Feeling feeling

Brian Dillon

  • The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation by Daniel Heller-Roazen
    Zone, 386 pp, £21.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 1 890951 76 4

We learn a lot about ourselves at the moment when we lose our balance. In the canon of philosophical pratfalls, a tumble taken by Montaigne, and recounted in his essay ‘On Practice’, is among the most instructive. Out riding one day with his retinue, Montaigne was seated (as M.A. Screech’s translation has it) on ‘an undemanding but not very reliable horse’. A careless servant rode too close; master and mount were overthrown and pitched, heels aloft, some distance apart, leaving the horse ‘stunned’ and its rider in a trance. ‘That is the only time I have ever lost consciousness,’ Montaigne writes of his brief aerial adventure and sudden lapse on landing. His household at first supposed he had died; for several hours he languished between life and death. His senses deserted him, and yet he was strangely aware of his predicament: ‘It seemed as though my life was merely clinging to my lips. It seemed, as I shut my eyes, as though I was helping to push it out.’

What the author of the Essays had lost as he hit the ground was not consciousness as such. Montaigne still thinks, and knows that he thinks, but his actual ‘self’ is bound up with his rapidly diminishing sensorium. As Daniel Heller-Roazen argues in his rich and elegant book, a more enigmatic formulation of the sense of self than we are used to was still at work in the 16th century: its place had not yet been usurped by the bullying cogito which obscures, today, Montaigne’s precise meaning. This ‘unnamed king’ of the senses, this ‘inner touch’ or ‘common sense’, a feeling (if that is what it was) that had been sketchily described for centuries in philosophical and literary texts, was in no way reducible to the Cartesian vanishing point of pure consciousness. Nor had it much in common with the human soul as imagined, say, by St Augustine. It was not really a matter of being, either. In the case of Montaigne, grovelling on the earth, we might legitimately ask what else he had left.

The answer is a certain sort of sensation: a feeling that has always been present but mostly unacknowledged in the history of Western philosophy. Over and above the five senses, we can discern, says Aristotle – in whose writings Heller-Roazen first discovers the notion – a kind of governing master sense. Actually, ‘over and above’ is not quite right: we might as easily say that this ‘common sense’ subtends or grounds the others; but this is in fact just one of the physical and metaphorical confusions that are the subject of The Inner Touch. Aristotle is already ambiguous on this theme; he seems unsure whether the sixth, master sense is a higher or a lower power: a synthesising faculty or crude animal awareness. In his wake, a philosophical tradition develops according to which the sensation at issue constitutes both the founding condition of the five senses and the faculty that governs their action. It also gives rise to a stranger, discrete phenomenon: the feeling of being a feeling being.

The names by which this sensation has been known – the sunaesthesis of the Greeks, for example – appear philosophically familiar; but their precision has been traduced by later scholars. Time and again they have been taken by modern commentators to denote consciousness, thought or reason: the categories by which modernity encompasses self-awareness. This is understandable: the terminology hovers between mind and body, thought and feeling. But even later concepts such as Lockean ‘uneasiness’ and Leibnizian Unruhe (‘unrest’) are not the same as the doubt of Descartes: they name instead the ‘incessant and infinitely minute perceptions’ by which a body feels itself to be alive and which, nonetheless, cannot be attributed to the five senses alone. The sensation of sensation, as it were, is perhaps a wit rather than a sense: in the manner, that is, distinguished by Shakespeare in Sonnet 141: ‘But my five wits nor my five senses can/Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee.’

This, then, is what Montaigne dislocated on his way down: a sense of himself that was to be found neither in the seat of consciousness nor at his nerve ends, but in a generalised feeling of being Michel de Montaigne. He was not alone in almost, so to speak, losing it. In the second chapter of Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau recounts how, on 24 October 1776, outside Paris, he was rushed by an enormous Great Dane. He calculated at once that his only possible escape lay in leaping over the speeding dog, but it was already too late; before he could launch himself he fell head first and was struck senseless. On waking, he had a feeling of actually coming to himself: ‘I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.’ Rousseau had experienced an especially novel and heightened version of the inner touch.

Such moments, as Heller-Roazen reminds us, are not the preserve of accident-prone thinkers. Most of us will have had, within the past 24 hours, an inkling of the inner touch. Waking up, as Paul Valéry wrote, is a kind of ‘auto-genesis’: somewhere between stupor and shock, we discover ourselves again. For a moment, like Proust’s narrator, we experience once more, ‘in its original simplicity, the feeling of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal’. Except it does not always work as it ought, this sense that is not quite a sense. In certain cases, the feeling (or, worse, lack of feeling) of being embodied overwhelms us; the common sense fails and we succumb to one of a series of ailments that the medical imagination of the 18th and 19th centuries, only partially aware of the philosophical history of the inner touch, called coenaesthopathy. We feel too little, or too much, the fact of our own feeling.

Much of the most fascinating historical material in The Inner Touch – as distinct from Heller-Roazen’s careful yet audacious reading of literary and philosophical works – has to do with such disorders of the common sense. In July 1866, for example, in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, one George Dedlow told how he had lost all his limbs in the Civil War and been consigned to Stump Hospital, Philadelphia. He was in consequence ‘not a happy fraction of a man’: reduced, he said, to a sort of larval state, but tormented by phantom pains at all four former extremities. Worse, in a way, was the less localised sensation of no longer being all there. Dedlow was ‘haunted and perplexed’ by this ‘strange want’: by the partial loss, precisely, of his common or master sense. That the unhappy ‘George Dedlow’ was in fact the pseudonymous invention of the neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell does not detract from the central insight of the essay: the nervous system could conjure out of nothing not only exquisite pain, but monstrous delusions regarding the existence, or non-existence, of the self.

There follows, in Heller-Roazen’s account, a sorry parade of souls, aghast at their own lack of feeling and the emptiness inside them. Indeed, a sudden or stealthy diminution of the master sense seems to have become increasingly common as the 19th century progressed – though the disorder is perhaps harder to reconstruct, historically, than adjacent conditions such as hysteria, melancholia and neurasthenia. For a start, those afflicted tend to deny their own existence altogether. In the ‘negation delirium’ adduced by Jules Cotard in 1882, the individual believes that his or her limbs have gone, organs vanished, genitals absconded. Asked if they suffer any physical pain, such patients will reply that they have no bodies with which to do the suffering. ‘Cotard’s syndrome’ presents in this sense the mirror image of the amputee’s phantom limb: a body that is actually there, but which remains unfelt.

Torments like these amount to a simultaneous apotheosis and parody of Cartesianism. A patient treated by Pierre Janet – the French physician, philosopher and psychiatrist, writer of sensational case studies of obsession and monomania – put it most succinctly: ‘Undoubtedly I think, but I do not exist.’ ‘Alienation’ and ‘depersonalisation’, the terms that Janet used to characterise this sense of an existential deficit, have since taken on more strictly sociological associations. They seem to imply a self detached or distracted from the world around it, a person treated as a non-person. But the fate of Janet’s patients is more disturbing: they feel themselves absolutely devoid of a self. ‘I can’t find myself,’ explains ‘Zd’, an adult male patient: ‘It is not I who am sick; it is not I who am sad; it is not I who am old; it is not I who am a child; I am not I at all. What is lacking is myself.’

If this failure to feel, this inability to register the inner touch of one’s own being, sounds familiar, it is perhaps because its cultural corollary, in the same period, is well known. The aestheticism of the last decades of the 19th century is the literary and artistic equivalent of the anxiety regarding aesthesis or feeling that overtook psychiatry and neurology at the time. What is des Esseintes, the protagonist of Huysmans’s A Rebours, if not the empty shell of feeling? The elaborate sensory environments that he builds around his ruined ‘I’ – a scent organ, a room that seems sub-aquatic, a collection of foul-smelling plants – are not meant to connect his dissolute sensibilities with the world once more. Rather, des Esseintes wants to sense only the sensation of his own aesthetic responses: he wants to feel himself feeling again, to know what Walter Pater, in his Conclusion to The Renaissance, called the ‘strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves’ which exercises the aesthete.

There is another, less precious, name for these individuals who swoon in and out of self-awareness with obsessive regularity. The late-Victorian sense of an existential and affective lack, Heller-Roazen writes, is a form of hypochondria. The term appears only once in The Inner Touch, but in a way it haunts the whole book: the hypochondriac is morbidly susceptible to the sense of being embodied. He or she may not even feel or imagine actual physical pain, or suspect a particular pathology, but rather senses that somewhere deep inside, something is going on. ‘Hypochondria’ once had a more capacious meaning than it has today, denoting a wider range of physical and psychological ailments than simple delusion or anxiety. Thus Edgar Allan Poe’s description of the ‘hypochondriac’ Roderick Usher: tormented by the faintest light or softest sound, his oddest symptom is his feeling for the life of all things, including trees, fungi and fog. His common sense has begun to ramify into the world around him.

This monstrous excess of feeling turns the hypochondriac into the excitable twin of the coenaesthetically challenged patient who claims to feel nothing at all. (Feelings of emptiness are still feelings.) For some theorists of hypochondria in the 19th century, the venerable and somewhat shameful disorder was a matter not only of the patient’s imagined agonies, but of ordinary ‘objectless sensations’ that had become pathologically exaggerated: fatigue, hunger, nausea, itching, shuddering, aching, muscular resistance, desire and even pleasure. ‘Hypochondriasis’, Baron von Feuchtersleben wrote in his Principles of Medical Psychology in 1847, ‘is in its essence nothing but a coenaesthesis abnormally heightened in all directions.’ It was characterised, Cotard noted four decades later in the Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences médicales, ‘by an exaggerated psychological response. Not only visceral pains are amplified but also normal sensations cause anxiety.’ The 19th-century sensorium, it seems, was as likely to be overcrowded with impressions as to be painfully vacant.

Heller-Roazen scants somewhat this history of inflated feelings, and focuses his concluding remarks instead on the progressive erosion of the common sense or inner touch. Coenaesthopathy, he writes, ‘threatens the thinking animal with the spectre of a life from which the sense of sensing has all but disappeared: a life of conscious cogitation in the absence of any perception of being alive. Hence the clarity of this ailing state, which leaves the subject a power of thinking all the more distressing for its irrefutable lucidity.’ In the last century, this clarity belongs to the philosophers who identified the ‘poverty of experience’ (Benjamin), ‘deep boredom’ (Heidegger) and ‘experience of depersonalisation’ (Lévinas) that characterise modern life. The inner touch has been withdrawn; hence ‘the unfeeling faces and bodies that fill our screens, our books, and our newspapers with ever greater force’.

Do we really live, however, at a moment when to feel oneself feeling is no longer possible? After aestheticism and coenaestheticism, are we truly in the era of an anaesthetic experience of ourselves? One could plausibly argue the opposite: that we inhabit increasingly hypochondriac cultures, where not only pathological sensations are aired in public, but our every feeling, whether fleeting and accidental or strenuously worked up and worked on. What are the regimes of modern sexuality, physical fitness, entertainment and psychotherapy if not ways of ensuring that we feel ourselves feel? ‘Our world is by now the inverted image of the ancient,’ Heller-Roazen writes. ‘People erring on the side of excess of sensation are “scarcely to be found”, and those individuals who feel “less than a proper amount” of enjoyment and pain in life grow more numerous with each day.’ But our clubs, gyms and health centres are full of people celebrating, or regretting, their own excesses of feeling.

What The Inner Touch teaches us, however, is that the two ends of the modern continuum, feeling and unfeeling, are almost identical. To be modern is to oscillate between them. Neither state is exactly comparable to the common sense named by Aristotle and almost mislaid for good by an up-ended Montaigne, but we keep getting inklings of that feeling without being sure what to do with it, not knowing whether we should relish or fear it, questioning what exactly it is for. It seems at once entirely familiar (to the extent that it is amazing anyone thought to write a book about it) and utterly alien to the ways we now describe self-awareness. Countless studies have been published of obsolete diseases and outdated emotions: the effects, for example, of nerves, black bile and the wandering womb. Heller-Roazen’s contribution is to remind us of a feeling we always suspected was in there, but whose name we had forgotten – and to make us pause, time and again reading The Inner Touch, to try to feel it again.