Cartesian Anxiety in a Bleeding I
Rene Descartes works best in his pajamas. I watch him while wrapped in a blanket, and in my imagination he resurrects easily enough, coughs, walks around. It’s January, so he’s chosen the fuzzy ones with feet—mid- night blue—displaying galaxies caught mid-spin with nickel-sized buttons that run up the front.
Alone in his apartment, a five-story walk-up, he feels his greatest intellectual freedom while wearing these footsy pajamas, assured no one will ever know. He’s disconnected the Internet and isn’t taking any calls. Even the small television set is unplugged. See how the cords dangle? He bought the yellow swivel chair at his desk because he admires its neat diamond stitches and the way it creaks without squeaking, which reminds him of his mother rocking in her wooden chair when he was still small enough to climb up to her face, rocking in such a way that made her seem playful and lighthearted, as though she would stay that way if for no other reason than because she would always be his mother.
Resurrected, he writes in Latin because it is the language of thinking and because it is expected. He stares, often between pen strokes. His hand never cramps. Arranging his candles and his stained glass lamp, against which he’s leaned a framed daguerreotype of a girl, his mind chews on one hypothesis only to discard it for the next. The girl is wide-eyed and pale and looks off to the side while clutching the dark lace at her neck. Her left ear tilts toward him, expectant.
He examines this photo until she becomes an arrangement of flat shapes. Her palm, a sideways teardrop. Jagged darkness droops over the empty sea of her forehead. Or is the darkness the sea and the forehead land?
It’s Elisabeth, the Princess of Bohemia, the pale girl with the left ear, who reads and responds to everything he’s written once he’s finished. While writing, he sometimes looks to her for the next thought, and other times, when he’s sure he’s failing and feels homicidal, he traps her facedown on the desk under a book to muffle her out, also, to plug that ear.
He writes Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated. He meditates many times but numbers them six. He mutters and curses and talks with God and to himself about God and about things that he cannot understand completely, and he can get away with this because his readers are of the belief that writing to or about God does not undermine his credibility and, in fact, that this sort of writing is intimidatingly significant. So he cleans his glasses and ties his hair back with a rubber band. He is most frustrated by his in- ability to access certainty, ontological certainty. He holds that (un)certainty up to other thoughts like a torch, which melts them down and away. I can’t tell if he thinks he’s found what he’s looking for, or if he feels backed into a corner where his only way out is by trying to make sense of himself, God, and all the rest.
Does he love the struggle, or can he choose nothing else?
Wikipedia him, and you’ll see the quantification of his work. Descartes is what high schoolers would identify as a real Renaissance man. His vitae is daunting in its reach across disciplines—mathematics, religion, philosophy, letters to Elisabeth. (These letters he likes best, not because they’re a welcome reprieve from the intellectual rigors but because they’re a living extension of them. A weighty dialogue of long letters, built from tree trunks of thought rather than the frail shingles of sentence, response, another sentence, etc. Dear E, he says. He longs to go to her, to get on a plane to the Netherlands, but knows that their disembodied correspondence is better, not just for the exchange of ideas, but it’s a unique way of touching foreheads and, thusly, the minds underneath without the distraction of literally doing so. He gets all wound up around her anyway.) But the Wiki entry exhibits a terrible flatness as well. A flatness where color is lost. It’s dim there, in his life.
And so it is in his apartment. Dim.
He takes a piece of wax and heats it with his fist. Massages it to reflect the shape of his palm. Rolls it into a lumpy sphere. He tears off a piece. Sets it in the candle’s crater next to the flame until it spreads into the already soft and clear wax pooled beneath. He sees it change the way it always changes when influenced by heat. Then he draws conclusions. ((See Meditations.))
The thing I notice about watching D in his room shuffling in those impossible pajamas over the shiny floorboards amidst his book towers with the stained glass lamp leaving his pages tinged crimson, what I notice and want to become is the person who intensely and unapologetically wants the thing s/he seeks—the certainty of my being. I am human being, he says to his reflection in the window.
Picks up his pen.
Talking with myself and looking more deeply into myself, I’ll try gradually to come to know myself better, he writes. ((Meditation III, p.14.))
I have resurrected Descartes to watch him at work. As D swivels in that chair, E’s daguerreotype turned facedown on the desk underneath his geometry notes, as he chews a piece of yarn, pacing, hunching, stretch- ing, and burning the candles a long while, going after a thought, after God, he’s conflicted and wrestling. He withstands for the blessing. A name. A certainty of who he is.
Entirely unlike Descartes, but not entirely, I stand over the toilet, hand on its silver bullet lever, and pause pre-flush. I’m not looking at shit but at my lost egg. Theoretically, that is. It could be there—one of the biggest cells in the human body, it’s visible without a microscope—but the colors are all I get. Purple nearly black, shades of scarlet, a flash of brilliant, searing red.
Wavering, I pause on occasion to stay a moment longer Goodbye, Egg even in January while my feet curl away from the frigid bathroom tiles. I’m not looking to find the egg itself; I’m looking for a reflection of my womb.
Staring after the egg somewhere in the toilet bowl, I see the losses implied by the egg, and I see that egg-loss as one among daily, weekly, monthly losses, and I see the blood as a reminder of one sort of struggle, one strand of violence in the body, and I’m not surprised by this reference.
While menstruation is a given (how it precipitates seasons in the female body), it is inarguably uncanny and more than a little unnerving that though I am woundless, there is so much blood. Sometimes what is familiar—I experience this thirteen times a year—is most de-familiarizing. The egg drops from my womb, overripe, like fruit. ((Recalling dark cherries growing in the backyard where I grew up, birds ate them and my mother and I ate them, and there were so many that even more fell to our lawn. On the lawn, they were difficult to avoid. I’d run barefoot and slip on the fruit pressed between my toes. Hopping on one foot, I’d try to brush it off, but the stain was bright.)) My body cycles through eggs whether I want it to or not. Like a cherry that buds, ripens, falls, and deteriorates, a menstrual cycle isn’t particularly significant in isolation. An attitude of ambivalence, at best, is the usual response to a period’s presence in a woman’s life; I’ve often dismissed mine as an inconvenience, an embarrassment, even a joke. Yet approximately every twenty-eight days, the hormonal tides crest and recede in my body, and I grow tense, lose sleep, get flashes of angry over the way that this physical change can feel as though it is altering the self, or determining the self, without an invitation to do so.
I’m not claiming to be an intellectual descendant of our Father of Modern Philosophy. There are next to no parallels between Descartes and me. I’m frequently anti-rational, and not entirely because my hormone levels shift like the tide, though they do. I live most days with my laptop overheating my lap settled on the blankets nestled around my womb. Science is com- plicated, mysterious, and gives me the cold shoulder as an adequate translator of this subject.
What I am claiming is that we share the same anxiety, Descartes and I. Cartesian anxiety, I call it. My variation on D’s response to Cartesian anxiety is this: my Cartesian anxiety compels me to search for ontological certainty—I, too, want the blessing, a name, a certainty of who I am—but I poke and prod for it through my womb. Why the womb? Because I see the womb as a microcosm of the self and of the world as it determines the shape of the self. I find and question my potentials when I look there, because inside lives the egg’s potential—it waxes and wanes—and I argue that it mirrors mine.
I can’t read Latin and have no pen pal Elisabeth with an expectant ear of my own.
So instead, I talk to my eggs. And flush:
Goodbye, E, little person that might have been. I didn’t ask for you.
I think, Look what you’ve done to me. Am I less, now that you’re gone?
Part I – Hysteria Historia:
Thirty years old, my womb has completed 234 cycles and counting. I’m told that it is big and cozy enough to grow a human, even two or more at the same time, though it has tried no such thing. Cupping my hand over belly, I pause to feel and listen. Sometimes, it feels as though the womb has awakened, and also that it suffers. In ancient Greek, the word to describe this suffering is hysterikos. Its history is as old as the womb itself.
Thinkers in sixth century BCE believed the womb snuffled around the female body like an animal, going wherever it liked. This wandering resulted in what we now know as hysteria. Twenty-five hundred years later the pendulum has swung. Rather than charging the womb with having a mind of its own, some psychiatrists indict the mind of the woman for conjuring hysteria and other like mythologies. Meet graying male doctors Branch and Reiser. In a 1954 Time article titled “Medicine: Woman & Womb,” they claim to dispel female superstitions by explaining the underlying ignorance of women’s relationships to their wombs: “‘[O]therwise sophisticated and intelligent’ women are extremely naive in their attitude to the functioning of the womb and its psychological overtones. Some women ‘seem to attempt denial of its actual attachment to them’,” and “[m]odern medicine rejects the idea that menstruation need be disabling, but impressionable women have been conditioned to believe that it is,” and so on. These are merely two incomplete examples of what (supposed) enlightened thinkers bookending twenty-five centuries have come up with, but I locate them here because while they are mostly wrong, they are also each a little bit right.
Hysteria may be caused and made manifest in both ways—the physical and the psychic. It can be physically driven and psychologically experienced and vice versa. But more important than arguing over where it is believed to have come from is acknowledging that it is. Hysteria exists, at least for some people, specifically for people such as myself—even the bookend thinkers treat it so—and I define it as:
A) Being or feeling uncontrollable, especially uncontrolled by the
B) That which is induced by high levels of Cartesian
C) Without an easily traceable cause, experiencing in a visceral manner the physical and emotional sensation of all-has-been-lost-and-will-never-be- found which aptly eclipses anything experienced by the usual five sense.
D) The urgency that oneself does not exist and needs immediate and definite affirmation of one’s existence, an affirmation which might be believed, in the moment, to be best received following fits of laugher, tears, rage, or Beyond the usual self-absorption, the urgency = extreme ontological blindness, which causes one, suddenly and entirely, to un-know the world ((Which includes the home, lover, mother, and self, to name a few.)) as one knew it moments before.
E) Suffering of the womb.
Part II – Apogee ((Farthest from the earth.)) and Perigee ((Nearest to the earth.)) :
The moon looks like something to drink, especially when it is full. She’s sexy like that, lifting her full face to us. Patches of shadow, a yawning mouth that appears to be mid-howl. It’s the o-face, I think. The sun lights her from a distance with the earth in between, all three in motion. She reaches her bellyful only to be cut away slowly until she grows thin and eventually appears to be nothing. Right when you think she’s gone, she swells back.
In this simple metaphor, if the sun = the self, then the moon = the projection of the self. But also, the moon = something to be said by the self. Understand that I use myself as a primary case study in an effort to access something, anything, beyond my self, if that’s even possible. Whether the subject is the self or womanhood, it is distorted and the breadth of its totality is largely inaccessible. Rather, in a projection onto or through another object, as said object is lit from a distance, the subject ((The self.)) is momentarily revised and revisited. In this way, the object can go on to yawn or howl or make the o-face, and just enough of the subject has been reflected that we can form a connection with it, however tenuous.
The metaphor multiplies. See here: a lunar cycle and a menstrual cycle orbit along parallel tracks. Not only do these cycles share similar length of days (the moon at 29.53059 days ((As seen from earth, as opposed to the 27.3217 day cycle as seen from outer space.)) and the average female between 28.1 and 29.1), but their kinship is actual. ((Approximately one-third of the subjects in a 1979 study have “lunar period cycles” where the length of the cycle is 29.5 +/-1 day. More notably, in a 1986 study conducted in Guangchow, China, 28.3 percent of the 826 participants menstruated during the new moon, compared to the 8.5-12.6 percent during other parts of the lunar cycle.)) Both wax and wane. From the new moon, the follicular phase waxes into ovulation—the full moon of the egg’s release. In the luteal phase, the corpus luteum forms next, a saffron-yellow body that blooms and dies like a fractal of the moon as it wanes to emptiness.
Phase by phase, the cycles align.
The endometrium—the cocoon lining of a womb thick with nutrients that would have fed an embryo—sheds. Say it, en-do-ME-tree-um. A tree in me. We call this menstruation. This next egg, the new egg, begins with bleeding, bleeding that is sometimes so dark, it looks nearly black, the way one might describe a new moon sky.
Something is happening in there; it must be. I pat my belly gently beneath the waistband of my underwear. Dear E, does the darkness feel warm? I can trick myself into feeling something moving and know enough to envision the lining of my uterus tearing away. There’s more than a little violence, though it is largely unseen.
Estrogen and progesterone levels are still low but menstruation stops. This is usually when I use crescent-sized-hormone-levels logic as an excuse to get my way. I just had my period. I volley this answer at my husband’s inquiries. You know nothing, I tell him about what it’s like to be female. B looks hurt but recovers quickly. He likes to joke and feigns surprise. I don’t? he asks, grins. In hindsight, I appreciate his levity, but it doesn’t deter me from saying to myself: I wouldn’t be so selfish otherwise. My hormones make me different. I am not my body.
Meanwhile, the hormones heighten and heighten.
They make a relatively steady climb, rising in short intervals, lifting me from beneath as though I’m sitting atop a yellow plywood moon hooked to pulleys in the rafters. My feet dangle as we make our way to the zenith of the stage, and the coarse rope is light in my hands. It’s effortless, and I kick my heels, content and under control, as I fancy myself a delightful, exuberant, thinking being. I like to pretend I’m intrinsically gifted in these ways—that this is who I really am, underneath. (But underneath what? Don’t dwell on that.)
Which is partly why this next phase—the surge and release—is especially delicate, precarious even, when it comes. The hormones take me high enough to where the atmosphere grows thin. I can taste the potential up here and Cartesian anxiety may sweep through at any moment, like a harsh wind.
I shake the snow globe of my memory, and we are backpacking at Mount Jefferson one August when it’s covered in cloud. It’s night when B unzips the tadpole tent to piss in the trees, and it’s as though he cracked open an egg. Curtains up. The moon spotlight-bright, I see Jefferson stealing sky from way out here to over here, as though someone said to the mountain, Move. Move from here to there. Get up and walk. And it did, settling in front of us. Lying beneath its snow cape, at its feet of wild company— Red Paintbrush, Lupine, Shooting Star, Larkspur, Bleeding Heart—we lean in. Overhead, like a young woman, the moon’s fullness blooms in the center of her cycle. I’m happy then, for being overtaken. I only want to shrink further into the trees until I am forgotten.
It’s night, not summer but early fall, and I’m standing on a friend’s stoop. People are in motion, leaning into each other, looping arms over shoulders, breathing into ears. They hold a can of beer or a bottle of gin, and I’m holding a cigarette when someone I only kind of know wearing a tan Carhartt jacket lights it, lights it in such a way that it feels as good as God smiling on me. Leans forward with the flame and arm steady, no words or winks or meaning. Just that reach forward. An offer of a light. Standing there, looking up at the sky, I believe they could do that small gesture all night long and I would be thankful all night long. And I love them—the people—all of them.
But then I go home, and the house is still, frozen really. I don’t need to turn on the light; I can see in the dark though I don’t want to. I sit with my coat buttoned and shoes tied. It feels as though the people are dead, and I don’t care that they’re gone.
Even without fertilization, my womb ripens. The ruptured follicle forms the growing corpus luteum; its saffron-yellow mass must be shaped like the waning gibbous moon that I walk beneath. My breasts are tender. Though there will be no baby, my body prepares for the possibilities. I am my body after all, aren’t I? I prepare and anticipate. I expect without trying. My body heats up, burns momentarily, but before long, it swiftly grows dim. Cools. Without fertilization, the corpus luteum degenerates. Expectation slows and eventually just drops off, as faint as a web breaking apart in the breeze.
Part III – Apogee Reprise:
I need to discuss the push. Cartesian anxiety creates a desire for definition, for feeling essentialized and ontologically sound. Cartesian anxiety is eventually made manifest in action. We will call this manifestation the push. A push isn’t necessarily a shove, though it could be, and it isn’t necessarily a nudge, though it could be.
Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I push because I want to feel a push back. When I act, please react.
Though this push isn’t the only way to unearth affirmation or to be touched and recognized by another person, it is one way. And in my clouded eye, sometimes it seems as though it is the only way, or the most effective way, to secure a sense of my ontology though I don’t act or think in those terms. When my Cartesian anxiety is at its highest, when I am caught beneath its current, lying in bed, heater silenced and the blinds drawn, seeing down a long paper tube to the end of my life, I’ll use a push to gauge my impact on the little plot of life that surrounds me, usually by pushing the person closest to me, hoping that they’ll push back.
The push says, Are you there? It says, Aren’t I important, aren’t we con- nected? It also says, Can I make you leave? How far can I push before you’ll push back? How far can I push before you won’t?
Being pushed back means that you matter to someone, that they are in the least moved by you, proving you are a sentient and impactful being. Remember, if you are fighting with someone, it means that you are not abandoned. This is one comfort.
At times, the longing for that equal and opposite reaction becomes too strong, and I will do whatever it takes, hurt whomever I must, to be talked to or glared at or held. Full moons and werewolves come to mind. Culpability grows, like fangs, with each birthday that passes and I’m not so very different than I was the year before.
In other words, if I’m not careful, the earnest longing for an equal and opposite reaction can sweep me over a cliff.
Hysteria follows patterns. Deeply rutted tracks. It comes as suddenly and urgently as thick summer rains in the Midwest. Comes, usually, in the height of my cycle when my hormones are at their peak, a result of unrestrained Cartesian anxiety giving rise to greater Cartesian anxiety. Hysteria obeys the sloped graph of hormone levels, declining and disappearing as its trajectory plunges toward bleeding in secret where I clutch my ibuprofen tablets and variety pack tampons. But not every cycle. Sometimes it never comes, and other times it haunts me for a week.
Fully formed, the hysteria (the anxiety) may be realized in shouted sobs, or screams into pillows teeth bared, or saying fuck you’s that I don’t mean, or the tremendous sinking feeling that I would actually like to disappear this time—it would be so easy—but I’m too paralyzed to try, which sounds either disturbed and therapy-worthy or mundane and is-that-all—even quaint—depending on who’s diagnosing.
Like menstruation, one way to think of hysteria is as an unwelcome visitor. But also like menstruation, aren’t my actions and my biochemistry a part of myself? Or don’t they at least emerge from some part of my actual being, not just my body but my being? My body isn’t solely made up of hormones and their acrobatics between my pituitary gland, frontal lobe, midbrain, and whatnot, but my body contains and creates my entire experience, doesn’t it? So although hormones have something to do with creating ideal conditions, the hysteria isn’t merely a visitor coming from some outside other place. Rather, it comes from some true place that makes it part of who I am. Which is disheartening, to say the least. I don’t like to see it this way. I like to see the hysteria as a temporary embarrassment. I like to think I am better than that.
Eventually, hysteria leads me to the view through the window framing What I Am Capable Of. The view out this window is part observation and part reflection. The more I see what others can do to each other and to themselves, the more I recognize my own potential. Looking out, I see the twenty-something across town who lost his temper and shot his twin. I see the mentally deranged mother who chased her children down the hallway, chased them around her house with all their cute messy kid crap strewn across the carpet, hung up on the walls, chased them into the bathroom and drowned every last one of them in their family bathtub. I can’t imagine how these things happen, these fucked-up-beyond-comprehension tragedies. But I also know that because I don’t know how the worst happens and I have hurt others when I haven’t wanted to, I am never entirely safe, or far, from the possibilities. I feel safe and far most of the time though, outer-space-far from suicidal thoughts, anger that incites violence, rage and rape and the insatiable hunger to be felt. But what is dividing us but a few people, a few circumstances, a few differences in the brain, a few years and miles, a few choices, just a few thoughts really.
Thus, my ontological certainty appears unbounded. Potential is too great in every direction. The unknown capsizes the known. Everything is possible! The twin gets shot. The children drown. The desire for certainty surges in me and I reach across the couch to B’s elbow to hold the crook of his arm and watch him reading. (The anxiety hasn’t overtaken me yet, and it may not for a long time.) Which returns me to the push.
The push as a search for containment. For finding the edge of myself by finding the edge of the person at my side. Like the horizon, our edges can meet in such a way that both are clearly defined.
While there is a distinction between what we are capable of and what actually exists, there is no glass window separating one self from the next; we can move wherever we like.
Dear E, What kind of person would you be?
Part IV – Perigee Reprise:
Six years before Descartes first publishes Meditations, his daughter Francine is born. A summer baby, born in July. His first and only. Did he spread his hands over her mother’s belly? Did he feel the skin wrapped taut around the folded-up being tucked into a posture of penitence already? Did he feel the heat, and imagine God must have felt the world this way, as something delicate and determined somersaulting underneath? Holding her, squirming and yelping and acting alive, does he wonder how it’s possible that something once theoretical can be made so intensely tangible?
An unplanned turn of events. An unplanned, unretractable bend in his life.
Francine’s mother, Helena, becomes his servant—they aren’t married and never will be—and according to twenty-first century biographer Russell Shorto who quotes biographer Adrien Baillet, Descartes’ contemporary, Descartes does ensure Francine’s baptism. He even includes his name on the registry but mostly pretends that they don’t belong together—he calls her his niece.
We can try to imagine the rest, all the ways they intertwine or don’t. It’s possible he doesn’t think of her at all. Or sees her as an inconvenience. But it’s also possible that he worries for her. That he’s overcome by her and feels small beside her. Some claim that he planned to move her to France so that she might receive her education there. Perhaps he imagines she would turn out something like Elisabeth—his intellectual equal, the sharp-witted woman with the delicate left ear (though he hasn’t met Elisabeth just yet).
When she’s five years old, Francine turns purple with scarlet fever. She changes color and then she dies. It is September in the Netherlands. It’s possible that he’s present to hold her—that he feels the flapping slowly go quiet inside her belly, and later watches as she’s buried. We can’t know how often he thinks of her flight away from him. But biographers Baillet and Shorto tell us that her life and death change him. His work changes— how could it not? He was a father, we don’t know what kind. Still, five years later, he is left a man who has once been a father. He shifts from writing works like Discourse on the Method to writing Meditations on First Philosophy. Cartesian anxiety builds. Too much has happened that was unexpected. He looks around and things look different.
Dear E, he writes.
His ideas bounce back to him through the voice of a young woman. He sits at his desk, clutching the hair at the sides of his head while he reads Elisabeth’s letters. Still grieving, he reads with relief. Though Cartesian anxiety may overtake him, her words are often enough to remind him that he is and that his ideas matter. (Maybe not yet in the way that we might imagine he’s hoped for—when he dies, he’s buried in a graveyard of unbaptized infants, after all.) So he returns to his work, to the paradox of his mind and body. He is earnest about believing in the separateness of the imagination—Francine lives there! But, he knows, she does not actually live.
He tries to resurrect her, and his thoughts bleed all over the place. They bleed into Mother and meditations on God and mathematical principles and into Francine again (still gone). He chews on his pen cap at his desk or sits on the fire escape sucking down one last cigarette. He attempts to lose himself in his work. And yet.
Being the mathematician that he is, like his contemporaries, he, too, has considered imaginary numbers. He isn’t the first and is easily not the last, but he’s known as coining the derogatory term: the number i. He laughs and exclaims, But they are imaginary. About the impossibility of the square root of negative one he says, “[I]n many cases no quantity exists which corresponds to what one imagines.”
He scoffs at the incompatibility of what we are capable of dreaming up with what actually is. He sees how we get ahead of and beyond ourselves. How too often we don’t have any way of actualizing all the potential that we imagine.
Side by side, the square root of negative one and Francine mirror each other. Both are undeniable yet are genuine impossibilities. She once was, though she is no longer. (How his mind always hovers above her grave.) He knows her in memory but cannot conjure her again. She is lost. He was once a father, and now he is not, and there is no word to reflect this transmutation—what to make of it?
How can we imagine the result of a mathematical action but remain unable to access it beyond its symbolic?
How can I love my mother, phone my mother, hear our voices echo, yet miss her as though she, like Francine, has died? Is she thinking of me the way that I think of her, as someone known best in the imagination? Did she talk to her eggs?
Realities and impossibilities enmesh. I hover over the tension between them, unable to land.
Descartes laughs. But they are imaginary!
I forget to laugh. Forgetfulness (of the egg, of the body) precipitates entrapment in the imagination. A place where I’m surrounded by innumerable possibilities reflecting What I Am Capable Of that rise up like cliffs expung- ing the horizon and hemming me in. How to get out, get through, shake off the unknown, move a mountain, laugh at things to come?
Remember psychiatrists Branch and Reiser? The doctors with the misguided assumptions about women and their wombs? These men stumbled upon one more notable aspect of how the period functions: period as reminder, specifically a “periodic reminder that [a woman] is either always pregnant or potentially so.” Branch and Reiser warn against this reminder as impeding a woman’s ability to “emerge full flower.” Poor, deluded flower-women. But I argue otherwise. I argue that while the monthly bleeding reminds me that I’m not pregnant but could be, it is in fact a manifestation of my physical (= actual = present) potential. For what is more physical than another human being? What is more physical than blood?
The egg reminds me of my body, that I am bound by it in every way; it wakes me from my imaginings. E is for egg, E for Elisabeth. Letters from E tethered Descartes to earth and his work in his grief. E in the toilet bowl reflects me standing there looking into a toilet, having an egg-bearing body (having ontological certainty), being bound to what it can do, which on the one hand is no small thing. My body trumps my imagination in the end, doesn’t it?
Descartes writes mind and body. We live in two places at once. I’m not arguing for one over the other—it’s not about that. What I know is that too often I get lost in obsessing over what isn’t (give me ontological certainty!) rather than attending to what is. Recall that in many cases no quantity exists which corresponds to what one imagines. Which is why the particular trauma of menstruation, even in the midst of its confounding patterns, is a comfort. Menstruation can be a comfort because it is trauma. It is tangible and bloody. It has real unmistakable potential, jarring implications. In other words, the cycle eventually returns me to my body by doing what a push can do.
It is hard to imagine a time when I’ll be completely safe from hysteria, because for me, Cartesian anxiety (and the hysteria that follows) seeks to know what is ontologically possible, that which is defined by tangible boundaries and edges. Sometimes the urgency grows frantic in my need to be reminded of my physicality, an unfortunate method. Without the egg as reminder, without the tethering to the body or the earth when the Cartesian anxiety is most potent, I have to push up against something or someone—B, or Descartes’ God-Man, or the cold walls of our bedroom— to find the edges of my being. I fear losing my life. So I test the boundaries, search for trauma at times, to see what, if anything, will cause unrecoverable loss, and conversely, to see what, if anything, will remain. Will this wall cave in if I push hard enough? What about this one?
You know the answer.
Walls cave. Loss surrounds us. Loss, by definition, is unrecoverable. Time passes, friends fade, dead children are buried in the earth, my mother and our life with the backyard cherry tree diminishes with each fall of an egg. We imagine ourselves as the totality of all of our past and present selves— who we used to be densely living beneath who we currently are, informing it. But it is impossible to contain the sum of our parts all at once. Saying goodbye to an egg, I become myself minus another egg. Descartes suffers more tangibly. He is himself minus Francine, minus his fatherhood. We are as ever-changing as the moon. Sometimes we become less. Like everything, certainty comes and goes. We cannot help ourselves.
I wish I knew how to take a friend’s hand. I wish I had better control. I wish I didn’t get lost in the patterns that make up the private life I at- tempt to disguise as something other than itself. I obsess.
Only after the exhaustion of hysteria or the flushed blood of menstruation do my surroundings begin to emerge delicately around me. Only then can I lie in my bed and believe that some things are certain, like the silent spin of the earth beneath us, unseen but as real as the sun, its light on the moon. That eventually, I will sleep.
I imagine walking around my womb. Why not? It isn’t claustrophobic like Being John Malkovich. It’s spacious. Orchard-like. Cherry trees surround, and a train sounds in the distance as though it’s summer time just before night. The cicada chorus surges like waves on a beach—the ocean of the Midwest. A bat dips above my shoulder so swiftly that I might have imagined it. The clouds are bigger and bluer than usual, and beyond them the moon presses against the sky.
Mothers I know are there, too. With their sleek skin and sharp noses. They are shiny against the clouds. What’s so mysterious about this place? What are you so worked up about? they ask.
I look up and around. So this is where an egg can become someone and something permanent. Unretractable once it’s alive and well. Or, it’s the place where the eggs will never become anything. My eggs. Where they will fall like fruit left to rot until there isn’t any more left to fall. I lay my hands on my belly, expecting it to feel coal-hot.
I imagine, but that is as far as it takes me.
Gionni Ponce (Nonfiction Editor): As editors, we believe in the work we publish at Indiana Review, and it’s exciting when others also acknowledge the excellence of our essays. In 2014, “Cartesian Anxiety in a Bleeding I” was chosen as a Best American Essay notable. Though we’ve posted an excerpt of the essay in the past, we’d like to make the full text available now. This essay manages the difficult task of balancing an intellectual exploration of a woman’s bleeding body with resonating and vibrant images. Though the essay calls on Descartes’s biography, 1950s medical reports, lunar phase descriptions, and numerous footnotes, Freeman’s work never alienates the readers from the root of her concern–her body’s possibility.
This piece appeared in Indiana Review 35.2 in Summer 2014.
Camellia Freeman’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Image, Portland Review, and elsewhere. Past honors include Image’s Milton Postgraduate Fellowship, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and an OAC residency in Provincetown.