Inventing the Self

Siri Hustevedt’s The Shaking Woman: Body/Self

September 10th, 2013 by Yana Walton · 3 Comments

Hustevedt’s chosen form and frame carried me along her reading of her body and of a self forged from pain, through a deeply personal quest to understand the relationship of body to self, where contradictions illuminated the phenomena of what it’s like to have a body and a self. Yet through her essay, she reveals the scientific and theoretical fruits found on her quest to unearth and explain a bifurcated self, leading us to not only diagnose her physical and psychic symptoms along with her, but to investigate how all selves are forged – arguably borne out of pain and death, a seeming contradiction.

I am reminded of another essay of sorts, one delivered verbally to me by my father – one that I also was allowed to watch shift as he progressed on his search for self. Before I was born, my father was a marathon runner and trained on his college campus while studying behavioral psychology from Skinner’s department at Western Michigan University. He has type one diabetes, and one day he had an insulin reaction while running alone and passed out due to low blood sugar. He wasn’t found by a campus janitor until he was nearly dead, and then died in the ambulance that was called. Paramedics, then doctors tried to resuscitate him at the hospital as he remained dead for over ten minutes.

During this time, my father had what can be conceived as a classic out-of-body experience, where he tells me that his consciousness separated from his body, watched the doctors working on his prone body from above, felt an insurmountable and seemingly permanent sensation of peace, and began to drift towards a bright light. He became conscious of an impulse to go back into his body, to do more in his life, and recounts willing his “self” back into his physical body, feeling the sensation of his “spirit heels” clicking into his physical ones – reclaiming his heartbeat & pulse at that very instant.  For years, he recalled this experience as a spiritual one, and dedicated himself to spiritual practice to try to recreate his new understanding of self and sensation of peace he’d experienced while dead, but this time while alive. Unable to do so, like Hustevedt, he read as much neurobiology and brain chemistry as he could understand, and now explains the phenomena as a neurochemical process: his brain, in shock and dying, released chemicals to make him feel at peace during our most extreme conscious transition.

Like Hustevedt, the amount of brain scan imagery available, neuroscience, and psychosomatic research on the brain’s processes is a tempting and illuminating road to follow when explaining schisms like she and my father have had.  Hustevedt takes us on a tour of psychological and physical anomalies – her own and those of others, treating the exploration of her own illness as a kind of self voyeurism she lets us in on, alongside cases of “alien hand syndrome,” patients who have gone blind but don’t mind or even acknowledge this limit, tales of deep disassociation, double visions of oneself, synesthiesia, Tourette’s syndrome and more. To toggle between writing personal narrative and empirical data and its historical permutations seems to be part of her healing process, and one that blew apart ideas of mental/physical dualities,  suppositions that equate mental symptoms as “not real” and the real yet inextricable combination/split of body and self. Her (and medicine’s) inability to neatly connect a mental process to a physical outcome, or marry her conscious mind to her involuntarily shaking body, shows us how alienating of a place the body can be, but also how complex, inexplicable, and intriguing our psyches are.

I recently returned from a seven day silent Vipassana insight meditation retreat, where one of the teachers spoke about the Buddha’s definition of the self in the Pali Canon as just five simple aggregates: Form (our physical bodies and the outside world), our senses and perceptions (sight, sound, etc… as positive, neutral, or negative), our mental formations (feelings, thoughts, opinions), and then our consciousness (discernment) of all those things. How strange that all we are working with is a body with senses, our internal world of thoughts and feelings, and then our awareness of those four simple pieces – And yet things are this complicated!

Hustevedt’s ability to find some solace in the lack of explanations (despite the ever-advancing and overlapping fields of psychoanalysis, medicine, history, and neuroscience) some healing in psychogenic illness, in the contradictions that accompany the autobiographical self is a delight to watch. I too, require pulling from vast disciplines, even finding myself on meditation retreats (something I never thought I’d be interested in) to be alone with my consciousness so that I may come closer to understanding my self. As Hustevedt probed, even if compulsively, she shows that through the death of a “normal” self and through emotional and physical pain, one is alive as we maintain, reconstitute, and transcend ourselves at each moment of consciousness. I’ll also be recommending this to my father, as he continues on his path of inquiry.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Jason Scaglione // Sep 10th 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you for sharing your father’s story, and relaying its evolution. Like with Hustevedt’s quest for understanding, it is interesting to visualize even in this abridged space the trajectory of such an enterprise.

    There is something very compelling about “the unseen” of human experience—an enigmatic unconsciousness, an intense disembodiment. We must investigate, “get to the bottom of it,” even as the ‘bottom’ ever recedes beyond grasping. Such mysteries cannot be borne by a consciousness like ours! We must find a solution!

    But then how funny: what deeper mystery is there than this same consciousness? It is both driven and driver.

    EDIT: Can totally edit now.

  • Matthew Finston // Sep 11th 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I think here you uncovered a central difficulty of this book for me: the refusal to settle into a ‘neat’ diagnosis. What you describe as Hustevedts’ “ability to find solace in the lack of explanations” as a “delight to watch,” I find frustrating. Nevertheless, I think it is appropriate to discuss your 7 day meditation retreat in relationship to this text. It would be interesting to see the parallels of meditation and brain trauma and how it affects the subject.

    I’d like to hear more about how we “transcend ourselves at each moment of consciousness”. I am not sure I fully understand what you mean here. Are you referring to Eakin’s concept of “doing consciousness”? If so, it would seem that meditation might be a key place where one struggles to “do” consciousness.

  • Yana Walton // Sep 12th 2013 at 11:11 am

    Thank you both for your thoughts on our little human conundrum!

    I think the project of self discovery is never fully answerable, so when Hustevedt found some acceptance in the fact all these empirical (male-dominated) fields didn’t have an answer for her, that rang more true for me than getting an answer that one may not be fully satisfied with.

    What I meant by transcending ourselves from a scientific standpoint is that as long as we are alive, our bodies are maintained by involuntary functions like breath, heartbeat, etc. But as we fire & wire new neurons together, as dying cells are replaced with new ones, we are transcending our bodies and minds at each moment. From a more theoretical standpoint, that the act of thinking, imagining, creating, and the narrative consciousness that Eakin talked about seem transcendent to me because of their creative/generative/productive functions. That was my original line of thinking on that…thanks for asking me to clarify, as I still have some formulating to do on that idea.

    I would also agree with you that the idea in insight meditation of being an observer of our thoughts, sensations, and feelings (instead of BEING those feelings) is a both embodied and disembodied consciousness that we do have to “do.”

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