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)

 

The Prodigal Son

I return again to the writing table—not out of habit nor boredom, but out of necessity. These days, the act of writing has lost its novel glimmer, and instead clads itself in a kind of dull, utilitarian mantle. I visit this virtual abode only because I mean to fly from elsewhere—somewhere. No longer do I write to calibrate the metaphorical microscope, nor to tune the melody in that Orphean instrument. Not to make sense of the senseless, nor to ponder deeper, metaphysical questions—why something exists or not, or what form its existence takes—to scour the roof of my mind for answers in the lines of stars. I only see before me the smouldering embers of this once uplifting enterprise.

Still I return again to the writing table in two parts: the first as a whole soul—one conscious and sentient enough to pen thoughts into words; to sculpt and direct reason in a form palpable and tangible for another’s (or my own) eye. I come also in the second—a terrible wreck of a man whose inner paradoxes threaten to tear apart that fabric of quiet sanity. There is so much to be thankful for, and so much more to be hateful, resentful, vengeful towards—all exasperatingly embodied in one who sees little reason and seeks little comfort in divinely sculpted effigies, physical or otherwise. Humanism does leave one feeling human in the most visceral, alienating sense. Yet this is no longer a theological cry in the dark—it is a coming to terms with the silence after.

So I once again return to the writing table, this time trying my hardest to be less periphrastic, a little less avoidant; all this time I’ve be skirting in ellipses, drawing concentric circles that have become my own prison—layered and surrounded by metallic metaphors playing guardians and jailors. As I claw at the recursive rails of my own language, there is an almost overwhelming sense of semantic futility—I can never give voice to this shapeless void pulsing at the very heart of being; and here I once again slip into fantastical figures of speech—how can I ever escape to speak?

Space and Time

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‘Time’ (2014), Lang Leav

I find it increasingly difficult to begin. Sometimes a nascent sapling unfurls in the terrarium of my mind—but too soon it withers for want of air. A vacuum.

Then sometimes I flip open the metaphorical notepad—a pregnant promise—but my gaze grates against the uninviting glare; I falter against the vast, inscrutable emptiness of the page, and it is never delivered.

To begin writing is a commitment—something I’ve had enough of these days. I would go on a furious tangent purging the wintry howls of my discontent, but I feel that those days of indulgent vexing are over. I sound like a bat in a cave, and writing is the echo to my thoughts—they return and serve no other purpose than to sound out the limits of my own will.

Of late I find myself drifting farther—more listlessly and gently—into the distant Past. Like an astronaut physically translated by the inevitable inertia of his own mass, across the axes of space, right through the debris of his broken shuttle, knocking and nudging the remains of his trajectory—there is at once a certain fragmented familiarity and the alienation of the unfamiliar present. There are only bits and pieces, and Memory interpolates. Then there is this fictional wholeness, and I see the lacquered bench we used to sit steeped in whispers; I see the indistinct blinking of planet star aircrafts and questionable comets. The surface of my skin tingles with the firing of imaginary neurons remembering the casual impressions of your fingertips. Against the now mired geography of my face I still feel the light that used to make me squint and avert my gaze, abashed. How long has it been? I forget sometimes—sometimes I don’t remember.

Of late I wonder why I have been beset with this abrupt restlessness—like a bulb gone out in a series circuit; I wander in the dark. Work becomes a dumb fumbling, and I fall into the automated machinery of existing. Breathe out to breathe in—ebbing and flowing to the lulling laws of diffusion. Even at my most alert, my most intense—speaking out into a sea of attentive faces and unravelling the genius of Descartes or Hume like dismantling puzzle boxes or pulling tricks out of magician hats—I feel like a ghost in a machine. The relentless determinism of life and its reality appear to have accelerated beyond my metaphysical grasp. I suddenly become transparent, and the chariots and cars and conveyor belts run through me like water through fine filter. The inertia is deafening.

Sometimes I ask if there is some un-disentangled dead knot buried in the bedrock of my consciousness. This fatigue and listlessness, this devouring sentiment of isolatedness (despite my inward protests that solitude is my best companion).

What signs are here written to be discovered, when the screen becomes a mirror?

Reprisal

“I am infinitely strange to myself.”
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

Almost two years have passed since my last entry—before the interminable rush of professional life smothered the echo of those last words. It was the longest I’d ever stayed away from honest writing; my prior hiatuses and phases of linguistic exhaustion were few and far between, and never for extended times. But with the lulling, pounding, metronomic onslaught of the necessary tide—so much time and energy was spent fighting the waves, that I somehow lost the will to write. It didn’t help that l for a time felt as one imprisoned in a panoptic cell with all my thoughts exposed; but isn’t that the portion of one consigned to the public service (at least for the next one and a half years)? Eventually, a not-misplaced paranoia doomed this little trove of thoughts to be forgotten—I closed the blog. It once did cross my mind to revive my old scribing habits; but the hyperlink was lost, and with it what remained of my creative will.

(Seems like I am right here at home with my unsurprising melancholia—some things never go away.)

I once did write that words are, in the sense of both material signifier and metaphysical symbol, an extension of my Self. So when I stumbled fortuitously on this languishing space (originally and for nine years on Blogger), it was like re-encountering—alas, the corpse of my old persona preserved, embalmed in a series of unfamiliar markings on screen. But it didn’t take very long for nostalgia to reanimate the dead, if in nowhere else but memory. As my gaze fixed on and traversed the metonymic rails, line after line, a flood of flurried images, half-moving, coursed through the cinematic screen in my mind—of moments that I described, and more vividly, the euphoric rush of sentiments. I felt like a reunion. That romantic turn of phrase, that lingering em-dash, that self-aware yet indulgently theatrical tragic touch—undeniably fragments of past lives performed, recovered.

Yet that familiarity, at first a welcome gush of velvet warmth, very soon lost its hospitable texture. In the sympathy there was a sharp awareness of the painful distinctiveness between the subject apprehending the object and the object itself. Familiarity, or similarity, is not identity. The exhilaration left me very quickly. I suddenly became acutely conscious of the strangeness in my present—the radical difference between my current consciousness and this historic subjectivity. Then all nostalgia took on a phantasmal quality, like ghosts—haunting; the (im)material of loss. There was a jeering vacuity.

With the momentary receding of the school year—as the tide draws away to reveal some ancient footpath, but only for a time before it is drowned again—I have been forced to confront the tragedy in the feeling that I have done nothing for myself over the past two years. In the absence of the flight and frenzy that besieged the academic term, the shore is laid bare—naked and questioning. Professionally in every way, I have outdone myself and rejoiced for it. But there resides a reef (dead or inanimate, I’m not sure) beneath the veneer of coursing, vigorous blue; as though one day the tide brought in an imperceptible toxin that blew out the life from those deep corals.

Sure, I have consistently worked twelve-hour days from dawn and leaving only at dusk to return home; but only to continue the labour inwardly—lesson ideas, task-tracking, self-doubt. Dinner was a running checklist; did I forget to collect some administrative paraphernalia from the students? Do I have time to finish this scene of Romeo and Juliet tomorrow with only an hour to spare? How can I appear to be a more credible resource to my students given my age? Am I doing enough—can I ever do enough? The overcompensation for a wanton insecurity was immense, if not catastrophic. And weekends were sold in Faustian transactions at an empty Starbucks—wrestling with an unending slew of marking and lesson planning—trading time for the myth of absolute assurance.

And the worst was that there was nowhere to give voice to these spinning gears—spinning, at times, almost past control. It was the mute running of an analogue timepiece—silent and measured in its advance, but beneath those striding feet, everywhere a clattering of microcosmic sounds heard only by the watchmaker. But there was no stopping; Time’s only way is forward.

Now fast-forward; two years and a thousand unsaid but unforgotten thoughts have almost gone by. I sit here at the turn of the year resolving to write away this inward alterity—a Sisyphean but necessary working through. The difference runs deep, like a fault line born of a some seismic turmoil. Given the nature of my profession, I know I risk—even with painstaking precaution—the intrusion of some ingenious eye with a knack for finding a needle in a haystack; I have learnt not to underestimate the shrewdness and persistence of the adolescent digital native. But I can no longer remain silent. I must resume my quest for meaning, without which I am non-sense.

This search for self-knowledge, while always to me an intuitive pursuit, has only gotten more fraught and frantic as I grow up trying to find a place in the world—before I am shuffled off the edge of a delusional eternity. No, it is not a pragmatic or functional place; not even an existential one. If the world is plainly a phenomenological construct of the mind (as empiricists believe), then the crisis is a profoundly psychological one.

And even now, as I begin writing again, I find myself still trying to write out—against the unspeakability of thought—the signs of my own mind, like one roving thread into a bundled fiction of the Self.

Writing in the Negative

or, The Romance of Absence

These days, the thoughts don’t come easy; the words, too. It’s been like this for a few months now, since I graduated and started my post-graduate diploma in Education. Much of my intellectual fervour has been dampened, if not repressed by more pressing individual concerns, from identity crises to the haunting shadows of restless commitments—once so religiously upheld, now like vacant lighthouses with embers for lamps. Writing is one such ruin.

What do I write about these days? It seems that I’ve gone all pseudo-paradoxically meta without realising it: I’ve been writing about not being able to write. I’ve been writing in the negative. But difference and absence reside at the very heart of language, don’t they? Signifiers signify when they are not. Meaning arises in a plume of smoke from empty, belching vents—language is fluff. And all that jazz.

Despair comes so easy. Absence, in fact. That is why it is so easy to write—we are inscribing absence on blank sheets, and the vacuity presents itself like the magician’s rabbit. Fascinating.

Zooming out and stepping back, we see the same romance of absence at every tier of our existence—from post-failure optimism to funeral eulogies to the salvation discourses of high religions, despair is made good. But no, whether there is an actual ontological movement from ruin to rebirth is immaterial; all we need to do, or rather, all we always do is reframe the loss psychologically—we romanticise absence, and suddenly all that is lost is reprised in another form. The illusion of repossession redeems us.

We write everywhere. Everywhere absence is a phoenix, clambering clumsily out of its own smouldering ashes; everywhere rising, if only in our minds. We un-know despair, transforming the void into its inverse. Suddenly Hell blooms into Paradise. 

But remember, all is epistemology, not (meta)physics.

Yet neither are the conversion narratives we weave for ourselves a gratuitous fabrication; if anything, they are a humanly necessary delusion. How else would we survive, if we believe despair is our only portion? Even if it is, the trauma of knowing would crush us utterly (as if we weren’t already ruined). So we claw the collective consciousness—like phoenixes who have seen Death—for our stories of glorious redemption, our ashes the sand for bricks, and with borrowed vigour begin our reconstruction.

Only to, again and again, reanimate these architectures of dust.

Bodies of Evidence

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
H. P. Lovecraft

I’ve been sitting here on a cold Tuesday evening for the past two hours with words that I have written and rewritten, and still the page remains a bleak, whitewashed canvas. The trappings that now streak gingerly across this desolate waste are all I can afford; I send them to their doom—nomads in the middle of this silent sahara. There is no doubt an urgency to write—this gnawing anxiety at things undone—after remaining silent for so long. But I fail to speak, again. A thousand thoughts swirl and converge in a raging tempest, but its updraft cannot raise the dead in the most literal sense. These are the dead-weighted corpses of those who have wandered and lost their way in the boundless dark—they are strewn in solitary lines, and their bones litter/letter the blistering tundra. The dead—they say, but they do not speak.

Perhaps it is because this place has been given to the public eye/I of late. I mean, it certainly has always invited visits and stopovers from the wandering reader, but recent developments (read: school) have reminded me of how much I dislike my writing being read for all the wrong reasons. My words supplement my Self—it re-presents it, it does not make it present. All writing is belated in the simplest sense. Every Self-in-writing dies with writing. Consequently, I am never the person I write as. The last thing I want is for my words to misrepresent me just because they have been misconstrued by those oblivious to who the ontological Self is. I can control the prose I craft—their cut and quality, shine and contour; but I am powerless over the gaze of the one who spectates—this is the portion of all writers, I think. So as much as I wish to remain authentic (in the existentialist sense) and true to my principles, there is a precarious line between honesty and exposure—especially when conflating them may engender repercussions across other facets of life, from fleeting inconveniences to more insidious hearsay.

Words are dead, yes. But they remain the bodies of evidence.

A Runaway Train of Thought

It’s been more than a month since I last did some written reflection or theorizing here—a rather worrying regression. Amidst the flurry of recent change—and being someone quite easily disconcerted by flux (I’m working on it)—a quiet mind is a rarity these days; or even where there is mental quiet, it is only a restless silence, and not the placid self-assuredness of a present mind. Quite bluntly put, I have no motivation to write these days. And when there is no desire to write, it intuitively follows that there is no object that inaugurates this desire; there is no purpose or point or end. So one can write at length—if one is even fortunate to begin—and never finish writing, or never knowing why he writes. Of course, this assumes that all writing must have an end (in either sense); for me at least, unless I’m churning out nihilistic postmodern fiction (which will never happen), everything must be meaningful. Meaning is contingent on transience (termination/ending), at least from a humanist point of view. Things are humanly meaningful only because things will one day die.

But God is eternal, you might say; is he not meaningful, if not meaning par excellence? Yet God is a conceptually different issue altogether. We can argue that he remains meaningful to us despite his eternality because he is at bottom part of our living cognitive framework, which is ultimately mortal. This is not to say God cannot be meaningful in his perfection and immortality; he by definition is, as mentioned. Nor is this to claim that he is merely a cognitive construct that cannot stand independent of our experiences of him (if any). If God is omnipresent (and he by definition is), then he is both extraneous to and entrenched in our time and space. He is both existing and experienced. Yet his eternality (and existence) notwithstanding, we may only ‘know’ him as an experience—be it sensory or spiritual, intellectual or intuitive. And because we shall one day die, God is therefore—like any other object—invested with earthly/experiential meaning for us, over and above the ‘eternal’ meaning he has by virtue of existing (which we can never access in our mortal form).

Well, that was a rather (un)necessary diversion with the intent of justifying why God can remain meaningful despite being eternal. Why did we bother with that? Because I claimed that meaning is contingent on transience, but—wait a minute—God isn’t transient, and so is he supposedly meaningless?

***

Anyway, back to the issue of being uninspired recently. If one does not write with intention and object(ive), the whole exercise becomes a pretentious farce at worst, and one in self-indulgence at best. And this is about to become either, so it’s best I wrap things up before I lapse into vacuous prose (which I probably already have).

Long story short, I think I need time to recalculate my intellectual bearings, because right now I’m just so fixated on the external and visceral; there is simply too much going on out there in the phenomenal realm that demands my attention. So while it’s true that I have gone on a reasonably long writing hiatus already, I think I will maintain this non-committal engagement with this space, since I don’t really wish to feel obliged to ritualize my writing—not at this point of time, at least. Perhaps when I’ve finally settled down in my cosy single room in hall, I’d be able to sit placidly in the eye of the storm:

An old custodian, at the heart of his vast, enveloping library of thoughts, sifting through the spiralling shelves of time-lost tomes—in search of an answer he never has to abandon again.