Reading Split Tooth – A spiritual journey entering a world of abuse, natural powers, affectionate friendship and bodily sensations
Trigger Warning: This article includes references to (child) sexual abuse.
Reading Tanya Tagaq’s (2018) Split Tooth affected me on a very profound level. I used to live in Canada and spent time in Indigenous communities, especially in the Arctic. As social worker and researcher working with juvenile sex offenders, I witnessed the heavy burden of abuse and alcohol as well as suicidal thoughts in midst of a spiritual reality sparked by a natural environment that doesn’t allow for compromise.
With my article, I would like to share some of my experiences reading Split Tooth as I became curious about myself and my reactions to a story that upset me and fascinated me at the same time. Although I am referring to an incredible book written by an Inuk artist, the starting point for my reflections is what happened with me reading it. This is a reflection of a white woman coming from a very different place feeling a deep connection and at the same time a strong sense of alienation.
I am a philosopher who studies and works in places that are “in between”: between different disciplines, cultures, and methods. And I am a philosopher who takes great interest in these places, who seeks to research them – preferably also from a place “in between”. Thus, I am interested in “intercultural philosophy”. Unfortunately, Indigenous traditions are still rarely part of the philosophical discourse. And yet, we as Western thinkers would gain so much if we were to engage in “genuine dialogue” with Indigenous philosophies. With the term “genuine dialogue” I refer to Martin Buber (1998, 75) who explains: “In genuine dialogue the turning to the partner takes place in all truth, that is, it is a turning of the being.” He distinguishes this “living mutual relation” (Buber 2002, 22) from two other kinds of encounter: first “technical dialogue, which is prompted solely by the need of objective understanding” and second “monologue disguised as dialogue” disregarding the presence of the other, being solely interested in having one’s own self-reliance confirmed.
Reading Tanya Tagaq, I experienced some of the unsettling “turning” that Buber talks about when we openly engage in a dialogue allowing it to transform us. It shook up my self-reliance and pushed me beyond understanding on a rational level. I sensed that my experience could be connected to the theme of this conference “sovereign erotic” – in particular to the spiritual power of nature (around us and within us) as well as to horrific injuries of sexual violence and the feeling of powerlessness it brings.
In the following, I would like to expose you to one passage of the book that particularly affected me, especially in terms of “sovereign erotic”. Although I am still working on it (or rather it is working on me), I would like to draw out three initial insights I consider as valuable, also for intercultural discourses with Indigenous thought in philosophy and beyond.
Three initial insights
The main character of the book is a teenage girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s – she could be my age now. She takes us through moments of her daily life, intense moments with animals and the brutality of cold winter days. She confronts us with traumatic scenes of violence, alcoholism and dark spirits while at the same time portraying the cheerful life of a teenager. She seems to switch back and forth between experiencing a seductive spiritual world and the harsh reality of her actual life.
The passage I chose describes a sexual encounter with a fox (German title is “Eisfuchs”):
It was a fox! As he came closer I realized that he was huge, man sized. My fear was overridden by his maleness, by his grace. I could see every hair on him, white and perfect. The wind blew around him and his black eyes spoke to me, “Let me in.” […] His voice was light; his voice was all the darkness. It was the deepest, smoothest voice I had ever heard. My flesh was softened, my will blinded. […] He shot me with truth and the burden of our bodies. I saw in an instant the spiritual world we all ignore. […]
I opened the door, and he brushed past me on all fours. […] His scent penetrated me […]. My bones seemed to loosen. I couldn’t move. Then he spiralled his limber body onto a chair, sitting like a man. He had a huge black and orange cock, veiny and pulsating. I knew I had to put him in my mouth. I was feeling a mixture of revulsion and an uncontrollable tingle in my mouth, almost in itch. His cock would satisfy it. […] Blinded and dazed, I wanted to live in that sublime moment always. It’s the best I have ever felt. (Tagaq 2018, 69 f.)
To my first observation: The first thing I felt was the daunting tension between powerlessness and power, tension I see in the term “sovereign erotic” – I think the term reflects that tension.
1. Sovereign Erotic – The daunting tension between Powerlessness and Power
It is what we feel in our body in erotic moments that is sovereign. My rationality is superseded, there is not much left of my autonomy or self-governing behaviour. “My flesh was softened, my will blinded”, writes Tagaq. What does that tell me as a philosopher coming from a Kantian tradition feeling like she does? It is strange how eroticizing an ice fox can be – for the protagonist in a world foreign to me and yet for me as well. All I can do is to respond to what is happening – I am not the woman in my own house (as the “fox” is entering it).
But there is also the other side, something else I sensed reading what happened to the young girl: the steadfast and selfish power of the erotic as a source of strength against oppression and assimilation. She takes it in her own hands, she does with the fox as she pleases. “I was his saviour”, she writes, because the fox was cursed by a bad spell and she freed him. The story with the fox ends with “The knowing. The healing. The Cleansing”. This sense of sovereignty in the erotic seems to be something a lot of Indigenous artists draw from (“identity politics”).
2. Hurting, Losing and Longing for Sovereignty through Sexual Abuse
Yet, what was alienating and disturbing for me throughout the book was the sharp contrast of this positive strength of the erotic and the brutality of sexual assault the young girl witnessed and experienced in her family. That is my second point: Sexual abuse massively hurts the sovereignty of a person. Almost all of the juvenile sex offenders I worked with were victims themselves. The massive feeling of powerlessness as a child leads to extreme forms of gaining that power back. It is a well-known fact that victims often turn into offenders. They stop feeling, lose the connection with themselves and long for the power they were robbed of.
It is hard to love offenders and yet love is a sovereign remedy, maybe the remedy to regain sovereignty. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that Tagaq portrays several affectionate friendships of her main actor, also with the fox who offended the raven clan which let to the curse affecting several generations of foxes. At the end of her book she writes: “Protect me. I need help. […] Kill me. End this. […] All I have is numb. Love me. There is still a child inside. The shaking rabbit. […] Worship me. I am boundless. I stood up. I am worthy.”
Maybe the teenage girl enters a spiritual world of sovereign erotic, because she needed to leave her abused and mistreated body. Throughout the book, sexual encounters with humans seem to be harmful. Dissociation is a common coping method among survivors of child abuse. The young girl didn’t feel safe in her own flesh, writes Jacqui Lambert (2019), an Iñupiaq woman from Alaska who experienced similar traumas, “so she took us through her messy mind where we hear about the spiritual realm”. “After a few scenes of detailing the moments of her body being invaded, she eventually describes the act of voluntarily leaving her flesh to go into the spirit world which leads to being impregnated by the northern lights.”
3. Eco-Eroticism: Finding myself surrendering to the nature that I am
The scene with the fox as well as with the northern lights, clearly show me that I am not opposite of nature, I am nature. I cannot express it as nicely as Melissa Nelson (2017, 230), she says what I feel when she writes: “In the face of such sensuous ecological encounters, both ordinary and spectacular, I step outside the sense of myself as a contained being. I am no longer a solid center but part of an unending field of entwined energies. […] And in the act of sex, I feel these same emotions – these vulnerable feelings combined with a strange sense of authentic, surging power.”
Although “Eros” is well known in western philosophy, we seem to have lost a great deal of it – and from the very beginning (Plato), the idealistic concept of it superseded and supressed the physical side of it. And yet, when we look at the Greek mythos of Europe, we learn that Zeus was struck by the beauty of Europe and transformed himself into a tame white bull to seduce or rape her (both is very close in Greek mythology). It was Zeus [suus] as a bull, not a man, who captured her interest. Although the story frightens me as much as the ambivalent sexual encounter with the northern lights, Tagaq describes, I am looking for ways to get some of that back into my way to do philosophy.
I am convinced that this is needed also from an ethical point of view, for example when we look at environmental ethics. We are part of nature – how bizarre is it, that we want to control and exploit it (also within ourselves) while at the same time we long for it. The more we distance ourselves from nature (the nature we are), the more we seek to fill this gap with excessive “natural” experiences, like wilderness adventures and spiritual retreats.
Moreover, I espouse a concept called “responsive ethics”, which seeks to respond to our natural desires and bodily experiences instead of repressing or fighting them. Responsive ethics starts from the Other’s demand and thus gives room for the kind of genuine dialogue I mentioned at the beginning. However, it is quite difficult to be open to alienating encounters without subsuming them into our own logic. That is why reading Split Tooth was and still is so appealing and challenging at the same time. Tanya Tagaq confronted me with a world foreign to me and yet with myself at the same time. If we don’t expose ourselves to being alienated and transformed, egocentrism, logocentrism, and eurocentrism will persist.
Dieser Artikel wurde von Prof. Dr. Barbara Schellhammer auf der Tagung „The Sovereign Erotic“ 2021 vorgestellt. Ein Blick in das Programm lohnt sich!
Barbara Schellhammer ist Mitglied des Redaktionsteams.
Buber, Martin (1998): The Knowledge of Man. Selected Essays. New York: Humanity Books.
Buber, Martin (2002): Dialogue. In: Between Man and Man, Taylor & Francis, 1–45.
Lambert, Jacqui (2019): Split Tooth Review: Expressions of the Circumpolar Arctic.
Tagaq, Tanya (2018): Split Tooth. Penguin Random House.
Nelson, Melissa (2017): Getting Dirty: The Eco-Eroticism of Women in Indigenous Oral Literatures. In: Barker Joanne (ed.): Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, Duke University Press, 229–260.