The Return of Inanna

Dodie Bellamy on becoming undone

Detail of a stone plaque from the Temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna, c. 2500 BC.

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the Sumerian myth of Inanna in the 1980s, when I read Sylvia Brinton Perera’s Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women (1981). At the time I was plagued with a neurological disorder in which electrified waves would shoot through my body, distorting my sensory processing in ways that terrified me. I memorized Sylvia Plath’s “The Hanging Man”: By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me./ I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet. What if these blue volts went on forever, I fretted—what if the world as I knew it was over? When Inanna enters the underworld she is stripped of everything—clothing, crown, jewels, personality. She is reduced to a slab of rotting meat, hung on the wall from a hook. Eventually, through the help of trusty allies, Inanna returns. Thus her story gave me great comfort. Perhaps as she did, I too would someday reenter the land of the living.

I had signed up for an online, eight-hour solstice ritual, tracking Inanna’s journey through the underworld. On the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, devotees light fires to encourage the sun’s return. A week before, a chronic condition I’ve been in denial about turned acute, and I decided I was too weak to handle the Inanna ceremony. I scheduled an endoscopy instead. For that, my weakness worked in my favor. Normally, for any medical procedure—a dental cleaning, even—I’m like a neurotic, yapping poodle. But for this, I am resigned, pliable.

A short, squat, grandmotherly woman who uses few words instructs me to remove my jewelry and all clothing except my panties. Then she gives me a gown patterned with the hospital’s logo (“fasten it in the back”) and a pair of slipper socks. I’m allowed to keep my glasses so I can read the consent form—the third one of the afternoon I’m required to sign. She fastens an identification band around my wrist and has me lie down with my hands wrapped in warm towels. “To make your veins big.” She reminds me of a character from Game of Thrones. She is so gruff and a bit feral—but also calming, like she’s seen it all. There is quite a class hierarchy among the nursing staff. She is clearly on a lower rung, compared to the Noel Cowardish sophisticated nurses who will assist the gastroenterologist. This woman is more my class. Like her, I am blunt and feral. She sticks a port into my hand and it hurts like hell. I am hooked up to saline solution. No longer do I have knowledge of what will enter my body.

Just last night, at a “Jewish Christmas” party, I was drinking official Game of Thrones wine with writer and curator Gravity Goldberg. From the wine’s website: “This blend of select lots is considered among the finest in the Seven Kingdoms by those who prefer dry, robust reds.“ I tentatively took a sip and said it tasted smoky. “With lots of cherry,” Gravity added, and the taste of cherry burst forth into my mouth. Since I’d recently been to Berlin, and Gravity works for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, the conversation turned to the Holocaust, to the question of remembering versus moving on. Gravity said that much of her job is deciding how much to remember the Holocaust. In the US, if the past were honored, we’d live in a much less fucked up situation than the one in which we find ourselves. A dog walked past us in the crowded kitchen. Gravity raised her glass: “Here’s to the dire wolf.”

I am wheeled away to the procedure room where oxygen is fastened to my nose, and a blood pressure cuff is attached to my left arm. As I lie on my left side, a donut-shaped thing is inserted into my mouth. This is surprisingly comfortable, so they must have already started drugging me. My mouth is round and no longer can I speak. Like Inanna, I am a blob of flesh at their mercy. I remember seeing bands of deep color—and belching sounds. Whenever there’s a belching I see a band of black. Undifferentiated, preverbal expulsion, my propped-open mouth circular as a Cheerio. I am no longer a person. I am a system of inhalation and evacuation.

When I visited my mother during the last few years of her life, when she was a widow with lung cancer, in the middle of the night she would emit these moans and wails that didn’t sound human—but more like sheer animal terror—like she had reached this place where no sentient being could bear to be. Is there tenderness at the end of our undoing? I hope so.

And then the endoscopy’s over and I ask one of the glamorous nurses what was that belching sound, and she says they were pumping air into me. And then I’m lying in the original place where I stripped away, and there’s a new nurse, a young guy—the blood pressure cuff is still tightening intermittently, and other things are being monitored so something must be attached to a finger somewhere. Eventually the guy nurse gives me a paper cup of ice water, which I sip greedily and then the doctor appears and tells me stuff I pretty much can take in. Then my husband arrives and more water and cranberry juice, as reality gradually sharpens. I get dressed and Kevin is given written instructions. I’m wearing my wristband, there’s a bandage on my right hand, and I walk carefully, holding on to Kevin because the nurses warned me about falling down. I feel shaky but calm, and my self has softly returned; yet there’s a sense of peering out into the world rather than existing in it.

For Christmas, Kevin drove me to a particularly scenic stretch of coast known as Lands End. On a beautiful, bright day, we walked along the wet sand amongst frolicking lovers, families, dogs, and sporty types who looked perfectly comfortable in bare feet and hooded sweatshirts, while the rest of us huddled in down. As the afternoon wore on, the sun slowly sank in the sky, and I recited from Plath’s “Finisterre”: This was the land's end: the last fingers, knuckled and rheumatic,/ Cramped on nothing. When the sun neared the horizon, all activity stopped, and we all faced the shore in rapt attention—perhaps with mounting anxiety?—as the sun continued to drop, slipping into the Pacific, disappearing. Except for the waves and the shrieking of birds—nature sounds—the beach was totally silent. It was like each of us had hooked into some ancient part of our DNA. The sun has died and night is upon us. What rituals need we perform to rebirth the sun? What rituals need we perform to keep our myths and histories alive?

Lands End, California, December 25, 2018. Photo: Dodie Bellamy.

Dodie Bellamy’s latest collection is When the Sick Rule the World (Semiotext(e), 2015). She is the 2018-19 subject of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art’s On Our Mind program, a year-long series of public events, commissioned essays, and reading group meetings inspired by an artist’s writing and lifework.