Desirae Matherly, “The Denser of the Two.” Southern Humanities Review 43:2 (Spring 2009), 129-39.
It could be that this sickness of mine is a type of shout from my body. My body groans with the stretching ligaments, the pressure of building gas against my abdomen, the swelling of my uterus. My vessel creaks. We swell together and I am unsure which is the denser of the two — the container or its contents. (136)
An essayist friend sent me “The Denser of the Two,” because he thought I’d like it, and because he found echoes of my work in it. After reading it, I can see why.
The piece examines all my recent obsessions: morning sickness, the process of growing a body inside you, the strange sensation in pregnancy of being both one and two simultaneously, the weirdly solitary and communal experience of labour, and the ways in which birth and death are separated only by a shadow.
Desirae Matherly’s essay is brave and sophisticated. Impressionistic, poetic and enigmatic, the text resists the temptation to spell out its connections between ships and bodies, morning sickness and the totality of human suffering, and survivors of an Antarctic expedition and a growing fetus. Instead, it raises questions quietly and almost slyly by juxtaposing images and fragments of Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre and classic Buddhist texts.
The author asks: Where does one soul end, and another begin? At what point does a baby stop being part of its mother? What should we make of human suffering? What is a body’s worth?
There’s nothing like morning sickness to make you appreciate how fantastic simply feeling normal feels. And there’s nothing like pregnancy to remind you that, like it or not, you are a physical being. And this, at least in part, is what Matherly’s essay is about: coming to terms with an ever-changing, destined-to-die body that nevertheless wants to go on and on and on. “If discussion of death alarms those who enjoy their lives,” she writes, “then we have become too convinced of our temporary vitality” (138).
The most poignant moment of the essay, for me, is when Matherly admits: “When I studied philosophy long ago, my body began to repulse me. Before that time, in high school, my body felt like an enemy. I always resented being born female, even back into my early childhood” (134).
Matherly, it seems, learns to accept the body that is hers, in its change and instability and even decline. She learns to want to live, despite everything, including incomprehensible suffering, for as long as possible: “[My son’s] unfolding and unmapped future signals to me that my own journey is not over, but that I have only now become accustomed to the motion of life, its series which surrounds me, as vast and changeable as the sea.”
“The Denser of the Two” is not for the lazy student. It requires its readers to work, but it’s a rare pleasure to read something so daring and original on a theme too often diminished by cliché.
You can find this essay in any good academic library, or follow the link below to get to the homepage of the the Southern Humanities Review.