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A Physiology of Style: Asthma, Proust, Pharoahe Monch

“This asthma became part of his art—if indeed his art did not create it. Proust’s syntax rhythmically and stop by step reproduces his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the weight of memories. On a larger scale, however, the threatening, suffocating crisis was death, which he was constantly aware of, most of all while he was writing…….A physiology of style would take us into the innermost core of this creativeness.” –Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust” (1929)

There is no scientific link between prose style and physical conditions, but science is only one of many ways of knowing. Walter Benjamin’s mode of thought was, as Bertold Brecht pointed out, both crude and mystical. He “thought poetically,” and thus was able to perceive connections, relations, forces, invisible to most scientific approaches. The drawback of this type of thought-work is that while it can be dazzling and convincing, it is nearly impossible to test and prove empirically. It is almost mystical, in that it claims a kind of privileged access to a substratum of reality, and draws on observations of phenomena that cannot be endlessly and universally repeated.

I remember first reading the fragmented narrative, the loops and lost places, in Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Like the syntax of Proust’s asthma, I thought Autobiography suggested a relation between the shape of the prose and the post-traumatic effects of multiple surgeries under anesthesia, effects that are especially pronounced for those who underwent them as children. In his book The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency, Robert Scaer writes with a piercing eloquence about the psychic and physical manifestations of the dissociated waves of pain locked within the body and its memory. I, as someone who “went under” several times as a child, saw in Scaer’s words the articulation and definition of experiences that had remained up to that point rather amorphous. In Grealy’s text, I had the sense of recognizing a fellow traveler in the land of post-anesthetic consciousness.

I can’t prove it, but I think her narrative style, as well as her difficulties in writing a novel–discussed in Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Grealy, Truth and Beauty—are symptomatic of what going under, over and over, does to a body and mind. The challenge of crafting cohesive characters and events that take place within a unified world, and ordering those events in an engaging and artful way, is challenging for any writer, indeed, but I think that temporal dysmorphia of posttraumatic stress can makes this kind of imagining especially sisyphean for traumatized body-minds, even those as undeniably brilliant as Grealy’s.

In Pharaohe Monch’s latest full-length, PTSD, the asthmatic lyricist showcases his unusual power in wordplay and inimitable cadences, finding places in the beat to flow where most would stop and vice versa. The prose of Proust and the flows of Pharaohe share a gasping, flowing quality, leaping from clause to clause while remaining thoroughly contemplative between commas. In interviews, Monch has discussed how traumatic memories remained locked in the body and mind, how he continues to be affected by witnessing shootings, or nearly dying from an asthma attack that left him hospitalized for three weeks in its wake.

Based on insights like his, as well as those of Proust and Benjamin, we can now say that hip hop poetry emerged, on the whole, already imprinted by the post-traumatic stress wrought by everyday life in rapidly deindustrializing urban centers in the U.S. This is a physiology of style beyond the individual body, an assessment, rather than a diagnosis, of the social body. I do not mean to pathologize hip hop poetry as a social sickness, a well-worn and misplaced diagnosis that has also served as a prognosis, albeit an inaccurate one (but aren’t diagnoses always also prognoses to some degree?). But rather, this assessment helps us to account for why hip hop has become and remained a nearly universally appealing poetic genre, once dismissed as aberrant folk art, now a global industry and expressive format of choice for not only the urban dispossessed and overcrowded, but the suburban privileged and isolated.

Artists like Pharaohe, or his peer-models such as Royce da 5’9”, or his precursors like Proust, who have faced death, contemplated it like monks staring at a square of color—these are artists whose particular, acute conditions and symptoms offer a homologous and more visible version of the micro-traumas that beleaguer every human, that, indeed, makes us human. All of us, at one time or another, has found it hard to breathe on earth, and even harder to articulate that experience of feeling the crushing weight of a mystery on our chests. Proust, Monche, Benjamin, Grealy—they are the poets of that weight.