by Nadia Gregor
I kept notes while I was on the pills so I wouldn’t accidentally double-dose or overdose or, worst of all, die from some entirely different cause and yet be thought to have killed myself. In the dosage notebook, with a vain concern for my last written testament, I left space for something else, whatever the pills might bring—visions, portents, revelations. But here the notes are very few; they come to almost nothing: “They keep asking, ‘How do you feel?’—this question, the nullity of compulsory [illegible]” and “It’s not so much that the room is spinning as that information about the horizon is being repeated an unnecessary number of times.” The notebook ends after a few pages.
That was in the fall, in a difficult year during which one friend, Mia, had broken with me in exasperation over being subjected to endless discussions of my troubles with another friend, Brian, who then also broke with me, for reasons of his own.
Like the pills, the after-effects of general anesthesia didn’t grant me much in the way of revelation: a temporary difficulty in recognizing my limbs as my own; an inability to concern myself with whatever the nurse was telling me (“always take this with food” or “call us if you have difficulty breathing”). On the evening after the operation, my mind seemed not so much disordered as will-less. Only one thought reached me; like revelation it arrived without effort or context. As if I had been thinking all along of the awkward halt in conversation whenever pain is mentioned (even in the hospital, where the preferred term is “discomfort”)—as if I had been thinking of the failure of my every attempt to describe my pain to anyone at all, not only to such friends as remained after Mia and Brian had gone, but even to those whose profession it was to take my testimony—I now thought: “The fundamental unit of social syntax in America is, ‘Wow, sucks to be you.’”
Brian might have been interested in my anesthetic revelation, if we had still been friends. A phrase like “fundamental unit of social syntax in America” was more his style than mine—or rather it’s the style we used to share: hortatory, bombastic, meant to be written on a wall or issued in a broadside. Style is one way you know you’ve become friends with someone, just as I knew that Mia would end our friendship soon after she asked me, regarding my problems with Brian, “Do you think that perhaps you sometimes have difficulty letting go of people?” I knew Mia would end it, not only because she was trying, with excruciating delicacy, to push me gently from her, but because the phrase “letting go” was not Mia’s at all. (And I knew at once whose it was. An acquaintance of ours, heartless as only a New Age-ist can be, habitually used that phrase to refer to dropping a friend like a rock.) The intrusion of this other style into Mia’s already announced the ending.
Even this too-subtle attention to style is itself a style. In this I mean to imitate the spy Jacques Deza in Javier Marías’s novel Your Face Tomorrow. That novel is, in part, about discovering who someone is and what betrayals they are capable of simply by attending to subleties of speech and manner.
What I miss about Brian now is what made him difficult then: if you went to him with a problem, something that pained you, he’d turn it into an occasion for philosophical reflection. If your pain was not acute, the discussion was fascinating; his hours of talk left your initial plaint far behind, or kept it in view only as an emblem of some larger, more significant phenomenon. My anesthetic revelation would have led Brian to a discussion of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (one of the sources of the phrase “anesthetic revelation”). And though Brian could be pedantic—actually he could not help but be pedantic; he was a tireless lecturer and would have held forth concerning things I already knew about James—still, it is a rare thing (it is one of the many things I regret losing in having lost Brian) to know someone whose conversation does not consist mainly of recounting items bought and slights suffered, followed by pauses during which you are to volley compliments for the items and consolation for the slights. But the more acute your crisis, the chillier Brian’s lecturing felt. Not that he wasn’t interested in you; the floor would be opened for comments, eventually. He wanted to know what you thought, and he wanted to think new things with you, but that’s all he wanted. He was not much interested in what you felt, or that you felt, unless your feelings corresponded to some stringent notions he had gleaned from Spinoza.
In the grip of my anesthetic revelation, I might at last have been the perfect friend for Brian, not only because my natural balkiness (which often made me restive during the lecture portion of our conversations) was dampened down or drugged over, but because I too was now as uninterested as Brian in what I felt or that I felt.
Self-absorption grates, in a writer as in a friend. I wish I were capable of writing this without self-pity (and without revenging myself on anyone).
After surgery, even under the influence of the pills, I continued to think about pain—not pain in its generality, as Brian might have spoken of it, but my own pain: its demands, its cadences, the near-universal revulsion it effected on those I spoke to about it, and, even with those who were willing to listen (because they were paid to or because they were polite), its incommunicability.
Among the chloroform- and ether-induced revelations in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience—including the philosopher J. A. Symonds’s perception of the “undemonstrable yet irrefragable certainty of God”; the philosophy student Xenos Clark’s “formula by which the ‘now’ keeps exfoliating out of itself ”; and the poet Benjamin Paul Blood’s “Open Secret of Being, revealed as the Inevitable Vortex of Continuity,” in Blood’s pamphlet “Tennyson’s Trances and the Anesthetic Revelation”—only one revelation was occasioned not by painlessness but by pain. A certain “gifted woman” (James refers to her by no other name) gives an account of surgery “under insufficient ether.”
During the operation, the woman felt such pain that she thought she was directly beneath the foot of God, that “he was grinding his own life up out of my pain.” This God traveled the sky along a rail made of the spirits of people, and the woman herself was located at a turn in the rail: “He bended me, turning his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, as he passed, I saw. I understood for a moment things that I have now forgotten, things no one could remember while retaining sanity.” Much further on in her account, she says that if she “had to formulate a few of the things I then caught a glimpse of,” among them would be “the veiled and incommunicable nature of the worst sufferings.”
The gifted woman’s revelation carries with it an extra burden of inadmissibility; apart from being half-forgotten and veiled, her revelation is shadowed by the fact that when pain is expressed or described, it is mistaken for a triviality. While Symonds briefly wonders whether the revelation he experienced while his “flesh [was] dead to impressions from without” was reality or hallucination, and while James supplies the answer that the origin of a thing is not its meaning, the gifted woman splits the matter along different lines—not reality and hallucination, nor origin and meaning, but an irreconcilable difference, about which she is slightly apologetic, or at least modest: “These things may seem to you delusions, or truisms; but for me they are dark truths, and the power to put them into even such words as these has been given me by an ether dream.”
A certain interpretation seems obvious at this point: a nameless woman amid named men, a “gifted woman” whose words, “subjoined and abridged” by James in a footnote, do not enter history as do Benjamin Paul Blood’s or Xenos Clark’s, a woman who is only her body and her pain amid all these spiritual men. And yet James never says exactly how the gifted woman was gifted; she may have been gifted at contacting spirits, like so many female mediums of that century. Such women were hardly their own creatures; most had a particular alienist or philosopher who championed and interpreted their visions, so Rosalie Thompson had her F. W. H. Meyers, or Meyers had her, as Theodore Flournoy had his Hélène Smith and the Baron von Schrenck-Notzing his Euspasia Palladino. Each gifted medium spoke not in her own words but in the words of her spirit-world “control,” among these a ghostly French “Dr. Phinuit” and a “John King” and a multitudinous “Imperator Band.” These facts complicate interpretation of the lone, suppressed woman’s voice in James’s book; one mediumistically gifted woman brings with her quite a crowd. And if James’s gifted woman was not a medium and did not speak through a crowd of authoritative voices, her gift may have been in nonetheless accepting the bad bargain that to speak as a woman is to speak hysterically, through the body and in pain.
Hysteria looms over every medical consultation about pain, and it looms the larger the more consultations you have without agreeing that yes, the treatment is working, and yes, the pain (sorry, the “discomfort”) is receding. Even when a patient says, “Doctor, I feel so much better,” how is one to interpret that moment, when the patient has changed her tune? Is it cure or capitulation? Another friend of mine, another student of philosophy, whom I had met long before Brian and who did not break with me so much as fade out of my life or I out of his, once told me that in the Encyclopedia of the Spirit—not the Phenomenology of the Spirit but the other, lesser, Encyclopedia of the Spirit—Hegel notes the case of a man who was troubled by hallucinations. Leeches were applied to the man’s anus. After this treatment (as Hegel writes without a trace of irony), the man never again complained of hallucinations. The friend who told me the leech anecdote finished his dissertation, but I did not finish (or even start) mine; then the friend married and I did not; and soon we had nothing left to say to each other, or I still had the same things to say, and so later on I said them all to Brian. “How easily we are replaced,” writes Javier Marías, or words to that effect, in one or several of his books.
Years before my operation, I worked in a funeral home. My job had nothing to do with what comes to mind when you hear the words “worked in a funeral home,” namely, a wrist-deep labor in grue—for that you need a mortician’s license, and an inclination. I merely answered the telephone; and I led people into the office, where I told them the funeral director would be with them soon; and I took mourners to see the embalmed body where it lay in state, in the large or the small slumber room.
I had read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One in preparation for my new job, and at first I thought my employers were joking or being excessively literary when they mentioned “the slumber room.” But Waugh had lifted The Loved One’s most ridiculous euphemisms, including “slumber room,” straight from the funeral business. My employers also referred to the room where they did the real work and from which they occasionally emerged in spattered apron and gown as “the operating room.” Waugh never used that in The Loved One; maybe it came into fashion later, or maybe Waugh had heard it and rejected it as unbelievable. No one on that operating table ever pulled through.
At night I had to put out the lights in the operating room. Why did my employers leave those lights on, when in all other ways they were careful to spare me the sights of that room? For a long time, it was the one room in the building without an intercom; when I had a message for the funeral directors, if they did not answer the intercom from the office or the kitchen or the casket room, I had to go and knock on the door marked “Private,” and the one funeral director or the other, the father or the son, would open the operating room door, but only a little. It was bad enough that I could see their stained gloves and gown and apron; I never peered over the father’s or the son’s shoulder to see whatever else there was to see. I delivered my messages standing well back from the door and with my eyes averted. Even so, and even though my employers left the operating room impeccably tidy at the end of the day—for example I never glimpsed a single one of the implements morticians are said to wield, not the trochar, not the cannula; all were stowed away, and each drained body on its slanted steel table was covered right up to the chin in a white sheet, exposing only the head: the hair lank from a last washing, the face fixed in that grimace caused when the slack muscles of the sewn-shut mouth have slipped downward, earward— even so, the operating room lights were always left on for me to put out.
When a phone call came announcing a death, a call it was my job to take, the caller was almost never someone wracked by grief; the call came from a nurse or an orderly or a policeman or, if a relative, then a slightly more distant, calmer one, the daughter-in-law and not the son, for example. But when the mourners came to the door, either to make arrangements or to view the body, then they all came together, the least pained together with the most. I answered the door; I showed them to whichever room they were meant to be in; I pointed out the tissues; and I brought water for anyone who was sobbing, a glass or a carafe, depending on how many people were sobbing or how deeply. I never said, “I am sorry for your loss,” and I never said anything about grief or pain or death. I thought it would be the grossest intrusion even to mention the name of the dead person, a stranger to me.
Once, only once, a family left without purchasing any funeral services; they left to find a funeral home more to their liking, and I heard one of them say as they went, “That woman who answered the door, she was so cold.”
“One mostly gets things wrong,” someone wrote to me recently; this was Martin Browning, a professor who specializes in the works of Spenser but who reads, in fact, very nearly everything. He is too circumspect to say much after having read only the first two volumes of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, but he suspects it is really about how much we misunderstand. Browning wrote to me, “One mostly gets things wrong, no matter how subtle one is. That’s what I’m finding out.”
I know Browning is right more often than I am, even and especially about getting things wrong. I have perhaps been wrong to use the fictional Jacques Deza as a warrant for my claim that I am destined to end unhappily and that I know already who will have contributed the most to my sufferings and how. I’d like Browning’s words to stand as an apology to the long-gone mourners and their dead whom I never knew, and an apology also for all that I have gotten wrong about Mia and about Brian; it is possible that I caused myself the pain I claim to have suffered at their hands. But let the spy Deza have the last words:
[N]o one wants to see anything and so hardly anyone ever sees what is there before them, what awaits us or will befall us sooner or later, no one refrains from striking up a conversation or a friendship with someone who will bring them only remorse and discord and poison and lamentations, or with someone to whom we will bring all those things, however clearly we perceive this at the very first moment, or however obvious it is made to us. . . . [I]t is as if we went against our own knowledge, for that is how we tend to experience it, as knowledge rather than intuition or impression or hunch, this has nothing to do with premonitions, there is nothing supernatural or mysterious about it, what’s mysterious is that we pay no heed to it. And the explanation must be a simple one, since it is shared by so many: it is simply that we know, but hate knowing; we cannot bear to see; we hate knowledge and certainty and conviction; and no one wants to be transformed into their own fever and their own pain.
Nadia Gregor lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a technical writer. She has written about architecture for Organ: A Review of Arts and is currently writing a novel. The quotation that closes her essay is taken from Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, 2005). (10/2008)