Unthinkingness and the ‘little death’ (or, Lacan & the Long Run).

There is always the barely conscious desire to find empty space. Not a deserted Rose Garden in Greenwich Park, but the highest and broadest and deepest and emptiest place possible.  The greater the space, the greater the likelihood of your believing that you have been transported to this weird afterlife where the sun has long since set on humanity and you have been stranded.  The more deserted square mileage of land, the more bare earth that you can see, the more convinced you will become.  The best runs are a search for the possibility of not-thinking, where you might touch silence; they are a blissful sort of ‘little death’. ‘Mind chains do not clank, where one’s next neighbour is the sky’.
Hardy spun a long line (an iambic septameter!) about a similar need in his 1896 poem, ‘Wessex Heights’

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

These are places of rapturous annihilation; they bring with them the briefest amber scent of the destruction of self.  The solitariness of the speaker in the poem is important because it removes the self from its stultifying confines.  Jacques Lacan, the structuralist psychoanalytic theorist, suggests that we are not the users of language, but its prisoners. The ‘mirror stage’, from his essay of the same name, is like the event horizon of a black hole, once crossed there is no return.  It is the point of our birth into language and the instant that we fully comprehend the word ‘I’. Understanding that word alone implies the internalisation of all manner of grammatical and syntactical rules, and which is more, the firm belief that ‘I’ is by implication not ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘she’, etc.  Lacan’s ‘I’ is wrenched from the world, interminably separate from it.  The child (or so it is in Lacan’s essay) was once contiguous with the world, saw no division between itself, its body and the body of its mother.  But once the child takes up their position in language as first-person singular, they become only related to everything, whereas before, they were everything.  Identity doesn’t exist for Lacan before the mirror stage, and after it, it is a purely relational state, just like in Great Expectations where, in the graveyard of the opening pages, young Pip regards the headstones of his parents and siblings and ‘first began to understand the identity of things’.  His birth into this ‘symbolic order'(as Lacan elsewhere referred to it) sets in train the terrible chain of events that will forge his identity, like pig iron beaten flat with a blacksmith’s hammer.  Lacan’s subjects are locked in language and the only release is death or madness (like poor Dr Mannette in A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit’s father).  For Lacan, we are language’s subjects,  Counts of Monte Cristo imprisoned for no crime except, perhaps, being.  

Low-lying cloud settles in Devil’s Dyke


Running is a kind madness, a ‘little death’.  A temporary suspension of ties that bind. A reminder that the body is nothing but biology, a soft machine.  The ecologist and philosopher Timothy Morton is not the first to point out that one of the problems with the way that we relate to nature is that we insist on calling it that.  The use of the word immediately situates our relationship to it as distant and disconnected.  Nature is something ‘out there’, our identity and our relationship to it dictates to some extent our ability to see through it, to it.  The Sussex labouring poet, Simeon Brough

‘Nature’  (1869).


The word is like a frame. 
There is the land, there is the sky, and a pane 
of rippled glass between all this and I.
A fine web, once it was, that wove 

An infinite thread between it and us.
Now it’s seen as from afar
A mutable gift was Indian-given, 
Till lightning lit and rent apart.

And so there is the pane that’s always there.
Not a stone can score or scratch it; 
No sun can scorch this armoured word 
This scarab of glass, this frozen field.

Yet to the web we all return. 
And in Time, like sense, the pane
Dissolves, leaving only a vapourous 
Mist and a trace of the memory of rain.

For Lacan, death and madness are the only means of returning to the state of nature where one is fully shorn of identity, removed from the diminishing and encroaching effects of language or knowing one’s place in the world.  But part of what is so attractive about solitary running is the pure corporeal jouissance of it.  An ecstasy that breaks through Brough’s ‘armoured word’ to the thing beyond.  To know.  To be.  A self without subject. 
The solitary runner is a fugitive from language.  The hypnotic spell of the endless rhythm of the long run, the hours of repetition, like the smooth steps at some holy shrine worn down by the footfalls of the passing thousands, pare away at you until you are gone and only your body is left.  Observations occasionally break in upon you. ‘ If the soil weren’t so wet it would look scorched. It folds and rolls away, toward a leaden sky.  The cut wheat like greying stubble, slowly dying on the sagging jaw of a corpse.’  But soon they wash away.  And you have disappeared from life. Language is no use when there is no one to speak to, or signs to read.  No one knows where you are.  You are in this empty space, alone.  This is a ‘little death’ (a term used in French for the orgasm).  It is the jubilant renunciation of self. It is a place where you find absolute peace. Reclaiming dominion over yourself with the firmness and rectitude of the harshest of absolute monarchs.  It is the complete freedom, which is our right, not to exist. To drop out of the world, to live for a time with the sentience of an animal.  Feeling, seeing, smelling, but not savouring. Breath comes in, breath goes out; hundreds, thousands, they are all the same. The sun will shine.  The air will warm and chill.  Leaves will fall.  And still, breath comes in, and it goes out like it will never stop.  The sky, the scored canopy of the wood, the crows in the field, the mud under foot, breath comes in and it goes out, and everything is utterly indifferent to you. You are nothing. No past, no future, just a witness to the world. All that you are was a something, that saw it, once. 
In the conclusion to ‘Wessex Heights’, Hardy also knew this.  He saw these moments as fleeting forms of escape from his pallid ‘ghosts’ of civilisation.  All of his argument is there, in the last five words of the poem.

So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.

Wolstonbury Hill – Sussex






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