At the beginning of isolation, I solicited company urgently. When I spoke to my friends on video calls, my body reacted with the same surge of excited pleasure it would feel when I walked into one of our pubs and saw them there. When I spoke to somebody I found attractive it grew warm and restless as it would on a date. Now it is learning not to bother. The hangover from normal life has worn off, my reflexes dulled. My body has caught up with my brain and knows that it is still, stagnating; that there is nothing possible in any direction.
What does my body usually do? It moves. It doesn’t move with any particular grace or athleticism or elegance, but it moves, is moving always. It moves through cities and from person to person. Its normal state is one of propulsion, of use. Even when I dislike it aesthetically, I can appreciate this use, and without it my body grows ever more foreign to me.
I read back over the Oliver Sacks book A Leg to Stand On, in which he describes a catastrophic injury that led to him losing not only the physical sensation in his leg, but also any feeling of ownership over it. What he experienced was the inversion of phantom limb syndrome, where an amputee feels the presence of a limb which is no longer physically present. Sacks’s leg was, indeed, still attached to his body, but he could no longer feel it: “The leg suddenly assumed an eerie character… and became a foreign, inconceivable thing, which I looked at, and touched, without any sense whatever of recognition or relation.”
Devoid of use, interacting with nothing outside of itself, my body feels and appears meaningless to me. It isn’t that I dislike it especially, or want it to be different. What I feel is worse than the passing, passionate revolt I feel towards it intermittently in normal life, which is to say that I now feel nothing at all. In daily life, even when I find my body ugly as a collection of parts, it collides with other people in a way which coheres it, and elevates it beyond what it is.
The way that it can be made to feel, the feelings it provokes in others. The way it aligns with somebody else’s, sexually or otherwise: these are the ergonomics of intimacy. A leg that, venturing tentatively from its bar stool, turns out to fit perfectly between those of your date, or the convivial arm of your best friend thrown around a shoulder in jubilance: these are the things that make you more than you are, more than a thing.
Now that my body is alone, it is dissected. It lives only in images, in pieces. Eroticism is reduced to body parts. The only manner of seduction we have is to parcel them out to each other and hope for the best. Photographic representations of the body may feel like the closest we can come to physical intimacy, but being really experienced is so different to being seen that I may as well be taking photos of shrubbery, of cutlery, of a kitchen sink.
On video calls, in the corner of my screen, I see myself as the other person does (or at least I think I do – of course, I never truly can) and am appalled, angling this way and that, trying to escape myself. “Tell me this is not what I am like in real life,” I want to say. So far, I have accepted these imperfect interactions as “better than nothing”, but I am beginning to seriously doubt that. What I meant by better than nothing was that to talk to somebody, in any way, was better than not to talk to them at all. Now I suspect that the inadequate approximation of something as profound and fundamentally necessary as human connection may ultimately be more depressing than its absence.
I email back and forth a little with an acquaintance who is isolated with close friends in upstate New York, aware that he’s lucky to have them and access to nature and beauty. And yet he writes: “But even with the nice long walks and good company, it’s finally just weird to not be able to touch anyone.”
Until I read that, I had been thinking about what I miss in more general terms: I miss dinner with X, I miss bumping into Y, I miss flirting with Z. I hadn’t comprehended how strange it is that I have not been touched at all, by anyone, for so many weeks. It is, I realise, the longest I have gone without some kind of touch in my entire life.
In the days after I understand this, I grow resentful and jealous of my friends who are experiencing this time with their partners, thinking that even if they are as bored and anxious as I am, at least they have the anchor of touch. At least they can be made to feel real in that way. In The Divided Self RD Laing writes of a young woman patient of his: “If she is not in the actual presence of another person who knows her, or if she cannot succeed in evoking this person’s presence in his absence, her sense of her own identity drains away from her. Her panic is at the fading away of her being. She is like Tinker Bell. In order to exist she needs someone else to believe in her existence.” And I think then of how trauma can split the mind from the body, how that process is happening on an unthinkable scale across the world.
At first, this time had something to it that reminded me of buying nice underwear and posing for pictures to send to a lover you won’t see for a while, the conversations and connections extended hopefully, in recognition of a shared future. The longer it goes on, the less we have any sense of an ending, the more ridiculous that held pose comes to feel. It is impossible to maintain. I feel myself retreat and incline towards hibernation and disengagement. My body is learning that it is not in use, and that it shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for the time when it will be. Learning that there is no point in tensing for eventual release, my body exists slackly now, sapped of purpose, becoming colder and stranger to itself.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave