Intrigued by Bookslut’s review of On Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family: Permitted and Forbidden Stories by Valeria Ugazio
Ugazio trains her gaze on four disorders of the mind and the respective semantics in which they took root. “The central thesis of the book,” she writes, “is that people with phobic, obsessive and depressive organizations and eating disorders have grown up and are still part of conversational (usually family) contexts where specific meanings predominate.” Phobics have acquired a “semantics of freedom,” in which their family heroes take risks and travel the globe with their heads held high, while others cower at home, unable even to advance their own concerns. The obsessive is associated with a “semantics of goodness” — the pole here running between selfish hedonists and those who deny their will like nuns. Eating disorders occur within a semantics of power, in which the world and, more to the point, the family, is split between those who have control and those who lack it. And depressives participate in a semantics of belonging, oscillating between community and schism, wanting to go to the party and at the same time desperate to leave.
New ways of looking at old pathologies and the self. Startling and disconcerting recognitions that might shift old obstacles and repetitions. I sometimes feel we are starved of paradigms for a new century.
Ugazio emphasizes the importance of opposition in the creation of a personal semantics. One is always acting unconsciously versus someone, or in emulation of another, and so one of her first questions when a patient demonstrates an obsession with, for example, timidity is to ask “Who in your family is timid? Who is assertive?” The arid feeling of some modern fiction, in which the main character is a deracinated male confronting bald “existence,” comes from its lack of this opposition — even someone who lives alone, day in and day out, does this in opposition to all absent figures and in rebellion against old entanglements — they color his solitude and give it form and substance. I write “his” because many of the myths of self-sufficiency that Ugazio rails against so thrillingly are believed by men, which is a very different thing from saying that all or most men believe in them.
Out here where we have a slight but pressing foothold on Africa between two oceans, the news is filled with images of African refugees protesting en masse in Tel Aviv, rumours that the ancient Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe has died (unconfirmed and perhaps wishful thinking from expats and exiles), terrible scenes of conflict in south Sudan. Heavy rains have caused floods and crop damage in the Western Cape, the African National Congress is celebrating 102 years of anti-colonial struggle, and in Krugersdorp a 46-year-old man gave a nine-year-old girl a small bribe of R10 not to report that he had raped her. Hard watching, hard reading.
A relief to take a break from writing about the failure of human rights principles and turn away from the news of violence and tragedy, to go into the garden, humid and green, reviving after the rains. Last week’s heat scorched and bleached that garden — it always amazes me to witness the resilience plants have, that return after a cool night and some dew or a few days of rain. There are small frogs everywhere, reed frogs and buttery freckled river frogs, pop-eyed toads under trusses of oleander. The wagtails and mousebirds tug at earth worms on grassy surfaces, top soil has been washed into the leiwater canals, pots are soggy and the last summer roses battered and dropping petals. It’s all neither good nor bad, just what it is. I need more nature-centred metaphors to describe this vital part of my daily reality, the beauty, the abundance and struggles for survival going on within a few squared-off asymmetric metres of garden.
Emerging metaphors and shifting realities — I’m eager to read Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, a Costa prize-winning novel about mental illness. Stories about mental illness are never about mental illness so much as they are bout our cultural insanity in dealing with mental illness.
“It’s a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he’s got schizophrenia. But it’s not a novel about schizophrenia and it’s not a novel about the NHS,” said the author.
Having said that, Filer admitted a responsibility not to propagate myths around schizophrenia, a condition that is still “misunderstood and misrepresented”, he said. “If you ask the man in the street you will still get lots of people taking about split personality, which is completely bogus … and violence which of course can be associated with it but more often isn’t.”
The renewal of our minds, finding better texts with which to think things through, engaging in smarter conversations, letting go of cliches and tired old dichotomies.
From the poem Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea by Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail who grew up in Baghdad:
We made room in our day for every star,
and our dead remained without graves.
We wrote the names of each flower on the walls
and we, the sheep, drew the grass
–our favorite meal–
and we stood with our arms open to the air
so we looked like trees.
All this to change the fences into gardens.
A naïve bee was tricked and smashed into a wall,
flying toward what it thought was a flower.
Shouldn’t the bee be able to fly over the fence-tops?
Long lines are in front of us.
Standing, we count flasks of flour on our fingers
and divide the sun among the communicating vessels.
We sleep standing in line
and the experts think up plans for vertical tombs
because we will die standing.