‘The [Lockean] premise that as embodied persons we possess ourselves.’
‘We can work “it”, we can neglect “it”, because “it” is ours to control.’
—Ed Cohen, ‘A Body Worth Having’.
I told the student dentist about my tooth hurting and my strategies for eating. He told me he could see me in 2020, or I could go to Emergency and wait for a day, or two, and pay an unspecified amount.
–I’m going to Vietnam, I said. I told him the plan, the one that I had made before Public Dental called me and let me in. I told him that I was going to Vietnam the next day and I would get a root canal there, though I would leave the rest of my bunk teeth for him, if he liked.
–You can’t do that, he said. He’s a nice quasi-dentist, he likes soccer, has a voice like Private School, let me wear headphones during a filling (I listened to podcasts, white male voices intermittently drowned out by drills, etc). He sounds alarmed now.
–OK, I said.
–You don’t know what might happen, he said.
–Don’t do that.
He called me a few hours later, and said, –What about tomorrow at 9 a.m.?
Ocean Vuong’s 2019 epistolary novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, continually addresses the narrator’s mother, ‘Ma’ or, more often, ‘you’. It’s a hook. The ‘you’, second person, is deeply unpopular as a form. This makes it, maybe, more capable of coalescing the reader’s consciousness with that of the narrator. The reader’s walls are not up against the conventional “I” or excluded through frigid third person. Some journals forbid second-person form in their submission requirements. (You can’t do that).
And how are your
teeth today? Can
you afford to fix them?
How high is your rent?
—Eileen Myles, in ‘An American Poem’, Inferno.
Of the root canal, the student dentist says, –I’m going to put medicine in your tooth. It should be fine to leave it at that point. We usually do root canals last.
–Medicine, he says. I imagine he means fluoride, and that he doesn’t say the f word in case I’m afraid of fluoride.
The student dentist numbs my face with drugs. Abstraction spreads from the needle. I can’t tell where my skin ends, whether there’s saliva pouring out my mouth. His hands are indistinct also, the machinery he’s using indistinct from the machinery of my own jaw, the interlocking cogs of teeth.
‘And why are we so invested in separation and distinction anyway?’ —Cohen, ‘A Body’.
The characters in On Earth are radically permeable. The narrator writes to his mother, ‘I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours.’ Of fucking his lover, he writes, ‘we were two people mining one body.’ The permeability is love, for this novel. What is love in late capitalism? How can we have this thing (slippage) that Vuong writes?
–I broke a small piece of metal file, the student dentist says (the one who moved Heaven & Earth to keep me away from the professionals in Hanoi). –I think it’s still inside your tooth.
–OK, I say. I had overheard him telling his teacher this already.
–It should come out at the next stage of the root canal.
–Sure, I say.
I leave the hospital, possibly drooling, impossible to say, with a free gift, a tooth cavity full of free ‘medicine’, and bonus miniature metallic implant.
‘But now I’m suspecting that the working class person only knows how to make herself a more exalted kind of multiple. What’s wrong with that. Growing up, adults always said: if I give it to you I will have to give it to everyone. Well give it to me I say, I am everyone.’ —Myles, Inferno.
‘Politics interests me in the same way that the virus is strongly interested by the epidemic… On all fronts, in all spaces. My body: the body of the multitude.’ —Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie.
‘It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation. We were all inside our mothers, saying, with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?’ —Vuong, On Earth.
‘My possession of a fragment (of information, desire, sex, gender) doesn’t take it away from you. My desire, my plastic cock, my prosthetic masculinity can circulate and be shared without the pleasure becoming any less powerful. It’s the opposite, in fact: sharing multiplies desire, sex, and gender.’
‘[The era in which we live is regulated not by] hedonism, the satisfaction of sensual pleasures, but a post-Christian-free-market-punk ethic whose principle is the compulsive reproduction of the excitation-frustration cycle to the point of achieving the total destruction of the ecosystem.’ —Preciado, Testo Junkie.
‘We admire and appreciate wealth’s symbols without acknowledging wealth’s abstracted sadism—WHAT, and at WHAT COST?’ —Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia.
I read the above in a plane (abstracted climate sadism) on its way to Hanoi. Hanoi looks superimposed. Because of colonialism, there’s a rotting/repurposed Paris underneath the alive parts of the city. The combination is beautiful. This is the indoctrination, to love signs of excess and to forget the penumbra whenever possible, which is all the time.
‘Investment: the most disembodied form of sadism.’ —Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia.
There are lots of French tourists in Hanoi. This seems counterintuitive but isn’t. This seems strange, to a settler, raised on stolen land, fully abstracted.
‘What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each another?’ —Vuong, On Earth.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is so obviously the novel of a poet.
I pass through a metal detector at the airport on my way home———nothing happens.
It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
with gnats & summer too early
to leave any marks.
—Ocean Vuong, poem titled ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,’ (2014).
Vuong shows us the mortar bowl, and it’s made of a skull, and it’s full of the abject, sexiness and love, before he thrusts with the pestle. The text is often too reflective, curling around to look at itself: ‘As he heaved above me I unconsciously reached back to touch myself, to make sure I was still there, still me, but my hand found Trevor instead—as if by being inside me, he was this new extension of myself. The Greeks thought sex was the attempt of two bodies, separated long ago, to return to one life.’ Is this not one sentence too long?
‘Right where satisfaction is supposed to be, frustration emerges. When I’m kissing her, I think I want to kiss her.’
‘More, more, as quickly as possible.’
‘Desire doesn’t destroy itself. It transforms itself.’ —Preciado, Testo Junkie.
(Good) sex can make the noun of body—the pronoun ‘us’ located maybe inside the bodies— into a verb. It can detach us from a sterile culture, where each body is a separate entity, enclosed and privately owned.
‘Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object, no corner is left for saying “I.”’ —Vuong quoting Simone Weil, On Earth.
‘Weil was driven by a panic of altruism, an empathy so absolute she couldn’t separate the suffering that she witnessed from her own. She wanted politics to be a fairytale, an attempt against all odds to make things right. Sometimes when the headaches hit, she looked inside. Pain marked the meeting place between her soul and body, the center of the nervous system. Always, she was terrified that she might waste her life.’ —Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia.
Chris Kraus writes of Simone Weil weeping upon hearing of a famine in China. She writes, ‘Weil’s awareness of her personal imperfections made her sensitive to all the imperfections in the world. She didn’t really see the differences between them.’ Kraus writes, ‘Empathy is not a reaching outward. It is a loop.’ If sympathy offers recognition, then empathy offers replication.
Make empathy great again.
Empathy is my superpower.
Empath (noun) 1. a person person with the unique ability to absorb the mental
and emotional states of others 2. a person who must protect their own
Empathy /ˈempəthē/ the ability to understand and share the feelings of
Peace starts with empathy.
—Etsy shirts, among others.
‘Anorexia is not evasion of a social-gender role; it’s not regression. It is an active stance: the rejection of the cynicism that this culture hands us through its food, the creation of an involuted body.’ —Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia.
In geometry, an involute is a particular type of curve that is dependent on another shape or curve. In botany, to be involuted is to be rolled inward from the edge, as a leaf. Leaves do this, spiral in to touch their own edges, when totally sick or dying of thirst.
‘And is this the only possible world that can sustain our lives?’ —Ed Cohen, ‘A Body’.
‘The child with the scar on his neck like a comma. A comma you now/put your mouth to. That violet hook holding two complete thoughts, two complete bodies without subjects. Only verbs.’
—Vuong, On Earth.
This means I won’t be
afraid if we’re already
here. Already more
than skin can hold.
—Vuong, On Earth.
Hollen Singleton is a writer and PhD candidate at RMIT. They’re also a Deputy Editor at Going Down Swinging, the most cowboy of editors.