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Sublimity and the Senses Pt. 1

Luce Irigaray tells us that we live (and love) in an ocularcentric society and Jacques Derrida asserts our reliance on logocentricism, that is to say, the primacy of speech over writing(let’s talk about phallogocentrism another time). Grammatology, then, is my realm of expertise, it is writing that I privilege most of all. I am a student and lover of literature — I spend the better part of my time reading, that is, looking at systems of signs and meticulously digesting their meaning. I ask myself, “What is the purpose of this metaphor or the value of this allegory?” Long after I have finished reading, I consider these ideas as I commute to work or walk down the street. I continue to ask, “How did those words or that poem make me feel?” Sometimes though, I am struck by my senses in such a way that I need not intellectually process their hidden meanings or settle on their exact importance to me. I speak of the responses to stimuli that bypass our intellectual processes, that circumvent our brain and mainline right into our nerve endings. A hug from a friend, the first bite of tiramisu, the deep notes of a cello reverberating through metro tunnels, a painting that immediately grips us on first sight. While it seems somewhat antithetical to do so, I realize that I should take some time discussing these things at length, given the highly sensuous and sensory based nature of my work and interests. Because it seems like a very large project, let me first deal with hearing today: When there is a violin or cello player in the metro, I am compelled to take out my headphones and stand enchanted for a while, no matter how late I am. I have always been a fool for stringed instruments and arrangements. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was the first classical music I heard growing up and now going to the opera or the orchestra is, to me, a religious experience. For those who have never been to the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, I must assure you, there is no choice but to be swept away. The acoustics are heavenly, every musician is both heard independently and as a part of the greater whole; it is an experience that words fail to grasp entirely. For those of you who know me, I take care in choosing and customizing the music for my encounters. I alter the collections, customize them, tailor them to ensure that the songs flow seamlessly into one another, compliment each other, and work to put me and my partner into the best frame of mind possible. I am always searching for new music, looking for the best works to include.

At the beginning of the Jazz Festival, I went to see Beirut play a free show. It was packed solid and being that I’m not great with crowds, I only managed to stay about 45 minutes and barely enjoyed the music. But a friend had suggested them to me a long time ago, so I went online to find their discography and pick an album to dive into. I selected The Flying Club Cup, mostly because of it’s French chanson influences. The night I finally had time to give it a listen, it had been raining and I had just been reunited with my prized umbrella (more on that for another post). As I walked home through the lovely flowering alleyways of my neighbourhood, I was completely bewitched by the music. Brass instruments, an accordion, and Zach Condon’s haunting voice took me over. I felt the music as a warm burst in my chest. Like electric shots it moved from there into my fingertips, over my breasts, across my stomach and down my thighs. I could not think, I could not care what the few people in the dark thought of me. With my long umbrella I directed an invisible orchestra. I spun over the puddles, moving my head to the melody. I also nearly got hit by a car because I wasn’t paying attention, but that’s a bit embarrassing so we won’t dwell on that. I think the most amazing thing about that moment was that I didn’t think about it. I didn’t try to process or describe the situation to myself, I didn’t dissect the lyrics to try and divine their meaning. For a brief and golden moment, I was just a girl on a rain drenched street, overtaken by the beauty of a song.

These moments are incredibly important to me. It’s not that they are so rare, I feel that I have become quite adept at living in the moment and appreciating the small yet powerful joys of life. Freshly blooming flowers, decadent cake, vibrant paintings, all of these things have the power to stop me in my tracks. But to go a little while without thinking or worrying, to have a few sublime moments beyond language, outside of human-crafted systems of signs and symbols, it is like a brief respite from captivity. When beauty or passion overtake us, when the senses outstrip language, those are the instances when we transcend low mortality and become briefly in tune with something greater than ourselves. I know that there are many philosophers who might disagree with me. Many of them spend their time reasoning human existence, the human condition, fencing in experience with epistemology. But I believe that there are many artists, musicians, and even authors, who might find something in common with what I describe. I hope you too have experienced a few of these moments for yourself and know the sublimity I speak of.



The Nexus of Language and the Erotic

While I’ve been attempting to fulfil my Summer Reading Bingo Goal, I fear I may have run a bit off track. That is unless I can try and fit Virginia Woolf and Luce Irigaray into some of these categories? A confession: Up until this point I’ve only read Woolf’s essays, usually as a way of backing up my own literary criticism. She was a genius essayist and her wit is at times unparalleled. A Room of One’s Own has always comforted me with its winding style and vindicated me with its concise arguments. I once laughed out loud in class as I read her description of how she had to wrestle with and then murder the Angel of the Hearth in order to become a confident author (Victorian literary jokes just kill me). Then last summer I watched The Hours. I was staying with a friend in Vancouver and feeling a bit low so I began to search her alphabetically organized collection of DVDs for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Instead I skipped it over and decided to give Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep try. In hindsight, this was not the best decision; while I was in need of a light hearted musical romp, I got Woolf’s persisting mental illness and Clarissa Vaughan's AIDS stricken friend instead. I cried like a baby afterwards but carried away with me the resolution to read Woolf’s fiction.

The logical choice (and the option most likely to fill a bingo category) is Mrs. Galloway but I already had a partially finished copy of The Waves handy. It’s always satisfying to finish a book you started ages ago, right? Things have been proceeding quickly, though I can’t help but mark and underline all the words that I love as well as the words that I must look up. Woolf packs an impressive lexicon and I realize part of her appeal for me is her use of my favourite words, like ‘incandescent,’ ‘luminous,’ and ‘ephemeral.’

I don’t know how much time other people spend thinking about the words of their mother tongue. Certainly, I have come across many French words and names that I love: Île d’Or sounds like the most beautiful place in the world, and papillon has a music to it. I have other favourite words, some of which I forget about until they come up again in my reading. They have the power to comfort and soothe me. My favourites, not including the ones used by Woolf:

  • Diaphanous
  • Bless
  • Whisper
  • Melody
  • Benefice
  • Transcend
  • Effervescent

It isn’t even that these words have especially beautiful meanings or refer to pleasant things. It’s just that something in the arrangement of consonants and vowels, the rhythm or sibilance they produce, have a calming effect. Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially eccentric, I ask a friend or acquaintance to come up with their favourite words. It often surprises people a bit, but still they usually have a list buried somewhere in their subconscious, even if they’ve never given voice to it. Usually though, it is the words that bother or annoy people that come to their lips easiest. Mine include the following:

  • Treat
  • Chat
  • Glut
  • Frack

Perhaps it’s a strange way pass time, but I put a lot of stock in the power of words and I’m sure a few of you out there do too. The ability to communicate fantasies, needs, and dreams, to convey affection, even the soft monosyllables whispered or moaned during the height of passion; this is the nexus of language and the erotic. See, there I go turning a post about Virginia Woolf into something about sex — I don’t think she would disapprove though.

So what are your favourite words? What kind of language calms or excites you? I’m always interested in how other people feel about these things.