“That’s enough. You can stop now: the phrase [Eve] Sedgwick said she longed to hear whenever she was suffering. (Enough hurting, enough showing off, enough achieving, enough talking, enough trying, enough writing.)”
— Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
I lie on my back with a medical napkin draped over my thighs as the urologist, his nurse, and I stare at a screen that shows the inside of my penis. It looks like we’re traveling virtually through a fuchsia tunnel to a new dimension, if that dimension were my prostate. The tunnel’s surfaces, even at this near scale, are surprisingly smooth. We search for a constriction.
The urologist pilots the endoscope through my prostate, into my bladder. “There’s where your kidney connects,” he says, noting a small, puckered orifice. Surveying broadly, he asks, “See the ridges?” The inner tissue of my bladder looks like the surface of Mars. “Your bladder has had to work harder than it should over a period of years.” The endoscope zips back, rewinding from my bladder, through my prostate, out my penis.
The doctor pats my knee. “No constriction, slightly enlarged prostate, bit of bladder stress,” he says. “You’re fine.”
And so, again, I’m left with no explanation for my pain. My friend Megan insists I routinely mistake the etiology, that the explanation isn’t physiological, it’s psychosomatic. It’s academic.
A hum thrums inaudibly beneath the vying egos of grad school seminars and the bureaucracy of faculty meetings. But we feel it. It is the pulsing of our bodies in rebellion. Migraines, stiff joints, ulcers, urinary tract infections, psoriasis, and lots and lots of back pain. Though academic studies of embodiment are—thanks to affect theory—in vogue, we seldom talk about our bodies, at least publicly. Pain is so private, so difficult to communicate with clarity, as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elaine Scarry have shown. And academics aren’t, say, coal miners. To whinge from the comfort of the ivory tower can feel shameful.
Such shame doesn’t mitigate our pain. So maybe we should talk about it. Maybe we should make discussion of our bodies and the bodies of our students part of our pedagogy. Maybe our pain is a symptom of the life of the mind—a forced reembodiment of a life disembodied.
This idea—that critics should talk about their bodies—has a history. In 1987, Jane Tompkins described critical discourse as characterized by an “authority effect” that ignores “the human frailty of the speaker, his body, his emotions, his history.” Controversially, she described her embodied scene of writing, “just myself as a person sitting here in stockinged feet, a little bit chilly because the windows are open, and thinking about going to the bathroom. But not going yet.” Some countered Tompkins’ attempt to reinsert the body into intellectual production as a narcissistic reinstatement of bourgeois ideology, a perfect expression of Reagan’s America.
But that same year, Gloria Anzaldúa went further, considering the relation between thought and flesh. “The spirit of the words moving in the body is as concrete as flesh and as palpable,” writes Anzaldúa, “the hunger to create is as substantial as fingers and hand.” She opposes this holistic vision to the dualistic Western tradition running through Plato and Descartes. Anzaldúa invites us, instead, to “root ourselves in the mythological soil and soul of this continent.” Here, she finds—a few steps ahead of the new materialists—that our ideas were physical all along.
Isn’t that a truth we all, somewhere in us, already know? We feed our ideas coffee and cigarettes, we nurture them peripatetically, we let them grow in bursts from our fingertips—bliss!—as we sit rigidly at our desks and, after months and hours, they pay us back with pain.
A few weeks ago, to end a course on literary analysis, I taught Anzaldúa and joined my students in considering her invitation to recognize the embodiment of our thought. But, sitting around a table in a well-appointed classroom, our attempt felt somehow empty. We were making merely conceptual the very notion that concepts cannot be divorced from the body.
What would it actually look like to do as Anzaldúa instructs?
My pain started a few months into grad school. The bands of muscle along my spine contracted and refused to let go. My face flushed and grew hot. I would rub ice cubes on my temples, nape. When the pain started to interfere with my sleep, my doctor prescribed me muscle relaxers. Then began the period of passing out in the wrong places. I’d go to a reading group, drink half a glass of wine, and wake up with drool slipping down my chin in the middle of a discussion of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions.
That spring my fingertips became extremely sensitive. They tingled. Anytime I touched anything my mind crumbled before the sensation. It was impossible to think, which was bad for a first-year grad student trying to hang in there. One night, feeling like I was falling apart, I walked out of a queer fiction seminar. I found friends eating free food at a reception and explained that I felt unhinged. My friend Adin said it sounded like I had multiple sclerosis.
Doctors sent me to lab techs who drew my blood for countless tests, all negative, all normal. All normal. All normal.
Normal: displacing stress onto the body, whose wordless screams demand to be heard. Hearing, I doubled down on books. I let myself be enchanted by Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. “Enchantment is soaked through with an unusual intensity of perception and affect,” writes Rita Felski: “it is often compared to the condition of being intoxicated, drugged, or dreaming.” More, when enchanted, “you feel oblivious to your surroundings, your past, your everyday life; you exist only in the present and the numinous presence of the text.” Enchanted, I felt oblivious to my pain.
Yet I failed to see how enchantment is an embodied experience. Felski, like Anzaldúa, insists on this point. The intensity of enchantment is physical, an intensity of perception and affect. Our hearts beat faster, hormones flow. Sometimes enchantment gives way to what Felski calls shock, “the masochistic bliss of being pummeled and punched by a work of art.” I taught Lolita this fall. Derek came to class writhing, describing the visceral pain he felt reading it, his real illness; Lisbeth, though, came bouncing with physical giddiness, joy. Felski wants us to think about that pain, that joy, to linger on what our bodies do when we read.
Pain is not egalitarian. It strikes differentially. It disproportionately afflicts the poor, the working class, women, queers, transgender folk, people of color, the disabled, those in the Global South. In 1984, in the worst industrial disaster to date, gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant, producing a toxic gas cloud over the city of Bhopal. Thousands of those who lived in nearby shanty towns died almost immediately, tens of thousands have suffered from chronic conjunctivitis, scarred lungs, memory loss, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Closer to my home in the United States, people of color cope with quotidian pain, the matrices of dispersed racism transubstantiated into nerves and blood. “An unsettled feeling keeps the body front and center,” writes Claudia Rankine. “The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse.” I taught Rankine’s Citizen to finish my American literature survey this semester. Her “you” is chronically invisible—literally not seen—and hypervisible—seen as a threat because of her skin, like when her new therapist, misrecognizing her client, yells, “Get away from my house!” Either way, the black person, the black body, disappears, only for that disappearance to reemerge in the subjectively felt body as pain.
“Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.” Black people age more quickly than whites as a matter of physiology. This is theoretically true of even the most physically capable, even, say, Serena Williams. Watching Williams engage with racism on the tennis court, “your fingers cover your eyes, press them deep into their sockets—too much commotion, too much for a head remembering to ache. Move on. Let it go. Come on.”
Move on. Let it go. Come on. These are the words Rankine will return to in the end to describe “how you are a citizen.” A liturgy conducted to coerce the past into oblivion, a past that lives on in the suffering body.
I, on the other hand, have all the privileges. I am a straight(ish), white, upper middle class, cis-gendered man. There are countless kinds of bodily vulnerabilities that I never have to experience. I slip right into the small Iowa town where I teach. Students immediately grant me authority, no matter what I wear. No one will threaten to rape me for writing this.
Years go by. I defend my dissertation. Suddenly my pain dissipates—only to spin 180° and take up residence in my abdomen and pelvis. I wake up last February in Mexico with a terrible weight over my bladder. Back home, a doctor gives me antibiotics, then more antibiotics, before sending me to the urologist who sends a camera up my urethra and tells me I’m fine.
I don’t feel fine. I’m told I have prostatitis, etiology unknown, though studies suggest stress is a factor. The muscles in my abdomen contract and refuse to let go. I take benadryl to help me sleep. Finally, in Iowa, my new doctor, after hearing my symptoms, asks if I’ve ever thought my pain might be related to anxiety. He prescribes me Lexapro and, at this late date, I join the ranks of the psychotropically enabled. Weeks pass, my muscles relax.
My pills treat the symptoms, not the root cause. So I bike until my mind goes blank. When the weather turns, I swim until my calves cramp, until I become vacuous, until I feel utterly wrung out. I need to feel the body I lose when reading. Why do I keep losing it?
In grad school I listened to M. H. Abrams, then ninety-eight years old, give a talk on the physical dimension of literature. He read the opening to Lolita, then said, “Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita has sensitized him to a fact of which we are ordinarily oblivious. That is, that the use of language involves a physical component, the oral actions of producing the words we utter, and that by attending to them we can become aware of the mobile and tactile sensations of performing these actions.” Abrams invited us to feel literature as the air in our lungs, the tap of our tongues against the tops of our mouths.
Yes I said yes I will Yes. But how? Our scholastic training as minds begins so young, we have so much conditioning to counter. I long to feel the facts impossibly present, how I tap the keys right now, how these words I’m writing are carried along by the last inrushing tide of caffeine, how words can cut into our skin but can also free us to live in our finite bodies, words and all.
—Dan Sinykin: probably in a tree, or a quinzhee.
These symptoms, and conclusions, sound much like those described by Tim Parks in his “Teach Us to Sit Still”. Western, intellectual, Parks, describes his desperate situation and ultimate use of meditation to ease his pain. His is not a new age conversion. Parks is able to analyze his experience in a way that should satisfy even the most skeptical positivists.