The Mind-Body Problem
Terri Brown-Davidson

I stand in the backyard, more green because of the glare, my legs buckling. Roger wraps the leash around me, runs to a choicer spot. I feel tired, want to go back to the house; it’s the first night my husband’s been gone, and I’m always nervous when dusk approaches though in Lincoln, Nebraska, crime and anything else exciting never happens. Despite my insecurity, though, I’ve always had an image of the universe as a series of large, big-nippled breasts; when I’ve sucked one breast dry, I move onto another.

And I’m female, in case you’re wondering.

Roger sniffs a dried-out turd—not his—that excites him. His pink stub pulsing.

“Come inside, Roger,” I snap, tugging the leash.

At least he doesn’t try to hump my leg when I reel him into Jim’s house.

We’ve always called it “Jim’s house,” my husband and I, as if hyperconscious that—once again—we’re renters. Changing residences has never bothered me though it makes my husband feel like an itinerant farmhand. It always makes me feel free; if I’m not too attached to a house, I’m able to dwell more forcefully inside my mind. My mother, who’s body- and health-obsessed, has been sick for years; it’s all she can do some days to climb out of bed, leaning on my father, to sit down very carefully, palms spread behind her, so as not to screw up her back, ease down into her big living room chair with the padded, spine-support cushion, and drink her coffee. After her coffee, she’s usually drained, has to limp back to bed, full of regret but mostly angry that her days drift by without the sense of accomplishment she once savored: she was a painter before I was born.

Her illness—chronic fatigue syndrome—scares me. Especially lately. All my life, I’ve always had to lie down at some unexpected time during the day, take a nap. Lately, the frequency of the naps has been increasing; I wake up tired and, on some mornings, feel my too stimulated mind float up through my skull, hover against the ceiling, until I have to load up my backpack, trudge off to class. And so I call it down, stand waiting calmly until I feel that my brain is renestled in my head, and then I walk down the street, cross the rubbled gravel parking lot of Varner Hall, where the president of the University of Nebraska sits in attendance; I catch the Holdrege bus to City Campus, where my philosophy classes are held.

* * *

I’m sitting in Epistemology 913 on the morning that my husband’s caught his plane when I start picturing Jim’s house, too avidly. I’m puzzled since the images intrude just as I’m thinking about what Dr. Auden has said about reality, that only innocents believe that reality corresponds to what they see. It’s like Dr. Auden, with his hyperlogical talk, has flipped a switch, because now I can’t stop visualizing Jim’s house, but in a weird, highly objective way, as if I were a camera recording one stillshot at a time. The living room with its red plush carpet and stone fireplace. The side room where the owner, Jim, a big vet with a ratty beard and a bum leg he limps on, used to work at his computer, which my husband has since taken over as an office and which is now piled high with papers and hamburger wrappers. The bedroom that fronts the backyard with its immense expanse of glittering lawn that Roger loves to pee on and the dark-barked, ancient elms whose foliage, like long delicate fingers, strokes the house. The bedroom I sleep in both when Roger’s here and when he isn’t. Where I lie on the brown-covered bed and think about syllogisms, pushing my mind into “active” mode as I gaze up at the wood-beamed ceiling, hands crossed behind my head.

“Katharine?” Dr. Auden asks. “Is there a problem?”

Most of the class laughs, especially the guys.

I know it’s because I’ve been so squirmy they think I have to pee.

I’m not the least bit embarrassed, though; I study my ass off and am earning the highest grade in class.

“Yes,” I say to Dr. Auden, “excuse me,” and then I stand up, Dr. Auden glancing away.

* * *

I don’t take the bus home. I prefer to walk, as if I could siphon off some of my unexpected energy. But the walking, even in the hot sun, doesn’t do it, and I realize that it’s the thought of being alone that’s stimulating.

We still do it, once in a while, my husband and I, though I think he’s pretty much given up on me at this point. I don’t blame him; when we married, I was a virgin, not out of conscious choice but out of lack of desire. On our honeymoon night, I couldn’t believe where he meant to put it, and I told him, scrambling on my knees away from him on the bed: “No.”

He wore me down, of course, convinced me that sex was an important component of a marriage, though I felt numb from the waist down. I got used to it after the first blood though I could never tolerate missionary position because of his weight. So my husband entered me doggy-style, which—as you can imagine—got Roger pretty excited though it didn’t do anything for me. “Vaginismus” was my gyno’s diagnosis; he promised I’d improve with practice.

The problem was that I never wanted to. Why hump when there were so many fascinating things to do: study philosophy books, treadmill, hang around after epistemology (where I stared incessantly at Dr. Auden, who was dreamy in a Howard Roark kind of way), play with Roger?

I just never saw the point.

Poor Mason, I often thought. But I really couldn’t pity him; it seemed I was incapable of it.

My hand was shaking so hard that, standing on the big shadowed porch, I could barely get my key in the lock. I was conscious of how quiet the street was this morning, no kids out on trikes, no neighbors standing on their porches, spying though pretending not to. I never understood why they wanted to stare at me so much though I knew I was attractive: pale satiny skin, green eyes, dark hair that dangled down to my butt. Though I’d never had an orgasm, something was happening to me at the thought of being alone in my brown-comfortered bed, the wood-beamed ceiling above me; I had to hold my legs closed tight, and finally I gripped my key hand with the other just to hold it steady.

I dropped my bookbag on the living room couch, my philosophy of mind and epistemology texts spilling out, ran to the bedroom, shoving Roger aside with my foot; he got worked up, like the good little Nazi schnauzer he was, when Mason and I did anything out of line.

Once inside the bedroom, I stripped down to my bra and panties, locked the door, Roger whimpering outside; I threw back the brown covers then climbed beneath the sheets.

And I thought about how alone I was, how truly alone, as I finished undressing. Thought about Dr. Auden, who was every inch the loner, too. Oh, he could fool some people, with his gregarious act, with his highly logical speech patterns, with his expensive Italian silk suits and shellacked black hair. But it took one to know one, perhaps. And loners made love like nobody else.

Because they made love to themselves.

I let my hand move. It seemed that I knew what I liked. Here was my pubic hair, wet and sour-smelling, wiry, black; here were the moist and swollen lips of my vagina; here was my clit. The sensation, when I pressed down on my clit, was unpleasantly rough—I had a lot of pubic hair. On a sudden thought I climbed out of bed—my hands still shaking—picked up my underpants, pulled them back, arcing my hips atop the sheets. I kept my hips suspended in the air, rubbed my clit through the underpants. This time the pressure was just right, especially when I kept my hips swiveling into my palm.

After a while, my mind floated up through the top of my skull and hovered against the ceiling, a gray and elongated object. But I didn’t want to call it back. I was all sensation now, and Dr. Auden was mounting me doggy-style, fingering the tips of my breasts as he pushed into me again and again, whispering syllogisms. I heard a sound and realized it was me; frantically Roger scratched at the door. I was keening, it seemed, because no one else was in the house; no one could hear me. I pressed hard against the mattress, and lights—gold and red, yellow and blue—erupted before my eyes and I found myself bending backwards as I came.

When I got out of bed, I was incredibly shaky, my hands fluttering, knees wobbling. But the center part of me—the part that my mind never visited—felt calm and stretched out and burning, like a Nebraska wheat field baking under sun. I laughed, went to the kitchen, savoring the sweat that ran down my neck, that raced to the tip of each nipple then hung there as a full and swinging drop. I got a can of tuna fish from the cupboard, zipped the can open, poured myself a large glass of milk. How did I feel? Like Christopher Columbus. fucking Anais Nin. I sat down at the kitchen table, giggling while I speared the shreds of tuna fish with a fork from the can, chewing moodily when I noticed one blind slat over the kitchen window was missing.

Ordinarily, I would have cared. But I felt too radiant now to be self-conscious. All my life I’d dreaded sex, and now it made perfect sense, because I was a loner. With herself, a loner could never be introverted or body-hating or shy; all a loner had to do was introduce herself to her hand and its gentle but roughening movements, and a love affair could blossom. With Mason, I’d always wondered if my thighs were too fat or if he could see my stretch marks or if he noticed the cellulite on my butt. Plus Mason would never go down on me.

I smelled my fingers suddenly, licked them, found both the smell and the taste satisfactory.

I’d be alone for one week, and I knew it. Why shouldn’t my body and I have an affair? Hell, maybe my equipment would work better, once Mason returned. And it wasn’t exactly like adultery. Not even like cybersex. I was simply “pleasuring” myself.

I practiced three or four times that day, till my clit was sore—till I could barely walk and had to stop. I pressed my underpants against my nose, mouth, before I dropped them in the washing machine, measured out a cupful of Gain (just for that one pair of panties, but they were symbolic). Roger seemed exhausted, frantic. On my fourth trip to the bedroom, I let him in with me, and he darted circles on top of the covers, outlining me with his running, his long pink tongue dripping across my breasts.

I stand in the backyard, more green because of the glare, my legs buckling. I’m thinking it’s because I’m exhausted, because I need to lie down, because—like my mother—I have chronic-fatigue syndrome.

That’s when I realize I’m not tired at all.

Instead, I’m sexually sated.

I never knew orgasms could leave one weak, but it seems logical: I picture asking Dr. Auden about it in philosophy, Dr. Auden, my “masturbation object,” and laugh. My voice rises through the chill green air, the houses beyond my fence shadowy. When I take Roger inside, I put a Banquet fried chicken dinner in the microwave, figuring that I’ve burned off a lot of calories today. I glance at my philosophy books strewn across the couch, not even tempted to pick them up. This makes me, of course, since I’m a philosophy major, anxious; I pour a snifter of red wine then notice the broken slat again, though this time it doesn’t matter; this time I’m dressed...a ragged cardigan and dirty jeans, but it counts.

“Oh, God,” I say suddenly to Roger; I swear he cocks his head, a little cynically.

But I’m a woman who’s just fallen in love. Who can’t keep her hands off herself. I sink to the kitchen linoleum, balancing my snifter. Then, I place it carefully and far away on the floor, out of reach of wherever my limbs might land.

I arc my hips up, unbuckle my jeans.

I’m the village idiot now.

I can’t stop smiling.

* * *

In philosophy class the next morning, I try to feel great about what I’ve discovered, and mostly I do. My body’s a little too responsive, though, and—in order to keep my hands off my crotch—I cross my legs tightly under my school desk, too small because the U’s too cheap to buy adult desks for its students (though it boasts, yeah, an incredible football team). But then the pressure exerted by one leg crossed over the other makes me feel as if I’ll come. I flip my hair over my shoulder, sense Dr. Auden, the undistractable Dr. Auden, eyeing it; my jeans crotch grows moist. I try to focus on epistemology then, glance up in the ceiling corner for my mind, but I must have left it at home.

I try to feel great about what I’ve discovered, and mostly I do. But I feel a little uneasy riding home after class, on the Holdrege bus with the pushing shouting students who—though adults—act as students always do: overexcited, overhormoned. Now and then one glances at me, curiosity tightening his face though he manages to look away when I lift my eyes. I’m an anomaly on this bus, an older student, apart from the crowd, nearly thirty, for God’s sake, riding with an actual brown-leather briefcase clasped on her lap. The other students, the eighteen-year-olds, want to know what I’m doing here: I wonder myself.

When I climb off the bus on the corner near Jim’s house, cross the Varner Hall parking lot, swing my briefcase as I climb the wraparound porch, my back aching, I don’t feel nearly as buoyant as I did yesterday. My thighs are chafed and sore, and I seem to have the itch to come all the time now without being able to. Though I’d hoped, at the beginning of this “deep orgasm” process, that my body was a machine, this seems not to be the case. Maybe I’m an extremist, a person who’s not happy living in both her body and her mind. And now that I’ve lost my mind—figuratively speaking, though I do keep envisioning it near the ceiling above my bed—all I have left is my body.

I think I never understood, before Mason left, how much of a loner I was. While Roger sleeps curled up on the couch, his paws twitching in some running dream, I take a special pleasure in the simplest activities, activities that never occurred to me before: I wash oranges under the kitchen tap, running my fingers with loving exactitude over their pebbly skins; I cut up celery on a butcher block in the kitchen, savoring its pungency.

In a way, I feel like a person whose senses have suddenly been restored.

* * *

Three days into my alone time, I wake from a nap on the couch with the sensation I’m being watched. The sensation isn’t unpleasant, though, as if the high white sun, floating through the sky, had trained its eye upon me. My leg’s asleep because Roger’s been dozing on it. I struggle up from the couch, push Roger onto the floor. The entire wood-paneled room is flooded with sunlight. The effect is odd and yet spectacular, as if dozens of white dust motes floated and dispersed throughout the room. I lift my eyes and a strong slant of sunlight off a wooded beam crawls under my eyelids, leaves me blinded. “Fuck, Roger,” I say. “It’s like the Apocalypse.” And then I hear Roger lapping water from his kitchen bowl. It’s everywhere, the sun, the wet, the warm lilting sound of my voice singing a half-forgotten dirge as I wander, in my rumpled nightgown, through the house, touching the warm walls with my hands. Since Mason’s been gone, I’ve not only lost track of time but also have flung time away. What need do I have of philosophy classes, textbooks, of Kant and Heidegger and Locke when there’s pure sensation fueling this house, the radiator creaking on during the coldest nights with a guttural roar that thrills me, the taste of new blood on my dried-out lips, my clit swelling lightly, a pleasant plumping pink I can see when I sprawl before the mirror, when, absentmindedly, lifting my nightgown, I stroke myself wandering the house?

On day four the sensation heightens. It makes me almost delirious, this sense of being watched. I become a little daring, careless: stretch the slat blinds wider in the kitchen, warp them into a new and more open shape. I begin, too, abandoning the jeans, flannel shirts, nightgowns; I love walking around in the nude, love the sight of my pink-nippled breasts growing erect, so sensitized that they respond to my slightest glance; cutting up celery by the sink, I accidentally splash cold water on my tits and laugh to see them pucker. At night I rub Vaseline between my thighs; now I masturbate only through my sweatpants, unable to bear the sensation, which is flooding through me anyway, strong and heated like the sun, so I come several times a day without even trying, my vagina growing chapped; trying not to feel disgusted with myself, I lick the blood off my fingertips, relish the taste.

On day five I’m eating a plateful of eggs, nude, on the carpet, when the phone rings. I wipe my hands off on my belly, pick up the phone.

It’s Dr. Auden.

“Katharine,” he says. “Are you ill? We haven’t seen you in class.”

I look down at the carpet. My toes are dirty, bare. Roger’s chewing the matted fur on one leg. I’m trying to formulate a response, but it’s like struggling up from the most frigid ocean depths, and I can’t see anything except my fingers stroking my belly.

“We could have one of the TAs drop by with your assignments,” Dr. Auden continues. “Your presentation’s next week.”

“Oh, shit,” I say, and can’t believe I’ve said that. It’s on Spinoza, too. Spinoza, whom I scarcely understand, who’s so metaphysical that I’m lucky if I can figure out every third paragraph.

A forty-five minute presentation.

What have I been thinking?

“No need,” I say. “I mean, for the TA. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

Dr. Auden hesitates. “Feel better,” he says, and then he hangs up.

I drop the receiver on the carpet, stare at the cord, realize I’m sweating. I should go grab Spinoza, start Googling criticism, anything to help me remember: I can’t even summon a thesis. Instead, I lie down in my accustomed position on the couch, my head tilting back, my legs propped up on a pillow, my knees falling apart. That’s when I feel the eye watching me. I slip two fingers inside me though it hurts, though I’m still a little sticky from last night’s Vaseline. I use my nails to separate the clotted mats of my pubic hair. The eye is pale blue, jet black along the pupil, fringed with black lashes. A cold but beautiful eye. I gaze straight into it as if I recognized it. Knew it. Loved it. Am still peering inside it when I scream.

I try reading Spinoza in bed but can’t concentrate. Maybe it’s because I haven’t made the bed for five days and have had most of my meals in here. I try putting my nightgown on, but the cotton scratches my skin in a new way that irritates me, and I realize that, fuck—I hate wearing clothes. Maybe I’ve lost my taste for philosophy. Maybe I’ve become a sybarite. All I know is that I don’t mind lying with my bare back against the toast and cereal crumbs, drinking tea, staring at the backyard where I walk Roger every day, the greenery slanting up shadowed against the window. The only time I wear clothes now is to take Roger out. I drink tea dreamily, stare up at the ceiling. I’ve had the sensation lately of my mind loosening, relaxing, coming unknotted. How luxurious it is, almost beautiful, after having lived inside my mind for the three years I’ve “inhabited” the philosophy program, worried about my papers, grades. My mind floats against the ceiling when I crawl on my hands and knees across the bed, pick up the scattered pages of my epistemology paper, the pages squeezed in against the blanket bottom. I pick them up as I feel my mind drift across the ceiling (careful of splinters, of cracked plaster); I pick up my introduction and read it:

Katharine Ricksfield
Epistemology 913
Dr. A. J. Auden

Plantinga’s Negation of Coherence Reexamined: The Failure of Plantinga’s “Pathological Examples” and The Reestablished Plausibility of Certain Aspects of Coherentism as Applied to Kendall Walton’s System of Aesthetics, including “Gestalt”

1. Plantinga’s Claim: Coherentism Debunked

In Chapter Four, “Coherentism,” of Warrant: The Current Debate, Alvin Plantinga privileges the foundationalist’s debunking of coherentism via what purports to be a more sophisticated examination of coherentism, which, nevertheless, concludes at the same place where most debunkings of coherentism typically end: coherentism doesn’t “work” because of the necessity of circular reasoning attached to the fundamental conception of coherentism itself; coherentism isn’t “viable” because what coherentists really do (in rampant disregard of the regress problem) is to embrace circular reasoning via an understanding that circular reasoning is acceptable when we consider the plausibility of “large circles” inherent and functioning in the process, which applies no barrier to the admission of warrant; and, finally, that coherentism achieves its warrant through its basic circularity (the latter of which is, I believe, inarguable). However, Plantinga doesn’t stop here (in his pyrotechnical approach to “refining” the reasons for coherentism at the same time that he attempts to strips them of authenticity) but softens his initial attack by claiming, initially, that coherentists do not embrace circular reasoning (Plantinga, Warrant, 79). Instead, what they do is to “suggest an unusual condition or proper basicality, a new source of warrant: [holding] that a belief is...basic for [them] if and only if it properly coheres with the basis of [a] noetic structure” (79). Plantinga then proceeds, more aggressively, at this point, to distinguish between “pure coherentism,” which rejects the possibility of warrant transmission, holding fast to the idea that all properties/ideas that exhibit warrant in a noetic structure remain basic to that structure; and “impure coherentism,” which might embrace a variety of mixed coherentist components but could posit, for example, that coherence itself provides warrant but that warrant might also be capable of being transferred via the basis relation (79). Finally, inevitably, Plantinga concludes that coherentism, for all the reasons above, is false, that “coherence is neither necessary nor sufficient for warrant, [that ] there are sources of warrant in addition to coherence,” and that (of course) coherence is not “the sole source of warrant” (83). In essence, Plantinga rejects coherentism on all three of the typical grounds for which it’s usually rejected: the alternate systems objection, the input objection, and the infinite regress objection (Pojman, 118-120).

I stare at the page for a second and then drop it atop the covers. Something’s happened. Something’s happened, and I don’t understand it, but I can’t comprehend what I’ve written. Fuck: I don’t even grasp the topic. And this seminar paper’s due next week, before my presentation for Dr. Auden. I close my eyes, picture them, the grad students and the visiting profs who crowd into the seminar room each week to soak up Dr. Auden’s brilliance, and I can see their mouths move as they shout to protest a false step in some proof; I see their pale, featureless faces, uncombed hair, float en masse toward the ceiling, and I collapse on my back, the crisp, high-cottoned pages drifting across my belly, across the soft, dried mound of my pubic hair, and I realize that I hope that Mason never comes home, the eye from the ceiling riveting me with its attention; I set myself the small goal of rising from bed that night, of preparing a salad, of brushing my teeth before I retire, even though I realize that it’s never going to happen, nor the shower that should come after, though I can see myself, naked, the steam wafting up opaque all around me; I can see the water dripping off my hair, off my nipples, descending my belly, Roger yapping for his walk: I can see all of this in the dim, lazy way in which an afterimage stays attached for a second after the retina’s gone and the eye is blinded, though I don’t care if I’m blind, I don’t care if I’m sentient, I don’t care if I’m anything.

A lot of people seem to think this story is pretty dark (dark and funny), and I suppose it is. The germ for the story is much darker, though, and this isn’t actually the story I intended to write. While I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska (a dark place, in various respects, on its own; I personified it in my novel Marie, Marie: Hold on Tight as “the Wasteland”) I “struggled” for about an hour with a man attempting to break into my house. He tried all the doors and windows, activated the floodlights, climbed a tree to peer into my house (there was a full moon shining down on him), stood with his back against my porch while I peered out through the blinds and he peered in back at me. While he was distracted sitting in a tree and looking into my bathroom, I managed to crawl on my stomach the length of the house to dial 911. The police caught him three blocks away; I had to ID him in the squad car.

All of this convinced me that, in reality, I’m really a pretty cool customer, though I still haven’t actually written about this material....


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