I, an itching palm?
All thought emits a throw of the dice.
You’ll come to learn a great deal if you study the insignificant in depth.
The itch matters.
As the French poet-playwright Antonin Artaud once put it: “Where there’s a stink of shit, there’s a smell of being.” I would say: Where there’s an itch, there’s a body and there’s a being.
There is now the International Society for the Study of Itch—an interdisciplinary association of clinicians and researchers dedicated to improving our understanding of the mechanisms of itch and its treatment. This association was founded in 2005 by the leading dermatologist Gil Yosipovitch, known as the “Godfather of Itch.”
Interestingly, the Greek philosopher Plato and the “confessional” feminist poet Anne Sexton and even an Italian adage converge around this idea: Love and a cough cannot be concealed. To quote Sexton: “As it has been said:/ Love and a cough/ cannot be concealed./ Even a small cough./ Even a small love.” To the “love/cough” pair we can surely add another doublet: smoke and sneeze. But what about an itch?
The itch—like love and a cough, like smoke and a sneeze—cannot be concealed.
How would we then define “itch” as such? More than three centuries ago—as early as 1660—the German physician Samuel Hafenreffer first defined “itch” as an “unpleasant sensation” that inevitably prompts the desire to scratch. This definition itself prompts me to think of what I wish to call the dialectics of itching and scratching. And I think this dialectics is predicated on the truth—always-already empirically verified—that itching and scratching are inseparable from one another; that they together constitute a cycle; and that while the former is the cause, the latter is the effect. Of course, neither Hafenreffer’s definition, nor the the dialectics of itching and scratching, does by any means exhaust the field of the possible vis-à-vis the power of the itch as such.
For a definition of the itch then, one can also move as far back as The London Encyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature, and Practical Mechanics, published in the middle of the nineteenth century. This “universal” dictionary has an interesting and even instructive entry that describes the itch as “a cutaneous disease, extremely contagious, which overspreads the body with small pustules filled with a thin serum, and raised, as microscopes have discovered, by a small animal.” This mid-nineteenth-century entry tells us more: “Itch is cured by Sulphur. A sensation of tickling uneasiness in the skin; figuratively, a teasing desire; a constant restless curiosity.” Of course, we have ranged way beyond the nineteenth century, while we know that any definition—by definition—is inadequate. However, it was clear then, as it is now, that the itch ranges from being a sensation—“an uncomfortable sensation on the skin that causes a desire to scratch”—to being a disease, even a deadly one, to being—figuratively—a curiosity, even a restless one.
The itch may edge close to stinging, prickling, tingling, and even tickling, but the itch is precisely the itch, as the moon in the sky is precisely the moon in the sky.
Think, then, of the difference between itching and tickling: You can make yourself itch, but only another person can tickle you. Itching—on its own—is monological while tickling is dialogical.
But all itches are not created equal, to paraphrase Xinzhong Dong—a contemporary neuroscientist and an itch-specialist.
One can then surely advance a typology of the itch. But the one I would provide here is by no means exhaustive. So there are two types, to begin with: “acute” itches and “chronic” itches. Contact with itchy substance—or even a mild touch—may yield an acute itch. There are of course many other means and mechanisms whereby an acute itch may be produced. On the other hand, a chronic itch is scandalously stubborn, abusively persistent, even more than satanically diabolical: that damn itch lasts six weeks or even longer. It even robs one of sleep and thus makes one the most wretched creature on our planet. According to a recent report, nearly 20 percent of children and 5 percent of adults have some form of chronic itch, caused in a great variety of ways. But “perhaps the most common type is the spontaneous itch,” as the popular health-writer Greg Rienzi tells us. This type of itch, as he submits, is produced “without an obvious stimulus—and it’s contagious, like a yawn.” In other words, the very thought of itching can set it off. Further, there’s this thing called the “psychogenic itch.” It is also known as the “phantom itch”—something that amputees experience in their missing limbs. Moreover, there’s the “neurogenic itch.” This type is carried by a whole host of diseases such as kidney, liver, HIV, leukemia, lymphoma, among many others. As Rienzi further points out, “unlike itch activated by primary sensory fibers on the skin, neurogenic itch involves neurons in the spinal cord or brain that somehow get triggered. The result can leave you scratching all over.”
One can also think of cognitive itching—in the very neighborhood of the American Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson’s “cognitive mapping”—as I surely do. But what is this thing called cognitive itching then? To put it bluntly: Cognitive itching is produced by those thoughts that make you want to scratch your head.
Probably the great Italian epic-poet Dante has either the chronic itch or the neurogenic itch—or both—in mind when, in the Inferno of his Divine Comedy, he punishes those liars he finds disgusting by nothing short of “the burning rage/ of fierce itching that nothing could relieve,” to use Dante’s own words in English translation. I find a parallel in the Book of Deuteronomy—the fifth book of the Christian Old Testament: “The Lord will smite thee with the scab and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.” (Not long ago, I saw in my dream that several anti-people and fascist and male chauvinist politicians I find utterly disgusting in reality miserably died of the neurogenic itch!)
When one itches all over, or when one wrinkles one’s nose because it itches, or when the beautiful woollen sweater one wears keeps itching, or when the bites causing nodular and even inflamed swellings itch, or when one even scratches off the eyebrow because it itches relentlessly, or when one cannot but rub one’s private parts even in public because they itch, or when the devil’s itch or fire-ant itch remains a daily torment, or when one even makes a statement like this: “the metaphysical presuppositions of cognitive science are causing genuine itches, then everyone ought to care about scratching in the right place,” one may then rightly think of the realism and materialism and even the metaphysics of the itch all at once.
So the itch can be literal, metaphorical or tropological, phantasmal, spectral, metaphysical. There are case-studies that tell us that the specter of the itch continues to haunt many people; that amputees continue to experience the phantom itch in their missing limbs; and that the metaphysics of the itch continues to baffle the hell out of medical scientists, for instance. It’s not for nothing that Xinzhong Dong—whom I quoted earlier—asserts: “We still don’t fully understand the itch.” Let me add: Hence our effort to understand it shows no signs of abatement today.
That the body is fundamentally a material site of struggle—a material site of both oppression and opposition—has been amply theorized by both Foucault and Fanon. One can safely assert that the body constitutes the fundamental site of the itch as well. In fact, the itch is—among other things—bodily in character and content. The itch-struggle is primarily a bodily struggle. It is thus a material struggle—like even the class struggle itself—a struggle in which scratching remains a universal constant.
The great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explores the tropological potential of the itch in more ways than one Mark, then, the following passage from his relatively-unheeded work Culture and Value (a selection of his personal notes on both philosophical and non-philosophical topics): “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress? If somebody scratches the spot where he has an itch, do we have to see some progress? Isn’t genuine scratching otherwise, or genuine itching itching? Can’t this reaction to irritation continue in the same way for a long time before a cure for the itching is discovered?” Tropologically enough, Wittgenstein calls attention to the dialectics of itching and scratching—and even to the cure for it all—in the history of Western philosophy, while unsettling the linear narrative of progress and probably informing the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s poetic pronouncement: “Progress is history’s dirty joke.”
When one is in love, one tends to feel that the couple they constitute proves as irresistible to each other as an itch to a scratch.
Studies have found that scratching your itchy ankle can feel as good as sex, as Rienzi has recently informed us.
Indeed, the metaphor of itching/scratching has been mobilized in all sorts of ways in the history of world literature. Shakespeare characteristically explores the potential of the itch as a metaphor, or the power of the itch as a signifier that is notoriously slippery sometimes. Mark the ways in which Brutus deploys a dermatological metaphor in his exchange with Cassius in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3):
Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself
Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm,
To sell and mart your offices for gold
I, an itching palm?
What does the phrase “itching palm” signify here? It signifies an avaricious disposition—to be more specific, it signifies the lust for gold or the desire for gold. In the field of Shakespeare studies, one hermeneutic excavation has already revealed that Cassius’s deep, even driving desire for gold, leading to the sale (mark the signifier “mart” here) of favors, is both “unconscious and compulsive.” It seems that in the hands of Shakespeare, the signifier “itch” can invite a critical intervention capable of enacting an intersection between political economy and psychoanalysis. One can surely cite other plays by Shakespeare—particularly Romeo and Juliet and Coriolanus—in which the great playwright exploits the power of the metaphor of itching, giving one the impression that the itch—like money and Vodka—can do crazy things, to misquote the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
Let me dwell more on the pleasure and pain of the itch-scratch cycle. Both the great essayists Montaigne and Bacon—their different contexts and locations and stylistic signatures notwithstanding—come to accentuate the pleasure of the cycle in question. As Montaigne famously puts it: “Scratching is one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any.” And Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum or A Naturall Historie in Ten Centuries, tells us: “The pleasure in the act of Venus is the greatest of the pleasure of senses; the matching of it with itch is improper, though that also be pleasing to the touch.” But, of course, Montaigne in particular seems fully aware of the pain of the itch-scratch cycle as well: “But repentance follows too annoyingly at its [scratching’s] heels.” Why? The more you scratch, the more you itch, and the more you itch, the more you scratch. Thus you end up afflicting and damaging your skin, to say the least. But Montaigne moves further. He goes to the extent of invoking Socrates to call attention to what Montaigne himself calls “the close alliance between pain and pleasure:” “When Socrates, after being relieved of his irons, felt the relish of the itching that their weight had caused in his legs, he rejoiced to consider the close alliance between pain and pleasure.”
And again I will speak of the concrete joy of scratching as an inevitable response to the concrete sensation called itching. Two statements on that topic stand out for me. First, the American poet Ogden Nash: “Happiness is a scratch for every itch.” And then the American poet-critic Robert Penn Warren: “The urge to write poetry is like an itch. When the itch becomes annoying enough, you scratch it.” And I am totally with the Australian journalist Katherine Feeny when she notes: “It feels good to scratch that little nub of fleshy irritation pricked by a dreaded mosquito. The moment nails collide with skin and fingers slough the needled surface is a moment of sheer bliss. The relief! The joy! The satisfaction! The – oh.” Sometimes it’s so important to affirm and celebrate that “oh,” however fleeting or even dangerous it may appear.
Indeed, the itch—as a topic—clamors for so many interpretive interventions. And, indeed, I did itch to write about the itch itself. But I can see now that I’ve even barely scratched the surface of the dialectics of itching and scratching that—among other things—defines life itself. Finally, some lines from a poem called “Itchy” by David Yezzi:
Hard to reach, so you yank your clothes getting at it—the button at your neck, the knotted shoe. You snake your fingers in until your nails possess the patch of skin that’s eating you. And now you’re in the throes of ecstasy, eyes lolling in your skull, as if sensing the first time the joy one takesin being purely animal.
It’s so good to have a scratch [….]
Azfar Hussain is Vice President of US-based Global Center for Advanced Studies and Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies within the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He is currently Summer Distinguished Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB).