Scars are curious things given an even more curious name: the word scar is derived from the Greek word eschara, meaning place of fire. The word does not mean caused by fire nor that scars are the result of exposing one’s skin to fire, although there is a connection to the Latin word for scab. No, scar means quite literally the place of fire: the fire is found within the scar and the scar is already present in the fire. Perhaps its derivation has to do with the sensation of intense, searing pain, the kind of pain borne by the body at the receipt of a wound, a wound on fire with pain, and deep enough to create scarring. There are other connections to fire to be found in scars: wounds that result in scarring tend to bleed heavily, and blood has long been symbolically associated with fire. Phrases like, “he makes my blood boil” find their roots in the relationship between the physiological arousal of increased blood flow and fire as the symbol of intense passion. Purification is another ancient relationship between fire and blood; together they form the basis of ritual sacrifice and, in fact, bleeding is the body’s way of purifying a wound.
The most familiar English usage defines a scar as a mark left on the skin after a surface injury or wound has healed. Scars commemorate and memorialize, they freeze time, space, and emotion in pale, sometimes jagged, and awkwardly knitted lines on the skin, and not infrequently, they leave a jagged signature upon the heart as well. And even though there is no apparent etymological relationship between them, one can’t resist adding an “e” to scar, to create the word scare. A scary encounter leaves scars, even children know that. Psychic trauma is referred to as emotional scarring, and it gets its very own medically approved diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One can hardly deny that it makes intuitive sense to relate scar and scare. After all, intense fear–being scared to death for instance–leaves its deeply etched mark upon the mind even though the frightening event has long since passed. In fact, it is often the scar no one else can see that is the hardest to bear.
Chatting with a friend the other day, we began talking about scars–major scars, deep scars, vivisecting surgical scars–and how hard it is to adjust to living with them. Regarding the outside of the body, worry about what others see when they look at one’s wounds, and concern over the kind of narratives others will apply to explain the wound occupy one’s thoughts, erode one’s self-confidence, and force one to harshly revise or re-imagine one’s body image. On the inside, in the mind’s eye, the scar is an immutable reminder of one’s own vulnerability, one’s mortality, and one’s ultimate fragility in the face of fortune’s vicissitudes. All one’s fears, everything that scares, are made conscious in unaccustomed and disturbing clarity; wraiths materialize through unfamiliar fault-lines spanning the topography of previously unmarked flesh.
Scars also serve as a means of identification: if one ever has the misfortune of being booked into jail, one of the questions that will be asked of you is whether you have any birthmarks, tattoos, or scars. Scars are an ancient way of tendering or proffering one’s identity. One of the most poignant accounts of recognition and identification may be found in Book XIX of The Odyssey, when the disguised Odysseus (transfigured to look like an old, decrepit beggar by Athena) is given a bath by his old nursemaid, Euryclea: as she begins to bath him, she recognizes the scar on his thigh, received as a small boy when he was gored by a boar, and through her recognition of the scar, identifies Odysseus himself. Her eyes fill with tears of mixed grief and joy as she clutches him by his beard and calls him her “dear boy.” For he who was dead is alive again and he, who was lost, is found.
For the lover longing for the beloved, the beloved’s scar is a welcome affirmation of her presence. The scar is an inseperable part of the beloved herself, and any sight of it ipso facto incarnates the beloved; so much so, in fact, that the scar may become as much an object of love as the loved one herself. Writing of the Christ’s scars in his book, The City of God, St. Augustine expresses a similar sentiment when he says that they (Christ’s scars) will not “be a deformity, but [have] a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.” This is an essential idea to take note of, and it bears repeating that the body does not manufacture the beauty shining in and through the scars, in fact the body is not, in and of itself, beautiful; the body is a most imperfect vessel. If the body does not produce the beauty, then what does? Beauty is, in fact, created by a powerful alchemy involving a scarring wound, a loving gaze, and a precious foundling, all culminating in a moment of poetry and illumination. It is the result of, as Leonard Cohen sang, the word becoming flesh. Love is transformed from an abstract, vaguely meaningful word into a living, breathing, and human experience promising answers to all life’s insoluble riddles (It is worth pointing out that wounds, particularly lacerations, to the body often assume the shape of a mouth. Perhaps the word cannot become flesh without inflicting a wound; in other words, creating a mouth which has something to say.)
According to Greek Stoic philosophers the word, or logos, embodied the creative principle; it was literally the singular, creative force. Imagine the blinding light that would pour out of every pore of the body if one managed to install the universal creative force within a single human being. And yet, that is the way in which the beloved is usually encountered: she is met as one who has fashioned the entire universe solely for the pleasure of the fortunate lover upon whom she smiles, she becomes conflated with the creatrix belle-mère, the beautiful mother-goddess who creates the world. Unfortunately, it is too often a commonplace that the logos lives just outside one’s own experience, remains embodied in another, and the desire to lose oneself in the beloved arises quickly. An appealing idea begins to dawn that loosing oneself may, in fact, be the answer to escaping one’s own inner struggles and unmanageable, painful emotions. The beloved is perfect, or so the fugitive consciousness reasons, and oneself is irredeemably flawed; her scars radiate the light of creation while one’s own simply accentuate one’s brokenness; and so convinced, the flight from the self into the other is complete.
The scar and its shadow are made deeper and darker by attempts to recoil from and hide them, and one’s anguish is compounded as the attempts to conceal one’s scars inevitably fail, until finally, one wears one’s scars as a symbol of everything corrupted, debauched, perverted, and subverted within. Nothing emanating from such an internal state can help but be grotesquely and tragically flawed. In a poem called, My Father’s Wedding, Robert Bly describes the state of affairs resulting from such an inversion:
If a man, cautious,
hides his limp,
Somebody has to limp it! Things
do it; the surroundings limp.
House walls get scars,
the car breaks down; matter, in drudgery, takes it up.
Everyone is familiar with such a character who, whether in real life or in fiction, spreads poison and corruption throughout the world to compensate his inability to apprehend beauty; Richard III sneers that since he was not made “to court an amorous looking glass” he will choose to be a villain, “and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” Al Capone’s scar imbued him with a profound quality of menace and invincibility throughout much of his career. But once he was brought down and shown to be a simple thug, a cruel, syphilitic bully bolstered by swagger and braggadocio, his scar appeared, in the eyes of the public, altered to reflect his decay; his scar became a symbol of everything torn apart, of everything shattered, and of everything ruined within him. Even in traditional presentations, witches, demons, trolls and monsters are frequently described as having ugly, terrifying scars.
One of the most memorable of literary scars is that of Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick. His scar threaded its way out from under his grey hair and ran down the side of his face and neck, disappearing beneath his shirt collar. Speculation among the crew of the Pequod was that the scar ran the length of his body and culminated on the sole of his foot, the way a lightning strike will sometimes run down and scar the length of a great tree from crown to root. Experiences that leave such long and deep scars are life altering, and afterward one will no longer be what one was before the scar was received. In these brief examples, each one refused the call of change that always attends such a wound and instead reacted with infantile rage at having been subjected to the sometimes crippling nature of life; a nature that may, according to some indiscriminate whim, core one like an apple. Each, in his unwillingness to see in his wound the brilliant light of creation, saw everyone and everything as an acceptable target for his rage. Ultimately, that is the undoing of individuals such as these, for they eventually target themselves with the same pitiless violence previously reserved for everyone else. Now these are extreme examples to be sure, but these very same dynamics are present in the psychologies of untold numbers of people; the difference being that whatever else has been lacerated in them, the connection–however tenuous it may be–to others and to humane values has not been entirely severed.
While one may feel as though exposure to apocalyptic conflagration has reduced one to ashes, it is important to remember that the fire that burns and scars is not the fire of annihilation, but rather it is the fire stoked within the alchemical furnace, and a new life is fashioned in these flames. Whenever two previously unrelated things are joined together a scar, or a seam if you will, is always the result; and when individuals are joined to previously unknown and unconscious aspects of themselves, scarring is the painful and inescapable result. Bringing together the disparate aspects of oneself is not at all easy and in doing so one often feels oneself to be at the edge of personal extinction. It can only be ever thus: only when one is faced with something overwhelming can the archetype of wholeness be constellated. So do not be ashamed to look at scars. Valorize them; caress them; trace their course in your skin and in your mind’s eye. Scars are roadways drawn onto maps of flesh, leading always to the beautiful truths buried deep within oneself.
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