Sara Patin (L) and Lindsey Tindall, the body-swapping leads of Mary Shelley Sees The Future. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.
In response to The Runaways’ body swap play, Mary Shelley Sees The Future
It is not the greatest ambition of humanity—certainly one of, though, and perhaps 1B for pure, uncut, eye-misting altruism, and 1A for difficulty, because it is impossible, this wondrous drive, noble and impossible, quixotic—but it is one of those things, like discovery and invention and society and culture and the language with which to express our understanding of them, to spread them like glorious viruses, toss them out into the world like seeds where some—falling not upon cold indifferent stone, offered up like a sacrifice, or on the road, to be devoured by birds, but in amenable conditions, open, inviting, yearning, ready, the best of what we can be—flower from the blood like anemones, which makes us distinctly human, which provides one of those separations from Nature—explication from the web!—so crucial to our concept of ourselves.
Yes, we can disentangle ourselves from tooth and claw, can even place—with a child’s precision, but also that pure, burning jejune thirst for knowledge, a wildfire growing until it can serve as signal and signature, a neon bar sign amongst the very stars—ourselves in the great and horrifying math of physics, can comprehend hurricanes and the mechanisms of birth, can model with reasonable confidence systems too Jovian or miniscule to comprehend, much less observe, but we cannot ever truly know one another. All that we know of each other is superficial in that it is curated; one may deeply know another, to the point where such a ken is even mutually accepted, acknowledged, appreciated, sustaining like air, but one can never know how it feels, how it feels to be another being.
Empathize? Yes. Know? No.
~ ~ ~
And here, in that impossible, noble goal, then, is the genesis of the body swap! The marvelous trope of comedies and cartoons and cartoonish action movies, the usually magical, almost always inexplicable—it’s so impossible, why not hang it on a wish, on a whim, on science with no explanation needed, or even asked for—arrival of ourselves into the flesh of another, an intoxicating idea both in its absurdity and its wish fulfillment, the chance to explore the unknown tantalizingly close to us, the experiences of others.
Imagine it, the chemicals washing over and around the unfamiliar sulci … your eyes open, but they open wrong, inexplicably, ineffably, but definitely wrong, like the lids are a touch too heavy, the lashes a millimeter too long; the readouts are wrong, an inchoate sense of corporeal self, taken so long for granted, missing, the brain reeling and spiraling in an uncanny expanse, racing along alien neurons with the screaming ego of a lost fighter pilot, channeled along canals and pathways carved by a force no longer present, beholden to an architecture familiar yet horrifying, and it comes, information … the distal reports are wrong, as if the fleshy tips of the fingers are too far from the bone, as if the limbs were not your limbs but bizarre attachments, the very flesh you inhabit—and it is not, you realize, your flesh—a suit of armor, a cuirass for a rib cage and objective, dead helmet for a skull, flesh without soul, body without ipseity, and you are both yourself and someone else, sometimes yourself to you, always someone else to others, a horrific amalgam in the mirror, in windows, in puddles …
Armed with the very flesh of someone else—their skin, sex, mien—we could perhaps build something like the Total Empathy with which we could end wars and hate and love. Placed into the body of a woman, a man could see how said body affects her every movement and moment, a silly sack of a thing inconceivably turned lodestar for societal navigation; inserted into the form of her mother, a daughter could feel the crushing burden of love and responsibility, thrust into situations which will assuredly drown her, searing into her memory what it takes to keep one’s head above it. Catapulted back in time, the supposed failings of the ancestors that doomed us can be revealed as grievances of circumstance, shirkers of duty and common sense, so much more pusillanimous than us, in the now, revealed to be the victims they—as we—actually are.
What understanding! What intimacy that we could achieve, the very same intimacy which also makes the body swap the tool of sublime horror, the ultimate subterfuge, the penetration of the very last sacred space, your cathedral sacked and your life burning with some usurper dancing behind your eyes. In that fear is perhaps expressed the failings of the body swap, the Noble Goal—Total Empathy! The Last Understanding!—whipsawed by two terrible realities: The first, that the body is not enough; how to understand a being with nothing but their useless body, unanimated by their thoughts, un-innervated by their feelings and desires? The differences of sex and age and race and health and time can be felt corporeally, yes, but there are obvious limits to what suffers the anatomy as opposed to the self. The second a failing not of the device, but of ourselves, the terrible truth that many—if not most—would find the level of intimacy required of Total Empathy to be too much, a breaching of walls which we simply would not allow to come down, even if our psyches could take it.
And so we laugh, we nod, we gasp and squirm in shock, the body switch kept at arm’s—whether ours or someone else’s!—length, deepest and most unsettling and perhaps most elucidating of tropes and desires. The Noble Goal of Total Empathy is kept impossible, our desperate, honest attempts to reach across the cureless divide our most divine human ambition.