A Spark Member Profile of Madeline McNeill, Author of Is There A Soul?
By Wesley, Drop-in and Write facilitator
“I called it Is There a Soul? because…” A long pause. “I wanted it to indicate that I am very much thinking about soul, about spiritual experience, rooted in felt experiences. I wanted to go to the heart of it.”
The question still gives the author pause. It is a living question, and her answer demonstrates the care with which she has treated it in her work.
Madeline McNeill describes herself as a singer and a Body Philosopher. She realized what she was doing was philosophy after an epiphany born of a period of intensive self-massage and self-reflection. Massage, she discovered, was able not only to relieve the tension in her core muscles, improving her singing, but also to trigger a new freedom in her thinking. What at first seemed like a breakdown of her previously held structure of thought gradually resolved itself into new structures and creative work, with a new language to talk about it.
Is There a Soul? records her inner dialogue as a conversation between a student and a teacher as they go on posing and responding to questions. The reader, in turn, becomes engaged with these voices on the page in a process Madeline calls sub-posturing, subtly forming the words within core muscles. As we read silently, we say each word, each phrase to ourselves, deep beneath the surface of spoken language, but nevertheless evoking them through the body, not merely revising them as thoughts within the mind. In a manner, this very act of reading, viewed from the perspective of body philosophy, is already “moving toward body spirituality,” a paradigm that gives readers a new way of thinking about Christianity’s core tenet: the incarnation of the Word. I am reminded that spirit comes from a word meaning breath, and soul from a word meaning butterfly (pneuma, psyche)-- things which hover on the threshold of intangibleness.
“Can I use the word soul or spirituality like this? Can I reclaim the soul for the body?”
She poses the essential questions anew, then says with the confidence of her lived experience, “Self is body, and mind is an exercise,” as is soul, an experience of consciousness. Operating within the parameters of human sentience, soul is neither infinite nor eternal, any more than any one of its emotive expressions is: love, will, peace--each has its limit, under this framework.
As Madeline puts it, “It is unhealthy to step off a cliff and think you can fly.” She laughs wryly at the way society holds forth notions of infinite love or goodness for those with the leisure to pursue them while the lower classes are left to feel responsible for their own negative “body emotions...It’s so messed up.” Thus, she insists on the “radical, activist component” of body philosophy.
In our talk, the tensions between collaboration and independence, completion and ongoing reflection are also recurrent themes. For Madeline, the classical philosophical form is at once easy and natural; she submitted the first drafts as part of a writing course, received positive feedback, and got in touch with an editor at EWU, Amanda Maule, who helped shape the book into its current form. However, unlike Platonic dialogues, her speakers are both female. Since then, she has continued elaborating her ideas in a series of essays, and even inserted a section on beauty into the published book. She has also considered staging the work as a play or adapting it as a film, and is in contact with a group of dancers who may be interested in performing it