The New Yorker By David Foster Wallace March 7, 2011
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.
His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.
There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. He had been housebound one day with asthma, on a rainy and distended morning, apparently looking through some of his father’s promotional materials. Some of these survived the eventual fire. The boy’s asthma was thought to be congenital.
The outside area of his foot beneath and around the lateral malleolus was the first to require any real contortion. (The young boy thought, at that point, of the lateral malleolus as the funny knob thing on his ankle.) The strategy, as he understood it, was to arrange himself on his bedroom’s carpeted floor with the inside of his knee on the floor and his calf and foot at as close to a perfect ninety-degree angle to his thigh as he could manage. Then he had to lean as far to the side as he could, bending out over the splayed ankle and the foot’s outside, rotating his neck over and down and straining with his fully extended lips (the boy’s idea of fully extended lips consisted at this point of the exaggerated pucker that signifies kissing in children’s cartoons) toward a section of the foot’s outside that he had marked with a bull’s-eye of soluble ink. He struggled to breathe against the dextrorotated pressure of his ribs, stretching farther and farther to the side, very early one morning, until he felt a flat pop in the upper part of his back and then pain beyond naming somewhere between his shoulder blade and spine. The boy did not cry out or weep but merely sat silent in this tortured posture until his failure to appear for breakfast brought his father upstairs to the bedroom’s door. The pain and resultant dyspnea kept the boy out of school for more than a month. One can only wonder what a father might make of an injury like this in a six-year-old child.
The father’s chiropractor, Dr. Kathy, was able to relieve the worst of the immediate symptoms. More important, it was Dr. Kathy who introduced the boy to the concepts of spine as microcosm and of spinal hygiene and postural echo and incrementalism in flexion. Dr. Kathy smelled faintly of fennel and seemed totally open and available and kind. The child lay on a tall padded table and placed his chin in a little cup. She manipulated his head, very gently but in a way that seemed to make things happen all the way down his back. Her hands were strong and soft and when she touched the boy’s back he felt as if she were asking it questions and answering them all at the same time. She had charts on her wall with exploded views of the human spine and the muscles and fasciae and nerve bundles that surrounded the spine and were connected to it. No lollipops were anywhere in view. The specific stretching exercises that Dr. Kathy gave the boy were for the splenius capitis and longissimus cervicis and the deep sheaths of nerve and muscle surrounding the boy’s T2 and T3 vertebrae, which were what he had just injured. Dr. Kathy had reading glasses on a cord around her neck and a green button-up sweater that looked as if it were made entirely of pollen. You could tell she talked to everybody the same way. She instructed the boy to perform the stretching exercises every single day and not to let boredom or a reduction in symptomology keep him from doing them in a disciplined way. She said that the long-term goal was not relief of present discomfort but neurological hygiene and health and a wholeness of body and mind that he would someday appreciate very, very much. For the boy’s father, Dr. Kathy prescribed an herbal relaxant.
Thus was Dr. Kathy the child’s formal introduction both to incremental stretching and to the adult idea of quiet daily discipline and progress toward a long-term goal. This proved fortuitous. During the five weeks that he was disabled with a subluxated T3 vertebra—often in such discomfort that not even his inhaler could ease the asthma that struck whenever he experienced pain or distress—the heady enthusiasm of childhood had given way in the boy to a realization that the objective of pressing his lips to every square inch of himself was going to require maximum effort, discipline, and a commitment sustainable over periods of time that he could not then (because of his age) imagine.
One thing Dr. Kathy had taken time out to show the boy was a freestanding 3-D model of a human spine that had not been taken care of in any real or significant way. It looked dark, stunted, necrotic, and sad. Its tubercles and soft tissues were inflamed, and the annulus fibrosus of its disks was the color of bad teeth. Up against the wall behind this model was a hand-lettered plaque or sign explaining what Dr. Kathy liked to say were the two different payment options for the spine and associated nervosa, which were “NOW” and “LATER.”
Most professional contortionists are, in fact, simply persons born with congenital atrophic/dystrophic conditions of major recti, or with acute lordotic flexion of the lumbar spine, or both. A majority display Chvostek’s sign or other forms of ipsilateral spasticity. Very little effort or application is involved in their “art,” therefore. In 1932, a preadolescent Ceylonese female was documented by British scholars of Tamil mysticism as being capable of inserting into her mouth and down her esophagus both arms to the shoulder, one leg to the groin, and the other leg to just above the patella, and as thereupon able to spin unaided on the orally protrusive knee at rates in excess of 300 r.p.m. The phenomenon of suiphagia (i.e., self-swallowing) has subsequently been identified as a rare form of inanitive pica, in most cases caused by deficiencies in cadmium and/or zinc. The insides of the small boy’s thighs up to the medial fork of his groin took months even to prepare for, daily hours spent cross-legged and bowed, slowly and incrementally stretching the long vertical fasciae of his back and neck, the spinalis thoracis and levator scapulae, the iliocostalis lumborum all the way to the sacrum, and the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle and transmit sickening pain through the pubis whenever their range of flexibility is exceeded. Had anyone seen the child during these two- and three-hour sessions, bringing his soles together and in to train the pectineus, bobbing slightly and then holding a deep cross-legged lean to work the great tight sheet of thoracolumbar fascia that connected his pelvis to his dorsal costae, he would have appeared to that person either prayerful or catatonic, or both.
Once the thighs’ anterior targets were achieved and touched with one or both lips, the upper portions of his genitals were simple, and were protrusively kissed and passed over even as plans for the ilium and outer buttocks were in conception. After these achievements would come the more difficult and neck-intensive contortions required to access the inner buttocks, perineum, and extreme upper groin.
The boy had turned seven.
The special place where he pursued his strange but newly mature objective was his room, which had wallpaper with a jungle motif. The second-floor window yielded a view of the back yard’s tree. Light from the sun came through the tree at different angles and intensities at different times of day and illuminated different parts of the boy as he stood, sat, inclined, or lay on the room’s carpet, stretching and holding positions. His bedroom’s carpet was white shag with a furry, polar aspect that the boy’s father did not think went well with the walls’ repeating scheme of tiger, zebra, lion, and palm, but the father kept his feelings to himself.
Radical increase of the lips’ protrusive range requires systematic exercise of the maxillary fasciae, such as the depressor septi, orbicularis oris, depressor anguli oris, depressor labii inferioris, and the buccinator, circumoral, and risorius groups. The zygomatic muscles are superficially involved. Praxis: Affix string to Wetherly button of at least 1.5-inch diameter borrowed from father’s second-best raincoat; place button over upper and lower front teeth and enclose with lips; hold string fully extended at ninety degrees to face’s plane and pull on end with gradually increasing tension, using lips to resist pull; hold for twenty seconds; repeat; repeat.
Sometimes the boy’s father sat on the floor outside his bedroom with his back to the door, listening for movement in the room. It’s not clear whether the boy ever heard him, although the wood of the door sometimes made a creaky sound when the father sat down against it or stood back up in the hallway or shifted his position against the door. The boy was in there stretching and holding contorted positions for extraordinary periods of time. The father was a somewhat nervous man, with a rushed, fidgety manner that always lent him an air of imminent departure. He had extensive entrepreneurial activities and was in motion much of the time. His place in most people’s mental albums was provisional, with something like a dotted line around it—the image of someone saying something friendly over his shoulder as he heads for an exit. Often, clients found that the father made them uneasy. He was at his most effective on the phone.
By the time the child was eight, his long-term goal was beginning to affect his physical development. His teachers remarked on changes in his posture and gait. The boy’s smile, which appeared by now constant because of the effect of circumlabial hypertrophy on the circumoral musculature, looked unusual also—rigid and overbroad and seeming, in one custodian’s evaluative phrase, “like nothing in this round world.”
Facts: the Italian stigmatist Padre Pio carried wounds that penetrated both hands and feet medially throughout his lifetime. The Umbrian St. Veronica Giuliani presented with wounds in both hands and feet, as well as in her side, which wounds were observed to open and close on command. The eighteenth-century holy woman Giovanna Solimani permitted pilgrims to insert special keys in her hands’ wounds and to turn them, reportedly facilitating the pilgrims’ own recovery from rationalist despair.
According to both St. Bonaventura and Tomás de Celano, St. Francis of Assisi’s manual stigmata included baculiform masses of what presented as hardened black flesh extrudent from both volar planes. If and when pressure was applied to a palm’s so-called “nail,” a rod of flesh would immediately protrude from the back of the hand, exactly as if a real so-called “nail” were passing through the hand.
And yet (fact): Hands lack the anatomical mass required to support the weight of an adult human. Both Roman legal texts and modern examinations of a first-century skeleton confirm that classical crucifixion required nails to be driven through the subject’s wrists, not his hands. Hence the, quote, “necessarily simultaneous truth and falsity of the stigmata” that the existential theologist E. M. Cioran explicates in his 1937 “Lacrimi si Sfinti,” the same monograph in which he refers to the human heart as “God’s open wound.”
Areas of the boy’s midsection from navel to xiphoid process, at the cleft of his ribs, alone required nineteen months of stretching and postural exercises, the more extreme of which must have been very painful indeed. At this stage, further advances in flexibility were now subtle to the point of being undetectable without extremely precise daily record-keeping.
Certain tensile limits in the flava, capsule, and process ligaments of the neck and upper back were gently but persistently stretched, the boy’s chin placed to his (solubly arrowed and dotted) chest at mid-sternum and then slid incrementally down—one, sometimes 1.5 millimetres a day—and this catatonic and/or meditative posture held for an hour or more.
In the summer, during his early-morning routines, the tree outside the boy’s window became busy with grackles coming and going, and then, as the sun rose, filled with the birds’ harsh sounds, tearing sounds, which, as the boy sat cross-legged with his chin to his chest, sounded through the pane like rusty screws turning, some complexly stuck thing coming loose with a shriek. Past the southern exposure’s tree were the foreshortened roofs of neighborhood homes and the fire hydrant and street sign of the cross street and the forty-eight identical roofs of a low-income housing development beyond the cross street, and, past the development, just at the horizon, the edges of the verdant cornfields that began at the city limits. In late summer the fields’ green became more sallow, and then in the fall there was merely sad stubble, and in the winter the fields’ bare earth looked like nothing so much as just what it was.
At his elementary school, where his behavior was exemplary and his assignments completed and his progress charted at the medial apex of all relevant curves, the boy was, among his classmates, the sort of marginal social figure who was so marginal he was not even teased. As early as Grade 3, the boy had begun to develop along unusual physical lines as a result of his commitment to the objective; even so, something in his aspect or bearing served to place him outside the bounds of schoolyard cruelty. The boy followed classroom regulations and performed satisfactorily in group work. The written evaluations of his socialization described the boy not as withdrawn or aloof but as “calm,” “unusually poised,” and “self-containing” [sic]. The boy gave neither trouble nor delight and was not much noticed. It is not known whether this bothered him.
Nor was it ever established precisely why this boy had devoted himself to the goal of being able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. It is not clear even that he conceived of the goal as an “achievement” in any conventional sense. Unlike his father, he did not read Ripley and had never heard of the McWhirters—certainly it was no kind of stunt. Nor any sort of self-evection; this is verified—the boy had no conscious wish to “transcend” anything. If someone had asked him, the boy would have said only that he’d decided he wanted to press his lips to every last micrometre of his own individual body. He would not have been able to say more than this. Insights into or conceptions of his own physical “inaccessibility” to himself (as we are all of us self-inaccessible and can, for example, touch parts of one another in ways that we could not even dream of touching our own bodies) or of his complete determination, apparently, to pierce that veil of inaccessibility—to be, in some childish way, self-contained and -sufficient—these were beyond his conscious awareness. He was, after all, just a little boy. His lips touched the upper areolae of his left and right nipples in the autumn of his ninth year. The lips by this time were markedly large and protrusive; part of his daily discipline was tedious button-and-string exercises designed to promote hypertrophy of the orbicularis muscles. The ability to extend his pursed lips as much as 10.4 centimetres had often meant the difference between achieving part of his thorax and not. It had also been the orbicularis muscles, more than any outstanding advance in vertebral flexion, that had permitted him to access the rear areas of his scrotum and substantial portions of the papery skin around his anus before he turned nine. These areas had been touched, tagged on the four-sided chart inside his personal ledger, then washed clean of ink and forgotten. The boy’s tendency was to forget each site once he had pressed his lips to it, as if the establishment of its accessibility made the site henceforth unreal for him and the site now in some sense “existed” only on the four-faced chart.
Fully and exquisitely real for the boy in his eleventh year, however, remained those portions of his trunk that he had not yet attempted: areas of his chest above the pectoralis minor and of his lower throat between clavicle and upper platysma, as well as the smooth and endless planes and tracts of his back (excluding lateral portions of the trapezius and rear deltoid, which he had achieved at eight and a half) extending upward from the buttocks.
Four separate licensed, bonded physicians apparently testified that the Bavarian mystic Therese Neumann’s stigmata comprised corticate dermal structures that passed medially through both her hands. Therese Neumann’s capacity for inedia was attested to by four Franciscan nuns, who attended her in rotating shifts in 1927. She lived for almost thirty-five years without food or liquid; her one recorded bowel movement (March 12, 1928) was determined by laboratory analysis to comprise only mucus and empyreumatic bile.
A Bengali holy man known to his followers as Prahansatha the Second underwent periods of meditative chanting during which his eyes exited their sockets and ascended to float above his head, connected only by their dura-mater cords, and thereupon performed (i.e., the floating eyes did) rhythmically stylized rotary movements described by Western witnesses as evocative of dancing four-faced Shivas, of charmed snakes, of interwoven genetic helices, of the counterpointed figure-eight orbits of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies around each other at the perimeter of the Local Group, or of all four (supposedly) at once.
Studies of human algesia have established that the musculoskeletal structures most sensitive to painful stimulation are the periosteum and joint capsules. Tendons, ligaments, and subchondral bone are classified as “significantly” pain-sensitive, while muscle and cortical bone’s sensitivity has been established as “moderate,” and articular cartilage and fibrocartilage’s as “mild.”
Pain is a wholly subjective experience and thus “inaccessible” as a diagnostic object. Considerations of personality type also complicate the evaluation. As a general rule, however, the observed behavior of a patient in pain can provide a measure of (a) the pain’s intensity and (b) the patient’s ability to cope with it.
Common fallacies about pain include:
· People who are critically ill or gravely injured always experience intense pain.
· The greater the pain, the greater the extent and severity of the damage.
· Severe chronic pain is symptomatic of incurable illness.
In fact, patients who are critically ill or gravely injured do not necessarily experience intense pain. Nor is the observed intensity of pain directly proportional to the extent or severity of the damage; the correlation depends also on whether the “pain pathways” of the anterolateral spinothalamic system are intact and functioning within established norms. In addition, the personality of a neurotic patient may accentuate felt pain, and a stoic or resilient personality may diminish its perceived intensity.
No one ever did ask him. His father believed only that he had an eccentric but very limber and flexible child, a child who’d taken Kathy Kessinger’s homilies about spinal hygiene to heart, the way some children will take things to heart, and now spent a lot of time flexing and limbering his body, which, as the queer heartcraft of children went, was preferable to many other slack or damaging fixations the father could think of. The father, an entrepreneur who sold motivational tapes through the mail, worked out of a home office but was frequently away for seminars and mysterious evening sales calls. The family’s home, which faced west, was tall and slender and contemporary; it resembled one half of a duplex town house from which the other half had been suddenly removed. It had olive-colored aluminum siding and was on a cul-de-sac, at the northern end of which stood a side entrance to the county’s third-largest cemetery, whose name was woven in iron above the main gate but not above that side entrance. The word that the father thought of when he thought of the boy was: “dutiful,” which surprised the man, for it was a rather old-fashioned word and he had no idea where it came from when he thought of the boy in his room, from outside the door.
The father’s belief in ATTITUDE as the overarching determinant of ALTITUDE had been unwavering since his own adolescence, during which awkward time he had discovered the works of Dale Carnegie and of the Beecher Foundation, and had utilized these practical philosophies to bolster his own self-confidence and to improve his social standing—this standing, as well as all interpersonal exchanges and incidents that served as evidence thereof, was charted weekly, and the charts and graphs displayed for ease of reference on the inside of his bedroom’s closet door. Even as a provisional adult, the father still worked tirelessly to maintain and improve his attitude and so influence his own altitude in personal achievement. To the medicine cabinet’s mirror in the home’s bathroom, for instance, where he could not help but reread and internalize them as he tended to his personal grooming, were taped such inspirational maxims as:
“NO BIRD SOARS TOO HIGH, IF HE SOARS WITH HIS OWN WINGS”— BLAKE “IF WE ABDICATE OUR INITIATIVE, WE BECOME PASSIVE-RECEPTIVE VICTIMS OF ONCOMING CIRCUMSTANCES”—BEECHER FOUNDATION “DARE TO ACHIEVE!”— NAPOLEON HILL “THE COWARD FLEES EVEN WHEN NO MAN PURSUETH”—THE BIBLE “WHATEVER YOU CAN DO OR DREAM, YOU CAN BEGIN IT. / BOLDNESS HAS GENIUS, POWER AND MAGIC IN IT. BEGIN IT NOW!” — GOETHE
and so forth, dozens or at times even scores of inspirational quotes and reminders, carefully printed in block capitals on small, fortune-cookie-size slips of paper and taped to the mirror as written reminders of the father’s personal responsibility for whether he soared boldly, sometimes so many slips and pieces of tape that only a few slots of actual mirror were left above the bathroom’s sink, and the father had to almost contort himself even to see to shave.
When the boy’s father thought of himself, on the other hand, the word that came unbidden first to mind was always “tortured.” Much of this secret torture—whose causes he perceived as impossibly complex and protean and involving both normal male sexual drives and highly abnormal personal weakness and lack of backbone—was actually quite simple to diagnose. Wedded at twenty to a woman about whom he’d known just one salient thing, this father-to-be had almost immediately found marriage’s conjugal routines tedious and stifling; and that sense of monotony and sexual obligation (as opposed to sexual achievement) had caused in him a feeling that he thought was almost like death. Even as a newlywed, he had begun to suffer from night terrors and to wake from nightmares about some terrible confinement feeling unable to move or breathe. These dreams did not exactly require a psychiatric Einstein to interpret, the father knew, and after almost a year of inner struggle and self-analysis he had given in and begun seeing another woman, sexually. This woman, whom the father had met at a motivational seminar, was also married, and had a small child of her own, and they had agreed that this put some sensible limits and restrictions on the affair.
Within a short time, however, the father had begun to find this other woman kind of tedious and oppressive, as well. The fact that they lived separate lives and had little to talk about made the sex start to seem obligatory. It put too much weight on the physical sex, it seemed, and spoiled it. The father attempted to cool things off and to see the woman less, whereupon she in return also began to seem less interested and accessible than she had been. This was when the torture started. The father began to fear that the woman would break off the affair with him, either to resume monogamous sex with her husband or to take up with some other man. This fear, which was a completely secret and interior torture, caused him to pursue the woman all over again even as he came more and more to despise her. The father, in short, longed to detach from the woman, but he didn’t want the woman to be able to detach. He began to feel numb and even nauseated when he was with the other woman, but when he was away from her he felt tortured by thoughts of her with someone else. It seemed like an impossible situation, and the dreams of contorted suffocation came back more and more often. The only possible remedy that the father (whose son had just turned four) could see was not to detach from the woman he was having an affair with but to hang in there with the affair, but also to find and begin seeing a third woman, in secret and as it were “on the side,” in order to feel—if only for a short time—the relief and excitement of an attachment freely chosen.
Thus began the father’s true cycle of torture, in which the number of women with whom he was secretly involved and to whom he had sexual obligations steadily expanded, and in which not one of the women could be let go or given cause to detach and break it off, even as each became less and less a source of anything more than a sort of dutiful tedium of energy and time and the will to forge on in the face of despair.
The boy’s mid- and upper back were the first areas of radical, perhaps even impossible unavailability to his own lips, presenting challenges to flexibility and discipline that occupied a vast percentage of his inner life in Grades 4 and 5. And beyond, of course, like the falls at a long river’s end, lay the unimaginable prospects of achieving the back of his neck, the eight centimetres just below the chin’s point, the galeae of his scalp’s back and crown, the forehead and zygomatic ridge, the ears, nose, eyes—as well as the paradoxical Ding an sich of his lips themselves, accessing which appeared to be like asking a blade to cut itself. These sites occupied a near-mythic place in the over-all project: the boy revered them in such a way as to place them almost beyond the range of conscious intent. This boy was not by nature a “worrier” (unlike himself, his father thought), but the inaccessibility of these last sites seemed so immense that it was as if their cast shadow fell across all the slow progress up toward his clavicle in the front and lumbar curvature in the rear that occupied his eleventh year, darkening the whole endeavor, a tenebrous shadow that the boy chose to see as lending the enterprise a sombre dignity, rather than futility or pathos.
He did not yet know how, but he believed, as he approached pubescence, that his head would be his. He would find a way to access all of himself. He possessed nothing that anyone could ever call doubt, inside. ♦
Sitting on a bale of denim in an idled factory, 24-year-old Wei Xiaofeng has a message for the West - the era of Chinese factories churning out dirt-cheap goods is over.
For years, her company, along with thousands of others in China, has helped British high street stores to offer cheaper and cheaper fashion - jeans that cost less than £10 or t-shirts for £3 - and turned the likes of Zara, H&M and Topshop into global giants.
But now the system has broken down. Mrs Wei’s company is in crisis and has stopped taking orders from the West.
“We are still getting orders from abroad - all the factories are,” she said. “But no one is taking them because we would make a loss. The foreigners do not want to pay a reasonable price. We have not made any profits for two years.”
The Sea Mountain Clothing company, set up seven years ago by Mrs Wei and her 34-year-old husband Tian Yi, is one of around 5,000 jeans-making factories in Xintang, a southern Chinese town that has become the denim capital of the world.
If you own a pair of jeans, there is a strong chance that it was stitched in Xintang, or that its denim was woven there. A sleepy farming town 30 years ago, it is now home to a million factory workers and turns out 260 million pairs of jeans a year - more than a third of the world’s supply.
The town’s geography maps out an anatomy of the denim trade. Along the wide arterial motorways leading out of Xintang are the large factories, some capable of producing 60,000 pairs a day for the likes of Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler.
Their technology is world-class - good enough for even the more esoteric and high-end denim labels like True Religion, Evisu and Diesel that were once only made in Japan or Italy.
Meanwhile, along the main streets in the city centre, every shopfront also belongs to a denim company. In each window sits a boss, inviting in prospective buyers with cigarettes and walnut shell-sized cups of strong Chinese tea. Upstairs, floor after floor is filled with rows of workers sewing together jeans.
The side streets are taken up with the accessories of the trade: button and rivet shops, stores selling zippers, and long rows of businesses selling yards of denim, with trucks buzzing between them to load and unload bales of the dark blue fabric.
Finally there are the dusty suburbs. Here, family workshops spill out onto the road, with groups of women clustered around piles of jeans, stitching on labels, using heat guns to burn off loose threads and bagging them for sale.
The local environment has suffered. Last year Greenpeace released a satellite image showing the run-off from the large cotton dyeing plants colouring all of the town’s water, and much of the Pearl river, a deep indigo.
Xintang whirred into life 30 years ago, when Huang Lin, a businessman living in Hong Kong, saw the potential of moving his jeans business to the mainland. Other firms quickly blossomed and soon every country in the world began taking advantage of Xintang’s seemingly endless pool of cheap and hard-working labour.
Along one road, the factories have stencilled the countries they ship to along their windows, a long list of everywhere from Poland to Russia and Korea. One factory boss boasted that his company’s competitiveness had helped put the hard-working denim mills in Eastern Europe to the sword.
Now, however, the Chinese factories have hit a wall. The workers who were once happy to work for as little as £30 a month now want ten to 15 times that sum.
Young men with the latest mobile phones and foppish hair cuts stood around two outdoor pool tables on the streets of Dadun avenue, gambling on the games. Their factory is only paying them for six hours a day in a bid to trim its costs.
More and more workers are choosing not to travel to the South to find work, preferring to try their luck at one of the new factories or construction projects popping up in inland China, where life is cheaper and they can be closer to their families.
“It is becoming impossible to find people to work,” said Han Zhongliang, a 46-year-old factory boss from Hubei. “I have been here ten years and I used to have 30 to 40 employees. But this year I will be lucky to find 20 who can do the job are willing to work for the wage we offer: 5,000 yuan (£490) a month. If things keep on like this, there won’t be any labour at all in South China in five years time. Since the Olympics, it has just been worse and worse for our business.”
Many other factories have already shut down. On the street where Mrs Wei’s factory sits, only four of the 17 factories are open. In one desolate room, a former factory boss sat on a stool in shame: having lost all of his family’s money, he was too ashamed to return home for the Chinese New Year holiday.
Other bosses complained that new labour laws have empowered workers far too much, and that the government has no love for the polluting denim industry, and offers no help.
“Only the fittest will survive. And they will have to go upmarket and stop making cheap clothes,” said Zhan Xueju, the powerful head of the local Denim Association.
Meanwhile, the price of cotton has sky-rocketed to levels not seen for 30 years. Floods in Pakistan and Australia, an export ban from India and now the wave of revolutions across the Middle East has made cotton unaffordable.
Already, designers have begun lacing their jeans with polyester in order to offset costs - a trend that explains the spread of new jeans with a “shiny” finish on the high street.
“Last July, cotton cost 70 cents a pound,” said Richard Atkins, a denim expert in Hong Kong and former creative director of All Saints, a high-end clothing brand. “Last week, it was three times that price. I tried to place an order with a denim mill for one million yards and they told me they could not accept it because the cotton is now worth more than the denim.”
The margin between success and failure in the denim business, and in the clothing trade in general, is razor thin. During the fat years, manufacturers could make 10p to 20p on each pair of jeans. Now they make 5p if they are lucky.
The shockwaves rippling out of Xintang have already started to be felt. H&M, the giant Swedish clothes store, saw the profit margins that it makes on its clothes “collapse” at the end of last year, according to city analysts. Next and Primark have both warned they plan to raise their prices.
Nor is there any alternative, realistically, to manufacturing in China.
Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia may be cheaper, but they cannot compete when it comes to infrastructure and scale.
As a result, Mr Atkins, the Hong Kong-based denim expert, warns that high street fashion have may have to slow down in pace a little. The days of so-called “throwaway fashion”, where stores could sell garments cheap enough to be worn for a just a few months and then discarded, could be over, he said.
“Companies should be very scared, as throwaway fashion is now dead,” he claimed. “For years they wanted to get more and pay less. They have pillaged the system in China. But now they are going to suffer.”
As in many classic love stories, a romance would be foiled by poverty. In my despair, I fantasized: I could max out a few credit cards to buy 100 music boxes and then give her just one. I would keep the other 99 in my closet and she would never know what that one music box had cost.
Of course, I compromised. I recorded myself performing music box interpretations of her songs on my glockenspiel. I planned to give her a CD of the recordings and tell her about the 99 music boxes I wished I had in my closet.
The night of the show, while the audience was trickling in, another admirer I knew approached me. He was a small, nervous musician with crossed eyes who wrote and performed melancholy songs. Though he was no ladies’ man, I found him beautiful and charming. He asked if I’d gotten her anything. When I told him about my present, he laughed.
“I may have you beat,” he said. “I took a picture of myself kissing the wish-granting lamppost. I’m giving her the picture.”
This gift struck me as self-obsessed, even creepy, but I couldn’t help but smile. I felt a kinship with any creative, starry-eyed fool.
After my opening set, fans signed my mailing list. A beautiful girl handed me a folded napkin with her phone number. This helped me feel ready to give my present.
The performance that night killed me even more than usual. When she finished, she headed to the merchandise table, where fans were lining up. I wanted to be alone with her, so I sat nearby while she dealt with customers.
But the man at the front of the line didn’t buy her album. He gave her a painting of a horse. She smiled enormously and hugged him. I imagined this painting referenced some previous conversation or inside joke. She leaned the painting against the wall and tended to the next man, who gave her a mobile. When spun, it created an optical illusion that formed the shape of a heart.
I then noticed that the line was almost entirely made up of nervous suitors with gifts. Many even physically resembled me. I watched one admirer give her what I presumed to be a mix CD. His present looked nearly identical to mine.
I envisioned her tiny bedroom, cluttered with exquisite gifts, her closet overflowing with CDs and stacked paintings she couldn’t fit on her walls. The mobile was a brilliant idea — she’d have space for that. And each time she saw it, she would think of the one who made it. I became concerned about not being able to play her my gift the moment I gave it to her. I feared she would take the CD home and forget about it. I thought, “If only a CD could play like a music box.”
I read the faces in line. As far as I could tell, the suitors didn’t notice one another and weren’t hung up on the growing pile of gifts. She received each present with the same grateful smile, regardless of its beauty, meaning or uniqueness, as if these admirers were her children and she didn’t want to show preference. Or perhaps she truly cared about them all equally.
THEN it dawned on me what was going on. We weren’t celebrating her birthday. Our presents were tributes to our own infatuations, attempts to prove we really were the romantics we longed to be. These gifts were not for her, but for us.
I reimagined her bedroom. She surely didn’t keep these presents. Perhaps she would keep a good one if she could separate it from the memory of the suitor who gave it to her, but I wouldn’t have blamed her if she waited until we all had left and threw the whole pile into a Dumpster. She couldn’t do that, though; we never left until she did. She would have to cart the gifts home.
Her life of perpetual adoration no longer sounded ideal. It sounded lonely. The guy with the lamppost photo got in line, but I couldn’t. I left without saying goodbye.
There was a Hardtalk once, I believe, between some BBC guy obviously, and a Palestinian activist. He was asking questions like this—“Do you believe in killing children?”—and any question he asked, the Palestinian just said, “Ariel Sharon is a war criminal.” Once, I was on The Charlie Rose Show. Well, I was invited to be on The Charlie Rose Show. He said, “Tell me, Arundhati Roy, do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons?” So I said, “I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the United States should have nuclear weapons.” “No, I asked you do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons.” I answered exactly the same thing. About four times… They never aired it!
amous writers and drinks are inseparable, despite the price some paid for the vice. Ernest Hemingway loved the Mojito, William Faulkner had his mint juleps, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was convinced gin was the way to go (he thought its smell would be undetectable on his breath).
Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide delves into the drinking habits of America’s top writers to reveal their favorite cocktails. Steve Inskeep talks with author Mark Bailey and illustrator Edward Hemingway — grandson of the writer — about their new book.
On their most recent episode of their always-enjoyable Dinner Party Download podcast, American Public Media’s Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newnam featured the story of “a lonely whale with vocal problems whose love song supposedly chases lady whales away.”
According to a 2004 New York Times article on the subject, this particular baleen whale has apparently been tracked by NOAA since 1992, using a “classified array of hydrophones employed by the Navy to monitor enemy submarines.” It sings at 52 Hertz, which is roughly the same frequency as the lowest note on a tuba, and much higher than its fellow whales, whose calls fall in the 15 to 25 Hertz range.
To make matters worse, the high-pitched whale “does not follow the known migration route of any extant baleen whale species.” The result, according to Dr. Kate Stafford, a researcher at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, is that the lonely whale keeps “saying ‘Hey, I’m out here,’” but “nobody is phoning home.”
The cryptozoologist Oll Lewis speculates that the lonely whale might be “a deformed hybrid between two different species of whale,” or even “the last surviving member of an unknown species.” Gagliano points out that the whale’s plight, though poignant, has a silver lining for scientists:
Because this one whale’s song is totally different than any other whale’s, it’s easy to track it and hear how its voice changes over time. So now we know, for instance, that a whale’s voice gets deeper as it ages.
You can hear the 52 Hertz whale’s song for yourself, here, and learn more about its lonely life over at the Dinner Party Download site. Just imagine that massive mammal, floating alone and singing—too big to connect with most of the beings it passes, feeling paradoxically small in the vast stretches of empty, open ocean.
Diacetylmorphine Pharmaceutical-grade heroin. Marketed by Bayer as an over-the-counter cough suppressant in 1898, it’s fairly easy to make with raw opium, some chemicals, and basic lab equipment. The percentage of diacetylmorphine in street heroin can vary based on geographic source; South American wholesale has been falling from a high of 88 percent in 2003. Street purity in the US has been around 35 percent in recent years.
Caffeine When added in the lab, this results in hard thumbnail-sized “crystals” of heroin, which can be smoked like crack. Add it to powdered heroin and the mixture will vaporize at a lower temperature, making it easier to chase the dragon.
Noscapine Heroin got its name from the German word heroisch, meaning heroic, perhaps because of its ability to suppress coughs. The opium byproduct noscapine may also help: It’s believed to act on sigma receptors, which can regulate the cough reflex. Noscapine is also being looked at for its promising anticancer powers. Perhaps the reason Keith Richards is still with us?
Mannitol A sugar alcohol that increases osmotic pressure in the intestines, making it an effective laxative. Heroin is a wicked constipator—is the mannitol a thoughtful gift from your friendly neighborhood dealer? Hardly. Adding white powdery stuff to heroin lets him sell less drug for the same money.
Monoacetylmorphine Heroin is diacetylmorphine, which can spontaneously break down into this “mono” form. Due to a drug-testing scare in the 1990s, when people worried that eating a poppy-seed bagel would yield a positive result, some drug tests actually search for this compound.
Acetaminophen A key ingredient in Percocet and several migraine remedies but a potentially lethal adulterant in high doses. Heroin cut with acetaminophen is often sold as “cheese.”
Papaverine Raw opium is a goulash of compounds; badly processed street skag can retain many of them. This poppy alkaloid is useless to junkies because it won’t make them high, but it does have legitimate medical use as a vasodilator that relaxes smooth muscle, increasing blood flow.
Quinine Junkie lore says that dealers added this to the supply as a public service, after a malaria outbreak among needle-sharing users in the 1930s. Still found in low-quality junk, it has a bitter taste that mimics heroin’s (caveat emptor) and supposedly adds to the rush. But quinine is bad stuff to be injecting—it can cause blindness and has been a key factor in heroin ODs.
Dextromethorphan This cough syrup mainstay is known to reduce some effects of heroin detox (runny nose, twitching, insomnia). But a dealer’s job is not to make withdrawal easier; DXM may be here for its pharmacological effects—hallucinations and euphoria. Unwelcome bonus: At high doses, it can induce psychosis.
We human beings persist in thinking of ourselves as a unique species, endowed with special insight into a universe that we can manipulate. In fact, this notion is based on unexamined myth.
At one time ranked among Britain’s most influential scientists, the crystallographer J D Bernal (1901-71) recognised no limits to the power of science. A lifelong Marxist and recipient of a Stalin Peace Prize, Bernal believed that a scientifically planned society was being created in Soviet Russia; but his ambitions for science went far beyond revolutionising human institutions. He was convinced that science could bring about a transformation in the human species - a planned mutation in which human beings would cease to be biological organisms.
Consciousness itself might end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealised, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.
Bernal’s strange fantasy shows how science can be a channel for ideas that owe more to mysticism than to dispassionate study of the world. The idea that human beings might shed the mortal flesh to enter a realm of deathless light harks back to the ancient religion of Gnosticism, while the belief that science can animate dead matter and fashion artificial human beings renews the visions of the medieval alchemists. The fact is that science has often been used as a channel for myths in which human beings acquire magical powers. Predictably, this has generated counter-myths in which science is demonised as a semi-diabolical force.
Ball’s aim in Unnatural is to bring clear thinking to bear on the question of what science can and should aim to be, and it would be hard to find a more lucid and reasonable guide to contemporary controversy about the use of science to create life. Hidden underneath the sometimes bitter controversies surrounding IVF, embryo research and human cloning are ideas inherited from thousands of years of myth-making. “Natural” and “unnatural” are not scientific categories. Heavily freighted with ideas about what is good and right, they embody judgements of value that express immemorial hopes and fears. Ball uncovers these mythic traces and shows how they continue to shape our understanding of the life sciences and the new reproductive technologies these sciences have made possible. In light and graceful prose that is a pleasure to read, he provides an absorbing cultural history of “anthropoeia” - the project of “making people”.
A striking feature of Ball’s account is the ease with which it moves between science and the arts. It is refreshing and instructive to have detailed discussion of recent advances in stem-cell research alongside descriptions of the fictions of Balzac, Poe, Huxley and Wells. Even more impressive is Ball’s range of reference, which moves from Greek prehistory through the golems and homunculi of medieval Europe, through the unhappy ogre pictured in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, up to the muddled obscurantism of the Bush administration’s policies on stem-cell research.
If Ball provides an illuminating cultural history of the myths surrounding the attempt to use science to make people, his attempt to demystify the contemporary debate is less convincing. He argues that those who oppose the project of “making people” deploy beliefs about what it is to be human that can only be explicated in religious terms, writing: “The notion of a soul can no longer be considered intellectually respectable, and can certainly play no part in discussions about what constitutes life or personhood, or how we should think about the status of the human embryo.” Maybe so, but opponents of people-making are not the only ones who invoke an idea of the soul. So do ardent supporters of the project when they propose using science to transcend the human condition. Bernal viewed religion with contempt, yet in thinking of “the rational soul” as a spark of consciousness imprisoned in the material world, he was reproducing a conception of human nature that is quintessentially religious. Among evangelists for “scientific humanism”, the notion that rationality is the essence of humankind is an idée fixe. But it has no basis in science.
Aiming to demythologise our thinking about humankind’s place in the scheme of things, Bernal reproduced an ancient myth of salvation. Ball is far more balanced, but his exercise in demystification seems to me to be similarly self-defeating. Seeking to purge us of myth, he proposes that we approach the world without assuming that what is “natural” is good. In effect, he is advocating that we embrace a rigorous form of scientific naturalism - a method of inquiry that makes no metaphysical assumptions about the goodness or otherwise of the environment in which the human animal finds itself. Science yields knowledge of how the world works, Ball maintains: it is up to humanity to use that knowledge to improve the world.
The trouble is that “humanity” is also an idea shaped by myth. In an interesting discussion of classical Greek ideas of nature, Ball notes that, from the late 5th century BC onwards, philosophers began to view tekhne - the art of making things - “as a means of coercing nature, by force or even by ‘torture’, so as to gain mastery of it and transgress its boundaries”. Aristotle portrayed tekhne as “a kind of handmaid to nature, helping to bring it to a state of greater perfection”. In this Greek conception, everything had a purpose. Even the universe was striving towards perfection, and the role of human beings was to assist in the realisation of that purpose. This view of the world ceased to be viable when Darwin removed the idea of purpose from biology, leaving only natural selection operating against a background of random events.
Despite Darwin, the classical Greek view of things has not been abandoned. The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that “humanity” can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But “humanity” cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.
No doubt rightly, Ball cautions against basing our thinking on unexamined myths. He seems not to have noticed that the idea of humanity intervening to improve nature is just such a myth. Clearly, thinking about the human animal in rigorously naturalistic terms goes very much against the grain. Could it be that such a way of thinking might be - dare one say it - somehow unnatural?
It’s hard to describe the feeling of stuttering to anyone who has always spoken smoothly. It is not a nervous impulse. It is not, despite appearances, a spastic feeling. Stuttering starts in the voice box and the upper lungs with something like a pressure clench, the sensation of some valves closing against a flow, a trap tripping its release at the wrong moment. (John Updike described it as the feeling of “a kind of windowpane suddenly inserted in front of my face while I was talking, or of an obdurate barrier thrust into my throat.”) The clench occurs suddenly, irreversibly—in the final instant before beginning a sentence, in the middle of a phrase—making the experience of being a stutterer somewhat like the chronic knowledge that your clothes may explode off your body any moment. You stay on your toes for sudden self-embarrassment. Your sole object, when a verbal block comes, is to break past. Most of the quintessential tics of stuttering—the repetitions, hisses, swallows, blinks, head shakes, gulps, silences—are coping mechanisms, habituated tricks for pushing beyond this impasse in the throat. Why anyone would ever persist in such tics is perhaps best answered by the predicament of a swimmer cramping in the middle of a river. Part by reflex and part by urgent pragmatism, you dispense with any hope of an elegant stroke and flail toward the far shore. If you give up completely, or fall silent too long, there’s the risk that you’ll be swept entirely under, lose your meaning.
Meaning is crucial here, because most stutterers feel in constant danger of being misunderstood in at least three separate ways. There are, first, the communication risks of trying not to stutter. Speech, for a stutterer, is a chess game; it is not uncommon for our minds to be running three or four sentences ahead of our lips, with constant backtracking and recalibration along the way. In some cases, people known as “covert stutterers” or “closet stutterers” go through life apparently speaking smoothly but actually living like deer in season, constantly fleeing from words and situations that might spell trouble. Churchill—who rehearsed his speeches obsessively and faced the day buffered by epic rations of whisky—is sometimes said to have been a deft closet stutterer in maturity, his celebrated verbal dexterity being just that, a means of maneuvering away from danger. Flight, though, has a cost. When words change, meaning does also. This is true in the literal sense (in my most craven moments, facing an impatient cashier at a busy lunch spot, I’ve ordered the most safely pronounceable sandwich on the menu, which is usually turkey) and in more oblique ways, too. Not long ago, Joe Biden, who stuttered openly into college, undertook a famously weird circumlocution seemingly to avoid landing on the word Avatar—a sound that he’d just nearly blocked on. The hesitation was roundly interpreted as a sign not of speech trouble but of mind trouble, and, in some sense, maybe it was. To word-substitute is to substitute one kind of verbal control for another, to feel your speech slowly drifting away from the voice in your head.
When stutterers don’t succeed in sidestepping an obstacle, or aren’t comfortable living with their words at such a remove from their thoughts, there is the problem of being literally understood. Stuttering ravages the sentence, the sentiment, the idea, such that following the stutterer’s train of syntax can be like trying to parse a line of Morse code. (Biden was nicknamed Dash in high school.) If you happen to be a verbally minded stuttering person, this is something you never get used to. Part of your mind holds onto the hope of speaking clever things as effortlessly as you think of them, of being witty and charming; words you wish you had the tongue to say instead flourish inside, feeding a sort of verbal fantasy life. Everybody dreams. But stutterers, perhaps especially, dream of verbal transcendence: those rare moments when an ungainly cargo of words rattling down the runway pulls itself together, roars into a final burst of speed, and meets the sky.
A Peek Inside the Closets of Shoppers Who Pay Full Price for Designers’ Latest Runway Looks
After Ana Pettus, a 42-year-old mother who lives in Dallas, watched a gold minidress with a plunging, fringed V-neck go down the runway at the Balmain show in Paris last year, she knew she had to have it.
She bought the piece—she wears it as a tunic instead of a dress—along with three others from the fall 2010 collection at the Paris boutique of the luxury French fashion house. Price tag: €55,150, or about $74,000.
The Balmain pieces now hang in one of Ms. Pettus’s four closets, joining styles from Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as a $50,000 voluminous black-and-white gown with a giant picture of Marilyn Monroe on the skirt by Dolce & Gabbana. “I buy what I love,” says Ms. Pettus, who is married to the owner of a construction business. “They are beautiful pieces. They’re not mass-produced. You pay for that.”
Fashion weeks in New York, Paris and Milan generate a tremendous amount of press and buzz for some of the world’s most expensive clothes. But many of the runway styles are actually purchased by a small group of customers, not all of them from the isle of Manhattan. And unlike celebrities and socialites, who often get designer clothes at no charge in exchange for publicity, these customers pay full price.
"I’m almost immune to the whole catwalk look," says Cindy Rachofsky, a 54-year-old Dallas philanthropist and fan of the designers Derek Lam and Kaufman Franco. When she sees a model on the runway, "I’m not even looking at her size. I’m looking at the cut and the shape of the garment."
She and her husband, Howard, a former hedge fund manager, are fine-art enthusiasts, and Ms. Rachofsky looks at her wardrobe, especially her vintage pieces, as a collection she is curating. “I hope someday someone will find it important and significant,” she says.
In recent months, Ms. Rachofsky has focused on pieces from Alexander McQueen, the British designer who died last year. She purchased a $12,000 gown from his final collection for a charity event and loved it so much that she went back for more. In the past six months, she has purchased 14 pieces, including three from the label’s new creative director, Sarah Burton.
Shopping at home, rather than in the store, is important, Ms. Rachofsky says. A Dallas boutique named 4510 sends clothing to her house overnight.
"When you’re in a store and you’ve got someone staring at you in your underwear in a fitting room, it’s hard to imagine what you have at home that’s going to go with this $3,500 jacket," Ms. Rachofsky says.
At home, she and her husband discuss the styles over a glass of wine. “I can look at what I have, and I can look at my shoes, and I can say to myself, ‘Ok, if I am really going to spend this amount of money, is this additive to what I have?’ ” she says.
Although she keeps most of her runway styles, she says she does go through her closet for a once-a-season purge, sending unwanted garments to consignment shops including Clotheshorse Anonymous, in Dallas.
"It’s hard, it’s like giving up a child sometimes," Ms. Rachofsky says. "But if you don’t feel great in it one season, you’re not going to feel great in it next season."
Another wardrobe-building tip: Develop close relationships with sales people. Yolanda Berkowitz, a 51-year-old in Miami, is partial to Irene Pariserband, a Neiman Marcus associate who helps her find styles she might not have chosen for herself.
Last fall, after Neiman sent Ms. Berkowitz a $3,500 gold, silver and black Victoria Beckham cocktail dress, she called the store to express uncertainty about it. Ms. Pariserband urged her to try it on.
"Of course it was fabulous," Ms. Berkowitz said. She bought it, thankful that it wasn’t like something she already owned. "I don’t need a random little black dress because I’ve got a lot of them," Ms. Berkowitz said.
Like many women who buy runway styles, Ms. Berkowitz wears much of what she buys to charity galas. She gets multiple wearings out of her gowns, including a red Zac Posen one-shoulder gown and a silvery Marc Jacobs dress with a dark-brown sash. She carefully keeps track of which she has worn where and rotates them from season to season.
Christine Chiu wears most items only once. The 28-year-old, who is married to the founder of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery, goes to events every night of the week—often making multiple wardrobe changes in a single night.
"If you’re going to a gala for some kind of disease and then you go to a hip art event, you can’t wear the same thing," Ms. Chiu says.
She usually attends New York Fashion Week but skipped this season to attend the Grammys. She isn’t worried about missing something good.
"Everyone has their antennas up for me," she says of the personal shoppers she works with. "If they see something cute, they’ll send me a pic." Chanel, Carolina Herrera and Valentino are among her favorite labels, which she buys at Neiman Marcus, Saks and the designers’ own boutiques.
After she has worn a gown once, Ms. Chiu says she stores it at her California home. “Sometimes I’ll donate them to charities, but I would rather buy them new clothes than give them my old clothes,” Ms. Chiu said.
Some women find ways to wear runway pieces in their everyday wardrobes. Bree Laughrun, a 26-year-old Charlotte, N.C., criminal-defense attorney focused on domestic violence, often wears Balmain to court.
She plans a week’s worth of outfits every Sunday. Required to wear a suit every day, Ms. Laughrun says, “I try to get as close to a suit, without wearing a suit, as humanly possible.” One of her usual work-arounds is a black Azzedine Alaïa dress with a Balmain big-shoulder jacket and some “simple” Yves Saint Laurent leopard heels.
Her style is often among the first topics of conversation when she meets with a new clients or witness. “The more outlandish I dress, it helps cut the ice,” Ms. Laughrun says. “We can connect over something I’m wearing. I don’t immediately have to start in on, ‘Well, it says you’re alleging this here, or you’re saying he hit you here.’ “
Some of Ms. Laughrun’s earliest memories are of shopping at the St. John boutique with her mother and grandmother. Now, the three go to Capitol, a Charlotte designer boutique, to shop.
Her parents still help finance her clothing purchases, but now, a year out of law school, she is taking on more financial responsibility.
"Each season, between going through magazines or shows," she says, "I formulate in my mind a list of must-haves."
(Editor’s note:“If you’re going to a gala for some kind of disease and then you go to a hip art event, you can’t wear the same thing,” Ms. Chiu says.)
In her Histoire de Ma Vie, the author George Sand describes an encounter with Frédéric Chopin upon returning one night from a trip to Palma. Chopin was playing a melody on the piano, in the grip of a strange delirium. “He saw himself drowned in a lake,” she wrote: heavy and ice-cold drops of water fell at regular intervals upon his breast, and when I drew his attention to those drops of water which were actually falling at regular intervals upon the roof, he denied having heard them. He was even vexed at what I translated by imitative harmony…. His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature, translated by sublime equivalents into his musical thought, and not by a servile repetition of external sounds.
The work that Chopin was playing that night — according to “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin,” an article published recently in the journal Medical Humanities — is thought to be the Prelude in D flat major, or Prelude in F sharp minor, or even Prelude in B minor. But for the authors of the article — Manuel Vázquez Caruncho and Franciso Brañas Fernández — the exact piece Chopin was playing, or how it got composed, is less interesting than what might have been happening in Chopin’s mind while he was composing.
The diagnosis is distinctly medical. Chopin was having “hallucinations”. What many have read in Sand’s words to be an example of Chopin’s mysterious genius are in truth the result of a neurological condition. Caruncho and Fernández present a laundry list of possible diagnoses that could account for the Chopin’s hallucinations: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, fever, migraine. Eventually, the authors decide that the best explanation for Chopin’s hallucinations is temporal lobe epilepsy.
What does this say about the work of Chopin? The answer, the authors admit, is nothing. But they think the question is beside the point. What drives Caruncho and Fernández comes in their conclusion: “We doubt that another diagnosis added [to] the already numerous list will help us understand the artistic world of Frédéric Chopin, but we do believe that knowing he had this condition could help to separate romanticized legend from reality…” The particulars of Chopin’s compositions are somewhat outside the scope of the authors’purview. Their conclusion, though, hints that Caruncho and Fernández are not even that interested in the specifics of Chopin’s physical hallucinations. Their real focus is how these hallucinations affect the story we tell of Chopin. They are interested in the mythology of Chopin’s genius.
For all the sickly Romantic geniuses out there who purportedly succumbed to the wild thrall of their passions — Robert Schumann, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, etc. — there have been as many doctors, psychologists, and literary Darwinists itching to diagnose them. Chopin’s exact diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy has also recently been given to Poe, Gustave Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll, and others. “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is thus in the tradition of what some call neurotheology, the attempt to medically explain spiritual experiences. The not-always-subtle subtext is that unexplainable visions, or other divine madnesses, have no place in our enlightened, modern world. Neurotheologists have never been comfortable with the idea that romantic visions exist, and far less comfortable with madness as the catalyst for works of genius. The impetus behind these diagnoses is a desire to secularize genius, or to democratize it, and in some cases, to do away with the notion of genius altogether. The aberrant experiences of our great artists and writershave, as a result, often landed them in the loony bin (think Schumann or Robert Walser) or, at the very least, raised serious questions about whether we can distinguish between their illness and their work.
In short, “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is an attack on the romantic notion of genius. In “Genius and Taste,” a 1918 essay from The Nation, the critic Irving Babbitt discusses the two notions of genius—the neoclassical and the romantic—that are played out so nicely in the exchange between Chopin and Sand above. Whatever our personal opinions about genius are, they likely derive, in part, from one of these camps.
On the neoclassical side of the ring, we’ve got Voltaire and Kant, who defined genius as “only judicious imitation” (that was Voltaire). This means that genius is deliberate and that ideas come from somewhere, rather than from nowhere. When Sand walks into the room and calls Chopin’s playing “imitative harmony,” she’s representing the neoclassical position. “His composition of this evening was indeed full of the drops of rain which resounded on the sonorous tiles of the monastery.” Sand implies that Chopin can hear something extraordinary in the drops of rain that most people can’t hear. His genius is that he can imitate these raindrops and make them his own. (It also implies that he is working in the tradition of other great, rain-loving composers.)
The romantics, on the other hand, replaced judgment and grace with imagination and originality: “The power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination,” in the words of Coleridge. Notice that, genuine romantic that she is at heart, Sand backtracks when Chopin himself protests against the suggestion that he’s just monkeying the sound of the rain. She says, “His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature, translated by sublime equivalents into his musical thought, and not by a servile repetition of external sounds.” Both writer and composer agree it is Chopin’s wild reverie (or hallucination) that actually birthed the composition he was playing. Chopin was not just tinkling around to the sound of the rain; he had been seized by the sublime.
In its romantic form, genius is irrational and beyond our control. In fact, true genius requires a loss of control. In a way, the romantics shift genius away from what we do and toward what we feel, from what we create to what we are experiencing. Thought of this way, genius is really a state of being, closer to a state of ecstasy.
Whether we call them reveries or hallucinations, (mostly) everyone agrees that Chopin had extraordinary visions of some kind that corresponded with distinct physical effects. Romantics and neoclassicists alike — along with Caruncho and Fernández — would agree that these experiences played some role in the work Chopin produced. The hallucinations and the man and the music are all one package. What is exciting, then, about the work of Caruncho and Fernández is not their dismissal of the sublime in Chopin’s experience, but rather, their engagement with the physical experience of genius.
In the end, Caruncho and Fernández say they want to separate romance from reality, but their diagnosis leads to a conclusion no less romantic, and no less religious, than the legend: that our own bodies can generate within us a sensation of the divine. From this, maybe the romantics and neoclassicists can be brought together for a new notion of genius, one that allows for, and sometimes necessitates, ecstatic irrational reveries that must still be grounded in practice if good works are to be produced. After all, visions alone are not enough. If Chopin hadn’t practiced his piano, he may never have gotten past the Polish border. But his experience of the sublime, whatever its cause, was a real factor in his ability to compose as well.
Even William Blake might have approved of this synthesis. “As a man is, so he sees,” Blake wrote. “As the eye is formed, such are its powers.” Likewise, just because great ideas might come from somewhere doesn’t always mean that genius can be, or should be, explained away.