Has anyone seen my soul?

I was struck last week by a quote from performance artist Marina Abramovic.  She was talking in the Guardian about the first time she heard Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons sing.  She said, ‘Antony opens his mouth and sings one song called Snowy Angel.  I stood up from my chair and burst out crying.  His voice is an emotional hologram of my soul.’

In case you haven’t heard the divine Antony, here he is singing ‘Hope There’s Someone’:

Now, I’m no stranger to shedding a tear or two in an auditorium – and I don’t mean the obligatory blubber at the end of La Traviata.  I cried at the Bolshoi when the curtain went up and before even one satin-slippered foot had clip-clopped across the stage. I cried when Leonard Cohen sang ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ at the Brighton Centre a couple of years back.  There’s more but this isn’t a competition – if it were I’ve clearly lost hands down to Abramovic who stood up from her chair and burst out crying.

You have to admire that level of conviction, the ability to be so in the moment you respond without a second’s thought.  Needless to say my own crying was more of a silent snuffle and although I owned up to it later, on both occasions I dabbed my eyes surreptitiously, afraid of being caught out.

Unabashed crying aside, what struck me about the quote was Abramovic’s easy use of the word ‘soul’.  I don’t know about you but it’s not a word I throw around lightly.  And I suspect I’m not alone.  Is it, do you think, the case that these days the only people who can refer to the soul without quarantining the word in inverted commas are performance artists and musicians?

You might imagine that poets, who surely spend a good deal of their time contemplating the soul’s journey through life, would be comfortable handling the world.  Well, not this one.  One side of the problem is that science – and neuroscience in particular – has pretty much killed off the soul, dismissing it as a mere object of human belief.  The other side of the problem is that ‘soul’ has become devalued by the crystal-gazers who want to dismiss science and have us all healing our wretched selves with visualisations and medieval poultices.  Try googling ‘poems about soul’, for instance, and you end up in chicken soup country, with lots of poems for the soul, lots of ‘inspirational’, soul-food, healing poems to nourish the soul.

That in itself is enough to put you on the back foot.  Say you believe in the soul and you find yourself contorted with apology, justification, riders.  Charles Simic pulls it off beautifully in his poem ‘The Old World’, starting:

I believe in the soul; so far

It hasn’t made much difference …

… and going on to write a soulful description of Sicily.  You can read the poem in its entirety here:


I did use the word in a poem once.  In A Ghost in my House there’s a poem about having a Chinese meal with black marketeers in Moscow, which starts, ‘They lecture us on the soul, Sergei and Igor’.  Well, they were Russian, they could get away with it.  Writing the collection I’ve just finished there were plenty of times I could have said ‘soul’ but it stuck out like a belly dancer at a funeral, drawing the wrong sort of attention to itself.

Maybe I’ve become too self-conscious about it.  After all, I read two other references to the soul this week (you know how it is, you wait in vain for years and then three souls pitch up together) and neither of them struck an awkward note.  The first was in philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.  Poetry, he says ‘is a commitment of the soul.  A consciousness associated with the soul is more relaxed, less intentionalised than a consciousness associated with the phenomena of the mind.’   The second was from May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude – ‘It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning.’

I love this idea, that souls are made through what we do, how we live.  I love it, and yet it also trips me up.  It brings out my inner performance artist who wants to make a ritual out of making cup of tea; who thinks being soulful is floating around the garden, plucking at daisies in a crêpe de chine dress; who can’t help but put on a show whenever I stop to observe what I’m doing (applying body lotion to my legs, for instance, she stretches and smoothes as if she’s in a TV ad); and who is only really happy equating soul with a Jungian shadow world of alchemists, herbalists, neo-Platonists and tricksters.

The thing is, I do believe in the soul.  There I’ve said it.  But I couldn’t for the life of me single out one voice as its emotional hologram, which I suppose means I’m either horribly out of touch with mine or that it has more sides than a liberal democrat in a hung Parliament.  Instead I’m going to leave you with this image:

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth (MOMA)


~ by Lorna Thorpe on July 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Has anyone seen my soul?”

  1. A woman who dances to Motown must have soul! I enjoyed this blog. It made me think a bit further than the usual train which trundles along via an appreciation of your writing to broadly agreeing or disagreeing with what you say. I thought about the expression of emotion. I think that the world over people laugh in the same way – but crying or the expression of grief is definitely done differently. As a Brit I feel we tend to the stiff upper lip variety in public if we succumb at all – but you only have to watch the news to see people from other countries wailing openly and without inhibition. I also thought about what makes me cry and felt surprised. For example this morning as I walked along the coastal path I was tearful to see lovely succulent pink clover because of all the memories evoked. An easy swipe at the Lib Dems I thought! Doesn’t the country gets the government it votes for in the end and in not giving one party a clear mandate we have a coalition which makes things tricky. There are only around 80+ Lib Dems who have retained their seats in parliament (I believe – though may be wrong) but even so, I know the party has had an influence in government policy making and I read that it has achieved a large proportion of its manifesto. I am sure however your Lib Dem MP would more eloquently describe both the challenges and the facts!

    • A great comment as ever, Lyndsay. It’s terribly gratifying to know you’ve got people thinking. But you’re right – that was an easy swipe at the Lib Dems (who I voted for, I have to say) and it’s troubled me ever since because I realised afterwards that I’d been aiming at a cheap laugh – one of my failings I’m afraid.

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