Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Lost in Thought" at Kalamazoo

Just returned from a truly wondrous Kalamazoo medieval congress. Not quite able to let go of the powerful experience of speaking on the "Lost" panel, gathered by Jeffrey Cohen and peopled by an intensely attentive audience and speakers who shared beautiful ideas and writing with a gladness and vulnerability that will stay with me for a long, long time. Here was my contribution.

There's a phrase in French when you're out at a restaurant and the food is too salty: "The chef is in love!" Growing up in Switzerland, I remember older aunts and uncles, stunned at the sting of their super salty fresh lake perch, saying "Ah ben là, le chef est amoureux!" For a long, long time, I would think of love as a salty thing, a surprising too much that shocked older relatives and awakened a winking secret. It was only much later that I understood the scenario behind the phrase, the chef in love over-salting the food because of being lost in thought – mind gone to blissful memory or sublime fantasy, while body performed mundane tasks in repetitive rote for ordinary things like people and food; a Cartesian divide in the kitchen.

But what if it's not a divide? What if it's a trust? What if it's the body's desire to be suffused with memory or fantasy? The mind's yearning to materialize touch and daydream? And objects, then, become portals, agents of transfer, from one time and scale to another. When Chrétien de Troyes's Lancelot follows the lady-in-waiting off trail in the forest, he is "pest de son panser qui molt li plest" ("lost in his thoughts which please him very much"). He is completely taken with the ivory comb he finds upon a rock, its gleam glinting with the flaxen strands of hair intertwined within it, and he stands there, "molt longuemant," holding it, feeling its weight, thinking the weightlessness of the hair. He stands there so long that the horses start to paw the ground and the lady-in-waiting laughs – and teases him out of his reverie and into a delirium when she reveals that the hair is Guinevere's. Lancelot almost loses it, almost faints, is almost really lost in thought – but the maiden catches him before he falls from his horse, brings his body and his mind back to their here and now, and they continue in the forest.

We joke about being lost in thought, or gently laugh at those who are, calling them back, because the thought of being truly, irrevocably lost in thought is pretty scary. Those we can't call back, those who don't return to find themselves in the mainstream of time and space, are deemed… different, unabled, mentally ill. My father lived the last eight years of his life with a brain injury that left him lost, deep in thought, his body mis-guided by his mind soaring in all directions. At some point in conversations with him about North Carolina waterways, the Hong Kong dollar, Fidel Castro in the hills, the not-so-zen paradox of being lost only if you can or want to be found again, came to me. Are you really lost if you've forgotten to be found? My father's wanderings, his ramblings and roamings, and his circumlocutions (and that's a technical term of traumatic brain injury, but it's also what I love most about what we're all doing here at Kalamazoo in gathering and tendering words to each other), his circumlocutions, were rationalized for us with various metaphors: "His mind and his brain are just taking off in different directions;" "He has all his marbles, they're just scattered" – metaphors meant to create a rational distance between our normal and his weird. There was one that truly helped: "He can't see the forest for the trees." I tried to be lost with him, no longer beholden to a big picture, to walk with him among endless metaphorical trees free of the discursive frame of forests: elephants on the beaches of Ceylon, bringing buttermilk to someone named Solomon, snatches of Portuguese, his long silences.

And so when Jeffrey's lost pine branch came to me in the mail, I felt for the first time I think, the collapse of metaphor into reality. This twig was, might as well be, from my father's expanse of forestless trees. This twig could skip, might as well travel, through arboreal generations and literary time, and elide with those in the paths of all those knight errants stumbling through forests: dear delusional Don Quixote brushing up against trees, scattering needles; the Fisher-King brooding by the shore, the trees of his domain parched and barren behind him; Yvain sleeping on twigs and branches in an endless forest, eating hermit's bread. Sometimes, the allegory reaches up for the reality: in the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, René d'Anjou's dreamer and his Heart are two knighted companions on a quest for Lady Mercy. They wander lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, tricked by Jealousy; Desire comes to give them companionship and encouragement, and helps the Heart disarm and lay aside his sword. And Desire and the Heart, lost in the forest, talk long into the night beneath an aspen tree.

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers her take on the etymology of los, the Old Norse word meaning the disbanding of an army. "This origin suggests," she writes, "soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." Loss, lost, losing, loosening – that moment of disbanding, not necessarily to find home again, maybe just to wander a wide expanse, to get lost in thought. There are those who seek to be lost: the mystics lost in the thought of Christ, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing - persistent questers of lostness.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins in the mind of a brooding God, hovering over everything, sweeping over the waters. What unknowns stretch out within its hesitation? Maybe the tehom of the deep in the original Hebrew, the etymological descendant of "radiant Tiamat" of Mesopotamian creation, was so beguiling and wondrous that God stopped rushing in, stilled the wind, and remained suspended – a lost god, unsure. A doubtful, distracted, day-dreaming deity before the time of days, poised over the deep, intimate with darkness, lost in thought, without sign, or referent, or scale. And then God stopped trusting His lostness, and started making distinctions and divides.

Later, much later, after the tree and the apple and the accusations and the denials and the wailing and the leaving, there would be gathering around a fire, and dazed by survival, we humans would start to stare into the hearth: its crackling warmth, its mesmerizing dancing flames, its complicated light. Gaston Bachelard, in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, prized the reverie we enter when we stare into the fire and become lost in thought. He called it a "hypnotized form of observation," wanted us to think about it as a way of seeing the world. In reverie, we might well see the world in all its salty love and grief among trees and forested wanderings; we might well re-emerge within the trust to be lost in thought.


  1. I love this Anne. It makes me thing about earlier non-GPS times when getting physically lost was frequent, terrifying, electrifying, possible. For me, getting lost around Los Angeles, which I did both deliberately and inadvertently, was a way to lose myself in time, space, and thought. And only grudgingly would I find myself at the end.

    1. Yes! There is something about finding your way again that makes you realize, indeed grudgingly, that your wanderings are at an end. Thank you for your comment!