Friday, June 06, 2008

Of Hospitals, Waiting Rooms, and Singular Unable Bodies

by EILEEN JOY

[please note query for the next ITM book club event below]

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.--Franz Kafka

For reasons both anticipated [my mother’s hip replacement surgery] and unanticipated [a friend’s appendicitis, another friend’s traumatic fall, an elderly aunt’s pneumonia], I have spent a good deal of the past month in the corridors and rooms of hospitals and rehab centers, and it has got me thinking a lot about conversations we have had here on supposedly non-integral and unbounded and transversal bodies. As much as I have become enamored [and perhaps even “gone over” to the side] of the idea that there can never really be such a thing as a singular, bounded, inviolate body or self [while I have also not wanted to let go of the idea of a singular person as an ethico-legal foundation for human rights and maybe also for personal freedom], I have always found this [attractive] idea of the unbounded body or always becoming-something-else self severely wanting in the presence of those who are injured, seriously ill, or aging poorly. My mother is, at seventy-five, in very good health and will be out in a week or so of what I can only call the most posh rehab center/luxury resort I have ever seen, and with new hips, she will get a renewed lease on life, but the same cannot be said of almost every single other inhabitant on her wing, many of whom can never get out of bed, while others cannot go anywhere without wheelchairs and oxygen tanks and heart monitors and the kindness of assistants and therapists and, if they’re really lucky, relatives who might show up once in a while to take them for a spin. Ironically, humorously, or cruelly, the corridor where the Alzheimer’s patients live is called the Reminiscence Wing [I kid you not] and we have been warned not to open the door that leads there in case we might unwittingly aid a resident eager to escape [apparently this happens often]. So, while in my mother’s wing [the physical therapy ward], no one is able-bodied enough to actually get anywhere on their own, in the Reminiscence Wing, almost everyone is agile and swift of foot, yet have no idea who they are or where they would go if they got out. And such are the betrayals of the body and mind that await all of us at some point, unless we depart this life by some other fashion and suddenly, and before we grow old enough to start to lose ourselves, little by little, or all at once.

For those of us who like to pretend that we live intellectual lives in which we can “go anywhere” and “do anything” with our minds, and who sometimes like to play the game of deconstructing the singular human being as an entity to devoutly be wished over, the emergency rooms, trauma wards, and corridors of hospitals and nursing homes can be humbling and sobering places, perhaps even a reality check, maybe even a little frightening. I want to be me, and I don’t want to die, yet. Most distressing for me this week was to see how many residents in my mother’s rehab wing [including her roommate] were visited by no one, talked to by no one, touched by no one, fed and bathed and medicated by those paid to feed and bathe and medicate them [sometimes tenderly, sometimes not], and left to sit or lie alone for hours on end, immobile in front of droning television sets or looking out windows onto blank skies and the outlines of skyscrapers. And last week, in an emergency room in South Carolina, I sat next to a man who writhed in his chair and moaned in pain for what seemed like forever before the doctors would see him. At one point, he grabbed his girlfriend’s arm and begged her to convince the nursing staff that he was in so much pain he thought he was going to die. He was thin and frail and his arms were covered by sores and bruises. What was wrong with him, I do not know, but what I do know is that, because of his pain, he was afraid and couldn’t think beyond the urgency of that fear, and also that pain. It’s a helpless feeling, and those who witness it are also helpless [unless you’re the doctor who eventually shows up and knows what’s wrong].

For all of our philosophizing to the contrary, we do live to a large extent in singular, bounded, gendered, human [and otherwise uniquely contoured] bodies, outside of which it is not really possible to be fully ourselves, let alone comprehend or experience what else might be possible. And when we don’t get the fully abled bodies we think we wanted or deserved, or we lose our ableness in some fashion, we’ll work around that in sometimes beautiful and creative fashion, or we’ll give in to despair, or land somewhere in between [and on this point, I might ask Greg Carrier’s assistance]. And I think many of the women [and a few men] in my mother’s ward are something of all of those things, and I can’t stop thinking about this ever since my mother’s roommate, Dorothy, who is on oxygen and has only been there for about three weeks, and whose only daughter lives in Boston and can’t [or won’t] visit, said to me two days ago, “I think this place is starting to get to me.”

But I guess I’ve been thinking about bodies that get ill and bodies that age and bodies that forget who they were, or can’t forget but can no longer move, and also about these frail, aging bodies left alone with themselves in the dimly lit and antiseptic rooms of the impersonal hospital or nursing home and who, without their once more full mobility, or their minds, are not fully themselves, whoever they believe or imagine themselves to be. And, although I’m not entirely sure why, I’m thinking a lot about Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis,” and the scene that gives the story its conclusion. You will recall that after Gregor dies, the apple still stuck in his back, and the cleaning lady, disgusted, finally resigns, the father gathers his wife and daughter to him, saying, “Let’s finally get rid of old things. And have a little consideration for me,” at which point, the wife and daughter “rushed to him, caressed him, and quickly ended their letters.” But it’s the very image that closes the story that I am thinking of now, when the father, wife, and daughter leave their apartment, with no proper leave-taking of the dead insect who they no longer believe is their son, and while riding the electric tram “into the open air outside the city,” the realize how happy they are, just the three of them, and how much happier they will be once they find a new place to live, and the father and wife suddenly notice
how their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman. Growing more silent and almost unconsciously understanding each other in their glances, they thought that the time was now at hand to seek out a good honest man for her. And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.
And because this is Kafka, we know that this young and beautiful body, stretching into the supposedly hopeful (normative and abled) future, is really a figure of horror, and this brings to mind something Kafka once wrote in a letter, “The life of society moves in a circle. Only those burdened with a common affliction understand each other.”

10 comments:

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Sounds like the problem here is that the bodies have been singularized, bounded -- and rendered bereft, and unbearably lonely -- not because that is the truth of what they always were, but because of a failure of the social networks that ought to sustain and enlarge them.

You might be interested to return to this post, Eileen -- it has something to say to the subject, especially in the comments. And as to the Reminiscence Wing, what a scary euphemism, huh? I mentioned my own encounter with it in the comments here -- literally close to home (Brighton Gardens -- another euphemism, since it designates an assisted living/dying facility and isn't particular bright or flowery, though it is deluxe -- in Friendship Heights, DC).

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

And I should have said this first: I am sorry that you have had to spend so much time in hospitals and rehab centers, and wish those whom you were attending well.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: so now you're telling me the Reminisce Wing is a much-used designation, maybe even a cliche, for wings of Alzheimer's patients? Yikes. I actually had your post about your Uncle Paul in mind when I was writing this but couldn't figure out how to relocate it and link to it. Thanks, by the way, for redirecting me back to your "For Ant Love: A Question for Karl" post--I can see some real synchronicity between that and my thoughts here. I agree with your comment that the bodies [in the hospitals and nursing homes, etc.] may be singularized and bodied, not because, as you write, "that is the truth of what they always were," but because of a certain failure of social networks "that ought to sustain and enlarge them," but I also think it has partly to do, also, with how our bodies ultimately fail us, and I was thinking this, too, in relation to some of your comments to Greg Carrier about how aging is also a disability, one that many of us will face sooner or later. So, yes, some of the persons I've been thinking about [and being discomfited by] are bereft of other persons and sustaining networks, but they are also bereft in their bodies and minds, or in what used to be their more full or more abled bodies and minds. And it never ceases to amaze me how much we disregard [or just don't think about or look away from] those who are elderly and maybe not aging so well, as if, without the vigor of youthful energy and sharp wits, they have nothing left to do, or even say. Kafka also once wrote that those who can always see beauty in the world will always remain young, so perhaps one task we have, as regards our aging parents and aunts, and friends who are ill, is to help to maintain/sustain access to that beauty.

Rick Godden said...

I couldn't agree more that many of the hazards and traumas that the disabled encounter are "because of a failure of the social networks that ought to sustain and enlarge them." But unfortunately, I'm not sure that social networks can fully overcome this boundedness. Someone once remarked to me, "It's not my body that is wrong, it's the world that has failed to accommodate me." As someone who is disabled, I always have felt that my body is wrong. Consisten pain and a certain inability to be fully independent has led me to always feel unsettled in my relationship to my body. I certainly am where I am because of a robust social network I have built up for myself (with almost zero help from Republican lawmakers), but there is always an awareness of my singular body that I am unable to overcome.

Thanks for the moving post Eileen.

Karl Steel said...

Great post Eileen, nice countermove Jeffrey, and a salutary reminder of an actual lived body, Rick. And hello again everyone: I skipped town as soon as I turned in my grades, and now I'm easing myself into my Summer work.

First I want to mention a fake bus stop a German hospital had installed (here, and, sorry, it's going to the Telegraph); it's a kind of holding point for escaped Alzheimer's patients, as they will wait and wait for the bus they expect will take them home. There's much to say about this: the corporeal memory that brings them to this stop, the cultural work of bus stops (think of the ending of Ghost World), the longing for home from which their own mind-body has slipped, the longing for a home that was only in memory long before the disease struck, the retrieval of the patients and their renewed, cyclic forgetting, and finally the sheer art of a bus stop that suggests mimesis, at least some mimesis, is an unfulfillable promise.

Second, I want to offer a provisional schematic, likely for my own benefit only. If we start in hospitals, with chronic pain, we're going to get a singular corporeal foundation for a self. This foundation will be one of suffering, decrepitude, and frustration; in response, we will have calls to cushion, relieve, and even undo this suffering to the extent that we can undo disability: this is the school of seriousness and, I hope, compassion. It's also one of an irreducible core to the self that we might call mortality, vulnerability, pain. If, however, we start in dance clubs and parties, in dinner conversations, in communities online and off, and with the interpenetrative affections of art, we're going to spread the body out past foundations, or into constantly shifting, contingent foundations, nodes of pleasures (that, perhaps, only suffering coagulates into a foundation of persistent vulnerability). Here we respond by calling for more, more, more, and try to enable more for all. A) Which of these is more true? B) Which does better work? C) Is there a good reason, other than compassion and realism, to give our attention primarily to bodies and selves in need of better therapies, better machines, and better social re-engineering? For me, for now, the answers are: a) depends on the moment; b) I don't know yet, but I do know I want to try out irresponsible scholarship for a while, and perhaps we're going to swing back the other way; c) strikes me as a bad question, but I don't know why. At least, love, of some sort, energizes each approach to bodies.

Third, on the busride home yesterday from [yuch]beautiful[/yuch] Lowell, MA, when I was awake, I read most of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which is (a great selection!) for the common text for the incoming freshmen at U-Mass Lowell, where a friend teaches. My mind turned to Everyman (a play I loath), and how much was left to this soul when all was taken from him; and, because of his love of reading and food, perhaps because of a class position that marbled such things into his memory and self in a particular way, how much Jean-Dominique Bauby had even when so much had been lost, and the suffering the remainder caused, and the pleasure for his readers (and, no doubt, to his publisher and to the producers of the film); and I thought, god help me, of a lyric for a song I wrote ages ago, "If I had no lips would you still love me / what I'm trying to ask here is / how many pieces could I lose / and still be me?" Perhaps there's a blog post in this?

Eileen Joy said...

Rick: thanks for your comment here; I was a little worried when writing my post [so much so that I seriously considered just *not* posting it], as I felt I was treading into some dangerous territory and didn't want to appear as if I was trading in some kind of cheap pathos or wrong-headedness concerning the idea of, let's say, bodies that fail in certain ways.

Karl: um . . . wow? You have really got me thinking, especially with this [which is *so* worth repeating]:

"[There is also an] irreducible core to the self that we might call mortality, vulnerability, pain. If, however, we start in dance clubs and parties, in dinner conversations, in communities online and off, and with the interpenetrative affections of art, we're going to spread the body out past foundations, or into constantly shifting, contingent foundations, nodes of pleasures (that, perhaps, only suffering coagulates into a foundation of persistent vulnerability)."

So, we admit that there is some kind of irreducible "core," as you put it, of a mortal/vulnerable [as Bryan Turner would put it, "available for wounding"] self, but then you bring in the space of the transversal: the party [as many know, my favorite space], "interpenetrative art," communities [online and otherwise, often provisional, temporary, fleeting, always on the move--at least, I hope so], etc. as the spaces that ought to call into question for us *which* spaces most accurately [or truthfully] describe [or "body forth"] our condition, our being, our truest, most real selves. But then you also say this might be the wrong question and you say you want to practice an irresponsible scholarship and to also defer the question, and that love, "of some sort, energizes each approach to bodies."

As to irresponsible scholarship, could you elaborate a bit? I will be stuck in airports in DC, London, and Paris for the next 24 hours and would really welcome an extended conversation on this. My initial response is to say, "yes!" But then I wonder, "irresponsible" *how*, more exactly? As to love, well, you know where I am on that.

Karl Steel said...

Although I've been putting it off while I burn with jealousy at your stay in Dijon, I'll try my best, EJ. I'll first do a simpler summery: if we start with vulnerability, we get one model of the body and one set of responses, and if we start with the transversal, we get another model of the body and another set of responses. Love and community drives each approach, but the outcomes differ. At ITM, we've tended to favor the transversal over the vulnerable, and we've always suspended the question of which of these models is more true. Instead, we've explored what happens with we put aside high seriousness in favor of affirmations of pleasure. That's been fun (and also really useful for my animal work, which was lodged deep in high seriousness prior to ITM).

But then, given your meditation of hospitals, given Rick Godden's important comment, given Elizabeth Grosz's critique of Deleuze and Guattari "ignor[ing] the very real torment of suffering individuals" (Volatile Bodies 163), given the pressure Marxism exerts on my thinking (e.g., my comments some months back on your Gowther post), I wonder about the irresponsibility of setting aside high seriousness. When bodies, however disaggregated, are reduced to (or reminded of?) being only themselves by pain and illness, what good does it do to talk about claustrophilia?

And then I wonder if I've put myself in an unnecessary bind.

After all, we can come back around, or come to something else, something valuable and helpful, through our affirmative, pleasure-oriented (if we can imagine an orientation with a telos) scholarship: the difference is one of l'avenir (which pleasure might bring us) vs. le futur (which seriousness will grant us if we work hard enough). Does this mean ignoring cancer, disability, &c? I don't think so, but it might mean getting access to thinking about--and maybe even experiencing?-- these things differently. Given that we don't know whether this can happen, given that high seriousness gives us returns far more directly, given the refusal of pleasure at its best to tether itself to any promise or exchange, an affirmative, pleasure-oriented is necessarily, fundamentally, irresponsible. But that's perhaps where it might surprise us with something better, something more helpful, than high seriousness could ever give us.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: I am coming so late to your last comment here that you may not even care any more, but I think in your two comments here that you are laying out what is really *the* important question for us in our collaborative and more separate/singular work on the question of the human/animal, ethics, transversal inter-beings, etc. Are we to aim for "high seriousness" or something that is more playful/pleasurable or something inbetween [and maybe this is a not-very-"straight" binary to begin with]? I think we have to do both, while also trying to figure out the ways in which an "irresponsible" scholarship is really a responsible one, or at least, does not necessarily negate what is serious, painful, death-haunted/mortal, etc. You will recall, I am sure, that when I was in NYC giving my talk on friendship that I specifically and purposefully raised the specter of the inmates of Guantanamo Bay against Howie's idea that there is no such thing as solitary confinement, but at the same time, I also ended with the lines from Jack Gilbert's poem about the importance of seizing delight, even in the face of catastrophe. I am currently reading Simon Critchley's "Infinitely Demanding," for the *sole* purpose, actually, of trying to work my own way out of this crisis. I fear I may be the "passive nihilist" he describes in there [well, sometimes I am], but I hope not. I can't recommend the book highly enough in relation to this and other conversations we have had here that have obviously led you [and me] to these comments.

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, lord knows I care, and thank you for your wonderful comment, and its encouragement that I'm onto something. Think schematically is sort of hobby. This geek, like so many others, likes to make lists, and the schema is another kind of list, a kind of intellectual OCD. So it's good to hear it's been useful.

And thanks for the reminder of your wonderful NYC talk. Perfect example.

I think we have to do both, while also trying to figure out the ways in which an "irresponsible" scholarship is really a responsible one, or at least, does not necessarily negate what is serious, painful, death-haunted/mortal, etc.

I wonder: we do, don't we?, want to be careful to avoid trying too hard to justify what we do, perhaps even if this justification is one that simply says that our fun here still has in its mind that in the midst of life we are in death, etc. Although it's the height of irresponsibility, we do want to lead, as much as we can (and perhaps more than we should) our ideal future NOW, and that means no making our scholarship technical, teleological; it means making it, doing it, for the now.

Maybe!

I'll add the Critchley to my to-reads on goodreads...

Karl Steel said...

Now to figure out the complete contradiction between my 'more guilt please' and 'less responsibility please' posts...