Becoming Your Body: Fearing Pain

On the fine splitting of self in “Circulating through My Body” from Henri Michaux’s “Life in the Folds”.

Uhtceare opened my eyes this morning.

It means dawn-care, or the act of lying awake, worrying, at dawn.

Judging by its internet presence, Mark Forsyth, author of The Horologicon, is responsible for reviving this word—an obscure one even in Old English.1 In a world of anxiety and hyperactivity, it’s a useful term.

If uhtceare keeps eyes open, so does the fear of uhtceare. Ironically, the fear of worry creates additional (meta) worry. The same mechanism accounts for restlessness on alarm-clock mornings: when there’s only three hours left, instead of making the most of those three hours, the sleeper turns insomniac. We’re cursed with the knowledge of the limit, not the limit itself.

The fear of pain curses us too, with phantoms and premonitions and pulsating nerves before anything injurious actually occurs.

Michaux begins Circulating through My Body 2 by describing the grip of an unspecified fear:

At that time, the fear I hadn’t known in ten years, that fear took hold of me again. A dull pain at first, but one that, when it finally comes, comes like lightning, like the blast that destroys buildings, fear took me over.

He goes on to fear his hands freezing, his limbs suffering from necrosis, and as a result: my feet promptly froze and, the life draining out of them, felt as if cut off from my body.

Having dispensed with the limbs, we proceed to the head.

As my fear then went to my head, in no time at all, a shooting pain slashed my skull […]

Outside of actual fight-or-flight situations and abnormalities in hormone secretion (and science in general), the generator of fear—especially the irrational kind—is the brain. Which is why, when the narrator has fear turn its attention to the head, it sounds more abnormal than when fear goes after the limbs. At this point my fear has become a separate agent of self; my fear is no longer a result of I fear.

With the head in pain, the situation can no longer be contained.

So I circulated through my panic-stricken body in anguish, provoking shocks, arrests, groans. I woke my kidneys and they hurt. I woke my colon, it pinched; my heart it unsheathed. I would undress at night and, trembling, inspect my skin, waiting for the pain that was going to pierce it.

This depiction is far more ordinary, if seen as a hyperbole of the evening routine of anyone over a certain age or as the experience of a hypochondriac. Although, one unnerving aspect cannot be ignored: the four sentences begin with the subject I. The imaginary my fear has succeeded in provoking the real I (although a mobile, hostile I) into causing pain to its body.

In the end, the text changes tack, returning to the idea of fear but also building into it a message.

The war had just ended and I had stopped shielding myself, when fear, which had been waiting just for some relief to appear, fear entered me in a gale and from there on, my war began.

The first mention of war hints at the cause of fear, even though fear is presented as an unconnected force that appeared during a reprieve. The second mention of war is the label the narrator applies to his mental struggles, but is also a homage to the daily struggles of us all.

Circulating through My Body is a meditation on self-inflicted imaginary pain achieved through a delicate reverse personification, where the narrator becomes his own fear, before becoming a disembodied, travelling torturer of his own body. Technically speaking, Michaux achieves this by a simple change of sentence subject, from my fear to I.

This week has been about reverse personification in Michaux’s work. In the first article, the narrator’s body is the sea; in the second, the narrator describes how the process of imitating a statue is making him into one; in today’s text, the narrator fragments the self, becoming the fragment that causes pain.

Taken together, Michaux’s texts Like the Sea, Statue and I, and Circulating through My Body show different ways that a human can take the form of a non-human entity, while retaining personhood and point of view. (I’m referring to non-classical ideas; there’s always magic, of course, like when Circe turns Odysseus’s companions into pigs.),_fiction_and_the_drama_(1892)_(14785118515).jpg
E. Cobham Brewer’s Circe and Her Swine (1982)

You may have noticed that reverse personification is depersonalising. Indeed, I referred to the first person narrator as he—after the gender of the author—even though the gender wasn’t indicated in the texts, yet this didn’t stop me (as a she) from being dragged along by the emotional undertow. The undertow is a vague fear, universal and wholly faceless, like the niggling worms that lead to worrying about uhtceare.

Next week uhtceare becomes least-care as the vagueness disperses amongst forests of skewers saws sabres slings. Fear can have faces, and those faces, sharp glinting fangs.

(Though they are, after all, just words.)

This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.


  1.  I managed to find online an instance which didn’t originate from Forsyth, in a poem called The Wife’s Lament, from a tenth century poetry anthology, Exeter Book
  2. Taken from Life in the Folds, translated from the French by Darren Jackson. 

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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