Saturday, February 16, 2019

a news service

Language and Silence, or, Just Shut the Fook Up

Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing (2010).


Tim Parks makes two plausible and persuasive points in his unusual “self-help” narrative, Teach Us to Sit Still, that accounts for some of what makes it both interesting and considerably more than your average “misery memoir” (or in this instance, misery-overcome memoir). The first is that we don’t really have a good way of talking or even thinking about what we call “mind” and “body,” or their “relationship.” The second is that there are processes and parts of the body that we just don’t understand very well.

The first point is still a live topic in philosophy, where it’s known as the “mind-body problem,” and goes back all the way to Descartes in the 17th century. The contemporary debate on the issue is nicely laid out at the beginning of American philosopher Richard Rorty’s landmark book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). “Discussions in the philosophy of mind,” he notes, “usually start off by assuming that everybody has always known how to divide the world into the mental and the physical — that this distinction is common-sensical and intuitive, even if that between two sorts of ‘stuff,’ material and immaterial, is philosophical and baffling.” That is, “we seem to have no doubt that pains, moods, images, and sentences which ‘flash before the mind,’ dreams, hallucinations, beliefs, attitudes, desires and intentions all count as ‘mental,’ whereas the contractions of the stomach which cause the pain, the neural processes which accompany it and everything else which can be given a firm location within the body count as nonmental.” Historically, there’s an accompanying notion that suggests that “even if the body were destroyed the mental entities or states might somehow linger on.”

The burden of Rorty’s book is to document the historical development of these ideas and, ultimately, to argue that they’re not a very good way of talking or thinking about the subject. These days, we now think that the mind is dependent on a physical entity, the brain, and many of us have abandoned the notion that we possess an immaterial “soul” that survives the death of ourselves, but knowing that brains are required for minds doesn’t necessarily tell us much about minds. We have a “self,” a “mind,” an “I,” thoughts and ideas, and we know that these mental entities are not what we normally think of as physical objects. We think that we, or our brain, in conjunction with our experiences, develop over many years a “self,” a self that we occasionally want to change. To complicate matters, the brain is a self-reflexive entity, which means we can think about ourselves. We wonder if the more or less “mature” self develops a feedback capacity that in turn affects the body that generated it. (In philosophy, this is sometimes known as the question of “downward causation.”)

Further, we know that much of our thinking, about our selves and the world, is mediated (and perhaps distorted) by language, which appears to be a unique feature of humans (other animals have communication systems, but not language). Rorty is fond of citing fellow philosopher Hilary Putnam on the relation of language and reality. Putnam writes, “…elements of what we call ‘language’ or ‘mind’ penetrate so deeply into what we call ‘reality’ that the very prospect of representing ourselves as being ‘mappers’ of something ‘language-independent’ is fatally compromised from the start… Realism is an impossible attempt to view the world from Nowhere.” (Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face, 1990).

In raising these concerns about the adequacy of our way of conceiving minds and bodies, we also open the discussion to other ways of thinking about ourselves (and necessarily, we generate a good deal of far-fetched nonsense along the way). A simple example of minds affecting bodies can be seen in what we call “stress”; presumably, relieving stress can relieve bodily pains caused by stress. How exactly all this works is at present something we really don’t know, but is much debated in scientific and related circles.

The second point, about processes and parts of the body that we don’t understand very well, brings us to some intimate, practical matters concerning Tim Parks, a British-born, long-time resident of Italy. Parks is a moderately well-known novelist, a noted translator, a professor at a university in Milan, and an essayist who frequently writes for the New York Review of Books. A few years ago, in his early 50s, he found himself in a painful physical dilemma not uncommon among middle-aged men. He suffered from excruciating, chronic pelvic pain, frequent urination problems, and eventually, erectile dysfunction. As men of a certain age will immediately recognize, much of this is familiar bodily territory, involving prostates, bladders, and related organs. Parks gives a detailed and thoroughly believable account of an encroaching living nightmare.

Parks’ urologist friend Carlo listens to Tim’s recitation of the symptoms, lines him up for the requisite medical tests, and seems pretty confident that Parks will require surgery. Again, there’s a more or less predictable train of events: the standard professional medical pokings and probings, and the patient’s amateur scouring of the internet, with its litany of agony and magic.

There are two complicating factors: first, prostates, bladders and related organs are particularly mysterious entities, and knowledge about them is unstable at best. If you’re a middle-aged man, you’ve very likely heard various stories from friends, acquaintances and passing strangers about prostates and the like, and the only recurrent feature of those stories is that they’re all different, whether discussing diagnosis or treatment. When Parks got to the end of multiple examinations, still in enormous pain, waking and peeing a half-dozen times a night, and increasingly distracted, the bottom line result was delivered in a remark by one doctor who said, “If you didn’t have these symptoms, I’d say you were a healthy person.” Even though the test results provided nothing that looked like evidence, the doctors were still inclined to perform extensive surgery. Parks balked.

The second complication, fortunately we might say, is Tim Parks himself. Parks is a wiry, tightly-wound, rather buttoned-up personality, self-admittedly ambitious and driven, who attempts to even out his sedentary, rational, language-centred life by going in for death-defying activities like wild-river kayaking. This human “complication” is both a possible source of some of his own troubles, and a courageous, curious resource for their solution.

I should mention that the normally reserved Parks didn’t plan on telling us all this. He never imagined himself discussing various intimate details of his body and life. As he says at the outset of Teach Us to Sit Still, “I never expected to write a book about the body. Least of all my body. How indiscreet. But then I never expected to be ill in the mysterious, infuriating way I have. Above all it never occurred to me that an illness might challenge my deepest assumptions, oblige me to rethink the primacy I have always given to language and the life of the mind. Texting, mailing, chatting, blogging, our modern minds devour our flesh.” He adds, “I had no desire to tell anyone about my malady, let alone write about it. These were precisely the pains and humiliations one learns early on not to mention… My plan, like anyone else’s, was to confide in the doctors and pretend it wasn’t happening.”

There’s a consequent good deal of fumbling around that ranges from internet surfing to a casual visit, while attending a translation conference in India, to an ayurvedic doctor in Delhi. There’s the expected mumbo-jumbo — everything from sesame oil enemas to astrology — but Parks is someone who “had never given any credence whatsoever to alternative medicines,” and he wasn’t planning to start now. “I prided myself on being rational, sceptical, modern and Western. I believed in evidence-based medicine. I had always made fun of homeopathy, aromatherapy, crystal healing and the like.” Parks passes on the enemas and the astrology, but is struck by the doctor’s out-of-the-blue diagnosis: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr. Parks, until you confront the profound personal contradiction in your character.” “I can’t recall being more surprised by a single remark in all my life,” Parks confesses. The doctor adds, “There is a tussle in your mind.” Not a cure, but rather a clue, a first clue.

While subsequently roaming cyberspace, Parks stumbles onto an oddly-titled book, A Headache in the Pelvis, by two California doctors at Stanford University, who have a theory and a “protocol.” Without reprising the details, their theory is that the complicated set of pelvic muscles can become constricted as well as atrophied in the course of certain lives and lifestyles, and in that state have deleterious effects on the processes involving prostates, bladders, and the rest. Parks finds the account plausible enough to try part of the “protocol,” which calls for semi-meditation relaxation techniques and medical anal massages. Bypassing the “don’t try this at home” warnings, Parks checks out what the Stanford doctors call “paradoxical relaxation” techniques.

To keep the longish quest within bounds: Parks experiences enough relief (but not remission of his symptons) to go on to a shiatsu massagist, and at the massagist’s encouragement to try out some formal meditation activities. A large portion of the narrative is about Parks’ experience at Vipassana meditation retreats in Italy and “the tussle” in his mind. This form of Buddhist meditation involves several-day-long retreats that emphasise meditative sitting and silence throughout the retreat, apart from instructions by the teacher.

The short version of the story is that, for Parks, something happens. What happens is best conveyed by Parks himself, although it’s worth mentioning that the sort of “insights” he encounters are experiences that transcend ordinary linguistic experience and, if anything, are intended to unpack our rational, language-centred ways of thinking. For someone like Parks, a writer much of whose daily life involves organizing experience into narratives made of words, this represents the challenge to his deepest assumptions about the primacy of language and the life of the mind that he mentions at the outset. Something happens, not only in his mind, but in his body as well.

I’m of course interested in Parks’ experiences and how it all turns out for him (misery mostly overcome, happily), and what it all means for the discussion of mind and body, but I’m equally interested in the writing itself because this is one of those subjects (dealing with ineffibility, bordering on mysticism, trading in arcane theories) where it’s very easy to make a hash of it.

This is where Parks’ scepticism and literary intelligence stands him in good stead. He knows he can describe only so much of the meditative experience — mainly the aches and pains of sitting still in silence, and the incessant distractions of the mind — and that he’s in the paradoxical position of being a writer whose aim is to somehow get beyond words and linguistic thinking. He does a remarkably good job of conveying what can be said, and suggesting what can’t be said, without engaging in a lot of hocus-pocus. Parks isn’t tempted by notions of reincarnation, various non-standard theories of body and/or cosmic energy, or the technical jargon that accompanies Vipassana meditative practices. In fact, he tends to be pretty funny about his various therapists, teachers and gurus, representing one well-known retreat leader as a grossly overweight, maddeningly bland explicator of his doctrines; yet, for all that, Parks recognizes that this is a someone who might be right.

At one point, Parks finds himself wondering if it isn’t his attachment to words, to narrative, that’s the cause of his troubles. Maybe he should give up writing. Happily, it’s only a passing thought, since we have the subsequent book in our hands. Of all the attempts at dealing practically with mind-body issues that I’ve read, Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still is as sane a discussion as you could want of topics that are especially intractable to linguistic explanation. Oh yeah, Parks’ book is also, as they say, a fun read.

Reading it made me recall that about a decade or so ago, I met a charming and alcoholic Englishman in Bangkok named Dave (I think). In his cups, Dave was an amusing, if unpredictable, drinking crony. That’s a polite way of saying that he was that rare creature — a good drunk.

Beleagured by various bar companions and situations, all crowding in on him, Dave had the habit of resolving sundry late-in-the-evening difficulties by demanding of whomever was pestering him, “Shut the fook up” (as the English like to pronounce it). When this had little effect, Dave simply repeated his mantra with increased intensity, “Just shut the fook up!” It was insistent but, oddly, not aggressive. It was a great attempt at a literal conversation-stopper. “Shut the fook up!” I often found myself regarding these scenes as a comic version of a Buddhist enlightenment ritual and the key phrase as carrying some metaphysical import. Although Dave was seeking the temporary cessation of language, I don’t think he was calling for Vipassana meditation (though he was in a country where it was readily available). He was just a guy looking for a little peace and quiet. Perhaps, in its own more literate way, that’s part of what Teach Us… is all about.


Berlin, March 26, 2013.

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

More from Stan Persky: