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07.18.17
The Body as Archive
“When I find again the actual world such as it is, under my hands, under my eyes, up against my body, I find much more than an object: a Being of which my vision is a part, a visibility older than my operations or my acts.”
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible
 
 
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Arc,
Arch,
Archive.
 
The arrow passes over the arch, an arc is traced in the air. A trajectory. L’archet maternel, says Khatibi.
 
The body as archive.
 
A hive of likeness, of liveliness, of information. The bees, each with its role in the furnace, its electricity, a code linking it to the next.

Ark, they said. Unite them in an ark.
 
The seed storage facility on the anonymous island at the end of the anthropocene, for the scavengers of the next time to find, plant, and be reborn. A trove.
 
A residue. An inheritance of halves, muffled incantation, back to the door of the past, inspecting the lintel, the framework of knowledge. Epistémè. “You never know what you’re looking for until after you start,” said the archivist to her students. Sitting on the step at the building’s entrance, the man with his daughter surveying the world, sharing a sesame bagel. Bodies going by, bodies, the litmus of the known.
 
The body as archive.


 



1
 
Of all the orthodoxies, the most strictly regulated is the body.
 
Where does the body end? At birth? At death?
 
The man stood at the shore, the woman stood at the shore, the water penetrated their bodies, moistening their skin, their bodies extending into the sky, into the sand. If they stood there longer, they would merge with the land, the sand on their bodies, the salt in their eyes, on their lips.
 
“Our bodies lie beyond our own individual existence. And yet they are part of it.” (Whitehead)
 
Any one answer reduces the body to regulation.


 



2
 
I said that my daughter is my archive. I said it. And the analogy is almost complete. She is the evidence of a past event: she, its proof. She bears within her the history and knowledge of my body. She will bear its gestures into the future.
 
After I shave, she takes my face in her hands. She holds my face gently, her palms barely touching my skin. She looks at my features. Then she speaks.
 
            “I like your cheeks, Appa.”
            “And I like your cheeks, Sae Ah.”
            “I like your nose, Appa.”
            “And I like your nose, Sae Ah.”
            “I like your pink lips, Appa.”
            “And I like your pink lips, Sae Ah.”
            “Do you like my chin, Appa?”
            “I love your chin, Sae Ah.”
 
But when I pass children on the street, I don’t always think they’re adorable. Love transforms bodies. After she was just born, I would wake suddenly during the night. I would look over at Sae Ah wrapped in her swaddle in the cosleeper. What if something had happened to her? I would need to act. I am good in emergencies. Having a child is an emergency of responsibility. A body is there.


 



3
 
The body of the family is an archipelago stretching across the sea. Islands emerge from the ocean floor, the next never too far from the last, bearing resemblance, yet each its own sphere, each to itself its own.
 
A trace of the other, a trace of the same, the other in the same, the same in the other.


 



4
 
When Jane returns from seeing friends, she stops just inside the door. She bends to her knees, opens her arms, and, repeating the words from a book, says, “Bobo, hug!” Sae Ah rushes into her embrace. Then Jane says, “Did you miss me, Sae Ah?” “Yes,” Sae Ah says gently.
 
“Don’t go, Sae Ah! Don’t go!” I say from the bed, lying down, half in jest, when Sae Ah decides to leave the room. Then she knows the game: she runs away giggling. She returns. “Don’t go, Sae Ah! Don’t go!” I say again. “I’m going nearby,” she says, with an earnestness that only she can manage, her eyes glowing with compassion for her lonely father.
 
When I go get Sae Ah in the crib in the morning, I sing to her: “It’s good to see you / it’s good to be with you / it’s good to have you in our lives / you’re our bunny boo / our precious honeydew / and we do love you all day and night.” From time to time, we catch her singing the melody, as she’s drawing at her table, as she’s sitting on the floor, looking at her books, her ankles crossed.


 



5
 
Floating bodies condense in the turn of relation. Elation. Helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, radon—given a form.


 



6
 
My father is a chemist.
 
Sae Ah is like me.
 
My father sees her after a year and immediately says, “She looks just like Jane!”
 
But Sae Ah is like me.
 
She observes. The first time we took her to the playground across from our apartment in Paris, she stood at the edge of the sandbox and watched the children playing. She observed them. She evaluated. Then, after five minutes, she began to play.
 
On the train, Sae Ah likes to play a game where she identifies people as a man (아저씨/ “ajoshi”) or a woman (아줌마 / “ajuma”). There are ads. She points to a man, “Ajoshi.” She points to a woman, “Ajuma.” Up close, she is always right. But from a distance, when she looks at people on the sidewalk across the street, at times she guesses wrong. “What do you see, Sae Ah?” “That ajoshi is walking.” But it’s a woman.


 



7
 
The body is an object that orients vision. As much as I want to, I can’t stop looking. All the people getting on the subway—strangers. And yet I look at them, hopefully, vacantly. I stare. How do they beguile me? What mystery do I think they contain?
 
My mother stares. Unrepentantly. She will stop in the middle of the sidewalk to stare. Her mother, after all her surgeries, liked to go to the mall to sit on a bench and gawk. “Look, he needs a sandwich,” she would say, seeing an overweight man.
 
As much as I tell myself not to be fascinated, I still look. I still wonder. I still ask others, curious, “Would you rather live in a house next to four gorgeous horses or four gorgeous humans?” I keep wanting to choose horses.
 
Sae Ah turns to me, “No, you’re not a person.” “Then what am I, Sae Ah?” “You’re a human!” she says, frustrated.


 



8
 
We are at Kentaro and Yuki’s apartment to help celebrate their youngest son Jun’s second birthday. At one point my father and I are seated together on the couch. I notice that we are crossing our arms above our heads in exactly the same way, our right leg bent across our left knee in exactly the same way. I call to Jane to have her notice. She can’t hear. She’s talking to Yuki. Sae Ah and Jun are running in a loop through the living room, the kitchen, the dining room of the one-bedroom apartment, shrieking with delight. Sae Ah runs with her arms flashing back and forth at shoulder-height.
 
When we leave, Sae Ah starts yelling, “I don’t want to go home!” Jun comes up to me, I bend down, he smiles, then he says clearly, loudly, “SAE AH!” Yuki tells us that after the last time they saw each other, Jun kept saying her name for weeks. “SAE AH!”


 



9
 
Think. A housing development long planned, laid out in streets, lights in place. A house or two on the block, but the funding extinguished.
 
Think. The archive, there, in its boxes in the basement of the library, one archive alongside another. Which will intrigue the archivist? The musty papers, the accumulation that cannot speak for itself, that must speak to the archivist in a way so as to be heard.
 
When I visited the archive, the door could not be opened. I spoke into the intercom. A voice spoke back, but what did it say? The noise on the street too loud for me to hear the accent, the words. Once inside the building, I opened the box. There were photos I had never seen. There was a book, a field guide, on how to ask questions of strangers, with the simple words of a foreign language notated: chair, sun, bread, tree.


 



10
 
Ask Jane a question, and you’ll get a “no.” Then wait for a day and the answer is as likely to change as stay the same.
 
Her father, the opposite of an adventurer. Her mother, with her way of beginning sentences, “아니” (“no”). “Do you like the weather?” “No, the weather is good.”
 
            “오늘 날씨 좋아?”
            “아니, 좋지, 뭐.”


 



11
 
Jane’s parents used to own a successful magazine store. The most successful one in the neighborhood. They sold magazines, newspapers, cigarettes, Lotto tickets, soft drinks, candy, pornography. The legal addictions, just not alcohol and coffee. They were famous for good luck—their Lotto machine was always busy. They knew the neighborhood. They should have run for public office. Then they retired.
 
Walking in the neighborhood, we are stopped. A man, a stranger to me, asks Jane about Jimmy. “I know you’re his daughter cause you look just like him,” the man, in his sixties, says.
 
“Are you attracted to my father?” Jane asks me later. “If I look just like him.”
 
“Is that why your dad stares at Sae Ah?” I ask in response. “If Sae Ah is beautiful, and she looks like you, and you look like him, then Sae Ah looks like him, and he is confirmed to be beautiful?”


 



12
 
The body is a list of passwords changed every 180 days.
 
Arch, arch. Archetype.
 
I type “Archive” into the search field. Hundreds of documents appear, but not Archive Fever. Typing out the words, my fingers in their agility, Sae Ah who counts one with her pointer finger, two with her thumb, three with all of her digits spread to their widest dimension, the pattern is rebuilt through practice. “She looks just like your mom from overhead,” Jane says about my sister. “She stuck her hands through the gate to tease Sae Ah in exactly the same way you did.”


 



13
 
I dream of a land, at night, in which my companions and I are all naked, covered in white chalk, fearing capture, on the move.
 
Cliffside, I reach down to pull up a woman, the sweat of my fingers on the white chalk of her back. Her eyes looking into mine.
 
I dream of being with Sae Ah. We are at a water park. Jane is absent. Suddenly Sae Ah starts crying. I look at her. Her body is covered in lesions. Worms have penetrated her skin. I pick worms off her inner thighs that are trying to enter her body through her vagina. She is crying. I am telling her that everything is OK, we will go to the doctor, and everything will be OK.


 



14
 
Jane says that I have developed a fake laugh that sounds like my father’s real laugh. I tell him by email. He writes back that he always thought his laugh sounded like his father’s. A laugh, extending back generations.
 
For four days, I live with the reminder, in the presence of my father, that I am his archive. Our gestures have become more alike as I age, as I have given up on resisting. He seems to relish this. My relinquishment. At the restaurant, he goes out of his way to tell the waiter, “People say we look alike. But I want to know which is which—who is the father, and who, the son?”
 
It isn’t the first time he has said this.


 



15
 
I know I’m not my father because he is never sad. Only once, when he and my mother divorced. When growing up, if I spoke to him about my sadness, his response was to find a remedy, or to scold. He sent me to the psychologist, then the psychiatrist. He thought scientifically.
 
I’m not depressed. Not anymore. I’m not a teenager anymore.
 
But at times I am sad when my parents won’t accept their sadness, when they attempt to combat it with such vigor, activity, good cheer, practical solutions, chemistry, and foolish hope. I was told that I had to solve my sadness, but how, when it is part of the world? I recognize myself by how sadness lives in my body. Sadness has its own life, I give it the time it deserves.


 



16
 
To exist in public is to make the body visible and yet remain invisible. At the party of those who know one another, it is as though my body were not there, people crowd up to me, their backs to me, they don’t attempt to excuse themselves, they don’t turn to make conversation, I am covered in an impenetrable obscurity, the body is not a body when the appellation is not known, the face unknown.
 
Then my desire to be folded into a sleeve and released into the air, to float above the talking bubble, over which my voice could never rise, to linger just below the ceiling, a floating sleeve. Someone might notice me then, looking up, “Oh, a sleeve is floating in the air. What an interesting design idea!” And yet it is just me, a body, noticed at last.


 



17
 
I am by turn too timid and too confident. It’s my perplexity, some inheritance beyond comprehension: the shift of point of view that takes place within me, a look upon myself, and I see too clearly that my understanding doesn’t matter when others are asked to see me as some such being, a specimen of some sort. And so, I get angry with others when they are too timid or too confident, and all at the wrong time, as is true with me.


 



18
 
When I left for college, I felt like I was wrapped within the inevitability of a life not yet my own. I left home. I went half a country away. I felt the comfort of being around my parents dissolve. My body was newly bare. It was exposed on every surface. I was objectified. Unreadable. Maybe for the first time it was really my body.
 
When my sister’s daughter was born, I saw in her eyes my mother’s mother. Nana. My sister’s blue eyes, the recessive gene, the mistake, extrapolated, then repaired. Consolidated into the sharp blue eyes of my grandmother, of my niece.


 



19
 
When a body dies, it is attended to in turn. Atone, attuned. A tomb.
 
The story I was told as a boy was the following: My grandfather was from Ossetia. His name was Stefan Tasoff. He was the youngest in his family, sent away to escape dying in the Great War. His nickname was Caboose. He was Christian. This made sense. I had no questions. I went to a Methodist church. My mother’s name is Stephanie. My cousin’s name is Stefanie. My middle name is Stefan. My nephew’s middle name would be Stefan.
 
Then I learned that his baptized name was Totruk Tavasieff. Kabuz, or Caboose, was his nickname. Stefan was his American name. He was maybe Christian, but he was maybe also Muslim. My mother was taken to a mosque when they visited the relatives who had never left. A family document reads, “As their ancestors before them, everyday life consisted of hard work to provide food and shelter. They depended on the creeks flowing into the Terek River for drinking water, and washing clothes. It was in this river that one of his sisters drowned.”
 
In the Caucasus, the mountains mix things up. Bodies aren’t pure vessels. They lived there.
 
“I want to look closely,” Sae Ah insists, pointing, driving us closer to the object in mind.


 



20
 
When I was nine, we lived in England. We travelled Europe for a month in a Volkswagen camper. One evening in Holland, my sister, my father, and I were walking. My father was singing. I was happy. And then my father swallowed a fly. He coughed. He choked.
 
I swallow my voice. It was there. It was there the last time I spoke. It was there all day. And then, suddenly, it is not. It is as though I have swallowed a host of gnats. I fight to articulate the words, a buzzing sound emerges from my throat, drowsy in the weight of cheesecloth.
 
My voice has been swallowed by my body. A valve opens and shuts. Some apparatus exists, I forget it is there, and then it is there, controlling me. At other times, I find myself almost yelling, speaking with abandon, without caring what others think. And yet, then, as strange as it feels to speak in that way, others don’t react as though I am estranged from myself, as though the experience weren’t bizarre to me. It might even be that finally I am speaking appropriately: people are, for once, listening.
 
I recognize myself through my voice, through its failings, through its undulations, its lightness. Through my voice, I recognize my body, not my father’s body.


 



21
 
I am most visible when I am least aware of my body. When concentrating, I retract, then expand to fill my body, 100% compliance, matter matched to mind: then what is true about my body is seen, beyond the will that I exert to control its form, its reception by others.
 
I feel most vulnerable when I see my father aging. I must accept that I am his archive. This gesture. This laugh. This way that is my way too.
 
But when I see Sae Ah, I am reborn.


 



22
 
I speak, I live, I express some form of potential, I maximize a circuit, I minimize another, my body is the end and beginning of some infinity, some chance for liveliness. I am left-handed, Jane is left-handed, Sae Ah is left-handed. I see the lineage of chance, the glitches in the system that might result in something of interest.
 
Each body, abnormal, no realm of pure forms. Its writing too personal, too slant, bordering on the indecipherable. Each body, a repository of some past. A burgeoning of some future. An archive waiting to be read.

With Aftab Ahmad, Matt Reeck has translated Mirages of the Mind from the Urdu of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi (Vintage India, New Directions), Bombay Stories from the Urdu of Saadat Hasan Manto (Random House India, Vintage International), and Class Warrior—Taoist Style from the French of Abdelkébir Khatibi (Wesleyan University Press, Fall 2017). Poems and translations have appeared in Tripwire, Two Lines, Conjunctions, and City Journal (Karachi). He is coeditor of Staging Ground Magazine.