Brain Massage

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Some days ago, while Adrian Martin was giving me a brain massage (that’s how I call them, though I guess technically they are craniofacial massages), I remembered a dream: I’m driving a car and, suddenly, I discover that the brakes are not working; after the initial shock, I start sweating and panicking harder, because I understand that all I can do is keep driving until the vehicle runs out of gas.

Saying that I remember this dream might be an overstatement, since I’ve forgotten so many of its details. I don’t remember the streets, the landscape, the traffic, the weather; I don’t remember the colour, size or model of my car; I don’t remember where I was going or, for that matter, when I had learnt to drive! What I do remember is that I had good visibility: I was in some sort of elevated position that allowed me to see clearly — what a gift from heaven! — all that was coming towards me. And, of course, I remember the unbearable anguish that took hold of me the moment I realised I could not stop driving; the tension, the strain, the exhaustion of having to stay alert all the time; the anger that spread through my entire being when forced to do something that I didn’t want to do for an indeterminate amount of time; the acute anxiety at knowing that my life depended on doing precisely that; and the fear: plain fear that I may crash at the next turn, that I’m about to die.

This is a recurrent, albeit not a current, dream. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to remember my dreams. All I have, now, are a few old dreams. (Do you realise? Every sentence I write with the word “dream” sounds like some sort of melodramatic confession, coming from a cheap soap-opera, about the state of my soul. Well, it is not. It is not! At least, not intentionally. Intentionally, I’m just trying to be factual: despite my best efforts, I don’t remember my dreams.)

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in waking life, I still can’t drive. I know nothing about cars. I never got a license. I quit my driving lessons before having done any practical class. There were too many things about driving that annoyed me. To begin with, the sick proliferation of traffic signs and the arbitrariness of their placing. Let’s be frank, here: not even the most experienced drivers (and I know this for a fact: I’ve tested them) know the meaning of some of those obscure signs or the inner workings of the no less obscure hierarchy by means of which some signs cancel others. And, then, there’s the buzzing, the traffic jam at peak hour, the aggressiveness, the sudden accelerations and the brusque stops, the endless going around the block in order to find a place to park …

While my hippie friends thought of driving and saw freedom (the freedom to go from rave party to rave party in tattered vans painted with exotic colours and filled with less exotic — albeit abundant — drugs), I thought of driving and remembered Michael Douglas losing it in Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993), the excruciating sequence of Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), and my mum’s very palpable anxiety at driving us to school every morning in a red seat Panda that looked as safe as one of my childhood toys. And, so, I decided I’d be happier walking …

All this is to say that everybody has their ridiculous fantasies on which they think their life, happiness, and well-being depend: cars, babies, pets, money, status, posterity, wisdom, the unforgettable trip, the ideal job, the perfect blowjob, you name it. If I’ve renounced many of these things, it is not because I did not want them (though, in some cases, I really did not want them), but because (like with driving) the effort involved in “getting” them and the responsibility derived from “enjoying” them did not compensate me (does it ever compensate?). Sometimes, the renunciation was easy because the goods were just quite beyond my possibilities (can you imagine me searching for the perfect blowjob? That’d be a process for the ages!)

But, a house … A house does it for me. That’s a thing I can (and I do) dream of: “An immense cosmic house exists potentially in every dream of a house. From its core irradiate the winds, and the seagulls run out the windows” (Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space). I’ve imagined this house and I’ve invested it with the power to give me shelter, but also the peace and equilibrium I miss so much, and hopefully to reconcile me with the world. I’ve imagined that house, its rooms and corners, its ceilings and furniture, the little hidden places that I could finally fill with my things: I’ve imagined myself mapping my life in that house. I’ve thought that, in case I make it to old age (which seems less and less likely every day), I’d have, at least, a place to die — I need a place to die because I’m going to die alone (there’s little doubt about that) and I’d rather not do it in the streets.

The move to this house has been postponed multiple times this year — due to a series of bureaucratic complications, economic difficulties, absurd delays, plain ineptitude, all aided by the changing restrictions of an ever-present global pandemic. Many days, I’ve felt that I’m never going to get to this place. I’ve seen myself withering in this tawdry apartment where we can barely get water from the tap, where the Internet has been down for 46 days, and where my room is occupied by 50 boxes of books we started packing in June. So, I sit on the couch, looking at a collection of hydro-alcoholic gels, rubbish, cables, empty packs of cigarettes, masks, stains of humidity, and I think all is disintegrating at the same devastating speed I’m disintegrating myself. But, meanwhile, I keep waiting. And all this waiting has created a monster. And, sometimes, I’m afraid that if I ever get to the new place, this monster will devour it all …

Brain massages are the incontestable specialty of my wonderful boyfriend. He applies pressure in such an unpredictable way — both in terms of rhythm and force — that I’m never able to work out any pattern. All I can do is surrender to the tips of his fingers that just want to offer relief (and isn’t that nice?). What I like about brain massages, as different from other kind of massages, is that I can feel my bones softening, my brain decompressing, air and blood filtering my thoughts — allowing them to travel a bit, and travel lightly (which does not happen often).

And so, after a while, the miserable interior monologue that has accompanied me for months starts giving way to other images, memories, thoughts … (Don’t get too excited: they might be related materials, we are still in the same theme, but what breadth of circulation!). First, I’m visited by that old dream of mine in which I’m driving a car without brakes (the car actually has brakes; they are just not working — this just occurred to me). And, then, I’m visited by a memory of that same morning: me smashing my head so hard against doors, walls, furniture, anything solid really, that I still cannot understand why I didn’t just pass out (this memory probably aided by the mixture of pleasure and pain that the massage releases in the swollen spots of my head). And, then, I’m also visited by David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), a film about a bunch of people who get an incredible kick of imagining, witnessing, recreating, getting involved in, and fantasising with, car crashes (because the world has become so dull that the only way to have good fuck is blacking it out!).

***

This last year, I’ve been experiencing recurring episodes of a fever that is never cured. At the start, you think it’s a temporary disease and wait until it passes. But the fever comes back and, whenever it reappears, there’s nothing you can do: you have to go through it. Truly, I don’t have another way to put it: you are forced to go through it, and there’s little that offers relief. The periods between one episode and the next start shrinking: from months to weeks, from weeks to days, from days to hours. The fever becomes pervasive, permanently hovering and lurking. And you resign to the idea that that’s all there is: this sickness, these outbreaks, this uncontrollable and devastating spread.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the present state of the world under a pandemic — for that, you already have everybody else. I’m talking about feeling sad, directionless, lonely; about not having a language I can speak, or a place I belong to; about having lost track of what gives sense to my life; about missing a close knit circle of friends that understands me, enjoys my company, and (maybe, maybe) want to get high with me; about having been progressively robbed of the things that helped me breathe: I can’t think, I can’t write, I can’t put two images together, I can’t even fantasise without being overwhelmed by longing or hopelessness. It’s not just that I don’t have the time anymore; it’s that I don’t have the space, the capacity, the faith — I don’t have the fundamental, vital connection that allowed me to engage with things. And it hurts.

And, then, I’m also talking about having been swamped, with the sole purpose of having a place to live, into a bureaucratic nightmare that has sucked all life of me. These last three months, it’s as if my whole being had been snatched by bank extracts and transfers, rent payments, mortgage payments, tax statements, signatures, passwords, contracts, deeds, certificates, applications to get certificates, authorisations to attach to the application to get the damn certificate, more passwords (that must include a capital letter, plus a number, plus a special sign: isn’t it my fucking password? Why do you care!), phone numbers, extension numbers, report numbers, incidence numbers, IBAN numbers, TAN numbers … (Since when do we need so many TAN numbers for everything? Soon we won’t be able to have a shit without previously introducing the appointed TAN number to complete the transaction. Wait and see. Anyway, what else are you allowed to do, right?)

I am not surprised that, in Crash, they call their drive to collide cars “a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us”. They look at the highway and notice the increase in traffic: every car, a possibility for crashing. While these people see everywhere opportunities for a good fuck, all I see are opportunities for terrible fuck-ups. My life has become a muddle of processes that are never completed, that re-start again and again, making me gather for the third, fourth, fifth time the same papers for which I have begged three, four, five times already, and whose validity has expired because of this perpetual delay that we’ve come to call life. “Kafkaesque”, so say people who have never read Kafka and don’t know how Joseph K. ends.

There’s this scene in Crash where Vaughan delivers one of his hyper-excited speeches (and you have to give it to Elias Koteas, who plays this character as if he was always with a hard-on, with enough libidinal energy running through his veins as to set the film on fire): “The car crash is a fertilising, rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that is impossible in any other form. To experience that, to live that, that’s my project!” When a confused Ballard (James Spader) asks about “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology”, Vaughan retorts: “This is a crude sci-fi concept. It kind of floats on the surface and doesn’t threaten anybody”.

Well, crude it is; but, it ain’t science fiction anymore. Here’s what I’ve learnt this year: there are places where is already impossible to tell the difference between machine and human bodies — but not in the sexy way that the film presents (full of lumps and bumps, wounds and orifices, leather and prostheses, the heat of flesh and the freeze of steel). Nope. This is the scenario I’ve been dealing with: after 46 days without Internet connection and 36 days without electricity, after endless hours of fruitless calls to “customer service”, I’m happier when an answering machine tells me “Cristina, I don’t understand what you are saying”, than when a person (and it’s person, after person, after person, after person) repeats, in a robotic voice: “I’m sorry for your inconvenience and I apologise in the name of the company”. They apologise in the name of the company! You know what? Get me OUT of this fucking world!

As for the libidinal energy released by a car crash, I should know something about it. At 27, while I travelled with three friends en route to a music festival in Madrid, we crashed. I was sleeping when it happened and was happily in shock afterwards. The girl travelling in the back seat with me yelled and tossed me around, urging me to exit that bundle of metal we used to call a car, because she could smell fire. Apparently, I was too busy dozing off. All I remember is this: I’m lying on the asphalt, our stuff is scattered in all directions and there’s blood everywhere; I hear the sound of ambulances and the voices of people that gather around me, asking if I’m hurt and reassuring me that my friends are ok. And, then, my phone rings.

It took me a while to recognise that the melody I was hearing came from my phone, that the half-broken phone was still in my pocket, and that the person on the other side of the line was my boyfriend. He wanted to know what stage of the trip we were at. Half numb, half exhilarated, I told him: “I think we’ve crashed. But we will be going soon, we’ll be there soon.” Ha!

***

Usually, I would have cringed in disbelief and horror at the mere suggestion of a vague link between “what I feel” and the state of the world at large. (It’s a long story, but to make it short: if you’ve lived feeling acutely the separation between you and others, between you and a world without a place for you, this idea just does not make much sense; in fact, this idea is deeply offensive.) I’ve learnt that this belief in the separation between oneself and the world is a quite common delusion. But knowing I am delusional doesn’t stop me feeling how I feel.

This year, though, I’ve come to understand why some people kill themselves. It’s because all they are left with in life is to deal with public administrations, governmental authorities, banks and corporations, companies denying basic services, the “justice” system; because they are extricated from their personhood; deemed a number, a case, an application; denied a place, a name, the freedom to move, love, think. It’s because they are not seen, and time is stalled. It’s because they must go on, fulfilling a never-ending string of deadlines, but the only thing they get in return is a despair without date of expiry.

Sure, you can beg, and weep, and scream, but all this is worthless. It’s better to set yourself on fire, to jump from a window, to cut yourself open, to let your blood spread everywhere and stain everything. Sometimes I’m told (by myself, mostly) that my despair is disproportional to what causes it. But it is precisely because it’s disproportional that I understand why people do this.

I used to have my recurrent but not current dream during my teens and twenties — and I readily labelled it a stress dream, even if I don’t think I had ever experienced that particular kind of stress. But, as I was lying in my bed the other day, feeling those fingers sinking in my skull, it occurred to me that the reason why I always woke up so sweaty and disturbed in the middle of the dream (because the dream never reached its end, it was always miraculously suspended by waking) had surely to be this: in it, I realise that the only way to put an end to my anguish is crashing the car. Yes, you can crash the fucking car! You don’t have to keep driving! Would it be any wonder that the relief offered by this thought triggered my sudden waking?

The tragic thing about dreams is that, regardless of whether you remember them or not (but especially if you don’t remember them), you may be fully living them. And I realise that this old dream of mine is what I’m living now, is how I’m living now. The anguish at the prospect of having to keep driving (which, remember, is something I can simply not do in waking life) despite being way beyond my resistance point is, exactly, what my life has turned into. Maybe, it’s just what life — period — has turned into.

***

Some weeks ago, I had the idea of writing something for which I had only a title: “Is It Worth Cracking-Up on Twitter?” This year, I’ve written little; but I’ve typed hundreds of Samsung notes and visceral tweets, mostly about how terrible I’ve been feeling. It’s funny because I used to find it questionable when people did that on social media. I didn’t question the people or their feelings; I questioned their strategy: “What’s the point? What kind of reaction do you expect from others? Either people will ignore you and you’ll feel even worse, or they’ll tell you that you are wonderful, that you are not alone, and that it will pass. Isn’t that evident to everybody??? How can anybody be satisfied with that???”

For a long time (I’m old: joined Twitter in 2012), I behaved. I never mentioned feeling depressed, isolated, at a loss, hopeless — and not because I did not know anything about those feelings, but because I repressed myself. Leaving aside anger (that always got a pass with me, because nobody’s perfect, and I’ve never known how to contain anger), my negativity remained quite successfully enclosed within myself. Nobody remembers that, now. But, boy, was I self-righteous! Did I keep a close watch and conduct myself admirably during eight whole fucking years! And, frankly, it wasn’t too hard because I did it in the name of my beloved convictions — which included the not so popular conviction that a bit of repression is, in fact, not as bad as we are sometimes led to believe.

But, then, 2020 arrived and I became a wreck. Private and public have proved to be very insufficient categories. My convictions don’t align so easily with my needs. I’ve lost all self-control and, apparently, all sense of decency. It turns out that I can’t repress myself anymore. It turns out that repression only worked when I had something to put on top of it, when I had something to protect. This year, I’ve been seeing every attempt at doing anything that brings me peace thwarted, and every hope for a turning point eradicated, and I’ve been completely possessed by anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, exhaustion, despair. And, rightly or wrongly, when I say what I say, it’s because I feel it’s the only thing I have left to say.

In a favourite passage of On the Heights of Despair — one of the few books I’ve been able to read this year — Emil Cioran wrote about “the bath of fire” that “purifies so radically that it does away with existence”. Of course, I could still shut up. I could stop alienating people and just shut the fuck up. This way, I might even burn faster: “When the inner conflagration has scorched the ground of your being, when all is ashes, what else is there left to experience? There is both mad delight and infinite irony in the thought of my ashes scattered to the four winds, sown frenetically in space, an eternal reproach to the world.”  

***

Later in life, when people going through a difficult period asked Cioran for advice, he would recommend that they visit a cemetery. He recognised that, to someone in despair, there isn’t much one can say that is meaningful; but he didn’t agree with those who thought that nothing could be done, that there was no way to help, that people should be left alone:  “To visit a cemetery in such a situation is a lesson, a lesson in wisdom! I have always practiced such methods, or recommended them, although it may not seem altogether serious, but it has been effective in every case. […] Someone unacquainted with despair who is suddenly in the middle of it experiences from one moment to another something quite extreme. He understands absolutely nothing and can’t even explain it to himself.  […] In such a situation what matters is to change one’s perspective radically, and the only possible way to sustain life is, in the last analysis, to be conscious of nothingness. Otherwise life is not bearable.”

I don’t know about cemeteries. But, sometimes, after having spent weeks feeling myself die, something happens. It happens, I think, out of pure exhaustion (my exhaustion at having exhausted every possible paranoid thought, every scream and tear, every memory and every projection of my sadness). Then, suddenly, things are released from their unbearable gravity: absurdity brims everywhere; everything is hilarious and triggers my laugh unexpectedly. To tell you the truth, it’s a bit scary. I feel great; I feel I can be, again, enchanted by things. But, from the outside, I know it looks as if I’ve gone completely mad. People (the same people who have not read Kafka) look at me with disbelief and, politely, mutter their diagnosis: “Are you sure you are not bipolar?” To which I answer: “Me? I’m not sure of anything. And nor should you!”

But is it worth cracking up on Twitter? It’s surely in the majority’s (and not only in my) best interest that I could not write that text. Because, actually, most people ignore you (99.5% to be exact: that’s a lot, it can’t be denied). However, a few people (this can’t be denied either, and is more surprising) do care a bit and have sent me generous replies, private messages, even some very beautiful emails — in fact, I’ve had more feedback about my depression in one year than about my writing in my whole life (I still don’t know how to take that, but I guess I’m taking it fine).

Sometimes, people tell me that I’m wonderful, that I’m not alone, and that it will pass — or extremely well crafted variations on this. (That happens to be more satisfying than I thought.) Other times, people think that my very personal tweets are, in fact, about something else, something pandemic-related. (I don’t blame them: pain is not sophisticated, suffering insists on itself and insists on the same, old metaphors; re-reading my own notes I’ve realised that I’ve lost all distinctiveness: my thoughts, circular and restricted, are now like millions of other thoughts.) I still swear — believe me or not — that I talk only about my very own despair; but if you think that I’m talking about something else, I’m not the one to be offended anymore. And, in some rare occasions, I get replies that manage to both understand and defy what is expressed in my tweets; they turn my thinking upside down, or open it up, or detach me a bit from it: those replies are my shift of perspective and, for them, I’m very grateful.

***

Some months ago, I painted a stone I’m quite fond of. It depicts two trees in the midst of some transformation that I froze but not quite. I used a new technique for this stone: first, I covered it in water; then, following the trails that dried up first, I traced the trees’ trunk and branches. I re-traced those lines many times. I like how the pinkish shades in the branches and the purple coming from below spell out some vital process; and the buds and flowers that are so erotic. I painted the background once and again, smudging the colours — green, yellow, cream, blue, more green — with my finger, so as to have different patches in a variety of tones. I scratched those patches — the secret life of moss — revealing a bit of the stone’s surface. And, then, I held the stone in the air, against the textured blue wall of my terrace, and immediately recalled the ending of Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972).

Which, suddenly, seemed to me a perfect image for C. G. Jung’s dictum: “We don’t have a psyche, we are in the psyche”. I might have come across this statement a couple of years ago, and I remember being quite taken by it. Because one thing is imagining that there are a series of elements shared by our individual psyches that are common to all of us; but the other is imagining a giant psyche (picture that as you will!) and that we are in it — that sounds to me like some wild upgrade of the first idea. Of course, it won’t come as a surprise that I struggle imagining “we are in the psyche”. If I were to believe that I am in the world, I’d probably find it easier to understand that we are in the psyche. I might be delusional, but coherently so. And, therefore, I like it when images aid me to imagine things I can’t.

In this respect, what I like best in the ending of Solaris is that it embodies the shift of perspective that is so strongly expressed in Jung’s dictum. After his long and tortuous Solaris odyssey, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is back at home. On the soundtrack, we hear a version of J. S. Bach’s “Choral Prelude in E Minor” (which, in the film, is always associated with the Earth). Kris walks and contemplates the landscape that surrounds the family’s dacha; these images are similar to the ones we’ve seen at the beginning, except now all seems strangely still, like a picture: the water of the pond is frozen, the trees’ branches naked and stiff, barely a gust of wind blowing. When Kris walks towards the house, Edvard Artemiev’s eerie masses of electronic sound take over, infusing uneasiness into the scene.

Pegged at the window, Kris observes his father who is laboriously arranging his books while, inexplicably, rain pours inside the house. Then, the father exits, standing at the door’s threshold. Kris kneels down and embraces his waist; in a comforting gesture, the father puts his hands on the son’s shoulders. This moment is strongly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” — a painting inspired by a Biblical parable that resonates strongly with the conflict between father and son in the film. But this ending is neither about daddy, nor about God. This is not how the film ends.

In a movement of detachment and elevation that Tarkovsky used frequently — though never with the affect and effect it has in Solaris — the camera begins a vertiginous, bumpy retreat. Two discreet cuts are disguised amidst the fog and clouds that intermittently cover the screen. With each one of these cuts, the house and figures shrink dramatically, looking like the miniatures in the distance that they really are. And that’s the revelation poised at the film’s end: Kris’ return home is taking place not in his country nor in his head, but in one of the small islands that have started growing in the Solaris ocean.

I tried to write a text about all this because, despite the fact that I like my aid-image, I still wonder if a person like me can ever really understand Jung’s statement — not just formally or logically, but truly understand it. Which, for me, would mean that I’d see it, sense it, and maybe know what the fuck to do with it. But, perhaps, it doesn’t really matter if I understand it or not. Do you think Kris understands anything at the end of Solaris? Does he realise that his return home is no more and no less than a scene playing in an island of an unbridled, chameleonic ocean — an ocean that some have called “the unconscious”? It doesn’t matter because, either way, he’ll suffer it. Powerless, devastated, with nothing to articulate; he won’t stop being the very articulation he is incapable of seeing.

In one scene from Crash, Vaughan is in a tattoo parlour with his beloved research notes on car crashes spread all around him. A lady is tattooing on his torso a steering wheel — not simply the image of a steering wheel, but the mark a very particular steering wheel would leave in Vaughan’s heavily scarred body after a certain kind of car crash. He complains to the woman that she is making the tattoo too clean: “This isn’t a medical tattoo. This is a prophetic tattoo. Prophecy is dirty and ragged. Make it dirty and ragged.” When the tattooist inquires sarcastically if such prophecy is personal or global, Vaughan shrugs off the question as if its answer was so evident that didn’t even deserved to be articulated: “There’s no difference”.

***

P. S. The morning after, I profusely thanked my boyfriend for his brain massage — I think he was happy because I haven’t been thanking him for much of anything lately.

Then, he asked if his brain massages are better than pot. Isn’t that a cute question? I’ll let this deranged text of mine be the answer to that!

© Cristina Álvarez López, November 2020

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