Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Virus is a Language

by Drew Martin

The writer, William S. Burroughs, once remarked and the performance artist, Laurie Anderson, once reverbally sang...

Language is a virus
from outer space

If my writings ever come across as formulated, it is simply my southpaw reflex to invert the established proposition. So my belated response to Mr. Burroughs and Ms. Anderson is...

A virus is a language

(Before we get started, I would like to point out that virus means poison in Latin)

One of the most fascinating, direct and accurate means of communication is illness. Although the impressionists, expressionists and action painters attempted to transfer the energy of the moment and within themselves to the painting/viewer, I think it would be hard to take ourselves seriously if we said we were so moved by a sunny Van Gogh painting that we felt like running through his golden fields. It's a lovely notion but I have never seen anyone spinning before the work of the desperate Dutchman like Julie Andrews in the start of The Sound of Music. At best we may stare with admiration over the use of color and creative genius but we are indeed grounded and still quite removed.

Blues music is another runner-up: It simply bleeds emotions but we are still immune to the hard-knock life behind the lyrics. At the end of a song we have not lost our jobs and loved ones (assuming we had these at the beginning). A disease, however, is an unmediated feeling of dis-ease. If you have the viral illness Mononucleosis you could write a book, screenplay or song about what you are going through but if you really want someone to share that experience, all you would need to do is kiss him or her. Having had "Mono," I would not recommend this and obviously the more serious the disease, the less one would even consider such an action.

Writing this, I remember a scene from a Star Trek film, in which a monument is discovered on some far-off planet. It emits signals which recreate the sensation of the event it marks for the person standing before it. Turn up your noses as you may at the science fiction genre, but that's quite a thoughtful and poetic improvement over a bronze man on a horse commemorating i.e. the Civil War and the slain.

A disease is a bundle of information that sets off an array of signals within the host. A body heats us, reddens, aches. Pain can jam all thoughts but, on the other hand, a fatigued and bedridden person may become philosophically Proustian. A bacterial infection is a primordial invasion, while a virus is a futuristic alien abduction. The former is like mold blooming in your basement and the latter is like a UFO landing on your roof. There is something entirely unattractive about yeasty growths and asexual reproduction. It is even a bit offensive that nature would dare suggest that men and women are unnecessary for life to continue. But a virus and larger parasites are something to write home about: their lives are beyond our wildest dreams. If this were a bar scene, bacteria is the sweaty drunk guy in the corner while the virus is the woman in the red dress dancing on the counter.

I always loved the illustrations of viruses. They look like lunar landing modules. My 1969 World Book Encyclopedia explains that a virus directs the life processes of a cell so more viruses are formed and set free to attack other cells. It was quite a discovery in 1898, when Dutch botanist Martinus Willem Beijerinck recognized that something much smaller that bacteria could cause disease.

The single cell parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is found in cat feces and is quite a serious threat to pregnant women, is a villain with multiple personalities. Toxoplasma gondii makes rodents suicidally advance on their feline predators. In humans, it makes women more affectionate and men more stand-offish. In some nations, Taxoplasma gondii is in more than a third of the population and it sits in the brain of the hosts after being directly or indirectly transferred from cat feces.

If parasites can manipulate our thoughts, even to the extent of directing us towards a suicide (and some do in humans), it is easy to entertain anything and everything they are capable of. Are parasites capable of inducing creativity or depression? Might the kiss of a homewrecker be loaded with a parasite inclined for divorce? Could a mellow virus turn the Taliban into free-loving hippies? Sometimes knowing the root of misconduct provides an excuse for the actions but I think that knowing something foreign might be behind your thoughts, even whether it is true or not, gives you a lot of control.

One of the larger paintings I did in college during a brief period as a painter was a wide field of red blood cells using the picture here. In the center of the original photograph is malaria attacking red blood cells. In my painting, I replaced the malaria with the Barberini Faun statue. It was quite a lustful piece by default.

The sculpture is a bit of an enigma. It was either carved by an unknown Hellenistic sculptor in the late third century BCE or is a Roman copy of high quality. The statue was found in the 1620s and was heavily damaged because it was believed to have been hurled in defense upon the invading Goths during the siege of Rome in 537.

I do not remember my message in the painting. In that time when AIDS was on everyone's minds, it was probably an expression of the timeless relationship between lust and disease. The Barberini Faun represented a virus. While diseases are both communicative and communicable they are something that we humans are quite silent about because illness is instinctively and historically shunned. The natural reaction is to defend yourself from the unknown. In some cases the reaction is so strong that a person may even scream out when he or she sees someone diseased or when touched by someone sick.

Fortunately, this is changing as the Internet is freeing up information and providing forums for discussion. Media, for the most part, has shed light on diseases, whether it is an encyclopedic explanation or if it appeals to our sympathy, such as David Lynch's The Elephant Man.