[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.”