The Anarchic Hand: Falling and Diving

Margaret Atwood wrote of writing that you – ‘you’, I, she, he, they, someone, anyone – plan what they wish to write, they start writing, and then ‘the writing hand’ takes over…

The Anarchic Hand, also known as Alien Hand Syndrome, is a ‘real life’ medical condition caused by a lesion on either the left or right side of a person’s brain that produces uncontrolled, unpredictable and often violent movement in the oppositely corresponding hand. It is a richly appropriate metaphor; Atwood is gesturing towards writing as anarchic, as alien, as nothing-to-do-with-me, with the hand as both agent and site of dubious agency. To confuse matters further, Atwood is fabled to have a robotic arm, not one actually attached to her body, but entirely autonomous, which is programmed to produce an exact ‘copy’ of her signature, for the signing of thousands of her books, without the need to exhaust the ‘real’ and very wayward Atwood writing hand. Both Atwood’s writing hand and her robotic arm rather uncannily recall W.B. Yeats’ notion of ‘Automatic Writing’, in entirely different ways.

All these ‘hands’, link to notions of control, writing and health. James Joyce, despite having received a bad review for Ulysses from Carl Jung, ultimately took his very ill daughter, Lucia, to see the psychiatrist for a diagnosis. Jung assessed both Lucia and Joyce, together, and he disclosed that Lucia was suffering from hebephrenic schizophrenia and that Joyce himself, although falling short of a diagnosis, exhibited many of the characteristics of the disorder. Typically, the psychiatrist used a metaphor to clarify: ‘Jung concluded that father and daughter were like two people going to the bottom of the sea, “one falling, one diving”’ (A Very Short Introduction to Schizophrenia, Chris Frith and Eve Johnstone). When I told my friend this story, I think he had it right with his reply that, aside from notions of control, the key difference was between experiencing ‘thought disorder’, clinically, and Joyce’s deliberate disordering of his own thoughts, and furthermore, the privilege and good fortune inherent within (the ability to make) such a decision. This is the difference, but the connection remains the link to language, or the complexity of intention, purpose and control within writing – as demonstrated by the (metaphor of the) Anarchic Hand.

I have also recently become fascinated by ‘mouthpieces’, especially on old-fashioned telephones and speaking-tubes, and I have been reading Avital Ronnell’s bizarre and marvellous The Telephone Book. Speaking-tubes were nineteenth-century communication devices installed in houses, so that the wealthier middle and upper classes could relay messages to the servants below stairs, without having to actually go-below-stairs; the technology behind these tubes formed a rather crude prototype for the telephone, and, in fact, according to Ronnell, in some languages the word for speaking-tube and telephone was one-in-the-same. The name ‘speaking-tube’ has made me consider other odds phrases used to described inanimate modern conveniences to save labour, that are often, spookily, personified – such as the dumb-waiter, for example. Speaking-tubes also bring to mind ‘invisible’ friends, or perhaps more specifically, ‘invisible’ interlocutors (and, of course, the terrifying mind-of-its-own speaking-tube in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger) – and this connects with Jacques Derrida’s notion of the virus as encoded, yet interrupted communication, as well as neither living nor dead. The speaking-tube is a technology of Otherness, and its auditory emphasis (or fetish) is both a powerful and interesting contrast with the contemporary obsession with ‘touch’ and the touch-screen – speaking-tube/touch-screen, sense plus technology, equals technology of Otherness.Speaking-tube1 Speaking-tube2

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About ejpollard

I was awarded my PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK in December 2013. My thesis explored the notions of origin and ellipsis in the writing of contemporary British novelist Hilary Mantel. I want this blog to express the ideas I have in and around my academic writing. View all posts by ejpollard

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