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.


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.

Metafiction and the Dreamscape: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995)

40117After almost three months of bedtime reading—a combination of plodding, groping in the dark, winding, twisting, and turning—I’m finally out of Ishiguro’s labyrinthine 500-page epic.

Truth be told, I was very tempted to put the book down midway through and simply take a break from reading altogether. After a promising introduction to his oeuvre via Remains of the Day, I was quite looking forward to be awed and impressed by yet another poignant narrative on inner struggle with memory and personal tragedy.

Unconsoled begins with familiar nuances of psychological drama, but very quickly regresses into something undefinably absurdist. 

So we have the narrator, Ryder, who appears to be a renowned musical virtuoso of sorts; he’s here in the sleepy yet restless town of this unnamed country to stage a piano performance—and the implied assumption is that his arrival and presence would initiate a cultural revolution that would revitalise the rather senescent local arts scene. After Remains, I was already primed to assume that this narrator would be unapologetically unreliable. True enough, he implicitly suffers from some sort of amnesia—that, or his life has accelerated beyond his grasp, and he’s going to unfamiliar places, attending functions for unknown reasons, meeting people whose names he has forgotten, preparing for a musical performance of whose exact importance he is absolutely clueless. Given that the novel is narrated entirely in first-person, the readers are as much of an amnesiac as he is, and we discover features of the town and its people as Ryder discovers them (not before being inflected by his own tinted perception, of course).

As if that rather disorienting device and the ensuing second guessing the readers must endure aren’t enough, the narrative becomes almost disconcertingly oneiric (dreamlike) at certain junctures. The initially innocuous screen of psychological realism is rather abruptly shattered when Ryder, having travelled miles away from his hotel and stopping by an inn to rest, then proceeds to walk through a series of nondescript passages and stumbles back into the hotel in the span of one page. Spatially and temporally, this does not make sense. It was a very vivid what-the-fishcakes moment. I had to do a double take—but almost immediately knew what I was in for over the remaining 200 pages or so. The fluidity and almost surrealist atmosphere of the narrative defy at one level the physical assumptions we bring with us into the experience of the narrative world; and the moment this physics is inexplicably defied, that world is defamiliarised and our expectations as readers are thwarted and revised. Structurally, the novel itself is a testament to the same aesthetic manipulation: the sprawling narrative covers only a span of three days (between the time Ryder arrives and his concert). These narrative incongruities, like mechanical ghosts in a horror house, make the reader extremely conscious of the fact that what he reads is an artistic construct whose creator has taken liberty with the conventions of storytelling and writing. And I think that is what makes Ishiguro’s Unconsoled a work of metafiction that draws our attention to the artistry of the written word, and by implication, the anti-realism—the dreamscape—of narratorial universe.

So when this postmodernist/nihilist bible ended with a ‘denouement’ that could have easily been placed at any part of the narrative trajectory, I wasn’t at all surprised or betrayed. If there is ever a diametrically opposite term for beginning in medias res (in the middle of the action, and I think there is), this piece of absurdist work is the perfect exemplar, because it literally ends in the middle of the action. That is to say, there is no stable ending—the narrative continues even at the point where narration is discontinued—and I think Ishiguro points to this inevitable fading into imagined eternity many pages before. It’s like waking up from a dream.

Metafictive elements aside, the story has its poignant, if not tragic undertones (or else they are features that I’ve read into the text). A man who believes himself a force of cultural change—a kind of Promethean with a Messiah complex, who labours for his ideals at the cost of his relationships with those closest to him—is at last confronted with a nihilistic emptiness when what he has been duly preparing for never comes to pass. It is the absurdity of existential absence in the face of failure. What we have given our life to is never fully realised—so now what?

But our dreams never really end, do they? We simply awaken.

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.

Metaphysics in Rooftop Prince (2012)

Rooftop Prince (옥탑방 왕세자) (2012)

So just last afternoon I closed the covers on the highly acclaimed Korean drama serial Rooftop Prince, which I started following last week after a friend — having perhaps known that I was just done with Lie To Me — ardently recommended it. As I turned the last few leaves of this trans-temporal romance and allowed its closure to settle in, I began to realise that my emotional reception of the ending was very much modulated by my vested interest in metaphysics, in particular personal identity. And no, there really is nothing at all ostensibly intellectual about this realisation — it isn’t an instance of critical reading or interpretation. It is simply a matter of making sense of the ending beyond a generic dismissal of the drama as a blissful, fortuitous romance driven by a benevolent fate; I say this because the denouement (resolution) is anything but idyllic — romantic perhaps, but certainly not celebratory. In fact, it left a bittersweet aftertaste on my palette palate that was more bitter than sweet — I thought it was almost tragic.

In a nutshell, the drama is centred on the temporal translocation of the Crown Prince and his three-man entourage (over a span of three hundred years) from the Joseon era to the present time by some twist of fate. This facilitates his investigation of his beloved Crown Princess’s murder, which occurred shortly before his displacement into the future (and is presumably the impetus of the uncanny event). Fate — capitalized — appears to be a very real force directing the narrative trajectory. Anyway, the longer the Crown Prince lingers in the modern present, the more he realises that there is in fact a one-to-one correspondence between the past and the present. He discovers that there is in fact someone (Tae Yong) who looks exactly like him, but who supposedly went missing. In short, every key individual in the present has a corresponding doppelganger/double in the past; but more than that, the scandalous events surrounding the murder of the Crown Princess in the past seem to repeat themselves (albeit in a different guise) in the tumultuous corporate landscape of the present.

Soon enough, the Crown Prince realises that he has been propelled three hundred years into the future to solve the mystery of her death precisely because of this narrative symmetry between past and present owing supposedly to reincarnation. As he begins to unravel the threads of fate, he falls in love with a woman (Park Ha) who is ostensibly the modern analogue of the Crown Princess’s sister (Boo Yong), and soon finds out that the Crown Princess was hardly the person he knew, but had been in truth a scheming collaborator involved in his attempted assassination, just as she is a compulsive liar in the present. Park Ha’s past doppelganger Boo Yong would have been installed as Crown Princess if her sister had not scarred her face with a hot iron and taken the former’s place when they were young. In fact it is revealed that it was she who had been murdered, and not the Crown Princess (who in actuality went into hiding after her sister took the rap for her). All this points to the fact that both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong were destined to be lovers (to phrase it rather simplistically). To cut to the chase, Fate returns the Crown Prince irrevocably to Joseon after he solves the mystery, leaving his lover Park Ha behind in the present. However, the Crown Prince’s present double reappears (after awaking from a coma) and makes contact with her, thereby bringing the narrative full circle by reuniting the lovers who were tragically forced asunder by circumstance three hundred years ago.


The final meeting of the reincarnations — of both the Crown Prince and Boo Yong — marks the close of the dramatic narrative. But it is at that juncture that many philosophical issues begin to break the surface of the reader’s literary consciousness, disturbing the placid waters that have settled in the narrative’s aftermath. Even long after the curtains have fallen, we are perhaps made to wonder if the ending is in any way a proverbially happy one: is the reunion and the ensuing romance an authentic one? Is the man who arrives to meet Park Ha at the end of the narrative (Tae Yong) the same man whom Park Ha had fallen in love with (i.e. the Crown Prince) over the course of the story? What constitutes personal identity, or the same person? Identical memories and experiences? Identical physical constitution? Identical souls? I am obviously tempted to discount the identical soul theory as a possibility since I’m very much a self-professed materialist who believes that physical configuration determines consciousness — that is to say, consciousness and thus personal identity is an emergent property of our biological arrangement. Our bodies grow, die, and decay. The end of life is the terminus of consciousness/identity.

If one subscribes to materialism, then the concept of the soul (eternal or transient) is irrelevant and superfluous as a marker of personal identity. Therefore philosophically speaking, I am more inclined to say that the continuity of memories and experiences (biologically limited consciousness) defines the individual, rather than this fuzzy, intangible entity known as the soul (regardless of whether it is eternal or not). Although I believe we do have souls in some sense, but like heart, I am of the opinion that it is a linguistic metaphor, in this case one for the intimate consciousness of our present existence.

But I am not writing now to elucidate the metaphysical logic behind whether or not Tae Yong (the reincarnation) is the Crown Prince. Much more immediate and intuitive than the intellectual food-for-thought was the emotional response that the ending invoked in myself, which bordered on a kind of resignation at some irredeemable loss even though a serendipitous reunion had taken place across the chasms of time and space. This stemmed primarily from my instinctive belief that Tae Yong and the Crown Prince are not the same person. I was thus made to imagine how Park Ha must feel when she encounters someone who looks exactly like the person she fell deeply in love with (and married briefly), but who is at once a different person —  Tae Yong does not have the memories and experiences essential to the romance that blossomed between his past double (the Crown Prince) and Park Ha. To be honest, this is my one major qualm with what would have qualified as a poignantly affirmative love story that is so not because it transcends space and time, but because Fate here is a constructive force in all its determinism. The tight symmetry and circular closure of the narrative, in its literary perfection — like the union of two complementary puzzle pieces made to fit — I think obscures with its romantic idealism, and even renders irrelevant some of the intimate phenomenological consequences of such a resolution.

Suppose Tae Yong and the Crown Prince share the same soul. Yet what is an identical soul without a persisting memory? Memory is an imperative keystone of personal identity — it affirms the Past of an individual, which is the premise of the Present; for how can there be Present without Past? Who we are is defined hardly by who we are now, but much more so by who we have been (and to some extent, who we can be). If we grant that reincarnation is possible — that there is the transmigration of souls from body to body after biological death, then all that follows is the existence of a perduring soul; we are not allowed to conclude that the memories associated with each life is an aggregate of previous iterations of memory. After all, according to doctrines of reincarnation, subsequent incarnations do not remember their past lives. As such, there would be an ostensible disjunction in memory between each life even though the soul is carried over. Therefore, to love an incarnation of someone (who is in every way outwardly identical to his/her previous iteration) would not be a simple matter of continuation but transference. We would not be loving the same person (who has passed on), but in fact relocating the love object and transferring desire onto the (re)incarnation. Even if we manage to accomplish this shift, I’d imagine that there would always be a lingering sentiment of interpersonal disjunction at the level of shared experience and memory, which may culminate in an uncanny resistance to the person; she is at once herself and not herself — herself in body (and even soul), but another in consciousness. The person we have loved all this time would be dead and absent to us, and what remains for us to grapple with is a fiction in the guise of a painful physical echo — an active simulacrum that torments by reminding us not so much of what we have lost, but what we are left with: a vacuous shell of the original that can never return our love in the same way.

To end off, another sentiment that struck me profoundly was the feeling of irrevocable loss when the Crown Prince disappeared against the fading light of sunset right before Park Ha’s eyes, after they exchanged wedding vows. How it must feel watching someone you love slowly ceasing to exist — or worse still, returning three hundred years back into the past. To return to the past would effectively be to die, or to be dead in the present, and dead for almost three centuries — to be dead before having met the other and loved. Once that person disappears — at the very moment when no tangible trace of him remains — he would have lived out his entire life and died, all in the atomic fraction of a heartbeat. And for the time traveller there is no gradual languishing from life to death — there is only life or death, and the passing from one state to the other is so acute and sudden, that the magnitude of loss becomes so excruciatingly apparent to the observer. For someone to have vanished, it is most painful for the one that remains because any empirical testament to a shared history would have accordingly ceased to be accessible, and one would be compelled to wonder if anything ever happened, or if the memory of that time spent together were at all real. Even a lifeless cadaver would qualify as immaculate evidence of having known and loved someone. After all, tombstones are memories and histories made corporeal; they are the desperate scratchings on lacquered marble proclaiming that this sorry pile of ash beneath them had once reveled in the privilege of sentient existence.

One day, they too will be forgotten when those who spend their lives remembering them become memories themselves.

Swinging With Surrealism in Chirico’s Works


Enigma of the Hour (1911) by Giorgio de Chirico

So I chanced upon this masterpiece (on where else but my Tumblr dashboard), and was quite intrigued by its visual layout, especially with regard to the interplay of perspective and shadow. The painting appears symmetrically balanced with the clock as a kind of anchoring centre; the clock is certainly much more than just a visual keystone, and the title reminds us that it is not the time-keeping device itself but what it embodies — Time — that is the centrepiece of this painting’s semantics. Anyway, it is precisely because the background architecture is so intentionally symmetrical and ordered, that seemingly inconspicuous elements which detract ever so slightly from the template find themselves thrust to the fore and made forcefully apparent to the reader’s perception. For example, the non-symmetricality of the hands of the clock evidently stands out as a visual anomaly, thereby compelling the reader to ponder on the significance of the time shown on its face — 2:55(pm), or five minutes to three o’clock. Other deviant features include the nondescript triangular speck to the left of the clock peeping from the second-storey parapet, as well as two humanoid figures in ostensibly contrastive colours — the white-cladded one standing in the sun, while the black-cladded one being almost dissembled in the shadow of the structure.

Therefore, it is not so much the harmony of the painting that constitutes the subject matter as it is the dissonance of anomalous elements. These little aberrant details operate to direct and cue the reader’s critical gaze into establishing intuitive relations between them and what the painting professes to convey through its title. Could this simply be a snapshot of the status quo at a train-station or town-square five minutes before the turn of the hour? If that is the case, then our sense of the painting’s enigmatic mood is simply engendered by the fact that the moment depicted therein is a completely fortuitous one; there  may be different reasons for the two figures to be in that position at that hour, but these reasons are inaccessible to us. Therefore, to the reader they seem almost random, and in the face of this irrationality we search feverishly for some semblance of reason or motivation; this is exactly what reading and interpretation consists in — allowing order to emerge from chance.

Chirico’s paintings are usually proto-surrealist in the sense that he (dis)joins eccentric elements with a technical method; this he achieves by creating a disconcerting/dissonant juxtaposition between seeming visual non sequiturs and the geometrical orderliness of the landscape. The end result is the uncanny atmosphere we feel permeating the placid surface of the canvas; we get the feeling that the painting is hiding something, or that we are being watched. It’s like how we are bludgeoned with a upsurge of cognitive nausea when we discover that someone close to us is stowing a rotting corpse in his/her basement.

I remember attempting to read/interpret one of Chiroco’s works (pictured below) during my Modern Critical Theory module a semester ago. His art is always enigmatic in the sense that he plays with lines and shadow in an acute and eerie sort of way. His shadows obscure more than just space.


Sun Rising Over the Square (1971) by Giorgio de Chirico

This semantic ‘polarizing’ of shadow is very apparent in Sun Rising Over the Square, in which Chirico seems to be forcing us into a symbolic reading. Having been quite ‘disturbed’ by the ‘shadow of the rising sun’ (how do suns have shadows eh?), I brought this up for discussion during my last consultation with the professor; he had a pretty different take on it though. He read the winding trail from the actual sun leading to its ‘shadow’ as a fuse that was in the process of being ignited; this means that when the fire finally arrives at the ‘shadow’ of the sun, it would be set alight — I took this to mean that the sun would rise, only that it is here depicted in a very, very surrealist manner.

He also directed me to the couple at the open window of the building on the right. It was a visual detail that cued him in on the whole fuse business. In Renaissance literature, the rising sun is a motif characteristic of the alba, a sub-genre of love poetry that depicts sunrise as the end of a lovers’ romantic nighttime rendezvous, since one of them always has to depart. (It features prominently in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). As a visual rendition of the Renaissance alba therefore, Chirico’s Sun Rising seems to be an abstract representation of the obstruction to romantic love, which in this case takes spatial centre-stage in its immensity. Even the lines of perspective seem to converge on the monolithic rising sun itself, ultimately further accentuating the tragic, macrocosmic determinism that besets the atomic human existence.

The Uncanny in Plato’s Euthyphro

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the first week of my sixth semester crawled by like a hungry trawler plying a tremendous, fish-less gulf of cold oil. Noticeably absent was the usual ‘first wind’ whose newly innervated wings would carry me right through to the end of recess week (which really should be named Week 6.5 or the semester’s Platform Nine and Three Quarters into which disgruntled students cram a world’s worth of readings and mid-term assignments). Much to the dismal contrary, I spent the greater part of the week defrosting my cryogenically petrified faculties, and this is taking so much longer than expected. What would usually be a knee-jerk resuscitation—a sudden but epiphanous gasp for precious air—  has now become a desperate hacking and hewing away of archaic glacial residue from last Winter’s slumber, in an attempt to rouse this snoozing sloth known as Mind. Things are certainly slowing down, the reason probably attributed to a kind of weariness or exhaustion at having to endure the length of a semester for the sixth iteration. Besides, unlike prior semesters, the present one has seen certain modules plunging head-on into the deep during their first seminars, especially with the EN4000s. Heck, we are more or less done with Part I of Tamburlaine (EN4880A), and Medea’s (EN3244) airtime has all too quickly expired—within the week.

There is certainly a dense, overhanging fog of dreariness characteristic of a far-flung and forgotten gothic village whose day is no different from night. Whatever celestial orb that usually graces its allotted hour of the diurnal span has been rendered phenomenologically irrelevant, since this smothering blanket drowns the sky with a seemingly endless winter solstice. These dewy windows are always shut and curtained, because the only living light flickers from behind them, on withering candles of pauper families who will renounce their next meal for a handful of coal to feed the hungry hearth that belches token respite against the cold. But yes, these sleet-encased windows need to be flung wide sooner or later, or we shall all die huddled against a sputtering flame, not for warmth but for shame, when unbeknownst to us, the sun already rises.

I began my long awaited foray into Greek Philosophy with Plato’s Euthyphro, and although we shared a brief but passionate rendezvous in PH1101E during my freshman semester, encountering the text again (after two years) conjured a very different pathos towards the dialogue between keen-minded Socrates and a self-righteous Euthyphro, who is on his way to report his father for murder. (Technically, it is a kind of accidental manslaughter since the victim was a servant who had in his drunken stupor, killed another steward, and was later bound by Euthyphro’s father and hurled into a ditch while the latter went off to report the crime. He died under the exposure to the elements). While reading Euthyphro a second time, I found myself unwittingly aligning my wits with that of Euthyphro, and to watch his convictions (established but untested) demolished by his own struggle to enunciate those very resolutions, is rather unnerving. Socrates is certainly a master at intellectual baiting; all through the course of the dialogue, his questions—dissembled in an air of false appeal to Euthyphro’s self-declared wisdom and piety—were delivered in a highly calculated, incisive manner with the intent to assure the self-destruction of Euthyphro’s argument. It was a little painful to read this time round, perhaps because two years worth of close reading texts have certainly tuned, if not augmented my sensitivity to rhetoric and the intent that undergirds its delivery.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t want a friend like Socrates, not because of the mortification that comes with being proven wrong, but because such a person would do so by feigning respect and cordiality right up to the point where he forces me into an unavoidable self-contradiction. I would sooner prefer if someone objectively demonstrated the falsity of my case, than if he performed the same proof by appealing to my ignorance. Certainly though, the Socratic method is extremely effective in making someone see the folly of his ways, when he realizes that upon rigorous questioning, his principles arrive at an impasse. What better way to refine or discard one’s ambiguous beliefs than to be acutely conscious of their inability to hold up against objection? But this is where things get a little unsettling, you see. Socrates sounds like a sort of rational nihilist who wields the blade of Reason mechanically—almost ruthlessly; not that it should not be employed as such, but there are certainly more practical (or human) concerns than the pursuit of distilled knowledge (e.g. our sanity). Some delusions are simply necessary, without which we shall find ourselves drowned in pure absence when faced with the hellish conclusion that nothing is real or certain if we do not possess absolute knowledge – and we don’t. All knowledge  may be assumed to be simply justified true belief (debatable), and even if not, the fact that there isn’t even a consensus on the definition of knowledge demonstrates this groundlessness—this free fall into the abyss.

So, what if one such Socrates were to wield Reason against something like religion, or simply one’s own personal convictions? It is rather frightening to imagine your long-standing resolutions fall to an abject rubble upon such relentless interrogation; the most incisive aspect of the Socratic method is that you are made to utter your own doom. Socrates does not openly attack Euthyphro, but gradually and with manipulative rhetoric baits the latter into digging his own grave—like a sort of self-annihilating puppetry. The greatest horror is finding unfamiliarity in those all too familiar words uttered by that self-same mouth. Suddenly the divine tenets of our forefathers turn blasphemous, and the mirror that once was graced with our familiar image now reflects the very writhing visage of a Medusa that horrifies us speechless. This has quite extensive implications; if (1) the uncanny is all that ought to be hidden (repressed) but has come to light, and (2) our delusions via some version of the Socratic method or by any kind of disproof, are made to seem uncanny, it follows that (C) some of the delusions we hold are in fact instances of repression.

What we repress is perhaps the only positive Truth that all there is, is a cataclysmic negative—a Great Nothing.

Seasonal Typology in Valetine C. Prinsep’s ‘At The First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’ (1897)

‘At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away’ (1897), Valentine Cameron Prinsep

I’m not exactly schooled in the history of art, but I’ve gathered (after some cursory research) that Valentine Cameron Prinsep was a Victorian artist of the pre-Raphaelite school. This painting is typologically charged with the symbolism of the seasons—Summer and Winter—melded together in an almost seamless and uncanny transition of colour and mood. As a work of art that exploits typology while gently playing with boundary and space, it’s definitely going into my list of favourite classical artworks.

I find the personified Winter—cloaked in her pitch-black mourning gown—strangely alluring. She wears on her icy countenance the thousand yard stare and veils her mouth with her robe-clad hands. Well, it’s surely not Summer she’s gazing at, but something beyond the frame of the picture. Her outstretched arm is certainly not one of welcome; she looks petrified and angular in stature—a very Apollonian posture that stands in contradistinction to her Dionysian sister, whose body (and dress) is fluid and unbound. Winter is reminiscent of the austere nun figure, while the unbridled Summer reminds one of a young maiden in revelry—a personification of the carpe diem sentiment in Renaissance Cavalier poetry.

Their physical representation speaks volumes. Summer is garbed in gold and red, and her slender womanly figure a la Venus is heavily emphasized. (It deserves mention that her breasts are almost visible behind the diaphanous linen). She appears steeped in the carefree moment, and her dramatic gesture suggests an invigorating freedom. In totality, as an archetype she embodies the celebration of harvest-time and an uninhibited indulgence in impulses—perhaps emotional and sexual. Meanwhile, Winter is wrapped in a jet-black drape from head to toe that dissembles her body structure, rendering her an amorphous phantom, almost asexual. There is certainly an implication of abstinence and barrenness (complemented by setting). She reminds me of Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, a nun-to-be who is propositioned by Angelo, the deputy stand-in for the Duke; she holds fast and almost cruelly onto her chastity, and condemns her brother for wishing to trade his life for her virtue. As mentioned, Winter’s gaze is blank—dispassionate—as she appears to usher or guide her sister Summer (into her arms?). I’ll venture to say that her act of covering her mouth is symbolic of a vow of silence; this coheres with the general atmosphere of restraint and austerity in her half of the painting. As such, she is perhaps the archetype that typifies censorship (self-denial) and the internalized establishment, as well as a lawful, fatalistic mourning (as opposed to one of genuine pathos) for an end that must inevitably arrive.

Lastly the mood alters with the colours and setting, from left to right: warm celebratory pastels, lush flora, and pleasant skies give way to the frigid themes of black and grey, senescence, and dusk. The liminal space between the season is littered with flowers in mid descent—suggesting a dynamic transition from Summer to Winter (through autumn, Fall, withering).  Moreover, what would have otherwise been a clearly delineated margin between the thematic spaces of Summer and Winter is dissolved by the ostensible intrusion of each other’s arm into their antonymic boundaries; this suggests an inextricable continuity and interrelationship between the two seasons. Therefore while the distinction between the two is stark and immediate, closer inspection reveals a perceptible melding of one trope into the other.