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Words and Wounds

p. 59-74

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1If we seek to understand the movements of our body by studying neurology, physiology, and philosophy, we find they are explained either as chemical reactions and neuro-muscular reflexes, or else as launched by purposive conscious intentions. If we seek to understand our own body’s movements by ourselves, we find they are explained by music. Paul West finds himself at the first beginnings of body movements—those of the infantile body first catching on to how to walk and take hold of solid things—when he sets out to learn to swim. He sets out to: he sets before himself a purpose, but finds the inner faculty that contrives intentions is running on empty.

It just came to me […] It was like watching myself being born, and hearing it, feeling it. I squirmed all slithery. The water bore me […]. Its smell was radiant. Its wet was etched with others’ memories. Its murmur was my liquid silhouette […] gave the water both my ears […] Count Basie was playing single notes down deep: plink, pause, plink, pause, plink-plong.” (Paul West, Out of My Depths, 73)

2With rhythmic inner movements our body finds itself here; with motifs and variations it takes over a zone as its home; with a beat and an inner refrain it departs from the home base. Appropriate and effective movements arise where the body’s “music of the muscles” picks up the refrains outside, such as the rhythms of the waves in the pool, the melody of the sunlight zigzagging across the water.

3Neurologist Oliver Sacks found that in patients afflicted with Parkinson’s disease the “silent music of the muscles” could be quickened by hearing music. The movements that they could not make by forming projects and intentions would come—and be really their own movements, movements in which they found their own identity, life, and will.

4The true ideal would be the restoration of a “natural” rhythm and movement, the “kinetic melody” (in Luria’s term) natural and normal to each particular patient: something which would not be a mere scheme or diagram or algorithm of behaviour, but a restoration of genuine spaciousness and freedom. We have seen, again and again, that patients’ own kinetic melodies can be given back to them, albeit briefly, by the use of an appropriate flow of music […] Other “natural” motions of Nature and Art are equally potent if experienced visually or tactually. Thus, I have known patients almost totally immobilised by Parkinsonism, dystonias, contortions, etc., capable of riding a horse with ease—with ease and grace and intuitive control, forming with the horse a mutually influencing and natural unity; indeed, the mere sight of riding, running, walking, swimming, of any natural movement whatever—as a purely visual experience on a television screen—can call forth by sympathy, or suggestion, an equal naturalness of movement in Parkinsonian patients. The art of “handling” Parkinsonian patients, learned by sensitive nurses and friends—assisting them by the merest intimation or touch, or by a wordless, touchless moving-together, in an intuitive kinetic sympathy of attunement—this is a genuine art, which can be exercised by a man or a horse or a dog, but which can never be simulated by any mechanical feedback; for it is only an ever-changing, melodic, and living play of forces which can recall living beings into their own living being. Such a subtle, ever-changing play of forces may also be achieved through the use of certain “natural” devices, which intermediate, so to speak, between afflicted patients and the forces of Nature. Thus while severely affected Parkinsonians are particularly dangerous at the controls="true" of motorcars and motorboats (which tend to amplify all their pathological tendencies), they may be able to handle a sailing boat with ease and skill, with an intuitive accuracy and ‘feel.’ Here, in effect, man-boat-wind-wave come together in a natural, dynamic union or unison; the man feels at one, at home, with the forces of Nature; his own natural melody is evoked by, attuned to, the harmony of Nature; he ceases to be a patient—passive and pulsive—and is transformed to an agent—active and free (Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, 348-49). Paul West knows this effect of music not only on the motor but also on the glandular body.

I have bad days several times a year, when I […] duck out of sight, listening to the favorite music […] that Proust enjoyed […] The eerie chemical peace of the beta-blocker fuses with the cadenced telepathy of Franck, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel. There is a slow, purposeless wafting away. I go boneless […] I lower both blood pressure and glucose level. It is like being freed from all the gravities while being slid into trances that are cool and complete. (Paul West, A Stroke of Genius, 128-9)


5There is the inner musicality that moves our bodies, and our bodies—like those of other mammals, of birds, indeed those of insects, also vocalize. Humans use their mouths not only to take in essential nourishment, but to expel substances and sounds. Humans, Georges Bataille noted, “spit, cough, yawn, belch, blow their noses, sneeze, and cry much more than the other animals, but above all they have acquired the strange faculty of sobbing and bursting into laughter.” (Bataille, 1985 transl., 89) By what Freudians name an anaclitic deviation of the organ function, humans use their mouths to produce pleasure. Freud noted that already the infant at the maternal breast, whose strong jowls and sucking instinct obey biological needs, slavers and coos in the milky foam, spreading a warm surface of pleasure. We use our vocal apparatus for pleasure anywhere, anytime—we hum, whistle, yodel, sing. It is striking how few mammals sing: whales, some species of prairie dogs. Some anthropologists argue that humans must have picked it up from insects and birds, what Freudians could call a transspecies anaclitic deviation.

6The vocalizations we make are releases of streams of surplus energy, discharges which relieve or exasperate our own organisms. They have effects on others, but they also have effects on ourselves.

7The process whereby a wish, an insight, a feeling, even a negative thought or feeling, vocalized into song becomes a pleasure has, despite all its importance, thus far been beyond the reach of our neurology and psychology. The process by which a wound, a pain gives rise to vocalization is only apparently simple.

8To be sure a wounded animal hisses, squeals, screams, roars. The great energy of its vocalizations is threatening to an attacker. The outcries of a wounded young bird or mammal calls for help from his or her parents, those of an adult call for help from the flock or herd. But birds and mammals and human mammals also mutter and whimper, moan and whine as the pain sets in and endures, though often their vulnerable condition imposes silence.

9Voltaire said that language has been given to men so that they can dissimulate their thoughts, but in fact we have a natural impulse to say what we see and feel; we have to learn to lie. Similarly, wounds issue in vocalizations; to keep silent while in pain comes second. We have to learn to not cry or moan when we hurt.

10Pain is immanence; it is conscious, nothing but consciousness, but a consciousness backed up to itself, mired in itself. To suffer pain is for consciousness to be unable to flee or retreat from itself, unable to project itself outside upon some outlying object or event. Suffering gives rise to whimperings, moanings, sobbings, and murmurings—typically rhythmic—with which the body mired in pain strives to reestablish internal kinetic melodies and with them contact with the arpeggios and drumrolls of things passing outside.

11The vocalizations of others can come to join this whimpering and moaning. For the one in pain, their sobbing and keening amplifies his pain but amplifies also the vocalizations with which his body seeks to reestablish its kinetic melodies; their soothing murmurs and songs send their ripples into the turbid space of pain.


12Unlike cicadas, nightingales, barn owls, and coyotes, species each of which has its own voice, there is no vocalization, Giorgio Agamben wrote that is typical of the human species. That is, he said, because it is language that is natural to the human species, but humans of the same racial or ethnic makeup speak different languages, structured by phonetic, grammatical, and semantic conventions. And, unlike the dances of bees, the screams of eagles, and the whinnying of horses, which signal perceived real situations, the words of language would symbolize concepts and only through concepts designate real things and events. Words then would be used to make sense of the environment.

13But the things we see, the rustle, crackling, and tones we hearken to, the roughness and the sleekness we touch are not just pieces of a puzzle we have to understand. In fact there are no intelligible concepts that grasp the languorous liquidity of the water in the bath, the tang of lemonade, the velvety green of springtime, the foolishness of a kitten rolling a ball in the sidewalk and tumbling over itself. These things make us laugh, and the laughter comes as an disruption of the means-end and cause-effect rigor of the world of work and reason. This outburst of pleasure is a strong active engagement with things not graspable in concepts and formulas, things without sense nor justification. And the strong active engagement with things decaying and dying, with roses wilting and hummingbirds falling from the poisoned sky, is not the reactive, self-referential feeling of displeasure, but active grief and tears. Laughter issues in blessings, tears in curses. The primary, active vocalization in laughter and tears issues in the fundamental forms of speech.

And orgasm—How childlike sex is. Huffing and puffing so that your house won’t fall down. Dangling it, wobbling it, thrusting it, wiping it off, oiling and powdering it while making myself available from behind. After a while, once the modesty has worn off, shredded and spat out, you end up doing it all by reflex, living in the spasm or even the fake spasm, perhaps even soldiering through by thinking about George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests, and his infirmities, while barking, grimacing, quivering, assuming the face of outright lust—what else is orgasm but a generalized laughter of the body? (Paul West, The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests, 110)

14Paul West in recounting his illness in A Stroke of Genius eliminates all tears. But which of us, reading of the debilitating stroke, the implantation of the pacemaker, and the onslaught of diabetes, his need for extended sleep, the side effects of the drugs, has not wept, thinking of this man we have known through his books, this man we have the privilege of knowing outside of his books?

15Laughter and tears make us transparent to one another. In a foreign airport the language of passengers we do not understand makes them strangers to us. Then a designer-dressed matron comes stalking about giving orders, then whap! suddenly slips on the polished floor and her voice stops in the thump of her ass. Our laughter rebounds in the laughter of the others about us and theirs in us, and we understand their laughter and understand them and understand they are people of our kind. When a child emaciated with AIDS is wandering about lost, we see his distress through our own tears.

16We gather together to tell our hilarity or our sorrow, we speak of the things we bless and those we curse. And in doing so we communicate with one another, we come together.

17There is no laughter without tears, no blessings without curses. Words of blessing open up our hearts and say yes to what is more vast and grander than ourselves, what exceeds our power to grasp and penetrate and understand. Curses confront what threatens our life and the lives of the treefrogs and condors, the coral fish and the Himalayan forests, confronts it in all its evil and all its force and pits the force of our words against it.


18Wounds, pain, suffering generate words. It is true that our vocabularies offer us but a limited list of words to describe our pain, as they offer us so few words to describe our pleasures. But wounds, pain, suffering generate words to map out our reactions to them and the actions we have to undertake to foresee, avoid, repair, and heal them. They generate words also to interpret and give meaning to our wounds and suffering and mortality.

19But do not words themselves wound us? Abrasive words, stinging words, biting words, cutting words. Words constrict us, lacerate us, humiliate us, sicken us, mortify us. Words energize, prod, badger, poke at, harass, agitate, and stupefy our bodies.

20Words order, organize the landscape about us, and orient, direct, order our thoughts, ours reveries, our plans, our decisions.

21Are not order-words verdicts, death sentences? When a father orders his son “You will do this,” “You will not do that,” he is cutting off a trajectory of life. The son who obeys will cut others down in turn (when the new employee zealously attends to the regulations and orders, the other employees feel he is restricting their space for maneuver). Death is not only a limit, an end, in time; it is also a limit in space. One ceases to move across space. And every order-word limits the space in which we live. The father orders his son: “Don’t touch that.” “You keep out of there.” The cue that orders the talk of the group, pack, gang, milieu, “society,” or rational community, scientific discipline or technological team and orders one’s entry into a practicable space threatens exclusion and effacement from it. The one who is ordered to speak in his own name is being isolated, cut apart, cut down.

22And are not words themselves wounds? Words abstract, condense, delimit. They cut out, divide, oppose. What we see with words are the skeletons of things in chains.

23For a sound to count as a word, abstraction is made of its material qualities—the tone and pitch of voice, the pacing, resonance, and timbre with which it is uttered, as abstraction is made from vertical or Palmerslanted when it is written and from the Courier 10 or 12 typeface when it is recorded on a computer screen. It is as a repeatable form that a sound or visual pattern can function as a sign. It can then be taken to signify a meaning which is taken to be the same whenever, wherever it is invoked by that signifier. There is really no first occurrence of a word in a language: from the first it was formed as repeatable. And a word does not really die out; if its use becomes obsolete, it can always be understood by scholars and can be revived by writers who put it back into use. Words stick.

24Words thus solidify, encrust the things upon which they are attached. Once something is named a “porcupine fish,” a “mongrel dog,” a “rogue lion,” a “shack,” a “professor,” or a “wife,” it, he, or she is barnacled, plasticized by that name. Words are immortal, Hegel said, but they kill the things they take hold of. They are pyramids, he said, markers which stand solid and still over things, but what they enclose are corpses. Even as the voice fixes its word “weed” on a plant, the plant is pushing its roots afar, preparing to open its buds, to give birth to offspring. The word orders the eyes so that they do not see all that. The word “slum” is a funnel put over the eyes so that they do not see the old woman exhausted by labor preparing to die surrounded by her disconsolate husband, the child being born as full of unpredictable visions and talents as any child in the most opulent of gated communities, the birthdays being celebrated, the living room walls covered with photographs as precious as the most exalted of memories.

25And while the words someone utters hardly disturb the air and vanish from it without leaving a trace, they do not depart from the one who puts them out. They crystallize inside the fibers of the brain, suffocate the youthful surges of wonder and awe which first discovered the epiphany of the sparkling and ephemeral unlabeled things in the world. Thoughts thought too much no longer think anything, Maurice Merleau-Ponty said (Merleau-Ponty, 1968 transl., 119). Philosopher’s words, no doubt because they are the most abstract, extending over the broadest sweep of things, are the least troubled by emergences, births, mutations, etiolations, and small deaths among those things. At the end of his life a philosopher’s soul has nothing but principles, convictions, deep inner cuts that have long solidified, his mental life constricted and enfeebled by so many selfinflicted scars.


26Sober, objective words are words used, we have long said, to depict or represent the way things are. But of course words are not pictures of things. It is better to see them at work mapping out our way into the environment. Just as the thickness and color of the lines on a street map do not correspond to the width and color of streets but mark two-way and oneway streets and throughways, just as the lines on a topographical map do not reproduce lines on the landscape but link together points of the same altitude, so a discourse does not depict a corner of the world but makes specific discriminations, groupings, and connections. What words do is manage a space: they establish a focal point, a home base, they stake out an environment, and they blaze trails into the open or into regions managed by the words of others.

27The scientific discourse maps out physico-chemical and electro-magnetic events in a space without purpose and finality. A sickness may be due to some chemical or biochemical deficiency, but in fact each event in physical nature follows upon a whole constellation of events, such that a cause, the cause, does not exist. And healing is not the effect of any one medication.

28But there is also an interpretative discourse, a discourse that aims to formulate meanings. The words that claim to formulate the meaning of an entity or event specify that meaning with other words. But those words in turn are open to be interpreted, that is, specified to be equivalent to a set of still other words.

29There is among us an interpretative discourse on suffering. To find a place, a meaningful place, for suffering in the order of the world, it seeks a cause for suffering. The interpretation does not yield a way to eliminate that cause but instead evaluates it. This discourse that locates a cause to blame or praise is moral; it identifies incompetent doctors, uncomprehending, imprisoning, or castrating family members, irresponsible dieticians and medications, ignorant culinary traditions. Or else it identifies the sick organism itself as the cause of its suffering: counting on natural vigor, on the ability to recover from excesses, it has failed to care for itself properly. The suffering can be interpreted as an admonition or a due punishment. The interpretation only adds to the virulence of physical pain the spasms of righteous indignation or the torments of remorse.

30How readily these words blaze into fulminations and accusations, intoxicated with their power. With them the sick body finds an authority it did not have when its youthful vitality made it curious and skeptical about all judgements. The requirements of convalescence, old age, and an ever-narrowing zone which one can manage hurl their needs as demands on the young and those with exuberant and far-ranging health. Or else the sick incriminate their own organism inasmuch as it was moved by unbridled instincts and impulses—thus also an enemy to combat, to vanquish and control. And this cunning, craftiness, ingenuity, intelligence—and interpretation—has proved itself, from the age of Socrates and Euripides, powerful enough to assemble the bilious and morbid forces of the sick against the natural animal in us.

31In the century and more since Nietzsche published On the Genealogy of Morals, the moral discourse built on giving a meaning to suffering and death has undergone repeated assaults, not the last by Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. The medical discourse, not only of physical but also of mental suffering, has acquired exclusive validity.


32But are not then the virulent and rancorous words with which the sick interpret their suffering words that have power, and are empowering?

33It may seem a strong and healthy impulse to simply repudiate all moral interpretation of our suffering. The medical discourse has continue to reinforce its sole validity—to the point that the patient, seeking to face the stern truth, learns this discourse and reproduces it when seeking to map out his illness for himself and communicate it to medical workers as to friends. But in this discourse he ceases to be a suffering individual to become but a patient, passive and receptive, a case in a universe where his own desires, ambitions, goals, and decisions have no mention and no significance. And this assumption of the medical discourse imposes upon him a new suffering. It does not enable him, it precludes him from living out his own ordeal and his life as his own.

34Whence the necessity of another discourse. A person must identify and acknowledge his debilitated or surgically mutilated body. He will do so in a language that is not really an interpretation, a project to make sense of his fate. It is first of all a mapping: he must reassess his capabilities and his possibilities for work, for sex, for companionship, for thought. This discourse will be narrative; it will link present with past and future, it will be a story he tells to himself. He must bring to light what the medical discourse passes over: his shock, his fears, his cowardice, his hopes and despairs. “All I know is that not to have told the anecdote or story of it all, to oneself or to others, would make me feel less powerful than having told.” (A Stroke of Genius, 17) The medical discourse he assumes for his own case is a discourse destined for communication; it is the vocabulary and grammar he must learn to understand his doctors and with which he can communicate his own observations to them. This other story must be his own story, elaborated for himself, told to himself. It is a language intrinsically linked to his wounds.

An illness faced down, transcended, or even talked to death, becomes a prized possession, first draft of a novel you cannot bear to destroy but keep by you to hearten and remind […] If we can steel ourselves to take the planetary or racial view of our own medical destinies, we may end up, as I think Sir Thomas Browne and Proust ended up, regarding disease as the supreme art form, carved into us with a free and sometimes languid hand […] To be born is to be transmutable, for better or for worse, while awaiting the worse. (Ibid., 2)

35What is striking is how Paul West elaborates both languages, both the medical discourse and his own story. He describes his body as a electrochemical contraption whose composition is as randomly material as that of the effusions out of which the stars form, and describes his own death as a fall of the material mass down the chute to the refrigerators of the morgue in the hospital basement. He masters every detail of the material and functioning of the pacemaker to be inserted into the left ventricle of his heart. He uses the medical discourse itself to contrive another discourse, of his own devising, which enables him to accept the pacemaker and reprogram his days and movements about microwave ovens, burglar alarms, arc welding units, power tools, induction furnaces, library check-out mechanisms.

He would slide the probe through a vein, and then the flanges would bend back along the lead, giving way easily as the probe passed from the vein into the right atrium, where much of my trouble was to begin with […] Once inside the ventricle, they were supposed to spring outward again to snag the soft pulp inside […] What set my teeth on edge was that slithering lead, when it went past the defenseless portals at my core, silver interloper where the sun had never shone and where there was never rest […] Round and round my mind went, repeating the abomination to exorcize it. Surely the lead would slip and then, like some zany butterfly, waft around, touching off twitches and convulsions wherever it landed, scraping and abrading, make me gasp. My heart would be coddling a tiny propeller forever […] Then I realized that, instead of fending off all these images and tangents, I must allow them fully play as my head’s means of getting used to the idea; my imagination was translating for me, the barbaric into the tender, and I broke through to the palatable comparison that had been at the back of my mind all along. Instead of that chimney-brush lead, I was gong to have the pink and velvet-gentle pistil of a hibiscus slid into my vein, with five red-spotted stamens in the vanguard, behind them the shank of the pistil and the tiny wire whisk of pliant golden commas that were the pollen […] It worked, though, almost like self-hypnosis, and I felt very much outside myself, allowing them to do all this to someone else, into whose most private thoughts and sensations I could peer. (Ibid., 71-3)


36When we reject all interpretation, all effort to give meaning to our suffering, there are still words that come forth:

What all this “meant,” I had no idea, and I still don’t see why life, so long as we have it, should be “meaningful.” We are here to bring our apparatus to bear, to pile up a mostly vanishing quota, say “thanks for the nice time,” and go, which is why it seems to me worthwhile doing nothing more inventive than feeling my blood run, my eyes blink, my muscles twitch, all of these minima vaster than the nothing we go toward. We underestimate the delicious nullity of how things feel, in the body, when they’re going right”. (Out of My Depths, 83)

37One still feels a need to be grateful for having lived, a need to say “thanks for the nice time.” My life, which I did not produce, which happened through my parents though they did not fabricate it, is something the universe did not need, exists gratuitously and by grace. It was just given. Can one be grateful without saying it? Gratitude means recognizing the gift as a gift. When someone gives us a gift we receive it with embracing hands, retain it, and provide space for it on the festive table or on the mantlepiece over the hearth fire. The words “thanks for the nice time,” because words do embrace content, because they do hold together and persist, do not simply express gratitude, exteriorize a gratitude whose reality is inward and mental; they enact gratitude, they realize gratitude.

One can even say thanks for one’s ailments: He wants the body to be an affable host to its deadly diseases. He wants them to have a welcome, a space to move around in and show their stuff […] His ailments he regards as gifts given, trophies singled out to gift him with, and he takes a certain pride in owning them, in their ownership of him. (The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, 97)

38“Thanks for the nice time” in the world—not because the world is such a nice place: certainly any novel by Paul West takes place in a world where the nicest people get their throats cut. But the world has so many beauties which arrive gratuitously and as blessings. Though one does have to contrive to see them:

Do we embrace thoughtlessly, or do we somehow come to terms with the measured putrefaction we contain, and so develop a more open-minded sense of beauty? Severable beauty is a precarious thing, but that doesn’t mean I’m duty-bound to kiss my sweetheart’s feet because, properly reviewed, they’re just as lovely as her lips. They’re blessed, though. They help. They have structure. They call up certain Cézannes. Then why do I carry a snapshot of her face and not of them? Am I—are we?—altogether too selective? If we relish life as such, shouldn’t we admire it in the round? We cannot make a tree. We cannot make a liver either. And, if we could, would we take the same esthetic pride in the liver as in the tree? (Out of My Depths, 16)

39But could we come to admire the world in the round by just silent contemplation?

How can we make things beautiful, attractive, and desirable for us when they are not? [Nietzsche asked.] Here we could learn something […] from artists who are really continually trying to bring off such inventions and feats. Moving away from things until there is a good deal that one no longer sees and there is much that our eye has to add if we are still to see them at all; or seeing things around a corner and as cut out and framed; or to place them so that they partially conceal each other and grant us only glimpses of architectural perspectives; or looking at them through tinted glass or in the light of the sunset; or giving them a surface and skin that is not fully transparent—all this we should learn from artists. (The Gay Science, 299)

40Photographers show us beauty in the measured putrefaction we contain and that the world about us contains; they photograph it from a distance where the eye has to add much; or they frame it with other things or show it partially concealed or aflame with rare lighting, or they light up surface grain and glows. But words, just because they fragment things and grasp them with their outlines or skeletons only, or focus our attention on some unnoticed detail or some remote relationship to other things, can cast over things strange auras and spells. Perhaps indeed one can find one’s sweetheart’s feet beautiful just by gazing upon them in the right setting and light. But is it not those words: “They’re blessed, though. They help. They have structure. They call up certain Cézannes.” that give our contemplation that boost that makes us admire them in the round of things?

41How then can words, which order the world by solidifying a grid over it, which order us, constrict us, lacerate us, humiliate us, sicken us, mortify us, words that are verdicts, death-sentences, also cast the shimmering aura of beauty over the world? But the primary function of our vocalization is to expel the excess forces of our laughter and our tears; the primary function of our speech is bless and to curse.

42Everything that is resounds. A voice conveys the warmth or coldness and vivacity or reserve of someone speaking. The tolling parades the substance of the cathedral bell, the rustling materializes the crisp fabric of the dry leaves in the autumn winds, the crackling delineates the hard grains of the hail. But sounds also dematerialize the substance of the things they resounded and extend their own patterns, their pulse, rumble, melody, or din over the space vacated. They drift off things and link up with one another, and we hear a jazz or raga of sounds ricocheting in the free space.

43With words we move lightly over things, not reaching our hands to manipulate or appropriate them. And words, with their streaming and their syncopation, their soft or hard, warm or cold tonalities, their beat and their micromelodies, their rumble and their hisses, their harmonies and their dissonances pick up and amplify the sonorities loud and latent in the things. In doing so they embrace and consecrate things and events. “Have not names and sounds been given to things that man might find things refreshing?” said Zarathustra. “Speaking is a beautiful folly: with that man dances over all things. How lovely is all talking, and all the deception of sounds! With sounds our love dances on many-hued rainbows.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). And words, like the moaning with which the inner melodies of the body seek to come together again, can sooth and heal us. They can by virtue of their musicality, what Paul West called the “concordant fusion of clashing elements,” (My Mother’s Music, 19). They can resonate through the body and help the body reestablish its inner rhythms and melodies, its musicality.

Plagued by abscesses, I began to speak to the most recent of them; I talked to my rear end, never aloud, but frankly, extolling it and trying to sooth it, build it up, giving it more than the time of day, certainly more of a look-in than a conduit usually gets. Six months later, I still had no abscesses, and I persist with my fundamental oratory, sometimes administering a nursely path where all the blood and pus had poured […] Talking to one’s body may indeed be part of the cura pastoralis we have forgotten; feeding the bio back is something only you can do for yourself. (A Stroke of Genius, 141)

44The words that are bound to wounds can also break free of them; words can be an escape from illness, themselves a life, a life of words. Paul West in hospital discovers that the medical profession had fashioned a justifiable and concise taxonomy, which he learned not only for its utility for himself, nor for the old pleasures of scholarship, but for its own pleasure. “I do get a sense of unique and ravishing complexity such as I get from a work of art, whether as maker or appreciator.” (Ibid., 105) But he also escapes into his fiction. “I keep managing to come to the end of another chapter, say, and I marvel at the plenary gratitude the human spirit can feel after the Furies have had it by the short hairs and it has managed to slink away, back into the operating theater of words.” (Ibid., 92). But so also with us: with one’s visitors in the hospital, how compulsively one talks of other things, leaving one’s illness thereby. With words one connects with the words of others, and with their lives. There is this ecstatic power in words.

45At the end of the book on his illness we find someone whose new husband returned blind from the war, she a pianist whose hands went numb in her forties, someone has endured pneumonia, lifelong migraines, gallstones, glaucoma, angina, arthritis, and is now at the age of ninety-four more incapacitated than Paul, and who has somehow known how to live and now knows how to live this year and this visit, and who does not tell her story to Paul nor probably to herself, and whose life-giving presence has such vitalizing power for Paul and for me and for us.



Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess (transl. Alan Stoekl, Carl R. Levitt and Donald M. Leslie, JR). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible (transl. Alphonso Lingis). Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Nieztsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science (trans. Walter Kaufmann). New York: Vintage, 1974.

Nieztsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. Walter Kaufmann) in The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking, 1968.

Sacks, Oliver. Awakenings. London: Picador, 1991.

West, Paul. A Stroke of Genius. Illness as Self-Discovery. New York: Viking, 1995.

West, Paul. My Mother’s Music. New York: Viking, 1996.

West, Paul. The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

West, Paul. Out of My Depths. A Swimmer in the Universe. New York: Anchor, 1983.

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