An Intersection of Words and Flesh

Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.

–Clive Barker

I passed out at work on Thursday.  It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, I promise.

I was sitting at my desk, running some reports.  The grey boredom of the morning was suddenly colored by my co-workers’ conversation.  One of them was talking about a medical reality show she had watched the night before.  As she started describing a girl who was being treated for brain trauma, I had to put my head in my hands.  Words like “pituitary gland,” “blood pressure” and “nerve damage” overwhelmed my senses.  I went numb from my wrists to my fingertips; the back of my head felt loaded with weight.  A minute later, I came to face down on my desk, smelling the scent of my own verbena perfume.

As disturbing as the experience of losing consciousness is, passing out is unfortunately a common reaction I have to the visceral.  Whenever I accidentally cut myself in the kitchen, I hyperventilate myself into a faint.  My reaction isn’t so much to the blood, but to the accident of the cut itself.  The first time we read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in high school, I dropped at line 160.  (The Mariner is unable to speak since the crew has had no water for a number of days.  He bites his own arm and drinks some of his blood to wet his throat to cry out.)  White Fang, Cutting for Stone, the “Guts” story from Chuck Palahnuik’s Haunted have all done a number on me.  The term “pearl diving” alone, even without the Palahnuik association, makes makes me quavery.

Call it squeamishness, call it the brain recoiling from the flesh.  Whatever it is, I can’t handle it.  The veins in my wrist squirm, my vision goes white & some panic unlocks the darkest avenues of my mind, imagining the written description in bloody detail.  The reaction grows inside me and I can’t escape it.

I can say though that I’m not alone in experiencing this.  One section of Michael Martone’s essay “Sympathetic Pregnancies” describes the same reaction.  Martone writes:

I do not faint at the sight of blood.  I do faint at the mention of the word “blood.”  It has to do with the vagus, that vagabond cranial nerve that wonders down the neck and thorax and on into the belly.  It is a conduit for sensation in a part of the inner ear, the tongue, the larynx, and pharynx, and it motors the vocal chords while it stimulates secretions to the gut and thoracic viscera.  My friend, a doctor, called it ‘one interesting piece of linguini.’  An overactive noodle can send the pulse racing and the blood pressure crashing, the electric schematic of sympathetic suggestion.  In an instant the blood rushes to my feet, my wiring for some reason shorting out with this outsized response.  I’m sensitive.  To what?  To words.  I weathered the witnessing of the births of my two sons attending the attendant fluids, flesh, and surgery.  But merely typing the above, thoracic viscera, had me going. . . . These words for me are engorged, obese with what?  Meaning?  No, more than meaning.  They are viral.  They get under my skin, into my system.  The codes wired into language still thrill my own harmonic neural strings.

(I could just go on & post the whole essay; I love them so much.)

I wonder if this reaction arises from some weird paradox of identification–the abstract-thinking brain realizing it’s a manipulated piece of meat, a vulnerable, pulsing organ not aware so much of its own capacity to be wounded but registering every sensation that connects it to the flawed body.  Part of the panic that occurs before I surrender to oblivion is the inability to look at myself.  That if I do, somehow something will be broken and all the dark & secret inner workings of my body will be exposed.

It has to be traced back to the primal fear of wounds, the body horror that Cronenburg explores so deftly in all of his movies.  Because if there is one thing that rings true is how alien our own bodies ever are to the reasoning part of ourselves.  Words are made to fill in that gap, to allow the brain to express all that it takes in.  But, here in my experiences, the reverse effect happens.  Words become the measure & descriptor of mortal flesh &, betrayed, my brain rebels.  “An overactive noodle”, indeed.  I just wish it wouldn’t decide to take the rest of me with it on its panicked ride.