Jacob Brogan

The world is always ending

Symptomatology: III. What Bodies Know

            In a photograph taken three days after my diagnosis I am standing in the sun. Catherine is beside me, smiling, radiating calm. We train our eyes, as we so often do, on the same object, something off camera that we gaze at in different ways. In my right hand, slung low, I am holding a can of the beer that Jess and I have brought to summer cookouts for almost a decade. Studying this composition, you might not suppose that anything was amiss were it not for the position of my left hand. It hovers mere centimeters from my neck, thumb and forefinger almost, but not quite, pinching my trachea. In another context, I might be clutching my pearls. Instead, I seem to be caressing the space where my thyroid soon will not be.

Photograph by Laura Toscano

Photograph by Laura Toscano

            The action is unconscious, of course, but I can only read it as symptomatic, indicative of some deeper bodily knowledge. Some deeper bodily knowledge? It would be more accurate to say some knowledge of the body itself, knowledge within the body and of the body. Ask me a month ago to point to my thyroid and I would have hesitated before gesturing broadly toward my neck, a stoned Vanna White revealing a letter. Earlier illness had taught me that it was there, but my grasp of it was purely theoretical. And yet there I am in the photograph, all but clinging to this tiny gland, my body reaching out to a newly estranged fragment of itself.

            Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests in his Philosophical Investigations that rules only become available to us as rules when we don’t know how to follow them. Under ordinary circumstances, he claims, we go about our everyday business without questioning the guidelines that we follow as we do so. When we encounter a moment of uncertainty – in language as in life – we interpret, interrogating the possible expressions of a rule. Crises of meaning thereby invite us to examine phenomena that we would never glimpse under other circumstances.

            Wittgenstein himself would die of prostate cancer before he had a chance to publish his Investigations. To the best of my knowledge there are no photographs of him touching the troubled organ, and if there are they will rightly remain in private hands. I wonder, though, whether he ever really considered its presence before it began to pain him. While Hashimoto’s disease taught me what a thyroid does, my own cancer has shown me that my thyroid is. This is my paradox: Only when I prepare to remove a part of myself do I really grasp its presence. What’s more, it is precisely the threatening expansion of the gland into other tissue that speaks to me of its original shape.

            Illness isolates that which it attacks, even as it shatters the systems from which its targets derive. There is an opportunity in this excruciating opening: Wholes are hard to see, especially when they constitute our entire horizon. Fragments, by contrast, make our bodies available to us by showing us what has been or will be lost. Cancer renders our bodies as bodies, shows us the whole by tearing us to pieces. My body itself, my body in ruins, is the felt symptom of my knowledge of disease.

            Catherine and I are standing in the sun. We both know that I have cancer. My body knows more, knows itself, as if for the first time.