Bachelard, Gaston (2014). The Poetics of Space (trans. Maria Jolas). New York: Pinguin Group LLC.
Bachelard, Gaston (1990). L'air et les Songes, Essai sur l'Imagination du Mouvement. Paris: Librairie José Corti.
Barthes, Roland (1977). Image, Music, Text (trans. Stephen Heath). London: Fontana Press.
Blanchot, Maurice (1948). L'arrét de mort. Paris: Gallimard.
Kristeva, Julia (1980). Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (trans. Thomas Gora & Alice Jardine). New York: Columbia University Press.
LaBelle, Brandon (2014). Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and Oral Imaginary. New York: Bloomsburry.
McAfee, Noelle (2004). Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge.
Michaux, Henri (1952). Nouvelles de l'Étranger. Paris: Mercure de France.
Pink, Sarah (2009). Doing Sensory Etnography. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Rilke, Rainer Maria (2011). The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (trans. Stephen Mitchell). New York: Vintage Books
Sacks, Oliver (1990). Migraine. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Scarry, Elaine (1985). The Body in Pain. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tzara, Tristan (1932). Où Boivent les Loups. Paris: Poésie-Club.
Recovered, the migraineur is ready to re-enter the world, and so she does. She again crosses the threshold of her doorstep. The night has fallen, and the moment is highly charged. Re-entering society, returning to the world of the living, means “relapsing into literal meaning” (Bachelard 2014: 243). But not entirely. At this point, the migraineur is more lucid than ever. She is invulnerable to the hustle and bustle and tempted to stare the passing headlights straight in the eyes. She feels alive and boundless, lustrous and limitless. But this moment of resistance is transient. The cycle is endless, and she knows all too well that the migrainous mill will soon, once again, start grinding her sense of self and space until nothing is left but a grating sound that is deafeningly senseless. Some boundaries were blurred to the point of irreversibility. Thus, when Bachelard suggests that “inside and outside are not abandoned to their geometrical opposition” and that the opposition even “ceases to have as coefficient its geometrical evidence” (245), she agrees. At least she retains the benefit of an expanded experience along with the awareness that the force of this ever-recurrence is too strong to hold and will always break through the barriers of the bearable, an insight that resonates with the following fragment by Maurice Blanchot, again suggested by Bachelard:
Constantly shuttling between outside and inside, the migraineur is bound to a nomadic life. Migraine manifests itself in an endless cycle: health leads to sickness and only sickness leads back to health. Each attack unfolds in the same manner with ritualistic precision. Like a ceremonial procession marching to the beat of high-pitched bells and dispirited drums, the migraineur maneuvers through four fundamental stages: retreat, revulsion, repose, and recovery. As the attack progresses, her sense of self - along with her sense of space - conforms to the severity of her sufferings. There emerges a progression through several states of migrainous being over the course of one attack. I will illustrate these states of being by applying Bachelard’s dialectical models to the phenomenological experience of a migraine attack.
First, the migraineur enters the stage of retreat. We find her in flight, the earliest state of migrainous being as expressed in the paragraphs above: the compulsive retraction from outside to inside. However, the impact of this inward motion must also be emphasized. With the arrival of an attack, all senses shudder at the rattling rhythm of life, which becomes an unsupportable commotion. Hands to the ears, the migraineur flees and - in crossing the threshold of her home - she abandons her daily routine, leaving the living behind in her pursuit of isolation. Here, our understanding of outside and inside is based on a clear geographical distinction, forcing upon us a metaphorical thinking that operates through oppositions such as “yes” and “no,” “positive” and “negative,” “being” and “non-being.” In the opening quote of this essay, Bachelard encourages us to go beyond these obvious symbolisms and refuse the distinctness of the opposition. This liberating suggestion proves to be a real necessity in the investigation of the migraine cycle.
Silently, the migraineur closes, locks, shuts down, turns off, seals off, and undresses as she enters the state of being bunkered. For a brief moment she is comforted by the seclusion. As she trades spaciousness for closeness and the full mouthed for the muffled, she feels better, at least for a breath or two. But soon her eyes and ears adjust. The silence is not soundless and the black not black enough. Her senses still suffer. Downstairs, the normally soothing domestic noises now seem to thunder. Volume cranked up to the absurd confounds meaning. Phonophobia phantomizes the familiar, turns the homey into the haunted and the intimate into the far-out. Uncanniness seeps in. At this point, hypersensitivity merges all senses into one painful blend, turning any ordinary sensory impression into an encounter with the bizarre. So when the sun enters the bedroom and hits the wall, it hurts the ears as much as the eyes. Synesthesia, a classic migraine symptom that blurs boundaries and distinctions, is beautifully rendered as a poetic metaphor by Tristan Tzara:
In this image the senses collide. Bachelard also writes with a touch of surrealism that reminds us of the migrainous oddity: “[We] experience the strange whir of the sun as it comes into a room in which one is alone, for it is a fact that first ray strikes the wall. [...] Then everything starts buzzing and one’s head is a hive, the hive of the sounds of the sun” (Bachelard 2014: 241-242). In this synesthetic moment, the boundaries between the self and space begin to shift. When the sun strikes the wall, it strikes the migraineur’s senses, all of them at once. It becomes difficult to distinguish external stimuli from internal impulses. Sufferer and space gradually come to coincide.
Then, as the torment increases, the migraineur enters the stage of revulsion. First, a state of blurred boundaries. The headache increases and approaches the unbearable. The migraineur becomes dazed by the intensification and learns that pain consumes space as much as it does thought and time. The latter somehow simultaneously seems stopped and stretched by physical torment and these temporal fluctuations are unavoidably heavily disorienting. The chamber grows on her, a bodily extension stretching her sufferings. The boundaries between her and the space dissolve, and the bedroom turns into an expansion of her suffering body.
Nausea now reaches an untenable, almost existential, height and bursts into constant emesis. “Swallowing and choking,” artist Brandon LaBelle writes, “lead us into these deep performances and issues, revealing the degrees to which the oral assists in regulating our sense of self. With vomiting, this reaches an extremely dramatic peak. [...] Lurching forward to get rid of what has found its way in, vomiting is the ultimate attempt to expel what is unwanted” (LaBelle 2014: 39). At this point, the migraineur enters a state of flux. Aware of nothing but her physical existence, she withdraws into herself and takes the walls that hold her with her. Turning back into herself, she swallows the space. The room, taken in, is puked out, expelling the intolerance back where it belongs. All in a loop. In this convulsive interchange of outside and inside, the self and the space are in continuous dislocation. Bachelard explains this unstable state of being as follows: “outside and inside are both intimate - they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and an outside, this surface is painful on both sides. When we experience this, [...] we absorb a mixture of being and nothingness. The center of 'being-there' wavers and trembles” (Bachelard 2014: 233). And with this thought he points us towards “Shade-Haunted Space,” a poem by Henri Michaux that aligns remarkably with the essence of migrainous misery:
In this state of (non-)being, the migraineur’s thoughts are entirely compromised and, thus, her sense of self. The extremes of the circumstances have pushed back the vastness of her inner awareness until nothing is left but the outer edges, the boundaries, the limits. Her inner self is reduced to nothing but a sense of narrowness that sticks on her insides, leaving no space for her to actually exist. Bachelard refers to this state as a phobia of inner space (2014: 235), a mode of being which he also recognizes in Michaux’s poem. He describes the self as:
a spirit that has lost its 'being-there' (être-là), one that has so declined as to fall from the being of its shade and mingle with the rumors of being, in the form of meaningless noise, of a confused hum that cannot be located. It once was. But wasn’t it merely the noise that it has become? Isn’t its punishment the fact of having become the mere echo of the meaningless, useless noise it once was? Wasn’t it formerly what it is now: a sonorous echo from the vaults of hell? [...] In this 'horrible inside-outside' of unuttered words and unfulfilled intensions, within itself, being is slowly digesting its nothingness. (Bachelard 2014: 233)
When the torment has finally reached its climax, we enter the third phase of migraine: the stage of repose. This easing of catharsis introduces the shift from increase to decrease. As pain and nausea commence their unhurried departure, the body enters a state of rest. The torment is not instantly gone, and the migraineur is still swallowed by the space, but she somehow experiences the room more like a mollusk in its shell. The chamber now holds and protects her. She is enveloped by a sense of safety. This experience is beautifully conveyed by Tristan Tzara:
Bachelard takes us deeper into the stage of repose by describing it as follows:
withdraw into oneself, and condense oneself in the being of a repose [...]. Then the great stream of simple humility that is in the silent room flows into ourselves. The intimacy of the room becomes our intimacy. And correlatively, intimate space has become so quiet, so simple, that all the quietude of the room is localized and centralized in it. The room is very deeply our room, it is in us. We no longer see it. It no longer limits us, because we are in the very ultimate depth of its repose, in the repose that it has conferred upon us. And all our former rooms come and fit into this one. How simple everything is! (Bachelard 2014: 241)
With the departure of the phonophobic phantom, the migraineur is left in stillness. And with this calm, eventually, comes recovery, the fourth and final state of this migrainous cycle. While the pain subsides and the nausea slowly ebbs, a return of the self takes place. Little by little the “unreal sounds are restored to their concrete, familiar meaning” (245), writes Bachelard, who offers an illuminating paragraph by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Spring, 2020. A worldwide forced exodus, emptying public spheres. Buildings abandoned and squares escaped. Out of fear. Out of order. Hurriedly walking the dog, chop-chop, sniffing the eeriness, all ears to the absence, the familiar faded fast. Illness drove us back into our homes, mansions for many, bunkers for most. We deflated our worlds until they fit within the walls. The threshold, crossed and hermetically sealed, wraps up anger and boredom, doubt and disease. Rooms rumble a lethargic litany, and when a cough escapes the oral cavity, it is muffled by curtains and dulled by discomfiture. Keep it in. Keep it in. Keep it in.
This forced retreat from the public arena back into our dwellings seems to mark and amplify the opposition between outside and inside. We stare at the doorstep and now, more than ever, see a margin, an edge, an end. This inward motion unsettles our sense of self.
As a migraineur, I am drawn towards this opposition between outside and inside because my perception of these concepts is strongly influenced by the chronic condition I suffer from. I have become familiar with this turn into isolation. I flee, often multiple times a week, from the public spheres and retreat into the darkened cave of my bedroom. All sounds, noises, smells, and lights become intolerable due to a hypersensitivity of the senses. I carefully close all doors and curtains, shut out the world and hide from all traces of society, shielding myself from any signs of existence. A violent, one-sided headache accompanies a constant flux of vomit, reducing me to an immobile lump of misery, an asexual blob of non-being. I am not really "there," or it at least it has become difficult to define what "being there" actually means under these extreme circumstances. A clear spatial division has been made: “outside” is for the living, “inside” for the non-being. This spatial opposition and my sense of self, have become intimately connected.
Sequestered, I bend to keep an ear on the ground of this floor and listen to the discord of the situation. Phonophobia has driven me into isolation. This hyperacusis causes everyday noises to be perceived as overwhelmingly loud and painful (Sacks 1985: 27). Aversion to sounds is the first sign of my troubles. Migraine announces itself by fanatically ringing my doorbell and aggressively banging at my door. Even the softest of sounds are exuberantly amplified. So, I carefully lock the doors and shut the windows and curtains, hoping to keep out the slightest hint of outside life and eliminate even the smallest possibility that its blaring cacophony erupts at the side of my bed. Even so, when the tram passes my window, screeching and squeaking, it splits my feeble skull. Domestic noises also became intolerable, their familiarity faded and melted into the abstract. So, when the house sings its private anthem, I hear only senseless noises from the abysses of hell. Phonophobia marks the migraine experience, and sound is no longer perceived as a neutral soundtrack to a daily routine. It has become a thread. With volumes pushed to the limits (even the tap dripping becomes a vile assault), it operates as a disproportionate announcement or warning to the pain that will follow its very occurrence. The accompanying impact of the auditory on the sufferer’s sense of self is significant: it pushes her across the boundary separating inside and outside. At the same time, migraine manages to wreak phenomenological havoc on this clear distinction. As the attack worsens, the migraineur enters a synesthetic in-between. Her senses merge. Lights, smells, sounds, and feelings all become equally deafening and these “modern western sensory categories” (Pink 2009: 127), although always interwoven and interdependent, now truly start to fuse. This distorted sensory perception surrounds the sufferer in an all-encompassing haze of hypersensitivity, enveloping both external stimuli and internal impulses.
In The Poetics of Space (2014, originally published in 1958) the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard devotes a chapter to the dialectics of outside and inside. He argues that the interplay of these concepts is much more complex than the usual geographical distinction implies. When we strip them of all literal implications and introduce them into phenomenological spheres, we learn that outside and inside go beyond simple opposition and are actually in constant exchange. And indeed, I nod my troubled head softly in agreement with these assertions; as migraine continues its repetitive cycle, it imposes a sense of derealization and temporal distortion, and my perception of “outside” and “inside” slowly begins to shift. For the umpteenth time, bedridden in my bunker, the clear distinction between body and room, space and self, collapses with a thunderous noise.
So indeed, we should not limit ourselves more than necessary by clinging exclusively to the “lazy certainties of geometric intuitions” (Bachelard 2014: 235). In his writings, Bachelard pursues a “study of being” (229) through a phenomenological understanding of outside and inside. To this end, he searches for poetic images that relate to this spatial division and are “new in its nuance of being” (232). Using these images, he proposes several new dialectic models that overturn the apparent opposition. Bachelard turns to poetry because “language bears within itself the dialectics of open and closed. Through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression, it opens up” (237).
Interestingly, Bachelard almost exclusively chooses poems that mention sounds (senseless noise, sonorous echoes, rumblings, and buzzes) and silences (quietude and stillness) to describe a being’s ever-shifting perception of outside and inside. Throughout the discourse of his essay, the aural takes a central role. Bachelard explains this preoccupation with sound as follows: “sight says too many things at one time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself. It does not stand out, it is not bordered by nothingness” (230). In other words, he seeks to determine being by listening to the inner-spatial shifts.
As an artist, working with sound, I am drawn to Bachelard’s aural approach. For this reason, I turn to his writings as a theoretical and compositional framework for the creation of A Sonic Study of Being through Illness and Isolation. As a singer and sound artist, I aim to capture the friction between the self and the space and portray their constantly-shifting displacements. This piece takes aural notice of how my perception of being changes in accordance with my relationship to the room. Using the poems proposed by Bachelard as a textual outline, I turn to my voice as a vessel through which the self reverberates. Sounds from in and around the house provide the sonic segments for my attempt to unite the materiality of the room with the materiality of the voice. This audio piece is made in part while migraining in order to establish a dialogue between the sick-self, the recovered-self, and the space in which they suffer.
The migrainous cycle presents a painful experience. Bachelard, in his writings on the dialectics of outside and inside, aims to transcend physicality by freeing himself from all “organic causality” (Bachelard 2014: 240) such as pain and suffering in order "to give a situation of all situations" (228). To do so, he draws upon the reveries of man, because daydreams allow him to access “pure imagination” (235). This, he claims, is necessary for the pursuit of phenomenological understanding. My Sonic Study of Being through Illness and Isolation, on the contrary, will be rooted in a concrete and hyper-tangible bodily experience. It will also relate to a state in which imagination is not at all pure but utterly demolished. Physical pain devours all thought and seems to obliterate everything but itself, certainly leaving no space for reverie or creativity. Hence, the migrainous state of mind, in the depths of its misery, utterly contradicts Bachelard’s. Here again, we detect the opposition of open and closed - the mind that is free to wander contrasted with the mind that is utterly constricted - a door that allows or denies possibilities. Yet, A Sonic Study of Being, will only take notice of the shrieking of the door’s hinges.
But how does one artistically address the shifting of the self when it is subject to illness and isolation? How does one actually introduce these dynamic transformations into a sonic study and give voice to the existential and spatial changes that take place during the course of a migraine attack? How might a singer go beyond rudimentary howls and groans and convey more than only the crescendo and diminuendo of despair? “Before being, one must speak, if not to others, at least to oneself” Bachelard argues in Poetics of Space (2014: 237). But pain ravages language and annihilates our rhetorical abilities, as philosopher Elaine Scarry (1985: 4) points out in The Body in Pain. I believe that it is exactly within these linguistic ruins, that a distorted sense of self becomes apparent. Both the linguistic content as well as the way it is presented by the singer will contribute to conveying this belief.
I chose to use certain poems presented by the Bachelard as a textual framework, because poetry, challenges the limits of language and therefore holds the potential of going beyond the exclusionary action of opposition. Poetry exemplifies what Julia Kristeva calls semiotic speech. The French philosopher argues that the semiotic opposes the symbolic in that it is an “extra-verbal way in which bodily energy and affects make their way into language. The semiotic includes both the subject’s drives and articulations. While the semiotic may be expressed verbally, it is not subject to regular rules of syntax” (McAfee 2004: 17). Poetry thus holds the potential of communicating the migraineur’s physical anguish.
When the singer turns to poetry, and chord and discord come into play, another valuable potential becomes apparent. The resonance of the singing voice offers the opportunity of going even further beyond the signification of the text and the emotionality it represents. Through singing, the vocalist truly makes the audience listen to her body. This emerges through what Roland Barthes calls the grain of the voice, illustrated as follows: “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice at it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs. [...It is] something which is directly the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages and from deep down in [...] language as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings” (Barthes 1977: 188, 181-182). Listening to the grain, we hear the body reverberate at the intersection of music and language. According to Barthes, the grain does not convey emotion and certainly does not serve the meaning of the text. It does not facilitate communication, but instead explores the diction and the “sound-signifiers.”
Mumbling and muttering, I overthrow the tyranny of articulation and merely rub my singing body against the edges of the words. Moaning, I go beyond meaning, and in this field of tension, where uncontrolled breath scrapes the surface of a suffering body, illness resonates vehemently. When in pain, all vocal technique is suspended and respiration is no longer subject to a controlled movement of the diaphragm, conforming, instead, to nothing but bodily needs. The sick body is sounding, and through the grain we now truly encounter the materiality of the voice.
To amplify the synchronicity between a shifting sense of self and a shifting sense of space when subject to illness and isolation, I make the materiality of the voice meet the materiality of the room. Bachelard argues that matter shapes our imagination. Creativity flows not so much from deep within ourselves but from the materials we hold and inhabit. It is the ink that prescribes our writing and the breath that dictates our poetry (Bachelard 1990: 11). In our case, it might certainly be that it is the house which compels our hollerings. The house speaks as it rustles and rattles, and in its thumping we hear the tick tock of our territory. It wholeheartedly hums hidden hymns, and when the pipes purr their poetry, I chime in. Composed almost solely with vocal sounds and domestic noises, recorded in and around the house, this piece merges the materiality of the room and voice in a conversation balancing on the edges of meaning. Juxtaposed, self and space become lost in displacement; matter melts and disappears into one roaring drone.
Let us now return to the events of the spring of 2020, a time of collective crisis, for this piece was created as the pandemic was reaching its peak. I could not help but notice that this temporary retreat into isolation, forced upon us by disease, somehow mimicked the migraineur's maneuvers, albeit on a different scale, when large parts of the world went into lockdown. The withdrawal from the public spheres extended over months instead of hours and had deadly consequences for many. Nevertheless, most people, aware of the finiteness of the situation, had no choice but to wait submissively for their return into society. But when quarantined, the days can seem long and relentlessly repetitive. Confinement, severely distorts the perception of time, a phenomenon equally typical to the migraine experience. Detached, we may have felt disconnected, and our sense of being became particularly troubled by deprivation of physicality. Our sense of space, too, was severely distorted, and we underwent the days in a state of dissymmetry and disproportion. Homebound for months, the distinction between self and space dissolved, and the house became an extension of our physical self. We performed our provisional routines to the creaking and clattering rhythm of the house. When the windows whistled, we whimpered along, and with this shushing hymn, we hoped to invoke “the power to make space withdraw, to put space, all space, outside, in order that meditating being might [again] be free to think” (Bachelard 2014: 246).
Author's note 1: This essay is based on personal experiences. Migraine has many faces. Some sufferers might relate to some, others to none of these phenomena.
Author's note 2: All poems used in this article were translated from the original by Maria Jolas in The Poetics of Space (2014) by Gaston Bachelard.
Oh night without objects. Oh window muffled on the outside, oh, doors carefully closed; customs that have come down from times long past, transmitted, verified, never entirely understood. Oh silence in the stair-well, silence in the adjoining rooms, silence up there, on the ceiling. [...] Outside everything is immeasurable. And when the level rises outside, it also rises in you, not in the vessels that are partially controlled by you, or in the phlegm of your most unimpressionable organs: but it grows in the capillary veins, drawn upward into the furthermost branches of your infinitely ramified existence. This is where it rises, where it overflows from you, higher than your respiration, and, as a final resort, as though on the tip of your breath. Ah!
(Rilke 2011: 74 -75)
Space, but you cannot even conceive the horrible inside-outside that real space is. Certain (shades) especially, girding their loins one last time, make a desperate effort to 'exist as a single unity.' But they rue the day. I met one of them. Destroyed by punishment, it was reduced to a noise, a thunderous noise. An immense world still heard it, but it no longer existed, having become simply and solely a noise, which was to rumble on for centuries longer, but was fated to die out completely, as though it had never existed.
About this room,
which was plunged in utter darkness,
I knew everything, I had entered into it,
I bore it within me,
I made it live, with a life that is no life,
but which is stronger than life,
and which no force in the world can vanquish
(Blanchot 1948: 124)
Entrapped in being, we shall always have to come out of it. And when we are hardly outside of being, we always have to go back into it. Thus, in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent, so much talk; a chaplet of sojournings, a refrain with endless verses.
(Bachelard 2014: 229)
Outside and inside form a dialectic of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon as we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything. Unless one is careful, it is made into a basis of images that govern all thoughts of positive and negative. [...] Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being.
(Bachelard 2014: 227)