Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Aloneness, and Points of Reference

I have just devoured the fourth book of the Parasol Protectorate, which, as one can expect, is a terribly satisfying read, even with all the twists and turns and mistakes the characters have made, especially Alexia's, and I'm pleased to see her making such huge missteps. I'm not sure I buy the passage of time in this story, though, but that's not what I want to write about today.

Carriger has introduced a very different voice into the narrative this time, one distinctly un-Alexia, marked in italics. I was kind of confused at first (I thought it was an actual chicken! what with the discussion on whether animals have souls. The hardcore PETA kids are going to have a fit) but eventually pieced together who it was, and the sentiments expressed in it hit me in a peculiar place. Spoilers under the cut in case you wish to be warned.

Just yesterday, I read Rose Lemberg's essay, "No Coming Out Narrative, of Growing Up Queer in the Soviet Union," what it says on the tin, which you must read when you have the time. In it is all the pain and confusion of someone who had no reference points for who she is, and the subsequent pain that follows, especially living in a world where that who-she-is is ignored, or reviled. And she is alone, until she comes to a place where coming-out narratives are, while not mainstream, common enough. And even so, it takes her years to deal with it.

On page 235 of Heartless is Formerly Lefoux's ruminations on her life, her wish that she'd spent time researching the supernatural, because she's falling to pieces, and she cannot comprehend it, and she doesn't know how to deal with it. She, too, has no reference point. Nothing about her experience is familiar. And she is alone, because Madam Lefoux is away, and her pain becomes even more terrible. And it is in this context that Carriger delivers one of the most powerful, poignant line in the whole series: "... where were the scientific pamphlets that taught a woman how to listen to herself die?

(Given that Carriger also touches on the Suffrage Movement in England within the text, albeit in grotesque parody through Felicity Loontwill, which makes this line even more poignant, given that there IS a reminder that this was the period where women, middle-class women mostly, were pushing for greater visibility.)

I have written about apprehending ghosts, so the depiction of ghosts in the Parasol Protectorate have been very intriguing to me, about how they're neither banished nor exorcised, and how their eventual disintegration sounds like a pretty terrible fate to have. And now I am interested by this book's depiction of ghosts, that takes this one further into exploring the ghostly psychology, a portrait of a ghost who has lasted so long, preserved by a loving family member, who continues to love deeply even after death, sharing her knowledge and skills, and who is now fading, to everyone's distress, until Formerly Lefoux is by herself, driven mad by her disintegration, and worse, not knowing how to deal with it.

It is a terrible thing to be in an in-between space that has no name, that is not even really acknowledged by anyone, out of fear, out of ignorance, out of the cruel thing called politeness--that is the place Formerly Lefoux is in. 

It is also the place where a lot of people live, breathing and walking in flesh. It's a deeply unpleasant place to be in, not knowing what you are, not being able to lay claim to a name that describes yourself. Rose writes:
Coming out was not a possibility for me, not even because of the price to pay, but because, growing up in the Soviet Union, I didn’t know what I was. I had no points of reference.
No books, no TV personas (negative or positive), no movies, no newspapers. NO WORDS. I had no WORDS in which to describe myself, I had no LANGUAGE to help me understand who I was. 
Thinking about what it meant to be *me*, I often experienced a feeling of unspeakable shame, disgust, and despair that I could not put into words. I later came up with “monster”.
Formerly Lefoux is in that place where she's becoming a monster--the word for what ghosts transform into is "poltergeist," recognized as a malevolent force. And reading the text it's easy to see why they become what they are: they have no way of expressing what is becoming of them, and thus no way of understanding what is happening, to themselves. Without understanding, there can be no control, or no agency.

This blog has some concerns with names, what things are called, who calls who or what which names, and the implications thereof. Rose Lemberg is concerned with silence, though:
Silence is not about choosing not to speak out, silence is the lack of language in which to speak out, the impossibility of even rudimentary understanding of the self – understanding that must come before action, before reconciliation, before everything.
And thus, to her, coming out is less about revealing one's sexuality, so much as it is about "naming yourself – and words have power. Coming out means no longer participating in the erasure of one’s identity, self, dignity, existence. Coming out means – a voice."

I wonder, do ghosts vote in Carriger's world? What rights do ghosts have? And what does participation mean? In this book, the ghosts clearly have a community. They speak to one another, although they remain silenced, especially towards disanimus. What implications does it have, falling apart without words to describe that feeling?

And what about people who live in that liminal space in our world, who have no words to name themselves with, no reference points? What of them?

I was lucky enough; I generally latch onto names as they come into my purview, and if it fits, I take it on. I take it off sometimes, depending on company. Even my postcolonial self, struggling to understand where I fit in between being an Anglophone, a political minority in Southeast Asia, a part of a spread-out diaspora, with a longing for homeland, I, too, discover points of reference with many people who have been there before. Academic fields are dedicated to what is also my personal dilemma. Even now, I walk with the knowledge that my subject position of navigating a colonial discourse while trying to fit into Asia has precedence

I've experienced it as someone suffering from depression, growing up in a space where such things just aren't talked about, which carries such stigma. It's frustrating, so frustrating, to be in a space where one is falling apart, and not having the words to articulate how or why. And I'm lucky to have met people who have similar experiences, and early on, so I've been able to spend the last decade of my life learning how to articulate this, and thus being able to understand, and thus take action, and reconcile with it as part of myself. 

Even then, it is always powerful to be reminded of this importance of naming, of having points of reference, of those who have gone on before, who were formerly in that un-named space.

Lots of people in steampunk talk about the joys of discovery, of recovering the newness of the industrial age and the optimism. But I think one of the true joys in steampunk comes from the comfort in knowing these names that have gone before, the beauty of discovering and recovering them, pulling them close in deep affection, a new appreciation for that family member you never really knew how to act around, who has words of wisdom for you that you will now carry with for the rest of your life, and letting that love, now borne of understanding than of obligation, guide us towards better relationships, or sweeter and more peaceful goodbyes.  

Because of this, I wish to think on that loneliness, to find their voices where I can, to actively seek them out if I hear even a faint trace, to listen to their stories and record their testimonies, and to thank them when they have spoken, and sit with them and listen to them die with the full and terrible knowledge of that impending loss. 

Thank you, Rose, for your words. Thank you for braving your pain to share your story. Thank you for your reminder. Thank you, a thousand times thank you.

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