jonathan lethem   Body, Landscape, Symptom  
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  Twenty-five years before my self-diagnosis came the waking dream; I think I was eight when it first occurred. I recall lying on the cool tile floor of the bedroom I shared with my brother, long after bedtime, having intended to go into my parents' room and ask for a glass of water. Instead I lay incapacitated, overwhelmed by the sensation I am now able to give the name micropsia. The room was dark except for a nightlight, and what illumination leaked in from the hall. Now I imagine I heard my own heartbeat, but I don't really know that I did.

I was afraid, but also fascinated, so much so that rather than crying out I lay still and quiet, tracing the mental contours of the experience, the extraordinary hallucination. My body seemed to me vast and ponderous, a felled redwood on the forest floor, a Sphinx poised in the sand. My consciousness was reduced to gnat-size, a tiny speck or dim light which contemplated the vastness of the body from a great and helpless distance. The illusion that this speck of will could control the awesome mountain range of a body was banished completely. My fingers and toes were far-off penninsulae, almost unseeable over the planetary curve of my body, certainly impossible to command. The hallucination was visual, but also kinesthetic; I felt the great swollen acreage of my being loom even if I squeezed my eyes shut.

If that had been all I might not have remembered micropsia, might not remember it now. But the hallucination had a narrative hook, a built-in epiphany still to come. As I closed my eyes and considered the fact that I could still feel the presence of my body, however much it was distended and transformed, then perhaps it was I, too. This was a liberating thought. I might not be able to operate my body in this state--reasonable enough, since who could move a mountain?--but I was able to live in it, explore its dimensions. I wasn't limited to that feeble speck I'd been before. Or rather, it was as though the speck were free to roam now, free to wander over the vast surfaces of the body-scape, to survey the boundaries where the mass met the tile of the floor, to visit those distant fingers. When the sensation receded and I regained use of my limbs I returned to bed, self-enraptured. My secret was something intense enough to keep me from walking across the room, and though this sounds disempowering it seemed to me if I could conquer my fear it would become a kind of power. I kept the secret.

The hallucination returned fifteen or twenty times over the remaining years of my childhood, but it was never again so rich and complete, so possessing. Usually it came at night, though on certain lonely sunsplashed afternoons I'd lie on the floor in that same spot and induce the sensation, invite it back. I had a name for my mountainous body now--it was the lion. The dwindled observer in my mind--that was the speck. I savored those moments, and as they grew dimmer and more infrequent I mourned their passing. Most precious to me was that moment of revelation, that profound shift of perspective: I was the lion, not only the speck. The epiphany was worth any feeling of oddness, immobility, or fear of mental illness. It seemed to stand for all triumphs of the growth of awareness, future and past.

Eventually I spoke of it to other children, a few adults. No one could recognize or confirm my experience. Instead, their confusion further confirmed it as private, an emotional or philosophical state rather than a quantifiable experience, a symptom. That suited my preference. I enjoyed knowing the lion and the speck, was proud I'd banished my fear of knowing them, and associated them with whatever was deep and unique in me, whatever I least wanted to lose.

Still, I did lose them. By the time of college I'd stopped making those mysterious detours, and stopped seeking to have them explained or confirmed. As the lion and the speck vanished from my world I made one passing gesture to preserve them, in an odd, opaque poem I submitted to a writing class. "I must recall the keys of my quality," I wrote, "or else become the point as opposed to the lion." My teacher, who was pretty hard on me generally--I wasn't much of a poet--scribbled on the sheet both that he didn't understand the poem, and that it might be my best work. The poem was then placed in a folder and forgotten, and the exact texture of the experience was forgotten too, and after that the fact that it had ever happened. There was no context for the memory, no prompt to bring it up. The only thing that had ever reminded me of my hallucination was itself, and that was gone.

Ten years passed, maybe more, without thinking of it once. That is, until a month ago. I was absorbed in the plot of a new novel when I came across a passing mention of a young boy's bedtime terrors: "Suddenly it was as if he were looking through the wrong end of a telescope: his own feet looked tiny, tapering with the distance, the toy soldier nearly imperceptible in his faraway hand. A fascinating change of perspective, making him feeling like a giant of geological proportions--" And so on. The syndrome so described in the novel had a name: micropsia. The novelist hadn't made it up, that was obvious. A thrill of memory went through me, a deja vu that wasn't. In fact I was suddenly nearer to the lion and the speck than I'd been since before writing the dirgelike poem--it nearly brought back the intensity of that first, paralyzing episode.

I put the book aside, overtaken by something much rarer than a good plot. A lost scrap of my life had fluttered in through the window and lit on my hand before my astonished eyes, and now it had a name and a context. Confused, delighted, joined to my eight year-old self, I called a friend and tried to explain everything at once; I'm sure I was bewildering. I was bewildering to myself, the memories were coming so fast. As I spoke I recalled the poem, and went rifling through my files to find it, then read it aloud and cried, moved by myself.

As the astonishment passed I reflected on how the passage in the novel had at once restored the strange, milky jewel of micropsia to my possession and robbed me of it forever. Restored it, obviously, by pointing so clearly at what had been neglected--I might someday have stumbled across my poem and recollected my lonely wonder, but more likely not. I owed so much, then, to that bit of someone else's research, to those few lines so incidental to the novel in question. In another sense, though, the lion and the speck had been replaced by prosaic micropsia, a symptom which is known to frighten children but is mostly harmless. My private epiphany, my eight-year old's Gulliver-moment had been converted into something banal, unmagical, even into something I might decide to feel sorry for myself about in retrospect.

I'm grateful, though. I think I'm lucky, or lucky enough, anyway. I had years of mystery, and can live with the explanation that followed. The lion, the speck, micropsia--I can cherish all three. I've been led, in turn, to reflect on the nature of ambiguous memories, my own and others', and the motives that lie behind their banishment or redefinition. Perhaps, in a life where childhood is too quickly hurried away, where the oddness of self-discovery is packed into neat boxes and those boxes labelled with disappearing ink, reducing the strangeness of childhood experience into evidence and symptoms is a sorry way of holding on to childhood. But it is a way.
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Copyright © 1998 Jonathan Lethem.