Never Solitary: On Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s “Breathing Aesthetics”

December 6, 2022   •   By Ricky Varghese

Breathing Aesthetics

Jean-Thomas Tremblay

UNABLE TO BREATHE one night in late July, I ended up in the ICU at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. It wasn’t COVID-19 that sent me there, though. Instead, what brought me to the ICU in a state of near breathlessness was a rather nasty bout of viral laryngitis — something I hadn’t had since I was a child — that had decidedly caused my larynx to swell so much that my airways had effectively closed up. A steady stream of nervous yet ultra-polite residents came to examine me while I was held up in the emergency room awaiting what my fate — or the next steps — would be. The anesthesiologist came in to systematically describe the “worst-case scenario” — his calm demeanor only making me more anxious — wherein intubation had to be considered an option if the steroids didn’t kick in. Intubation could not be an option. I scribbled my dissent on a notepad I was provided to communicate with my attending doctors. Having had several corrective surgeries in my childhood for my cystic hygroma — a congenital condition which caused a buildup of fluid in the lymph nodes around my neck and chin area, already making breathing a morbid activity for me — I knew how difficult and painful an option intubation would be. Luckily for me, a steroid treatment ended up doing the trick, and I was able to breathe and speak again in a few hours’ time.

“Breathing is inevitably morbid,” reads the opening line of Jean-Thomas Tremblay’s exquisite new first monograph, Breathing Aesthetics, published in late summer this year. Breathing Aesthetics is a kind of prescient assessment of “what respiration [can teach] us once the shock of the affiliation between life and death has dissipated.” What happens when, for some of us, we are never truly relieved of that shock? What happens if it never entirely dissipates? What can we learn from breathing about the shock of this “affiliation between life and death”? Or rather, still, what can we learn about breathing from the shock of this affiliation? A few days after the incident that left me breathless and hospitalized, I was lying on my psychoanalyst’s couch, recounting to her what had happened. My analyst, who is also a medical doctor, was quick to note that in the now over two years in which we had worked so hard to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, other pathogens had, in effect, become stronger, and our immunity against and resistance to them all the weaker. “All sorts of things are floating about in the air now …” she remarked. As many of us slowly, with understandable trepidation, make our way out of the cloister of lockdown living, we are now having to enter a brave new world, as it seems, where the air is saturated not only by pathogens, but by the very filiation of life and death to one another.

I began to recount to her a series of breath-related memories. I recalled, for instance, that at the age of four, after a particularly and gruesomely long operation for my cystic hygroma, one that lasted close to 13 hours, my lungs quite literally gave in and collapsed. I was then placed in an incubator, plugged up to a respirator that did my breathing for me for the next two weeks. My first memory, after I woke up (from what was described to me as a coma) and was disconnected from the machines that were keeping me alive, was that of my eyes opening, my vision entirely blurry, and my anxious parents over me — I remember recognizing them not through sight, but by their smells, by their voices, by touching my mother’s bangles and grabbing at my father’s goatee. Still another memory that I recalled for my analyst was the one regarding the story, as it was told to me, of the death of my maternal grandmother, which occurred a year later when I was five. Since she lived with asthma for most of her life, it was not unusual for her to wake up in the middle of the night and walk around the house as she struggled to catch her breath. On the night she died, she woke up in an asthmatic fit. As usual, she told my grandfather she was going for a walk to manage her breathing. When my grandfather, a farmer, woke up at the crack of dawn, he didn’t find my grandmother beside him. After looking for her, he found her sitting lifeless on a swing installed for their grandchildren (for whenever we would visit) in the front veranda of their home. My grandmother died while trying to breathe life into herself.

Breathlessness, Tremblay states, is “a modality of breathing, not its negation.” I wanted to provide these sequences of breathlessness culled from my life as confirmation of just that claim — to have one’s breath limited or to lose one’s capacity to breathe is to signal the undeniable proximity of life to death vis-à-vis the fulcrum-like mechanism that breathing seems to represent. Isn’t breath what separates the living from the dead? If that is the case, then breathlessness is not merely the loss of breath; instead, our aspiration is a literal aspiring toward the side of life. I also narrated these sequences because I wanted to showcase how breathing is relational, that it informs a relationship between us and the world, between — as Tremblay refers to them — “bodies and [their] milieus.” In fact, this dyadic and even dialectical formulation, bodies and their milieus, appears a number of times across Tremblay’s book because it is a work that attends to the ways by which breathing comes to define the very space between these two categories. My narratives of breathlessness were an effort on my part to insert one such body — mine, or my grandmother’s — into the world and see how it precariously occupies the space between itself and its environments.

In an April 2021 New York Review of Books article titled “On Breathing,” psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster asks, “In this long year, have we not surreptitiously faced an entire human history embodied in breathing?” And so, at first glance, a reader might imagine Tremblay’s own work to be a response to the twin contemporaneous moments of catastrophic historicity — the COVID-19 pandemic and the coalescing of a global movement in support of Black life that uses the phrase “I can’t breathe!” as one of its chief clarion calls to action. How serendipitous it is to write (and to read) such a book at the exact moment when the air around us contains “all sorts of things” — a deadly virus, systemic and structural forms of violence, the climate catastrophes that are in the offing, or all manner of precarity and destitution, both economic and otherwise — an entire human history, so to speak.

The “aesthetics” in the book’s title denotes how breathing can become a “resource,” for learning about the very precarity with which it holds bodies and milieus within the same frame of reference. Mediation, “the linking of seemingly disparate or contradictory positions and processes by way of aesthetics,” allows this resource to come alive, pun intended, offering us potential lessons regarding breathing beyond the “shock” of the affinity between life and death, between vitality and morbidity. This is why, it seems, Tremblay attempts to delineate a respiratory aesthetics “spanning literary, screen, and performance cultures [to index] the intensified contamination, weaponization, and monetization of the air since the 1970s.” By doing so, they showcase how “minoritarian manifestations of this aesthetics devise individual and collective practices of survival amid crisis.” This is not to suggest, however, that the “aesthetics of breathing [as] a resource […] neutralizes or eliminates [and, I would add, “universalizes”] breathlessness.” Rather, such an aesthetics allows for the unpacking of breathlessness as not breathing’s “antithesis,” but perhaps its most central thesis, its existential kernel; these aesthetic explorations elaborate on and thereby formalize breathlessness as a contingent modality of breathing within the present context of the accumulation of crises.

For instance, by examining “the elemental media of Ana Mendieta and Amy Greenfield,” where difficult breathing becomes a mode for critiquing the otherwise “pastora[l] […] ideals of vitality and purity,” Tremblay suggests that these artists unmask the underlying colonial intentions at the very core of how the pastoral has been conventionally represented across the history of art. Still further, by closely studying the writings and performances of Dodie Bellamy, CAConrad, and Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Tremblay is attentive to breathing’s knotty role in the space of queer life in how it “organizes desire amid crises ranging from the personal to the planetary.” Similarly, by surveying the Black and Indigenous feminist respiratory rituals outlined in the works of Toni Cade Bambara and Linda Hogan, Tremblay asks us to consider “minoritarian models of collective life inspired by respiration,” those that exist outside of and beyond mainstream feminist spaces of organizing. Reading Renee Gladman’s work, Tremblay shows how the writer offers us a blueprint for an aesthetics of smog sensing that carefully considers the presence of “respiratory interruptions” within a cityscape as themselves “symptom[atic] of crisis,” such as urban air pollution or the suffocating wildfires that many have to contend with. Finally, by delving into an examination of the nonviolent last breath, as depicted in the cinema vérité of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King, Tremblay underscores how there exists a “desire on the part of the living to manage their own respiratory confrontations with finitude.”

It was this sense of finitude that I was trying to capture by recounting these breath memories on my analyst’s couch. I thought of how lonely my grandmother’s last breath might have been for her, how shocked and frightened she must have been to confront this breath in such solitude in the middle of the night. And yet, in recalling this memory, I was also trying to do something else as well. When I told my analyst about ending up in the ICU, she was immediately apologetic. She was concerned that perhaps I had contracted the case of viral laryngitis from her. When, a few days prior to the episode at the ICU, I had a session with her, she was coughing and had indicated that she was fighting “something.” When I returned to my session after having been in the ICU, she felt that she needed to take responsibility for what had happened to me. The truth is, I am not sure if I contracted anything from her; I could have contracted it just as well from anyone else for that matter — the air, as she suggested, contains “all sorts of things […] floating about” in it. Breathing, in this context of a body and its milieu, meaning in the therapeutic space shared between myself and my analyst, informs the precarious fragility of that relationship and, perhaps, of all other relationships. Breathing, here, is never solitary. This is not to suggest that we are all in this together; Tremblay certainly does not suggest that. Rather, perhaps, breathing doesn’t have to be so lonely. My grandmother may have taken her last breath in a state of loneliness, but I was certainly not alone in my memory of this event as I lay in the hospital nearly four decades later, nor was I alone in the moment I recounted this memory to my apologetic analyst. And, because we are never truly alone in our breathing, even when it may undoubtedly feel as though we are, perhaps it does not have to be all that morbid.


Ricky Varghese is a writer, psychoanalyst, and editor. He is currently working on a book about suicide and the death drive.