Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading maps onto Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade. Or it sort of does and it does so because they are both about prisons, of sorts, which is as much to say that they are about hospitals. In ‘Beheading a man is waiting (knowingly) for his execution, although he does not know and cannot find out the date when it will happen. Marat is in his bath waiting (without knowing he is of course) for his execution that is being shown to us in the form of a play directed by de Sade, staged in, and by the inmates of, an asylum. In both death sleepwalks towards and away from its subject, the extension of a kind of circus, a gaggle of cabaret or a chorus, having a laugh, pulled/withheld by forces of which we’re sure even though we don’t exactly know what they are. Time in this way becomes plastic, something is done, about-to-be-done, undone all at the same time, we move forwards and backwards in time. Now I’m not in prison nor do I feel like this sleepwalker or its subject. But I was in hospital and it was like this. By which I mean that hospitals, like prisons and asylums as they are described by Nabokov and Weiss are theatres of the worst kind.
In hospital doctors wheel through the curtains around a patient’s bed as the intendants of C.’s prison in ‘Beheading enter his cell. The doctors and the patient are players to each other. It is a clash because there is no audience or no-one who wants to be one. The bed is a stage and only the patient occupies it. And it has a world order, ordered by conjecture, superstition, fear etc. That is, it is almost forced into being as much of an imaginary place as any other place represented on a particular kind of stage, with its own laws and its own languages, mainly internal, but there even if they are not spoken in the same way that C. in ‘Beheading does one thing while doing another, his body becoming two where one body acts upon his conjecture, or desire and is immaterial, and the other remains in reality not doing – the one might spit at someone, while the other stays seated.
But the curtains are the curtains and they open, and information is given, or a test conducted, let’s say in what is also like an arena of competing persuasions. The doctors wheel through the curtains and they enter, but they do not leave their wheel. The time they spend is limited by its continued turning, irrespective of the information to be conveyed etc. Only in one way like those wooden figures on a Swiss clock. In other ways they have left nothing behind, nothing has changed, they are in their own play still, they smell of elsewhere, their clothes come from the outside, nothing changes in their language, they perhaps are subjects of the other kind to the patient. They are not ill. And to the patient who is us, they are absurd, more absurd because they have logic on their side and that’s always kind of humiliating and disorientating, inserted into this other ‘world’ this other play, the patient’s, which has its own order/disorder. Because not only does time become plastic there (nothing happens, everything happens, last Sunday may as well be last year) but the body is plastic too. The relationship to the body is indirect (as the person is an inconvenience between the doctor and the disease), informed, the body is shaped from the inside out by conjecture, imagination, desire even when it is known that these things are a bit stupid, not medical, pitiful and invariably hopeless. And when of course it would presumably be so much better in situations like this to have a direct relationship to the body and not to be inconvenient.
It is under these conditions that it should come as no surprise then that doctors lie. [We all lie, but with a different axis of responsibility]. Of course. How can they not? In a way, to lie is the condition of these conditions. They either lie because they are in the practice of doing so or because they want to get into the practice of doing so. And this is why it’s worse than admitting a mistake. So if they’d said those samples we took were sent to the wrong lab rather than the results we got from them were inconclusive and all the other bullshit etc. for a week it wouldn’t have made any difference perhaps, but it wouldn’t have been consistent with this worst kind of theatre either.
Anyway, the floor of the outpatients is designed by Peter Blake. I nearly photographed my sneaker against it – heart, rainbow, building blocks, red, blue, yellow etc – but we’d have vomited with the optimism. This is a teaching hospital. I like that, being a teacher sometimes. The doctor takes me into a side room to ask if I am willing to take part in a scheme where they pair a student doctor with a patient undergoing treatment. I feeling like a thinking, living person so I get a bit haughty and decide to say it like it is – that yeh, sure, these doctors could do with some help when it comes to learning how to be patient-focused in just the way that hospitals need communications consultants (who would make a fortune. We’re retraining to do this). I tell the doctor that I’m a teacher and that I believe in education but that as such really if they want me to be paired with one of these students then really that’s what’s going to happen – education. That I’ll not hold back, can’t guarantee I won’t be awful, that the main problem most times is that these kids in this discipline have no critical relationship to their own methodology, don’t imagine that a patient has any intelligence whatsoever etc etc. No doubt parts of this description at least are “yeh-yeh” familiar to some of you reading this, but what’s a boy to do. So, anyway, all this declamation accomplished, caveats issued, the doctor understands, I acquiesce and say that it’s fine, I’ll be paired.
We walk back into the doctor’s room to meet the student with whom I am to be paired. And what do you know. Out flies my position from under me. Ha-ha-professional. Serves me right, or I’m served right… He’s only the prettiest, blondest, most sparky-spunky bright-eyed little Bambi thing you ever saw. A slim fitted, slept-in white shirt and bright turquoise tie like the one Jimmy bought me because it was hard to find. He’s bobbling up and down where he’s standing and still bobbling around when he sits down. He’s blushing, almost and I’m not even going to say that he had a handshake like damp bread. We can’t look at each other for a kind of giggling that’s too close to the surface. At the end of the meeting he passes me a form to read, and asks if he can come to my next chemo session and ask me questions about my private life. Any bloody time. I only half-turn my head, Marschallin-like and nod, to say he can and then I say that I’ll try not to get snappy (he says he doesn’t mind) and that if I do get snappy then this is something that we will just have to negotiate between ourselves and the doctor by this time is also in on the game and he says that’s fine so long as it’s not in his office. I miss Harry.
Chemo Round 2 today. If the floor is designed by Antony Gormley (there is one somewhere in the building) I’m going to write as many nasty things about ageing and his cock as I can.