Discursive Anxiety

I now find myself faced with the inscrutable expanse of the open sea, unbound in all its perpetual ebb and flow. All prospects—successes and cosmic failures—lie unformed and amorphous before me. For the first time on this charted course held fast by necessity and old ambition, I feel responsible. No, not for someone else—not for the lessons that I need to deliver, the heap of unmarked essays, nor the scores of students under my tutelage. I suddenly feel the weight lighting on my shoulders, gently, ponderously—a responsibility for my future.

And now the familiar resolve, which had once burned fierce against the persuasion of the easy wind, wavers in the cold of things yet to come. Where do I begin—how? Faced with the immensity of an unmade future, our natural propensity would be to fall back on the comfort of the known and trodden ground. I feel for the sure and steady earth; but my feet find only a mire of clay.

 

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A personal copy of my undergraduate Honours Thesis on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

 

My fingers trace the depressions on the faux leather fabric, embossed in gold like forgotten constellations rekindled by an astronomer’s inquiring gaze. These footprints—they belong to a different time, a different life. It is only now, after struggling to find a doorway back, that I realise just how much of myself I weaved into the fabric of all my undergraduate work—and how much of this now remains out of reach. Almost every piece of writing was a working through of unutterable confusion and grief that now seems all but a factual echo, like the faint roll of a thunder after distant lightning. My preoccupations then with psychoanalysis, trauma, and self-fashioning, in hindsight, were collectively a grand performance of reordering—of sense-making after the fall from certitude into an inward chaos. I wrote my own despair and healing into the novels and poems I read—into Odysseus’s perpetual deference of homecoming; into the unforgiving  social economy of marriage in Romeo and Juliet; into the self-haunted psychology of Robinson Crusoe.

In the passing of four years, the tempest has blown over for the most part. Time has wedged a critical distance between, I have begun to see how my discursive identity then—embodied in the work I produced—was a historical moment in my narrative, bound up with a deeply idiosyncratic experience of and response to the world. What this essentially implies, is that after all the time that has elapsed, the writer is dead; his mark—the signature not only of his oeuvre, but his consciousness in writing—is foreclosed and irreproducible. All the archaeology and intellectual surgery this universe can afford cannot resurrect the ghost of this author; he has become fossilised in print, belonging to an irretrievable era. More tragic yet is the realisation that I was once him—I remember; but I simply cannot bring him back from the gold etchings on his gravestone.

So therein lies a discursive anxiety, born of a rude discovery that I stand as an authorial other to my own work—excluded, dislocated, dislodged from a special place in time. So far removed from the pathos that once wearied as much as it inspired, and so soon confronted now with a haunting vista of untamed waters. That muse died away the moment I made a conscious effort to forget. But the legacy it carved out in my narrative was the singular redemptive conclusion to a chapter fraught with painful self-contradictions. I vividly remember the relief and exoneration as I handed over the manuscript for submission—it was an affirmation of all my sense-making in the past four years, and the sturdy foundation of a life after, against the wild irrationality of a hidden life. What could rival the height of that towering moment or the spiritual architect that gave birth to it? The time has sadly passed away.

How strange it is that I feel like a spinning compass in the absence of some grief to guide my thoughts! The sky is darkened. I proceed in spite of a inaccessible past. I proceed in spite of an uncertain future, knowing only that the only way is forward. Yet what is forward when all around is a flat, uncharted singularity—from which invisible landmark shall I take my bearings?

”’And now by some strong motion I am led
Into this wilderness, to what intent
I learn not yet, perhaps I need not know;
For what concerns my knowledge God reveals.’
So spake our morning star then in his rise,
And looking round on every side beheld
A pathless desert, dusk with horrid shades.
The way he came not having marked, return
Was difficult, by human steps untrod.”
John Milton, Paradise Regained (I.290-98)

 

Unread

Our story is
Just everyone else’s
We start slow like a pinball circling
The edges of the abyss, before
Plunging headlong into the
Deep

Our story is
Not just anyone else’s
Written and rewritten
Encounters in unbound
Manuscripts lying unkempt
In the untended shelves of
Memory. Like lines leaning
Against each other, we were
Unparalleled.

We wrote for
No one but our eyes
Our last chapter is spilt
Ink gently tracing the outline
Of an embrace hand-drawn
Vodka-stained and trembling
At an unseen corner of a
Sunday night

Our story is
None of the
Tired tragedies
We read in a language
Not our own, but pages of
Forbidding conjectures now
Torn away to leave
Nothing but an

Epilogue of
Stolen glances and silent
Knowing looks
In between the covers
Of our books.

To Everything There Is A Season

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
J. R. R. TolkienThe Return of the King (1955)

Time is either a gentle breeze, or a sandstorm sweeping the Arabian coasts. If the former, it soothes the melancholy soul with a whisper; if the latter, it is blinding and abrasive, tearing into the skin like a serrated claw dripping with the vengeance of the endless hour. Time is a forgetting. Our chores and worries wash over and smooth those burning footprints at noontime, and suddenly it is evening; the toll of the day’s burden weighs heavily on us, and we sleep to wake and sway to Earth’s diurnal rhythm once again.

Two weeks have passed since his passing. He died twice—once on a bed embraced by a tangle of plastic tubes with a flatline for a eulogy, the next when he was wheeled into the fire to the tune of cacophanous wailing. Death pervades all realms of signification.

I was there when he left the second time.

As the climactic closure and public acknowledgement of a life lived and expired, the final send-off at the viewing gallery of Mount Vernon crematorium is a theatrical experience that is at once surreal and sobering. As family and friends file onto the tiered platforms, the scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of an amphitheatre silent with anticipation. The cue is the forlorn appearance of the coffin below draped in white lilies, slow but sure in its fatal course. Then a sudden outpouring of grief ensues. Behind the veil of glass, a paroxysmal clamour erupts as the scene momentarily transforms into a grand spectacle of mourning—one that seems almost as contrived in its orchestration as it is heart-wrenching in its desperate pathos.

I remember clasping instinctively onto the wooden rail in front of me, as if for metaphysical support, with a strange detachment even as I was for many reasons emotionally invested in the scene. To be sure, it was a moment of lasts—last farewells, last professions of love and promises of waiting, last apologies muted behind the unmoving glass, last glimpses of the mortal vessel we call the body. Nonetheless, even in my blinding sorrow I did realise: this procession is undoubtedly a symbolic performance of our mortal condition. The glass of the gallery itself metamorphoses into an existential barrier between the living and the irrevocably dead—and our powerlessness over the decrees of Nature seems palpable in every way. It is a moment of human defeat—one we cannot bear to concede willingly but will need to, eventually, because it would be folly to stand vigil by the husk of the one we love, indefinitely (love them as we may). Our time is a life punctuated with many such losses and partings—and seated deep within our anguished reluctance to let go is the knowledge that we must.

And Time is a remembering that our own grains of sand will one day fill our graves. While the narratives of the dead are spent, ours continue to be written. That is why, in spite of our fierce grieving, we enlist the services of those who wheel the dead into the place of ashes; they play the part of fate and necessity, to do what we alone cannot.

Brief Candle

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.19-28)

I was fearful of what I might see. How much has Death already taken away from a man struggling to breathe, not to drown under the weight of his own mangled body? Pallid green curtains, like a shroud of shadow, enclosed the beds—encapsuled—each leaving its resident to fade away in quiet privacy; or else to shield the wet eyes of those to be left behind, weary with grief, from the visible inevitability of what is to come.

We stepped into the ward. There was a silent pall hanging about in the still sanitised air. The short path to the bed at the end was lined with a scattering of mourners—here a pair, arms about one another in shared pathos; there a solitary boy, face hung with blank resignation; then there were the unmistakable sounds of sniffling and blowing noses like the early drops of rain before the monsoon.

As the hospital drapes were drawn, an unfamiliar visage faded into view—more unfamiliar, and distant than I had imagined. He was a crumpled canvas, almost bleached white; his cheeks were hollowed out like a palette that had run out of paint. The easel that once stood propping up vital colours of boyish mischief and paternal severity lay now in shambles. How vividly he had appeared in my memory as I left him some ten years ago, when our cars left each other at the Tuas causeway after our routine family trip (the last of many) to Genting Highlands. I still remember that face—full, glowing, my father’s friend. I recall navigating the theme parks with his boys, my childhood partners-in-crime—all of us blazing with unspoilt youth, all of us candles dancing in the dark.

Now I see them standing around me, heads once dizzy with childish delight, now hung with indescribable sorry. We have all grown up, some taller than we remember. All of us look tired, like the years have chipped at our gleaming mantles and left the frays drifting in the wind. How I wish I could reach out to embrace each of them with the same yesteryear innocence and careless glee. All of it has passed, irretrievably.

I look at his face, spaces once filled with hearty laughter. I do not recognise him. Those gentle eyes are now bereft of joy, only agape in shock like one trying in vain to escape the onslaught of an oncoming catastrophe—a speeding train, or the sudden collapse of civilisations. He stares as each of us draw closer in turn, his sobbing wife whispering our names as though they were her best kept secret. I know she wishes we had met one more time before, under lighter circumstances; now she sees us for the first time in years, all past our childhood prime—like her own children. Oh, how the years have worn us out.

Standing bent over what is left of her husband, she seems not to have aged at all. Her trembling fingers sweep his fringe to the side, and turning, she flings wide her arms with bitter reunion. We embrace her, the three of us—like her own children. And she sobs into us; we are all helpless. The scene melts into a torrent of tragic nostalgia. I feel his skeletal fingers as they twitch in my own, and I know it wouldn’t be long. He nods weakly, like a leaf of a book flipping in the breeze. What could I say? How much I wished I had seen him when I still remembered him as he was? Now the rest of him floats in frozen images in the darkroom of Memory—undeveloped spools of less trying times up in the cloudy mists of the Malaysian highlands.

“Rest now, close your eyes,” she says, maternally, in an assuring but broken voice. And he momentarily shuts them, but opens them soon enough, mouthing in weak whispers something else back. Here, there are no more formalities; the hiddenness of private souls are laid bare. Here, in a room at Gleneagles Hospital, on a Sunday afternoon, there is only a naked, desperate, helpless humanness—among us all, between us, we know.

I know he is going.

Unvisited Rooms

“We only become what we are by the radical and deep seated refusal of that which others have made of us.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, in the introduction to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

“I’m a man without conviction
I’m a man who doesn’t know
How to sell a contradiction
You come and go
You come and go.”
Culture Club, ‘Karma Chameleon’ (1983)

Self-fashioning was once a pastime that came so easily to me—the way a bumbling toddler stares his reflection down in the mirror, points a pudgy finger at the other pointing back, sputtering in a tone half-jubilant, half-confounded: ‘Me’. In words, the contours of my consciousness ebbed and flowed intuitively, like waves lapping and shaping the shore of a hidden bay. Sure, there were moments when inward tempests tore at the swaying peripheries; but at the heart of being was an enduring rootedness—an oaken defiance.

Now, after the wearing on of years, like gears well-oiled and unthinking, I find myself forgetting. What is frightening is not so much that I rarely do any meaningful self-inquiry these days, but that I often catch myself existentially disarmed—in a kind of unmindful trance-like performance.  The execution of social scripts becomes an almost mechanistic procedure by design—all the right words in all the right places. In between professional chores and the erosion of social pressures, the once variegated colour of a being in becoming has been washed out, so that it has become what it is—an absent-minded simulacrum.

I can no longer view myself at once as a coherent totality; there are always parts shaded, shadowed, and eclipsed. There are regions that resist investigation; or am I seeing with eyes that are not my own? I grope sightless in a room unfurnished to my touch; but at the fringes of my vision, I recognize the curves and angles of unfamiliar silhouettes—there, but refusing to be seen or known. Now willful un-knowing has become unconscious forgetting.

When I do squint and try to remember, the endeavour becomes an exercise in self-alienation. Oscillating between discovery and despair, there is a dis-pairing of the thinking subject and thinking object—like an existentialist project gone awfully and paradoxically wrong. What happens when the scientist turns the microscope on himself, or the astronomer, the telescope? When the light of inquiry falls on the inquirer himself, he begins to notice the once imperceptible hairline cracks creeping across the surface of his own image. Closer inspection reveals swathes of insurmountable distance: an echoless universe residing in the epistemological gap between knower and known; this uncharted, unlit continent that resists geography; a history that refuses to be written.

As I try to make sense of these shadowed alleys with their labyrinth of twists and turns, I begin to recognise that I no longer know myself as I should. I am no longer the Daedalus who knows by heart the idioms of his own creation. I do not know in which forgotten room I have left my quietest thoughts, or which book hides the words I could not say long ago. And after all this rumination, I cannot even describe—in a voice truly my own—the ghost that haunts this body. It is here, invisible in plain sight.

Has the light in this house gone out, or has someone drawn the blinds?

The Poetry of Witness

“… and those blessed to survive wrote their poetry not after such experiences but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through these sufferings; languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.”
Carolyn Forché, ‘Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art’ (2011)

The experience hit me like a slate of cold light—illuminating, but not without a sense of abandonment. I imagine: it is the leaden feeling that settles in when the lid of an innocuous box is turned over to reveal a convenient grave. The skull stares eyeless at me—a hollowed witness.

It felt like this when I read Miklós Radnóti’s poem ‘Forced March’ (1944), a forlorn rendering of his staggering with thousands of others en route to Hungary during World War II—where he would later die by gunfire, shot because the Nazi soldiers were ‘unable to find a hospital with room’—a tragic perversion of the nativity. The original ‘manuscript’ (if one may term it that) is a withered leaf off the body of a notebook found on his corpse after his grave was exhumed. Soaked in what looked like the fluids from his body, so they say, it was later left to dry in the sun. The stains remain on the original like an unfinished chromatogram.

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Manuscript of Radnoti’s ‘Forced March’ (1944)

The penmanship is remarkably measured for one tormented in both body and soul—for one whose mortality lingered on the fray of a frail thread like the sword of Damocles. But it is ponderous; the ink does not bleed, it curves with a heavy finality. It does not stray, but bends to an unseen, final purpose. There are blots that try to scratch out honest mistakes—an endearingly human gesture. Even in such savage scenes, there remains the impulse to perfect and revise that reflects a mark of aesthetic sense. This man seems to have been lucid till the very end, for better or worse. You can see it not only in his poetic resolve, but in his methodical verse architecture. The poem is cleft in twain by what appears to be a fracture that runs in a meandering chasm across its length—a concrete signifier of a spiritual wound and lacerations hidden by linen tatters. It is a trauma made visible and material; it is the cry of a man in the throes of a death that he foresees. In these undulating lines, there is a seismic shattering. They are condemned hereafter to speak to fill the spaces between.

What is the reader to do? I can only gape, mouth ajar, like the jagged perforation on the page. Now reproduced in print on a sheet of white paper, there is no stain. Yet the wound seems still to bleed; it is slit and carved in all the right places. In duplicating the poem, one has also duplicated the wound. The fracture is a sign that seems to have escaped the deconstructive impulses of repetition over time and space; how is this possible? I trace the emptiness with a tentative finger, fearful of what I may find in the crack. I see a dishevelled Radnóti, clothed in filthy despair, purposively pausing his pen to leave an aching gap in the line—in every line; the gaps begin to appear in deliberate unevenness to create a disturbing asymmetry. There is the scrunching of Nazi boots nearby—he tucks his notebook, gorged with crumpled paper paraphernalia, into his pocket. He is done. The poem is torn apart.

I stare off into the space in front of me. In my sense-making quietude, the zigzagging fissure on the page seems to chastise me for my melancholia which, in light of this man’s monumental suffering made material, is nothing but the petulant groan of a good-for-nothing modern romantic.

The Spaces in Memory

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

I’ve been seeing you in the places I least expect—in the sand-swirl of gravel roads less travelled by, along the corridors of nondescript buildings we never visited, in a sky that is no longer the same since we left. Memory is a morning that coats the most unlikely spaces in a diaphanous cloak of dew; and momentarily, even the most mundane object glistens with a familiar light like no other. Your phantom fingerprints smudge like the hiss of a burning brand—on benches that we never sat holding each other, watching the rain. Out of sheer exasperation at times, I try to shake myself out of this retrospective stupor. But the nostalgia bleeds into the present and tints the future a faded gold that cannot stay.

It is difficult to see how things could have turned out any way other than the melodramatic banging of clenched fists against closed doors we’d shut from the inside. Had I the perspicacity of hindsight, I would have let nature run its wrecking course and grind what was left of it to the ground. I would not have, in defiance, ended it before its time. That would have saved the both of us the debt that one of us would continue to pay long after the curtains fell. How would I have known—how would you have known? All the time after, I wish I knew better.

Sometimes (admittedly) I find myself wading and wallowing in these dysthymic pools that show only a reflection rippled with wistful regret. Like one Narcissus who reaches out to caress his lost image in a liquid looking glass, I set the surface in motion to witness history repeat itself again, and again—if only in my mind. I draw nearer the threshold: a part immersed in fantasy, the other gasping in doubt. Therein lies the danger of drowning in shallow water.

In writing I sometimes try my very best to recollect the bitter harvest and recreate the picture in finest grain. Yet it is either too painful or too inexpressible—I always find myself falling short of representing the scene in its tragic fidelity. To be sure, the actors are positioned on the stage, and memory—this masterful dramaturge—orchestrates the movement and the sound. The transparent look of naive wonder on your face, the tentative glance half wishing to be returned, or so I think. We stare out at the relentless downpour from the safety of the shed—the world disappears. How did I feel then?

Many a year ago in chemistry class, I learnt of what I thought was a rather poetic phenomenon at the level of the atomic nucleus. At any one time, either the position or the momentum of an electron can be determined—but never both simultaneously. This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And this is the catch-22 of memory: to remember the factuality of the scene is to forget the drowsy sensation of something a little like love. It is a feeling that is at once an ache and a warm glow. And yet to recall this is to let the canvas dissolve into a knot of irresolvable qualia. I can never piece together the full picture. Or else, I fear that doing so would finally fill the absence and extinguish that imaginary flame. Memory is a wall of dancing shadows—every man’s private Plato’s Cave.

Now I understand what you meant when you said feelings are a funny thing. We never really forget them—only how to describe them. For all its signifying potential, the reaches of language are frustratingly limited. I have realised, with protracted dismay, that I will never be able to render in writing the firing of a billion neurons on that rainy afternoon—and that terrible, terrific memory of something a little like love.

I can only fill those spaces with words, words, and more words.