Stealing Books, a collection of personal essays, won the Water Press & Media First Book Award in Spring, 2004 and will be published by Water Press in spring 2005. Essays from the collection have appeared in The Cimarron Review, Fourth Genre, Blue Mesa Review, Puerto del Sol, Ginger Hill, Spectacle, Agora, and other top-notch venues. Click for order information. — JDK
he first hallucination I had was while shopping an Eagle supermarket in Iowa City. In the fresh fruit and vegetable aisle, my field of vision began to get cloudy and saffron-colored, and by the time I made it to frozen foods, I could barely see. Going to the cashier took almost more courage than I had, because I was afraid she would notice something wrong with me, that I wouldn’t be able to write the check and would have to ask for help, embarrassed by my crippled tongue—I could not have described or classified my ailment. I put on what I hoped was a neutral face and strolled up, and when my turn came, by God, I wrote the check, clumsily but accurately enough, and the cashier smiled indulgently. I had to walk home across several busy streets, but I made it, and spent the rest of the day writhing on my bed in what, it turns out, was my first migraine.
The onset of a migraine is accompanied by a peculiar feeling that something is going to happen, as if I can feel the nervous disruption rising through the brain like a swimmer to the surface, as anxious for air as the migraine is to make itself known. And if I watch it come, the malaise becomes more general and unfathomable, as if I can feel my body in the process of deformation, my head swelling to one side and shrinking on the other, my eyes bulging, almost to the size of my palm. It is then I run for ice and medication, if I can, but if I can’t, submit myself to this meditation on pain.
Classical migraines, the type I suffer from, not only have excruciating headache neuralgia, usually above an eye or at the temple, not only the intense nausea of the common migraine, but also a blind spot in the field of vision. The hallucination or scotoma (meaning shadow) starts as a small glittering flake and builds, after a few minutes, into a huge purple amoebae that shimmers and pulsates, a horrible planet Jupiter hovering over the visible world. Wherever I turn my head, it is there. It completely obscures, or more accurately erases, whatever should be there, and so leaves me with an attendant sensation of confusion—where has the world gone? What has taken it away? The world has disappeared with my ability to perceive it, or so the child in me, prominent under stress, believes.
The migraine hallucination often begins as an irregular zigzag streak through the central part of my line of vision. This creates a kind of Cubist effect in the faces I look into: the migraine etches through them, distorting an eye lower or higher than it should be, or removing it altogether. And as I turn my head from side to side, I can look
around the hallucination, but not through it; I can fill in the blanks, but when I stare face-on it seems that the person has exploded. The migraine attacks the object in view almost the way a Cubist does, cutting it up into planes and pieces, as if the continents of the mind were drifting apart and the halves of vision, rational and irrational, breaking apart in opposite directions, leaving a gap through which a light pokes so that depth and dimension become illusory. A headache can disrupt the pillars of my assumptions: that the world is solid and more or less stationary in space. During a migraine, I discover perception is a two-dimensional screen that can be ripped apart, revealing oblivion, not solidity, beneath me.
What is this oblivion? I have wondered if it might be constricted blood vessels in the eye, or a problem of disoriented synapses. Oliver Sacks, in his wonderful book Migraine, thinks it might be electrical disturbances in the optic nerve. Considered aesthetically, the scotoma is artwork, a kind of deep symbol, and I wonder if it might not be an emblem of the imagination itself, since its job is to appropriate the innocent appearances of the world and distort them. Coleridge said:
Migraine is destructive in that it causes intense pain, as if someone were pressing a diamond through my eye to find a particular nerve cord. It is a hard, constant pain so relentless and out of control that it must come from outside myself, though I know it doesn’t. The pain is caused by blood vessels contracting and then expanding wildly so that blood seeps out into surrounding tissue, but this physical damage seems incommensurate to the pain, as if the migraine were lavishing itself on me.
But there is something constructive about migraine. Just as the imagination dissolves the world to create it anew, so the migraine dissolves perception in a vial of pain to create it anew in hallucination, like a wild slash of paint. William Carlos Williams said, “The imagination is a --,” meaning that the imagination becomes whatever the senses feed it. Like the migraine, the imagination removes the world in favor of itself, replacing the “real world” the optic nerve picks up with its own artwork.
And this artwork, scrawl as it is, seems hostile and bitter, like graffiti. I can’t help feeling it has a message, a hidden language that will probably never find its translator; it has a kind of symbolist-solipsist perfection in its abstract, unknowable, God-like detachment.
My second migraine was in a Long John Silver’s fast food restaurant—part of the fun the affliction has with you is the places it picks to come at you, places where you find yourself either stranded for a time or compelled not to scream out loud. This time the hallucination came in a clearish purple and white, rather than saffron, as I worked through my plate of fried fish and, laughing nervously out of macho dismissal of pain, described the symptoms to my (then) wife who correctly diagnosed me and insisted we begin the long walk home before the attack turned worse. Of course, it was winter with the sun glaring on the ice, so as she predicted it got worse and worse. I craved darkness and silence, and ever since then I can barely stand the sun on a cloudy day, let alone a bright one.
This made me realize that my eyes, the instruments of vision, are also the instruments of torture. Any bright light, especially hot summer glare, can cause a blind spot to appear, the way harsh images of light stay on the eye even after you’ve turned away. Brilliant days, the most beautiful days, are also the most dangerous. I avoid looking at crisp, glossy surfaces and chrome, glass and mirrors, and even strong headlights in traffic at night. Migraine elaborates the glare, using it as a springboard to overpower the surfaces of what I perceive. It even affects the speech. Often during an attack, I can’t produce the word I am looking for, so randomly related words are substituted by the confused brain working to get around the void and paralysis.
The migraine aura also produces an extreme sense of detachment from all my surroundings, and a feeling of hibernation or distance, as if I were packed inside a wall of Styrofoam. The world continues to go on as if nothing has happened, little realizing that for me everything has happened: I am having a migraine, I must lie down, I am blind. And this defines me, creates a horrible fascination for the hallucination that verges on the decadent and narcissistic. As the scotoma grows outward or larger like an approaching cloud of unknowing, so does the psychic malaise grow as it both strives to see around the cloud, see into it, and repress it, all at the same time. In appearance, it is usually a silvery-purplish scintillation of crystalline light that seems to shimmer with the same consistency as a mirage on a highway. It contains no exact form, though its edges seem geometrically sharp, almost like the edges of a circular saw. In this formlessness it seems like some primal material awaiting a demiurge, unless, as I suspect, I simply cannot see the forms that are there—vague crystalline castles rising from liquid streets, much like those sold in pill form to children through comic books; once dropped in water, the crystals form themselves into arabesques of red and blue, like bizarre towers or perverse trees, forbidding, dangerous, death-like. But it resembles nothing so much as nothingness, a piece of film that has been scratched so that, when projected, the light itself shows through on the screen.
Although the scotoma seems large while undergoing the hallucination, part of the horror is that I know it is really small, a part of me, projected onto the thin screen between the world and me. I watch it the way I watch a movie in a cinema, as a passive observer, making tenuous abstractions on the “meaning” of the images. Projected film, like sensuous perception, floats on an ocean of light always ready to swallow it back up and return it to its primal state, oblivion. Once in the Threepenny Theater in Chicago, I watched a film get stuck in the projector and the intense heat of the lamp melt the frame from the inside out. That is what a migraine looks like, only slower, the center of an empty house of mirrors. From glass to glass, the empty light forms a pattern of weaving and interweaving with nothing to interrupt it until it catches something—a face—and dissolves it into endless reflection.
Migraines are most terrifying when I get them while teaching, because I feel a strong urge to stop the class, though I do not want to admit a weakness as strange as blind spots, so I continue with the scotoma obscuring more and more of the page I am reading aloud, until I am sure I am making mistakes and fear that the students know something is wrong, but I dare not stop for fear the last bit of order in my class will collapse in embarrassment. One time I was teaching a High School for the Arts poetry workshop while the aura crept over me, with the added problem of the youthful situation, leaving me blind and close to speech impaired. My fear of admitting weakness proved the stronger—I did not stop, since I was close to the end of the period, even though I later realized I must have been staring strangely into the face of one student, without realizing it as I could not see her. I am afraid to wonder what she must have thought, especially because the class before she had surprised me with her entire senior project—all nude photos of herself—and she was quite something to behold. And there I was, nearly drooling, staring into her face.
As the hallucination reaches its height, the disruption of the motor functions begins to taper off; cold vapors of numbness crawl over the hands and arms, the headache begins to subside, and the hallucination itself begins to subside, break up and sink back into the cracks of vision. It is as if the tide were going out. Nevertheless, the right side of my face retains a tingling sensation, as if a cold hand were still on it, disinclined to let go. And for hours the malaise, or the sense of having been shocked by something, lingers, as if the body needed a kind of decompression after rising through cold, deep water. Migraine is a kind of visitor from another world, which, for a while, tears a bit of my world out and replaces it with its own creation, a shimmering creature that erases everything in its path, a kind of mad, blind imagination roving over me, a rebuke and a censure. The pain subsides and washes out of the senses, though the body still feels marked. But my vision is restored.
Becoming a patient of migraines was part of my coming of age: it happened when I was first learning seriously about writing poetry, when my first marriage was dissolving due to lack of interest, when
second was appearing out of the wings, when my middle twenties and the
middle Eighties were about to turn late. Perhaps this is why I associate
migraines with the imagination: trial by fire, ordeal of initiation,
they imitate the purging work of writing, revision, where for me the
essence of imagination lies. A migraine closes off the world and reworks
you until it gets you where it wants you. And the sense of relief when
one passes over like a thunderstorm is very like the feeling when I
more or less have finished a draft of a poem: something has gone
out of me, something almost tactile. This year (1988) I turn thirty,
and though I don’t by any means feel middle-aged, I do feel something
going out of me, replaced by mortal time accumulating like film on the
take-up reel of a projector. Could migraines be an emblem of the interior
clock, a sort of visual alarm going off to signal it is time to wake
up after all this sleepwalking? I have never felt more awake than I
feel after a migraine, but it is a bittersweet taste to regain the control
of your bodily senses with the knowledge of how limited, how fragile
One of the girls — tall, geeky glasses, impressively alert breasts — shuffled through the straps with her mother who, I’m sure, had the credit cards and the final say, though the girl seemed determined on her mission. I peeked on my wife’s tempting progress, took my seat on the bench, and, when the girl floated into a fitting room, the mother sat next to me. She leaned over and, in a more than slightly salacious voice, asked me if I were having a good time. My mouth dropped open, producing a nervous laugh, and I said I guessed I was. “My husband always has a good time when he comes here with me.” My embarrassment undoubtedly embarrassed her, so she smiled and turned away to contemplate whatever mothers contemplate while their nubile daughters are slipping out of their clothes. Was I busted? Had I done something wrong? The mother evidently didn’t think so, nor did my wife, who later asked me what I thought of her question (you can hear everything through those louvered doors).
Let’s face it, women’s underwear is about a lot of things in our culture, but it’s mostly about sex, and the spaces where it’s sold seem laden, even overdetermined with sex. It’s not that one would pick someone up at Victoria’s Secret, but it’s as if you’re in on somebody’s secret, the clothing they choose to drape over their pleasure. No wonder the woman spoke as if she knew me — in a way, she did. She knew I enjoyed looking at women. A lot. At first I felt a little guilty about this — I grew up in the sixties and seventies and absorbed a lot of feminist principles, and then became a Christian during my boring adolescence. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking. But every woman I have ever been intimate with has encouraged me to look at her and other women in a sexual and appraising way. After all, women appraise themselves and each other with more scientific and rigorous standards than men would ever think to bring to bear — we are notoriously easy to please. And since we are all intimate in the lingerie store, the mother, who was really pretty attractive herself, felt free to take the role of enabler. I wish I had spoken to her, gotten her story. Her daughter looked artistic — were they close? Or was that her daughter? Was she aroused on some level by my presence there, the male voyeur?
I’m quite sure women never have this kind of experience while shopping in Men’s Underwear. Perhaps this is because of women’s traditional role of homemaker and valet — if you are buying underwear for your boyfriend or husband, the task seems more utilitarian than erotic. You probably don’t want to turn him on with your gift, since he’s easy to turn on anyway. You just want him to throw out those ancient Fruit of the Looms he seems married to, or perhaps, if you are the one who does the laundry in your house, you just didn’t get to the washer because you were working on your dissertation or brief. Men’s underwear is almost never designed to accentuate what it covers, and when it is, it usually looks like a joke. Crotchless briefs sound aesthetically challenged in a way that crotchless panties do not. Women do like to look at men, but it’s not about fancy underwear — the Armani suit makes much more of a seductive difference than see-through boxers, but then power is an aphrodisiac for women more often than for men.
There are two major types of men’s underwear, boxers and briefs, and the type a man prefers says a lot about his personality. I have owned fine and fashionable examples of both, and so I imagine myself qualified to ramble on about how differently they make me feel when I wear them. Boxers — I used to own some Calvin Klein’s with big black polka dots — provide little or no support as they are, in essence, just flimsy shorts with a fly cut in the front. Their material is soft, but stiffer than the cushy briefs, as the material must drape pleasantly down the thigh. These are often the choice of old men who enjoy hanging, as they have been so stretched by gravity and time that a little more hardly matters. Paradoxically, young men who are into computers also seem to choose boxers, perhaps for the clownish and antiestablishment attitude boxers seem to convey — “You can’t hold my balls, man! They have to swing!” This free and easy attitude of boxers, the play of air and looseness over the lower torso, makes me feel more forward and sure of my sexuality when I wear them, as if I had nothing to hide about myself, and could relax in my manhood. The very name, boxers, identifies the wearer with the most macho of sports. But boxers also, by virtue of their bagginess, cover the pelvis so thoroughly and loosely that if you didn’t know what was underneath, you’d never be able to guess. Women tend to like boxers on men, perhaps because of this peek-a-boo effect, perhaps because briefs make a man look like he’s packing a handful of unmolded clay, or perhaps because boxers come in more fashionable colors and patterns. I find a significant drawback to wearing them: they’re uncomfortable as soon as I pull on my pants, since the material bunches up and wraps around me like a python—not a pleasant experience for a man — making me pull and pinch at the material all day. The fly has a disconcerting habit of bulging open like the mouth of a bass, so that my package seems to loll between boxer and denim all day.
Briefs, on the other hand, are form fitting and resemble panties with a fold-over fly, though I have a few pairs that don’t have this feature — it’s easier just to tug down the front at the urinal, anyway. They are made of a soft cotton blend, since they need to breathe, and never bunch up when I pull my jeans on. They provide a comforting support, sort of midway between boxers and jockstraps, so that I’m not
Briefs, though comfortable, are not photogenic, and so they have not fared well in the movies. Men in briefs are comic or evil. There is a great scene in Carnal Knowledge where the asshole character played by Jack Nicholson is speaking to the voluptuous victim played by Ann-Margaret about moving in together (that is, his disinclination to commit) while pulling on a pair of white briefs over his painfully white legs. The briefs seem intimately related to who this person is — immature, self-centered and unattractive. Through the whole scene, one wonders what the woman sees in him with those awful briefs. But then, though briefs seem evil or dorky, boxers are the regular attire of clowns and physical comedians — the bigger and brighter the underwear the better. When someone’s pants fall down on TV, you can bet the actor has boxers, usually in a feminine color. Perhaps it’s because boxers seem like clothes and less threatening with male sexuality, or perhaps it’s because they seem like sails and bedsheets, ridiculous wings of useless fabric.
The fact that underwear, theoretically almost never seen by the people we meet, has a fashion at all is in itself interesting. Is it that we fear we might meet someone with x-ray vision or be strip-searched in public that makes us so prepared to be seen in our skivvies? Or is it that underwear performs a function beyond comfort, a function that falls somewhere in between social and psychological? If our clothes, our outer image, mediate between us and the world, then our underwear mediates between us and our clothes; we define our relationship to our outer image by what we wear under it, the interior fashion only we and a chosen few know about. This would be the case with the corporate lawyer who wears red satin bra and panties under the painfully gray dress suit, or the doctor who sports bright blue boxers with a goofy tennis pattern under his surgical scrubs. Underwear reminds us that there is a level the outer world does not fathom, and does not even dare admit exists: the membrane that takes the configuration of the body and subtly transforms it into suit coats or jeans. It is as if our souls diffused through our underwear and emerged as something very different on the far side, our public persona.
Brassieres — the sonorous full name seems appropriate here — occur in a mind-boggling variety of styles and sizes. Whereas men have only to match one dimension — the waist size — women when trying on bras have to match two. Jockstraps, the closest male analogue, are classified by the waist only, not by what size a thing the garment holds, as if men, so tender on the subject of size, could not bear to face up to a standard judgement, A, B or C. But brassieres on display in the jungle of Victoria’s Secret are like orchids adhering to a giant palm, dangling in profusion in the lingerie department, double blooms of cotton, lace, shimmery nylon; backless, strapless, bandeau, racerback wonders; see-through, opaque, padded, underwire; white, black, red, purple exotic flora. Brassieres, because of the contraption of the straps, are forever creating new ways to camouflage themselves, giant insects fading into surroundings so perfectly you can’t tell if what you see is a leaf or thorax, leg or stem. Bras fit under anything; there are even disposable paper cups that adhere to the breasts, undetectable teases.
The great lie is that men are only interested in D cups and larger. I have never found this true in myself, as I personally prefer smaller ones; nor is it true for most of the men I have known, nor is it true even of classical literature — Ovid said the perfect breast could be cupped in the palm of a man’s hand. The French say the perfect breast can fit inside a champagne glass. These are odd ways to measure perfection, but they certainly have nothing to do with gigantism, and speaking for most men, I would say that the perfect breasts are the ones that are present and bared. By the same token, I have never worried much about the size of my penis. My girlfriends never seemed to have any complaints, but then, who would be so cruel as to point out a defect that cannot be mended? One drunk night when I was in my late thirties I got curious, and pulled out a ruler to measure myself — after all, pornography often mentions specific length, so people must measure themselves sometimes, so why shouldn’t I? I won’t be so indelicate as to brag about the result of my experiment, but in subsequent conversations with friends and lovers I have discovered that there is some controversy about which side of the anatomy — upper or lower — to place the base of the ruler. A difference of an inch or so must be figured in. Even here, in the measurements of the body, we discover that science is subjective and inexact.
Of course, the most interesting lingerie is seldom worn under outer garments, though a rich fantasy life fueled on MTV might imagine them under raincoats, tailored suits or even overalls: the sexy, lacy, satiny things designed specifically to highlight a woman’s body like a translucent calyx, or aqua sea-foam breaking around marmoreal shoulders. Nightwear is fascinating not simply for arousal, though that is nothing to ignore, but also for itself. Nightwear, the clothes women dream in, takes on a life of its own on display, the cool, soft colors of a playground: ice blue, Popsicle yellow, grape, strawberry, as if sexual play involved a kind of regression to childhood, and a fanciness to make it desirable, artful, human. Lingerie is honest in proliferating attraction, an intention it shares with underwear in general, since it’s underwear that touches our sex day and night, underwear to which and through which we strip, underwear that gives us our image of intimacy (in front of whom will you traipse about in your skivvies?), underwear that measures our sizes and lets us compare, underwear that molds the way we see each other’s gender.
we see each other. The light flows over us, and we take note.
Perhaps the image of every person we’ve ever seen is contained
somewhere in our brain, locked away in the soup of samsara, the cycle
of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. We’ve seen and been everyone,
both male and female, and we’ve looked at every soul there has
ever been. And we have been looked at, very closely, by every voyeur
who has ever taken in the pleasure of light and skin, darkness and cloth.
One has to look, and sometimes, one just happens to see. The one time
I was ever really successful at being a voyeur was something of an accident:
I was walking a blue merle collie one cold night in Iowa City across
the street from the condominium complex where I lived. While Rimbaud
(the dog) pissed away on a chunk of frozen snow, I looked up at an illumined
square and saw the naked torso of a beautiful young woman as she looked
at something in the room that made her smile. Then she slowly pulled
a turquoise bra around her impressive breasts, and disappeared. It was
such a lovely moment, sort of a vision of beauty, however unfairly truncated
by the frame of the window, that it’s been hard for me to feel
bad about watching her without her permission. But perhaps she wouldn’t
have minded — for a few seconds, as I watched, I paid attention
to her with a fullness that was something like love, something like
awe, a reverence for the flesh and the ghost it wears just under sight.
|Read more of Martin Scott's work in Agora.|