Things To Do With Your Mouth
Recently released by Les Figues press, Divya Victor’s Things To Do With Your Mouth examines hysteria and psychoanalytic theory, exploring how bodies are fragmented, dismembered, and silenced when they enter the symbolic order. Victor’s appropriations, permutations, and repetitions serve to explode the basis by which hysteric’s bodies and psyches have been perceived as damaged and in need of a “cure.” Victor subverts the way normative meanings are constructed by fragmenting case studies, interrupting interrogations, and saturating us with an excess of body parts and excretions, torturous directives, and biblical curses. By fragmenting and overloading these texts with descriptive excesses, she unleashes the female, sometimes child, “hysterical” being from the knowledge systems that otherwise seek to diagnose, medicalize, and constrain her. If Victor’s writing sounds harrowing—it is. But it is also terrifically magnetic, glowing with intelligence, elegance, and control. Through her efforts, she discovers a formidable new type of life in this space—her witty juxtapositions unveil a surprising humor, one that illuminates darkly. I hear a distinct giggle from the charnel house of meaning.
Composed in four sections, her work is bookended with a foreword and afterword, composed by Vincent Dachy and CA Conrad respectively. These writers’ statements serve to accentuate and comment on a key conundrum of Victor’s text: how should we as readers consume it? Given that her challenge is to subvert the way that power construes meaning, how are we to re-construct something else from the fragments, excesses, and tortured bodies populating Victor’s work? Perhaps we must simply make peace with the fact that the psychological devastation Victor examines simply cannot be fully remedied or ameliorated. As CA Conrad writes, “Divya Victor has not planed these surfaces, nor has she merely collected and recollected. All food is appropriated from cycles of all food. The pain is inherent, and sufficient to maintain an engine of trauma.” For those readers that might seek to accuse Victor of perpetuating psychic violence, Conrad further suggests that this violence has already infiltrated all aspects of our current mode of being. That doesn’t mean that Victor is simply mirroring this sad fact back to us: she’s offering a strategy to survive within it—and that survival requires admitting this trauma, of recycling and digesting it otherwise. “Things will become tricky,” Dachy writes. And they certainly do. We must unmake the dismembered bodies we’ve been forced to inhabit. We have to find new ways to string ourselves together, to find out what else our mouths may do.
“Part One—Put Flesh On A String,” opens with an epigraph from Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, which details how a hysteric’s “cure” led her body to spew forth fragments of itself after being made to sit in a bath “ten to twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.” By the end of the treatment
membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment…peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way
Reading this recount, one immediately has to wonder what constituted a “cure.” To what state was this hysteric relieved of her condition? Victor’s text examines the rhetoric of examinations and health, opening with a series of questions:
what is the matter with you?
where does it hurt?
how are we feeling today?
The next page immediately puts this mode of inquiry into conversation with power, discipline, and the psyche:
when was your last confession?
She incorporates other rhetorics, such as legal documents, recipes, and parenting tips, identifying the way in which these modalities collude to enforce a system in which a body must express itself to and simultaneously be constrained by authority. In one of the most effective series of this section, she intervenes in what seems like a parenting tip for keeping a child from obsessively rocking–she interrupts the advice by including a near exhaustive list of synonyms for each action and object in the sentence. Within one particular piece, the italicized portion reads “take a heavy afghan and fold it into quarters to concentrate the weight. Put it on your child at night and see if it stops the rocking and sleeplessness.” Victor’s additions radically transform it:
Victor’s explosion of this sentence, composed in a centered prose block, creates a section that runs over two and one-half pages in length.
Mirroring how these unruly bodies were restrained and contained until they spewed forth excesses, Victor’s text offers up monstrous panoplies which are structured in tempo, tightly controlled through a recognizable procedure orchestrating her approach. Her lists of synonyms create a new rhythm that intervene in the original statement. Where the original intention of power’s interventions on the hysteric’s body was to contain and control it, Victor’s intervention into the parenting advice makes it excessive and unwieldy, such that its original intent or meaning becomes lost to us. We become fascinated by the series of synonyms, finding pleasure in all the varieties of ways we can say something, noticing the shades of differences between them. Her poetic response fascinatingly mirrors the physiological response of the hysteric’s body in Foucault’s account: Victor offers excesses that slip forth and entrance us by exceeding our expectations of what might happen.
“Part Two—Gag” opens with a long epigraph adapted from J. H. Chajes’ scholarly work, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. It describes how witches were treated according to certain medieval-era Judaic practices, highlighting how these accused women’s mouths were a central target for abuse.
Before executing these women, the murdering fearful (“faithful”) would allow the accused woman to atone if she told them a way to stop her dead comrades from eating flesh from their graves. The fear was that these women continued to have the use of their mouths after they died.
This “problem” of women’s mouths and bodies is explored in two sections. The first, “Dora and Flora: An Analysis of a Turn of the Case,” is a mash-up of Sigmund Freud’s notorious study of “Dora,” the young hysteric he failed to cure, Flora from Henry James’s novella Turn of the Screw, and biblical language describing women. Both Dora and Flora are victims of sexual abuse and are silenced by their families. Victor’s interventions into Freud’s “Dora” case furthers a lineage of feminist authors and scholars who have also sought to redress the power dynamics of Freud’s account. This feminist lineage is made overt in the second section, “Touching Feeling,” in which prominent feminist scholars are listed, overtaking the male figures that often dominate social thought. Men are included in this section, too, but are far outnumbered by the sheer volume of women intellectuals, whom Victor names alphabetically. Furthermore, these theorists and authors are coupled with different body parts and actions. It begins
Julia Kristeva spits on my Achilles tendon while my Adam’s apple combs lice from Adrienne Rich’s wigs as she gossips about my Alcock’s canal when my artery of Adamkiewicz sidles up to Anne McClintock as she burrows into my Bachmann’s bundle while it curls up with Annette Kolodny as she comes and coils over my Bartholin’s gland while by Blatson’s plexus pets B. Ruby Rich as she braids friendship bracelets with my Long thoracic nerves of Bell
This weaving highlights the way intellectual discussions inform Victor’s views on the body’s relationship to language and power. The social order writes into being the way that we conceive and make sense of our anatomies, which has lived consequences—medical history points to how this was worked for women’s detriment. Historically, a “hysteric” was imagined as having a loose uterus floating through her body, which disrupted her psyche. By coupling these theorists with body parts and actions, Victor argues that body and theory are inseparable. She suggests this by giving a meaty, corporeal agency to the theorists: McClintock burrows into her Bachmann’s bundle, an anatomical aspect of the heart. Furthermore, the repetitiousness of Victor’s structures also enact a form of aesthetic digestion for this excess, a means of processing and re-ordering the components she sets in play. And through these repetitions, there’s a different type of pleasure and wit that emerges in how we immediately recognize the logic of the work (in this particular case, alphabetical) and expectantly read on to discover how Victor will continue or whether she will bend from her self-imposed rules.
Let me repeat this sentiment in case it caught you by surprise: there is great pleasure in reading this text. I found myself reading to see how Victor would surprise and engage me next within the seemingly impossible parameters of her study in abjection and power. It wasn’t a pleasure in the content of her work, per se. Many of the descriptions of dismembered body parts and fluids were troubling. Any pleasure seems to skirt on dangerous territory—the danger that we are again fetishizing and making an abstract object out of women’s pain. However, this other sort of pleasure was a surprising feature of the work which animated it differently, allowing me to find strange new delight out of these violated bodies and their torture. I found a new pleasure with the language itself. I also felt licensed to this pleasure at the root level of language because it was grounded in Victor’s efforts to liberate the hysteric from her previous prison of meaning.
There are other pleasures, too. For instance, there’s also a clever gallows wit in the work. In “Part Four—Answer,” for example, Victor utilizes the rhetoric of assessment, offering a repetitive study in violence on the verso and a question with space to answer on the recto. The section “Piercings,” begins
Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Can you tie it with a rope through the nose or pierce its jaw with a spike? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Can you put a hook into his nose or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Facing this monstrous litany, the opposite page has a single query: “How might this affect your schedule today?”
To suggest that Victor laughs in the charnel house of meaning perhaps implies a deep nihilism in the work. I don’t necessarily feel that to be the case. If a nihilist laughs, it is perhaps because they believe in and relinquish themselves to their absolute powerlessness, which emerges as an absurdity. Victor, however, generates pleasures in her power—her rhetorical control over modes that have previously worked to oppress and reshape “hysterical” bodies. This is a fascinating, tightly wound work, elegantly wielding form to her theory.