To accept as truth Oscar Wilde’s statement that all bad art is the result of good intentions is to admit the possibility that Eve Ensler is off-the-charts awful. The intentions of Ensler’s new memoir, that is, are of the highest quality. In the Body of the World combines the vivid tale of its author’s treatment for uterine cancer with her attempt to direct your attention toward an ongoing apocalypse of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She writes to comfort the afflicted and to discomfort the apathetic—and she writes well, describing her viscera with visceral intensity and illuminating life’s passing moments and long arc with grace and humor. No, the book is beyond-bad because of its author’s ideas of goodness. This isn’t bad art. This isn’t art. To accept Ensler’s prose performance on its own terms is to close off rendering a standard-issue aesthetic judgment.
It is telling that the Obie-winning author of The Vagina Monologues here prominently describes performance art as a thing she’s done in an obsessive attempt to resolve feeling estranged from herself and from “the rhythms of the Earth.” She classes performance art with promiscuity and anorexia, and if she identifies herself as a playwright, I missed it in three readings. In the second chapter, one of Ensler’s doctors points to a CAT scan that clearly shows masses in her uterus, colon, and rectum, and also maybe a cyst in her liver. Her interior monologue starts off in perfectly normal mortal panic, then turns intriguingly weird:
"This is the day I am told I am going to die. My heart is racing. I know liver. Liver is it. I am a recovering alcoholic. … You can’t live without a liver. But my liver would have healed. I stopped drinking almost thirty-four years ago. I quit smoking twenty years ago. I’m a vegetarian and an activist."
How could this happen to me? I’m an activist!, she wonders, incredulously, as if doing good works in Bosnia were something on the order of eating rice bran. And as we continue through the book, this eager confusion of the health of the body and the soul comes to seem part of a pattern. This is a book in which the most talented and generous doctors are “handsome” or “very beautiful” or possess a beauty “inseparable” from kindness and devotion.
The brief chapters, called “scans,” push through to Ensler’s physical recuperation and spiritual renewal in blasts and flashes of a half-tranced consciousness. It’s an organic approach, appropriate to the motions of an anxious mind hallucinating free-floating cancer cells, to the disorientations of post-op oxycodone and after-chemo pot, and (a metaphor common to illness narratives) to the sense of dislocation particular to the very sick—the sense of being permanently jet-lagged in a foreign country.
“Illness does not proceed by design,” Kat Duff writes in The Alchemy of Illness: “Defying the rules of ordinary reality, illness shares in the hidden logic of dreams, fairy tales, and the spirit realms mystics and shamans describe.” During Ensler’s months of magical thinking, she pulled many rabbits out of many nurse’s caps, but instead of retrospectively evaluating her protective delusions and existential fantasies, she tends to let the unreality linger. After the surgeons have sliced through her navel, “the only evidence I was once connected to my mother,” she tells the reader that her mother got very sick just afterward. The possibility—the probability!—of coincidence goes unacknowledged.
In that silence, the mythic approach to self that Ensler began retailing in her incantatory opening chapter grows deeper roots. Revealing her youthful traumas—her father’s horrible abuse, her mother’s alienating coldness, her promiscuous drug use as a high school student in Scarsdale, N.Y., her drunken promiscuity as an undergraduate at Middlebury—Ensler reads her life through the disease. Her cancer is a test and a purgation—a phase of her heroine’s journey toward self-actualization. She ardently conflates her experience of it with the horrors of the Congo, “where in one breath the most grotesque acts of evil were countered with the deepest kindness.”