Notes on Intersubjectivity

Notes on Intersubjectivity

I have written here recently about intersubjectivity. Two twentieth-century philosophers – Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricœur – provide many insights, yet their groundbreaking work contains too many abstract propositions, divorced from the day-to-day reality of relationships. After all, intersubjectivity involves a “person-to-person relationship, each person being considered from the point of view of his or her own subjectivity.” (See, for the original French definition:

So much for abstract propositions. What about the impact of narrative on intersubjectivity?

Rita Charon’s Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness is an extraordinary work, by turns emotional and authentic, which values the stories we tell about health and illness, and I highly recommend it. She is the founder of Narrative Medicine, at Columbia University in New York.

She upholds intersubjectivity as a key value for doctors to have, in a clinical setting, admittedly in a one-on-one situation: this value enables them to show empathy, using the self-who-knows, the self-who-acts and the self-who-observes as a therapeutic instrument; doctors accept their vulnerability as human beings by opening themselves up to the suffering and uncertainty of others; accompanying their patients emotionally on the road to recovery and sometimes to death; sharing in the experiences of other subjects, of other selves, respectfully and with dignity; and listening for stories that patients tell. In fact, she says, intersubjectivity is achieved “through the cognitive and imaginative process of transport, transformation, and merging with the teller and the told.” (p. 112)

Yet after rereading Narrative Medicine, perhaps for the fifth time, I am still left wondering about intersubjectivity.

The strength of Rita Charon’s book is its focus on one-on-one intersubjective relationships in a clinical setting, while drawing on patient narratives – and world literature – for examples. But this is also its weakness.

Communication is not a desert road leading from one person to another

I am dismayed by the poverty of words. We don’t always articulate in words what we experience – and even when we do, words often fall short of the reality of what we live. I say this as a person who has written many millions of words for publication, as a journalist and author. I recently translated a book for the University of British Columbia Press – 110,000 words from French to English – while completing a medical translation contract for the University of Toronto – 260,000 words from English to French. There are many ways of putting things; words mean different things to different people, especially when we change from one language to another. The fact I am a literary bilingual gives me a certain detachment about writing.

Words are just one way of representing experience – and not always the best one. They don’t always help us to “tell” or “read” situations correctly.

I used to a know a young Canadian veteran who had been a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia. He was held hostage and subjected to psychological torture, near Sarajevo. Given the UN mandate of the time, he and his colleagues were unable to prevent genocide there. He witnessed war atrocities so horrible that he decided he could not bring children into such a cruel world as this. He returned to Canada, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: it ruined his life, his marriage, his prospects. He was only able to convey all of this to me by combining words with emotions, facial expressions, tone of voice, body language and a thumb-worn album of photographs. (This was not an interview.) In describing his PTSD to me, he said he misread many situations, interpreting benign words as threats, “triggering” the emergency responses that were silver-etched on his heart.

This young man was very much alone, in a world of unrecognizable emotions

I had known several other former hostages in the United States, Ireland and Great Britain, which may have given me an entry point into this young man’s world.

But I saw, at the same time, the limits of intersubjectivity. I could show him warmth and brotherly compassion, but I am not sure I could ever truly understand the words he used to convey his experience. Perhaps I could guess what they meant.

I remember writing an article in a Toronto newspaper asking questions about physical and sexual abuse in the boys’ school I had attended in Montreal. The article led to a class-action lawsuit against the school, and ultimately 45 men who had been sexually abused at the age of 11 and 12 received compensation. This article was probably the single most important piece of journalism I ever wrote, even though it was an op-ed piece. I was kicked out of the “old boys club” as a result, which was no great loss.

I got to know some of the victims, and in listening to them, I came to realize people don’t generally, or easily, talk about severe and intimate trauma (rape, incest, sexual exploitation), because they fear being judged, or being disbelieved, or exposing themselves to yet more harm. Or because they are stumped by the poverty of words, and cannot find effective ways to communicate what they went through. Which is why these men were happy to have me defending them. In a way, I had to translate what they said into other words, into general or even anonymized questions.

The reality of emotions and relationships is dynamic, not linear

Then again, the one-on-one model in Rita Charon’s work suggests each person in a relationship is an authentic self – cogent, true to himself or herself, and able (sooner or later) to tell a coherent story to another authentic self who is listening and able to receive the story. I would call this a linear model of sharing, like a desert road going from A to B.

The linear model seems to make sense, pushing along towards future understanding, but is this really the way people share?

I have seen situations where individuals get swallowed up in their family or social group, and lose all sense of self, as if they were whipped around at high speed on a merry-go-round, with no control or even apparent awareness of their own thoughts and feelings. I would call this a dynamic model of sharing, where everybody gets involved!

Narratives can distort our perceptions. When I was an undergraduate, a professor encouraged our class to keep a diary, as a way of keeping our thoughts clear. Things did not go as planned. I found the words on the page crystallized or freeze-dried my experiences. I locked onto things because they sounded good to me at the time. I forced them to fit into the patterns I was developing. It was only a few decades later that I began to understand what had really been my underlying motivations in young adulthood, what drove me to think and act, how I had backed into experiences, with no real idea where I was going. I placed too much trust in words, which I used to convince myself of things.

If ever there was a man with an extreme mood shifts, it was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I sometimes wonder: if I met him, which subjective Dostoyevsky would I be interacting with? The manic creator … or the depressive loner, struggling to give a transcendental meaning to his suffering?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the nineteenth century novelist, suffered from epilepsy and a harrowing gambling addiction. He was obsessed by the alternating twin natures of some of his characters – Golyadkin in The Double and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word раскол (raskol), which according to the dictionary means “split, schism or cleavage.” Raskolnikov is the epitome of the divided personality, at war with himself. Dostoyevsky himself may have been bipolar, since he was subject to extraordinary bouts of depression and dwelled on suffering, whereas in his manic moods he was very creative. If I were interacting with a man with two natures like Dostoyevsky, I would then wonder which subjective Dostoyevsky I was dealing with? I suspect it would all depend on his state of mind at the time: he might shift from one nature to the other.

People don’t generally, or easily, talk about severe and intimate trauma (rape, incest, sexual exploitation), because they fear being judged or being disbelieved or exposing themselves to yet more harm. Or because they are stumped by the poverty of words, and cannot find effective ways to communicate what they went through

Words can lead us astray. They may be intended to mislead us. For example, the most overused and abused expression is “I love you” – but it can mean many things, for example: “I wish I were worthy of your admiration … I wish I could love you – or anybody else for that matter … I despise you … I am lying to you about love to cover up my affair with someone else … I want to control you … I want to make you feel guilty … I wish you bought into the romantic story I am making up about us together … I am saying this just to buy time, to keep you on hold.” Think of that song about the ambiguity of love and desire by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime … moi non plus.”

Authors help readers imagine experience: that is our job. And this make-believe act comes naturally to the writers of books just as much as to the directors of films. We use every means we can think of. We can create a compelling picture of something totally dreamt-up – say, what it feels like to walk on the surface of the planet Saturn – even though it is a gas planet, and this would be impossible in real life – yet we can craft compelling word-pictures of an idealized Saturn-like planet of the mind. Readers and film goers expect this of us. There is after all something magical about authorship.

When making The Blinding Sea, I found the combination of many thousands of moving and still images, visual effects, soundscapes, musical compositions, the words of my own narration and of people I interviewed, was by far a more effective, a more complete means of communication than mere words on a page. For me, one intersubjective aspect of the film is that I get to meet live audiences, and hear their views of my art and the story, and these interactions always take things further than I expected.

A science fiction novel could compellingly evoke what it feels like to walk on the surface of the gas planet Saturn, even though this would be impossible in real life

The Blinding Sea in Quebec City

May 3, 2023

A Crazy, Funny Novel

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