The Big Surreal


Surrealism is an art and literary movement in the early twentieth century. Its best-known work is a painting by Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, in which clocks look like they’re melting in a bleak and blank terrain. In Surrealist painting, distortions of everyday reality, in scale, shape, and space give surreal as an adjective its definition of strange, disorienting, and off kilter. Dreamlike but not dreamy, an experience of surreality takes one aback and dislocates her: where am I? A terminal cancer diagnosis can be a surreal experience.

I received such a diagnosis at Christmastime 2016.

Where am I? I really don’t know.
I am lying on the living room couch, I’m reading in the gray leather chair, I’m mopping the floor, I buy groceries and drive a car. I walk the dog and brush her.
I am in the material world.

Where am I?
I lose my bearings but not my mind.

I am not here at all.
My mind is gossamer and huge
And clear unlike ever before. Its clarity astounds me.
“Mind” is inaccurate, and that I continue to use “I” is abundantly disappointing.
I cannot constitute any self. I am not me, not I. Nothing is mine, and “mind” is absurd.
This no place and nothing, a unity, has neither shape nor parameters. It is composed of myriad scintillae, random in their activity, and not the least chaotic, arising and passing, changing in instants, combining, recombining, disappearing. The epitome of speed and stillness.  
The no place is nothing in particular. It wants not a thing. It needs no witness. It is essenceless present.
I am bodiless. What is in, on, and through the gossamer is not contained or containable, and it keeps changing, quicker than in instants. “Floating” and “high speed” do not seem compatible, but in the no place they are. It offers nothing to see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. “Gossamer” and “transparency” are miserable descriptions.

How have I gotten to the no place? I can’t be at all certain.
Taxotere? A very potent chemotherapy I experienced in 2017 that seemed to veil my forehead, both outside and in.
Whole brain radiation? A treatment I chose in early 2018 that I feared was deranging my mind and causing cognitive losses. The radiation oncologist said that if I chose not to proceed, I could be dead within a few weeks.
A meditation technique that I’ve practiced for nearly ten years in which the meditator does her best to be still, scan her body, and be as attentive as possible to bodily sensations? Equanimity is a goal.
Each one has taken me far away from the accepted reality of domestic and work life. I’ve returned from the treatments both diminished and expanded, and I continue the meditation, a practice that is intended to create equanimity. The second time I was flying home from one of the ten-day retreats, in 2010, I was meditating and my arm closest to the plane window disappeared. It was only scintillae. I was very scared, but a teacher of the method who I contacted once I was home assured me that nothing unusual had occurred.

I am completely inadequate in describing the no place. It is not a vision, nor a fantasy. I’m not trying to paint a picture.

I am living and dying. In the Living with Cancer Support group that I have often gone to, we say that everyone is dying, but they don’t know it like we do. Smack up against it. A terminal diagnosis and the many MRIs and PET scans that I’ve had over the months and years, the follow-ups with medical and radiation oncologists, the infusions, the blood work that shows whether I’m sickening from medications, the lingering fatigue, the shorter walks that I must take so that I don’t get so tired that I risk falling. I used to walk easily and happily from the Metropolitan Museum to SoHo—a distance of 4.6 miles. I used to be elated when MRIs and PET scans were clear. Metastatic breast cancer has no cure, but an all-clear result may seem like stasis regarding the cancer, a kind of cure. I said to the acupuncturist I see that some people would find it weird that I’m not elated at the latest MRI result, from February 2019, and she said, “You’re realistic.” I’m so glad you said that,” I smiled.

We think of ourselves as who we were. Who we were is normal, and comfortable through familiarity with the past. Normal is a constant. So people opt for procedures that purport to keep them looking young, though often they look surreal, like Dolly Parton at the 2019 Grammys. Ants, symbols of decay, crawl on one of the clocks in The Persistence of Memory. The material world moves towards entropy, but the bodies of celebrities must not succumb to deterioration. No matter. They are icons of deterioration.

Cancer treatments, like dermal fillers and cosmetic surgery, try to reverse time. I look for beauty in the surreal disarray of my life. Clocks melt, time softens into nothingness. Beauty in scintillae, in utter impermanence.


Joanna Frueh is a writer, performance artist, scholar, art critic and historian, and teacher whose work expands into photographic, video, and audio pieces. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2008. Her books include Erotic Faculties, Monster/Beauty: Building the Body of Love, Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure, and Clairvoyance (For Those in the Desert): Performance Pieces, 1979–2004. She has performed and lectured in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom and is professor emeritus of art history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Unapologetic Beauty is a downright necessary meditation on women’s wisdom and beauty in aging. Joanna Frueh and Frances Murray—in writing and image—call out the fact that our ‘hyperbeauty’ culture relies on stereotypical ‘taboos’ to make individuals unique or edgy, when we must rather recognize that ‘real flesh, real love: they are the taboos.’ And the world needs more of both.”—Maria Elena Buszek, University of Colorado, Denver

“Joanna Frueh develops her earlier strands: body image; representation of self; relationships between image, text, and body; body work; illness and healing. Starting with friendship and creativity, she draws these themes in her work together in a powerful invocation of moving toward self-love through self-acceptance. It will always be the right time to read this, no matter the body one inhabits.”—Hilary Robinson, editor of Feminism Art Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2014 

“A wonderful, evocative depiction of a woman in all her glory.”—Susan Love, author of Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book

One thought on “The Big Surreal

  1. Joanna gave me the courage to ‘write my body’ rather than ‘speak my mind’ although they are both intrinsically related, one within the other, obdurate in their emergence from periods of silence, meditation, or long gestation. I attended two of her talks/readings/performances some twenty years ago. Since then I have written many texts, some performed, some published, and quite a few unpublished. Of my two book-length manuscripts, I prefer the more recent unpublished one because the previous one comes from an intense scrutiny of thought while the later text has emerged from the edge of being: an awareness of existing simultaneously as an entity and an absence in time. We think of intimacy as shared but I believe the deepest intimacy is found within solitude. Joanna offers insight into the depths of a solitude replete with discovery. I look forward to reading this collusion/collision of mind and body to garner what for me is an ever-elusive sense of spirit but for Joanna is clarity and compassion.

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