Finding the Dark: Decolonizing Darkness
Excerpt from ‘These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to my Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home’ by Bayo Akomolafe
Today, in the waiting area a few feet away from my office five male nurses and janitors are trying their very best to restrain a thick-jawed man with a neck that looks like the stump of a redwood tree. He is salivating, screaming at the top of his lungs with his eyes bulging out his head, insisting that he knows the Queen of England and needs to speak with her. I hear he was brought here by his family, and that his own mother made him mad when he walked through her door to visit her.
I will be meeting Hope in a few hours in our office—a makeshift room with paper-thin walls, a bare cement floor, and a working area no more than six feet wide and ten feet long. The office accommodates three persons: me, a colleague, and our supervisor. There are only four pieces of furniture in the room. A long table with drawers and three wooden upholstered chairs. And a calendar hung on the whitewashed wall. A large single window—spanning the length of the room—opens out into the psychiatric wards that are regularly manned by the more prestigious, white-robed, drug-dispensing, title-toting psychiatrists. On her lighter days, Hope has often appeared outside this window, her eyes ringed with a dark circles, pulling strange faces to make us three laugh. If tree rings track the annual growth of trees, the rings around Hope’s eyes track stories and experiences too tragic to be told.
I am the first to arrive today. Standing, I look out the window. The wild grass grows unperturbed behind the perforated brick walls of the wards. A pied crow, its white feathered neck glistening with the righteousness of its cause, alights momentarily to wrestle a small lizard to the ground. The lizard struggles but is no match for the bird. I turn to look at Hope’s open case file I left on the table the day before. I am no match for what is coming to me.
When Hope was eight, two of her uncles sexually molested her. They warned her not to speak of it to anyone, and threatened to kill her if she did.
She didn’t tell anyone. Brought up in a dysfunctional family, she didn’t have the luxury of a father. Her mother remarried. Soon, her stepdad was making sexual advances, mocking her to her face that her mother wouldn’t believe her if she told her.
When she became a teenager, she was raped again by a trusted friend. She had almost gotten used to it by now, and began to think of herself as everyone’s trash—until she met Emeka. This was while she was in the university. Emeka loved her, and she loved him back—at first hesitantly, but later without reservation. She felt herself ready to dream again. They began planning for a life together. In the meantime, Emeka had to travel someplace. He promised he’d be back. You probably know where this is headed.
Emeka never came back. Hope’s sister came to her one day and told her Emeka had died “in December.” I remember Hope telling me that she “died immediately.”
But then she received a letter while she was serving as a cadet during the mandatory paramilitary service year for all Nigerian graduates. It was from Emeka. He had traveled abroad, and had married another woman, Hope’s friend. He was sorry about not telling her, and hoped she would forgive him and his new wife. Hope blanked out, and fell to the ground. She was rushed to the camp hospital, where she was administered pentazocine injections—a narcotic for treating pain. But her pain was the bottomless sort—a black hole glinting in the rays of black sun. She needed more and more of the drug, and developed an addiction to it.
Back at home, and now with work, she did everything she could to obtain more pentazocine. Spending her earnings, selling her belongings, borrowing from coworkers. She would later tell me during an interview I conducted with her: “I sold off all my jewelries, my gold—I sold off everything. I sold some of my sisters’, and all of my mum’s. My mum’s own was worse off—I sold all her gold jewelries. They were worth five million naira. I’m not sure I sold them for up to about a million or five hundred thousand. Somehow it was—I felt like I was getting even with her.” She felt deep resentment for her mother for not sticking up for her, for not celebrating her first period (while celebrating her sister’s), and for turning the other way when her stepfather mistreated her.
When she stole and sold her mother’s jewelry, her mother, pained to her heart, fell ill, and became hospitalized. Hope didn’t get a chance to tell her mum she was sorry before she passed away.
I wasn’t there for her intake interview, after Hope checked herself in for rehab, but the first time I listened to Hope’s story, I didn’t quite believe it. How could one life be so consistently tragic? My colleagues actually felt there were factitious elements to her story, and toyed with the idea of making a diagnosis of Munchausen’s syndrome after some of her family members—her sister, to be specific—told us her story was all made up, and that Hope had grown up with an excessive need to draw attention to herself. No one knew what to do with her. The psychiatrists might even have approved “wash-wash” for her, if Munchausen’s had biological indicators. Healing by frying one’s brains felt just as appropriate to me as trepanation, the ancient practice of drilling a hole in the head to let the headache and heartache spirits sail away.
Hope is now seated in front of me, smiling her endearing gap-toothed smile. My supervisor and my colleague in training are seated on the other creaky seats behind me. I lean forward and ask Hope how she is today. She is fine, she says. We talk about her stay at the facility, her family, and if she feels like she’s making progress. She has some complaints about the male nurses. Other than that, she is fine and looking forward to going home.
I tell her I’d like her to speak with someone that is important to her. And that this is probably the last time she’d get to do that. As such, she has a chance to say everything she wants to say. I promise the person will listen. I stand up from my seat, dust it, open the door to the office and gesture as if letting someone in.
“Your mother is now with us, Hope—in that very chair,” I say. Hope smiles. I wonder what my colleagues are thinking.
I had read in her file that she had a strong urge to duck or cover her head anytime she passed by her mum’s home or anything that brought her to mind. So I figured that if her past conflicts with her mother triggered psychosomatic reactions, I could facilitate a gestalt role-playing scenario that might help her confront her deep-seated feelings. Her mother was the principal caregiver she looked up to for support and during the possible traumatic events of her childhood. She didn’t get that support or the attention she needed. It was time for a meeting between the two.
The upholstered chair sits still before Hope. She just stares at it, smiling often, shifting her eyes to the unremarkable ceiling and then coming back to the object before her. I am leaning on the table. My colleagues are quiet.
Hope starts to speak. She greets her mum, calling by her pet name. She asks her how she is doing, wondering if she is well taken care of. Then she starts to talk about the events that led to her rehabilitation—the pentazocine addiction, the stolen jewelry, losing her. Before long, thick oleaginous trails of many tears wet Hope’s face, like raindrops off the windshield of a moving car. I have never seen Hope cry before. Even when she narrated her previous ordeals, she always felt in control of her emotions. But as she falls apart before us, in libations of grief, I can’t help but feel that Hope is coming home from exile in this moment of jubilee—and that the rickety chair in front of her has something to do with it.
Hope’s crying is so fierce that it feels like she is possessed by Kali—or another member of the pantheon of shadows—and seeks to exorcise her otherworldly visitor through her mouth. She is leaking springs deeper than a single lifetime can allow. Much more than several lifetimes, in fact. Were it not for the professional oath of heady distance I have taken—the cross-legged, slow-blinking, fingers-interlocked, hmm-hmm-ing stance of therapeutic expertise that preaches empathy, not sympathy—I would be by her side, not trying to hold back my own tears.
I can understand the concerns of the early-twentieth-century psychologists who marshalled their literary prowess to invent the word to counteract the notion of sympathy as thinly veiled pity and patriarchal condescension. But in Africa, empathy is not calm and collected. She is not reasonable. She has flowing garbs, and her first instinct is to sweep the dusty floors with it when she meets you birthing pain. At my father’s burial, there were people my father didn’t know—and many who didn’t know my father. But hearing of his death, and at the first sight of the convoy of cars slowly arriving his village, women in black ran to the car where his body rested. They hit their head and tore their clothes and yelled his name—and then some of them took the money they were paid for their service of mourning and went to their homes.
A professor of mine would later tell me a story of how a woman in his own village lost her only son in a motorbike accident and the ensuing intricate, bone-deep community wisdoms that came into play to break the news to her. It’s a long story, but it is better told with his own words:
In July 1980, a very painful death occurred in a village in Igboland, an ethnic area in Nigeria, West Africa. A fifteen-year-old boy, Anayo, the only child of a widow, died in a motorcycle accident. Being a learner and yet speeding on the motorcycle, Anayo was unable to locate the brake. Unable to stop, he collided with a mosque, his head hitting the wall. He died on the spot. When the news got to Anayo’s employer (until his death he was serving as an apprentice in timber merchandise), he sent word around to a network of his fellow male villagers in the city, informing them of the incident. Each, on hearing the news, reported to Anayo’s master’s house. When they all came they were sad, but quickly went into a crisis meeting aimed at deciding how to send the distressing news home. They divided themselves into two groups.
One group was to stay back and arrange for hospital preservation of the body until after everything had been set for taking it back home to his village and mother. The second group (composed of three villagers) was sent to take the news home in advance of the body. They did not go straight to Anayo’s mother. Rather, they went to Anayo’s uncle, who fortunately was at home when they arrived. They shared the news with him and then planned with him how to go about breaking the news to Anayo’s mother, who was on the farm. They planned how to bring her home first, since the news could not be announced to her on the farm where she was working. They decided to send somebody she trusted to go and bring her back. This person went with the message that Anayo had just reported home on his way to Ibadan (western Nigeria) and would like to see her before leaving again. Not suspecting anything in the message, she quickly left her work to follow the messenger.
By the time they reached her home it was already late evening, a time considered conducive to the breaking of bad news or for holding serious discussions. When Anayo’s mother could not find him at home as she had expected, she began to be disturbed. At that vital moment, Anayo’s uncle and the three gentlemen from the city poured into the compound, as if from nowhere. Anayo’s mother had scarcely finished welcoming them before they requested that she sit down for a while. Anayo’s uncle took up the task of breaking the news to her in the presence of the others. She was told the true story: that Anayo had a motorcycle accident, colliding with the mosque, hitting his head on the wall, and dying on the spot. She was told that his body was already on its way home for the burial. Before she could hear all these details she had broken down in uncontrollable wailing, attracting the attention of neighbors and passers-by, who came and joined her, crying in solidarity. And from that day, until some days after the burial, Anayo’s family home was understood to be a house of death and wailing.
There was no fixing. It was an unctuous immersion into the necessary alchemy of grief. A curdling so stern and gripping that the dark matrix that led to it was never entered alone. A ritual of many hands and many feet and dusty bodies.
Inspired by his studies in indigenous spaces of bereavement, I would later investigate how cultures like the Yoruba understood, accommodated, and treated “psychological disorders.” Aize Obayan, a professor of counseling with focus on multicultural issues (who was the “important person” and mentor your mother and I would later visit when she found the two hushes), would keep writing of “extensive” families, disturbing the dichotomized categories of families as either “nuclear” or “extended”—the point being that Africans live collectively, through many bodies, and that the atomization of shared livelihoods into the Americanized industrial model of a father, mother, and two blond (and freckled) children does not leave room for the many fluent means by which we fashion kinship with others and the planet.
Hope is now done. She is leaving the room after we have spoken about how she experienced the exercise. She says she feels like a heavy burden has been lifted off her chest. She feels free. Since she likes writing, I encourage her to write to her mum (an advice I find I can recommend to myself). My colleagues rub my back, and leave the office along with her. Am I coming, they ask. No, I’d like a few moments alone please, I reply. The office door clicks shut, and I turn around to face the large window that opens out to persistent suffering, the catatonic zombie-kind of suffering that makes sadness a sign of recovery. The wild grass grows unperturbed behind the perforated brick walls of the wards. The sky is turning gray. I lower my head and cry a little.
There’s a promise in the Book of Revelation—that when the Christ returns he will do so with an epic roar befitting his status as the long-awaited one, and then he will defeat Death itself. Anytime I walked past the inconsolable suffering of the inhabitants of that hospital, I would imagine that I—along with others—was moving slowly but surely to some utopian singularity, a day of reckoning, when suffering would be no more. I might have stopped imagining this day of recompense in terms of messianic arrivals by that time, but the activating questions pressed even closer: what do we do with pain? Why can’t we just be happy? Was there some metaphysical protocol to be observed to bring a person closer to their “and they lived happily ever after”?
I decided to conduct a grounded-theory qualitative research into the suffering of some of my clients. I taped long interviews, allowing them to speak freely about the traumatic events that had brought them to us, the prevalent social conditions they were immersed in, the presence of social support, and the ways they made sense of their own experiences. By this time, a slow doubt started to fester in my mind: I was slowly losing my conviction that Western mental health care could rigorously address the lively issues the “patients” reported to us. I had been in one too many ward rounds and sat in psychiatric meetings where diagnoses were unilaterally assigned to “that patient,” “oh, that woman?,” and “yes, yes, that poor child.” I had experienced the surge of vile power within me when a client begged me to tell her what was wrong with her, insisting that I was the expert and knew about her better than she knew about herself.
I had heard a fully grown Igbo man, with a big belly, a gruff physicality, and hustling quality to his face, tell of the time he refused to lie on a couch because it was a young female psychologist telling him to. He had told her, “Sorry. I have your ‘type’ at home,” which was just his way of saying “others like you give me respect … I cannot do what you ask of me.” Of course, even in conventional psychotherapy, many clients-to-be refuse to work with some therapists, and are eventually referred to someone they can be comfortable with. Yet, I suspected a deeper dynamic was at work, and longed to look past the colors of the capsule to the fine powdery substance enclosed within. Was it possible that one could think of mental health care, recovery, and well-being in radically different ways?
My grounded theory exposition allowed me to work with the narratives of my clients, generating a multiaxial story that suggested the avoidance of pain was at the heart of (my clients’) suffering. This was the one theme that seemingly encompassed and paraphrased the tears, the stiffness, the dull vacant looks, and the occasional spark of life from within leathery eyes. My participants didn’t think of healing and recovery as something that came as a result of pills and injections. Their limbs may have been cold, hanging loose from their torsos like rejected transplants, but their hopes for a better life reminded me of their humanity.
However, my grounded theory of pain avoidance felt half-spoken. It wasn’t something I wanted to stand on a raised platform and share with everyone else—even though I eventually did share it before a committee of indifferent professors who were more concerned that I didn’t employ statistical methods in a qualitative study—and also, to be fair to them, that I prefaced my work with a scathing polemic denouncing an entire generation of researchers who had used quantitative research.
Something was missing, and the clues of it became apparent when I walked the streets of Enugu, that anxious city like Babel where the ground is chastisement, and the sky, reward. You see, dear, one of the claims of modernity and those who advocate a developmental agenda for “primitive people” is that the modern world has made things easier for us. I cannot speak of your time, but in this time we are yet enveloped by the notion of distance, and protected by unwritten laws of anonymity. We—the consumers of modern tinkering—expect things to work for us, and become furious when they don’t. We are like the poor shoemaker in the fable of the Brothers Grimm, who goes to bed and wakes up in the morning to find that the cut leather and nails of the night before have become shoes of great workmanship ready for the sale. We could care less if there were actual elves flying our planes, bearing signals with their mouths from computer to computer, or ensuring that trains arrive on time.
Divorced from the wilds, from the heart-racing immediacy of the world at large, and cradled in the fantasy of our centrality, we have largely become a species of convenience—expecting things to work for us neat and tidy. Luxury seems to be the meta/physics of the least expended effort: technology brings things closer without us having to move so much. I have used the metaphor of adjusting focal length with the camera and thus “moving” while being immobile as a figure of the modern tendency to permanence: with a phone I can hurl my voice at great distances without … well, doing that. And with a camera-phone, I have the benefit of hurling my voice and taking a picture. From all this, I suppose an idea gains a body over time, in trickling sedimentations, perhaps an unintended effect of fixating too much on the human figure: the idea that we are meant to be well. That it is our right, and we must have it now. That wellness can be produced unilaterally, and that even if we arrived at remedies and cures at great expense—or had a way to hold the sun in the sky indefinitely, that would be a good and useful thing.
The particular estrangements produced by modernity blind us from noticing that the dark we try to push away is not only part of life but necessary to it, and that nothing shows up except partially. To preclude suffering and pain, we turn inward. Modernity, in spite of its expansiveness and rhetoric of reaching for the stars, of endless covetousness and an eternally widening circle, is a collective turning inward. I might even say that curiosity as much as anxiety dwells at the tip of the shovel with which we open up more and more ground: we are hoping to cement our permanence deep enough so that nothing conceivable threatens our centrality.
We close up the orifices of our collective breathing, and stamp on the soft places where we once yielded to the loamy congress of becoming-things. Crowfoot, the nineteenth-century chief of the Siksika First Nation in what is now known as Canada, wrote: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” This attention to fleeting things, this utter temporariness and impermanence of things, this romance between wintertime and buffalo, shadow and grass and sunset, speaks of a world that is fragile—and is indifferent to our ambling quests and adolescent insistence on emotional gratification.
Walking the streets of Enugu, up and down Chime Avenue in New Haven, branching off into streets the names of which I need not remember nor burden you with if I could, brought me to wonder about the modern conditions that constitute us. The covering up, the asphalt, the rationalization of social being, the frenzy of catching up with time, the denial of competing agencies and their constitutive claims on human personhood, the metaphysics of completeness and wholly separate others, the myth of individuality, the circumcision of life’s sensuousness, and the exclusivity of light and shadow. We often speak about getting lost in the dark, but it is also possible to get lost in the light. In fact, a consequence of high definition visuals is that it cuts away the generativity and creativity of an image; once things are so fixed, we become blind to their inexhaustibility. Name the color, blind the eye.
In Enugu, I imagined there might have been a time when women still gathered at the doorsteps, when women rolled in the dust and clutched their breasts and collective wombs, when practices of massaging the bodies with many hands mothered new mothers—a time perhaps before the Eastern Line and newfound coal and colonial Nigeria. Now is a different time. We are sophisticated, and we no longer have many places to grieve.
Gloria Anzaldua writes:
There is darkness and there is darkness. Though darkness was “present” before the world and all things were created, it is equated with matter, the maternal, the germinal, the potential. The dualism of light/darkness did not arise as a symbolic formula for morality until primordial darkness had been split into light and dark. Now Darkness, my night, is identified with the negative, base, and evil forces—the masculine order casting its dual shadow—and all these are identified with dark skinned people.
Even though darkness is restated as evil or absence, this is not simply the case. Think about it, dear: don’t things grow in dark places? Seeds tremble and crack open in the dark of the soil; babies grow in the darkness of the womb; photographs need darkrooms to properly develop; and, even though light is often centralized as the main “ingredient” in the production of biological vision, seeing would not be possible without the agency of darkness (if the occipital lobe’s work, shrouded in shadow, is anything noteworthy). Little wonder Jung observed that darkness “has its own peculiar intellect and its own logic which should be taken very seriously.”
Darkness is not the absence of light as we’ve been so forced to believe. It is the very dance of light—it is light in rapturous contemplation of herself, in poetic adoration of her own contours and sensuous nuances. And we will never see this except we join her, unless we marvel at her rapid steps, unless we get caught up with her in her festive charade of realness, in her chaotic performance, in her heady spin, in full embrace of her extravagant sweaty waltz—for when we do, we will realize that shadows are merely the spaces she has tenderly left for us to place our feet.
What diffraction thus shows is that the world is continuously differentiating and entangling (simultaneously) in copious productions of phenomena. This reiterativity has no set pattern, and doesn’t produce a final formula. As such, “there is no absolute boundary between here-now and there-then. There is nothing that is new; there is nothing that is not new.” Drawn out into its extensive nuances, Barad implies that even life and death, the animate and the inanimate, inside and outside, self and other, truth and falsehood are not estranged from each other. The things we call opposites are already diffractively implicated in each other.
However, we live largely in a world governed under a kingdom of Light, and this light implies a violent and forceful dichotomization of the world. It needs everything neatly arranged and easily categorized. It cannot afford that things spill into each other. It needs binaries—an inside and outside. The things that fall on the outside are thus thought to be evil, chaotic, and corrupt. As Stanton Marlan notes in his book The Black Sun—the Alchemy and Art of Darkness, this violence is endemic to modernity, which embodies this quest for totalizing light, and harbors the metaphysics of separation—a phallic, “male-dominated” rejection of anything that is “other,” and demonization of the darkness. Modernity “sets the stage for a massive repression and devaluation of the “dark side” of psychic life. It creates a totality that rejects interruption and refuses the other from within its narcissistic enclosure.” Identifying this violent dichotomization of orgasmic life as the actions undertaken by the mythical/alchemical figure of a Sun King and his “helio-politics,” Marlan feels that we need to approach the Black Sun we often rule out in our hunger for fetish light.
If the work of feminist materialisms is to crack open the sealed places, to dispute the ontological imprisonment of things in Cartesian categories, and to show how the supposedly righteous and separate are already complicit in the “crime” of entanglement (to stretch the legal metaphors!), then we should pay attention to the interesting proposal that our psychic lives are richly embroidered with darkness. And living with the inescapability of darkness, meeting the dark on its own terms, acknowledging that darkness has its own prerogatives that are different from illumination, instead of attempting to fix it or look past it or make it a means to light, becomes our fierce focus. That is, opening closures—one of which is the closure of the dark psychic life—can help us understand how, in our modern comings and goings, happiness is so easily fetishized, so passionately pursued, and yet so defiantly in short supply.
A friend of mine, Charles Eisenstein—whose son Cary you once played with in New York when you were in your second year—told me a story of a woman he met who radiated a heart-warming and magnetic joy. He went on the prowl, trying to sniff out a story. He asked her: “Why are you so happy?” The woman replied: “Because I know how to cry.”
If that seems at odds with what feels like common sense, then you are not the only one in this feeling. The feverish pursuit of happiness is so sacred to modern life and our understanding of human emotionality that it is literally enshrined in the constitution of a certain Western nation. We assume that happiness has Cartesian-Newtonian features—a given stability, determinate properties and weight—and that we can simply accumulate it. We can be happier than our neighbors on the other side of the fence if we gather more of the stuff to ourselves. It is easier to understand why—following the horrors of World War II and the rapid industrialization and proliferation of commercial products it engendered—global culture came to associate products and goods with happiness. With increasingly sophisticated advertisements, a dream was sold: buy more, get happier. An unfortunate culture of waste and planned obsolescence emerged with this helio-psychology.
I cannot help but imagine that this Fetish Happiness, this fixed “thing” frozen in modernity’s violent light—to the exclusion of its darkness—is also agential, and subtly organizes modern society in this fantasy of arrival. In a race for a finish line. In other words, total happiness co-constitutes colonial elisions and their reductionisms, excavatory capitalism, and even the teleological pilgrimage for heaven and final rewards that characterizes the main religions. It is happiness stabilized as an eternal stretch—a “happily ever after”—without the corroding stain of sorrow that pulses mutely.
The Yoruba healer’s words come to me again: “You have driven away the dark with your big development and your pills, and now you must find it. You must head into the forest to find the dark.”
This generates quite a lot of feedstuff for our mutual consideration, dear. Let me see if I can parse them this way:
First, the invitation to “find the dark” or seek it on its own terms is shocking to modern contemplation. If darkness is granted any effects at all, it is as a means to an end. One is meant to undergo the purging of the means so as to attain the end. As such, a “light at the end of the tunnel” conception of psychic life relegates the dark to secondary status. The shamanic invitation to seek the dark places turns that conception on its head, and grants darkness “equal” status: the dark is just as much a means to the light, as the light is a means to the dark.
In fact, the shaman’s tradition adheres to the archetype of the trickster. From the Yoruba Eshu (who is also described as the “first particle”—the one who brings balance) and Maui (the Polynesian deity whose tricks and deception gave us land) to Prometheus (the scamming Greek god who made mortals and gave them fire) and Pan (the horned guardian of the wilds), the trickster is the black sheep of the pantheon—not because his/her jokes are bad, but because he/she embodies the primeval generativity and diffractive ingenuity of things. The trickster is balance—not in mathematical terms of determining aggregates and averages, but in terms of entanglement. Psychic life is always poised in the middle of things, as the co-agentic mattering of “good” and “bad.” There is no solution to the dark. We are never not broken; we are never not whole.
Secondly, heading into the forest to find the dark brings us into encounters with nonhumans, thereby stressing some kind of intra-subjective ethos or trans-affectivity. We are used to thinking of thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and choices as uniquely human attributes; those psychological events are supposedly happening in our heads or somewhere behind our skins. But in a world that leaks through and through, where nothing is granted the luxury of independence, we can no longer think in those terms. Personhood has changed address—no longer embodied in the human corporeal entity, but in diffractive enlistments spread out in the environment.
The idea that emotions are posthuman—part of the performativity of the world that recruits not just “humans” but nonhumans in its emergence—is not foreign to Western discourse. From the moment Freud deconstructed the myth of the pristine, rational self by introducing the wild unpredictable antics of the unconscious, the human figure has been composting … like a seed acquainting itself with its own discombobulation. In other words, he brought the great outdoors into the great indoors, putting one more nail in the coffin of the idea that our inner lives are essentially private to us. I was startled to learn, quite late, that Freud’s concerns about dream interpretation was a professional cover for his more scandalous interest in dream telepathy—or the transference of information via dreams.9
Carl Jung took it even further, stressing the irreducible collectiveness of the unconscious—painting a complicated picture of an ecosystem of mental life that accommodates (and is already constituted by) strange fellows. By diffractively rereading the ancient practice of alchemy (an example of why the “old” is still valid, and how the future can ontologically reconfigure and reconvene the past) as the journey of the soul in transformation, Jung drew entangling lines between “human minds” and base metals.
Because there’s a whole lot of back history about the transcorporeal mind (or the inescapable entanglement between minds and bodies—not just “the” human body), there have been many experiments exploring ESP (or extrasensory perceptual) abilities like clairvoyance, precognition and telepathy, the implications of which would mean something far more radical than modernity (and its commitments to closure) can tolerate is afoot.
But I do not need to write to you about men who stare at goats, or the ability to know beforehand (queering temporality) to suggest that we are part of a flow of becoming—and our “inner lives,” supposedly immured from the weather, is the direct effect of the weather. From the simple ways we communicate, as if gesturing out into the world, to the “simple” ways we are able to anticipate the direction someone is going with his words, and complete the sentences, we are beginning to rethink thinking, feeling, knowing, and communicating as the cascading performance of many others, reaching us in waves and heading on to wherever.
Thoughts don’t come from “within”; neither do they come from “without.” They emerge “between.” It’s the same with feelings. I like to think that the gentle dipping of a leaf under the weight of a dewdrop can set off a series of events that flow through us as (what we call) “depression”; and, that the molten formation of a rock, through the intra-activity of weather and technology and story, is experienced “joy” in a specific moment. I like to imagine that when a seed falls into the earth, it experiences grief, and its grief is met by the loamy femininity of the soil, and that is how trees sprout out with joy. Perhaps those moments of unspeakable silence, when depths churn and sides groan, when words escape you, when a pill or a diagnosis doesn’t add up to much, when all you want to do is squeeze yourself into the tiniest place in the universe, it is because you—for all intents and purposes—are co-performing the disintegration of imaginal cells within a cocoon, and knowing the pain of becoming a moth.
Perhaps this is the next frontier: not outer space or inner space, but the spaces between. No more jumping to conclusions—no more leaping from already-formed “heres” to “theres” while avoiding the performance of the middle! The world is not composed of things, but flowing, half-uttered sayings, never congealing into an independent wholeness long enough to be considered separate, and always part of a traffic of intra-bodies.
Finally, heading into the dark is always a matter of collectives. In Yoruba shamanism, even if you were sent alone to the forest to retrieve something, there is still an irreducible collective implied in the effort. In the way a particular measurement can produce light as a particle to the exclusion of its complementary identity as wave, individuals are the productions of political-scientific-religious-economic measurements. What those measurements cut out are one’s ancestors, tailing them in bacteria, dust, and memory. In this sense, we are all possessed; we are legion.
But while modernity fixes the frames, adjusts the lenses, and notices only the isolated person, many indigenous practices of healing draw in other bodies in the community as part of person-making. As such, healing in African indigenous systems is interactional (or intra-actional!), whereas Western paradigms, as Nwoye notes in his study of African grief work, tend to place emphasis
on the role of the “totalitarian,” or “sovereign,” or “self-sufficient” ego of the bereaved individual in resolving grief … which has given rise to researchers’ present tendency to medicalize the phenomenon of mourning, promoting the assumption that resolving grief can be achieved only in the clinic or through therapy.
Therapy in these indigenous settings is not a fix as much as it is an immersion. It is a staying-with, a going-down-together. It happens in slow time, in soft yielding places where the logic of darkness is allowed to play out. There is no cure, no shortcut, and no detour. Just the long dusty road traveled with others. It might even be said that grief travels you, touches you, shakes you, beats you up, and scratches you. Because it is her own being, especially a force one must not look at with one’s naked eyes, it is best to respect the spontaneity of grief and pain. The community’s efforts are usually a negotiation and struggle with the provisionality of the dark side of psychic life. Of course, chronic negativity can be tasking on any community, and there is the possibility that even with communal support, a person may not find his or her way back. Nevertheless, the usual premise is that everyone must go through these moments—that people are born and die more generously and more frequently than a beginning and an end might presuppose.
“Mental ill-at-ease-ness” is debilitating, and there are of course times when a pill could work wonders. What is of course important to note is that nothing comes without its world. Pills and talk therapy might help in recovery, but they shut out other ways of listening to the others around us, other ways of giving darkness its day in the sun. And just like in Hope’s case, when the burden of recovery is placed on reductionistic approaches, those tools can turn around to hold us in their grip.
Someone once told me that civilization is the shared obliviousness to the fact that we haven’t gotten rid of wild things, and that they dwell “within” us—somewhere beneath the threshold of normalcy. This wildness, this darkness, is not an “other.” We are continually sourced, recreated, and reconfigured here.
Only under the regime of Light—the Apollonian politics of permanence—would death and darkness be treated as enemies. Perhaps this is why it is extremely difficult for moderns not to think that the world is here for us, for our own enjoyment, our own movements and definitions and terms. But the world is not “designed,” put in place, or created for our well-being—at least not in the absolute sense that there is a universal harmony awaiting our awakening. The world dips in and out, retreats and proceeds, produces and eats up its own genius a mere gasp later.
 Not real name.
“These Wilds Beyond our Fences” is available in stores everywhere.