The Affliction by Joyce Carol Oates

BOMB 53 Fall 1995
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995

Always they ask of him: When did you begin? Was it drawing at first, when you were a child, crayons, paints?—how soon did your talent emerge? And he politely says he doesn’t remember exactly, probably he began at school, he hadn’t much opportunity to draw or paint at home it wasn’t that kind of household, working-class, parents weren’t educated beyond ninth grade and had a difficult life, economically and in other ways he’d prefer not to discuss. Always polite, coolly formal and precise in his speech; an austere white-haired elder, a man of rumored (never substantiated!) secrets. He has the eyes of a seer, a prophet it’s been written romantically of him, the eyes of one who has delved deeply and unflinchingly into life. Through his career of over 50 years he has avoided discussing his art professionally and now as one of the most respected artists of his generation he’s become known and admired for what journalists call his reclusiveness, his reticence, his Yankee integrity. As sparing in his words as he has been prolific and extravagant in his art. Yet, the idiotic questions persist: when, how did you begin? how young? what is the source of your inspiration? of what substance is the remarkable material you work with? As if these are urgent questions multitudes of people are eager to know, multitudes eager to emulate the artist!

He’s polite. Simply terminates the conversation, excuses himself saying he doesn’t truly remember and doesn’t wish to invent.

  *

The affliction: the things never named. So long ago, before he was capable of speech, scarcely able to walk, approximately ten months old when the affliction first showed itself: a rash between his small fingers and toes, across his belly, in the region of his tiny genitals, an ordinary rash his mother supposed except it persisted, began to spread, striations in the smooth poreless flesh as if he’d been bitten by insects, raw, reddened, he whimpered and cried and picked at the afflicted areas of his skin with his nails though his mother bathed him frequently, in growing desperation rubbing salve on the rashes and taking him to the doctor who was puzzled by the affliction too, prescribing what medications he knew, which sometimes had an effect and sometimes had no discernable effect at all. Until at last when he was three years old and otherwise healthy a virulent eruption covered his torso and he was delirious with a fever of 102°F and an elder uncle of his father’s was summoned, he who’d been mysteriously afflicted with a skin problem through his life, and this kindly man bathed the child in warm water and Epsom salts and showed the frightened parents how the welts, clots, boils—the things as he called them—might be safely extracted from the child’s flesh, with an instrument no more exotic than a sterilized tweezers. For these things were not identical with the child’s flesh but were excrescences of the flesh, toxins perhaps, infections or perhaps even parasites to be dealt with swiftly and practicably and flushed down the toilet. These were cobwebby strands of bloody mucus-matter, wormlike coils of pus, partly coagulated blood-clots. The child had to be held as, with a deft hand, the uncle extracted the things, some of them no larger than a kernel of corn, some as large as dimes, throbbing with heat and of an odor of rankness, like an overripe peach. The operation took about 40 minutes. The child screamed in pain and terror, thrashing in the tub. But when the last of the things had been extirpated from his body, and damp, cold compresses placed on the afflicted areas, his fever began at once to subside; within a few days the wounds were healed, at least to the naked eye. “You see,” the uncle said, “the affliction isn’t fatal. It’s something you can learn to live with, as I have. Until you scarcely think of it until it happens. And then, of course,” he said, smiling, shrugging, “you have no choice.”

Six weeks, three months, five months might pass between bouts of the mysterious eruption. There seemed no discernable pattern to it, nor any relationship to the child’s general health, or behavior. If in the eyes of his anxious parents he was a good boy, or a bad boy, this had no bearing whatsoever upon the virulent things which seemed to possess a life, a purposeful will of their own, not in opposition to him but unrelated to him, wholly! Except of course the things were him, flesh of his flesh. Gradually he came to realize, with childish resentment, that other children were not afflicted as he was; no one even in his family except his great-uncle was subject to such things burrowing and churning in his flesh. So he knew he had to be secretive about it, for his malady was shameful, unspeakable—his parents chose not to speak of it, and never again took him to a doctor; if this was a sign of their blood’s curse, they wanted no one to know. By the age of nine he was removing most of the things from his body unassisted; by the age of 11, made precocious by his suffering, he’d developed ways of shielding his parents from knowing, or having to acknowledge, that he was having an attack; for, as he reasoned, they were not to blame for this curse he’d inherited, no more than he himself was to blame. Or, if somehow blameable, yet guiltless: helpless carriers of genes of an unfathomable code. At the age of 12, sent home from school with the suspicion of having chickenpox, in the early stage of the affliction he locked himself in the bathroom and with tweezers and small scissors extracted the first wormlike excrescences as they showed themselves on his torso, determined to stop the things at their source, yet faster and faster they came, more rapid his pulse, he was weak and light-headed with fever, a voice seemed to taunt What can you do! what can you do! as he whimpered, wept as much in frustration as pain. His senses were heightened, his sense of smell particularly, the stench of overripe fruit, rank rotting flesh made him nauseated, yet he prevailed, he attacked the hellish coils, clots, sinewy threads with his instruments, ignoring his mother who rapped on the door begging him to open it, to let her help him. But no: he would do it alone: he was not a child any longer, incapable of caring for himself. This marked the beginning of his new attitude toward his affliction, for he would master it, like his great-uncle; the things were shame, and pain, and disgusting to see, touch, smell, yet the things of which he could never speak to his classmates were precisely what made him different from his classmates, the carrier of a secret. In the hours preceding an attack, too, his thoughts seemed virtually to fly, he felt elation and terror as if the very sky were to crack open for his benefit and God to speak in thunder What can you do! what can you do_!—_nothing. Except, though he could not forestall an attack, he could confront it bravely, and briskly; as his great-uncle had shown him, with calmness, method. He would be a clinician of his own pathology. And how fascinating too the things were, once he forced himself to look at them and didn’t quickly dispose of them averting his eyes: bits of tissue and nerve, blood-threaded, sometimes opaque but more often semi-translucent, of the fluid-slippery texture of a jellyfish. Some of the things were smaller than his smallest fingernail; others, tugged out of his flesh, pulled to their fullest, elastic length, measured as long as eight inches. Turning to contemplate his back in a mirror he sucked in his breath, astonished: there were swirls and arabesques in his flesh, bas-reliefs the size of half-dollars, constellations and peacocks’ eyes, of every conceivable hue, though burnished gold as if a powerful light, or heat, emanated from the afflicted skin. Where he’d always felt shame now he began to feel pride. For the things were his, his alone.

It was then he acquired a microscope, to examine the things more closely. Discovering to his amazement tiny tendrils, or hooks, where to the naked eye there was only smoothness—which accounted for the pain of removing the things, embedded in his flesh. How complex their texture, wildly colored, and imbricated like a fish’s scales! Amazing to him too, and only mildly repugnant, was the fact that the things when freshly taken from him appeared to be living organisms, that died and began rapidly to dry and calcify unprotected from his body heat.

Instead of flushing the things away down the toilet, shielding his eyes from them in disgust, he began to save them. For weren’t they after all not symptoms of an affliction merely, but signs of something mysterious, not to be named? Placed on a flat surface, the things dried to shell-like shapes, of startling colors: bronze, blood-rust, tawny-golden, bruise-like hues of purple, orange-green, iridescent blue. How beautiful! His hands moved gropingly, arranging them into designs; while they were still moist, he could affix them, like putty, to a surface that might be upended. His first crude artworks, bas-reliefs, which he expanded by mixing in clay and acrylics, into strange, vivid, dreamlike designs, fascinating, mesmerizing. He made dozens of them, and hid them away. Someday he would show his shocked parents, someday even a trusted teacher at school, but this would not be for years; until his secret places filled up with his artworks. Now, in the grip of the affliction, his fever and rapid pulse had much to do with his fervor for capturing the things in their moist, livid state, torn from his body and pressed directly onto the canvas; his blood too was often smeared on the canvas, bright red drying to an unmistakable red-black, one of his secret colors. He worked blindly, instinctively. Half-shutting his eyes, mixing the things in with other materials, modeling clay, acrylics, sometimes oils, strips of paper, cloth, dried thistles, flowers—he moved in a paroxysm of such intense excitement, he forgot himself for hours; there was no self where he stood; the pain of removing the things from his body was forgotten entirely in the ferocity of his concentration.

What a use to make of his affliction, he’d afterward think, exhausted, yet elated. His great-uncle, a man of limited imagination, like most men, would never have thought of such a thing.

So this is what I am, then: an artist. So that is my identity, my place in the world.

  *

Things he would think of them, and of his artworks, too: things.

Never to be explained, nor even hinted at, to any other person.

He became, surprisingly, a theoretician of his art: it intrigued him how, out of the chaotic mixture of his body’s excrescences and what might be termed neutral materials, there could be fashioned a presence of a kind that, though inanimate, mimicked life: to glance at one of his artworks, however casually, was to feel a stab of—what?—an uncanny, panicked recognition?

Strange, too, how he came to know himself healthy as others could not know themselves, for he knew, intimately, what unhealth was; for him, in fact, a relatively small part of his actual life, over which he exerted, he believed, increasing control. When he was in the grip of the affliction, he gave himself over to it entirely—as his great-uncle had said, he hadn’t much choice. But, the rest of the time, he was acutely conscious of being free of the affliction, and “well.” What the world calls “well.”

He laughed, thinking of it. His secret! Did others have such secrets, were other artists similarly cursed, and blessed? He did not know, and could not have risked trying to discover. We can admire and respect one another but never know one another: so be it.

  *

Years, and decades. He left his home in a small, New England city; he moved to New York; boldly, as if it were his fate, and no one dared impede him, he began to exhibit his art—collages, bas-reliefs, some of the works enormous, of the size of Picasso’s Guernica. His name became quickly known. His art became “controversial.” As a young man in his twenties he accumulated awards, prizes, grants; he acquired a public, semi-popular reputation; what was perceived as his reclusiveness, his isolation, his uncooperativeness with the media did not hurt him, at all. Unexpectedly, perhaps because he’d never sought it, he acquired, even, the respect of his fellow artists—some of them, at least. He was not a fashionable man, yet with disconcerting swiftness his work became fashionable; which is to say, it fetched high prices. It was described by critics with the artillery of words at their command—powerful! haunting! disturbing! visceral! Above all, mysterious! His exhibits seemed, to him, the work of another person; younger, more naive. Thus his reputation for aloofness, detachment. For being courteously indifferent to others’ opinions, even when the opinions were generous, enthusiastic, seemingly informed.

Lavished with praise, he hid his uneasiness, or his mirth; he appeared to be listening thoughtfully. Saying, with downgazing gravity, stroking his jaw, Thank you. Thank you very much.

  *

Make of it what you will: it’s no more mine than yours.

  *

The surprising fact of his life was that he was by no means always, and exclusively, the artist. He was a man, a person, even a citizen, with moderately strong political beliefs; even, again moderately, an athlete (tennis, long-distance running). In his twenties he loved a number of women and in his early thirties he dared to marry, and to become a husband, and a father. For the affliction was such a small part of his life, really. The affliction, the things—assimilated into his life as a cycle, a routine; though not precisely predictable, yet predictable as always, inevitably, there. Except for skin blemishes to be passed off as birthmarks or old acne scars, or a puffy redness about the face from time to time, and oscillations of mood and temper which seemed but part of his character, he could pass as “normal”; when an attack was imminent, he withdrew to his studio to deal with the things as he’d always done. No one dared interrupt him at such times, not even his wife. He’d told her at the start of their marriage We love each other but we can’t know each other. If you accept me, you must accept this.

Of course, she accepted it. She would be an artist’s wife, and not an artist.

  *

Years, decades. Now in his seventies, a white-haired man bemused by his own physical presence: This? me?—so be it. Now at the 50-Year Retrospective of his work. Entering the museum anonymously, unrecognized in tinted glasses, a shapeless hat, rumpled workclothes, one weekday afternoon in winter. A senior citizen’s ticket—of course! He was mildly anxious, his heartbeat quickened, though telling himself what did it matter?—he’d seen the exhibit as it was being hung, he knew the works, they’d passed through his hands and through his very body; his career was behind him, or nearly. The Retrospective, organized by this well-funded museum in a northerly, seacoast city, consisted of over 200 of his works, the strange collage/bas reliefs for which he’d become internationally known; a half-dozen galleries were given over to them, dramatically hung against stark white walls.

How is it possible, how do such things happen?—he’d long since ceased to inquire.

There was a larger, more heterogeneous crowd making their way through the exhibit than he would have expected—his first sensation was childish panic. Who were these people? City-dwellers, tourists? Why had they come, this windy weekday afternoon, to so peculiar an exhibit? He overheard snatches of foreign languages—German? Italian? Surprisingly shy, for he’d never been a shy man, of looking too openly at them, or inadvertently eaves-dropping: he wasn’t that kind of person, after all. He did not care in the slightest how these strangers reacted to his art, did he?—he’d never cared, and now he was an old man, hardly vulnerable.

  *

In a short space of time, which, he knew, would pass swiftly, he would be 80 years old. The things still ravaged his body, but less frequently, and less virulently. He did not want to think that they were aging, too—wearing out. But it was true, of course. He might go as long as a full year between attacks; his art, correspondingly, was less plentiful.

Slowly, walking with a slight limp, which he’d only just recently noticed, he made his way into the first of the exhibit rooms. Early Work. How shaky he felt, how tense the very atmosphere of the room, like the air before an electrical storm! He was certain he was not imagining it. The ventilation system left much to be desired. He peered through his glasses at the things in their transmogrified state and felt an instant’s vertigo, that, exposing himself as he had, so shamelessly, he’d committed a transgression of a kind; a violation of human pride, propriety. Yet—if no one knew, could it be transgression? and who could judge him?

Moving through the rooms, and through his life. He was not certain that he felt anything at all. He did see, as critics had busied themselves pointing out, the evolutions of the work of his youth which was raw, crude, primitive— “powerful, visceral”—through stages of increasing complexity and strategic style; the phase of several years when he’d seemed to be emulating classic Persian designs, starkly geometric and severe in his colors; a reaction against asceticism, a gradual loosening of shapes, a fluidity of color; a late return to the cruder and more savage designs, in which nameless life-forms seemed to bleed and ooze on the canvases, which had occupied the last several years of his life. He’d become, in his old age, obsessive in a different way—obsessed with perfection, with closure. With hiding himself even as, emotionally, he seemed to be exposing himself. But it was all a trompe l’oeil—wasn’t it? Art’s strategy, not art.

One thing, he had to admit, was clear: to the detached observer, it certainly did seem that the artist had been touched by some sort of inner vision, whether divine or demonic; this art, bizarre, enigmatic, so strangely, painstakingly detailed, seemed the very antithesis of the coolly contrived and arbitrary art of the contemporary American scene. And how gorgeous its colors, and textures!—a glittering winking galaxy of ancient shells, fossils, phosphorescent minerals; a richness that provoked the eye, but seemed to stir other senses as well. An art of the body, the body’s inner being? Was that the secret here?

The artist made his way through the slow-moving, attentive crowd of viewers. A ringing began in his ears like the tolling of a distant bell. What can you do! what can you do?

In the last room, a gathering of viewers had accumulated before one of the largest canvases in the exhibit, The Healing; the artist had been told that this was the most popular of his works, if “popular” is the correct term. It was part of the mythology of this artist that certain of his works were so disturbing, yet so mysterious, that they struck viewers dumb and held them in rapt fascination, in the way of Titian’s Marsyas Flayed by Apollo, or Picasso’s Guernica, causing gallery rooms to become increasingly congested as more viewers entered, and others were slow to leave. The artist saw, with bemused irony, that this was so: a solemn, staring crowd of as many as 30 people stood before the painting. And more approaching!

The Healing was a creation of only a few years ago, so the artist should have remembered it vividly, yet he did not; not vividly; but in that way of a dream once overwhelming in its emotion, yet now long past. He had to grant, somewhat grudgingly, that it was … striking. It had become a controversial item, since a prominent critic had attacked it in print, and a second, equally prominent critic had vigorously defended it. And it had sold for an absurdly high price to one of the great museums in the world. The Healing contained certain of the qualities of the early art, a dramatic, eye-stopping array of colors and shapes, fluid-seeming, and moist; yet it was meticulously laid out, like a 19th-century engraving, suggesting, in the way of a fading dream, a subterranean city beneath a surface of dazzling motion. The artist stared at the work past the heads and shoulders of strangers, seeing not the bronze-lacquered sheen of the canvas, nor the rust-red grid beneath, the things in their crystalline, calcified state, nor any of the much-admired “painterly” features that must have captivated these credulous viewers; he saw instead, horribly, a white-haired man doubled over in agony, body covered in boil-like eruptions, who was coughing, choking, red-faced as with panicked fingers to save his life he reached far into his throat to tug out a shimmering-coagulated sticky ropey substance … hideous! unspeakable!

“That! What d’you suppose that is? The Healing—eh!”

It was he who spoke, suddenly; derisively; shattering the quiet of the room, attracting glances. He was breathing hoarsely and his face was covered in beads of perspiration. He looked about, grinning; beside him stood a well-dressed middle-aged woman who’d annoyed him with her attentive face, her contemplation of the monstrous thing on the wall, and she took a step back, easing away from him, yet without so much as a glance at him. It was as if, in his place, there was no one—nothing at all.

To a young couple, who particularly irritated him with their intense, furrowed expressions, how like a pair of brain-damaged sheep, he said, laughing contemptuously, “It’s fraudulent, phony—just something to make you look.” He was speaking in a loud, wavering voice; his old-man’s hands, the knobby knuckles, flailing about. But this couple, too, discreetly ignored him; whispered together and edged away. He was made to feel quite the fool.

He laughed, louder. Rubbing his eyes, that stung with moisture. “Sir? Is something wrong?”—a museum guard approached, frowning at him. So he was anonymous, he was invisible, after all: no one knew him. Laughing until his chest pinched with pain, his ribcage made of dried, brittle sticks collapsing in upon itself. Well, it was funny, hilariously funny—wasn’t it?

Walking then blindly, pushing past these gaping fools, dazed and limping yet managing to retain his pride, his posture, through a confusion of rooms, airless claustrophobic galleries hung to the point of madness with others’ things; then, suddenly, what relief!—he was in the open air, his heart pounding erratically and his breath short but he was in the open air, the perspiration on his face dried within seconds. He avoided the street, turned to walk through a sparsely wooded park, in the direction of a bay, drawn by the colder wind and by the smell of water, coming to a sea wall, a place unknown to him, a part-crumbling stone foundation that nonetheless bore his weight as limping, wiping at his eyes he saw the choppy water, dark-sparkling phosphorescence of the undersea churned to the surface, waves of surpassing beauty. The sun shattered into a million fragments in the waves, one moment glittering like jewels and the next, as a cloud obscured the sun, opaque and flat, lead-colored; yet again, a minute later, as the sun re-emerged striking the waves in scintillating nerve-like patterns, hypnotic to the eye.

He stood there staring, he would stand there, buffeted by the wind, shivering, until, hours later, he was found, identified, and helped away.

What can you do! what can you do!—nothing. Yet, he had to grant, he’d done well enough.

Joyce Carol Oates by Stuart Spencer
Joyce Carol Oates 01 Body
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Originally published in

BOMB 53, Fall 1995

Featuring interviews with Jo Baer, June Jordan, Kelly Reichardt, Abel Ferrara, Catherine Murphy, Mac Wellman, Lucie Brock-Broido, Wayne Wang, and Roy Hargrove.

Read the issue
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995