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  • The Wandering Womb
  • S. L. Wisenberg (bio)

1. Hysterikos

If women are troubled in mind or body, the Kahun papyrus advises its readers, look to the wandering womb. In the fourth century BCE, Hippocratic physicians wrote that women who were ill might be plagued by a wanderlustful womb, which had loosened itself from its mysterious moorings to cause trouble in the parts of the body where it had set up shop. If the womb strayed into the head, it would cause headaches; if it sat in a woman's chest, it could cause near-suffocation. A misplaced womb could steal breath. Bind up a throat. Make everything difficult. Give it a child and it will be happy. Sometimes treatment was performed via the orifices. Affected women would be given something foul-smelling to breathe, so that the womb would be repulsed, would hightail it back down where it belonged. Another treatment was to expose the vulva to something pleasant-smelling, to lure the womb down to its rightful place, the way a woman incites a lover with sweet perfumes. Intercourse was proposed as a cure. After all, the womb longed to be of use. It wanted to be a nest. In the age before dissection men could not divide its mysteries.

The womb, said Plato, is a wild animal. The womb, according to medical writer Aretaeus the Cappadocian two centuries later, is "like some animal inside an animal."

Hustera, hystera (Greek) = womb
Hysterikos = hysteric = coming from the womb, suffering caused by the womb
Muff. Beaver. Pussy. [End Page 113]

2. Bowl

I cannot imagine how surgeons remove the uterus. Because it is an embedded bowl. Or pear, as it is referred to in much of the literature about hysterectomies.

The womb as animal—as marten, say, weasel, ferret. It pokes its nose into corners and burrows, looking for a child to carry. It holds an empty bowl, or it is transformed from animal to bowl, looking like the fur-lined teacup created by a surrealist.

The womb as empty bowl, like a beggar's bowl. The beggar's bowl is mostly a man's bowl, a monk's bowl, or tool, equivalent to a shovel, perhaps, because it is with the bowl that he earns his daily bread. The beggar's bowl is a symbolic and a real bowl. It is philosophical so it deserves mention, it deserves not to be put out into the street.

A beggar's bowl is what the monk or nun takes out, empty each morning. They start anew. With hope and prayers. The bowl reminds the monk that all must be asked for, all must be given. The monk (or nun) asks for sustenance. They ask for enough. The person who gives enough, or part of enough, is blessed. In biblical times farmers left the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor could gather wheat for themselves. Are we blessed on the nights that we leave our doggie bags on the top of the Dumpster so that it's easier for the homeless people to reach?

Each morning the begging bowl shines with waiting. If you are a monk you are confident. The universe will provide. In a film on the largest prison in India, I saw inmates learning Vipassana meditation, en masse; they emerged from their ten-day silence cleansed, quiet, humble, willing finally to admit that they had harmed society. That it had not done them wrong. In this prison, population 10,000, in suburban New Delhi, a pickpocket can wait six years for his case to come to trial, knowing that the sentence for his crime is only one year. Ten percent of the inmates are convicts; the others are awaiting trial. The film's narrator makes a statement about the slow wheels of justice in India. As if the slowness were just. The prisoners tell the camera: This was meant to be. With Vipassana I no longer have revenge in my heart. This is what I was looking for. I was put here for a reason.

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The teacup "Breakfast in Fur" was made by Meret Oppenheim in 1936 and titled by Andre Breton. Oppenheim used the pelt of...