An Address Concerning My Supposed Existence
Monologue read by curator Raimundas Malašauskas.
The reader is on a stage, this stage here, which might be more like a clearing or a plinth, and the audience is sitting or standing, listening or being bored, looking at the reader or turning away. The reader is reading from a small stack of papers, A4 size, ten to fifteen pages printed from an HP Inkjet 4280. The papers are held in the reader’s right hand, and in front of the reader is a microphone on a stand. The microphone is inches from the reader’s mouth. The mouth, the reader’s mouth, is moving, and the voice is a reader’s voice: serious, slow, overly concerned with making mistakes. I frankly wish the reader were a little better at reading. The reader is a bore. The reader’s lips – pretty lips, not at all boring – have lipstick on them, red, bright red matching the trim on the reader’s heels. A man in the front row notices – everyone notices, probably – that the lipstick has been transferred to the reader’s teeth, the reader’s upper-left A and B incisors to be exact. After a few minutes, the man in the front row tries to signal the reader by very obviously licking his own teeth. He does it once, the reader doesn’t respond, and then the man in the audience does it again. After the third and forth licks, he stops. The reader knows what the man is trying to say – if “say” is the right word here, because the man is only licking his teeth, not speaking – but the reader has been instructed to not respond. I’ve informed the reader in very specific terms, thorough instructions that took up two entire afternoons, that any response from the audience is to be treated as if it did not exist. Ignore them, I said. When the reader asked me why the audience was to be ignored, I thought the answer would be obvious. I said to the reader: If I hired you to be my representative, to take on all of my qualities, it is because I myself have no qualities. In other words, it is because I myself do not exist. What you are going to read, I said to the reader, is the defense of my non-existence. Be prepared: the audience will think it’s a joke. They will laugh or get bored or look at their watches and decide how long they will be there. Their boredom is perfectly acceptable to me. You are not there to entertain. It will become clear, in time, that I am telling them something I, maybe you, believe to be true. It’s not a theory or a trick or a silly gesture, my non-existence. It’s not meant to prove a point or contradict the philosopher when he says, quote, The human condition is to be there, end-quote. It was all very material, my slow slip into non-existence. My body went bit by bit, like one of those collapsing glaciers you see on the Discovery channel late at night, stoned, wondering what else is on. The teeth went first, on a Wednesday – that was the day. The teeth were in my mouth Tuesday evening, and upon waking Wednesday morning the teeth along with their caps and fillings were gone. Entering the bathroom, I opened up, and was met with a hole of pink. I knew their absence would require a few life changes. Dietary changes, at the very least. No more onglet. No more roasted chicken, or toffee. Sashimi and rice pudding could stay. Certain boned fishes might be possible. In a fit of health-mindedness, I told the reader, I considered a diet of protein shakes, but I decided ice cream and liquor would be the best way to proceed. I tore through my freezer, dumping the frozen meat and poultry and fish, and making room for the sorbets and gelato and ice cream. After further thought, I refined the ice cream down to gelato and the liquor to vodka. Any brand of either would do. The reader asked me if the diet had certain effects on my health, and I responded: Certainly, but considering the way things were going, it didn’t matter much. Then, after the teeth, it was the mouth. The loss of the mouth was slightly difficult, emotional speaking. I was a bit melancholy that there was no more gaping pink hole to consider. I did consider it fondly, almost as if a vagina had opened in my own face. It gave me a certain pleasure to stare at it, and I had forgotten that I was looking at the absence of teeth altogether. So I unplugged the refrigerator, threw out its contents, and sold it to my neighbors. I explained my reasons to them, but they were too distracted by the low price of the appliance to listen. They did not remark on the apparent contradiction of my missing mouth and my ability to verbally explain my situation to them. Actually, no one seemed to notice the absence of my teeth and mouth. Even a week later when my throat left, voice box included, no one noticed. I told this to the reader as a way of explaining why any indication of my teeth should be ignored. It will also help explain why I need a reader in the first place. You see, I said to the reader, I still have a voice, but not a literal voice, not one that could make the sounds I once could. Therefore, I wanted to hire you as my stand-in, my ventriloquist’s dummy, so to speak. Like a dummy, please excuse the term, the reader should look like me, smaller perhaps, slightly cartoonish, but resembling my former body in all its details. This wasn’t easy to do. I put classifieds in all of the local papers, and it took weeks to find a reader as mediocre as the one you are listening to now. Other than the mediocrity, the reader resembles me in all important and unimportant ways. I was working mostly on memory concerning my looks because after the voice box was gone everything else followed: the skin, brains, the feet, left then right, etc. They departed with relief. I always considered my body an unwelcome guest in my life. It behaved rudely at parties. It was grotesque to loved ones. It behaved unconscionably. So I wish my body the fondest of farewells, as the cliché goes. I thought things might improve for me, socially speaking, but they did not. Unexpectedly, my friends no longer returned calls; I was no longer invited to parties or social functions. They completely left from my life, and it was not an easy adjustment, but a necessary one. I learned, through randomly seeing one of these so-called friends on the street one day, that everyone had not only started ignoring me, but also had taken to calling me “Madame Zero.” He was embarrassed, this friend, but I didn’t mind the designation at all – neither the “Madame” part, nor the “Zero” part. I adopted the name myself, signed emails with it, changed my phone bill, even considered putting it on my tombstone. I had an opportunity to use the name at one of the few social functions I was invited to, a family wedding. Although my old name was on the guest list, I insisted that they reprint the name card in front of my plate. My family didn’t notice, or pretended not to notice that the wedding organizers agreed to my demand and “Madame Zero” proudly decorated my place at the table. The one man who did seem to notice was my very perceptive brother-in-law, a surgeon, a trauma surgeon, one of the few men I could relate to. He’s a physically flawed man: small, head shiny bald, terrible fingers for a surgeon, a little introverted, but he is one of the few men I can speak to. I also knew he would have something to say about my so-called condition. He did not disappoint. About three or four sentences into our conversation he told me he’s often had to remove the limbs of accident victims. He shouted this to me, balancing on his toes so his mouth spit the statement everywhere. Actually removed a woman’s legs yesterday, he yelled. After he told me about it, shouting and red-faced, I knew we shared a bond. He pretended to find my questions morbid, but I understood it was only a cover for our shared interests. I asked him: what do you do with the limb after it is removed? Do you put it on a nearby table? Do you incinerate it afterwards? Does it go to a medical school? Is it heavy? Then I asked if he ever felt guilty about it, the amputations, especially if the person was beautiful, as this woman was. I asked him, and I probably shouldn’t have, if he felt attracted to the limb afterward, when it was there on the table, legs he could have watched walking down the street only a few weeks before. He didn’t respond. He just looked past me to someone else at the family function. I thought I had made a mistake in asking him. I thought I had misjudged our friendship. But then he said that, as a surgeon, every couple of years you have a person who come to the office requesting an amputation. This person might have a problem with the limb – partial paralysis, a neuropathy of some sort – but usually there’s nothing wrong with the limb at all, at least nothing that would require losing it, as he said. These people – “pseudo-patients” was the word he used – feel the limb is no longer part of them. In fact, they feel nothing at all for the limb. They reject it, deny it. So when these pseudo-patients come to my brother-in-law they are volunteering, sometimes begging, to have the limb removed, often more than one, maybe both legs or the arms or the fingers of one hand. He said, without me asking, that of course he wouldn’t remove the limb if nothing were wrong with it. Although he did feel – the Chardonnay must have been working – that he did consider removing the limb because these people seemed to be in some genuine pain. He believed the issue to be mental, not physical, but many quote-unquote physical problems with limbs are neurological, and if the limb did cause pain, was truly alien to these pseudo-patients, then why not help relieve their suffering? They saw their limbs as a burden to them, and if the limb was in fact a burden, then maybe he should remove it. Paperwork could be faked, contracts could be signed, lawsuits avoided. Plus, he knew that several of these people resorted to self-amputation anyway. For example, one of the men who came to see my brother-in-law lay on a train track in an attempt to remove his own legs two weeks after my brother-in-law rejected him. It worked, the leg removal, but the trauma to the body was so great, the man died a day later. When my brother-in-law learned this, he thought about whether he should have turned him down. The next time he encountered a pseudo-patient he thought of the man on the tracks, his legs over the rails, waiting to be released from their burden, and my brother-in-law almost agreed to do the operation, he said, but finally recommended psychiatric help. As he told me this, I felt as if he had inadvertently confessed his love for me. I decided to explain, right there on the spot, only feet from my relatives, about the losing, as he put it, of my body. In my own way, I, too, was a pseudo-patient. I told him that I didn’t need surgery, luckily, because the limbs and the rest of the body departed on their own. I told him, like the reader and I told you, about my teeth and mouth and the rest of my body. He paused to consider this, still not looking at me, or what was left of me, and did not respond. I could tell that I was losing him, that I had misjudged him perhaps, so I resorted to telling him about a woman, Hannah. Hannah is the director of Tours & Public Relations. Actually, she is the entire Tours & Public Relations staff, plus its director. We’ve wanted to hire a second tour guide – someone like Hannah, no doubt – but the groups have diminished lately, shrinking and expanding with the contractions of the general economy. But I shouldn’t complain. Hannah is perfect. No matter how early a tour is scheduled, she is there waiting for the group of tourists to form: pert, costumed in regulation uniform, grinning, made-up exactly as yesterday. After waiting a few minutes for stragglers, the tour begins with Hannah in the lead, fanny-packed travelers behind, walking through crumbling streets and cavernous ruins. We’ve cleared most of the rubble away from the main roads, but there is still a lot of work to be done. (For example, last summer a teenage boy fell into an open ravine and an ambulance had to be called. Prudently, we ask everyone to sign a release form before coming here, but the boy’s family sued anyway. We settled out of court.) Hannah’s first stop is directly across from two crumbling towers, both cobwebbed and now home to several species of bird, and as the tourists reach for their first photograph of the day, she explains that the two stone edifices were once my lungs. People seem excited by the information, this is what they are here for, and Hannah follows with some statistics concerning the partial organs: non-smoker, light browning due to lifelong city living, good strength because of an adolescent interest in opera. Of course, all this is in the past tense when she says it. The group then follows Hannah to the shores of my stomach, or the empty concrete basin that once was my stomach. She tells them about the summers the citizens spent on its shores, parasols open, Frisbees sailing over its grassy borders, and the tourists stand imagining the denizens washing themselves in the basin of my consumption. Hannah continues, her heels crushing stones beneath, and we walk alongside the empty canals where my arterial system ran and then through the intestinal sewer system. Here and there archeological teams from the local university are sifting dust, looking for knickknacks and charms of what was once, as Hannah puts it, a capital city. The tour has a melancholy feeling to it; some tourists cry and stop snapping pictures, a few leave midway through trying to find their way back to the entrance. The crying usually begins when Hannah refers, pretentiously perhaps, to Ozymandias, the Shelley poem and the Egyptian king, neither of whom any of the tourists are aware. She begins to explain who this great man was, but the tourists continue weeping, a pathetic choke of sobs that causes Hannah to do the same. At this point, the reader interrupts my story and wants to know if this is part of the interview – the Hannah part, that is. I said, No, Hannah is doing the job perfectly. Your job is different. (As you can see, I hired the reader anyway, despite the fact that this reader was probably not the best candidate.) I told the reader to forget about Hannah and my brother-in-law. The reader’s job would be to deliver the proof. The proof is something I had been working on for some time, although it’s still rough around the edges. The first part deals with logical denial – i.e., the ability to deny, through logical deduction, the existence of a present or unpresent body. It, my proof, begins with an image, a reproduction, a thing that looks like another thing. We can deny that a reproduction is an object, at least the object depicted. For example, a picture of an orange, say, cannot be said to be an orange. It may be orange-like, but you would be psychotic to confuse the picture of the orange with a real orange. However – and this is the original portion of the proof – the picture of the orange can also be said not to exist. The picture has, in terms I can define more fully if you ask me, a half-existence. We can no longer fully see it as a piece of paper, although we know that it is simply a piece of paper with some coloring arranged appropriately to seem like an orange. Now, you may argue that this half-existence is only due to the fact that the picture is a reproduction, that it is the confusion of two existences, but if we were to isolate either existence, either the orange’s or the picture’s, neither exists in full. And suppose we were to take a picture of the picture? Now you see that the existence is diminished doubly. Do not bother asking the reader in front of you now for clarification. The reader is only a medium. He is a dummy. The picture of the picture of the orange now only exists in one quarter. This process can be continued, quite quickly and easily, until both the reproduction and the orange have almost no existence at all. There is always a small piece left of the thing, the diminishment is endless, but I believe the example illustrates what I am undergoing. A second example, one you might know: children playing, what they call in the US, “telephone.” The game begins with a message, something dreamed up by one of the children, which is then whispered in the ear of the next child. In this way – mouth to ear, mouth to ear – the message is sent around from child to child, and the message is transformed. This might seem like a very different operation, a transformation of a message vs. the diminishment of an object, but the children’s game is a more precise understanding of my proof. My recent transformation, my non-existence being related to you by the reader, is, like the children’s game, a process of denial. The children are engaged in a denial of the original message, a slow, progressive, destruction of its body and meaning. What each child is doing is not recreating the message, as is commonly believed, but each is working like a government censor to eliminate the meanings that are disagreeable, or, as I put it earlier, grotesque. It is this quality – being disagreeable – that drove my diminishment. As I explained to the reader, I had, in the weeks before my teeth first left me, become thoroughly disagreeable. I would, in fact, deny everything. Even denials were denied, and this rigorous negativity extended to all matters of life. You may think that there is a problem with me admitting to such complete denial: namely, if everything is to be denied, then how should you understand anything that is being said here to you by my reader? Can’t everything be denied, reversed, and then reversed again, not unlike that problem with the duplicitous Cretan? The reader asked me this, and I reminded the reader that his role was to simply read these papers, not to add questions or complications to the proof. I chose this reader because of the physical similarities to myself, in all ways, and that is the reader’s role – to read and represent me, or what was formerly me. Apparently not hearing me, the reader has more questions about my statements, and what the audience might think, and I tell the reader not to worry about the audience. They are mostly elsewhere, literally and figuratively. They are simply waiting for you to finish. You are probably being ignored. The lipstick on your teeth is being ignored. The man in the front row has gone home, surely having much better things to do with his time. By this point, the reader is tired, tired of speaking and tired of standing on the stage, or maybe it is a clearing or a plinth, and the audience would be mostly absent, too, so the reader would approach the last sentence, drop the papers held in the right hand, and stop.