Saturday, June 17, 2006

6.17.06, Part 4: "Do Not Go Gentle," Uncanny Holidays

[If you’re bored or morose, sit down and enjoy. Grab a drink maybe, then sit back down. Which is to warn that this post is a bit long.]

[cont. from two days ago]

Again, the last seven lines of the poem:
. . .

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I think this is the point with the father reference, we have no background or context, so we are forced to “read” large. To the extent we desire some insight from this verbal puzzle, we must step back and view it through a larger philosophical, psychological framework and correspondingly larger semiotic field: even if the poem were written specifically to / for the poet’s father and the poet is presumed to be the speaker of the poem, the universality of a “father figure” would still give it the widest possible applicability. (Death and father figures — death and taxes = the two phrases are synonymous, as should be seen.) Not everyone has a father, a particular individual in time and space, having a unique name, etc., however every one of us grows up relating to or living “under” a father function. That is, the symbolic father becomes more important to our making of meaning than the biological father — I used the phrase the father figure above, but the phrase father function more accurately describes it (also, or paternal function). What we need is to investigate the father function through this poem — that’s the point where I think we’ll find some answers. This final part of the analysis, then, covers the father function and then answers “Why?” the father is introduced into the poem in the first place, or, as it were, in the last place.

“What happens if a certain lack has occurred in the formative function of the father?” A question from Jacques Lacan, Seminar III (230). Analytically speaking the answer concerns some form of psychosis but here I think we can read this question, too, more broadly and productively. Our main question, of which the latter question is just a piece, is what is the function of the father in society. (For my readers who know Lacan, I warn you now this is all basics and you might want just to skip the nom-du-père stuff.) First the idea of “lack” from above: in the Lacanian system lack is constitutively tied to desire, in fact, desire is lack. Anything we want, ever, suggests some lack that marks us (so we perceive). Elsewhere, more linguistically put, “[d]esire is a question” also, a wanting something done, something changed, a wanting to know (Fink’s Intro 100, see below). Humans constituted by lack is perhaps the most solid Lacanian idea.

Lacan’s question refers to a lack we will return to, but I want to note here that any apparent lack in the formative function of the father has to do with one individual. Clearly it’s the child, the poem’s speaker. Thomas’s speaker is the one whom the formative function has somehow effected, so as to make the speaker express his desire as either / both “Bless me” and “Curse me”; we as readers are left to figure out which and why. Plenitude in any relationship, even the individual’s to the external world, is always already a lie, however, Lacan’s question, vis-à-vis Thomas’s poem, presumes a specific lack. In other words, something's amiss between Mr. Cleaver and one of his fine sons (— n.b., the observation on plenitude might be another way of expressing and exposing the ideological nature of “happiness” and “fun” referred to earlier —).

The father function idea is not unique to Lacan, the phrase itself appears in Freud somewhere, but Lacan’s analysis of and expanded work on the concept provide us with more interpretive options. From the French phrasing, we’re given at least four ways to interpret what the Name-of-the-Father might mean. Since is more suggestive in French than in English, please pardon my French. As noted already the French for “name of the father” is “nom du père”; when you read the term generously, include puns and near homophones, you come up with the following options:

(1) “the name of the father” simply as a given father’s actual name, e.g. John Smith;

(2) “the name of the father” as the Law of society, the primary figure of Authority or Authority Itself, “the Man,” the Law Giver, or think the Architect in The Matrix, think Tony Soprano;

(3) “the noun (of the) ‘father’” since the word nom is both “name” and “noun” in French, so both the noun “father” and the father’s “person, place, or thing”;

(4) “the ‘No’ of the father” / “the father’s ‘No!’”, the father’s prohibition, since the words nom and non are pronounced the same in French.

We need to think all these possibilities simultaneously. (Scads of citations for this, so I won’t bother, but if anyone is genuinely interested see Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis [Harvard University Press, 1997].)

Why say all this? Just intellectual masturbation, compensation for unhappy wood scale numbers, sublimation? On the contrary I think Lacan’s ideas on the father function, with the linguistic analysis, provide an excellent frame for understanding how we’re all tied in to the Father, even if we don’t have one, even if it’s a mother, even if it’s a cop, etc. Also because the tie is often tightened by a simple word. Thomas introduces all these potentially paradigmatic figures in the poem (5 x); then he reveals his “father”; so the poem can be summed up semantically with (a) immanent death, (b) failed exemplars, (c) the Father, and (d) an ambivalent plea, question, desire, lack. For me, the “answer” to the poem is that as death approaches the dying desire some recognition from the Father, from Authority, the System, in the largest possible sense. There is a lack of meaning, so, a desire for meaning, for sense, for peace perhaps. You might now say, “Well, duh,” and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s more subtle, though, because it’s not Peace of mind that is requested, the speaker just wants a response. It’s not “the meaning” nor any meaning, it’s just acknowledgment, recognition.

You also could accuse me of merely listing off truisms about authority and hierarchy and patriarchy, etc., but that would be to ignore the poem’s particular insight. On top of the most memorable features, which are sonorous and rhythmic (to me), this poem offers a fresh look at how a “would-be” turn to / appeal to authority, in the form of the father function which keeps the balance and maintains the order of a chaotic world, becomes so important in the face of tragedy and death. Yes, it is implied that (a) some peace might be had in a father’s blessing, in a one-on-one reconciliation — but we should be realistic, this sword cuts both ways; and (b) the father might be off drunk, away on business, in a nursing home, too proud to respond, and / or senile and unable. (Cf. Tom Waits, “God’s Away on Business,” Blood Money, 2000; Elvis Costello, “God’s Comic,” Spike, 1989.)

What does it all mean? (I love it, the one really meaningless question.) Or more painfully to the point, is Thomas’s poem really a rallying cry to go spit in Death’s face when it’s time to go? In the real world the father function never works, but the speaker’s desire there is intact. In the end, the noun / name father stands in for authority writ large, for the Law, and it represents the final, utmost, desire / recognition or approbation that we seek (to the degree with identify with the speaker). Further, recognition counts more for us than approbation since we, with the speaker, don’t seem to care whether it’s a curse or a blessing, . . . could be just a nod, a smack across the cheek, a hug and pat on the shoulder.

We all want the paternal function to work, to the very end; we always haunt ourselves with the difference between the ideal and the real. And we’re haunted more in some respects when the paternal function remains in place and we as children are forced first to say that “dark is right” (l. 4) — not in a moral sense, but in the sense that even a craps game has rules. Lots of them in fact. Still, the rallying cry part might work: our cry may not to win a bet only, it could be win or lose, but we want the croupier to recognize it when place the bet. That is all we ask. It could be a little patch of voluntarism in a deterministic world, or “We make our own history, but do not make it as we please; we do not make it under self-selected circumstances , but with poems existing already, given and transmitted from the past. . . ” (what Marx might have said if he had stuck to poetry).

Friday, June 16, 2006

6.16.06, The Straight Story

OK, certain completely wild over-statements, not even over-statements, just crazy falsehoods have come to my attention regarding "my condition," and it seems necessary to set the story straight & remind some readers what the original purpose of the blog is. Family members in particular, this is for you.

The real story is that I'm fine, you know, given the larger circumstances. There have been no dramatic changes, no setbacks, no surprises or emergencies, etc. I even feel better than the last few days, don't know if I'd say 7 on the Franky Scale but I do feel better than yesterday, which was probably a low 6. I posted that online, though, you should trust what I put up here; I'm not going to complain constantly ever but I will let you know honestly how things are.

Our family. We all know that the family is not the best at accurately conveying information to each other, and that with a handful to a dozen people involved that's even harder. It's like a game of Telephone gone wild. But that's one reason I started doing the blog, so you could each check in without me calling every individual, and you could see "Oh, some nausea today, too bad," or "Ah, less nausea, new pain meds, that's good," or whatever; and so there is one source of information. Still baffles me how one phone conversation can result in so many fictions. I know people worry, I realize it must be hard to be far away and rely on the blog, but "Whatta ya gonna do?"

Funny, I had to send an email kind of like this, but much more professional in tone of course, to a graduate student last week, just to remind the student that telling other students or faculty "I heard X & Y are happening next year because Prof. Jones is...." Rumors. Not good policy; I thought everyone knew this kind of thing.

Too bad I don't carry as much authority with my family as I do with grad students. Life would be easier. So please don't worry so much, maybe read more carefully instead. :-)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

6.15.06, Part 3: "Do Not Go Gentle . . ."

A note before the next installment of the exegesis, on almost invisible change.

Franky Scale: 6, three tough days. Not much to be said, though I have liked reading the comments of the past couple of days. Thanks.

There is a sign. A shocking sign, I found, just this morning of the Effects of It All. I left Salt Lake on Monday and didn't shave that morning since what's the point, I was just going to board a plane. Then Tuesday being infusion day, what's the point. And Wednesday was surprisingly unlike the other day-after-infusion days, in that it sucked more, so I skipped it again. The way many men seem to go grey is from the facial hair first, and with me too this is the case. No big deal, no big surprise. I've seen my facial hair become more salt-and-peppery starting, say, three years ago. A little here and a little there. When I shave every day, however, the progress is much less pronounced and up till now it's been what I would assume is normal. A few white hairs show up in my sideburns, also no surprise. But this morning when I looked in the mirror before shaving I saw the sign, not all over my face but definitely my entire chin — white! Not salt-and-pepper but all white. Whether it's the shock of so many drugs for nearly three months, the toxicity of the chemotherapy, or the emotional stress of the experience, whatever the reason there is a chin that's now totally white if were not to shave it. Not that it means much but it's strange and sudden none the less. Just passing on a little a.m. observation to you.

On the continued reading of the poem then.

Part 3: “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” In the Name of the Father

. . .

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is that line, “Curse, bless me now father with your fierce tears . . .”

I love this line, the way it extenuates and simultaneously deepens the sense or contradictory undertone in the poem, the internal rhymes, alliteration, rhythm, even a chiastic structure to the consonance (if you read only to comma like I’ve done, leaving “I pray” aside for now). What also draws me is a sick sense of trainwreck syndrome, the morbid curiosity or even psychic need some of us feel to watch the damn thing come off the tracks, smash and kill, possibly ignite, and then those inside . . . We can’t take our eyes off it because it demands our gaze, and we know this, but we must look. I feel similar about these lines that are the key and pivotal moment in Thomas’s poem — the entire piece is general, filled with truisms perhaps expressed uniquely or memorably, and then “Wham!” this line makes it uncomfortably personal. Is the phrase “uncomfortably personal” symptomatic of something? Of course it is. Why else would I be writing this . . . ?

Briefly reviewing the list of characters introduced before the crying father might be a valuable exercise. One after the other, we see the old, the wise, the wild, the grave; then we read “[a]nd you,” and realize the whole piece is directed to the speaker’s father. But those characters, we remember from a previous piece of this reading, they all represent would-be raging or failures or trying-too-lates. It makes one wonder where and why does the father fit in?

The poem itself withholds the father context and any backstory and yet obviously there is a separation, a hierarchy, a remove; the speaker and father exist on different planes of existence, on planes across one might identify but perhaps not empathize with the other emotionally: the father’s sad height, the child’s ambivalent prayer. Does the remove or the “height” suggest a Father of all, some patriarchal god-myth, is it a societal authority or what some call the Law or the-Name-of-the-Father, or does it suggest merely a child-father relationship that clearly has been strained and is now — through an immanent death — forced back into some proximity. In any event there is a contact across the hierarchy, a vertical move or attempted move. And what is the mood or tone, the sadness, what are the tears that are fierce? I want to open up the semantic possibilities of the poem, which means I won’t go into a biographical or psychologist reading of Dylan Thomas’s life, his young death or his father’s health problems; . . .

There are some answers to these questions that I would pose, answers I’d pose not questions, back through a psychoanalytic framework; I think there are enough hints in the text suggest what’s being sought, but I don’t want to post too much at the moment, so once again TBC . . . (and then on to the-Name-of-the-Father, the Nom-du-Père, next time).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

6.14.06, Come Back Tomorrow, more on Thomas's poem...

At this point in the afternoon I've just found myself engrossed in the last, and earlier promised, section of my exegesis of the Dylan Thomas poem. I figure it's still due and appropriate, and there are some insights from the poem's end that shed more light on the less than simple if not paradoxical nature of "not going gentle." Presently...

Franky Scale today: 6. Many sent encouraging notes along the lines of "get your ass up above 5!", my thanks, but you can look at this way. The rest of me, whatever parts those are, feels pretty good, but the goddam nausea has picked up with this cycle of chemo and it's just incredibly tedious & frustrating. It seems that nausea and pain have much in common, and can be so interrelated that the presence of either might cause the other. That's part of the frustration, the other is that even when you feel the nausea and know that it isn't pain per se it has nearly the same effects. You just need to get rid of it as quickly as possible, if it's intense; if it's mild but persistent, then it's like a hairshirt in summertime. (. . . though I have yet to be blessed with that experience.)

Maybe I should change my profile name to "piss & moan" . . . ;-)

I'll be back in the evening with some more poetic extrajesus, till then . . .

[Famous last words, for the day at least: I'll work on the exegesis but the evening is nearly spent, night opens, and I'm still in the middle of both dinner and the blog. Dinner I'll finish, the blog will have to wait till morning.]

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

6.13.06, Chemo IV Day, Start of Cycle #4

From 11 a.m. to about 5 p.m. spent in the infusion mall today at the SCCA. Nausea and pain were much worse today. On the Franky Scale I could maybe go to a 5, but it was draining. Probably due to the cumulative effect of the chemo; there is the one-week recup period each cycle but that's not quite enough. We try to walk that thin tight rope between killing off the cancer and killing off the rest of me — and with the cancer you've got to do what you can before it smartens up and modifies iteself. Chemotherapy has made huge progress in terms of lessened side-effects in recent years, but there's no denying the primitive aspects of it. Though I've been doing very well, they say, still no picnic. "Kill all the cells in the body that multiply quickly." It's like Dick Cheney with a shotgun.

No new numbers today about the cancer marker, the CA 19-9; as one or two of you asked. The last number, remember from two weeks ago, was good: 6300 (from May 23), a decrease of around 50% since the first time they checked. It seems they take the number every three weeks, which means there should be blood sent off for this next week, and since there are only a few labs in the country that test for CA 19-9 it will take a few days on top of that. My hemoglobin and hematocrit numbers were both up (small but good news), the former is still subnormal range and the latter bumped up to the bottom edge of normal. Those are indicators that I'm still having to deal with anemia, though there seems to be a little positive movement.

OK, some technical tidbits on my condition that I hope are somewhat helpful, otherwise, I'm dead beat after the day, which means my only aims now are some calories/food for dinner, and then I'm deciding between The Graduate and the final (tedious) pages of The Brothers Karamazov or Althusser's memoir again.... If I'm lucky sleep will sneak in ("sleep" is personified, "sneak in" is a verb phrase suggesting it's hard to sleep when I try at times... does that help?). Ooh, the excitement is probably killing you, no?

Monday, June 12, 2006

6.12.06, Return to Seattle

Nothing of note today, mostly packing, waiting, flying, waiting, and then walking in to a dirty apartment. Salt Lake to Seattle. Easy to sum up. Two odd things, though. The first is that Seattle actually is kind of humid and with my slow acclimation here over the past three years I've never really noticed — until today, when compared to Salt Lake I can actually feel the stick in the air on this kind of almost rainy evening.

Second point has to do with the Franky Scale. My body felt like a 7, but then my mind about my body felt more like an 8 or so. Strangest thing, but sitting in the airport and even getting ready at my sister's place and packing up I felt more of a disconnect between my brain and my Sickness. The chemo drugs are still the same (as far as I know), they still bother my stomach a bit, still some nausea, and then at the airport and on the plane things seemed better than they have. Maybe it was future-tense cat presence my body could sense, something about "one's own place," or something unusual going on inside me. It's vague, I know, but the change seemed worth noting.

Something meatier will come to blogland this week, too, I'm sure.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

6.11.06, Salt Lake City Closing / Midnight Edition

Does it do any good at all for my to post something this late in the day? After 9 pm SLC time? (that's a real question, btw, an answer or two would be appreciated...) There has just been too much going on between family and some very old friends not seen in too long, the required tasks of food, bathing, etc. No surprise to anyone I'm sure.

The day has been decent Franky Scale-wise: I'll say 8. It is progressively tasking to go through a day with numerous talks, meetings, conversations in a group, family dinner. It might today, however, be more like the "good old days" of getting pooped in the normal sense instead of being struck down with bizarre chemo-induced fatigue that sneaks up suddenly. So that's a good sign.

More to come, I'm sure, after returning to Seattle tomorrow & settling the brain. What was already complex in terms of family dynamics . . .

but that's another story.

[Midnight, mountain standard time, very trivial information about physical effects of the experience.

Now it's midnight on a night I had been thinking "sleep early, sleep well." Am I sleeping? Two quick comments from you on whether the late-day posts matter or simply slide out further into the ether, and as a result, I'm back before the keys. Early sleep and well sleep were not in the cards apparently, but breakthrough pain was. I'm partially angry to have to call it that, something so jargony, such a term of art, if I can call it that, or it's simply just another euphemism... "Breakthrough pain": the idea is that you experience your "normal" pain in your normal way — in my case this would be what I think of as "cancer pain," usually upper abdomen left side right under the rib cage and then a diagonal line down the right side about four inches below the rib cage, as opposed to GI pain, incision pain, or something that passes quickly, and the way for me is simple, it's constant — so you learn your baseline, you learn what amount of what kind of drug will alleviate it, how much & how often; then you try to manage it, control it at that level. When the pain breaks up, out, or through that "normal" level you find yourself experiencing "breakthrough pain," suddenly more than what you bargained for and harded to get back under your management control. This is what the pain management book tells me; it's the term used by all the medical staff; it's too clinical but I use it.

Something about this is unsatisfying. I want a better word, I want an appropriate curse to convey what happens. A spike in the pain level — and then you're left asking "well, why did that happen? Is it a tumor fighting, growing, multiplying, or is it a tumor fighting as it's dying off a bit, getting its ass kicked?" you hope the latter. Either way you're stuck with their argot, breakthrough pain, it just happens, and in the end who really cares what it's called? When I stop to think about what I'm doing, and yes I do try to avoid that now and then, going for another pain pill, usually oxycodone at this poibecausease it will take effect sooner though not for nearly as long as oxycontin (Rush's favorite), when I do think it out a part of me recoils slightly because I don't want to be thinking what it signifies: more pain medication, more this week than two weeks ago, ad infinitum. Unless it's a tumor in its own death throws, that thought I can handle even though I'm not sure it is what's happening scientifically.

Information on pain as part of an insomniac journal, if you will. It seems rather banal. I'm abusing blogspace and readertime or even readermind with the banal. The tedium and annoyance are real enough however. And the information describes what is happening now, for not too much longer I hope, and perhaps you'll forgive if you hear that thinking just up to this grammatical level is itself helpful. Food for the emotionally voyeuristic. (joke) In actuality, part of a helpful distraction. Also Erik Satie again lifting from the little PowerBook speakers to the keys, he helps. Other little tricks you learn. Also a hot bath, here in SLC my sister has the best tub anywhere. Also a trashy movie or a seriously deep one. Little tricks, repeated keystrokes. A few words to the can't-sleepers. Hi. What keeps you up? I hope sleep too comes on quick cat feet.

What happens is I type the basics, perform a few of the little tricks, another word or two and then I know that in 15 minutes it will subside. The brow unfurrows. The frame straightens out. Back to normal. Off to what I hope is sleep.

Last, to KK and CC and our conversation today: this is my visualizing, my getting it broken down and analyzed, my taking the power from it, my beating it. Do not go gentle, as has been said.]