The Magic Words are Squeamish Ossifrage

I woke up earlier than usual this morning. I wanted to go to a meeting. A meeting for people in recovery, I mean, not a work meeting. This weekend’s time change had also put me in mind of how careless I become in summer. I am never scrupulous of sunlight when there is plenty of it. It takes the ugly, abrupt shutter of daylight in late autumn to shove me back into necessary ritual and routine. I think suffering has, on balance, made me a worse person. I mean “worse” both in regards to character, as I find myself more frequently irritable, more prone to black-and-white thinking, less patient, less open-minded, more easily started, more attached to increasingly elaborate solitary rituals like playing the same video game or watching the same episode of television over and over, and likelier to carry a grudge, and also “worse” in terms of efficacy, in the business of personhood, worse at carrying out the basic acts of self-replication, worse at sleeping, worse at waking, worse at participating with life on an individual, interpersonal, environmental level. I think rituals and routines are good, or can be, when they’re not in the service of pursuing distraction at all costs. The goal of this pursuit of distraction is to strike a balance between indolence (doing nothing) and agitation (ceaselessly moving), which is the spiritual opposite of a balance between peacefulness and purpose.

Like many other members of my demographic, I constantly adopt and abandon relentless programs of self-improvement to signal sociability and reliable middle-classness. It has been almost two years since I last spoke to anyone in my biological family, and more than a year since any of them last tried to speak to me. I think I did something good, and I think I have become a worse person in many ways as a result.

One of the reasons I wanted to go to a meeting this morning was a growing sense that I was becoming unduly attached to a running inner monologue of self-pity, an attachment many alcoholics are very familiar with. I felt like a dog with a bone. A bone is no longer food, although it retains a general appearance of food, is often recognizable as a visual representation of meat. One might think of a dog or a person as chewing on a bone but less likely to think of one eating it. I suppose owls eat bones. Scavengers like wolverines and vultures eat bones. The bearded vulture eats bones almost exclusively. Apparently sometimes cattle eat bones when their phosphorus levels are low, which I didn’t know before today.

THE MAGIC WORDS ARE SQUEAMISH OSSIFRAGE is the solution to Martin Gardner’s “New Kind of Cipher that Would Take Millions of Years to Break” challenge text, which he published in Scientific American in 1977. A team of 600 volunteers supplied the correct answer in 1994. Ossifrage is Latin for “bone-breaker;” it’s another name for the bearded vulture. “You’re like a dog with a bone” can be used interchangeably for “you don’t know when to quit.” It’s not complimentary.

I also felt like a bone. Denuded, inflexible, detached from coherency and structure. Inedible, indigestible. “A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair” is a line from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Vampire,”

A FOOL there was and he made his prayer

(Even as you and I!)

To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair

(We called her the woman who did not care)

But the fool he called her his lady fair—        

(Even as you and I!)

I think the poem itself is rather funny, and cheekily aware of the meandering circles self-pity takes on in. The phrase also popped up often in P.G. Wodehouse (also cheekily), who I read often as a child. For reasons I can’t figure out, it later popped up in a Nat King Cole song, with an entirely different significance: “Just search to find your true love, for a true love is truly rare, to be rich indeed all you really need is a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair.” The song doesn’t make any sense to me on a lyrical level, but I do love the tune.

So much of the language I’m familiar with about suffering has to do with eating, with digestion, with meat-ness – one feels raw or has a bone to pick or bites someone’s head off. One stews in one’s own juice. Something turns to ashes in the mouth. That place of outer darkness and suffering, where “[there shall be] weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears in several parables in the gospel of Matthew, as well as in Luke `13:28. Emotional distress and disorders of digesting are, I think, very closely linked indeed, in language and in life. There is nothing very remarkable about chewing during a meal, provided one does not try to talk at the same time, but remove the food and that same action becomes hostile, terrifying, insalubrious — a non-nutritive parody of a life-generating and life-sustaining action. If you were to see someone chewing nothing, you might cross the street to avoid them. You might think it aggressive, or a symptom of derangement, or an indicator of contagious suffering.

A great deal of the suffering engendered by alcoholism has to do with what is sometimes understood as a refusal to “live life on life’s terms,” sometimes to the point of insanity; a denial of reality so necessary and absolute that it resembles gnashing. Chewing without eating. Movement without accompanying meaning. As Volumnia says while declining an invitation to dinner in Coriolanus: “Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.”

In “Who does the wolf love? Reading Coriolanus,” Stanley Cavell puts it this way: “Coriolanus [takes] tragedy as an epistemological problem, a refusal to know or to be known, an avoidance of acknowledgement, an expression (or imitation) of skepticism…what surprised me more in Coriolanus was its understanding of narcissism as another face of incestuousness, and of this condition as one in which language breaks down under the sense of becoming incomprehensible, of the sense of oneself as having lost the power of expression, what I call in the Claim of Reason the terror of inexpressiveness.”

When I am in a whirlpool of self-pity like this one, feeding on myself, unwilling to leave off chewing a bone, I am attached to non-productive eating. Think of all the diet food you have ever consumed over the course of your lifetime, the meal-replacement shakes, the little bars advertising riboflavin, the air-injected ice cream substitute that encourages the consumer to EAT THE WHOLE PINT – near-food designed to prolong the occupation of ingesting food, not food designed to address hunger. To satisfy one’s hunger is to stop eating, which is not the point of diet food. One becomes “like a dog with a bone.” Where food is not but chewing is — this is the place of outer darkness and great suffering, where food becomes a great fearful enemy that threatens to put an end to all your lovely chewing.

The counter-effect of estrangement, which fell like a bolt over my life, is rumination. We do not speak, and I think about them all of the time. This is the underside of the rock, where the ants live. I think insane thoughts, thoughts which run counter to some of my most cherished values: I think, My life is an animal that does not make sense. I think, blood is the only relationship that exists. I think, everything that made me is contaminated. I think worse things. I chew it over. I want to reenact everything and play every part. I want to do it again. I want to repeat the actions that produced the initial desire for repetition. I want infinite pity from an infinite audience of tireless sympathizers. I want to instantly dismiss anyone who would attempt to provide me with comfort or assistance, to hustle them offstage with a vaudevillian hook and a ticket out of town. I want to chew the bone. I want to bite any hand that would take my bone from me. I want to feel bad and never better. I want to feel bad and immediately better. Chewing as attachment: I want to never stop biting. For these reasons and more it is good to take my insanity to a meeting, to put some oxygen and daylight on my bad ideas to let them unclench under the soft, shared gaze of people who share my type of derangement, like crumpled-up straw wrappers under a drop of water.

The lyrics to “A Rag, A Bone, and a Hank of Hair” make even less sense in the context of the Kipling poem that inspired them. Here’s a version sung by Kamahl.

“To be rich indeed, all you’ll ever need is a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair.” Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense, as Wittgenstein says, but pay attention to your nonsense.

[Image via]