At a particular moment this last weekend, under somewhat peculiar circumstances, I watched a wall of fire rush forth to engulf my head. The effects were immediate and significant, and might have proven irrevocable. As it turned out, I was lucky. My brother had accidentally left the gas on in the oven, so when I struck the match to light it, the kitchen filled with flame. I was burned up my nose and across my forehead; I lost some hair in the front and a lot on the top; my eyebrows, thankfully, were only singed, my arms burned lightly, my hands blistered a little and my right shoulder, curiously, turned black. But I was fine, despite the shock. I went to the shower, watched the clumpy piles of singed hair clog up the drain, and, an hour later, went back to my friends and tried to laugh about it all.
I tell you this not as a play for sympathy, but as an explanation for this week’s selection. Yes, just as the final bits of char are peeling off my forehead, I’ve decided to usher forth that commemorative celebration you’ve all been waiting for, Burn Victim Week, honoring everyone from Icharus to Marguerite Porrete to the ten women who immolated themselves when Indian politician MGR needed a kidney transplant. I tip my bottle of hydrogen peroxide to all of them.
The most remarkable thing about the whole event was the shower. As the cool water sprayed down on my pained skin, I wasn’t thinking about what could have happened, how close I came to serious injury; I was thinking about dating. I was thinking about face, in the western sense. Though I could well have lost my eyes (as Milton asks: “Why was the sight / To such a tender ball as the eye confined? / So obvious, so easy to be quenched”), I was more preoccupied by being seen than seeing. Vanity, that jealous ruler, allowed little room for the survival instinct, or animal fear, or any other sane response. No, I just wanted to look okay after it was all over. Ouch. Thinking back on it, the egoism hurts more than the burns did.
So with flame-broiling on my mind, I thought it appropriate to excerpt the impregnation scene from John Irving’s marvelous The World According to Garp. In the passage, Jenny Fields, an army nurse, tends to a ball turret gunner who’s taken shrapnel in the brain, and then been burned severely. He is a vegetable, whose only commerce with the world is to achieve enormous erections and to moan out the word “Garp.” Fields, not being a big fan of sex, nor of sharing other people’s ideas, sees great fathering potential in the moribund sergeant Garp, as she calls him. She thus decides to borrow something from him before he dies, and to make a little Garp of her own.