Temple of Shame


…for as often as I so restrain my will within the limits of my knowledge, that it forms no judgment except regarding objects which are clearly and distinctly represented to it by the understanding, I can never be deceived” Descartes, Meditation 4, §17

For most of the week, when I’m not at work, safely in the lap of Social Security, I am gripped by a paralysis of indecision. As Wittgenstein once queried, “What is between my deciding to raise my hand and my raising it?”, I am haunted by the same unanswered questions. I’ve taken up the practice of diurnalism (and, by extension, conformity) as a solution worth considering: on days when my schedule allows, I carry out all activities requiring public exposure in one burst, in the same way that the sun pokes out his head on a cloudy day and, just as quickly, sinks back into its sumptuous aerie.

Having not yet perfected Sun Worship, the urgency of replenishing my toilet paper is the motive force heaving myself off my well-worn desk chair, gathering my belongings, and walking with measured step to the front door. I will walk the 1.2 miles to the nearest shopping centre. If the world I perceive is correlative to my bodily potentialities, as a certain French philosopher would have us believe, I would like, if only this once, to take a nativist, pre-industrial vantage point.

A couple of months ago, I was forced to walk back from LA Fitness, right off the next freeway exit, because of car conflicts. Concrete stretched for miles and miles with no signs of life save for the occasional super-shopping complex. There is a real world, so I’ve found, and it’s mostly asphalt and car exhaust and, in the scarce populated areas, scantily-clad women hiding under the veneer of mall fashions. I concentrated on the spontaneous life-forms sprouting from the cracks in the pavement while recollecting that, “Interestingly, cases of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) are rare outside of the United States.”

This time I’ve resolved to keep my chin up and walk with good posture, to see if I can trick myself into believing that I am at ease in my body. Two young people—a boy and a girl—scuttle past me towards the communal pool; another tends to his dogs on an artificial glade. Everyone is in beachwear and I am all rain, wind, and slate gray. My coat-tails flap with the momentum of my stride. I feel I am alone in being so tormented by the weight of my existence.

It is but a short climb to the main avenue, but here the driveway enters the rushing current of automobiles traveling at top speeds. The circuit of brain activity, so warm and welcoming in close conversational groups, enlarges its compass to the whole of the area served by the electric company. On foot, I won’t even register as a squiggle by the data police. I set off for my destination, unbothered by the unremitting gaze of the motorists. Normally, I hate getting special attention from people, but now, with my silvery-white hair, I can always impute a cause.

The walk is, on the whole, uneventful, but at times the sidewalk ends and gives way to untamed, preternaturally green grasses which glisten of their own accord, without any sprinkle of dew drops, themselves a cause for exultation. Either this is some rare strain of grass or else I have entered the zone of fairies and leprechauns. (I opt for the latter explanation.) But the kingdoms of Faunus and Sylvanus, of Oberon and Titania, already elusive by their nature, teeter towards extinction as cement mixers arrive in fleets and inundate native soil, wherever it can be found, with a ruthlessness comparable to the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919[1]. In my younger years, with a keen sense that something essential was missing in our manic, developed world, I would take every opportunity to explain that the glittery effect on sidewalks was owed to the industrial use of diatoms[2] (a factoid that had stuck with me since 7th grade life science). Only when I had a more refined sensitivity to emotional responses, and definitely not before college, did I catch on that my overzealous attempts to elevate the bleak sidewalk haul to an undersea fantasy had had no other effect than to alienate me further.

At length I begin to approach civilization, the first signs of which are a desolate backlot for delivery vehicles as well as a municipal dumpster, unapologetically in view of stray pedestrians as myself but neatly out of sight of drivers preoccupied with traffic signals and civic ordinances. I feel a naughty cutting straight through the parking lot towards CVS, but it is nothing compared to the shame of the body which this secular shrine promises to absolve. With my heart set on corporal salvation, I arrive at the sliding doors, from which gusts of frosty air escape at intervals. (Corporate establishments can always be counted on for keeping their interiors at surgically-compliant temperatures, possibly to reassure their patrons that every surface has been sanitized, and that no harm can befall them within their sacrosanct walls.)

I have memorized the layout of our local CVS pharmacy, with tiny beacons in my mental map at the site of each of my essential items. The only rational explanation for this self-imposed mind game is to expedite the shopping experience, but who among us lives strictly according to the law of reason? My cognitive map is put into service, quite honestly, to prevent vulnerable moments of indecision, moments which might arouse another subjectivity to probe my inner life. This has been the unintended consequence of affixing my heart to my sleeve: externalizing my every thought process has tipped me to the fact that people are eerily responsive to their immediate environment. Whether knowingly or not, their behaviour is directed by that of their neighbours, which is not to deny that they had an overall purpose or plan in coming to CVS this afternoon. This, along with the fact that I’ve had customer service agents lie to my face without even knowing they are lying, has planted a suspicion that other people don’t have minds of their own.

To defend my own free will, I imagine myself absent from the situation, the “Unmoved Mover”; and then, like Harold with his Purple Crayon, draw the lines of my world with absolute sovereignty, a world whose reality is verified only to the extent that it intertwines with the subjectivity of others. The volitional prowess I’ve discovered in myself, the upshot of self-determination, may be a source of great power in manipulating other people—however, I don’t have, and never have had, even an ounce of political ambition.

People at CVS talk to me like my IQ is 75, and all of the overhead music is overtly sexual, God help me. One disconcerting song refrains, “My love will keep me warm.” Fool! If I need warmth, I will harness the power of the sun or build myself a thermonuclear reactor out of parts culled from my office supplies. As I diverge more and more from the straight path marked by conventional life milestones between Birth and Death, I’m beginning to see that the world caters to married people, and not to lost, wayward bookworms with a porous sense of gender.

With my tissue boxes, highlighters, and hydrating fluids obtained, I approach the checkout line and wait my turn, while looking intently at the upper left corner of the ceiling, which is more interesting than anything the woman in front of me could possibly be buying. To my astonishment, the cashier delivers her scripted greeting with a kind of bubbly cheerfulness. I envy this lady who can sustain her joy in the face of toilsome working conditions and profound existential meaninglessness. For my part, I cannot meet her gaze with any receptiveness, but I do leave the store with the satisfaction of knowing that positive energy is being dispensed in some quarter.

[1] although, the molasses proved to be more fatal

[2] a type of phytoplankton

Salpi Vartivarian is a body artist, a closet Buddhist, and a dabbler in Continental philosophy. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy from U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. in Linguistics from San Diego State University. Her writing has heretofore been published in Fjords Review and FORTH Magazine. Salpi is in the final stages of writing her memoir. You can follow her on twitter @salpiv