I found myself seeking out today an image which used to resonate for me, the author photograph of the sociologist Catherine Garrett which appears on the back jacket of her book Beyond Anorexia (1998). (I have never lived with anorexia, although I have lived with more than one person who has been in recovery from anorexia). Garrett’s book is about recovery considered as a phase in a process of spiritual transformation, a phase which is not necessarily separate from the crisis phase in which one falls ill and suffers. There is a sort of Deleuzian sense in which the question someone’s spiritual crisis acutely poses to them bears within it the virtual scaffolding of what will become their recovery, their ongoing response to that question. I believe that Garrett’s author photo represents a kind of symbolic bridging of the gap in being disclosed by her own passage through anorexia. She is shown in a white dress with a white jacket, a professional outfit, smiling broadly, stepping forward freely and confidently with a large wrapped parcel in her hand. The parcel is obviously a gift, a big present. Is it for her, or for someone else? Is she smiling because someone has given her something nice, or because she has something nice to give? The image supports both interpretations: what it shows is Garrett as a participant in the exchange of gifts, someone who can both receive good things and be a bearer — actively striding through the public world — of good things for others.

The photograph resonates for me because it is an image of recovery in which the trace of the crisis which occasioned it is still visible. I don’t say this to diminish or undermine the happiness Garrett may have wished to project, to offer the reader — the book itself being both something she was gifted by her experience, which is treated autobiographically within the text, and her gift as a writer and a thinker who performed research, conducted interviews, assembled theories, and drew everything together into a narrative about narrative, a sort of spiritual toolbox for others to use. “An unusual book”, as one reviewer noted, demurring somewhat — as a sociologist — from the intrusion of the “spiritual” into the domain under consideration:

Although only about half the anorectics interviewed attributed spirituality to their anorexia or recovery, and not all displayed behaviours that could be suggestive of spirituality, nevertheless Garrett reads spirituality into their meanings and stories. For instance, she concludes the story of ‘Sue’, who denied an interest in spirituality, with the statement that the ‘absence of spiritual language does not signal an absence of spirituality’ (p. 97). This kind of comment relies on the voice of authority and expertise to negate the validity of Sue’s own beliefs and experience…

There is a genuine problem here, which is that “spirituality” can be an active, shaping force in a situation from which linguistic attribution of spirituality, or overtly signifying “behaviours”, are manifestly absent. But it is not, pace this reviewer, a question of forcing in a spiritual meaning by means of an illegitimate deployment of authority. Because spirituality concerns the relationship, or rather the non-relationship, between being and non-being, between what can be signified and what is left unsignified in all signification, it is neither reliably present where it is signified, nor reliably absent where it is not signified. One cannot fix it in place with ritual trappings, and one cannot drive it out by evacuating it from one’s language and gestures.

A friend who had suffered a schizophrenic breakdown refers in retrospect to this breakdown as a “crisis of being”, which is just what a “spiritual” crisis is if we understand it as a crisis in which the software running one’s sense of “being” has segfaulted. A stable sense of personal identity is one in which being and non-being are more or less cleanly segregated, held at arm’s length: I am this, I am not that. In a “crisis of being”, my “am not”s come marauding through the territory reserved for my “am”s. The resolution of such a crisis is not necessarily the re-establishment of order, but may be a modified way of living with the irregular, ungovernable character of the (non-)relationship between being and non-being itself. (In my friend’s case, he talks to his voices, admits them into his company and answers back).

It is frightening when someone enters into a crisis of this kind, not least because the usual commerce of persons requires, for purposes of predictability and accountability, that everyone involved maintain some reliable separation between who they are and who they are not. The person in crisis is disquietingly “not themselves” from the perspective of this masquerade of social fictions: no-one really knows what to do with them. The anorectic withdraws not only from eating as a process of self-nourishment, but from all of the social ritual surrounding meals and mealtimes, refusing to be present at such occasions, or attending as a kind of reproachful avatar of non-being, the guest at the table who does not eat. There is a kind of social or psychological aggression in this (it can be a way of waging war against one’s family), but also a kind of serenity, that of the person who is wholly impervious to demands for accountability (“can’t you see what you’re doing to us?”, etc).

Spirituality is weird, and we largely preserve appearances by trying to forget quite how weird it is; spiritual crises are irruptions of weirdness. I am wondering what it might be like to be less spooked and rattled by other people’s, a sense of disturbance that goes far beyond simple annoyance at their erratic behaviour or worried concern for their practical well-being. The ability to recognise the source and character of such disturbance, and respond with self-awareness and a sort of Laingian psychic opportunism (seeing the crisis as a moment in which some virtuality is in play, in which the person is already feeling their way towards whatever will bring them out of the crisis), is quite rare in people, and I don’t see where it is presently being cultivated.