The Persistence of Vision (excerpt)

The general setting of this excerpt of “The Persistence of Vision”1 is a post-nuclear disaster America in which certain communities have survived. In Taos, New Mexico, a man meets a deafblind community that has developed its own social code based on touch2. After marvelling at the community’s self-sufficient way of life, he makes the acquaintance of a young woman named Pink who introduces him to the community’s customs. The main part of the novella depicts the everyday workings of the utopian community — for instance, the way members move between work stations using paths they distinguish between with the soles of their feet, or the form of immediate tactile communication they use, free from verbalization. The visitor’s habitus is put to the test when he is invited to take part in the community’s orgy-like group conversations. Published in 1978, against a backdrop of sexual revolution and communitarian utopia, this text unpacks the various dimensions of the hearing population’s fascination with tactile communication and its subversive potential vis-à-vis social conventions.

AFTERWARDS, WE ALL TROOPED OUTSIDE, except the cleanup crew, and took a shower beneath a set of faucets that gave out very cold water. I told Pink I’d like to help with the dishes, but she said I’d just be in the way. I couldn’t do anything around Keller until I learned their very specific way of doing things. She seemed to be assuming already that I’d be around that long.

Back into the building to dry off, which they did with their usual puppy dog friendliness, making a game and a gift out of toweling each other, and then we went into the dome.

It was warm inside, warm and dark. Light entered from the passage to the dining room, but it wasn’t enough to blot out the stars from the lattice of triangular panes overhead. It was almost like being out in the open.

Pink quickly pointed out the positional etiquette within the dome. It wasn’t hard to follow, but I still tended to keep my arms and legs pulled in close so I wouldn’t trip someone by sprawling into a walk space.

My misconceptions got me again. There was no sound but the soft whisper of flesh against flesh, so I thought I was in the middle of an orgy. I had been at them before, in other communes, and they looked pretty much like this. I quickly saw that I was wrong, and only later found out I had been right. In a sense.

What threw my evaluations out of whack was the simple fact that group conversation among these people had to look like an orgy. The much subtler observation that I made later was that with a hundred naked bodies sliding, rubbing, kissing, caressing, all at the same time, what was the point in making a distinction? There was no distinction.

I have to say that I use the noun “orgy” only to get across a general idea of many people in close contact. I don’t like the word, it is too ripe with connotations. But I had these connotations myself at the time, so I was relieved to see it that it was not an orgy. The ones I had been to had been tedious and impersonal, and I hoped for better from these people.

Many wormed their way through the crush to get to me and meet me. Never more than one at a time; they were constantly aware of what was going on and were waiting their turn to talk to me. Naturally, I didn’t know it then. Pink sat with me to interpret the hard thoughts. I eventually used her words less and less, getting into the spirit of tactile seeing and understanding. No one felt they really knew me until they had touched every part of my body, so there were hands on me all the time. I timidly did the same.

What with all the touching, I quickly got an erection, which embarrassed me quite a bit. I was berating myself for being unable to keep sexual responses out of it, for not being able to operate on the same intellectual plane I thought they were on, when I realized with some shock that the couple next to me was making love. They had been doing it for the last ten minutes, actually, and it had seemed such a natural part of what was happening that I had known it and not known it at the same time.

No sooner had I realized it than I suddenly wondered if I was right. Were they? It was very slow and the light was bad. But her legs were up, and he was on top of her, that much I was sure of. It was foolish of me, but I really had to know. I had to find out what the hell I was in. How could I give the proper social responses if I didn’t know the situation?

I was very sensitive to polite behavior after my months at the various communes. I had become adept at saying prayers before supper in one place, chanting Hare Krishna at another, and going happily nudist at still another. It’s called “When in Rome,” and if you can’t adapt to it you shouldn’t go visiting. I would kneel to Mecca, burp after meals, toast anything that was proposed, eat organic rice and compliment the cook; but to do it right, you have to know the customs. I had thought I knew them, but had changed my mind three times in as many minutes.

They were making love, in the sense that he was penetrating her. They were also deeply involved with each other. Their hands fluttered like butterflies all over each other, filled with meanings I couldn’t see or feel. But they were being touched by and touching many other people around them. They were talking to all these people, even if the message was as simple as a pat on the forehead or arm.

Pink noticed where my attention was. She was sort of wound around me, without really doing anything I would have thought of as provocative. I just couldn’t decide. It seemed so innocent, and yet it wasn’t.

“That’s (--) and (--),” she said, the parentheses indicating a series of hand motions against my palm. I never learned a sound word as a name for any of them but Pink, and I can’t reproduce the bodytalk names they had. Pink reached over, touched the woman with her foot, and did some complicated business with her toes. The woman smiled and grabbed Pink’s foot, her fingers moving.

“(--) would like to talk with you later,” Pink told me. “Right after she’s through talking to (--). You met her earlier, remember? She says she likes your hands.”

Now this is going to sound crazy, I know. It sounded pretty crazy to me when I thought of it. It dawned on me with a sort of revelation that her word for talk and mine where miles apart. She could read words or emotions in every twitch of my muscles, like a lie detector. Sound, to her, was only a minor part of communication. It was something she used to speak to outsiders. Pink talked with her whole being.

I didn’t have the half of it, even then, but it was enough to turn my head entirely around in relation to these people. They talked wit their bodies. It wasn’t all hands, as I’d thought. Any part of the body in contact with any other was communication, sometimes a very simple and basic sort, think of McLuhan’s light bulb as the basic medium of information — perhaps saying no more than “I am here.” But talk was talk, and if conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals, it was still a part of the conversation. What I wanted to know was what were they saying? I knew, even at that dim moment of realization, that it was much more than I could grasp. Sure, you’re saying. You know about talking to your lover with your body as you make love. That’s not such a new idea. Of course it isn’t, but think how wonderful that talk is even when you’re not primarily tactile-oriented. Can you carry the thought from there, or are you doomed to be an earthworm thinking about sunsets?

While this was happening to me, there was a woman getting acquainted with my body. Her hands were on me, in my lap when I felt myself ejaculating. It was a big surprise to me, but to no one else. I had been telling everyone around me for many minutes, through signs they could feel with their hands, that it was going to happen. Instantly, hands were all over my body. I could almost understand them as they spelled tender thoughts to me. I got the gist, anyway, if not the words. I was terribly embarrassed for only a moment, then it passed away in the face of the easy acceptance. It was very intense. For a long time I couldn’t get my breath.

The woman who had been the cause of it touched my lips with her fingers. She moved them slowly, but meaningfully I was sure. Then she melted back into the group. “What did she say?” I asked Pink.

She smiled at me. “You know, of course. If you’d only cut loose from your verbalizing. But generally, she meant ‘How nice for you.’ It also translates as ‘How nice for me.’ And ‘me,’ in this sense, means all of us. The organism.”

I knew I had to stay and learn to speak.

TEXT

  • John Varley
1. Radio presenter Stanley ‘Spider’ Robinson reads the entire book in this recording on one of his latest podcasts (the first five minutes are devoted to presenting the program). Click here for more information on the program.
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2. The only comparable non-fictitious initiative was that of the radical Swedish group Deaf Power, of which Lars-Åke Wikström, the first Swedish non-hearing person to graduate from college back in the 1960s, was a member. Deaf Power arranged political actions and protest rallies, and dreamed about overtaking the Swedish island of Gotland and turning it into a separatist deaf community with their own deaf government.
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