Burton’s Sweat

by Jason Tougaw


Diagrams like this one are helpful because they use red to let you know which parts of your leaking body should embarrass you. Fortunately, they are all commonly found on medical websites.

We leak. Our bodies secrete a variety of substances: sweat, tears, urine, shit, farts, blood, breath. Our limbs shake, our skin blushes, and our hair levitates during moments when we’d prefer to appear composed. In some ways, our body’s secretions and expressions are composing. They can express our fluctuating mental lives in ways that elude language. We try to speak our minds, but words are imprecise containers for thought and feeling. “I have no words,” we say when a thought is too big or strong or sprawling for language to convey. Words capture thoughts: they give thoughts coherent forms, so we may share them with others. But they fail to encompass the entirety of the thoughts and feelings they articulate; and they always add new meanings to those thoughts and feelings. Words are great, but distortion is one of their fundamental qualities.

Blood, sweat and tears, as forms of wordless communication, are imperfect too. “I’m hurt,” our blood says. “I’m hot,” our sweat says. “I’m sad,” our tears say. But blood might signal menstruation, sweat anxiety, and tears joy. As with words, the precise meaning of our secretions is generally open to interpretation. Aside from signaling particular mental or physical states, however, those secretions reveal a world of wordless meaning in our minds and bodies. They are excretions of biological systems whose work takes place largely outside conscious awareness. Those systems–the autonomic nervous system, digestion, respiration, and circulation, for example–impinge our moods, our feelings, the trajectory of our conscious experience, and ultimately our thinking. Our leaks are evidence of the self-making systems every organism relies on without thinking much about it.

n226895Which brings me to Burton’s sweat. In her novel, The Sorrows of an American, Siri Hustvedt has delivered Burton, a minor character with a pivotal role in the plot:

. . . Burton was a fat, waddling, red-faced person who had little luck with girls. His chief trouble, however, wasn’t his looks, but his moistness. Even in winter, Burton had a steamy appearance. Bubbles of perspiration protruded from his upper lip. His forehead gleamed, and his dark shirts were notable for the great damp circles under his arms. The poor fellow gave the impression that he was humid to the core, a peripatetic swamp of a man with a single vital accouterment—his hankerchief. Once in medical school I had suggested that there were some treatments for hyperhidrosis. Burton had informed me that he had tried everything known to humankind that didn’t risk turning him into a vegetable, and his was a hopeless case. “My ur-reality is sweat,” he told me. The first year of residency had marked the end of his career as a practicing physician. His melancholy, dripping face, his sticky palms and sodden handkerchief had alienated nearly every conscious patient . . .

Hyperhidrosis is a medical mystery. It can be localized to the spots where we all sweat most: armpits, hands, feet, groin. When it’s bad, it’s generalized. Like Burton, people with generalized hyperhidrosis sweat all over their bodies. In large amounts. While its cause is a subject of some debate, it almost certainly has something to do with the nervous system–and therefore with unarticulated feelings. Most people sweat more when they’re nervous. People like Burton sweat a lot more when they’re nervous. Hustvedt does not portray Bruton’s sweat as a clue to some Freudian secret trying to escape his unconscious. Instead, his sweat seems to hint at the power of unspoken corporeal experience. Her characters don’t suffer from the repression of particular pains or traumas, but they do suffer from hyper-intellectualism. They speak so deftly that their bodies, unlike Burton’s, don’t get much chance to communicate.

In contrast to Burton, Hustvedt’s psychiatrist narrator, Erik Davidsen, is about as dry as you get. He’s a serious man, narrating a serious novel, one full of articulate characters who speak their minds with precision–but who are nonetheless pretty frustrated, unhappy creatures searching for elusive meanings about their pasts, their deceased relatives, their spouses, their crushes, and their work. Burton’s sweat challenges this group of intellectuals with his swampy self and humid core. He’s smart, but he’s a little repulsive and difficult to explain. You might say he’s a foil, but I think he’s more like an antidote to the brainy lives of Hustvedt’s characters, whose “ur-reality” is ideas–a fact that’s not getting them any closer to resolving the emotional conflicts or family mysteries that hamper them. Ideas are like insulation for them, protecting them from other people’s leaks. But Burton sweats all over these ideas, dons a wig, solves one of the novel’s central mysteries, and delivers some moist comfort to his dry friends.

Burton belongs to a tradition of literary characters who secrete too much, from the pissing giants in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel to the farting Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy O’Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces. You might say these characters are leaking for the rest of us, whose secretions are taboo. Even though the experiences are unquestionably universal, we’re not supposed to sweat or fart or puke or piss in public. No leaking, the taboo reminds us. Keep your secretions to yourself. Hustvedt, like Rabelais and Reilly, was up to something when she wrote Burton’s hyperhidrosis into her novel and published–in other words, made public–his sweat. He’s a living, leaking social taboo.

There’s a clue about what Hustvedt may be up to with Burton’s sweat in one of her earlier novels. In What I Loved, Hustvedt’s character Violet proposes a theory of “mixing.” She’s writing about anorexics: “They find a way to to separate the needs and desires of other people from their own. After a while, they rebel by shutting down. They want to close up all their openings so nothing and nobody can get in. But mixing is the way of the world. The world passes through us–food, books, pictures, other people.”

The world, including other people’s sweat, passes through us–mostly in undetectable ways. We’re all leaking substances that reveal aspects of self we’re hardly aware of. The leakage is essential for the mixing. Maybe that’s the message of Burton’s sweat.

At the end of The Sorrows of an American, Burton’s leaking slows down. His physical relief is almost like a reward for his good deeds. Burton becomes a clandestine (and constumed) hero in Erik’s family drama–casting himself as savior to Erik’s sister, with whom he’s always been in love. It’s a terrible idea, but it’s also the catalyst that resolves the plot. After Burton’s mother dies, Erik meets with him:

. . . I noticed immediately that my friend looked drier. He was still shiny, but not dripping. I didn’t remark on it, but Burton volunteered that his hyperhidrosis had taken a turn for the better.

“I feel some trepidation,” he said, “no more than that. I feel acutely uncomfortable mentioning my altered somatic condition to a psychoanalyst, knowing full well that perspiration, or rather the precipitous decline of the same at this point in my life, that is, after my mother’s demise, could be construed as . . .” Burton paused and wiped his forehead, more out of habit, I suspected, than need. He settled on a word. “Symptomatic.” (232-33)

Symptomatic of what? A psychoanalyst might see Burton’s sweat as a symptom of his feelings about his mother, or a childhood trauma. Nonsense, a physician might say. Burton’s is a physical problem. In a novel by Siri Hustvedt, you will never have to decide between one of these diagnoses and the other. Instead, you will be asked to think about the murky relations between psychological and physical experience. One of Burton’s roles is to pull this murk, in the form of sweat, out of the novel’s other characters. Now that they’ve resolved some of their conflicts, they’re a little less dry, as if they’ve absorbed some of Burton’s sweat. I doubt the irony is accidental: If Burton sweats less, others are more likely to hang around long enough to mix with him.  

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