A Study in Unraveling: A Discussion on Johanna Hedva’s “A Decade of Sleeping.”

Snap Shots
Alexa Watson

Student and high-flyer in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

Attending events virtually is still always an awkward affair. Internet connections give out, people are muted, lagging, freezing, if anything can go wrong, it often does. Nearly a year into the Winnipeg lockdown and still adapting feels like growing pains. Yet, despite the often awkward or difficult finicking with technology, Johanna Hedva’s (they/them) reading from their work Minvera: The Miscarriage of the Brain captivated and was able to charm even through a screen. Ethereal jellyfish from a livestream of an aquarium swim by as they read from their epilogue, speaking on sleep, their voice hypnotic and prose bewitching. 

Hedva’s reading was introduced and moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Alexandrin from the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Alexandrin situates Hedva’s writings within a mystic tradition or adhering to mysticism. Mysticism, in philosophical thought is described as a way of apprehending knowledge through means other than sense-perception, it goes beyond discursive understanding of reality (Iannone). Often involving an altered or enhanced psychological state, the concept of ecstasy constantly came up in my cursory research (Iannone). Deriving from the Greek work ex (meaning “out”) and histanai (meaning “to stand”) the etymological origins of this concept, interlinked with mysticism, connotes a sense of standing outside or being outside of oneself (Iannone). As well, mysticism is seen as a state of intense absorption, a sort of enlightenment that comes from the union of the soul with something else, something outside and higher than reality (Iannone). 

But this definition of mysticism as something beyond or higher than reality necessarily runs into the ineffable. Semiotics as language does not just represent or approximate reality, but actively constructs it. Through signifiers and signified, only through discourse is the world made intelligible both to oneself and as well to others. If mysticism exists beyond reality, how does one write or convey the mystic? Does rendering it into language, into the mode of discourse become paradoxical? This is what I mean when I say ineffable, the mystic perception of reality and afterlife becomes beyond language, beyond expression. Entering into Hedva’s reading, the question remains how do we write the unwritable, utter the unutterable. 

Hedva describes a sense of “apprehension” in regard to their own text, their dreams, and their perception of reality (168). The play on the double meaning, of both simultaneously a grasping and understanding, as well as the sense of anxiety encapsulates the paradoxical nature of writing the un-writable (168). We anticipate our own impending mortality (this is a certainty, a memento mori) yet do not fully understand or perceive it, cannot know or grasp what is beyond it. 

Hedva’s writings turn toward a rhetoric of un-knowing and un-being. Like an unraveling, the dreams as they grow increasingly strange and alien, grow further and further away from realism or reality. The surreal discordances present in Hedva’s text represent this approaching toward sleep, death, and un-being (the major thematic threads running through this epilogue) yet not quite reaching, or the fallibility of language to fully approximate these ideas. Yet, the dream world of the strange and surreal becomes more real than the strange and imaginary concepts of “time” or “money” that shape the so-called real world (Hedva 164). They are “blessed with three cocks” in their dreams, they use them with “savagery and precision and wild, eager strokes, I tear people with them, I let myself be torn” (Hedva 164). This excessiveness or near Bakhtinian grotesquerie of protruding convexities is rendered with fantastic reverie, as only a dreamscape could. This is not a nightmare, though it may appear as so on first glance. Rather, these dreams are escapes from typical affective reactions, from typical expectations especially in the body. This masochistic masturbatory fantasy exceeds the natural body, it becomes an inflection of transcendental ecstasy. The mystic here—as ecstasy being outside oneself—is figured in the awful and awe-inducing grotesque body.  They are outside their body, beyond their body, or any body with their “three cocks” that are a “bless[ing].” 

Their poetic prose, like stanzas builds little rooms or little “coffins” and tombs of their thoughts. Thinking of written spaces or topographies of texts is something I have found captivating over the years. If Hedva’s text creates a space, and that space delves into their dreamscapes, it is a highly paradoxical one: a space that as it is built up through their presence, it threatens to overwhelm and consume them. They are the “me-sized boat that is tossed in the waves, and I am the waves” (Hedva 165). Much like the language which fails to approach, approximate, here language as scaffolding to this space of dreams similarly threatens to collapse (or perhaps, expand beyond itself). Imagine “you without [sleep]” they say, quoting from Anne Carson, or rather “think of it without you” (Hedva 165). The topology of dreams and of the mystic becomes a conterminous space, one where the self and that which is not and is beyond the self, collapse and become indistinct. 

Works Cited

Hedva, Johanna. Minvera: The Miscarriage of the Brain. Sming Sming Books, 2020.

Iannone, A. Pablo. “mysticism.” Dictionary of World Philosophy, Routledge, 1st edition, 2001. Credo Reference, http://uml.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/routwp/mysticism/0?institutionId=1217.

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