STORY | A Wakeful Night

Posted on 23/02/2013

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I spent a sleepless Tuesday night in hospital, just after surgery, watching TV. The two films that occupied me throughout those anxious hours were bio-pics, one about Frida Kahlo and the other about Elizabeth I. As I watched the films about these two iconic women, sometimes slipping into tiny sleeps, their stories of blood, corporeality, passion and power touched my own aching, cut, bleeding and raw body. Sometimes, it seems, that stories can be ingested like a kind of nourishment or, even, medicine. A pharmakon of sorts. Plato’s Phaedrus includes a dialogue about the tensions between the written word and speech, myth and reason and logic (logos). [See: Seth Warren’s The Pharmakon and the Phaedrus.] My partner, John, read stories from The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Angela Carter, to me earlier in the day as my slumber slowly cracked. The book begins with a short Inuit story about a powerful woman with a huge clitoris. And through those stories, even in their written form, there is an ascendency of the (gendered) oral and mythic. I find myself in an intertextural and intertextual terrain.

In my ward, there were two gynaecological cancer patients, both ragged from chemo and bruised from various other treatments. Both had been in hospital for some time. There are, of course, discourses of bio-politics and bio-power where institutions, medicalisation, techno-science and the like inflict their controlling, disciplining and punitive regimes upon resistant, docile, desiring bodies. Prior to my admission to hospital, I had jokingly (or not) referred to it as the ‘meatworks’ recognising the hospital as a machine for delivering medical services and enacting treatment on the body. I don’t mean meatworks in a disparaging way but through the lens of a discursive history that prods at the ‘meat of the body’. Ths hospital had a similar kind of processing function that I had noticed in a shearing shed. Masculinised and professionalised constructions of knowledge play on our bodies. Early in my diagnosis, during  a consultation with a specialist, with a seeming fondness for cutting and removing body parts, I asked a question. The response was prefaced by “let me dumb it down for you …” (departing that consulting room promptly, never to return).

The stories of those women cancer patients, which I had heard in fragments in the course of the day, were sobering and confronting.  One woman, just out of surgery and blinking between sleep and waking,was returned to the ward, her baldness signaling her condition. In what I hope was an ethical moment, an attempt to practice community, I drew my curtains slightly to conceal John’s presence, recognising it as a possible intrusion for her. Tomorrow I would be leaving and well on the road to healing. Tomorrow they will be facing another step in their slow death or arduous recovery or tenuous wellness. Nurses, all women, performed their routines of monitoring vital signs and pain levels, checking wounds and administering medications, voicing their concerns about my wakefulness. Here, in this ward, there were mostly women in pain, in recovery, in treatment. [Another friend, Keith A, alerts me to Elaine Scarry’s work, The Body in Pain.] In hindsight, I recognise that the stories of Frida and Elizabeth eased me through that difficult and wakeful night, cinematic embroideries of the complexities of gender, history and culture. Elizabeth roars “I will have here but one mistress and no master“. Maybe they were just distractions.

Yet, subtleties in storylines make for moments of identification, small segues into a quiet and private sentience and fragility. I cannot say for sure whether these films readily map across my own empathetic corporeality in the way that Giuliana Bruno describes in The Atlas of Emotions. I’d like to rewrite this some time as an architectural or cartographic fiction of sorts, charting a “moving, lived space”. There’s a scene in Frida, however, of her miscarrying. A pool of blood seeps from her body into her voluminous nightgown and bedding. I recognise this as a momentary mirror image on the screen as blood drains from my body prone on the whiteness of the hospital bed. From the day’s thresholds of waking and sleeping, I recall reaching for John’s hand, settling into the touch, despite the pain, and the sensations of the skin, the sensitive reassurance of a loving body, the traces of intensities to come.

This week, housebound, I’ve been ‘hanging out’ with Luke J on facebook; he has generously invited me into his thought experiment, emergent philosophy and neologisms. It’s been ‘a trip’. At one point, having written great intensity and outpouring, he expresses a realisation about ‘getting to the heart of the matter’ (which he doesn’t mean in a truth-saying-seeking sense, but in a wild, living and nomadic sense). I think, though, it seems like a mapping of a lively mental space for living-thinking-writing. Perhaps that conversation opened and unfolded a field of experience, thought, living and sense (to borrow some words from John Rajchman’s The Deleuze Connections). It was like being somewhere else.

There’s an expression ‘opening old wounds’ which I have been thinking through in relation to the Pharmakon, living knowledge and memory. Pharmakon refers to an unsettling of the absoluteness of binary oppositions (Derrida, Dissemination). My surgery had to penetrate a surgical scar and a mass of scar tissue (a site of bodily trauma) from childhood. [Incidentally, the scar featured in a previous work, titled Speak, produced when I was writing in ‘other’ ways.] One day I might get around to dealing with that ‘lump in my throat’. For now there has been an ‘opening of old wounds’; with cut skin and flesh, and tubes penetrating the dermis, even literally, an outpouring, a strange openness or porosity.

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Watching QI on TV last night. Host Stephen Fry notes that audiences often don’t find women comedians as funny as male comedians. He attributed the reason to a tendency of women comedians (let’s say all women storytellers) to focus on ‘women’s issues’, while men’s humour covers more territory and is regarded as more worldly. I can’t help but consider the spatialities and placialities of women’s public-private worlds; that these realms of story can construct territories out of both major and minor histories, and histories out of major and minor territories. Women’s stories, voiced from our living, feeling and thinking, dignify the private concerns of children, body, reproduction, illness and domesticity, asserting them as vital dimensions of power, planning and politics. They agitate prevailing social priorities and hierarchies by affirming that their world not only matters but is worldly. The deeply personal and private dimension of my own experience like that of other women is, indeed, epic, contoured and worldly.

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