It’s a kind of love affair. I found him in a footnote in Donna Dickenson’s Body Shopping, scoured the province’s libraries and drew a blank, then ordered The Kingdom of Infinite Space and The Hand: A Philosophical Enquiry into Human Being, both by Raymond Tallis, from a well-known online bookstore. They did say they had the books, but it was silly of me to believe them: weeks passed. One, then another email arrived announcing that there would be a delay in the fulfilment of my order, and then finally, came an admission of failure: both books were unobtainable. Meantime, I’d almost completed the project for which I wanted to read them, but still, I don’t like unobtainable so I asked our local librarian to put in an Out of Province Request, for which, she warned me, I might be charged an unspecified amount. Four days later, the books arrived courtesy of the University of Regina. And then it began.
There’s no point, my husband knows, in asking what I’m reading. The answer at the moment is always the same: Tallis. And no, he can’t have it afterwards, because it has to go back to Regina.
For some time I have been working with my friend Lynne on a book of literary essays about the human body — an anthology in which twenty writers each take on a part of the body about which they have strong feelings of some kind. In the Flesh will be published in 2012 by Brindle & Glass.
Raymond Tallis, who until he retired, was a physician specializing in geriatric medicine, and a clinical scientist – as well as a novelist, poet, and a writer-philosopher – considered a similar idea some years back, though he was not limited to twenty parts and would have written all the essays himself from a very definite philosophical perspective.
However, he decided that it was impossible to cram so much into one volume, and went on instead to write a volume about the human head, which, since it seems to present particularly acutely the “am I my body/where am I in my body/ how do I relate to my body” question, he uses as a portal into a detailed exploration of what he calls our “muddled, even tortured” mind-body relationship. Tallis is also the author of Handkind, a trilogy of books about a single body part – the human hand – which, he argues, is the origin of our sense of self, our feeling of agency, even of human consciousness.
These are huge topics, and vital ones too. Tallis approaches them with a blend of meticulousness and gusto that’s entirely appropriate to a subject in which he, just like the rest of us, has an intense personal interest.
“I want to think into the muddle of embodiment,” he explains in the introduction to The Kingdom of Infinite Space, “and I want to celebrate the mystery of the fact that we are embodied, rather than fall in with the tradition of being rather sniffy about it. Many writers, following the example of Plato, have seen the body as a kind of prison, a cognitive disaster, a humiliation, or some kind of moral disgrace. I, on the other hand, while I do not believe that we are immortal souls, unhappily lodgers accidentally trapped in 70 kilograms of protoplasm, equally reject the idea that we are entirely identified with our bodies….”
The word celebrate in the quote above is very important. This writer knows the human body, inside and out, in all its glory and squalor. Years of working with and for it have not jaded him; he remains excited by and curious about what people are and what we do, and by our/his own capacity to think about it. A sense of wonder animates every sentence. He manages to be technical and lyrical by turns, and often simultaneously. If he cannot find the exact word for what he means, he creates it. When writing about speech, he calls it “this exquisitely sculpted head-zephyr.” Speech, he notes, “is a compendious, elaborate, folded oceanic expression of what is there. Every speech act expresses or invokes both a possibility in the world and something about myself,” and he prefaces his remarks this way: “What follows is an attempt to capture the ocean in a child’s bucket itself made of a bit of the ocean…
“Our mouths shape sounds thousands of years older than they are; our lips pat plosives that married their meanings on lips that have long since liquefied. Speaking, we exhale a mixture of air and history, breath and memory, beyond our consciousness. We speak with tongues not our own. And yet we make the language we have on loan our own possession, the most immediate and intimate expression of ourselves…
“Boundless and fathomless, then, is this ocean of speech, the great sea of ‘may be’ constructed out of sculpted air, the ballooning apace of possibility inflated by our ever-active mouths, where storms of abstraction bring joy and sorrow, war and peace, enlightenment and superstition; where a multitude of speakers stitches universes…” Quotes extracted from p90-96 of The Kingdom of Infinite Space.
One problem I have here is that I can’t quote the whole book. And another problem I have is that The Kingdom of Infinite Space and The Hand, volume one of the trilogy, Handkind, are not books you can (or would want to) rush though. Interlibrary loans are non-renewable, and the fines are 50c a day.
Tallis is equally vivid on seeing (how having our eyes up top has shaped our thinking; how they, uniquely amongst our senses, give us a sense of distance, and tell us also what is not seen), on toothache (how pain obliterates our sense of self), on the incredible architecture of the ear, on the way we each evoke the other when we touch, on how death returns us to the purely organic.
Periodically, Tallis offers up wonderful, page-long lists – for example, on P266 of The Kingdom of Infinite Space, a tiny selection of what he will have experienced before he dies. He poses a steady stream of questions: Are my thoughts in my head? What happens when we think about thinking? How do all the things we are aware of at any one moment “converge in the same moment of consciousness without losing their separate identity? How do they merge or become integrated into a whole without ending up as a mush?” Are we a part of nature? Not surprisingly, Tallis’s answers do not come in the form of yes or no; faced with impossible choices, he finds a new way to look at things, and when meeting a mystery, he seems happy to acknowledge it as such.
Here, then, is someone who dismisses Descartes in a single line, is strongly opposed to the notion that we are basically the same as other animals, but does not believe that comparing ourselves to computer will takes us very far… I suspect that Raymond Tallis might not get on with David Abram, whose book Becoming Animal I raved about not long ago, even though they are both spellbinding writers, particularly gifted and rendering the complexities of daily experience. But this, as I said, is a kind of love affair. Thank goodness AbeBooks now say they can help me out.
Body Shopping by Donna Dickenson