This selection was originally published in New World Writing.
Migraines for Hegel
You have never known love until your introduction to structuralism. You have never laughed as loudly as you laugh at Freud. You study for your literary theory class like you chew delicious morsels of food. You read about Hegel’s dialectic and Marxist ideology. Your migraines return from remission and you start having to give yourself triptan injections, missing classes. You write a cultural criticism paper using Jakobson’s paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes. You study postcolonialism. You begin having seizures. Your psychiatrist tells you they are psychosomatic. He asks you what you’re studying that could be causing existential dread. He gives you a seizure preventative that is also a mood stabilizer and triples as a migraine preventative. The thrill of studying becomes a little less intense; the blackness of your depression becomes a little less dark. Your neurologist approves, and adds a beta-blocker to lower your blood pressure and prevent headaches. You get dizzy when you rise from sitting. You don’t have a primary care physician, only specialists. The doctor at the campus clinic prescribes you opiates for your migraine pain. Foucault’s archeological method leaps from the pages in bright neons; you see certain words in certain colors.
Your boyfriend’s sister is studying psychology. She says anyone in the room who doesn’t yawn when someone else yawns is a sociopath, so you fake your yawns when you notice others yawning. You sneak into the bedroom while she’s over and swallow your pills with stale water on your nightstand from the night before. You notice how the outlet in your bedroom looks like a face that is always yawning. You feel watched.
The words in your papers swim on the computer screen. You think the language of theory is like reading music. You read the chapters over and over and you begin to wonder how it ever didn’t make sense to you, like trying to remember the way it was before you could read sheet music, when the notation was an incomprehensible tangle of symbols on a plane of mysterious lines. Talking in class feels like singing. You throw in theorists’ names for tremolo, obscure terms for flourishes. You recall prior lessons as you speak. You shamefully vomit into the garbage can of an abandoned classroom. You get lost in your thoughts during the commute from campus and panic when you can’t recognize where you are, if you’ve missed your exit.
Your classmates complain of theory that they’ll never use it. You can’t imagine ever not using it. The world becomes a miasma of terminology. Nobody you talk to understands how Twitter is an illustration of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism. You start retweeting tweets that rhyme; you curate tweet after tweet that happens to be in iambic pentameter. You lose hours composing Twitter symphonies.
You believe people on Twitter start to catch on. They notice that your timeline is a long story comprised of other people’s words. You remember how your professors tell you that you have a gift of ethical engagement, yet you’ve silenced the voices of these Twitter users, severing their tweets from their contexts and forcing them into a running narrative you yourself composed. It’s similar to what critics of Ralph Waldo Emerson say: Emerson’s solipsism becomes apparent when he attempts to constrain all competing narratives under the centrality of his own voice; he violently silences the suffering of others when he uses slavery as a metaphorical device. You feel the critique. Each tweet you read has a new undertone of malice.
You feel your life has been threatened by several Twitterers. You develop insomnia, lie awake reading tweets about the small town you live in, the name of your street. You enter your empty house at night after classes with a hammer held aloft, heart pounding as you open every door, turn on every light. You frantically share your fears with your psychiatrist at every appointment with growing consternation. He prescribes you an antipsychotic to “help you get past this.” You slip into the student bathroom stall to swallow your pills. You begin to hear music and voices in the flush of the toilets, running from the tap, filtering out of the space heater in your room. They are heated conversations but you can’t make out the words. You only know people are angry.
You are late for your theory class. You approach the door and reach for the knob but you can’t make yourself go in. You are unprepared. You can’t face them. You dash into your academic advisor’s open office door. You accost him with your inability to enter your class. He watches you with masked concern, wordless. You hear your theory classmates exiting into the hallway. You crouch behind a chair in his office to hide, not noticing that the chair back has a hole in it.
“I can’t let them see I’m here,” you whisper urgently.
“I understand,” he says calmly.
You graduate Magna Cum Laude, receiving academic awards. You speak to your professors about your intent to earn a Ph.D. Your bag of medications flashes into your head. You wonder what doctoral study has done to these professors’ minds.
You tweet a photo of your diploma, destroying your anonymity. It is an admission of guilt, a paltry excuse: it was all for this sheet of paper, and now it’s over. Now if they want to come for you, they will. You delete your Twitter account.
You lose touch with your professors and take a job as an associate accountant at your boyfriend’s firm. He praises your practicality as you grieve for your academic dreams. The voices stop floating down from the ceiling fan at night. The space heater merely hums warmth. The patterns of numbers on the neatly demarcated spreadsheets warn you that everything is connected, that you are not yet safe. Yours is like the crisis in Emersonianism: all attempts to justify yourself only incriminate you further. You push it from your mind and run profit and loss reports. You enter and classify transactions from bank statements. Each day of data entry takes the edge off your fears.
You build a fortress of Excel formulas and hide behind tax returns. You discuss revenue with businesses and advise them of what can and cannot be written off as an expense. You build a new language. They will never find you here.