Jacques Gautier d’Agoty, anatomical plate, 1773
Last spring, as leaves unrolled to catch the light, the American writer Melissa Febos took to social media vowing to drop the word “seminal” from her lexicon of praise, because “why should formative, ground-breaking things evoke semen?” The post caught my eye. Febos put out a playful call for female-centered alternatives to seminal, sourced in women’s pleasure zones, and I joined the gaggle of respondents who offered a string of high-spirited replies. Because it made me laugh and picture cartoonish ideas budding, ballooning out, then floating off like soap bubbles, I suggested boobissimo. But the coinages that really sang to me announced themselves with more poetry: clitoral, oveal, vulvate, luteal, lacteal, hysteral, gyntastic. Here were terms that evoked dark and brooding spaces: undergrowth, caverns, grottos, hidden streams, the richly symbolic unconscious, places where things might be synthesized from organic mulch and unusual elements might combine, becoming impressed with secret shapes before oozing forth from the gloaming. There was something messy and uncontainable about these words, so unlike the clean linearity we associate with sprouting seeds.
Febos clearly had politics on her mind. She wanted to kvetch about the way maleness is always and everywhere universalized, not least when encoding creative achievement. It is the seed, not the egg, that implants ideas in our heads and suggests vistas pregnant with possibility. It is the seed (or inspiration) that counts, even when the most promising ideas need to gestate before they can bloom, or incubate, or marinate: that is, sit for a time in a stew of nutrient-rich fluids. Her post made me think of the way maleness aggrandizes itself, arrogates territory to itself, then others the things it discards. It made me think of those early modern theories of reproduction that imagined microscopic homunculi folded up inside every spermatozoa, the egg conscripted only to provide food and shelter.
Although the terms Febos crowdsourced were contrived to make a point, the same way herstory makes a point, they hit my ears just so, setting off a chain of satisfying little tingles all along the neural axis that links visceral sensations to head and heart. I have been thinking a lot lately, you see, about the codependence of language, body, and self, the way each constitutes the other and the inescapable sense it makes to acknowledge that where we speak from and who we speak for is bound ufp with our experience not just as historical beings, but as material beings. I have been thinking about this in ways that run explicitly counter to all my old commitments, ever since having my uterus and ovaries removed six years ago. At the time, I hoped the surgery would free me, and it did, from the daily drag generated by my fibroid-mangled organs, which had a way of stopping me in my tracks, paralyzed with pain, and from the different kind of drag that came from living with the bleak specter of ovarian cancer. With my organs gone I moved more lightly through the world.
But I was unprepared for the toxic shock of sudden menopause that caused my body to snag up like a choked machine, gears rattling, rivets loosening and popping off, red lights flashing at the controls. It was as if one set of problems (compromising, but nevertheless known) had been elbowed aside only to make room for a new and entirely foreign set, more onerous than the ones they had replaced. Instantly I swung into firefighting mode, determined to combat the rage, tearfulness, severe depression, insomnia, night sweats, fatigue, and memory loss that arrived out of nowhere to assail me, failing to see that all the while I was so intent on putting out the flames, the ground was giving way elsewhere. Something more nebulous was happening to me. My center of gravity was shifting, or migrating, my sense of self, dissolving: the person I’d always been was morphing into who knows what.
I wandered about the world queasily off-balance. Out and about on basic errands in my neighborhood, I’d be so high on a sense of unreality as to be practically levitating; and because language is expressive of our material condition, not just the seemingly free-floating thoughts “inside” our heads, my command of that suffered, too. In the weeks after my surgery, I may as well have been a hologram. I’d speak to people only to be looked through and unheard.
A range of interesting speech impediments took hold. Where once I communicated fluently, without giving the mechanism a second thought, I now kept stalling, lapsed and confused. Words flew from my brain and dissipated upward like a flock of birds. Nouns, in particular, kept disappearing.
This broken link between word and object mattered. When you name things you acquaint yourself with the world, rescribing it daily via a ritual “Hello again.” More importantly, you constitute who you are to yourself. You affirm that you’re the kind of person who notices this or appreciates that, has an affinity for this and an aversion to that, who arrives at an understanding of their particular interiority through calibrating the temperature between inside and out. Noun-mute, I had a hangdog feeling of being locked out of my own mind. The place I was speaking from was the void.
Now and again, I surprised myself with what did come out of my mouth. I’d say pencils instead of flowers, substitute wallet for fridge. If my husband shot me a look of concern I’d brush it off, joking that my brain appeared to be hung up on morphological resemblances. Yet too often sentences that began well, with clear intention, would lose direction and peter out or else freeze abruptly, midway between the starting line and the finish. Too many times, talking to someone at home, at work, socially, my mouth would open and nothing at all would come out. People looked at me expectantly and in apology I’d shrug. I figured this was what dementia must feel like from the inside. But given that trauma is by definition unspeakable, I can’t help but wonder now if my problems with language weren’t masking something else.