Notes from the Body

In Prague I began my Watson year by studying wood carving for marionette construction. It was an exercise of negative creation; you chip away at your material until, miraculously, a figure emerges. In Abian Semal, a small village in Bali, I recently attended a tooth filing ceremony. This was a ritual of blunting revelation; they filed away at your sharpest fangs, rounding off any demonic semblances until, as expected, your more human figure emerged.

In London I met a woman who suggested that the first puppet I ever encountered was my own skeleton.

In Kyoto I met an antique dealer who kept Bunraku heads, arms, and whole bodies among his collection of Japanese relics. Here I explored the inner mechanics of Bunraku manipulations: stick your left arm into the puppet’s back and grab hold of its neck where you’ll find a small network of levers affixed to strings running out into the puppet’s head. Pull the left one and the puppet blinks. Pull the front one and its head snaps into place. Only days earlier in Tokyo, on the recommendation of my friend Daiji, a Butoh dancers, I had booked an appointment to receive a special kind of single-needle acupuncture. It was invasive and intense. The acupuncturist, a former dancer himself, asked, "かんじる?"— do you feel it?— after every insertion. The correct answer was always yes. You were meant to feel the needle enter your body, meant to experience the resulting waves crashing beneath your skin, appearing out of nowhere yet clearly emanating from the tiniest of source points. Stick my right calf and my hip socket throbs. Stick the inside of my thigh and my big toe twitches uncontrollably.

Here in Denpasar, I slightly dislocated that same big toe last week after a night of barefoot Futsal with friends. It wasn’t awful but it was enough to impact my stride and my landlord’s son noticed. He recommended I show it to his father, who I guessed was an expert at this sort of thing based on his son’s broken English and the popping sounds he made as he pantomimed an invisible limb. The next day, his father prepared a small bowl of water and a vegetable that looked like a shallot. He cut the vegetable and mashed it in the water while reciting a prayer, then spread the mixture all over my foot. He pressed and kneaded into my leg. He massaged the top of my foot with his thumbs until the veins shown blue beneath the surface. He pressed into the middle digit of my second smallest toe, sending a searing sensation up my leg and into my face, clouding my vision. Letting go, he placed my two feet together and pressed into the space between my big and second toes with the tips of his biggest toes. From this position, we held hands as I stood up and sat down six times. Finally, he let go and asked how my toe felt. It was perfect. I was able walk as if nothing had happened— and indeed, I understood very little of all that had just happened.

Recounting these experiences, I feel myself growing newly aware of the beguiling honesty buried within the words, “second-nature". I see how the exuberance found in assimilating things formerly foreign can easily obscure an integral truth so clearly contained in the very construction of the phrase— that these are second-tiered masteries, at best. Breathing isn’t second nature, it is nature itself. But movement, our own bodies— these remain questions for me.

If there is any truth to be found in what I was told in London, if our own bodies really are our oldest puppets, it is a truth that I find difficult to comprehend from moment to moment. My own skeleton is hardly a foreign object; it ceased to be so soon after our first introduction. Over time, I grew so proficient at its daily manipulation that I stopped seeing it as manipulation at all. I had swaddled my skeleton. Physically inhabiting space— piloting my own body in real-time— no longer seemed miraculous; it was second nature. But this year has served me a global flow of contrarian reminders. I can no longer brush aside the gnawing fact that something alien lies buried deep in the relationship I keep with my own body. Though our now-twenty-three-year-old partnership feels like an old embrace, only my muscles know its deepest contours. Only they know the secrets resting in those most intimate pockets, secrets that they, too, have swaddled. My muscles have pressed these secrets so firmly against my bones that they are now etched into the calcium as invisibly as the prayer that my landlord silently etched into the shallot-like vegetable when he fixed my big toe.

I already feel that the deepest, most preciously kept answers to these secrets will remain inaccessible, inside me yet forever out of reach. It seems to me that they have been designed so as to be taken to my grave, only to be made visible after all that covers them has turned to dust. Nevertheless, I will continue to seek them out as I live. In my travels, I have found that this search can be an act of positive reverence; rather than hacking away at what we have in search of things buried beneath, we create metaphorical bodies and physical fictions as a way to pay our respects to mysteries at once too foreign and intimate to ever fully comprehend.

Samuel GoldComment