30 March 2010

In excess

On the idea of excess:

The gift basket of fruit was lovely and in excess. But what kind of evaluative statement is that⎯to say that something is ‘in excess’? Is the matter of excess always a matter of judgment, and then, is my statement of the fruit basket only what I thought. I want to think briefly about the meaning of my thought. What does ‘in excess’ mean? Is excess a matter of quantity, or is excess always a matter of judgment. And by whom would the judgment be made? For example, was it excessive when Abraham rose up in his pain to welcome the strangers? Could there be an excess of hospitality? When is consumption excess and when is it necessary? Thoreau had some firm opinions regarding this matter: for him one shirt was more than enough. Must one always rise full from the table? I suppose the latter compulsion might have psychological foundations to those who have been hungry. But who finally has the right to make these types of decisions? When does excess exceed the boundaries and go beyond the borders? Is excess a matter of boundaries and borders or is it a matter of judgment? Borders are often legal limits, though they could be ethical ones as well.

Without boundaries, I have long held, there is no canvas; it all becomes the world and there is no distinction in it. It is like the Escher painting where the painted canvas is indistinguishable from the landscape it paints: there is no separation between canvas and world though one can see the canvas drawn. And in this creation the canvas makes the painting and not the other way around. Only the presence of the easel and the foregrounded canvas define the painting that actually exists. Boundaries create reality. Or perhaps I would claim not that boundaries create reality, but that they allow reality to exist. They are an enabling agent, though they do not cause reality. In “Trying to Get to Heaven” Dylan complains, “I only saw what they let me see.” Someone else had created his canvas; it was all someone else’s canvas.

Maybe reality is all about Havdalah—without the separation there can be no sacred time—well, there would be no time at all. One continuous scene, but no picture at all. It would be all one uninterrupted present. It is perhaps convenient that we have settled on seven days in a week because we have learned that the human being can only remember seven items at a time. Of course, we can chunk several items into a single larger one (hence, the possibility of remembering ten digit phone numbers as three chunks of numbers), but the expediency of seven days for human psychological functioning is not insignificant. A day becomes twenty-four hours, but a week becomes seven days, and a year is equivalent to 365 days, give or take a quarter or so. As for the months, they are variable in length in order to accommodate the division of the year into twelve (the signs of the zodiac?) and the egos of rulers (Augustus and Julius for two), but the separation into days and weeks and months and years make possible a boundaried perspective. Boundaries control excess.

And the anorexic: she starves to excess, but she keeps a very strict boundary to her eating. The excess here is in the rigidity of the border. Or to the size of that border—but then that returns me to the idea of quantity as essential to the idea of excess and allows me to avoid the judgment of quality with regard to excess. When does the size become so large that the painting ceases to exist—the Sistine Chapel is sufficient, but if Michelangelo had painted the scene on the heavens, then what would it be? And what is the excess that the anorexic experiences? It is of image, but image of what? Of weight? There is so little. Of girth? It hardly exists. Where is the boundary? So how is excess defined in this case? Is it too rigid a border or too loose a one?

How does the fruit basket leak out beyond the border? Is it my border that is transgressed? Is that what excess amounts to: a fear of leaking behind my personal border? How do I define my borders? Of course, without them I don’t exist, but if they are too rigid do I become a social anorexic, and severely limit my intake of sociability. And how and why do I perceive it this way? What leaks beyond the border that I feel threatening to my reality? Interesting here that the command in Exodus is that the pesach offering must be consumed in one evening: nothing of it shall remain into the morning! The offering has a border or it cannot be considered an offering. Well, a painting requires a boundary—can a painting leak outside its borders? Can it survive without its frame? What is to be learned from the Escher painting? It is a painting of a painting. But what is the painting within the larger canvas? Is the excess a leaking?

But what if I think of the anorexic that her borders are too porous? The anorexic refuses to eat, tightly controlling what the body takes in, rigidly maintaining a severe regimen of intake. And what would be too permeable here? The anorexic wants to be the world, to disappear into the world, just like in the Escher painting.

What is excess?? Is it too loose a border so that everything flows out—how is the anorexic excessive in this way? Of course, without eating her life leaks out—but one can also say that she crawls up (like Susan the Starfish in The Book of Daniel) until she simply ceases to move. And then ceases to live. Is that excess? Perhaps not of a leaking—but of a holding in—like holding in the bowels and staying constipated? Keeping them to oneself—of course, not eating is control, though certainly a perverse kind of control. And that is why it is a disease—a condition—I suppose there is a kind of pleasure in the excess of anorexia as there must be pleasure in the excess of the fruit basket. What does it reveal about pleasure? I suppose the pleasure comes from the ability to indulge in excess. And then it doesn’t matter what form the excess takes: it is the excess that matters. And so the excess of anorexia is the excess of control—it is a form of boundary that is ultimately self-destructive—is suicide excess?? Am I returning to Aristotle? ? Is every obsession excessive—are Aristotle and Ecclesiastes and Siddhartha right to say that the golden mean is the only way?

Why the excess? That is the question. In so far as it is a leaking, then the excess is the inability to hold everything in: in language we say “it is gushing.” But what about the fruit basket (the fruit basket was as thick as the anorexic is thin). Does excess establish any relationship between size and affection? Is excess about size passing as affection? Or is the excess all show: who can send the biggest basket? Is competition inherent to excess? Is the excess a mismatch between what is sent and to whom it is sent?

What would that line of thought mean for Shabbat? Is the celebration of Shabbat an instant of excess or exactly its opposite?


Post a Comment

<< Home