Day 218: a capacity for withdrawal

I was reading a book recently (Helen Thompson’s Fictional Matter (2016)) that cited a line from John Locke I couldn’t stop thinking about: “What sort of outside is the certain sign that there is, or is not such an inhabitant within?”

The line is from Chapter 4 of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), “Of the Reality of Knowledge.” Locke poses this question in the context of considering whether the shape of a body necessarily reflects its essence. Locke does not think that shape is a reliable index of a substance’s essence; but he notes that, in general, we are apt to conflate shape with essence: “people do lay the whole stress on the figure, and resolve the whole essence of the species of man (as they make it) into the outward shape,” he observes. Locke notes that this tendency is particularly pronounced when it comes to making distinctions between species. We assume, falsely, Locke believes, that “these two names, man and beast, stand for distinct species so set out by real essences, that there can come no other species between them.”

The duck-rabbit would seem to perfectly illustrate Locke’s point about the fallacy of such an assumption. The fact that it can switch between two distinct species shows that shape does not determine essence. Moreover, the duck-rabbit’s identity as neither duck nor rabbit but as duck-rabbit vividly illustrates Locke’s point that the range of species concepts available to us does not determine that there might not “be a species of an animal between, or distinct from both.”

Let me now rephrase Locke’s question: if a duck-rabbit is your outward sign, what does that tell you about the inhabitant within?

I don’t know the answer to that question; but I have reflected recently that my insides and outsides feel much more closely aligned than ever before. For much of my life I felt that my insides were just too much—too soft (which, come to think of it, they are, not to mention gooey and bloody), too desirous, too fearful, too selfish, too scattered, too lazy, too sentimental—and that, lest anybody suspect such a frightful mess lurked just beneath the surface it was important to project an outside sign—serene, thoughtful, happy, competent, disciplined, altruistic, hard-working—that might plausibly suggest—and might even conjure?—those traits within.

My midlife crisis (my first midlife crisis?), I realize in retrospect, consisted of the revelation that this exercise wasn’t working out terribly well. I was arranging my life in ways to fulfill the desires I attributed to the person I wanted to be, not the person I was. I began cautiously experimenting with voicing thoughts outside my own head that chipped away at the exterior persona I had built. I remember how truly terrifying it felt to say, haltingly, ashamedly, in my first appointment with the referring psychiatrist I saw, “I’m … not … happy.”

In the past five years, this blog has been one way I’ve experimented with exteriorizing my insides, an experiment that has mostly been deeply rewarding. But lately I’ve also had the nagging feeling that my insides and outsides have become too closely aligned. I feel like a Momus glass, as if everyone can peer in and see the maggots within. I look good stark naked, but still. The line between feeling seen and feeling exposed is a fine one.

One of my favorite essays by Winnicott is “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” (If you would like to read it, let me know, I can send you a pdf.)

Winnicott tells a story in that essay about a patient:

The patient said that in childhood (nine years) she had a stolen school book in which she collected poems and sayings, and she wrote in it ‘My private book’. On the front page she wrote: ‘What a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. In fact her mother had asked her: ‘Where did you get this saying from?’ This was bad because it meant that the mother must have read her book. It would have been all right if the mother had read the book but had said nothing. Here is a picture of a child establishing a private self that is not communicating, and at the same time wanting to communicate and to be found. It is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek in which it is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.

Sometimes this blog has felt like the perfect version of this vision: I write “my private book” and you—a you that includes sometimes my actual mother and other people I know intimately but also those I know less well or not at all—read it but generally don’t ask me about it; and so I can feel seen and hidden at once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hide and seek lately. I remember how, when I was very young, I believed that if I covered my eyes, whoever was seeking me wouldn’t be able to find me. (I believe this is a common belief among preschool age children). Sometimes I think the same illusion has sustained my writing in this blog; I can’t see you, dear readers, so I have a hard time believing that you can see me.

This relationship between blog-writer and blog-reader is a version of “parasocial interaction,” a term and concept I learned about from Elaine Auyoung’s wonderful book, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (2018). Sociologists coined the term “parasocial” in the 1950s to describe the kinds of non-reciprocal social relationships audiences have with radio or television performers—or, as Auyoung explores (in an application of the concept I find very suggestive), the relationships readers have with fictional characters. I’m interested, in my scholarly work, in thinking more about the parasocial aspect of readers’ relationship with literary characters. But I invoke the concept here for a different reason: because writing this blog can feel parasocial in the opposite way—like I’ve been having a five-year correspondence with an implied reader. I’m teaching A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I was struck today by the observation the Browning-like Randolph Ash makes in his correspondence with the Rossetti-like Christabel LaMotte: Browning refers to himself as “an author of Monologues—trying clumsily to construct a Dialogue—and encroaching on both halves of it.” That’s me, that is.

Later in his essay on “Communicating and Not Communicating,” Winnicott observes that, “in the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” For Winnicott, what is important is that both needs are acknowledged as healthy—which means valuing not only the ability to communicate but also “the acquisition of a capacity for withdrawal.”

What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to communicate in the post? Search me. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going; but I do feel as though I am at a threshold.

I am not sure if I will continue to write this blog or not, but, for the present, at least, I’m going to make Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole private, which means you’ll only be able to read it if I add you individually as a “reader.” If you are already subscribed to Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole in some fashion, I will go ahead and add you, unless you tell me not to do so. If you are not subscribed, but you are reading this and would like to be able to read any future posts, please let me know, and I will add you before I allow the Notes to sink back into the hole from whence they came.

I thought of concluding this post with a drawing of a duck-rabbit leaping back into its hole, cotton tail stuck in the air, webbed feet akimbo. I’ve been drawing and erasing, re-drawing and erasing. The back end of a duck-rabbit is surprisingly tricky to render. I thought I could make it silly and charming but instead, in my sketch, it’s trite and graceless: I see now that it’s best left unseen.