Monday, May 16, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "The Redeeming Word" (on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Private Notebooks 1914-1916, edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff)

the redeeming word

by Douglas Messerli

 

Ludwig Wittgenstein Private Notebooks 1914-1916, Edited and Translated by Marjorie Perloff (New York: Liveright, 2022)

 


What was the important 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein really like as a human being? Although we have a provocative film by Derek Jarman about him (1993), a fine fiction concerning the man by Bruce Duffy, The World As I Found It (1987), and we have numerous observations from the many students, biographers, admirers, detractors, and acolytes who met him or simply report second-hand, describing him in various terms—"He was very impatient and easily angered” (Norman Malcolm); at times he is "absolutely sulky and snappish"(David Pinsent); Wittgenstein was a tormented soul who made little effort to be liked (Ray Monk); “Both he and his setting were very unnerving. His extraordinary directness of approach and the absence of paraphernalia were the things that unnerved people” (Iris Murdoch); “he used his power over people to extract worship” (Alice Ambrose), while others describe him as somewhat affable at moments, a man who loved popular films and reading detective stories.  Although Ambrose also noted that there was “a very great deal in him to love, there were as many others such as Elizabeth Anscombe who apparently believe that all that truly matters is the philosophical writing itself, even though much of Wittgenstein’s thinking was left unpublished at the time of his death since his was a commitment to an ongoing revelation of thought that could never be entirely completed except with death.  Other than his   first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus (1922), he produced, as Marjorie Perloff tells us, “approximately 20,000 pages of manuscript and typescript,” some of it almost ready for publication. The final volume that was assembled by his former students, disciples. and editors became Philosophical Investigations. Yet, for Anscombe the entire focus on Wittgenstein should necessarily be on these philosophical writings with no attention at all to his corporeal being, an argument arising, it appears, from the solipsistic position that since she does not fully understand Ludwig, no one else should attempt to:

 

“If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life, I should have pressed that button.... Further, I must confess that I feel deeply suspicious of anyone’s claim to have understood Wittgenstein. That is perhaps because...I am very sure that I did not understand him.”

 

    Surely there is a certain logic to Anscombe’s thinking. I myself have noted that among my friends a person of special genius produces various contradictory reactions in others, some finding this remarkable writer and raconteur to be off-putting and dismissive, others angry that their brilliant acquaintance doesn’t allow them equal time in conversations to express their own views; some outrightly hate the intelligent friend, demeaning any expressed viewpoints more out of envy it appears than actual logic; and still others sit quietly at the feet of my genius friend in dumb admiration. None of these reactions seem appropriate to the person I know well and love. But that is always the way with individuals of genius or any kind of notable eccentricity.

      Does it truly matter that the philosopher was also a living, breathing being who had sometimes very ordinary habits and desires? Other than our fascination in any celebrity’s ordinariness isn’t it the art, writing, dance, music, acting, or thinking that is paramount?

      Of course it does very much matter. We want our gods always to be slightly fallen messes of human frailties so that we are not made to feel that their gifts were out of reach for us ordinary human beings. And we like to imagine how someone very much like us might also have been able to accomplish all the other things he or she did. Perhaps if, like Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy, the latter a writer who Wittgenstein very much admired, the philosopher had simply had a wife whom he deeply loved, cheated on, or maltreated no one might make an issue of Wittgenstein’s private life once a biographer a biographer had provided us with all the juicy tidbits.

       But so much of Wittgenstein’s private life remains unknown and unexplored, and as we have begun to discover in the years since his death, much of this was not his own doing as it was a series purposeful acts by those to whom he entrusted his manuscripts and others who have kept still in their biographical studies, it clearly becomes even more important that we need to know as much about the man as we can, even if that is highly selective and limited information.

      This particular genius, moreover, was not only a queer human in the sense of being an odd fellow, something we might well expect of a great intellect, but was queer in the 20th century use of that term, a homosexual, which has been well documented in his commentary and remarks.

       And as Marjorie Perloff suggests, without putting it as bluntly as I now do, the Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his days in England was the subject of homophobia and the resistance to the revelation of his sexuality that always travels along with that state of mind. In 1954 the editors of what came to be called The  Nachlass—the collection of Wittgenstein’s unpublished notebooks, ledgers, typescripts, and collection of clippings—decided to publish his notebooks written during his service in World War I from 1914-1916, what was left along with three of four other such notebooks of the same period which were missing, “lost or destroyed.” But as Perloff notes, “they chose only those sections they regarded as philosophically relevant,” excluding the entries of the verso side of the notebooks which were coded, acceding perhaps the master’s suggestion of “Keep Out,” although the code was an easy one that Wittgenstein had used as a child with his sisters in which a is replaced by z, b by y, etc. The 1961 edition, published by Blackwell (later by the University of Chicago Press in 1979) contains only the right-hand pages, without giving any evidence of what is missing.

      When later in the 1960s the executors were trying to decide what to do with the coded remarks for a new Cornell microfilm edition of the Nachlass, another of the three executors, Rush Rhees commented:

 

“I wished (and do) that W. had not written those passages. I do not know why he wanted to; but I think I do understand in a way, and I understand then also why he chose this ambiguous medium. I fear especially that if they are published by themselves—not in the contexts (repeat: contexts) in which they were written; so that what was a minor and occasional undertone to Wittgenstein’s life and thinking, will appear as a dominant obsession.”

 

      The phrase “minor and occasional undertone,” Perloff perceptively argues refers to Wittgenstein’s expression of “sexual (specifically, homosexual) desire.” To solve their dilemma, Perloff tells us, quite shockingly, first a microfilm of the entire manuscript was produced, and then a second was made in which the coded remarks were blacked out. Scholars saw the expurgated copy only.

      The third of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, G. H. von Wright, however, took a different tack and published a book of 1,500 remarks from different manuscripts of Wittgenstein to express the philosopher’s views on “culture and value,” published in German as Vermischte Bermerkungen in 1977. The bilingual, German/English edition of this book has gone through several printings, and Perloff finds it inevitable, accordingly, that given this focus on Wittgenstein’s cultural values that his private notebooks might also draw, as it did, the attention of readers. The Private Notebooks were finally published—transcribed from the code cracked by Alois Pilcher and fellow scholars— by Wilhelm Baum under the title Geheime Tagebūcher, published in Vienna in 1991.

       Elizabeth Anscombe immediately sued, which basically banned the book until in 2014 Baum changed the title to Wittgenstein im Ersten Welkrieg along with new introductory material explaining the context of his book. But by this time, after major biographies by Brian McGuinness and Ray Monk, the actual edition of the private notebooks was basically ignored. And in his comments about them Monk downplays any essential significance, suggesting that Wittgenstein was not as uneasy about homosexuality as he was about sex itself. “Sexual arousal, both homo- and heterosexual, troubled him enormously. He seemed to regard it as incompatible with the sort of person he wanted to be.”

      Yet for the years after Wittgenstein’s death, his most private and personal of works remained unavailable in English until this year’s wonderful translation of Private Notebooks 1914-1916, by Perloff, published in a bi-lingual by Liveright.

       That does not mean that we suddenly have a true revelation of the “gay” Wittgenstein, if there was ever such a being. Even uncoded, Wittgenstein’s notebooks are written in a kind of code, a decorum that simply refuses to fully discuss many things, and not just of the sexual kind. But certainly this is not the sort of daily diary that any straight doughboy might have kept—or even a homosexual one such as Wilfred Owen.*

        First of all Wittgenstein, who might easily have been given a medical exemption and because of his family wealth and social standing surely could have served as an officer, chose instead to enlist as an ordinary foot soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire Army serving as a searchlight orderly on a boat, the Goplana, crawling up and down the Vistula River from Kraków to Gdańsk, almost always under the watch and gunfire of the Russian enemy. Wittgenstein had no political allegiances and at one point in the notebooks even proclaims that the British will surely win being a superior people. And he had previously given away most of his inheritance to poets and writers selected by an agent, having little knowledge of contemporary poetry.

          It is clear, given these strange decisions, that the young thinker saw the experience as a kind of crucible in which to examine his own life to see if he might survive the kind of moral intensity he would have to undertake in order to truly examine meaning as he intended to. Accordingly, he wrote a personal record of that experience while simultaneously attempting to get to the heart of issues in which his philosophy would take him: “What cannot be said, cannot be said,” later expressed in Tractatus as “Of what one cannot speak, of that one must be silent.” He hoped that by the end of his service, if he survived, that he might be made over into another man, which he finally comes to realize by the Notebook’s end, which he has indeed become simply as a survivor.

        That does not mean that he does not express the pain he suffers. Like any soldier, for much of the time he is simply worn out from the terrible sleeping accommodations and the long nights he is made to stand duty, usually alone without a properly working searchlight. And the vast majority of the entries are devoted to the “pack of rogues,” tough, uneducated thugs from the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as, Perloff suggests, “the provinces of Serbia or eastern Hungary” all too ready to make fun of the somewhat effeminate book-reading effete (his voice was described as a “ringing tenor”) who probably was equally dismissive of and aloof from them. Given the intensity of their torment it is also apparent to any gay individual who has been bullied that they knew he was a homosexual.

       Indeed, any gay reader will recognize in passage after passage of these strange notebooks an understated representation of gay bullying and determined denigration. No matter what his opinion is of them, it clearly hurts, and ultimately ends in his deep depression, having perhaps never before encountered so many coarse beings who he describes as seemingly “non-human.”

      Just a few random passages from Private Notebooks makes it clear how much this becomes a repeated theme. He begins good naturedly enough, recognizing how ridiculous his position is:

 

10.8.14

 

“I’ll need a great deal of good humor and philosophy to feel at home here. When I woke up this morning, I felt as if I were in the middle of one of those dreams in which, for no reason at all, you are suddenly sitting in a schoolroom. Given my position, there is of course much to laugh at & I perform the most menial tasks, smiling ironically.”

 

     But quite soon, the complaints show his inability to keep either humor or philosophize about the situation.

 

13.8.14

 

“Day before yesterday at the captain’s. I was quite rattled & didn’t appear appropriately military to him. He was a little sarcastic toward me and I didn’t find him very likeable.”

 

16.8.14

 

“Again: the stupidity, insolence and malice of this bunch knows no limits. Every job turns into torture.”

 

25.8.14

 

“Yesterday a terrible day. In the evening the searchlight would not function. As I was trying to fix it, I was interrupted by my shipmates with shouts and catcalls etc.”

 

15.9.14

 

“Night before last, terrible scenes: practically everyone drunk.”

 

20.9.14

 

“Yes. again: it is infinitely hard not to take a stand against the malice of human beings! For the malice of beings inflicts a wound every time.”

 

     A year later things have obviously gotten even worse:

 

4.13.15

 

“Am morally blank; but I see the enormous difficulty of my position and so far, it is entirely unclear to me to how to correct it.”

 

5.3.15

 

“Talked to Gürth today about my humiliating position. No decision yet.”

 

6.3.15

 

 “My situation is still not resolved. My mood very variable.—.”

 

     And for days after, he repeats again and again, “Situation unresolved.” Indeed we wonder at moments whether or not some of the problems stem from his own sexual responses to the other crew members; at one point later in the Notebooks Wittgenstein suggests that things have become very tense with a Lieutenant and that it may come to a duel. Interestingly, in the midst of these cries for help, he still expresses his sexual feelings, an odd placement for them.

 

9.3.15

 

“Situation unresolved! = . Mood wary but dark.—”

 

     The very next day:

 

10.3.15

 

Strongly sexually aroused. Undecided. Restless in spirit.=.

 

     And the following days he writes still of an unchanged “situation.” That this “situation” and his sexual arousal is somehow connected is made even more clear when a few days later he receives a letter from his beloved friend and student David Pinsent:

 

18.3.15

 

“Lovely letter from David yesterday!— ....Replied to David. Feeling very aroused.” (Compare this with the entry from 21.12.14.: “A letter from David!! I kissed it.”)

 

And his feeling of arousal continues over the next few days.

      In short, the pattern is quite clear: like so very many bullied gay school boys, the torture  appears to alternate with sexual desire, perhaps even for one of his bullies, a kind of early S & M syndrome, which would explain, if true, what William Warren Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein claims, to have unearthed evidence of the philosopher’s taste for “rough trade” in a Viennese park.

      The tension between these two forces as expressed in these notebooks is not dissimilar from the pulls between his belief in God and a denial of religion that is very much at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophical undertakings—characterized in these notebooks as “my work” meaning his writing, not his activities as a soldier—that activity itself being generally expressed in an alternating pattern of progress and a complete breakdown, days of good work followed by an inability to move on. One might be tempted, in fact, to describe Wittgenstein as being somewhat like a manic depressive, with a pattern of remarkable achievement before collapsing into near despair.

      If these personal expressions, however, still seem ambivalently expressed even with the code broken we must also ask ourselves how could they not be so at a time when homosexuality was outlawed in both England and Germany (paragraph 175 of German penal code was not abolished until 1994, and despite the later openness of homosexuality in Weimar Germany after the War, British law required imprisonment and other punishments until section 28 was abolished in 2000). One need only to recall the evident suicide of another Cambridge University genius, Alan Turing to realize the consequences of openly expressing one’s homosexuality.**

       In fact, Wittgenstein appears to be quite open about his homosexuality with regard to his trip to Vienna with his commander. Returning to his home city, he mentions his mother and family only in passing, but makes an important note to himself: “Let me note here that my moral standing is now much lower than it was at Easter.” (2.1.15), which to me reads as an obvious statement of having had some sexual encounters while in the city. One can only wonder, moreover, if his “moral standing” has anything to do with Gürth, who in describes in the entry from 10.1.15, “Had many very pleasant hours with Gürth. Am very curious about my future life.—.” Or, perhaps, it is more connected with his repeated trips to the baths, which even though were universally used by men and women to get a thorough cleansing of the body in the days before some had indoor plumbing, were even then a place where one could engage in same-sex activities in the gender-separated sweating rooms and pools.

    And, finally, any gay male would recognize that it was highly unlikely that a heterosexual doughboy would note again and again throughout the Private Notebooks every time he masturbated. If a straight soldier were even to keep such a diary it might surely be full of the visits he made on return to Krákow to the brothels or a woman’s apartment, but surely would not record for himself his masturbatory habits as does Wittgenstein. I may be mistaken, but appears to me that young heterosexual males don’t like to even talk about masturbation since it presumes that they are unable to find sex with a female, and might hint of sexual abnormality.

     Far from Monk’s assertion that sexual arousal “troubled him enormously,” this Wittgenstein seems very much fascinated by it, perhaps by the fact that he even could continue to fantasize a sexual object successfully enough to masturbate; despite the tortures his fellow “rouges” put him through, he still could get aroused, or today as we might describe, he still remained quite sexually horny.

     This is clearly not a record of his humiliations or misdemeanors but almost a listing of his abilities to retain his sexual identity despite what he describes in these self-reflective works, which up until the end of these writings haunt him: “Not in the best of health and sick to my soul as a result of the bigotry and meanness of my compatriots” (6.18.16). To the very end Wittgenstein is aware of his being queer, different and hated by those around him for simply who he is. But he has survived and by the end of the Private Notebooks seems to have answered his question of 1.6.15, “Is there a priori an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?

       On 12.8.16, answers: “The ‘I’ makes its appearance in philosophy by means of the idea that the world is my world. / This is connected with the fact that none of our experience is a priori. / Everything we see could be otherwise.

       19.8.16: “Surrounded by viciousness. God will help me,” he closes with a sense of hope, even if as he earlier comments: “The redeeming word...has not yet been articulated.” (p. 149), which I can only imagine, if such a word does exist, to be “liebe, love.”  

       In the end, accordingly, Wittgenstein’s personal life does very much matter, not only because it has helped lead him to his philosophical revelations, but shows us a suffering yet enduring and even resilient individual battling the sexual bigotry around him. It angers me when I am told by others, accordingly, that these issues don’t matter in the life of a thinker I so very much admire. I am not interested in his sexuality for prurient reasons but for the fact that he did think it worth his keeping a record of his personal engagement with a world which he had been ill-raised to confront but with which he obviously deemed it necessary to engage.

      The fact that even a “god,” as John Maynard Keynes (himself a gay man) described him, had to endure harassment for being gay in his own life, and suffered yet more homophobia by his beloved followers and admirers, and now even after Perloff’s important contribution, is still being denied the truths he himself recorded*** reveals that homosexuality is still a troubling topic for many in our society. The advances many gays have made in the last several decades is being threatened anew in the US and throughout the world.

      

*Owens wrote back from the war:  “There are two French girls in my billet, daughters of the Mayor, who (I suppose because of my French) single me out for their joyful gratitude for La Déliverance. Naturally I talk to them a good deal; so much so that the jealousy of other officers resulted in a Subalterns’ Court Martial being held on me! The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter.”

 

**Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide, which helps to explain some of his final entries about suicide in Private Notebooks. In two instances, the reasons for the brothers’ deaths seem vague, but in his brother Rudi’s case, he was known, before his drinking a glass of milk and potassium cyanide in a Berlin bar, to have what a friend described as a “perverted disposition.” Shortly before, he evidently sought advice from the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, an organization campaigning against Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which prohibited homosexual sex.

 

***An anonymous reader on Amazon wrote almost as much as Perloff has in her short section introductions and final essay to this book in an attempt to browbeat the critic and deter any potential reader for her having even suggested that Wittgenstein was a homosexual. His or her running thesis is “This book is mostly Perloff’s attempt to conjure and reify Wittgenstein as a homosexual. She does this without evidence and by implication, inference, insinuation, leaps in logic, fake causality, association, and by saying “no doubt” and “of course” a lot. What she lacks in evidence, she attempts to make up for by brow-beating the reader into submission and agreement. For some reason she wants Wittgenstein to have been a homosexual. Her narrow personal agenda, in this regard, casts a pall over this book. She abdicates her responsibility. She disrespects the reader and she disrespects Wittgenstein and his legacy.”

      I laughed heartily at these comments since most readers have now long know of the philosopher’s sexual preference, the subject even of a movie by note director Derek Jarman. The homophobia of this review is so obvious that it is quite frightening.

      Does he or she imagine that the Wittgenstein’s coarse military compatriots are mocking and abusing him for his proper use of German or his ability to speak English, for his refined manners, or something similar? These are generally not the sources of the kind of bullying he implies.

 

Los Angeles, May 15, 2022

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (May 2022)

     

Monday, January 24, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "The Double Room" (after Baudelaire)


The Double Room

                              (after Baudelaire)

some rooms are like dreams, spiritual rooms, where the dense air is tinted blue and pink.

There the soul can bathe in indulgence fragranted by desire and regret as at twilight, when all the blues become roseate, a sensate dream in eclipse. The furniture, elongated, languid, almost prostrate, seems to be dreaming itself, endowed with that somnambulistic existence we attribute to vegetables and precious rocks. Even the hangings speak the silent language of the heavens, of flowers, of suns about to set. 

No abomination of art upon the walls. Compared to the dream, to the obscure impression, art, with its statements, is blasphemy. In this room everything is bathed in a vagueness that produces harmony itself. 

An infinitesimally scant scent, exquisitely chosen, mingled with the slightest small of damp, floats through this hothouse environment, cradling the spirit in sleep. 

Over the window and bed muslin in diaphanous masses cascades into snowy cataracts. And on the bed lies the Idol, sovereign of my dreams. How has she come to be here? What magic power has placed her upon the throne of so much contemplation, so much pleasure? Does it matter? She is there, and I genuflect.

Yes, it is her eyes from which the flame pierces the darkening sky; those subtle and terrible spheres which I recognized by their aw-inspiring spite. They attract, subjugate, devour the gaze of the impudent. How often have I studied those black stars, arousing in me so much curiosity—and admiration. 

To what benevolent demon do I owe all this mystery, silence, perfume, peace? O yes! What we usually call life, even at its fullest and happiest hours, cannot compare to what I now experience, minute by minute, instant by instant. 

No! There are no more minutes, no seconds left! Time has disappeared. It is Eternity, an Eternity of pleasure that rules now. 

But on the door a knock, a resounding clamor of the fist, and I, as in some infernal nightmare, feel a pitchfork being stuck into my gut.

Enter the ghost, a sheriff come to torture me in the name of the law; or an infamous whore come with accusations to add to the petty pleasure of her life and the sorrow of mine; or a boy from the newsroom sent by the editor to back the sequel to my last installment.

That paradisiacal room along with the Idol, sovereign of my dreams (my Sylphid, as the great René used to say), all that enchantment has vanished with the brutal knock. 

How awful! I remember. Yes, now I recall! This filthy hovel, the dwelling place of boredom is my own. Look at those stupid, dusty, dilapidated tables and chairs; no fire in the hearth, without even embers, soiled by spittle. And these excuses for windows with furrows traced by the rain across their muck; manuscripts half-erased; the almanac wherein my pencil has circled sinister dates. 

And that intoxicating perfume wafting from a world beyond this? The stank of stale tobacco commingled with the sickening of must has taken its place. A rancid smell of waste. 

In this narrow world, so full of disgust there is but one object of delight: a vial of opium, my terrible, old love, who like all mistresses, alas, betrays me as often as she takes me to her breast. 

O yes, Time has returned to be reinstated as the sovereign lord of this place. And with him his entire retinue of Memories, Spasms, Fears, Agonies, Nightmares, Nerves, Rages, and Regrets, all have come back.

I can assure you that every second now is accented strongly by the clock, each after each calling out, “I am Life, unbearable, unmerciful Life!” 

One second only in the lives of men announces good news, and that news puts terror into the heart of every man. 

Yes, Time again rules; he has resumed his tyranny. He pokes me with his fork-shaped prod as if I were an ox: “Move on, you beast! Sweat, slave, sweat! Live and be damned!”

 

 

 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Douglas Messerli | "Ninety Lines for Marjorie Perloff"

 


ninety lines

                           for Marjorie Perloff

 

My parents simply could not

like a vortex purge

the cyclical fluctuations

of the japanise pavilion

where you see silk spinning.

 

In China the bat

is a symbol of happiness.

 

I mean the line between

sense and nonsense is of course

a narrow one. Rocks are emitted

by sentences to the eye.

 

My mean my parents went on

occasional trips into

the countryside which is what

every Austrian does on a dreary day.

 

And sentences pile up so high

you need at times to drill into

them to discover the existing modes

of representation.

 

Molly Bloom is on her bed.

To tell a story is to find a way

of knowing how to reach

the world. Philosophical analysis

does not give us any new facts.

 

I mean, I wore my Davy Crockett hat.

I opened my clothes to the moon.

I negotiated with Mussolini.

Anyone can deal with a set of

“disgusting old rags.”

 

Sentences are sometimes digested

by the rocks of civilization.

 

What time the next train leaves

or doesn’t doesn’t

matter. I tried to find the hourglass

but something got mixed up.

We took a photograph

of the wrong house.

 

To deny the normal

syntactic integrity

of arcane vocabularies

confuses reference.

 

To mime the coming awareness

of the mind is to face the

glut of impossible wrong turns.

 

Eyes are often encapsulated

into rocks like little steins.

And we grow weary of the trip

toward the necessary confusion

of the destination we know

we have started out for too late.

 

What time is it?

Molly Bloom is on her bed.

Yes, and the integrity

of the spinning is growing

ragged. I can give you only gossip.

 

Since in the view of many

of our poets the world doesn’t

truly make sense, we have to mime

the mind awakening each morning

to realize we took the wrong turn

in the middle of the night.

 

You can’t negotiate with a dictator.

And civilization generally rocks

its way back to sleep despite

the vortex into which it has been

thrust. I still have it in the closet.

My Wittgenstein to tell me

what I can never ever know.

 

There was a japanise lady to selling sings.

And the noise was overwhelming.

My mother brought us several cakes

and books to keep us calm. We were

so very quiet that we slipped

into Italy. Time stood still:

I had no thought for the next day, week,

or year. I don't recall wondering what

our new house would be like,

where I would go to school.

 

Molly Bloom was my first teacher.

Yes, she was. Gertrude Stein my second

grade teacher in the new American school

where I could no longer negotiate

with the handsome cowboy I would

soon discover at my side. He was so

very charming and so beautiful I said

and I said and I said, yes, and I said.

 

The world does not truly make sense.

Rocks are nothing more or less than stones.

Philosophical analysis does not give us any new facts.

To call the bats "disgusting" is to neutralize their force.

 

September 28, 2021

 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Waking Up Asleep (on my endless adventures in attempting to get a hip replacement)

waking up asleep

by Douglas Messerli

For the past year and a half—with the duel patterns of mass isolation due to the world-wide invasion of the virus COVID and its variants—perhaps the most shattering international tragedy since World War II*—and the absurdist transformation of US politics in which a formerly troubled but seemingly sane nation suddenly woke up to discover that the other half of the population had apparently gone stark-raving mad (and presumably that represents the situation for both sides of the issue)—I have the feeling that I have been living in some vast dream: a nightmare at times, a comic and even absurdist farce at other moments, but overall simply living in a world that doesn’t seem to be logical, in which no matter how hard I try I can’t quite reach out of the others who seem to be sharing their own versions of this dream.

      The utter isolation—in California we were appropriately ordered to a semi-lockdown and have never completely abandoned the requirement of wearing masks when we come into contact with other human beings (I often just long to catch glimpse again of my friends’ full faces)—has been made even more queer in Howard’s and my case simply because of our own bodily frailties. Beginning about this time last year Howard started to show signs of what appeared to be something akin to Alzheimer’s disease as he retreated to the couch, found it difficult to even stand, and begin to forget everything he once attended to so very capably, including paying bills, shopping, cooking, and cleaning the house, all tasks which I gladly took over while being terribly worried by his abandonment of them. I masked up and darted out to grocery stores and carry-out restaurants, cooked our home meals, wrote out our checks, and helped him to the bathroom and shower, while he began also to show signs of something more serious in his abdominal area.

      Indeed, it was quite serious. I pulled out our old walker and forced him to the hospital emergency room, after a stop by our excellent gastroenterologist, where he was diagnosed as having an acute gall bladder infection which was discovered during the operation to be gangrenous, almost costing his life. His behavior was soon explained by the long-term effects of that infection.

Had he become ill just a few weeks later, after the second wave of COVID sufferers of December and January 2020 which filled the hospitals to capacity, he might not have found a hospital bed and would surely have died.

      So Howard returned home and to normal health after a period of recovery, during which we bonded in an even further sense of isolation, as recovering couples do since there is no way to completely explain to others the effects of such a near-brush with death.

      Both of us were also recovering in other ways as well, since I had stopped drinking, cold turkey in June of 2020, and Howard stopped the day he was hospitalized. We remain sober despite so many lovely temptations to tilt a cocktail glass to toast our survival.

      But hardly had Howard fully recovered but I began to have difficulties, arthritis of the hip striking so quickly that what first appeared to be a simple sprain or illogical bruise grew day by day to a limp and then a dull pain that over the weeks grew sharper and sharper. A trip to an orthopedic specialist led to a diagnosis of severe loss of hip cartilage, with my hip bones rubbing rawly against one another.  A steroid provided some months of improvement.

      The pain, however, began to return, this time even more severely, and another visit to my orthopedist indicated that it was time, finally, for a hip replacement.

       Once more we hunkered down in a time of international hunkering to prepare for my operation. Howard returned to his role of shopper, home chef, and nurse as I grew increasingly more lame, hardly even able to make the long trip downstairs in our vast condominium complex to check the mail, let alone to travel out—except of course to further doctors necessary to prepare for the surgery, planned for more than month away since medics in this time of despair were so very much in demand.

       The pain increased. Even though I had always thought of myself as being highly pain tolerant, if I was grading it on a 1-10 scale I would describe it as a 7 or 8. I called to see if they might move my surgery just a week or too earlier, which they were able to accommodate.

       Like a sleep-walking soldier I marched to my primary physician to pass a series of blood tests, an electrocardiogram (EKG), a chest X-ray, and hundreds of questions repeated so many times over the past several months regarding my state of health with regard to COVID symptoms that it has almost replaced the US Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner in my memory bank.

I gave up my daily aspirin, my fish-oil pills for cholesterol, and some of my vitamin supplements that are all incompatible with surgery.

        Yet there was yet one more hurdle which had never before been set up in my path: because of my age (terrible words the doctors invoke to remind you the miracle of your having survived all of these years only through their hard work and medical knowledge) I would need to undergo a “stress test.” Of course, most such tests involve asking the patient to run for a while on a treadmill in order to raise the heartbeat so they can check if everything is going smoothly when the body is functioning full force. Obviously, since I could barely walk, let alone run, the treadmill was an impossibility; but nowadays, they can inject chemicals which bring up the heart rate without any motion.

       Again because of COVID and the stress of isolation and politics, I might guess, cardiologists are very much in demand. And the only appointment they could schedule, despite my doctor’s prescription of the test’s urgency, was the day before my operation. I knew from the start this represented a dangerously close hurdle over which to leap before I landed in my hospital bed.

       Meanwhile, I received calls at least once a week advising me of the logistics, reminding me what pills to stop taking, what foods to remove from my diet, and when to start fasting, as well as testing my aged memory by requesting over and over for me to repeat the daily pill regimen, my name, by birthdate, my phone number, and the capitol of Afghanistan. Perhaps I am confusing the outer world with my inner, something that happens perhaps to all of us in these days of mass catatonia.

       During the long wait, moreover, I was losing more and more power over my bodily motions. To bend down to make the bed with Howard, a daily morning ritual, was an increasingly impossible series of actions. To use the toilet was a torture since it involves moving into a near squat position, putting intense pressure upon the aching hip bones and increasingly exhausted leg muscles which have been asked to substitute for activities the hip might have previously facilitated.

        I rarely left the house during these days except for another visit to the surgeon for several more detailed x-rays, since, I was told, the fit had to be absolute and the artificial replacement was molded particularly for my personal hip abnormalities.

        As I described it to Howard, I felt that each day brought about new capitulations to age and death. I now could only put on and remove my pants by sitting on the bed. I could no longer bend to put on socks. Howard purchased me a new pair of downy-lined slippers to serve as my shoes. Nervous and irritated by my increasing sense of aging, I snacked on childhood favorites. I gained weight, which obviously was helped along by difficulty in getting any exercise. Finally, I was forced to rely on a cane.

        It was the day before my surgery when I finally entered the door of the cardiologist’s office to take my stress test. As they put the injection into my system they asked if I’d taken my blood pressure medicine that morning. I had, I told them, since no one had told me not to and the procedures I’d had in the past all required a fairly normal blood pressure. “I took it very early, at 2:30 that morning,” I responded. But they were still dubious. Beta blockers work against the very goal of this test. As expected, my blood pressure rose higher and higher while by blood rate barely inched up. The doctor was called in, and the test cancelled.

        I was angry, frustrated as all my doctors reported back that the surgery would have to be cancelled, and I would need to get in line, after another stress test, to make yet a appointment for my hip replacement.

        The next morning I apologized to my primary doctor for demonstrating that frustration and was about to call to make an appointment for another stress test when she called me, gracefully accepting my apologies, but also announcing she was now asking that I consult with a cardiologist. Now, I realized, I had gone even one step back since I would have to visit the doctor before having the test before, if I passed the test, I could begin to make another appointment for hip replacement surgery. The first time I could get an appointment with the new cardiologist was another month in the future.

       For that month, predictably, I continued my decline in my walking abilities. The pain had reached an imaginary number 10 on my little scale. I walked about the house winching in occasional tears. I wondered whether I might ever walk normally again.

       Fortunately, I was living in the nightmarish dream the entire nation was suffering. Soon everyone remembered the name of the capitol of Afghanistan. People who had confused their medicines with politics were dying as if it were the normal result of such fervent beliefs. Politicians didn’t seem to mind sentencing entire state-wide populations to suffer a murderous disease if they could get a few more votes by arguing against medical advice. So I was not going to join them by further arguing against my now several doctor’s maxim: “It’s better to find out that something is wrong with your heart before having a heart attack on the surgeon’s table from which you might never wake up.”

       When, I asked over and over, might we all wake up? This dream was now beginning to look like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But not as pleasingly exotic, just strange and frightening. Fires were burning hundreds of acres across the Western states.

        Another month passed and the very young and extremely knowledgeable cardiologist recommended a new blood pressure prescription and arranged for another stress test, this one including a nuclear component where they followed a small radioactive trail through your veins after having chemically set your heartbeat into full motion. Everything seemed to go well, even though my worst nightmare came true, since I suffer from claustrophobia, when they required my body to completely enter a narrow camera chamber for a five minute wait—twice. But the news a couple of days later from the cardiologist himself was not so good.

       Evidently my veins suffered from a great deal of calcification, which presumably is what is meant by “hardening of the arteries.” And I would have to undergo a hospital angiogram with the possible injection of a stent or two, which, since that would require another month or so of an aspirin regimen, would postpone any chance of finally getting my hip on the way to better health for two to three further months, moving it from August 1 to possibly November 2021, a year to the date after Howard’s hospitalization—that is if they had not by that time had to cancel all elective surgeries due to another wave of COVID infections.

 *    

I woke up this morning, September 1, 2021, feeling as if yesterday had been a dream within a dream, a strange personal space carved out of the large mass hallucination under which we all are suffering. I even asked Howard if yesterday had not been a dream, half seriously.

      It had started on Monday. The appointment for my angiogram had been scheduled for Friday, September 3rd and today I was scheduled to get a Cedars-Sinai COVID test. But on Monday my new cardiologist specialist, Mamoo Nakamura, had his assistant call to see if I might be able to switch my angiogram to Tuesday. The assistant began by suggesting the appointment would be at 2:30 in the afternoon, but quickly cancelled that, since she had still to arrange for a COVID test that morning and the time might change depending upon whether they had received the results of that test. She called again a short while later, saying that she’d made by COVID test appointment for 11:30 a.m., but that I should just wait around in the car to hear when they might be able to make the actual procedure time.

      Explaining to her that we lived only 6 minutes by auto from the hospital and that neither of us had cell phones on which she might call us** that it would be better if we returned home, she agreed, promising that the doctors would call me after the test to tell me of the actual time I should be back at the hospital.

      Tuesday morning I awoke early at 1:45 a.m. (another strange aspect of my dream days involve the fact that my schedule has radically returned to my childhood days when I used to go to bed after supper and rise early for my newspaper route before going to school). I had been fasting since 3:00 on Monday, and had had no water since 6:30 that afternoon. Amazingly, after swallowing one of my two daily painkillers I felt strong enough to waddle downstairs to check the mail.  

      All of my close friends know that in these mad days I have taken up an ever madder venture. Inexplicably just before COVID descended upon the globe, after nearly a lifetime of Howard and I living a very gay-removed lifestyle (see my essay “My Queer Cinema: A Prelude”) I have suddenly decided to re-engage with my LGBTQ roots, determining to write a multi-volume work, My Queer Cinema: LGBTQ Films Coded and Explicit 1887-2000 in which I have undertaken to write pieces on all and any film between those dates which pointed to or involved LGBTQ behavior. The inclusiveness of this volume is it’s defining feature, which gives a far broader perspective that ever before of just how important—despite all of the restrictions and film codes against representing homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and others—this minority was to filmmaking.

      Accordingly I wrote two essays (I have been, on average, writing 1 or 2 such essays each day), determined not to let my physical difficulties stand in my way. By that time it was necessary for Howard and me to ready ourselves for the quick trip to get a COVID test. I took the test without any difficulties and returned home to wait for their call.

      I answered several Email and Facebook messages and began to watch another movie, but still no telephone call. Howard was beginning to panic, but I reminded him of their promise to call and the fact that if I attempted to call to the office (which I eventually did) I would only get a recording which would not allow me to do anything but to leave a message, unable to contact any real human being.

     I grew disinterested in my film and time was clicking away without a call back. Finally at 2:20, after increasing impatience with what he perceived as my great calm, I agreed that we should quickly return to the hospital to at least see if they were expecting me.

      We arrived, quite miraculously, at 2:30 on schedule, checked in and discovered that indeed I had an appointment. Soon I was upstairs in the waiting room and a few minutes later I was called in for preparation, where they undress you, hook you up an intravenous tube and to a machine that randomly checks your blood pressure, heartbeat, temperature, etc. They ask you the standard questions again, about COVID obviously and about who you are, when you last ate, and if you can recall your name, your birthdate, your telephone, your medical pill regimen, and the capitol of Afghanistan. I now quickly answered their questionnaire, but discovered rather startlingly that I had lost 10 pounds from my weight check in the cardiologist’s office and that my blood pressure was near perfect. It seemed too good to be true.




      I should insert the fact that through my experience of several dozen of these hospital preparations (for various operations including prostate cancer and knee preplacement) and procedures (regular esophageal procedures for Barrett’s Syndrome and numerous colonoscopies) along with a few other such visits that the nurses at Cedars-Sinai are all human saints, thoroughly capable, filled with good sense and humor, and able to make you feel like you’re their only patient despite the dozens of others sitting in separate sheeted cubicles nearby. The escorts, bed-rollers, lab and operating room nurses, anesthesiologists, and doctors are equally excellent. Over the years doctors such as Jay Stein, Sean Rajaee, Merije T. Chukumerijie, Raena Olsen, and now Nakamura have been described to me by the nurses as the equivalent of the “rock stars” of their profession, the doctors they go to when they have problems. A couple of these saved our lives. So once I’m settled into the confines of the hospital I generally feel safe and well taken care of.

      This time was no different. Even the woman who rolled me into the procedure room had me laughing as she told stories about how she has utterly no sense of direction and had even gotten lost on her way from her house to her high school prom, only a short ways from her home which she had traveled five days a week for years.

       They were able to enter my veins from my wrist, and, after giving me a mild sedative which in no way that made me feel mentally impaired—I was awake and alert for the entire procedure and felt no pain—although the tests ended so quickly I may have lost my sense of time. The doctor, speaking a few inches away from my face, told me that all my veins were fully functioning, there was no blockage of blood, and I had only very minor calcification.

       They rolled me back to the room, fed me a chicken salad sandwich and cranberry juice, attended to my wrist wound for a little more than an hour, and invited Howard to help me dress. Soon I was up and whisked off into a wheelchair with wonderment. Everything that stood in the way to my hip salvation was now over so suddenly I hardly had time to let out a grateful gasp!

       Today I’ll call to see when I might be able to make another appointment. Stay tune to further adventures. Perhaps we will all soon wake up, vaguely able to recall all of these awful dream-like days. 

*The World Health Organization estimates that the total of deaths to date due to COVID are close to 3 million. With the Holocaust and military and other civilian deaths, from 70-80 million people were killed in World War II. The Korean Way is estimated to have killed about 3 million, but of course COVID has apparently a long ways to go before being eradicated.

** Howard finally broke down a purchased a cell phone just for my hospitalization, but has been having difficulty in getting it to fully function. I do think they called him in the lobby during my procedure yesterday.

Los Angeles, September 1, 2021

Reprinted from Green Integer blog (September 2021).