Cocoon & Emergence: The Transformative Power of Word/Images of Pain

Regarding the Pain of Others

Cocoon & Emergence: The Transformative Power of Word/Images of Pain

 And wisdom is a butterfly

And not a gloomy bird of prey.

                —William Butler Yeats, “Tom O’Roughley”

            When I was thirteen, my father had cancer. Sidling into his hospital room after the five-hour long surgery was like bursting under the surface of water after diving from a great height. All the noise behind me in the hall of the hospital, all the noise in my head, the loud voices of my imagination, were stilled as I entered that room. Seeing my father, silent, sleeping, with a pained expression on his face, was a sort of awakening for me. My father, at that moment, was human. More human than I had ever seen him. He was vulnerable, susceptible, in pain, and most of all, silent. In the presence of pain, of illness, silence reminds us of death, the one commonality we all share. Regardless of the diagnosis or prognosis, all humanity shares the same terminal destination. Silence, death, pain: all bridge any gap that differences among us may initially create.

            While reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, one sentence in particular struck me, excited my imagination and caused me to visualize the process of change. The words Sontag used to describe Henry James gave me an image of the chrysalis of transformative words in which we reside:

 In 1915, none other than the august master of the intricate cocooning of reality in words, the magician of the verbose, Henry James, declared to The New York Times: “One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated. . .”

 The word “cocooning” intimates that words have two intrinsic purposes: they serve to cocoon, to protect, and they paradoxically transform the old, break apart the skin of what we think we know— deliver us, changed, into the world. First, I imagine the caterpillar, feasting on words. This image is reinforced by Sontag’s use of the word “verbose.” We are, as readers, listeners and watchers, caterpillars: devouring word after word, feasting on them and growing fat on knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge we digest doesn’t advance us. It is often untrue information, half-missing, misleading. When we do learn a truth, however, if the knowledge  we glean remains unused and we remain unchanged by the nourishment of these words, everything that we have learned will come to nothing. Thus, we may cocoon ourselves with words, but there will be no emergence. The purpose of the cocoon of words is change itself.            

I want to consider first the destructive force of the caterpillar in nature. Endless consumption of knowledge that feeds the individual organism does have the power to destroy whole life forms. I think of trees that are decimated by feeding larvae. One cannot traverse in nature without seeing evidence everywhere of the caterpillar’s transgression. Yet, this destructive cycle is the beginning point of transformation. Words contain vast energies, worlds of colorations, layers of meaning. (I think of Dr. Seuss’s “Horton Hears A Who” in which a whole other society is contained inside a speck. The speck becomes a metaphor of all those things we cannot ascertain, often for their minuteness, which still all the same have lives of their own.) When the word is investigated, picked apart, and most importantly, used for all of its many energies, the result will be metamorphosis. The butterfly that emerges from the cocoon has a beneficial role in nature. It pollinates, spreads the seeds of beauty and encourages new growth. Eventually, that growth has the ability to replace that which the caterpillars devoured. Without change, the destruction continues, and rejuvenation does not follow. As a society, we need to be able to change the way we operate in order to produce beauty in the world.

            William Butler Yeats’ butterfly is the ideal representation of wisdom, a thing of beauty, flitting from flower to flower in “zig-zag wantonness.” Thus, when I read Susan Sontag’s inclusion of the word “cocooning”, I thought of all the ways in which transformation becomes, through the butterfly, the ideal paragon for wisdom. This wisdom is hidden in old wives’ tales and axioms such as, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The commonly held belief is that experiencing pain tempers us, makes us better, makes us wise. Likewise, in his poem, “After Long Silence,” Yeats writes, “Bodily decrepitude is wisdom.” But if the butterfly is the end result of the process of cocooning, what is this cocoon? Of what is it made?

            The idea of a cocoon is one in which the individual is removed from society, isolated after a fashion, in order to undergo an intense process of change. As Yeats’ poem suggests, the first interpretation of the cocoon is silence:

 Speech after long silence; it is right,

All other lovers being estranged or dead,

Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,

The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,

That we descant and yet again descant

Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:

Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young

We loved each other and were ignorant.

 More than sound, however, the poem is rife with images of darkness. The lamplight is hidden under its shade, the curtains are drawn against the night, and the other lovers are dead. Instinctively, we see silence as a kind of darkness. Are we more likely to find images of silence and darkness in poetry about pain than in poetry on other subjects? Are we also more likely to think of images portraying something being excoriated or removed, a kind of visual silence, when Pain  is the main subject? In her “Still Life with Open Window,” Karen Fiser writes:

 I went to sleep as one woman—silken, magic, strong—

My life full of intelligence, bravura episodes

And turns of phrase. I woke up all stitching and sorrow,

With a silence around me like the endless quiet

At the edges of a late Rembrandt self-portrait.

 This stanza represents a metamorphosis. The narrator gives us first a picture of what she was like before her illness; the words she uses are indicative of fullness, wholeness, and an abundance of sound. The narrator was “one woman”, suggesting a whole woman, not one that has been fractured by pain. She is also “full of intelligence,” nothing has been removed. The word bravura and the expression turns of phrase suggest speech and music. (In music, bravura applies to “a brilliant passage or piece that explains the performer’s skill and technique,” according to the Webster’s New World Dictionary.) Yet, sleep intones a period of silence, a cocoon, in which this woman’s transformation occurs. The fulcrum of the phrase is actually in the word “turns,” for one can see in this word the foreshadowing of the turn the poem is about to take: from fullness to sorrow, silken to stitching, bravura to silence. Fiser deliberately places the silence around the narrator, like a cocoon, and it is at the edges of the Rembrandt portrait that she wants the reader to stop. As voyeurs to this narrator’s tragedy, we are not allowed beyond this point of access. Until the next stanza:

 Time spent in pain exists absolutely, without structure,

Demarcation or relief, it is all one color,

Like winter’s rainy sfumata inscriptions on gray.

Meanwhile, the other, inner life goes on, unwitnessed,

The shadow a tree makes on the wall, rippling like water.

 In this stanza, the transformation occurs brilliantly within the words. In the first stanza, Fiser has excluded us from the narrator’s pain; however, slyly, almost without noticing, we are drawn into the pain. The pain is existing absolutely, perfect, complete and whole, even thought the full woman of the first stanza is gone. Furthermore, though the narrator’s pain places us distinctly at the edge of something (the Rembrandt painting, summoning the image of something square and framed), she is saying that the pain is “without structure.”  The second line of the stanza begins with “Demarcation,” a boundary, or specifically the act of marking a boundary, yet these boundaries are not marked by either color or chiaroscuro (Fiser writes pain as “all one color,” and “inscriptions on gray”). Still, sfumata suggests miniscule gradations in color. The language completely subverts itself in the last two lines of the stanza, for even though she has previously declared the reign of silence, she is now suggesting an “inner life” inside the cocoon that still goes on. Though she claims this life is “unwitnessed,” through the poem’s language, we are in fact witnessing this inner life. The poem shifts then, to words intimating an emergence:

 Since nothing outward remains to signify or to connect

One moment with another, no more achieved life

For the moments to be part of, they will have to be connected

By what can flower within the moments themselves.

Each moment must expand to hold my infinite, singing joy.

 Notice the words used here: outward, connect, achieved, flower, expand, infinite. All suggest an emergence, an interaction with the outside. They also suggest the opposite of uncertainty. The incubation and cocooning period has left the narrator with certainty and purpose. Now she knows that she must find in each moment an expansion and that the result of this expansion will be an “infinite singing joy.”

            This poem suggests also the life within the cocoon. The body recovers during periods of inactivity. It turns itself inward, repairs those things that are damaged, replenishes itself. Just as the caterpillar requires a diet of vegetation before the transformation into a butterfly, so does the human mind require a feast of words to gain wisdom.

Like Fiser, in his poem, “Things That Hurt Me,” William Stafford also suggests that within the silence of the cocoon is a thing of value, and that thing could be words:

Things That Hurt Me

Turn into pearls.

First my tongue turns them over and over.

They have an edge that lacerates

and then brings out a coating.

They begin to shine

 Is Stafford referring to words when he writes, “my tongue turns them over and over?”  Is he suggesting that words can sometimes be painful, that they “have an edge that lacerates?” It would not be out of line to interpret to these statements based on a consideration of the old axiom, “the truth hurts.” The word “hurt” intimates an action: a person will do anything to alleviate his pain. Perhaps, then, the transformative power of pain is rooted in the body. Instinctively, I will pull my hand away from a hot stove. Without considering it intellectually, I will swerve to miss an animal that leaps out in front of my car. One cannot thus deny to act in the face of pain. Within this knowledge could lie the key to understanding why we require images that shock and startle us in order to drive us to change. This is the same dilemma Larry Kramer’s characters face in The Normal Heart:

 BRUCE: You’ll scare everybody to death!

NED: Shake up. What’s wrong with that? This isn’t something that can be force-fed gently; it won’t work. Mickey neglected to read my first sentence.

MICKEY: “It’s difficult to write this without sounding alarmist or scared.”

 Yet, the initial speaking of the words causes pain. As Yeats points out in his poem, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”:

 The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

 This pain occurs inside the cocoon of words. Once one hears the message, he or she has to determine whether or not to enter the period of solitude and reminiscence, to emerge into a world in which his or her understanding and interpretation of that world will change. The effect of that change is often beauty. Consider the end of Stafford’s “Things That Hurt Me”:

 I can’t leave them alone. They take on

that luster of suffering made pure.

They accumulate as decorations around my neck

or dangle from my ears.

Trophies have a polish. You hold them close.

But they hide a hollow of pain.

 The result of pain in Stafford’s poem is a jewel of value. Of course, by “suffering” Stafford is speaking of the process by which a pearl is made. A piece of sand or detritus gains access to the oyster’s organism, serving as an irritant. The oyster covers and covers the invader in a coating that then, over a period of time becomes larger and larger, making a pearl. At the end of the poem, however, rather than commenting on the fullness the oyster must feel from the detritus within it, he speaks of pain as being “hollow,” returning us again to the primary question of whether or not pain is regarded as an emptiness. One of the most interesting trite expressions regarding pain is that of the “furrowed brow,” in which a “furrow” suggests something that is empty, but expectant of a seed that will be placed inside.

            Pain and sickness is in itself an emergence. The presence of pain has the effect of removing any pretense from a person’s countenance. When we are sick, we stay in bed, do not put on make-up or fancy clothes. We speak in short sentences, focus on the most basic needs of our bodies. In short, pain removes the mask of social acceptance we wear. The bodily functions become the main event and we are no longer able to hide our pain from others. In the presence of pain, we are stripped. But with this stripping comes truth:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;

Through all the laying days of my youth

I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;

Now I may wither into the truth.

                                 —William Butler Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom with Time.”

            If the word, or the text, is the cocoon, it must, as Susan Sontag points out in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, in some ways lose its usefulness:

That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical value of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough when we see these images (116-17).

 and, quoting Henry James:

The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated (25).

             The transformative process must end with the disintegration of the cocoon, its plunging from the tree, its eventual emptiness. For this reason, we must not see the decline of the word as purely detrimental. We can view it as one step in the evolutionary process giving rise to more and more words/images with the ability to create transformation after transformation, outfolding like the petals of a rose. The caterpillar is the word which builds the image, the cocoon; the butterfly is our reaction to it, our transformation.

            Is it safe to say that after I saw my father helpless, in bed, recovering from cancer, that I changed? I suppose in some ways I did. But was that change forever? I don’t really think so. The fact that the cancer did not recur, that I only occasionally glimpsed the effects of my father’s recovery, meant that I could once again retreat into my stable world: a world in which my father was once again invincible, communicative, and most importantly, alive. Thus, the most important facet of transformation is that it must keep on occurring. A transformation based on painful words and images is not generally strong enough to last without consistent reinforcement and recurrence. We must continue to craft images of words, we must continue to shock so that we can continue to be wise.


~ by ImaginaryCanary on March 8, 2010.

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