A case study by Goire Zatla, as provided by Soramimi Hanarejima
Art by Ariel Alian Wilson
Keeping this secret from you has become so taxing that I have to use the venom of sleep bugs to tame the eagerness to divulge it.
In the mornings, I apply this toxin to the region of my memory where the secret resides. A little dab of it spreads easily from my fingertip across that part of my mind, cool and thick, greasy until it dries to leave only a minty, vaporous sensation. It’s marvelously effective. This insect secretion from the local apothecary preemptively soothes the itch, which will otherwise inevitably flare up by the middle of breakfast, and the relief it provides lasts well into the evening. After a few days of performing this practice, it is assimilated into my morning bathroom routine, tucked cozily between washing my face and brushing my teeth. Like I’ve been doing this for years.
But after a week, I find that this use of sleep bug venom does have at least one side effect. It is numbing me to beauty. When I see a meteor shower or moonbow or quadrilateral triangle or northern pygmy owl, I merely note it as an exceptional phenomenon. No longer am I enthralled by that sense of ethereal, transient joy.
While this is concerning, the numbness to beauty does present one benefit: I will be able to converse with Qalixy without being in awe of her gorgeous personality.
So I arrange to meet her in conference room R, to provide critical, candid project feedback with a state of mind undistracted by her psychological splendor.
And indeed, within minutes of sitting down at the conference table, I’ve delivered all my comments on her work with pithy honesty. This leaves her plenty of time to ask follow-up questions, most of which are concerned with my emotional responses to key facets of her project, particularly metaphor repurposing and thought nucleation catalysis.
“But how does that make you feel?” she keeps asking.
Unable to experience the inflections of her voice as aurally aesthetic, I can answer all her questions immediately and succinctly.
We move quickly through her concerns and curiosities, and soon, our discussion is metamorphosing into genial conversation. So much so that we end up talking about emotional dexterity. And were I not in the beauty-impervious state that I’m in, I would no doubt be hung up on how uncommonly pretty her ideas on this subject are. Their arcs and colors and twirls verge on–almost veer into–the eccentric, yet remain firmly masterful in the domain of the articulate and cogent. They convince me to try the training routines she recommends and to take her up on her offer of going to emotional workout sessions with her.
The regimen starts with works of art that are unyieldingly evocative, literature and film that cover varied psychological ground at breakneck speeds, full of dynamic characters in ever-evolving situations that evoke one emotion after another for me to handle in unabating succession.
From there, I move on to paintings and photographs that are dense with emotional content ranging from overt sentiment to nuanced suggestion. The most confounding of these is of a teenage boy happening upon a man watering his melon patch as hulking monsters duke it out in the hills behind him. With a backpack purposefully shouldered, the boy appears to have somewhere he’s headed but is now thrust into a moment of reconsideration by this encounter, which has resulted in a posture of puzzlement, a countenance of consternation. The man’s expression seems to be one of calm worry, of anxieties reconciled enough to be only mildly troubling in this moment. Is it the menacing clash of beasts behind him that stirs the agitation he has quieted? Or is it something else entirely?
Another painting unnerves me with its incongruous elements–an understated goodbye, a butterfly in a jar, looming jealousy and tufts of harvested wheat–all coexisting placidly, as if in a carefully balanced state.
Steadily, I work my way through the assortment of visual works she has curated for me, each one pushing me to grapple with an ever-bulkier load of emotional material. Then I graduate into the echelon of theatrical productions, poetry slams, sketch comedy shows and other narrative forms that present numerous emotions nearly simultaneously. Each forces me to manage my psychological responses, holding some to the side while new ones enter. I am challenged to unfold sympathy while clutching outrage, put longing at arm’s length so appreciation can be brought closer, embrace humor one moment and in the next cast it to the edges of my attention to wrangle heartache and compassion. Typically, I must do all this from the confines of a narrow theater seat, amidst the exuberance of a boisterous audience, without the benefit of even a notepad to shelve a feeling or thought. And there, pushed to the brink of my capacities to experience and handle emotions, I become a blossoming of the human potential to be emotionally limber and active with audacious tenacity.
The emotional vigor of the artistic worlds she’s brought me into astounds me relentlessly.
“Aren’t you a fast learner,” she says two weeks into this.
We’ve just finished a workout–a rambunctious, entrepreneurship-themed musical this time–and I’m catching my breath.
“I’m impressed,” she adds with a smile.
“Yes … well … I do feel like … I’ve got a bit of a … knack for this,” I answer, still winded. “And it probably helps that … I’m not distracted by beauty.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, smile fading.
I briefly explain my use of sleep bug venom.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” she says, shaking her head. “That won’t do at all. Beauty is a deep part of all this. I can’t believe you’ve been missing out on that.”
“Missing out on what?” I ask in earnest; it didn’t seem like I was missing out on anything.
“It’s hard to explain, but basically, beauty is one of those things you have to juggle along with everything else, and also, the whole act of juggling is itself beautiful. That’s a drastic oversimplification. You need to experience it. You cannot truly know emotional dexterity while you’re untouchable by beauty.”
I worry about spilling the secret to you or someone else if I lay off the venom, but she is very clear on this point.
“Okay, I’ll give it a try,” I assure her.
She smiles again. I try to figure out if this one is wider than the last.
The next morning, I embark upon a hiatus from the daily application of insect-derived sedative. Cutting this activity from my morning makes my wake-up bathroom routine feel incomplete–wrongly abbreviated. But as I have breakfast and get ready for the day, I feel delightfully normal and become optimistic that the secret has lost its potency, its power subdued by repeated use of the toxin. But this is of course too good to be true.
While walking my customary path along the riverbank, I feel the desire to reveal the secret coming on. It’s faint but growing steadily. I pick up the pace, hoping that moving faster will divert energy from the rising compulsion.
But the urge only gains urgency. I become concerned that I’ll shout out the secret, yell like I’m trying to tell it to someone across the river. Anxious, I reach for the vial of sleep bug secretion I’ve kept in my bag all these weeks, just in case.
Then the morning sunlight on the river catches my attention. It sparkles like it’s flecks of luminous, filmy material floating out there, following every fluctuation of the water’s surface.
As I pause to admire the interplay of light and liquid, my hand falls away from my bag. The beauty of this sight has displaced the urge to divulge. That fact is itself beautiful.
Feeling at ease now, I conclude that when the secret threatens to burst out, I just need to have something beautiful to direct my attention to. Fortunately, you’ve supplied me with just that. In my bag, there’s a postcard from you, a mesmerizingly colorful scene of a mountainside covered in wildflowers from your recent trip to Nolinga Canyon.
As soon as I arrive at work, I place the postcard in the lower right corner of my desk, for easy glanceability. I feel as though I’m back in kindergarten, with my security blanket kept close at hand. Every few minutes, my head turns for a look at the postcard, like I’m afraid someone will swipe it from my desk. These frequent, small doses of the floral landscape seem to ward off the symptoms of secret bearing and keep me feeling almost normal, which delights me.
When it’s time to assemble for the team meeting, I pluck the postcard from my desk and tuck it in the back of my notebook before heading to the conference room. Briefly I muse that to some onlooker, it could appear that I can’t bear to leave the postcard behind, that it’s some vital memento of you.
As fellow members of Team Snurgler get settled around the conference table, I open my notebook. Then I place the postcard on the left page the notebook is open to. Wernt’s gaze is immediately drawn to it, probably because the postcard is the most colorful thing on the conference table. I become self-conscious about having it out, and when he’s not looking, I discreetly put the postcard among the unused pages toward the end of the notebook. When needed, I can sneak a glance at it back there during the meeting.
But when Qalixy enters the conference room a minute later, I know that won’t be necessary. I can admire her personality from across the room when in need of beauty.
And that’s exactly what I do 17 minutes into the meeting. I fixate on her elegant integrity and splendid insightfulness, the prettiness of her lightly prissy conduct. Her qualities easily hold at bay the pressures exerted by the secret. I settle comfortably into her sheer magnificence for wondrous, pacifying minutes, until her eyes flit up and meet mine. We regard each other for some very long seconds. Then she smiles at me.
Abruptly she rises from her seat and leaves the conference room.
My eyes widen as I begin to fret. The deprivation of her beauty leaves me feeling as if the secret is with tremendous force pushing its way out of its confinement in my memory. I might have to step out of the meeting myself. Or flip to the back pages of my notebook, to look at the postcard at the risk of piquing the curiosity of the team members near me.
In the midst of my mini-anxiety attack, I hear Bonrol say, “It may seem harsh, but we must be anti-mediocrean on this.”
“Exactly right,” Kierce joins in. “We have our potentialist values to uphold.”
These words resonate with me, despite my confusion about what exactly they refer to. I’ve lost track of the discussion while lost in Qalixy’s beautiful qualities, but hearing Bonrol and Kierce take this stand, feeling the unmistakable passion in their voices, roused within me is a keen sense of camaraderie, my long reticent aspirations of living the tenets of potentialism stirring to life.
Amid this, a quiet awe suffuses me.
My admiration for my peers, a consternation over what has evoked their vehemence, the trying nature of this secret, the knowingness in Qalixy’s smile, the reassuring brightness of the sky outside–it’s all strikingly beautiful.
And I can juggle them adeptly as I re-engage myself in the proceedings of the meeting, handling these feelings just like so many others I have during my training.
And that is unmistakably beautiful.
Having forsaken aspirations to join the intelligentsia, Goire Zatla is a metaphysiologist whose research focuses on memory, emotion, and consciousness. Goire’s recent studies have examined the properties possessed by a shard of shattered attention and responses to immoderate chronesthesia.
Soramimi Hanarejima is a writer of innovative fiction and the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags.” Soramimi’s recent work has appeared in various literary magazines, including Panoply, Pulp Literature, and The Absurdist.
Ariel Alian Wilson is a few things: artist, writer, gamer, and role-player. Having dabbled in a few different art mediums, Ariel has been drawing since she was small, having always held a passion for it. She’s always juggling numerous projects. She currently lives in Seattle with her cat, Persephone. You can find doodles, sketches, and more at her blog www.winndycakesart.tumblr.com.
“Handling the Contents of Consciousness” is © 2018 Soramimi Hanarejima
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Ariel Alian Wilson