Sacred Gardens: A Meditation on Possession in Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist

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Possession is a strange concept. Like many of the categorizations we use to piece together what roughly might be called our social existence, possession is marked more by its ambiguities than its certainties. What do we possess? We possess our possessions. But what are those? Merely material things that cost money, that stand at one end of a transaction like the period at the end of a sentence? A mere placeholder for exchange, a trophy for participation in capitalist society, a pause after a civic duty duly discharged?

Perhaps it entails something closer to an aura, a relation within a context of other objects, accumulated for aesthetic or practical use. “It was his coffee and his cup. They shared the newspaper but it was actually, unspokenly, hers” (4). The coffee is his only in contrast to the newspaper (which is hers). Is this possession, then, this magical game of comparison, animating the space between the mute objects of our houses with a thin web of relations? An imperceptible fabric strung between the piano in the corner, the hand-painted cerulean lamp table, the sofa patched with soft, gently outlined squares, the white, porcelain coffee cup on the glass surface of the card table, near the edge furthest away from the stack of unopened bills?

Mine. Hers. Theirs. Our domestic lives are the domain of possessive pronouns. Once, humans believed in the invisible world of demons. They lived in the woods, under the wine-dark seas, filled the inexplicable corners of our lives with the noise of their incalculable powers. We relied on them to account for the unaccountable. They were sentries at the foot of a gate that never closed, guarding entities more mysterious than themselves, preventing the escape of shadows that only began to exist after they had already escaped and hidden behind objects exposed to the sun.

These demons are now in our possessions. They crept into the warmth of our homes after being relinquished of their duties. It is only the things closest to us that we cannot comprehend.

Our difficulties have merely begun. What can we say about those objects of possession which do not throw themselves open to the pure will of the owner? What if they resist domination with a possession of their own, wielding it like a talisman from the spirit world against spirits? A magnetic field repulsing only its own kind, an ancient taboo against the incestual commingling of ownerships?

“The phone was his. The birds were hers, the sparrow pecking at the sunflower seeds. The hair was somebody else’s” (17). Somebody else’s? What is somebody else’s? The bird is hers, but isn’t the bird somebody else’s as well? Is the bird not the bird’s, no less somebody else’s to her than the stray hair she found in her mouth? The hair is Mr. Tuttle’s hair, to be exact, the man who is hiding in her house without her knowledge. Do we own the existence of other existences? Does Lauren Hartke own her birds any more than she owns her husband’s coffee cup or her rent-house in which Mr. Tuttle lives without her knowledge leaving traces of hair, his hair, which find their way, somehow, into Lauren’s mouth the morning before her husband takes his own life?

Don DeLillo’s 2001 novella, The Body Artist, is often described as a depiction of grief. This is true—the novella centers around Lauren Hartke’s peculiar strand of mourning following her husband’s suicide. The Body Artist, however, is also a meditation on possession.

Do possession and grief, another amorphous concept, intersect? Grief is the loss of a possession. When an object enclosed by the web is torn from its place, the pain is indescribable. What is that thin web, then, pressed against the contours of our beloved possessions, if not an immaterial extension of our own nervous system? An object torn from our web leaves a ragged gash in which disconnected tendrils lilt gently in the domesticated breeze of the ceiling fan. Even severed, they dutifully carry their electric impulses to us, their significations of phantom pain.

Lauren responds to the pain of dispossession with an omnivorous consumption of possessions. She possesses Mr. Tuttle, the strange man living inexplicably in her house, who possesses, in turn, her husband’s voice, having overheard his conversations throughout his unannounced visitation. The Body Artist climaxes in an unsettling description of Lauren’s performance as a body artist. She reenacts her relationship with Mr. Tuttle, which is also her relationship to her husband, in a final act of literal possession—she has embodied her possessions, has absorbed them into her organism.

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This is our dream, isn’t it? Is this not how we win the possession game? This is how our possessions, exiled demons from the corners of an inarticulate darkness long illuminated by the sunlight of rationality, have re-learned their ancient magic. Our children’s trophies, our collection of DVD’s organized alphabetically along the windowsill in the living room, our framed photographs, collecting dust with the decorative books bound with imitation leather—we arrange them in a circle, inscribing a protected garden in which we anxiously pretend to sleep while the mystery of loss dances just outside of the lamplit halo.

Our bodies inhabit the sacred garden of possessions like a Cartesian ego while our objects are subjugated to the degrading role of the body. We expect them to absorb the brutal shock of living. What we have forgotten, however, is their dark magic. They, like us, were poisoned with loss before birth. Like a child fleeing in terror from an imagined evil into a bear’s cave, we respond to pain by expanding its playground.

Justin A. Burnett

Originally appeared on Lost in the Funhouse, 2017

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