy through one consciousness. Somewhere upstream in both lineages flows Eve Sedgwick’s queer theory (Orang cites it, and Jagoe studied under Sedgwick). Both books celebrate beings in excess of what they are expected to be, selves who overflow their containers.

Where Things Touch is part of Book*hug’s Essais Series, which presents works that “challenge traditional forms and styles of cultural enquiry.” Announcing her allegiance to fragments and the charged space between them, Orang arranges her meditations on beauty as a series of short segments divided by gaps in square brackets—[ ]—echoing one of the book’s touchstones, Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho. Sometimes a few fragments will form a more sustained exploration. Often, after touching an idea gently for two or three beats, like a caregiver measuring bodily rhythms, the book returns to its preoccupation with searching out a definition of beauty.

Orang’s meditations are always beautiful, often resonant. Touch is the sense most evoked in the book, coupled with a tactile and proprioceptive sense of colour, as if everything were witnessed on the most vivid and glowing summer afternoon: “[A]s we lie / together on our mattress on the floor, we are buoyant / in our yellow kingdom.” Powerful passages arise when Orang considers the most challenging material, whether that is philosophical or bodily—for example, the surreal undertaking of a Caesarean section: “[T]he lower / half of the woman’s body is numb, but she feels / pressure as our intention gets deeper.” As a doctor-in-training, Orang has unusual access to the language of internal sensations. She can evoke feelings difficult to name and describe, like the process of inflammation that leads to pain: “[T]issue becomes distorted, strange chemical mediators / arrive at the interlude, and then there is pain.”

The insistent returning to the generalities of beauty, away from these rich specifics, might feel like a retreat, but this is the pattern of thinking that the book explores and echoes. Beauty shows not in one place but in many: in its relations to queerness, where blossoming plants become imagined embodiments; to language, in the tension between concision and excess; and to care:

Maybe the search for beauty has just been my

circular flight around one simple desire: to

incorporate many more kinds of knowing into the

work that I/we do as caregivers and caretakers of

people, texts, other creatures.

Orang’s book performs the compulsion to define and redefine as a kind of plenitude, an infinite accumulation of fragments that together surpass wholeness. In Jagoe’s Take Her, She’s Yours, the repetition compulsion is a trap to be escaped: “it is a form of resistance to remembering . . . the analysand acts out in an attempt to not remember, but to repeat.” In entering therapy, Jagoe begins to choose to remember. Take Her, She’s Yours covers five years of therapy, but the narrative takes place across psychological time, spanning a childhood complicated by two mother figures of unequal class status and caregiving intentions; a traumatic adolescent experience of sexuality and power; the joy of intellectual and philosophical investigation; and marriage as a mingling—potent, sometimes toxic—of these drives of power-seeking, intellect, and sexuality.

It is a vulnerable move for an author to present herself in the less authoritative position of analysand. To do so means to risk being read against yourself. Throughout the memoir, Jagoe writes herself as divided between the wish to be made legible (to herself, to the analyst, to readers), and her urge to feel in control of the narrative, to predetermine our readerly acts of interpretation in her favour: “I don’t want to see the act of writing as a gesture that discloses my most authentic self, because that would trigger my familiar hysterical demand for you to agree with me.”

In another affinity, Jagoe and Orang each celebrate the text-in-excess, describing literature courses given over to the pleasure of long novels. As Jagoe points out, while Take Her, She’s Yours champions excess and rejects totalizing ideas of the self, the book’s arc is clear and concise: from struggle, to insight, to a new narrative of self-knowledge and balanced partnership. Formally, the memoir contains a single interruption, part of a proposal for a never-written book, “Too Much: The Time of Psychoanalysis.” Jagoe mentions other plans, like a “Latin American sound project,” conjuring fully imagined but unrealized textual analyses around her self-analysis. These points of contact between life and theory are erudite and pleasurable investigations, as when Jagoe points out that the Seven Dwarves of Disney’s Snow White all “personify different affects.” These proposals seem to serve as alternate universes, possible totalities glimpsed and abandoned. Ultimately, both Take Her, She’s Yours and Where Things Touch favour the possibility in Sedgwick’s “local theories and nonce taxonomies.” Both books are less concerned with the way a particular theoretical model might support an argument about the self or about care, and more in the way a particular mind assembles fragments of experience and thinking into its own working model of relationship with the world.

Intimacy with a beloved becomes the model for other relations to the world. The way this intimacy echoes and informs other modes of care becomes a final point where these two books touch and diverge. In Where Things Touch, the queer beloved is collaborator and foil in the investigation of intimacy and its relationship to beauty and care. In Take Her, She’s Yours, care is compromised by class and cultural difference; desire is compromised by the problem of giving oneself away in the heteronormative economy of sexual exchange. Jagoe describes encounters that are defined by acting out until she can examine and rewrite this urge in analysis.

As a trans and queer academic, my experience is closer to Orang’s. The flavour of the love she represents—its surprise, its contingency—is more familiar to me. Yet Jagoe’s tumult of heterosexual provocations, her case study of close attention to the self, and especially the distinction between acting out and knowing, also provided many opportunities for self-reflection—indeed, for interpretation, revelation, and surrender.

This review “Of Care and the Self” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Aug. 2020. Web.

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