the loser

(pace Shel Silverstein)

I’ve been (re)reading the poems in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Originally published in 1974, the book brings me back to my childhood, and to the many happy hours I spent in the magical world of poetry – not only Silverstein’s poetry, but also that of Canadian icon, Dennis Lee. Both have remarkable insight into the thoughtworlds of children, into what made us laugh, think, smile. Who, once they’d first heard it , could possibly forget “Alligator Pie” (also published in 1974) ? Or “True Story”? Or “The Faithful Jelly Donut” ?  Or even “Helping,” immortalized on the 1972 album, Free to Be, You and Me?

But this week I found myself drawn to another poem: “The Loser”. Perhaps it was because my son found it so entertaining. Perhaps it was because the image so adeptly and effectively turns Rodin’s Thinker on its head (and yes, that bad pun is intended) .

And perhaps because it tugs at the kinds of things that interest me most: the relationship between body, mind and self and how that plays itself out in the lived experiences of everyday folks.

Western philosophy has put much stock in the mind, in the development of the intellect as the source of the self. Descartes is usually trotted out as the exemplar of this approach: the only thing that is certain, states this eternal skeptic, is that we think. Nothing else can be considered true. We think, we exist. Nothing could be more simple. The beautiful symmetry of that statement has had profound resonance with society as a whole. We place an incredible value on the development of the intellect. The diseases we most fear, here in the west, are those that impair the intellect, at least as it is normatively understood: mental illness, dementia.

These are sufferings that threaten our very understandings of ourselves as thinking beings. They threaten our ability to understand ourselves as innately superior to the animals over which we should, according to the bible, have dominion. Today, it is not tuberculosis or cancer or AIDS that we fear – those diseases which haunt the work of Susan Sontag – it is, rather, those diseases of the mind which appear most threatening, troubling our imaginations and fuelling our fears.

But Silverstein reminds us that the head is not only the brain: it also contains the eyes – the mirrors that reflect the moral beauty of our inner selves even as they allow us to inhabit the worlds of others; and the ears – resonating chambers that bring sound to our senses; the mouth – that orifice so well suited to the development of young children, who sample the world through taste and texture.

All of these senses – sight, taste, sound – live in Silverstein’s  “rock”. The head stores all of these sensory experiences even as it provides a safe cavity for the mind. But what about that other sense, touch? Touch might be nominally located in the fingertips, but we can touch and be touched anywhere. Though it might be one site of touch, the head is not the sensory centre for touch. And, as Luce Irigaray (and others) remind us, touch is that which undoes the distance between self and other. When one touches, one is, simultaneously, touched.

During the eighteenth century, this idea manifested itself in the form of sensibility, that nervous quality that enabled empathy and a recognition of the plight of others. But sensibility could also very easily go awry, as Diderot observed in his radical Le rêve de d’Alembert.

Nervous disorders, diagnosed through a plethora of psychic and somatic symptoms, were fuelled by lives of immoderation, excess, over-stimulation. Debauchery, overeating, lack of sleep, lack of exercise…all of these could weaken the nervous system. But nervous disorders were also understood to be hereditary, thus threatening not only individuals, but also family lines and, more problematically, concepts of nation and national identity.

Lives of moderation, in contrast, balanced the faculty of touch with the rational power of the mind, in the process ensuring good health for all. We hear very similar recommendations from medical professionals today: lives lived in moderation are healthy lives. While passions are necessary, reason must govern them or the whole system is threatened with chaos.

But the imaginary worlds of Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lee celebrate the unpredictable, the excessive, the magical, the non-linear. In their worlds, anything is possible. If you imagine it, it is so. In “losing” one’s head, one opens up possibilities for new ways of being, awakening to sensory faculties that reside not only in the head, but all over the body. Where might we go from here?

“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!”
(Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, 9)


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