Visceral. It’s a word with which I found myself keeping company in recent months. It’s the only word with which to keep company, when all other words beat a hasty retreat in the face of the dark, deep, complex ways of being human. When words fail, it is a moment of grace when one word appears, and perfectly describes the wordless feelings that have kept you company, deep in the depths of your being. And from a singular word emerges art, and all the wordless feelings begin to find expression.
The etymology of the word visceral relates to viscera, or the ‘internal organs, the inner parts of the body’. It still appears in medical writing in relation to major bodily ‘soft tissue’ organs in both the chest (heart and lungs) or abdomen (liver, pancreas or intestines). But as a word it is also used to describe deep feelings or ‘gut-feeling’, as the bowels were long considered the seat of emotion. Visceral can describe the kind of wordless emotions that emerge from deep within, often bypassing the intellect, as powerful responses to outside stimuli.
In researching the meaning of ‘visceral emotions’, I discovered that the word ‘eviscerate’ can refer to the act of disembowelling or removing the major organs, including heart, lung and stomach. But from the 17th century, the word came to be used figuratively: ‘to bring out the deepest secrets of’. A more contemporary use of eviscerate describes taking away the most essential part of something.
This one word carries such a dark and primal energy. To experience and express visceral emotions can be eviscerating, as though the ‘soft tissue’ of my deep feeling is being wrenched out and exposed to the world. It sometimes feels as an undoing of myself, where my most essential parts are torn out and discarded in the world for the feasting of carrion birds. Visceral reactions emerge as instinctive, deep responses in the body. In such moments rational thought becomes impossible. I felt this very powerfully, in the midst of deep feeling that could not be redirected. And I found myself having to sit, to keep company with, and to accept my body’s way of communicating to me. Meditation helped enormously, as did my practice as a martial artist, my creative work, and finally also talking to a counsellor. And I found that in the process of listening to my body, I was able to also give voice to and understand the nature of these feelings. And I have slowly found a way to regain a sense of balance.
A body full of feeling
During this time, I came across an edited book in which contributors describe the way emotions impact on and shape the body. In their introduction to Emotional Bodies: The Historical Performativity of Emotions, Delores Martin-Moruno and Beatriz Pichel suggest that there are powerful resonances between words and the body. They describe ‘a kind of alchemical transmutation’ which can result ‘in the coming into being of a new person’ that is related the ‘muscular contractions of a body full of feeling’.
I love this phrase that suggests my body, so recently full of feeling, expresses this through ‘muscular contractions’ that attend visceral emotions such as fear, grief, anxiety, but also surprise, elation and joy.
Martin-Moruno and Pichel propose that some emotions such as grief have the power to ‘transform us into a suffering body’ , actively shaping our body. More than that, emotions have the power to ‘do and undo us in a performative way’. This means that visceral emotions have the power to not only undo my own carefully constructed and maintained sense of self-control, but can also radically change my self-identity. My body expresses its own sense of agency. Martin-Moruno & Pichel conclude that the subject we now become is by its very nature ephemeral, constantly shaped and reshaped by the reconfiguration of the body in response to emotions.
I like to think that the work I am doing, in attending to my bodily communication is part of an ‘alchemical transmutation’ in a positive way. Maybe it is time to let go of the constructed image of myself in the world, and trust the agency of my actual embodied self.