a scream goes through the house
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
–William Blake, “London”
I was walking along a road with two friends–the sun was going down–I felt something like a breath of melancholy. The sky was suddenly blood-red–I stopped, and leant against the fence, dead tired–I saw the flaming clouds like blood and a sword–the bluish-black fjord and town–My friends walked on–I stood there, trembling with anxiety–and I felt as though Nature were convulsed by a great unending scream.
ARE WE ALONE?
This book is about the urgency, centrality, and reach of human feeling. I regard feeling as the driving force of our individual lives, and I see it as the very stuff of which art is made. These are radical beliefs, inasmuch as we are taught to think of ourselves as predominantly creatures of reason, as opposed to feeling. And we are also taught to think of art–literature, painting, film–as a largely intellectual enterprise. My argument goes entirely the other way.
Art is our supreme record of human feeling over the ages, and it enables us, quite wonderfully, to access our own emotional depths. These convictions may seem radical, because they challenge many prevalent views about both self and art. Let us examine some of these assumptions, in order to clarify what my book attacks.
Let us begin with the notion of individuation, of a person’s being confined to the body and mind he or she is born with. This is one of our most common assumptions. When we are in pain, we feel we are alone. Of course, social interaction–family, work, friendship, community, love–can militate against this self-absorbed view of life, but in moments of great pain, whether physical or emotional, our islanded state can seem ever more true.
We tend to close in, rather than open out, when there is pain, hurt. Yes, there are people who attend the scream and hurt of others. And we are, each of us, equipped with empathy and sympathy. But goodwill and compassion are only what they are, and they are rarely enough to cross the existential and creatural divide that separates me from you. We feel alone in our pain. We alone know our pain.
This book takes the premise that the opposite is true: human feeling connects us. Works of literature and art can be the bridge. A scream goes through the house. Pain, hurt, feeling, can be shared.
We all know what a scream is: the primordial human expression of feeling, usually the feeling of pain or anguish. Screams constitute the most primitive form of language, utterance at a level common to all living creatures, language that is unamenable to grammar, syntax, or control. Infants scream, children scream. Adults, we know, scream rather less, because they have learned to convert such raw sentience into distancing language, but it does not seem far-fetched to say that adults may be screaming inwardly a great deal, even though we do not hear them.
We can hurt from fear as well as from lesions, and such hurt can range from garden-variety stress to massive, incapacitating anxiety about our work, our relationships, and our engagement with the deaths that must come: those of loved ones and our own. Some may find my description of normal, everyday life exaggerated and melodramatic. You look outside and you do not see shrieking citizens. You meet people and you smile. Pleasure is not unreal. But hurt is more real than we often acknowledge; it has a frequency that no one has ever measured but that every sentient being knows.
This book recognizes the existential dilemma of aloneness and incommunicable pain, but then goes on to show that literature and art constitute a precious human resource for just this reason: they offer us a stunning map of human feeling, a map that displays a world of linkage and connection, in which solitude is overcome, and pain finds utterance.
Illness is one of the quintessential human experiences of such matters, illness understood, at least initially, as the body in pain. Put this way, illness and pain appear as the fate of flesh, the inevitable itinerary of life-in-bodies, beginning with the crying of the newborn, continuing with all the bouts of sickness that punctuate life (even the healthiest life), and extending to the final chapter of death and dying. Illness is also the mind in pain, and this distress seems, if anything, even more locked up within us, more incommunicable, more at odds with the data recorded on our résumés, more unrevealed and unshared and unshareable than physical hurt is. These seem to be stubborn facts of life, with us from cradle to grave.
I have written this book to challenge those facts of life.
THROUGH THE HOUSE: ART AS COMMUNITY
The belief at the heart of this book is that art–literature, painting, and film, as argued, but surely music and other forms of aesthetic experience as well–offers us a shocking new picture of human arrangements, a picture that is insistently collective, relational, and extended. In art we can find and tap into a reservoir of feeling, and this encounter not only breaks open our solitude but also makes audible and visible to us the emotional lines of force that bathe individual life, separate us, yet connect us to one another. Art and literature are the ears we do not have, to hear the sounds of sentience, the emotions of others, and even our own; they are the eyes we do not always have, that can look beneath the surface to see revealed the currents of feeling that lie beneath our words, our actions, and our separate states, and also to delineate the larger community in which emotions inscribe us.
That is why I have called this book A Scream Goes Through the House. The scream originates inside as a sign of pain, but it does not stay inside, stop there: it moves out of us, it goes through the house. Our scream, our seemingly private, seemingly incommunicable expression of anguish or pain has a trajectory, even a career, out in the world and over time, and its “journey” constitutes a story, a capacious human narrative that has largely gone unseen and unheard. That story creates an inhabitable universe, a world of feeling, a world whose citizens we all are, when we hurt, yet it is also a world we can explore, when we hurt. It is my claim that human pain, human feeling more generally, is a pathway; it remakes reality, redraws the boundaries, reconceives the self: where self starts and stops. Unlike the Internet with its informational highway, I have in mind an altogether different network, a kind of emotional highway, a place we can visit via imagination, so that all our assumptions about self-enclosure and incommunicable feeling are utterly exploded: feeling is an umbilical cord that links us to others, is ultimately a mode of travel and transformation.
Where, you may well ask, is this other world I am describing? The answer, of course, is art. Art not only gifts us a picture of this broader sentient universe, a universe that extends across the usually accepted boundaries of time and space, but it offers us a ticket to travel there as well; art and literature enable us to see ourselves anew, to discern our own fit within these larger realms. The experience of art bestows on us something akin to new citizenship papers. Seen collectively, literature and art, including the works discussed in the pages of this book, constitute no less than a mirror and echo chamber, a universe in which our personal stories might be seen and aligned with or against those others on show. Art transports us, we know that; it ushers us into a larger relational scheme largely because feeling is a prime motor in the artistic energy system, a driving force with directionality, scope, and coherence.
Feeling makes art; art makes feeling. These matters are deeply personal, because the feelings in question are not only the artist’s, but also the reader’s, the spectator’s, yours. This reciprocal “making” of art and experience through feeling is, in its own right, territorializing, geographical, constitutive of an actual space for living–with others, through others, as others–well beyond the cramped quarters we have thought to be “self” and “home.” It may sound metaphoric, but the encounter with art is a colonizing experience. We explore the imaginative and emotional terrain of the work, and the work stamps us with its depiction of human life and feeling–and so it makes sense to view this form of mind travel as genuine outreach, a true extension of self. I state this despite the more common view that art is not only subjective but a doubly private matter, an affair of “appreciation” that mainly goes nowhere but “in.”
It is worth pondering these matters, however, because art offers us a prodigious resource here–here in the realm of feeling, whether it be pain or pleasure–and it is a resource utterly unimagined and untapped by the scientific paradigm that governs Western thinking along these lines. Art that matters is rarely sermonizing or didactic (it does not tell us “what to do”), but the project of this book is to show that it is deeply instructive nonetheless, gifting us with tools of immeasurable value and vistas of what it means to be human. I am arguing the utility of art, not in the sense that a visit to the museum or library could be invigorating or could replace a visit to the doctor, but in the broader and more jarring sense that art rewrites our location on the map, reconceives what we take to be our actual contours, where you or I begin and end.