Megan Stockton



“Explanation does not dissolve what’s incomprehensible about a thing … Writing makes a vestibular system, a scene around which to move to get the contours of what’s hard about a thing.” —Lauren Berlant

I. The Pleasant Mistake:
      Lack and the Stormy Vestibular System

     a. Vertigo: Heights & the Inner Ear

When I climb to the top of the Vor Frelsers Kirke and the steps are slippery from the rain, I am physically affected to the point of paralysis. Looming 90 meters over Copenhagen, I dare to look down at the city below. The tower dips dramatically and my vision collapses on itself; I start to hug the wall. I duck away from the railing that starts to crumble into the mist. A thudding starts in my ears that I can’t shake, even when I close my eyes. All my language is stuck between my throat and my sternum, and all my momentum hurdles me downward, even as I stand frozen clutching the wet brick. I suddenly realize that this feeling is vertigo, and my vision pulses to a pause. I’ve made a mistake! My body knows it and it makes my head spin. I am frozen and I am falling. I know, but I can’t stop. Confronting this unfathomable distance, my agency is uprooted: I submit to the dizzy.

*              *              *

J and I had been hiding in cafes for days, having not seen each other in months. She came from Berlin and brought me a book of poems—a little offering to ground all the longing we had for each other, she said. We spent days catching up, which meant talking about what we were reading and making, and who we were loving and how to understand the love triangles that constantly form and collapse among our friends. We had paid 25 krona and climbed to the top of the chapel steeple—the highest point in Copenhagen—thinking it would be just another place to put our bodies while we talked, not knowing it could uproot our psyches so fundamentally.

Up on the tower, I battled the vertigo enough to make it back down to land. Safe on stable ground, I tell J my experience. I am giddy! It’s my first experience of vertigo in memory, but my body knows this feeling so well. I tell J, maybe vertigo is equivalent to what Sappho feels in Fragment 31, when the speaker looks at her lover talking to another and all her senses break down in the gaze. Vertigo too is about triangles, I tell J. My body has felt this metaphor deeply—the sickness of vertigo is like the sickness of desire. Sappho’s poetry is not only about jealousy, which we already knew, it’s about vertigo. My feeling at a great height can teach me something about love. I begin to talk about vertigo as a way to talk about erotic triangulation. I begin to believe erotic triangulation is just like motion sickness.

*              *              *

J is wary of how we tend make these grand equivalencies between things just to generate meaning. She thinks that maybe we’re just making huge meaning out of small moments and then giving up on everyone who can’t understand what we mean. She says maybe it’s dangerous to play with language this way—to lose the genesis of how and why the word “vertigo” became a placeholder for how it feels to love in triangulation, or later why “ships” became code for giving up after a moment of failure to create a shared language, and the type of sadness that brands it.

But we are all guilty of building these little languages with each other, trying to fix meaning for each other, and sighing in relief and finding solace in our shared meaning. “You understand everything,” we say to each other, both mocking and wanting more than anything our utopian ideal. Later that summer K and I spent a whole month in a residency in Detroit assigning single words to different texts, urban phenomena and our own love affairs, and called it a library. We created an elaborate code of metaphors and meaning that was so dense we almost got lost in it. We chose words and objects and decided what they meant for us and our experience of a city, our experience of intimacies, and then organized them on call cards, like the Dewey Decimal System, so that other people could understand what we meant too. We wondered what would happen if we institutionalized our metaphors. We wondered if this was a more responsible way to understand and organize knowledge—as stemming from the personal instead of the general.

Illustration by Jon O'Neill

We all know deep down that meaning and metaphor only work because of difference, and even if we are just spending all day walking around the same pond in Copenhagen, it feels as though we’ve really accomplished a lot just because we now have decided that a = b. But we know that the equals sign also separates a from b. That it still suggests that a is not b, fundamentally. The meaning happens as the eyes scan the equals sign—it happens in the movement between the two terms. Maybe it's a good exercise, then, to trace the genesis of these metaphors—to see what gets lost in the equals signs that we posit in our games of language and desire. What happens when we reify these metaphors, and then start to perform them, live through them. When they start to triangulate meaning.

*              *              *

After vertigo became about desire and language, I read everything I could about it. The leading theory explaining why our senses seem to fail as soon as we reach heights is known as the sensory conflict theory. Visual signs are sent to the brain about where the body is in space, and then the brain compares this visual information to information gathered by the skeletal and vestibular system. Vertigo is a type of motion sickness—it occurs when the brain’s perception of movement doesn’t match stored patterns. The source of the conflict is the fluid in the inner ear—in the vestibular system—that normally helps us orient ourselves and keep our balance.

Vertigo results from a mistake. I think I see, but I do not truly see, and the discrepancy between what I think and what is true makes me sick. My sickness is induced by a deficiency—an incapacity to perceive the earth from an exposed height—and that incapacity, or lack, triggers elaborate fantasies of free fall that are lodged deep in my body, beyond logic and trust. In vertigo, I know the reason for my sickness, and I try to ground myself, mentally, to make myself feel better. But I continue to spin. My mistake is not remedied by knowledge. I am out of control and I become addicted to it. I begin to seek it.

*              *              *

     b. Seasickness: Nau-sea & Motion Sickness

I write in my notebook: “What else is like Vertigo?” What else strips my agency in such a fundamental way that I can’t recover? What else resides in me as deeply as the water splashing around in my ear?

Seasickness is like vertigo, but maybe without the same degree of fear. I discover that “motion sickness is probably a problem as old as passive transportation.” The word “nausea” derives from the Greek for “boat.” Of course the sea will make us sick. I remember the feeling of sleeping on a sailboat in Key West, rocking back and forth in the clear dark water. Each night I dove into my dizziness as I fell asleep in the V-berth. I knew it was seasickness, and I was giddy for it. Being used to stable ground, my body and brain couldn't fathom the reason for the rocking. I found the feeling sacred, my body literally enacting what I had only known as metaphor. My vestibular system was stormy: my inner ear fluid rocked like the sea but couldn’t keep up. My perception of my body in space was detached from what was really happening. I couldn’t fathom this degree of separation between what I felt and what I expected to feel.

     c. Desire: Sickness of Triangulation

Both seasickness and vertigo are types of motion sickness resulting from a lack—an angle of separation between what I perceive and what I think I know. This lack that keeps me from being able to act on the knowledge I have—it causes sickness. Once I remove my body from the stability of solid earth, be it at height or on a rolling sea, I cannot rely on the customary responses ingrained in me. Is this Sappho’s problem when she experiences a vertigo in Fragment 31—is her desire a kind of motion sickness?

In Fragment 31, the speaker seems to sit apart from two others and observes someone, probably her lover (addressed as “you”), talk to another (“that man”) who appears to be “equal to gods.” Observing this intimate exchange, the speaker experiences vertigo. It—

puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.
     —Sappho, “Fragment 31”

Hearts with wings, broken tongues, skin on fire, loss of sight and hearing, nausea, near death! How can desire look so much like vertigo?

Fragment 31 is the perfect depiction of triangulated desire. Anne Carson explains it in her book Eros, the Bitter Sweet. It's a geometric “ruse” that tricks us into falling in love. Erotic tension stems from a lack separating the lover and her beloved. The space between the lover and beloved engenders desire, and the movement of the beloved, revealing and concealing herself, sustains it. But the relation is a triad: the agents are the lover, the beloved, and that which separates them: the cause of the lack. The cause could be as concrete as another lover or as illusive as a projection of the beloved onto her being. Maintaining desire requires that the desired object never be attained—that it exists as a starkly present absence. Confronting this lack causes a crisis.

*              *              *

Vertigo and Seasickness are types of motion sickness and motion sickness is a symptom of faulty perception. Is desire a type of motion sickness too? Being in a place your body does not properly know makes you physically sick because you lack recognizable signs and stability. There is a dissonance between perception and expectation. Looking at a lover and seeing that you can never really HAVE the beloved, never merge into a single being, is another unfathomable lack that causes the same sickness. This is what Sappho feels in her love triangle. I know my body to be presently with the beloved, and yet it is not. How can I still be here? Against the flow of so much desire. The distance is devastating. Confronting this crisis generates a sickening collapse.

*              *              *

II. My Uneasy Boat: Triangulation as Tool

                        from “Sail Away” by Eileen Myles

                       “I know it
                                   is completely too much
                                                it’s how your play
                                                           which drives me
                                                                        makes me
                                                           follow through
                                   my love
                                               of storm
                                               my uneasy boat”.

      c2: Erotics of Triangulation: Sapphic Love & Embodied Metaphors

If desire is like motion sickness, how do we overcome it? How can we not get sick?

We might consider triangulation in its moment of genesis in ancient Greek mathematics: triangulation as a navigational tactic, a way to avoid nautical collision. Since the sea moves and the ship is moves, triangulation allowed ships to accurately determine their locations by measuring their positions in relation to more than one point on the shore.

In the hopes of learning to navigate a romantic crisis, I read an article about triangulating ships called “A Study of Vessel Deviation Prevention Scheme Using a Triangulation in a Seaway.” Even today this ancient tactic is used in ship navigation. Triangulation enables a ship moving through a busy shipping lane to determine another ship's position, its rate of approach, as well as its distance from shore. Using triangles to measure can help account for motion and instability: it sets up fixed points and uses them to determine distances.

I think about the Detroit metaphor I found that obsessed me, where I decided that the sinking of a mailboat, the J.W. Westcott II (captained by a woman, I make sure to note), as she approached a large tanker (obviously a man) to deliver a message, has everything to do with intimacy and desire. The mailboat, much smaller than the tanker, had mistaken the speed and position of the tank and was swallowed under by the suction of the bigger vessel. Neither ship radioed to the other the morning of the accident. They were relying on messages delivered the night before. The accident resulted in two deaths, and was heavily investigated by the Coast Guard. I read the tugboat employee manuals and the accident report obsessively, trying to determine what she could have done to avoid the mistake. I decide that if she had just triangulated a little more, she would have been okay.

*              *              *

Perhaps the pattern of love triangles that emerges among friends is a tactic like that. Since humans and desire and language are things that are always in motion, we have to keep on making triangles upon triangles to make sure all this circulating desire is stabilized, or at least contained. We have to get our bearings. We can see the distances between ourselves and one another, but we have no fixed point to help us determine our positions. We take it into our own hands: we set up a stake, a solid point in the distance. We perform this odd caricature of nautical triangulation. We reach out for an object or another person to stabilize the intensity of our desire for the beloved: to be far and close at the same time. Instead of expressing it to the beloved, I express it through another fixed point—a boat, a borrowed sweater, a screen shot of a poem, a message sent to her best friend. This way we avoid collision and the sinking sickness, but we have something. Triangles are the cause of the sickness, and in an odd turn, the cure. Triangles are how we grapple with the motion sickness of desire.

*              *              *

Like Sappho’s model of love, the way that this triangulation plays out in intimate relationships between women is especially telling. In the past few years I have found myself in various forms of intimacy with other girls in which the “terms” of relating remain are often unsaid. There has always been something in all of this girl love that depends heavily on this erotic geometry. She and I can desire and love each other, on the condition that there is another looming on the edges of our desire. Like Sappho’s “that man” who seems “equal to god” and creates the triangulated love, we put an object in between us to help determine the nature of the distance between us. “That man” (not necessary actually a man) acts a fixed point, establishing a way to measure what our intimacy really means, what it can and cannot be. But unlike the Sappho poem, the triangle is not what is causing the sickness—it's what prevents it.

This way, girls can embody their erotic intimacies with each other more freely, without the same expectations of the binary, heterosexual form determining the course. Geometry as erotic tactic can enable women to be together in a new way—creating a space for intimacy that hovers somewhere between homosocial and the explicitly romantic. But this triangulated loving can also be problematic; allowing these relations to remain secondary to the form of the heterosexual relationships. I know it in myself: creating ambiguous triangulations allows me to love girls without rejecting “straightness” outright, or the expectation of an ultimate future in a monogamous relationship with a man. Why must we reify these distances?

In my experience, girls often love each other through each other. We create elaborate love polygons to try to navigate our way to one another, while keeping each other the distance of a hypotenuse apart. The thirds, fourths, and fifths we put between each other set up distances in which we can let our desires circulate. We become architects of desire, performing triangles on top of triangles, staging erotic tension, but turning away at the moment it might turn into another thing, with new stakes.

We learned to love through Sappho, in triangles, but what kind of model for loving is that? I wonder what it would mean to love a girl who wasn’t talking to “that man,” equal to gods? Perhaps we prefer, or at least are only ready for, the devastation we experience when confronting the beloved at a distance. Perhaps this seems easier than the devastation of closeness.

*              *              *

As J and I wandered around Copenhagen, trying to fix all the distances we made with both women and men in the past year, we had to wonder: was all that bad math and bad love? To defend ourselves from the sickness that comes from unaccountable motion—be it from the dissonance between a lover’s image of the beloved and the beloved, the image from the top of the tower and what is below, the mistaken perception of rocking as we move between the sea and the land. We know about Sappho’s sickness, so we tried to account for these unruly distances and re-inscribe the triangle as a tool for stability. If we made the rules of the game, perhaps we would not lose. Is this a bad way to love?—to triangulate friendships when they turn to erotic, to circumnavigate collision? To create our own languages to engender these triangles: to fix emotions in single words, and throw them at each other with winks, guilt, and giddiness? Or is it enough to create a space for it—to set up the shape and let desire our ricochet all through it?

Of course, all of our triangles have collapsed and are constantly collapsing, and despite our posturing and measuring, we are constantly wavering in and out of the sickness. We know that we are not fixed points and neither are the distances between us, that desire has to collapse and turn into a new form of intimacy that surpasses the geometric “ruse” of triangulated desire. We are not ships or towers, but we can use their language to help us say a really big thing; to orient our vestibular systems. It’s a way of saying without really saying, and instead coding it. Because perhaps saying is a devastation, is committing to a form we don’t yet know. It’s a realization of desire that we aren’t ready to realize. Our metaphors, like our triangles, allow for the wiggle, and account for misunderstanding. In our games of abstracting language and then embodying it to the extreme, organizing all our language and desire around it—we create a meeting point in these triangles, in these complex dynamics of intimacies.

Is it because we aren’t big enough to bear the intensity of our desire, so we have to ground it in something else? Or is our ceaseless production and assumption of new metaphors the sign of our écriture feminine? I know it deep inside me when I read later that women experience vertigo twice as often as men.

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