Tamara Burross ~ Migraines for Hegel

You have never known love until your introduction to structuralism. You have never laughed as loudly as you laugh at Freud. You study for your literary theory class like you chew delicious morsels of food. You read about Hegel’s dialectic and Marxist ideology. Your migraines return from remission and you start having to give yourself triptan injections, missing classes. You write a cultural criticism paper using Jakobson’s paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes. You study postcolonialism. You begin having seizures. Your psychiatrist tells you they are psychosomatic. He asks you what you’re studying that could be causing existential dread. He gives you a seizure preventative that is also a mood stabilizer and triples as a migraine preventative. The thrill of studying becomes a little less intense; the blackness of your depression becomes a little less dark. Your neurologist approves, and adds a beta-blocker to lower your blood pressure and prevent headaches. You get dizzy when you rise from sitting. You don’t have a primary care physician, only specialists. The doctor at the campus clinic prescribes you opiates for your migraine pain. Foucault’s archeological method leaps from the pages in bright neons; you see certain words in certain colors.

Your boyfriend’s sis­ter is study­ing psy­chol­o­gy. She says any­one in the room who doesn’t yawn when some­one else yawns is a sociopath, so you fake your yawns when you notice oth­ers yawn­ing. You sneak into the bed­room while she’s over and swal­low your pills with stale water on your night­stand from the night before. You notice how the out­let in your bed­room looks like a face that is always yawn­ing. You feel watched.

The words in your papers swim on the com­put­er screen. You think the lan­guage of the­o­ry is like read­ing music. You read the chap­ters over and over and you begin to won­der how it ever didn’t make sense to you, like try­ing to remem­ber the way it was before you could read sheet music, when the nota­tion was an incom­pre­hen­si­ble tan­gle of sym­bols on a plane of mys­te­ri­ous lines. Talking in class feels like singing. You throw in the­o­rists’ names for tremo­lo, obscure terms for flour­ish­es. You recall pri­or lessons as you speak. You shame­ful­ly vom­it into the garbage can of an aban­doned class­room. You get lost in your thoughts dur­ing the com­mute from cam­pus and pan­ic when you can’t rec­og­nize where you are, if you’ve missed your exit.

Your class­mates com­plain of the­o­ry that they’ll nev­er use it. You can’t imag­ine ever not using it. The world becomes a mias­ma of ter­mi­nol­o­gy. Nobody you talk to under­stands how Twitter is an illus­tra­tion of Mikhail Bakhtin’s the­o­ry of dial­o­gism. You start retweet­ing tweets that rhyme; you curate tweet after tweet that hap­pens to be in iambic pen­tame­ter. You lose hours com­pos­ing Twitter symphonies.

You believe peo­ple on Twitter start to catch on. They notice that your time­line is a long sto­ry com­prised of oth­er people’s words. You remem­ber how your pro­fes­sors tell you that you have a gift of eth­i­cal engage­ment, yet you’ve silenced the voic­es of these Twitter users, sev­er­ing their tweets from their con­texts and forc­ing them into a run­ning nar­ra­tive you your­self com­posed. It’s sim­i­lar to what crit­ics of Ralph Waldo Emerson say: Emerson’s solip­sism becomes appar­ent when he attempts to con­strain all com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives under the cen­tral­i­ty of his own voice; he vio­lent­ly silences the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers when he uses slav­ery as a metaphor­i­cal device. You feel the cri­tique. Each tweet you read has a new under­tone of malice.

You feel your life has been threat­ened by sev­er­al Twitterers. You devel­op insom­nia, lie awake read­ing tweets about the small town you live in, the name of your street. You enter your emp­ty house at night after class­es with a ham­mer held aloft, heart pound­ing as you open every door, turn on every light. You fran­ti­cal­ly share your fears with your psy­chi­a­trist at every appoint­ment with grow­ing con­ster­na­tion. He pre­scribes you an antipsy­chot­ic to “help you get past this.” You slip into the stu­dent bath­room stall to swal­low your pills. You begin to hear music and voic­es in the flush of the toi­lets, run­ning from the tap, fil­ter­ing out of the space heater in your room. They are heat­ed con­ver­sa­tions but you can’t make out the words. You only know peo­ple are angry.

You are late for your the­o­ry class. You approach the door and reach for the knob but you can’t make your­self go in. You are unpre­pared. You can’t face them. You dash into your aca­d­e­m­ic advisor’s open office door. You accost him with your inabil­i­ty to enter your class. He watch­es you with masked con­cern, word­less. You hear your the­o­ry class­mates exit­ing into the hall­way. You crouch behind a chair in his office to hide, not notic­ing that the chair back has a hole in it.

I can’t let them see I’m here,” you whis­per urgently.

I under­stand,” he says calmly.

You grad­u­ate Magna Cum Laude, receiv­ing aca­d­e­m­ic awards. You speak to your pro­fes­sors about your intent to earn a Ph.D. Your bag of med­ica­tions flash­es into your head. You won­der what doc­tor­al study has done to these pro­fes­sors’ minds.

You tweet a pho­to of your diplo­ma, destroy­ing your anonymi­ty. It is an admis­sion of guilt, a pal­try excuse: it was all for this sheet of paper, and now it’s over. Now if they want to come for you, they will. You delete your Twitter account.

You lose touch with your pro­fes­sors and take a job as an asso­ciate accoun­tant at your boyfriend’s firm. He prais­es your prac­ti­cal­i­ty as you grieve for your aca­d­e­m­ic dreams. The voic­es stop float­ing down from the ceil­ing fan at night. The space heater mere­ly hums warmth. The pat­terns of num­bers on the neat­ly demar­cat­ed spread­sheets warn you that every­thing is con­nect­ed, that you are not yet safe. Yours is like the cri­sis in Emersonianism: all attempts to jus­ti­fy your­self only incrim­i­nate you fur­ther. You push it from your mind and run prof­it and loss reports. You enter and clas­si­fy trans­ac­tions from bank state­ments. Each day of data entry takes the edge off your fears.

You build a fortress of Excel for­mu­las and hide behind tax returns. You dis­cuss rev­enue with busi­ness­es and advise them of what can and can­not be writ­ten off as an expense. You build a new lan­guage. They will nev­er find you here.


Tamara Burross has pub­lished two poems in New World Writing, and is an asso­ciate edi­tor and design­er for ELJ — Elm Leaves Journal. She has a BA in English lit­er­a­ture from Buffalo State College.