What elements of a ‘life’ can be captured in narrative and conversely how do narratives handle the ‘unspeakable’?

In several of the autobiographical narratives we discussed at the Delhi workshop, we noticed the palpable presence of emotion, challenging us to examine the function of the ‘affective’ in narratives of transformation. At various points, narrators are overcome by doubt, fear, anger, remembered pain, shame or even disgust. Accompanying these emotionally charged moments, we noticed references to the inexplicable: ‘sins,’ ‘miracles,’ ‘tears,’ ‘prayers,’ even ‘physical illness.’ These moments of pain, recollected through narrative, connecting reason and the irrational, associating the body, mind and soul, seemed to signal the refusal of emotions to be contained by narrative.

‘Sin’ or sinning appears to be one such area of the inexpressible and inexplicable: sin materialises in the heart but is manifested through the body; while references to sin commonly recur, the specific nature of the sin remains unidentified. The pain and shame of the sin, it seems, is accompanied by the desire to separate oneself from the sinning body. Poised between revelatory confession and the inadmissibility of full disclosure, the narratives take comfort in describing in greater detail the emotional trauma that the sinning self has caused the narrating self.

Udaya, for instance, spoke of the nineteenth-century Kerala prince Jacob Ramavarma’s use of bodily metaphors of self-exposure when it came to confessing sin: illness, vomiting and disgust for food accompany his references to his sinful self. Anandrao Kaundinya, the protagonist of the narratives Matthias examined also remains silent about the specific ‘sin’ that he has committed. Interestingly both present their conversion narratives on the occasion of their ordination to the Basel Mission. Udaya’s suggestion that their reticence may have been the result of the logic of decorum is something to be explored further. After all, the solemnity of such a public occasion does bring to bear ideas of what is socially appropriate to speak about. So rather than understand the act of ‘going public’ merely as the space for transparency and full disclosure (as opposed to the hidden private), considerations of “publicness” may also draw into the equation notions of propriety. The pain, shame or the loss that the convert experiences must be suppressed to produce a text that is socially acceptable to the community.

I end with several interesting questions that were posed at the last round table: How do we interpret the tension in these texts between emotional breakdown that interrupts speech and the eloquence of speaking/writing a narrative? To what extent does the language of emotion help to ‘translate’ the unspeakable into a socially recognisable or even acceptable narrative? What is the status of the narrative in the conversion narrative? And what function does the narrative perform in allowing the eruption and display of emotion? Finally, if emotion has such a fraught relationship with language, to what extent and purpose will it translate across languages?

Stay with us as we explore further….

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  1. […] The world in which transformation is to take place is to some extent already mapped out and yet the future must be conceived of as something that the self can act on and create. One common factor that emerged across the several texts we discussed was the points of breakdown and rupture, of silence and a withholding in the midst of articulate narration. What elements of a ‘life’ can be narrativised and conversely how do narratives handle the ‘unspeakable’? This question is explored further in this blog post. […]