Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.
In this conversation, Maud Casey, author of City of Incurable Women, and Jason Tougaw, author of The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism and The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience, discuss the importance of touch, the relationship between porousness and boundaries, and what can be accomplished by reaching back in time through archives. This conversation is part of the BLP Conversations series from Bellevue Literary Press, featuring dialogues that explore the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences.
Maud Casey: There are lines from both your books that have been haunting me during these strange days of the ongoing pandemic. From your memoir, The One You Get: “I was a child of psychedelic fog, not scientific fact.” It’s particular to your own childhood growing up in a scene where there was a lot of drug use, and yet it has an eerie resonance with the psychedelic fog of now. In your book The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience, quite different from the memoir but similarly occupied by the intersection of neuroscience and the mystery of being alive, you write, “The many cumulative acts of others shape what it’s possible to do, to know, and to be.”You wrote it before the pandemic, but in this moment when so much depends on everyone else (or rather, this interconnectedness, which has been there all along, has been laid bare), it hits differently. I wonder if you have been thinking about the way the pandemic has been affecting your own brain?
Jason Tougaw: I used to be aggressively anti-hand sanitizer. I was freaked out by people who used it throughout the day. I knew, of course, that our porousness could be dangerous. Anybody who lived through the first decade-and-a-half of the AIDS pandemic could feel that. But I was also sure that this porousness was fundamental to life, that there’d be no life without it. So I guess in that sense, life is dangerous, but to be porous toand foreach other, our environments, other species, cultures, family, friends, people in the grocery store, that has always seemed to me where life happens. Cut to March 2020 and I find myself in the corner of the grocery store, by the freezers, stocking up on ice cream. A person and his shopping cart stop several feet ahead of me. To get out of this corner—and find some hand sanitizer!—I’d have to touch this person. I wait in the corner for what feels like forever until he moves along. I’ve memorized the hand sanitizer stations and rush to find one. If I look back on the last two years—and on the writing of mine you mention—I see that I had a tendency to romanticize porousness. The way I see it now, we find life in the interplay of porousness and boundaries. For example, we humans have stomped all over the boundaries of other species. In the process, their viruses find that we are pretty good hosts. Of course, we humans violate each other’s boundaries too. That makes me think of City of Incurable Women. This book isabout restoring the dignity of people whose porousness was abused by doctors who violated their boundaries and a culture that thought little of taking a nice long look at what the doctors told them existed on and in their bodies. You bring the archives—documents, photographs, illustrations—to us, your readers. And you narrate the experiences you’ve found in the archives. That’s an act of imagination, for sure. Not exactly fiction, not exactly nonfiction. But it seems to me that you approach the people you write about with a great deal of respect—an admirable orchestration of porousness and boundaries.
MC: That interplay of porousness and boundaries has been on my mind too. There have been so many horrific pandemic casualties, including the casualty of touch at a time when the solace of touch felt so essential. I spent a lot of the first year of the pandemic living alone. I would see friends outside, around fire pits, and that was great, but I couldn’t touch them. It made me think a lot about what touch does, what it offers us, which seems related to that interplay between porousness and boundaries. I spent a lot of time lying on my floor listening to music during that time, by the way, which helped. In March 2021, once we were vaccinated, I hugged a friend for the first time in many, many months. I cried afterwards, it was so intense. There is a line by Robert Hass, whose conversation with E. O. Wilson is the inspiration for this series, that seems relevant here: “Longing, we say, because desire is full/of endless distances.” There is a moment that I especially love in your memoir when, as a child, you have a run-in with some sea slugs that capture something about boundaries (this is my dance space, this is your dance space, I am separate from you, but we are all still dancing) and what is possible in terms of affecting and being affected by other creatures. “Imagine the complexity of the neural patterns the slugs and I induced in each other, as we shaped and reshaped each other’s perceptual signatures—the vastness of the tiny synaptic responses, the multitudes of potassium and calcium secreted and ingested, the neural channels coaxed open.” I love thinking about form, creating shape and structure in narrative, as a variety of boundaries. I wish I had the power to restore the dignity of the people I write about, and maybe I had that desire when I began writing, but ultimately, writing has increasingly become, and life too, an exercise in humility. Understanding how much I don’t know. My relation to the archive is precarious—I want to connect with the girls and women out of a desire to understand, to empathize, to commiserate, but the connection is impossible. Still, maybe featuring that desire to connect will result in something worthwhile.
JT: Touch became scary and taboo so suddenly. Now it feels like nobody is quite sure how to handle it. Were we touching too much all along? Were we naive to believe touching was necessary and nourishing? Of course we weren’t. But now we have this new layer to think about—when to touch, when not to. You’re right that you can’t restore dignity to people long dead, people you only know through traces in archives. But you tell a new story, you imagine their motives, their judgments, their suffering, their rebellions. One of the narrators, a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, boasts, “I could take the hat off a man without using my hands.” Here, your narrator is doing the touching. You get the feeling throughout the book that it’s not the touching per se that’s a problem. It’s the division of the world into subjects and objects. In the asylum, the subjects are men. They do the touching. The women are objects. Throughout the book, the girls steal chances to be subjects—by eating cherries, having sex with Jesus, carrying a precious pouch of dirt from an orphanage to a convent, swimming in the sea. I keep thinking of that song “Object” by The Cure. Robert Smith sings, “You’re just an object in my eyes. Object, object, object.” But, also, “I’ve got no objections to your touching me there.” The way I’ve always understood that song—and it’s one of those that lives in my nervous system—is that it’s a story about two people playing, sexually, with trading roles—subject and object. Neither role is fixed for them. Your nineteenth-century doctors want to fix the bodies and minds of their female patient in two senses of the word. They want to fix them in place, confine them to diagnoses and locked rooms. They also claim to want to fix them, as in cure them, so they may live freely. Through your formal boundaries—the pronouns, the juxtapositions, the case notes and internal monologues—you make it clear that the world would need to change radically for these girls to be free. This is a leap, but I think there’s a connection to our current nervousness about touching. We’ve been vigilant about fixing ourselves—maybe preventing ourselves from being either subject or object. We’ve been doing it with the hope that, collectively, we can fix the problem of the pandemic. I have a feeling, though, that we’d already developed a cultural fear of ourselves as subjects or objects. Nobody wants to be one or the other. The mistake I think we’ve been making as a culture is that we’ve been trying to be neither, because both have come to seem like complicity with oppression in its many forms. It seems to me that what we need is the freedom of fluidity—to be objects and subjects, to orchestrate those relations with dignity. While you may not beable to restore the lost dignity of your characters, you do present a set of fantasies of freedom that seems all about embodying that kind of fluidity. If only we could, your prose seems to suggest. If only.
MC: If only! If only is where fiction lives, in a kind of possibility space. Reading, too, seems to me, lives there. In The Elusive Brain, you describe the freedom of reading that is a kind of touching. You allude to what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes about reading as a private, first-person experience, then extend it: “It’s social andprivate, first- and third-person.” Intimate and communal, I love that. There is a chapter in yourbook, in fact, called “Touching Brains.” The first- and third-person-ness of reading is a kind of touching of brains, maybe. Could you say a little more about that?
JT: When a character finds readers, something happens. You’ve created these narrating women in City of Incurable Women who take me new places. “When I lost my hand, all I wanted was ether,” one tells us. “With amyl nitrite, a burst of kaleidoscopic colors too quickly gone; with chloroform, dreams both pleasant and painful but mostly painful. With ether, agreeable and voluptuous dreams, a brightening, the infinite moving through me.” As she continues, she invites us back into the waking world, where she hunts the asylum for bottles of ether left out by some careless doctor. As I read, your narrator trains my thoughts. I’m alone in a room, but her words—your words—hijack my consciousness and take it on a tour of her altered states and her subtle acts of rebellion. She changes me. You change me. Even though I’m alone. Times that by the number of readers your book finds. Maybe I know some of them. Maybe we talk about the experience. That adds another social layer to reading. You mentioned earlier that in the early days of the pandemic, you’d lie on the floor listening to music. I’m guessing you did this to change your mood, to alter your consciousness. Music’s a little different from literature, because it’s more often experienced communally. But of course it can always be private too. Still, literature and music share this quality—the communal bleeding into private experience. Because it takes at least two to make a reading experience—unless you’re re-reading your own prose. Even then, you’re reading a somewhat different person. Often, if somebody quotes something I wrote to me, I think, “I wrote that? Really?” That’s partly because the writer me and the general me are not quite the same.
Maud Casey is the author of five books of fiction, including City of Incurable Women, and a work of nonfiction, The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. A Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the St. Francis College Literary Prize, she teaches at the University of Maryland and lives in Washington, DC.
Jason Tougaw is the author of The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (winner of the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize) and The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience (Yale University Press). His work appears in Literary Hub, OUT magazine, Electric Literature, and Largehearted Boy. He teaches creative writing, literature, and podcasting at Queens College, CUNY. He writes a regular column on psychology, literature, and culture for Psychology Today, and he has a weekly radio show, The Mixtape, on WJFF Radio Catskill.