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?

Saving Oedipus in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

While it is never explicitly revealed why the birds started getting all belligerent in the first place, there is an overt speculation by one of the Bodega Bay townsfolk, a mother of two who turns hysterical as events take a turn for the worse. She openly brands Melanie Daniels (the female lead) as the cause of the avian blitz on grounds that it is only after her arrival in Bodega Bay that the attacks transpire. However, that itself is at best a weakly grounded correlation, since there is hardly any screen evidence for her being in any way consciously malicious, and thus no reason to believe that this hypothetical evil in her has caused this uncanny event.

However, I do not think that this unequivocally absolves her of all possibility of being a causal agent in the movie’s narrative trajectory. If anything, we may have sufficient justification — at the psychoanalytic/symbolic level — for positing that her sudden presence in Bodega Bay and within the Brenner household is, if not the direct cause, then at least the anchoring premise that leads up to the bird attacks.

Despite the movie’s (or Hitchcock’s) conscious and explicit declaration that the relationship between Mitch Brenner and his mother is anything but Oedipal in nature, our spectator’s intuition grates against the grain of this suspicious profession. Perhaps that is exactly Hitchcock’s intent — to bring the unconventional mother-son relationship to the fore by denying its strangeness even when there is strident cinematic evidence to assert otherwise.

Let’s suppose the dyadic relation between mother and son here is precariously Oedipal; after all, Mitch’s father is dead, and Mitch has effectively usurped the position of the patriarch in the household. The Oedipus complex has re-emerged, short of mother and son being interlocked in forbidden desire. Really? I’m of the opinion that the mother in fact desires Mitch (possibly a transference of affection from husband to son), and this prompts us to observe an inversion of desire dynamics within this localized Oedipal system. Now, it is the mother who desires the son-as-husband. Regardless of this modification, the Oedipus complex retains its structural integrity — the boy/son Mitch remains ensnared in the drama of desire. Only this time it is not him that must negotiate this forbidden desire, but his own mother.

Enter Melanie Daniels, an attractive young lady for whom Mitch develops affections and eventually pursues romantically. Immediately, it is evident that the mother becomes jealous, at certain junctures almost to the extent of being hysterical (such as the bed scene above). She is afraid of losing her husband-in-Mitch to another woman — this is almost an uncanny case of extramarital affairs (and perhaps even qualifies as a second death of her husband). The mother begins to overtly exhibit nuances of possessiveness that verge on being very much like the spite of a jilted lover. Inevitably, his mother’s aversive response to Melanie’s presence compels Mitch to develop an awareness of this abnormal relationship with her; castration anxiety instinctively follows this consciousness of the familial taboo, and this forces Mitch to disavow his mother’s subversive attempts to claim him as her lover.

On screen, this castration anxiety is squarely displaced onto the fear of the bird attacks. If we notice carefully, the unfortunate deceased of these attacks always have their eyes torn out or gouged out — this resonates neatly with the tragedy of Oedipus who, when he finds out he has married his mother, proceeds to blind himself with her brooch as self-punishment. Blinding is therefore an act of symbolic castration — a psychoanalytically necessary consequence of indulging in incestuous relations. The deaths of Annie Hayworth and Mitch’s neighbour (and more saliently their blinding) therefore qualify as harbingers of Mitch’s castration, a trauma which would come to pass should he not sever himself from the prohibited desire of his mother.

In this sense, Melanie Daniels’ arrival is not so much an omen or malediction to Bodega Bay; at least to the Brenner household, it is a salve or corrective force that forestalls what would have been an instance of psychosexual trauma in a coastal suburban family.

Self and Shadow

‘But cloud instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, for the book of knowledge fair,
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.’
John Milton, Paradise Lost (III.45-50)

And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out. This is the wisdom I wish I possessed, but which has been innately, irrevocably removed from my epistemic grasp. It is unlearnable, unfathomable — beyond even the most complex of intuitions. I have tried reconstructing the knowledge from sense impressions — from analogous experience — but all that my vain efforts have yielded is a scarecrow that wards off who else but myself. The more I enforce upon the psyche this patchwork knowledge, the more I withdraw and reel, part in uncanny unfamiliarity, part in broken resignation. The absence of this wisdom, a gaping void — the something that is supposed to be there, but is not — forces me to be acutely aware of a necessary darkness, my own. Therefore in negotiating presence (Self) and present absence (Shadow), I have unknowingly established for myself a catastrophic internal dialectic of opposing forces that refuses to be reconciled in synthesis or resolved in deleterious victory; and this psychic tug-of-war is such a tremendous burden to bear. Like two gladiators in ferocious combat, they slice at the air with their swords and break their shields against the heavy bludgeoning of maces, and all around them many aftermaths unfold. Sometimes the blade scars an innocent bystander here, or blinds a passerby there. Sometimes the hammer crushes a shrub, or shatters the bark of an unwitting tree.

The Aftermath did not emerge in the wake of that colossal upheaval three years ago — it has always been unfurling in chaotic fractals, spiraling and branching like infesting brambles and briars that creep into the cavity of every available space. But these strangulating tendrils — they flourish and fester the most in shaded nooks, twisting themselves into burgeoning monstrosities that remain eclipsed. Tell me, how do you illuminate the entire soul or psyche (whichever you prefer)? You cannot. At any one moment, our consciousness is akin to a sweeping radius of light. I cannot be conscious of everything at once. So as far out as we manage to throw the rays of our pathfinder’s lantern, there will always remain obliques of darkness that creep at every angle of receding light. But take heart — as much ours as this light is, these shadows too, they belong to us.

And who likes walking in their own darkness? By darkness I certainly do not mean the phenomenal absence of light, nor do I mean the generic typification of evil. I refer squarely and only to everything you are ashamed of — everything you absolutely fear, everything you absolutely hate. So visceral, so immediate. The blackness swimming in your blood – we just don’t see it, and we ought not to. Or perhaps we do, in the indigo of those fleshy veins, carrying lifeblood starved of oxygen, rife with absence, choked with shadow. We carry absence in our blood, in ourselves. We are our own shadow.

This is not a cynic’s reflection — I never meant for this to be a piece of dark expository. Like the imaginary Other, the Shadow is a construct that is as much a premise as it is an outgrowth of the Self. To take a psychoanalytic detour, Self and Other are inseparable; by ‘other’ I don’t mean an-other body. I mean the self-contained Other within the Self. Look into the mirror, who do you see? Your Self? Wait, then who is the one doing the seeing? The Other?

So, it is easy to experience our innate fragmentation/delusion of Selfhood, even after the Lacanian drama of the mirror stage (when the ‘I’ is formed). Even at the level of perception, there will always be a disjunction between the visual image of the Self and the raw experience of Self-hood — the physiological operations, the aggregation of which we also call ‘I’. This is the Self-Image relation, which is essentially a psychoanalytic model mapping the visceral Self onto the spectral Other (image). Similarly in analytical psychology, the Self and the Shadow operate with the same deconstructionist dynamics — though distinct, one is contained within the other.

However, the (Jungian) Shadow in question, and hence the psychic Self-Shadow dialectic, is neither visual nor bodily. It is epistemological and psychological. The Shadow I speak of here is not imaginary alterity — the visual image of the Self (i.e. the Other). It is the psychological reflection of the Self, the hidden knowledge that remains in the unconscious, and thus away from the gaze of conscious experience and knowing — one polarity of an entirely disparate metaphysical dualism. The Shadow is entrenched within the psyche of the Self — it is the Self — but often unknown; or if unintentionally uncovered, then it is hastily replaced, with ten times the earthen cover heaped upon its burial ground. The Shadow is everything we are not, and the prospect of it being an integral part of our self-construction is simply unthinkable; we reject the notion immediately, even though in some dark recess between the spaces of consciousness and the unconscious, we may recognize it as a representation of our own flaws.

But Jung mentions that a balanced psyche is one that is constantly made aware of the Shadow, even though mastery over that shaded beast is weak and underdeveloped. One should never neglect to sustain psychic contact between the conscious Self and the inverse Shadow; after all, it has always been said that knowledge of the enemy is essential in battle, even if the enemy is yourself. Absolute polarity between Self and Shadow is a perilous state of affairs, because at any moment, the Shadow may emerge, perhaps in others, and so remote and abject is the Shadow, that the recognition of it as inextricably part of the Self may culminate in profound trauma. The Self, being utterly disarmed and deprived of any knowledge of the Shadow, may turn and flee in total terror; or if he is bound in shackles and made to face his sheer alterity, he may well abandon himself to his own inverse, and the Self may be lost forever.

I have always been struggling to commune with whatever constitutes my Shadow, but it hasn’t been easy, nor have I expected it to be. But there remains the Shadow of alterity — my inherent otherness. And so much of myself resides in that polarized, darkened space, that I might spend my entire life trying to let my desperate light reach those lightless corners.

‘Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.’
Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)

Jung and Existentialism

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
— Carl Gustav Jung

Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
— Jean-Paul Sartre

The philosophy that undergirds Jung’s humanist psychology, I realise, is strongly existentialist in the sense that it is concerned with the future – nothingness and absence, or that which has not arrived and therefore does not yet exist. In this anticipatory space-time lies possibility and the potential to transcend the factual Present; the malleability of this amorphous nothingness consequently engenders individual freedom – the cardinal principle of existentialism. Not the gratuitous, anarchic compulsion to act, but the authentic choice to act in a way that would propel the Self into the future, to intentionally become.

It may sound absurd (and freedom fundamentally is), but one could say that the Self is pure absence – a being that is always in the process of becoming.

Next Stop

I think I’ve run out of words to say what I really mean; or else, I am no longer the writer that writes to mean what he wants to say.

I watch the flickering bar traverse with hesitant speed the width of white space, leaving black marks in its wake, segmented or circumscribed by intermittent chasmic distance. My fingers type – they speak; we call those, words. Each little carriage is fettered to its preceding and succeeding car, and the entire vehicle we say, is a sentence. The engine groans and sputters, and throws its pioneering weight forward into the dark, like a throbbing, desiring body. It is fed fuel – it insists, and plies the length of those rust-enrusted rails. Chug, chug – metonyms for movement. The train, it moves because it has to; no, because it wants to. But it is condemned to run these weatherworn tracks, to get somewhere. Where? Wherever these rails take us, I suppose. The captain is asleep at the controls; his breathing is light, and regular. He twitches, he is smiling – is he dreaming? Well, does it matter? Next stop: next stop.

But the passengers, they always want to get somewhere some where, for who takes the train if only to commute from point A to point B? Husbands all suited up for work, mothers taking their kids to school, and the listless maid dragging her empty burden of a trolley to the market; they all intend to go some where, and they get there eventually. But there is no one on this train. No one ever embarks anymore. If anyone does, it’s usually the destitute and desperate homeless who make nowhere their destination, who get on and never leave. They die there, and the captain (when ever he is awake) binds their hands and feet and tosses them overboard, into a black stagnant stream from across a bridge, or along the natural gutters – tall grass and wild shrubbery that line the tracks. No, you don’t want them crawling around and begging even when they’re dead.

The captain falls willingly into slumber, to the sway and metronomic clocking of wheels against the iron tracks, because he knows that the course is determined – there is only one way, and that is forward, and forward along these familiar rails. What place does intentionality have on this journey? That is why he sleeps, because sleep is the theatre of possibility, of a world without tracks, or else of trackless trains. In this somnolent drama, he leaps off the verge of a carriage with doors flung ajar, and tumbles onto the grassy meadows of the countryside. There he lies, catching his breath, and taking in the immensity of his self-directedness. He goes anywhere but forward; no, he does – he goes forward in different directions. He darts from side to side, stopping when he wishes, hastening when he wants. Now he’s sprinting to catch the sunset and its fading last light, now he’s chasing the shadow of the night that flees in the face of dawn. After awhile, he grows tired, and slumps against a great rain-tree in the middle of a nowhere that is a some where, and falls awake to the droning of the eternal engine, and the sobering beep of buttons and rickety levers that demand attention.

I have watched the flickering bar traverse again and again the width of this white space, leaving black marks in its wake that try to mean what I say, but fail. The bar continues to flicker. Now there is speech and nothing, now there is only speech. With utmost vehemence, I make the bar stay – I signify it. | On this side, at the moment of fixation – of fixing the bar – there was at first empty space and a silence. I tried enunciating this silence – describing it, and to make myself conscious of it – but it immediately ceased to be silence. The bar, once made material and inscribed as ‘|’, loses its symbolic function – it becomes just another metonym, just another mark. It no longer delineates signifier from signified; it is no longer the resistance to signification. It has itself become signifier. It is the corpse of the metaphysical bar that perdures – still flashing, ahead. And so silence is deferred, again, and again. There is something in this raw, primordial silence lying just beyond the bar that wishes to speak; but this train, this language, this imperious prismatic vehicle refracts, distorts, and maims the voice, so that it always only says, but does not speak. When we try to articulate the silence, it is not silence that speaks, but the words that stand for silence. Try as we may, we only re-present silence; we can never present it. But there is so much this silence wishes to communicate – a fecund infinitude before us, unreachable.

So this elusive bar continues to flicker with condescending, nonchalant regularity – on my screen, at the verge of abyssal silence, and to taunt, knowing that it is transcendental – it stands outside speech and silence; it is the system. I know that you wouldn’t, and you can’t – but I dare you anyway. I dare you to vault over this archaic, discarnate barricade – the monolithic wall of our symbolic Father, taking with you none of His words for companions, into the primordial unspeakable.

I dare you to cross the bar. |

The Mourning After

“The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love. In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”
Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancholia (1917)

What have I lost, that in its losing I have also lost the best days of my life to this pathology of indefinite mourning? Wait, no – it’s melancholia, says Freud; exactly what it is. In every waking moment of my life since the great Aftermath, there has been this lingering spiritual presence of mourning – an ashen pall that inflects my phenomenology with a hue of irrational sorrow. Occasionally I forget, and momentarily I am free – the colours return, and there is a bloom, a letting go, and a freedom. But soon after, the oppression returns, redoubling in vehemence – an insistence on remembering, on prolonging, on recreation, on reanimation; and every present and future event becomes an iteration – no – reiteration of the Past, a repetition of grief in each atom that bears the faintest resemblance to the unspoken and the unspeakable. Of course, after three years, I know better than to allow Memory and pathos to conspire against the best of my Reason and wreak unholy havoc on my emotional constitution. But as master of my Self, I am as much fettered to the Other in my guardianship, as he is to me in his compelled subjugation. Ever so often, in my wrestle with a restless and resurgent Memory, I suddenly lose all awareness of my bearing, my coordinates, and the slave who to me is inextricably bound seems – in all his ferocity and adamancy – so much like my master. Or so much like myself. In that moment of recognition, I reel in horror, but my retreat heralds his advance, and so

This is the chase;
I am gone forever.
— Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (3.3.56-57)

I make no exit, pursued by no bear, but enter again and again into repeating frames of memory – my own mise en abyme; encompassed all round by the vacuum that opens and reopens the door to the Past, one after another, unendingly and untiringly. The sorrow is always the same – like the sonorous, nasal reverberations of stiff steel beams in the afterthoughts of passing aircrafts.

Yes, it always feels as though I’ve been mourning for one who has died, if feel is how I should be accessing this done-to-death grief. Is this a pathological case of over-romanticization, which if left unchecked boils over my phenomenology like a dreadful contagion, infecting one cell of experience after another, and precipitating a fulsome, overwrought, self-indulgent prose such as this? I always do this, this hyper-consciousness of consciousness, this meta-analysis of thought and emotional processes. Am I feeling right? Am I thinking right? Is my sorrow justified? Rationally? Logically? Conventionally? When finally the cacophony of over-excited neurons drown themselves out in their own firing, the noise becomes silence, and I am left bereft; of what, I never know.

I know and do not know what I have lost. It may have been a person; it may have been a memory; it may have been an ideal. I know I have lost something, and I’ve been spending the past few years repairing the void of its loss, swerving between joyous epiphanies and disempowered hopelessness. I am afraid that what was once a phenomenological gap – the departed experience of love – has now reified into a permanent and positive ontology. No, don’t mistake me; by that I don’t mean a real absence – I mean a real presence, of an absence; a cavalcade of endless substitutions of phantasmal presence that always refers to its absence.

I know whom I have lost, but not what I have lost in me. It is no longer – and it hasn’t been, for a long time now – about the particular instance of that loss, the relinquishing of a sensory possession, the experience of a person. It is now about a lost philosophy, a lost ideation. Is that what I have lost in myself? What does Freud mean? I know: what part of myself have I lost? Yes, that is what I have lost – the access to a Platonic form; it is not something extraneous – it is intrinsically a part of my psychology, and I have lost it. I have lost someone and Someone.

At this point, I laugh at myself, half-amused, half-unamused. It’s been such a long time. But it’s a rupture, such as this one, that dredges up the entire rotting corpus of Memory, together with its accompaniment of emotional codes. Like one in a darkened room who is suddenly met with his face in the mirror, I recoil in horror at what I find. And even after I regain my composure, and peer at the echo of my own body in the glass, I can’t help thinking – that isn’t me. Or why then should I be disturbed and unsettled by my own image? Popular discourse on the uncanny is irrelevant. This is not psychoanalysis; this is simple phenomenology. I just want to know why I seem to forget which side of the mirror I’m on. The more I scrutinize the planar spectre, the more disembodied I feel. Am I looking at myself, or is my Self looking at me? I gaze and gaze;

Until there is nothing but an image left.

The Rupture

“What if it’s lost behind, words we could never find?”
— Chris Daughtry, ‘What About Now’

That which escapes the constructs of language—the inexpressible—is the Real. The Real is a state of full presence and completeness that has been irrevocably lost to us via our entrance into the Symbolic. It is the unbridled expression of every desire and wish, utterly independent of any anthropological framework; it is lawless, raw, feral, fearless; it is the pre-Man, pre-atomic, pre-universal. The imperious Symbolic—the name of our Father, the Father with his measuring rule and Pygmalionean hands; with his Hammer and mold; with his absolute Word, his decree—He has wrought order to our Chaos, and pronounced it creation. And so our engagement with the world—the earth in its undifferentiated chaos, its primordiality—is therefore forever mediated by the taxonomical, nomenological, prescriptive ordering of language; as is our desire.

However, ever so often there is this eruption, a resurgence of this unspeakable Real—the linguistically incomprehensible primordial—that vaults, projects, forces itself out of the unconscious into plain sight, a hideous monstrosity, that faceless face. A hitherto unspeakable longing, a lost familiarity. But, but I cannot express it in words; we could not. Where was our signifier? Where was our signified? We turned, at every dark and (b)lighted corner to grab, claw, snatch at words and the alphabet, to arrange them in slated permutations, arrangements and rearrangements; but they did not speak the language we spoke—did we ever speak language? Did we ever speak? Suddenly none of it, of us, made sense; suddenly, we realised we were mute, all along. But we talked, didn’t we? In nighttimes of pseudo-eternal quiescence, together and alone on sandy stretches along the oceanic starlit sky, before a sunset that we knew meant nothing because there would be tens of thousands more before the End. No, perhaps we didn’t. We didn’t, I’m sure, because it was not language.

Like a confounded mass of Everything and Nothing—of fear, vengeance, love, loathing, memory, sorrow, exultation, a thousand eternities in a single point—it did not belong to the set of words we knew and had to know, the consensus of the superego, the Word of our Father, our World as we knew it, in which we were birthed and raised. And that which escapes the ordering of language is at bottom, traumatic. We didn’t want that; and we enunciated our existential apprehension, in their our language, and left, just as the markings that millennia ago in stone embossed, portended; the progenitors of silence.

So we left it—ours, y(ours), mine—there, in the light—

Other, object, abject.