23 January 2010

Phenomenon #2: Pears, Pairing and Thinking Symbols in the Body

In which the author learns about the bodily nature of symbols shopping for pears.

Description: I am at Segal's (aka 4001 St. Laurent), doing shopping, for the first time in too long a time. I see some pears (Bosc) and reach for them. Their sense for me in this reaching is not: pear-as-biological-fruit or even pear-as-produce, but pear-as-something-my-partner-particularly-likes-in-a-special-kind-of-way. I.e., I am not reaching for them as mere fruit, but as connecting me up with home, my partner, love, my life. The reaching is not mere motor-perceptual-movement here in this store, but emotional and futurally expansive (already involved in something far beyond this-here-moment, with that something beyond, its futurity, itself a theme, vs. the kind of extension beyond the moment inherent in any ongoing moment).

In this very reaching, something else appears. This is Vito Corleone's gesture (beautifully and compellingly acted by Robert de Niro in Godfather: Part II)  of taking a pear (carefully wrapped in protective newspaper) from his pocket, unwrapping it and proudly, tenderly, concentratedly, affirmatively, and gently setting it on the kitchen table to surprise his wife with a gift, as if this pear, or this pear as enabling this giving gesture, is the centre of the world, or something on which a shared life can be centred. (This is after Vito has unjustly lost his job to Don Fanucci's nephew.)

And then at the same moment, in my feeling the pear, and having this 'image' appear, I also feel or notice (for what I think (I am thinking this at Segal's, in the moment of reaching) is the first time) something else. What I notice is the resonance between: this gesture of Vito's, the bulbuousness of the pear (which I am feeling bodily in-hand, in having this image, and as the way to this image) and its tender wrapping; with the moment later in the film where Vito, in preparation for assassinating Fanucci, carefully unscrews the lightbulb on the landing outside Fanucci's apartment, using a cloth (his handkerchief? the towel that he later uses to silence the gun and that catches on fire?) to keep his hand from being burnt. In both cases he is reached and holding the bulb (of fruit/light) from beneath, through a little twisting gesture. And I think (in Segal's in this very moment): here is yet another dimension of the film's imagery, and another instance of cross-cutting life and death through fruit, since I connect the pear with: the orange proffered by Johnny Ola, as a gift from Hyman Roth to Michael, as connected to the bag of oranges from Israel that Hyman Roth drops when he is assassinated at the end of the film. (Not to mention Michael's struggling to down orange juice to stave off diabetic shock in part III, Vito's carving up the orange to scare his nephew with orange teeth and then dying at the end of part I--and Vito being shot in part I as is he is trying to buy three oranges, presumably to give to his wife at Christmas time. (NB that he doesn't succeed in buying them, they are given to him by the fruit-seller.)  

Observation: What's interesting here is the complex sense in this situation, and the way it depends on body, pairing of bodies, art and more--and the way my thinking about connections in the film happens in this bodily movement. I am figuring out things that I now think about the film in my lived-body as moving.

It would be too much to go into all the detail, but the sense "pear" here is for me not just in it (the pear) as object perceived through my psychophysical-sensory organism, but in my lived body as feeling-emotional, as living with my partner's bodily relation to pears; and then this is paired and overlaid with deeper senses of fruit, gestures of giving, sharing, as caught up in love, life, death, through a kind of pairing felt in my lived bodily reaching with Vito Corleone's lived-bodily giving gesture (i.e. the filmed image of Robert de Niro's acting body); and then all this opens something on my part that isn't just seeing-touching-feeling-emotion, but a thought about a film. So there is a striking continuity between bodies, perception, thinking here.

One other thought at this point is that it would not at all be outrageous to say that in this phenomenon the pear is appearing as what we would usually call a symbol. Its sense for me is not biological-fruit but fruit in its symbolic dimension as symbol of life, death, future, food, sharing, love, etc.; it is symbol of this insofar as it is, biologically, the protection and food for the biological seed.

But what this phenomenon suggests is that the "as" in this symbol-experience is not an intellectual "as". The fruit is not there as symbol of life, etc., because I am thinking that symbolic connection intellectually (as if I am inferring from its being a seed to what it might indicate on a symbolic register). Rather, I am feeling that connection in a lived-bodily way, in what I/we do with things like fruit with one another in life. Put another way, it is not because fruit, for some intellectual reason, through some sort of intellectual analysis, is understood to be a possible symbol of life, connection, sharing, that it becomes such a symbol. Rather, it is because fruit invites the bodily-feeling gesture of, e.g., Vito offering it to his wife in the way that he does, that it gesturally concentrates certain feeling connections we have to one another in this way, that fruit can become symbol. To put it in Merleau-Ponteian terms, fruit is not in the first instance a symbol in virtue of an existing convention (via secondary speech/language). Rather it gains its symbolic sense in instances of expressive gestures such as we see Vito making (via primary speech/language), and in these gestures it is the fruit itself, in its role in life, that invites symbolic investment.

Of course, all the above is complicated by the fact that my experience and the movie is coming out of a culture/history in which it happens to be fruit (rather than say, grains or vegetables) that have come to bear a particularly central symbolic weight with respect to these issues (via, especially, the Adam and Eve story, where "apple" in the Hebrew really just means fruit; and note that "apple" in English originally did just have this meaning, hence the "apple of my eye," meaning the round sphere of it, "pineapple"; and "pomegranate," and similarly "pomme de terre"  for potato in French and "pomodoro" for tomato in Italian.) This is to say that historically and culturally instituted senses are at play here--not simply lived-bodily institutions.

But the insight that I think is at issue here is that the symbolic sense of things might have as its first institution the lived body, as paired with others, as part of life, etc., as touching and handling nodes of meaning in things around.

This would be another way of approaching thinking as inherently bodily. And insofar as many have argued that thinking is inherently symbolic/metaphorical, and also thereby bodily, there may be something important being noticed here. Have to perhaps go back to Sheets-Johnstone on the Roots of Thinking here, and Lakoff and Johnson, and perhaps Cassirer too in his study of symbolic forms.


  1. DDM.

    Good stuff. One question from a guy who has too much philosophical rust to even contemplate shaking off... So, what kinds of experience can we meaningfully talk about that do not have some "futurally expansive," "lived-bodily" dimension? It's been a long time since I cracked open one of Husserl's or MMP's works, but, as a layman, I wonder whether or not all lived experience qualifies (dependent upon the perspective we adopt from moment to moment.) Tying my shoes is "future expansive" in a way. So is drinking a glass of water, I think. How about blowing my nose? Now, I assume there are degrees of "meaningful-ness" that we can attribute to these experiences in terms of their future expansiveness. Therein lies thge key to a deeper understanding for myself? Or, have I just missed the boat completely here. (This is far more likely the case since I have spent the last three years focused on trying to get 11-year-olds to start their sentences with capital letters.)

    I like this blog, man. I'm going to keep checking in.

    Keep Rock alive (and keep up the good work).

  2. Good point, Michael. A bit sloppy there. I think the issue was degree, scope, or kind of futurity, the kind that's focal on what's going on here-'now' (where now is not a 'point') vs. more expanded, and perhaps even more obviously expanding (not just taking time to do, but having a future in it as an explicit theme). In musical terms, the difference would be something like the difference between the time it takes for the note now sounding to sound, vs. this sounding as toward the end of the melody, vs. sounding toward the next song in the set, vs. sounding toward new songs yet to be composed, etc. Different kinds of futurity...

    Nice meeting up here again...