When I was in college in Santa Fe for one odd semester I tried to sell a stereo receiver on consignment at a store called something like West Coast Audio. When I saw the name it was the first time I realized I was in a place oriented in a different direction from where I’d grown up. I’d been thinking of myself as let out on a long lead from the east coast, far from what I knew but still on the line, ready to be reeled in. But maybe I was thinking wrong: maybe I was a west-coaster now. My ocean gathered the sun in at night, my mountains were craggy and unyielding.
I got to talking to the salesman at that store who had also grown up on the east coast. But he was a committed New Mexican now. He didn’t even like going back east–after spending years in the ochre and sand of the high desert the east seemed strangled with green, so much green, everything everywhere was green and he couldn’t stand it.
Santa Fe is where I saw my first shooting star, too, and felt a dry heat for the first time, a heat that spirited sweat from your skin before you even noticed you were sweating, a heat that vanished as quickly as you could step into a shadow, a scorching heat with no power to cling or linger. It got cold at night, colder than I’d ever remembered being. One night after I’d had dinner on the roof of a classmate’s adobe apartment–I remember very badly made sourdough and shaggy hand-rolled cigarettes–I was walking uphill toward the school and a star dropped from straight overhead to almost the horizon, a fat bright ember drifting earthward as though there were no atmosphere between us.
I lost my head in Santa Fe. Humidity is a stifling but familiar breath, a way of letting you know you are here. Green can choke you but it holds you in place.
Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod’s weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.
It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you. Yet is it no easy task. The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed.
— Herman Melville, “Cetology”
From childhood he dreamed of being able to keep with him all the objects in the world lined up on his shelves and bookcases. He denied lack, oblivion or even the likelihood of a missing piece. Order streamed from Noah in blue triangles and the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, engulfing his life they came to be called waves by others, who drowned, a world of them.
— Ann Carson, “Short Talk on the Total Collection”
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”
The notion that you can sweat out a cold, that you can purify your body through effort and that the water that beads on your skin and pours in rivulets to the floor is carrying with it the remnants of the virus or the contagion that made you feel bad–it’s so compelling an idea that it’s hard to let go of it. Science says no, all you are doing is sweating, and what’s more you are diverting energy your body needs to fight disease. You will likely get more sick rather than less from it.
It feels so right, though, that it makes me wonder about modes of knowing, makes me think about how science can only describe and say so much. Surely the body has its own wisdom and instructs us in ways that we can’t quantify or rationalize.
I used to justify smoking when I was sick by imagining the hot smoke purifying my lungs, making an autoclave in my ribs, burning out the disease. That too felt right and true in my body.
So maybe it’s not a battle between the body’s wisdom and rational knowledge, but between pleasure and…what. The sweat of a sick body prickles the skin like sleep does, makes the sick body–which is so within itself, so cut off from the world by its misery—feel a kind of pleasure that’s almost like reanimation. A feeling of aliveness in that sweat, at that boundary between body and air, vital and desirable and pleasurable.
Of course there is also this: a mind in a diseased body is a mind in disorder. And sweat, effort, exertion help restore order. The body works and the mind settles into its traces.
I think all the time of a thoroughbred I saw early one morning on a practice track in Saratoga. The horse could not walk straight. It pulled and strained against its bridle. It pranced sideways and threw its head. But the minute it began to run, it was as beautiful and measured an animal as I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s that the way illness disorders the mind is more uncomfortable than the illness itself, and so we rationally choose to exercise. If it prolongs our illness, it also brings us back to ourselves, even if only briefly.
When I think like this I wonder: what will I do when my body no longer works?
On a trip to a giant vegetable farm in Orange County a few years ago, I listened to the farm manager detail all the ways he’d worked to keep his fields free of birds: scarecrows, plastic owls, noise cannons, and–most incredibly–recordings of birds screeching as they were killed by hawks. Nothing worked. The birds adapted to everything.
“Panic jumped down on Geryon at three a.m. He stood at the window of his hotel room. Empty street below gave back nothing of itself.
Cars nested along the curb in their shadows buildings leaned back out of the street. Little rackety wind went by.
Moon gone. Sky shut. Night had delved deep. somewhere (he thought) beneath this strip of sleeping pavement
the enormous solid globe is spinning on its way–pistons thumping, lava pouring from shelf to shelf,
evidence and time lignifying into their traces. At what point does one say of a man that he has become unreal?”