The Rot (2016). Text.

Published by Rice+Toye 

At once a consolidated fleshly form of an eroding, decomposing, formlessness, the body beckons us and resists our attempts to remake it.[1]

Convention holds that rot is a deviation from the default of permanence. Note-taking, record-keeping, the dry documentation of truths and facts that should last unchanging into futurity. Against this lastingness, decay is positioned as abjection, interference, the peripheral matter that threatens to creep in around the stout, stone, pillar of immortality. Things will last: decay is deviation. Yet the truth, we know, is somewhat different. As the desiccating manuscripts of countless archives will attest, permanence is in fact a constant, near-futile fight against the inevitable rot. Nothing lasts; everything changes: truisms that render palatable the bitter fact that everything is always and constantly enacting its own death.

 

*

 

I hold no illusions as to my future: the future, that is, after I have died. After I have been buried; after my abdomen has become swollen with microorganisms that will eat me from the inside out; after my lips, wriggle of intestines and pucker of anus have melted into nothing. Flesh will fall from the bone and all that shall remain will be my skeleton, more or less intact; skull, ribcage, articulated ridge of spine, hollowed-out shells of my kneecaps. These will be my human remains, these and, perhaps, my words. Borges says that when writers die they become books, and if I am so lucky, I too may become such a publication.

 

Words and bones carry with them the comforting notion of immortality. Words and bones, dry and inedible: against the soft perishability of flesh, these are the only things that can be relied upon to last. Perhaps one day far in the future archaeologists will happen across my femur, or a shattered section of pelvis, and I will be excavated and placed in a museum for the edification of the public. Or perhaps not, perhaps my bones will never be found. Perhaps the scaffold of my body will become like rods of steel running through concrete, and once I no longer have need of their support, my bones may function as structural support for the soil.

 

*

 

Soft matter cannot last. Flesh ages and falls off the bone like oxtail left to simmer, but my bones may last forever.

 

In the immortal words: words, like bones, carry the sense of immortality. This is all that might remain of me, splinters of calcium and a hollow echo of my voice. In French, the word for language is the same as the word for tongue: langue. Yet the language I use on the page might persist long after my tongue has rotten down to a stump.

 

The writer belongs to a language no one speaks, a language that is not addressed to anyone, that has no center, that reveals nothing. He can believe he is asserting himself in this language, but what he is asserting is completely without a self.[2]

 

*

 

Soft matter cannot last.

 

Soft matter cannot last: that is, unless it is preserved. The definition of preserving is to maintain something in its original state, but this is, perhaps, more of an oxymoron than a possibility. In order to preserve, one must first transform, and it is not maintenance of a natural state but instead keeping in an unnatural state of suspension, that requires constant upkeep in order to maintain. Pickled in brine or vinegar, steeped in sugar or alcohol, dried and sealed or floating in formaldehyde: what is preserved must first be transformed. And the world in its humidity, its rapacious hunger and bacterial pervasiveness, will always try to creep in.

 

I think of the pickled animals in the Grant Museum, floating in formaldehyde, a remnant of the Victorian desire to possess, preserve, contain, in perpetuity. A jar of pig embryos, aborted before birth, blanched skin softening to a pulp, suspended in a chemical amnion. Soft flesh cannot be preserved in its original state: all that remains are bones.

 

 *

 

Mummification is determined as the preservation of soft tissues through either human intervention (embalming) or the particular conditions of the body’s burial site (suitably dry, such as a desert, or acidic, such as a bog).

 

*

 

“Don’t you want to preserve old things?”

“But you can’t, Anthony. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while while in the few hearts like mine that react to them. The asses who give money to preserve old things have spoiled that too. Sleepy Hollow’s gone; Washington Irving’s dead and his books are rotting in our estimation year by year – then let the graveyard rot too, as it should, as all things should. Trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants.”

“So you think that just as a time goes to pieces its houses ought to go too?”

“Of course! Would you value your Keats letter if the signature was traced over to make it last longer?[3]

 

*

 

Puffy and soft, the fleshy and fatty tissues of my own body have long been repellent to me. As this started to become a pathological fear, I yearned for the ghostly purity of a skeleton draped in gossamer: unpadded, unpillowy, hardened, yet infinitely light. These images are tropes of anorexia narratives, yet their cliché is itself testament to the lastingness of this desire. It occurs to me that along with being described as all skin and bone, synonyms for being thin are skinny and bony. One reduces oneself to a sheet of unpadded flesh stretched over a support. What felt, what feels still, to be important, is the shrinkage and drying out that comes with the ageing of biological matter over time. I judge my efforts at starvation by the level I can see my own ribcage, by how much my collarbone emerges beneath the skin, whether my elbows have become knobby protruberances. I cannot stand the thought of being soft and cushioning, of pillowy pads of fat forming beneath my skin: I cannot stand the thought of being perishable meat.

 

Softness and pliability are subject to change and decay. They waste, they are inconstant and unreliable and all too human. Fasting saints believed that deprival from human needs brought them closer to God: fasting saints tried to place themselves in the afterlife before life was over.

 

I too place myself after the disaster: after the decline of ageing and the full stop of death and the ooze of decay will be the permanence of my skeleton, and I pre-empt this disaster by becoming skeletal. If I strip back the flesh then I cannot age.

 

*

 

In 1950, the Højgaard brothers were digging for peat in a bog near Tollund when they came across a body. Naturally, they called the police: especially as a schoolboy from Copenhagen had recently gone missing. But it soon emerged that the body had, in fact, been suspended in the bog for over 2000 years.

 

The specific acidity and ambient temperature of certain peat bogs allow for soft matter, skin, organs, fatty tissues, the contents of the last meal, to be preserved ad infinitum, held in a suspension. But removed from the bog water, a bog body will dry and shrivel: the water that had held his cells in an unnatural limbo had to be replaced with first alcohol, then toluol, then paraffin, then beeswax, in order that the head of the Tollund Man did not contract and crisp up. In order to preserve, one must first transform.

 

*

Writers may become books, but books may age and wither. The scrolls of Sapphic poetry are riddled with holes of blank space, empty silences where language has not stood the test of time.

 

Bones can age, too. When I was told that my starvation had bored holes into my bones, I felt both shock and a sense of inevitability. Carbonated drinks erode the enamel plugs of teeth. I pictured my own bones being similarly worn away, becoming porous and sponge-like, slowly decaying before death.

 

*

 

Bogs can preserve the skin, the soft matter can persist, but the high acidity often eats into the skeleton. In a bog, bones might become like effervescent tablets, and slowly fizz away. Reduced to only the tissues, bodies become dried out sacs of flesh. I try to imagine what it would feel like to caress the cheek of the Tollund Man: leathery and hard, perhaps, like the crusted skin of a rhinoceros. The preservation of his body was less successful: he dried out, and shrank, skin contracting over what remained of the skeleton. He looks, now, as though he had starved, but then his face is calm, and his death looks as warm and inviting as a soft pillow.

 

Hollowed out and no longer soft, the cheeks of his buttocks look like deflated balloons. His leathery hide testament to the same fact I face: that it is hard, so hard, to keep a body soft.

 

 

[1] Phelan, Peggy Mourning Sex, Performing Public Memories (Oxon: Routledge, 1997) p.4

[2] 2 Blanchot, Maurice, e Gaze of Orpheus: and other literary essays, (New York, Station Hill Press, 1981), p.69.

[3] Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Beautiful and Damned, (New York, Dover Press, 1922), p.110.