'The Disembodied Self', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on the written word.

(Read the intro here)

Writing as Self-analysis, Part One: The Disembodied Self

“I wept, the water of my tears melding with the blood from my veins, and a river poured down the spiral stairs of the tower and into the red earth. As the river ran so the great vultures appeared, circling above my head, brought to by the scent of fresh carrion.

Is this all I am? I cried. Carrion? Meat?

And I knew the truth of it and laughed bitterly as the first lumps of flesh were torn from my body. I was carried piece by piece skyward on the wind, and I saw my dissolution in the eyes of the vultures. Their eyes were resentful. The last of my body flew towards the heavens, and I heard it, the last cry of the virgins whose job was done and for whom there was no more sorrow, and they said,

‘Go like the wind’…”

That’s a cut from my first novel, Meat. I sat down and started writing Meat at the end of 2018 after I’d uncovered some old, discarded prose from around ten years before. I’d written these particular stories one winter in Athens, having nothing else to do in that city but wander the filthy streets and conceive of mad, poorly constructed ideas. I wrote them mostly in a Kotsovolos on Syntagma, which had a basement below the store where you could use free internet for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. I’d settle in there like a homeless bum and write my piece in shifts. Either that, or I’d chance my arm in a little university nook on Amerikis next to the museum, where I’d try to salvage discarded tickets for free minutes.

The original story was about this peculiar bar that seemed to be accessed from three geographically displaced cities (Belfast, Amsterdam and Athens), a trajectory that conveniently mirrored my own continental traipsing and carousing. The original formulation was a pure mess of a thing, but there was something in it I liked, something that I could draw out and explore further. So I sat down and undertook a complete rewrite, the novel growing organically out of the original template, the themes and sub-texts taking on a life of their own and developing accordingly. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I see now that it was a way of exploring and processing a long period of deeply troubled mental health, which, quite appropriately, morphed into the gruesome subject matter of the book.

It was through the writing of it that I was able to unravel a long journey of mental decline, the culmination of the novel being the complete unravelling (and self-destruction) of the narrator. The nameless protagonist of the novel (let’s call him ‘Chef’) is a deeply disturbed guy. He eats people, for fuck’s sake. The cannibalism of the novel is in itself a metaphor, I believe, but we’ll come around to that later. For now, let’s consider the above quote. The reason I chose it was to explore a particular aspect of my mental health which seemed to heavily influence the writing of the novel. The quote depicts the image of a man being picked apart by vultures, lumps of his flesh being carried into the sky until there is nothing left of him that the wind cannot blow away. So, can we view this psychoanalytically? And should we? Well, I said in the intro that this would be a ramble purely for my own enjoyment, so why the hell not. What does it represent, then? A death wish? The dissolution of the self? Reading the entire chapter, it seems rooted in a deep and irrational fear, and it seems to me it may be the terror of someone fearful of losing grip on their very self, or, at least, the extremely tentative grasp of ‘self’ that the narrator appears to have.

One of the conditions I came to understand (after a long, furious struggle) as comprising a part of my mental makeup, was the state of schizoid personality disorder. The schizoid state is one in which, due to some traumatising event, the individual walls himself off from the world around him as a mode of self-protection – what Kierkegaard referred to as a state of ‘shutupness’. The book that helped me come to an understanding of this was R.D. Laing’s, The Divided Self. In it, he states:

 “Such a schizoid individual is in one sense trying to omnipotent, by enclosing within his own being, without resource to a creative relationship with others… He would appear to be, in an unreal, impossible way, all persons and things to himself. The imagined advantages are safety for the true self, isolation and hence freedom from others, self-sufficiency and control.”

The reality is, of course, that such an individual, walled-up and isolated, comes to live only ‘mentally’, purely in his own head, developing what he sees as a ‘true’ self, inviolable and accessible only to himself. This appears to be a self-perpetuating mode of being, but in reality, it is feeding off of itself, the result a state of terrible despair and isolation. This is what Laing terms the false-self system. It occurred to me just now that this all-devouring mode of existence may in itself be termed ‘cannibalistic’ (since its only form of nourishment is itself), thus echoing the major theme of the book. Naturally, this state of being has a limited shelf life, since it cannot go on sustaining itself. There is only one true end: ‘self’-destruction, or, what Laing calls, ‘implosion’.   

Later, following on from the extract of Meat quoted above, the now disembodied narrator states:

“Ego. That is all that’s left of me now. I wander the earth, bodyless and soulless…”

This is perhaps an expression of his ultimate desire in the face of his fears: to hold on to his fragile, falsely constructed self, thus condemned to wander eternally as a phantom, a ghost.

I have come to understand that these threads are reflected in the narrative style I chose for the book. All characters are refracted through the skewed lens of the narrator; all drift as bit actors through his tortured consciousness, mere afterthoughts in his fragmented, and closeted, worldview. I’ll wrap up with a few more words from Laing:

“The schizoid individual… can relate himself only to depersonalized persons, to phantoms of his own fantasies…”

Apt, I think, for a man who sets out to destroy everything around him. Therein, also, lies the grand metaphor of the book: cannibalism as depersonalisation, dehumanisation. If it is not human, but only a thing, it cannot hurt or threaten you. Eat the world and live safely. But alone. Perhaps there are better metaphors for the schizoid condition, but I can’t yet conceive of them.

(Read Part Two)

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 ‘The Disembodied Self’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: all content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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