Contributions by other people

Matthew Goulish, USA

Three Microlectures on Hair

Matthew Goulish
January 6, 1997

Microlecture 1: Two Invitations

On a sunny morning in July, 1987, I sat up in bed, and most of my hair remained on the pillow. When I ran my hand through it more fell out, but many strands would not let go.

    "Don't worry," said Lin, "We'll cut it all off."

This moment seems insignificant in comparison to the onset of symptoms that April, the diagnosis in May, the operations and months of treatments, the deaths of patients I had befriended in the ward, the slow recovery. But because of an invitation, I now realize this moment, although it occurred in the middle of the story, belongs at the beginning.

Everything we do, we do by invitation. The invitation comes either from oneself or from another person. This microlecture appears because of two invitations: the first by Brigid Murphy in 1994, the second by Anne Wilson in 1996. I have had my invitations to this world, and thus my life has been blessed. I will describe the second invitation first.

Invitation #2: Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson did not extend her invitation to me personally, but rather to the entire world. In a piece called an inquiry about hair on the World Wide Web, she invited answers to the questions,

    how does it feel to lose your hair?
    what does it mean to cut your hair?

The questions made me remember the morning my hair fell out, and the book that Brigid Murphy never finished. Brigid's recovery had been so miraculous that she immediately found herself in demand again as a performer, and had to cancel her book project. Invitations, however, cannot be retracted, and in 1994 I wrote a short piece which I titled Our Cancer.

Invitation #1: Brigid Murphy

On my own invitation alone, for ten years, I have lacked the courage to write what I have now written. But since I have now written it, I have arrived at two conclusions.

Conclusion One: Although my tumors counted exactly three, were hard as rocks and the size of a pecan, a walnut, and a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches; and Brigid Murphy's were liquid, tiny, and myriad, I must imagine a world in which two people may share the same disorder of cell reproduction - I must imagine my cancer and her cancer were really our cancer - otherwise my courage to write would fail.

Conclusion Two: Brigid Murphy's invitation went like this.

    "Write about an event that changed you," she said. "I am assembling an anthology."

    "An event that changed my life?" I asked.

    "No," said Brigid, "An event that changed you."

Our cancer changed my life. What changed me were the two invitations.

Microlecture 2: Our Cancer

Two months into my hospitalization, I noticed that I could not cry. It felt as if the tears had given up. They existed inside, but lacked energy.

Lin took me outside the hospital and told me a friend, a woman we had met, undergoing treatment similar to my own, had died over the weekend. Lin told me gently, and I found this strange. Why is she acting this way? I thought. She expects me to cry. I realized then that I could not.

This death, six months before, would have elicited tears. I still felt the sadness, but distantly. I thought the cause may have been chemical, that the medicines and substances had thrown off my body's ability to secrete. But the lack persisted after my release.

I understand now that I was leaving the world. I must have been three-quarters of the way out. Where those three-quarters were, I don't know. Wherever they were, the tears were with them. My illness had pushed them over that edge, if I can call it an edge. It felt more like a position, more like folding in upon myself. From there all the events of this world seemed equally important, equally crucial.

Returning caused confusion. I noticed one day that when I should have laughed I laughed and cried at the same. I could not distinguish the difference. I realized that the tears had begun to return, but in the form of what James Joyce called laughtears.

    Dear Brigid,

    As our small party waited for the table, talking among ourselves at the Greek restaurant last night, I noticed you looking at the display of fresh foods: heaps of hazelnuts, walnuts, leaves of oregano, bottles of oils on the dark wood cutting block. You watched the cook chopping up onions, and I recognized the look on your face. Events had equalized for you. You had been pulled three-quarters out of the world. I never knew you that well, but I knew you always had more life in you than I had, and I wanted to say what's happening to you is not fair, it's not time yet, and statements of that kind. But when you are leaving the world you understand that it isn't death that is strange and fearsome, but life. How is this struggling life possible? How are these people possible? How am I possible? I am not.

    I thought your cancer was worse than mine, but I might be wrong. It might be the same cancer that moves among all bodies, connecting, through disease, women and men, children and elderly, heads of state and homeless, east and west, south and north,

our cancer

we all share in its proliferation. I have confused the curse and the blessing. I'll try to be honest. It hasn't changed my life. It has only changed my tears. They arrive with a start -- nonsense, terror, tenderness -- and then just as unreasonably they ebb.

It is so embarassing to live!

I felt abandoned by everything. A great sorrow fell upon my soul. I walked across the fields without salvation. I pulled a branch from some unknown bush, broke it, and brought it to my upper lip. I understood immediately that all people are innocent. We walk thousands of years. We call the sky "sky" and the sea "sea." All things will change one day, and we too with them.

Microlecture 3: Learning How to Leave the World

The 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, written by Marguerite Duras, tells the story of the young woman in wartime France whose lover, a German soldier, is discovered, shot, and killed. The citizens of the town cut off the woman's hair, and lock her in a cellar. Many years later, in postwar Hiroshima, she tells the story for the first time to another lover, a Japanese architect, who listens.

    I feel nothing...They're young...They cut my hair off...They consider it their duty...You are dead...and I'm far too busy suffering. Night falls. All I hear is the snipping of the scissors on my head...Somehow, this eases the pain of your death...My dead love is an enemy of France.

A transgressive relationship also lies at the heart of Russell Edson's quintessentially American poem, "A Man With a Tree on His Head."

    A man had been married to a woman's high-heeled shoe for seven years.

    He did not like to be spoken to because it confused the hair on his head which had a tendency to become grass when ever it tended that way, which it was anyway, which he hid under wild flowers he let grow in his part, hiding those under bushes growing from the back of his head, topped finally by a cherrytree from which he ate.

    If he heard a street noise he heard a street noise. If he heard a cow moo he heard a cow moo and that settled it, it was not a dog barking. Or was it. Or a dog learned to speak cow. Or a cow pretending to be a dog speaking cow - And something very much to think about.

    A cloud was once in the sky as he remembers and he looked up at it, or was it a cow barking.

In both of these literary examples emotional disequilibrium finds its emblem in the hair.

Could we then say this about hair: it locates the confusion of the public and the private? It provides the surface on which the symbolic and the imaginary merge? Could we say that hair -- confused, removed, or lost -- habitates the inarticulate consciousness struggling for language, or struggling to leave language behind? The phenomenon I've been referring to derives from one of Martin Buber's short Tales of the Hasidim.

    A hasid of Rabbi Pinhas of Kinsk, a grandson of Rabbi Yerahmiel, once came into the master's room and found him lying down and playing with his watch. He was surprised because it was almost noon and the rabbi had not yet prayed. Just then Rabbi Yerahmiel said to the hasid: "You are surprised at what I am doing? But do you really know what I am doing? I am learning how to leave the world."

In winter, 1961, Yoko Ono wrote a poem in her series called Instruction Paintings, which serves here as a conclusion of sorts.

    Hammer a nail into a mirror, a canvas, a piece of glass, wood, or metal every morning. Also, pick up a hair that came off when you combed in the morning and tie it around the hammered nail. When the surface is covered with nails, the painting ends.


Microlecture #1: Two Invitations

"Everything we do is done by invitation. That invitation comes either from oneself or from another person."

Cage, John, "On Having Received the Carl Sczuka Prize for Roaratorio," Speech at Donnaueschingen, printed Mode Records notes to Roaratorio, CD 28/29, 1992

"I have had my invitation to this world's festival, and thus my life has been blessed."

Tagore, Rabindranath, Gitanjali, verse 16, Branden Publishing Company, 1992

Wilson, Anne, an inquiry about hair, http:// ITA/CSA/textiles /hairinquiry/, 1996

Microlecture #2: Our Cancer

"And when an organism dies, it does not really vanish, but folds in upon itself"

Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold - Leibniz and the Baroque, tr. by T. Conley, p. 8, University of Minnesota Press, 1993

"It is so embarrassing to live!"

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, I Asked for Wonder, S. H. Dresner ed., "Gratefulness," p. 22, Crossroad, New York, 1996

"One day when I was feeling abandoned by everything... and we too with them."

Elytis, Odysseas, The Little Mariner, XXVII-XXVIII, pages 120-121, tr. O. Broumas, Copper Canyon Press, 1988

Microlecture #3: Learning How to Leave the World

Duras, Marguerite, Hiroshima mon Amour

Edson, Russell, "A Man With a Tree on His Head," The Tunnel p. 52

Buber, Martin, Tales of the Hasidim - Later Masters, "Playing with a Watch," p. 234

Ono, Yoko, Instruction Paintings, "Painting To Hammer A Nail," p. 31, Weatherhill, 1995