The Crimson Tide
Earlier this week, on a whim, I decided to donate blood on the 23rd floor of my office building. It was a space that I had never been to before, which to my surprise was entirely unoccupied. Like a mausoleum in northern India, without the accompanying flutter of pigeons, much of the floor seemed to have been abandoned by humans after years of use. The blood donation room itself was past a glass door, behind which there once would have been a receptionist’s desk. But now all that greeted an entrant was an empty space with the smell of untrammeled carpets. Past a small corridor that followed, a room opened up which looked over into the north eastern direction of the city, from where skyscrapers rose, like action figures in the Transformers series, awaiting their orders to transmute themselves into flying machines. I was amused by my own willingness to dream up foolishness in a room filled with medical instruments, blood satchels, serious minded professionals and assorted donors who sat in silence, as if they were here to perform an act filled with sacral meaning. I couldn’t help note that despite the warmth and humidity outside, the room itself was cold, austere, and awash in a bland yellow from the bulbs. The nurses, who referred to each other as “blood technicians”, were either in their late 50’s or early ‘60s, were in turn assisted by three or four young men and women who seemed to have just graduated from high school. A small mound of cookies, doughnuts, and other confectioneries lay about in neglect for the donors to gorge themselves after the donation. Perhaps the prospect of blood had turned many away from food. I looked at the sugar with longing.
The blood donation process itself was four-fold: a registration and identification step, filling a questionnaire of 50-60 yes or no choices (“have you ever paid for sex” and so on), a preliminary checkup by a nurse, and finally the actual blood donation itself. Before long, a dark red fluid streamed from me. I watched it with some disbelief that this thing that flowed into a plastic pouch was what purportedly aided to constitute me, my being. It seemed so distant and far removed from the very vitality of being alive, something alien to the experience of this life itself. Perhaps, it was the sterilized aura of the room, the near algorthimic rhythm of the procedure, and the practiced cheerfulness of the nurses’ actions by which they performed their tasks – cleansing skin, finding veins, inserting tubes, scanning bar codes – that created a sense of disconnect. Human blood had been sanitized of its horrors, its physicality, and any subconscious associations that we may have had. As I lay there strapped, blood gurgled into the pouch, which swayed under the influence of the capillary pressures, and left my body with an enviable ease. It seemed almost unfaithful. It demonstrated no loyalty to me, but instead to the imperious laws of Newtonian fluid dynamics and the laws of physics. Should this continue for more than the appropriate moments, I couldn't help think, that would be the end of me. This sentient, breathing, intricately weaved bunch of muscle and nerves would cease the flow of – if the poets are to be trusted in matters of physiognomy- my prejudices and intelligence, my will and weak kneed responses. In that lifeless environs, there seemed at that point, something so extraordinary about being alive and yet the very objects and phenomena that allowed for this instantiation of life itself - this pouch of blood - seemed so disappointingly banal. The mystery lay in the aggregation; from the conversion of cells and blood, skin and sight into this thing called ‘life’ that somehow has managed to emerge through the interstices of body, against incredible odds. But, the word 'life' seemed so anemic despite its totality to convey what I felt then.
A few days later, I learnt that the ancient Greeks talked about two different kind of ‘life’: zoe and bios. The New Testament, uses a third Greek word ‘psuche’ (from which ‘psyche’ is derived) that is also translated into English as ‘life’. Of this zoe refers to an expansive idea of life, or the very state of existence – a concept analogous to a presence that is common to frogs, the Goddess Aphrodite in our minds, and the man on the street outside my window. Bios, meanwhile, is a particular mode of this presence through which sentience manifests, reproduces, and persists. These distinctions have coalesced in English (and perhaps other languages too) into ‘life’, thus perhaps overburdened with too many emotional valences and pragmatic demands. Implicit also in this verbal singularity is the assumption that we can always distill that which is ‘life’ in every (as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes) ‘form-of-life’, every mode of sentient presence. i.e., we can identify that lowest characteristic, that substratum which makes Aphrodite alive in my mind and a snail alive in that garden pool. As long as we are bound by language where all ideas of ‘life’ are indistinguishable from the form-of-life, we are unable to think of ways of living beyond the very act of living itself. ‘Life’ therefore trumps all mechanisms that seek to transform it, i.e., all modes of power. Perhaps, our relentless urge to stay alive longer is because we are unable to imagine another kind of being alive. I had never thought of the consequences of meanings rushing into words; we endow them with gravitas as well as find ourselves shackled by them. The very act of living is thus circumscribed by this idea of ‘life’ that refuses to parse possibilities of being beyond the here-and-now. This is a form of bondage which, in a perverse way, is precisely what allows us to think of life and its actions as filled with possibilities instead of just facts. Every action is a possibility to dissolve the present into something else. It is this life-as-the-living, that allows us to conceptualize our lives as that which are “irremediably and painfully assigned” to a search for happiness.