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The Writing of Delirium

Originally published on March 19, 2007

This is my brain on flu

I have had a nasty flu for a week, and today has been the official turnaround day. After a period of childlike surrender, I have achieved a stoic “old-man mind.” Life has settled to minimum expenditure, as I shuffle from just that to just this: this shuffling passage to the toilet, this slowly-operated can-opener, this patient walk to the store. I am dogged, awake, and do not give a flying fuck. I no longer see my neighborhood as the papery backdrop of my endless internal cognitive dramas, with their tangled fantasies and worries and schemes. Instead my neighborhood is the place that supports my body and my mind as they, or it, go through the absolute minimum of getting through the day. Today I feel genuine sprouts of new energy return, though things are not altogether rosy. Unless I resort to hydrocodone, a cascade of sharp, stabbing pains regularly erupts along the upper surface of my brain, as if two demons were hunkered down in my ear canals tossing electric darts at my inner skull cap at exactly those unexpected moments that will maximize my aggravation and pathetic, pleading exhaustion. But the fever, at least, is gone.

The one interesting thing about fever is that it is, at least from the daylight mind, pretty interesting. I have not had truly hallucinatory fevers since I was a teenager, but even the average if prolonged wallop I just underwent boots up an altered state to be reckoned withespecially when it goes on long enough that it starts to seem like baseline. My virus, which in a neat reversal I actually imagine as a kind of algorithm, was mercurial, one might even say mischievous, in that my temperature constantly fluctuated, dipping below 100 and then pushing 104 within a few hours. I began to take my temperature compulsively, and though I wasn’t being particularly methodical about it (surprise!), I felt like I was able to predict the number with decent accuracy. This was based not on how hot I felt, for sometimes I have been shivering like one of Fagin’s snot-nosed minions trolling through the East End snow. My intuition was based instead on the degree of delirium in my thinking process.

Delirium is, like many shadowy mindstates, tough to pin down. Uncorked delirium is no doubt rather hellish, almost by definition. Just read some trip reports about datura or other nightshades. Though it has its fans — countless traditional wizard folk around the world used them, including European witches and native Americans all over the New World, including contemporary ayahuasceros — a strong dose of nightshade alkaloids seems to rather reliably waltz people into a spectral nightmare of total disorientation, babbling, and hallucinatory delusion, spiced up with fever, terrible headaches, loss of motor control, and blurred vision. I don’t know about you, but I vaguely recall some incarnadine childhood fevers bringing me to something this bad mojo land.

In small doses, however, fever delirium is an interesting if unpleasant “drug”, not for any K-mart visions it offers but for the way it both extends, mimics, and mocks one’s normal thinking process. At night, fever delirium traps you in a space suspended between sleep and awakening, a space that resembles “unfired” insomnia in the claustrophobic sense of being lashed to mindless wheels of mind. But in contrast to the insomniac’s sometimes Apollonian sense of being an isolated perceiver in an anxious voidand I speak here as an initiatefever is a Dionysian process of psychic dismemberment, as you vainly try to think your way out of the labyrinths of verbal garbage, dreamdreck, and the husks of logic.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with state-specific perceptions, I can’t say that I have ever been very satisfied with my attempts to explain the flu delirium in our daylight tongue. Fever ties Gordion knots with all the threads you inevitably leave dangling; calculates the diameter of dust; and gives Lovecraftian glimpses into the cosmic wreckage the Kabbalists dubbed Qlippoth — the broken shells of creation whose most horrifying characteristic is, perhaps, their utter banality. Fever also reveals the embodied nature of thinking in a most awkward and claustrophobic way. 2am arrives, and there “I” am — or am not. The zombies who usually toil away quietly in my brainstem have gotten their hand on the tiller of what remains of my waking consciousness. With an utter lack of humor or grace, they elaborate complex pseudo-dialetical schemes and counter-schemes around arresting issues such as whether to peel off the sweat-soaked sheet or turn over one more fucking time. One is carried along in a process at once arcane, tedious, and meaningless. And yet, through such cobwebs, I could sometimes sense the materiality of thought, and sometimes in that heaviness, lay a kind of peace.

Literature helps us out here. Many writers have been able to capture delirium’s desultory dance, especially those writers who combine an existential stream of consciousness with a good grip on the material opaqueness of language. In Knut Hamsun’s superb 1890 debut Hungerfor my money the first novel of modern consciousnessthe impoverished writer who narrates the tale obsesses about insects and printed letters and the threads in his thinning trousers in full viral mode. Then there is Paul Bowles’ fabulous description of Port’s feverish death in The Sheltering Sky, a sublime passage that should be required reading for all of us who are going towell for all of us. And Burroughs’ entire oeuvre can be read as a sort of proactive delirium, a delirium of escape, and an increasingly visionary one as well.

This week my delirium received far more mundane textual enhancement, because the excruciating peak of my illness coincided with my absolute need to grade a three-inch stack of final papers produced by the largely admirable undergraduates who took the class on Technology and Popular Culture I just taught at UC Davis. While a happy number of the students are engaging or perfectly competent writers, many of them, dear things, have been apparently lost to the clamboring post-Gutenberg videoverse — or at least marred by crappy primary schools. As I forced my bloodshot eyes to hold their course over their prose hour after hour, this sometimes atrocious writing and my brain’s hot murk experienced a kind of low-rent Vulcan mind meld. “Is this bad writing or bad thinking? Is there a thinker behind these words, these thoughts, my thoughts? Or is it my own feverish exhaustion that has tugged apart this unskilled patchwork from its frail skeletal outline? At night, as I tossed and turned in the flophouses of the Dreaming, mouthing pickled mantras, fragments of these papers would invariably return, and always in the most awkward and blustery manner. The conclusion, class? Delirium is the mind’s bad writing.