Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Watery Parts of the World


Your generous, starwalking last post reminded me of the great final third of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrook's (panoptical harmonium of German middle-class life - written when he was 26!), in which the young scion of a prosperous German family wakes up one morning and decides that he doesn't want to get out of bed. So he says he's sick. Is he really sick? Even he isn't totally sure; but from that point on, his day is full of pampering and delight. Cordials! Presents! People feeling sorry for him! Needless to say, the boy realizes quickly that being sick is vastly underrated - perhaps even the best thing in the world. He resolves then and there to be sick for the rest of his life. And he is, for the most part, with a variety of real and imagined illnesses - the most debilitating and (for our purposes at least) interesting of which is not a biological condition at all, but the great chronic disease of art.

Yes, young Hanno Buddenbrooks is an artist. And he is sick. Paraphrased like this, the connection sounds forced and naive; but no matter how much I reject its pedantic and pseudo-Christian Scientist overtones, I find it hard to read the moment in which Hanno "decides" to be sick without at least a tiny shock of recognition. I feel exposed: as if Mann has caught me stealing cookies or sneaking into my mother's closet to play a game of Zelda II, which I am not supposed to even know about until Christmas morning. But, uncomfortable though they may be, I have learned to trust such neurological twitches as symptoms of some larger truth. And I do think Mann has it right here, if only in part. Art, though it may not be an actual physical illness, is certainly an effective way to stay in bed.

Artists need beds - if not real ones, then at least the metaphorical rectangles of imagination and repose that Australian poet Les Murray sung in his beautiful "Homage to the Launching Place", which ends like this:

"I loved you from the first, bed,
doorway out of this world;
above your inner springs
I learned to dig my own.

Primly dressed, linen-collared one,
you look so still, for all your speed,
shield that carries us to the flight,
and bears us from it."

Who, reading this, does not feel a twang of tenderness for that "kindest of quadrapeds"? Just writing the lines out, I find myself gazing at least twice towards the shadowed bedroom, where my faithful mattress lies resting after a hard night's sleep. How gluttonous I have been with her! And how neglectful! But then, like Hanno, I have perhaps come to rely a little too much on the "doorway out of this world" part of the equation - have begun, in other words, to glut myself on that mulch of interspace from which art arises like mushrooms on a compost heap.

That's the tricky thing about beds: they grow. They overflow and spread, to the point that soon you're falling asleep wherever you please. The whole world has transformed, from an unforgivable and dangerous surface to a sort of gigantic moonbounce, on which we desire to sink at a moment's notice. And why shouldn't we? Aren't we weary? Haven't we spent the vast majority of our day doing things that we wish to escape - that we would opt out of completely if we could, like a frail little German by deciding to roll away from work, responsibility, and duty, and towards tubercular infection?

But it's not that simple of course, and I know this - for I am not just a user of beds: I'm a maker of them as well. Every night I wander the halls of my hospital, snuffling like a hedgehog, not just for whimpers and moans and the telltale manatee-rolls of unsound sleepers, but for the disturbances of this kind that haven't even happened yet. No one sleeps well in a hospital, they just don't, and anyone who tells you differently is or was on drugs; but between sleep and non-sleep is a state as wide as the one between health and death, and that is where I do my work. It's my country, if you will: my garden of mandrakes clenched in their various beds. And I, along with my companions, am its steward: one of the many naiads and dryads and goblins of water-replenishing and pillow fluffing and volume-lowering.

Hospital corners are difficult even for a professional, and I'd be lying if I said I always executed them with an identical amount of patience. Still, one thing that I've discovered over the course of the past year is how much these and other little featherings can help a sick patient become a sleeping one. Exactly how this works remains a mystery to me; but what I do know is that, when we look at it through the lens of illness, the story of the princess and the pea takes on a startling poignancy. As told to children, the tale lies once, but at a critical juncture - for the truth is that there was no pea, and that the woman would have tossed and turned no matter what she slept on, not because she was a princess, but because she was sick. The pea was inside her: it was her death. And though it looked like the prince was testing her, she was actually the one testing him, as she'd been testing all of her hosts over the years, tossing and turning in the pretenders' beds as she submitted to their stupid little vanities: the mountain of mattresses, the transparent secrecy, the relieved, if still strangely self-congratulatory morning embraces. But in the end there was no sleep in any of them.

Artists write about the relationship between art and illness in different ways, depending on (among other things) their own health. There is writing that wakes us up - that seizes us like a cough and leaves us bed-ridden for days, after which we emerge to a world glistening with sweat and newness. Books like this are a mini-death: an allopathy (to use a late 19th century medical term), or "other suffering", which helps us combat the disease we are by introducing a disease that we are not. We read them in order to be more awake and to feel more alive, or simply to feel less isolated by a disease that we'd thought was personal, but which is really shared (these writers suggest) by everyone.

Our age is full of great allopathic writers: lucid insomniacs like Celine and Bolano and Roth and Beckett, the uncomfortable-makers whose dreams demand that we submit to them, and which suggest that if we don't we'll wither and die of something we don't even know we have. And we need these writers, the same way that you need to be sick. NEED to, Seth - not in an exceptional way, either, but in what I would say is a deeply normal one. Because whatever health is, it is not standing still. The tepid pool breeds disease in the same way that a patient confined to a hospital bed will begin to develop bedsores, insomnia, nausea and constipation.

Books that get us moving, however, are only one half of the equation: floods are as dangerous as clots and often more so (dysentery, which growing up in Africa made me see as terrifying, was once known simply as "the flux"). So, when our bodily vacillations become too drastic, we turn to the other tradition, the homeopaths - not just the nappers, but the sleepers, the dreamers and tunnellers and divers through deep water.

What does writing like this look like, and how do we recognize it? In his essay Sleep-and-Poetry, the Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi describes a "Poetry of sleep", in which, "the connections....with the Reader are so intimate that they can share sleep with one another." So, the homeopathic writer attempts, not the famous writerly estrangement (of the brilliantly militant Shklovsky, yes, but also of many others before and after him), but the opposite: an at-home-ment, at-one-ment, (atonement?), in which the bare cave of exile gets relined with a wallpaper that not only soothes our cheeks but reminds us of a room we left a long time ago, where we were happy. Miraculously, we believe it.

Gaston Bachelard talks about something like this in his dream-manual "The Poetics of Space". Poetic images, he says, do not simply describe things for us,

"They give us back areas of being, houses in which man's certainty of being is consecrated, and we have the impression that, by living in such images as these, in images that are as stabilizing as these are, we could start a new life, a life that would be our own, that would belong to us in our very depths." (POS, p. 32)

"We have the impression that..." - and then this, I would say, is the great gift of homeopathic writing, which helps take us out of illness and into sleep, out of wine and into nap (to use counters close to both our hearts!). Is this valuable? To me, yes - more and more so the older I get, as rest becomes a rarer and rarer commodity. You don't get it in the hospital. But you have to get it. It's part of being healthy - not the only part, or even the best, but one that I think we need the most right now. At least I need it. After all, what's more untrue than the phrase "We'll sleep when we're dead"?

In reading over your post again, Seth, I found myself thinking a lot about what I want writing to do, both in me and for me. I'd like to say that every reader needs both allopathic and homeopathic types of books - but while I think this is true, I also think that many books, and writers, can be usefully placed on one or the other side of the divide. If this sounds overly simplistic to you, that's because it is; still, simple things can be helpful sometimes. You talk a lot about the difficulty you have in the amount you obsess over your illnesses - the need you seem to have to be sick. Well maybe that's just it: maybe you need to be sick to be healthy. And maybe your tiredness with illness is just a way of being sick with being sick. Allopaths live not just for, but in resistance. Take away the disease and you take away the health. Not to mention the beauty.


Lisa H. said...

you've given me much to think about, josh. i think i will turn it over to my subconscious to puzzle over while i'm sleeping in my bed tonight.

Josh said...


I wish I could say the same, but unfortunately I work nights. So now I have only two kinds of sleep: light, and catatonic. My subconscious mind has either shrivelled to pea-size, or taken over. Maybe both.

But there's nothing like getting out of work at the break of dawn, especially in summer. The smells are INCREDIBLE, especially the mulch around the emergency room entrance. Some strange mixture of chlorine, cinnamon, and dirt.

Lisa H. said...

i'd trade sleep for a bouquet of chlorine, cinnamon and dirt any day.

i, on the other hand, begin work at dawn to the sad smell of yesterday's spoils composting in the trader joe's dumpster...

Josh said...

yes, but Lisa: you work at Trader Joe's. Or as Layla calls it, "Heaven".

(apparently, we're getting one in Portland!)

Lisa H. said...

it's true! in september, i think.

Seth said...

I've read this post five times now. Thanks, Josh. I'm thinking my response might be work-related: how do writers make money when they're not (yet) making money writing?

Josh said...

forget a post: that deserves an entire book. "Dayjobs"

Along with uncles, poop, and Roberto Bolano, one of Seventh Draft's perennial themes...