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)

 

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?

Wherever We May Roam

“Horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him; for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from Himself, can fly
By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!
Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;
Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,
Which now sat high in his meridian tower.”
— John MiltonParadise Lost (IV.18-30)

Let’s face it—the June and December holidays are sacrosanct to the sanity of the teaching profession. In private moments between disciplinary routines, the marking frenzy, and lesson planning, our minds are already one step ahead of time and rife with thoughts of our next respite, our next great escape. It therefore comes as no surprise that many respond with an irrepressible tinge of astonishment when I happen to mention—with unusual nonchalance, no less—that I don’t have travel plans this holiday season. Gasp.

‘You know, it’s always good to take a good vacation elsewhere—you know, get away from work and recharge mind and body. You should consider going somewhere; it’s still not too late.’ Well-meaning advice, sure; except that I’d already made up my mind about staying put a few months ago.

These days, with a slew of budget travel options, planning a free-and-easy getaway is significantly more affordable in more ways than one: it rests easy on the mind and the pocket. Peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb—offsprings of a maturing sharing economy—provide the necessary platforms for a self-sustaining online travel marketplace to thrive. They effectively remove the cumbersome middlemen—tour agencies—and their associated costs. This is the era that marries the spirit of adventure with self-determination; never mind the ebbing tide of globalisation, the aeroplane nor automobile nor ship is going to vanish overnight. A right mind and some middle-class travel capital are all we need to traverse the shrinking world.

A right mind. The motivation to travel stems from a desire to roam away from home, momentarily, and to chart new geographies—physical and psychological. Complementary to this drive is also the undeniable posture of awe and wonder as we navigate the fringes of experience, and expand the horizons of memory to take in new sights and sounds. Travel is a renewal. One must set down old burdens and sentiments, to be made vulnerable to a reconfiguration or reshaping of consciousness; because let’s face it—encounters with the hitherto unknown changes us by virtue of prompting us to form new relationships and associations between memory and new acquaintances. Like an ink drop in clear water, we are changed, even if imperceptibly, by novel experiences. We are never quite the same after travelling.

I am never quite the same after travelling. But there is always a haunting sense in which while the periphery of experience has been indelibly altered, some deeper recess remains still unchanged, brooding. I have peered out of a train passing natural vistas roiled with hills and valleys in undulating shades of greens and whites. I have gazed out into the mist from one of the highest peaks in Europe, snow-blasted. I have mingled in museums with the souls of artists whose masterpieces have christened the golden age of Western culture and civilisation.

Yet as one standing squarely at the centre of these enveloping reels of phenomena, I cannot help but feel this unsettling sameness—a shadowed similitude that persists from moment to moment and beyond. No, it is not the proverbial Self nor some concept of identity; sure we do endure in that metaphysical sense, but there is something else amorphous, lingering, that remains unaccounted for. It is a creeping silhouette that, for all the awe and wonder I feel at sights new and majestic, eclipses the scene with a mysterious and haunting penumbra. It is always there, always waiting to be demystified—a gaping internal absence that escapes understanding, but wants to be understood. Perhaps the question has never been about what lies behind the psychedelic screen of wild images; but rather, what lies beneath the spectator.

Or else this is merely a farcical symptom of some more profound fear of passing, or some more deep-seated longing for things lost; or perhaps I have become my own world’s worst cynic, or am forever prey to the wiles of a broken-hearted memory.

Regardless, such is my dispassionate response to travelling while half the world revels in its prospect: it does not quite make the expected difference for me.

Because if we bring home around wherever we roam, then everywhere and anywhere we are still at home—for better, or for worse.

Visible Horizon

“And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ulysses’ (1833)

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The horizon at dawn, as seen from the International Space Station (ISS).

The confession passed like a calculated paroxysm—measured and passionately weighed. I tried to be as lucid as I could—as level-headed; I needed to sound convincing even as I grappled with the uncertainty of the act at the moment of speaking. When the anticipated torrent of questions finally came my way, however, I surprised myself with an almost irrepressible force in my voice. The quiet inward resistance of the past four years have somewhat shaped my purpose into some kind of single-minded bullet, plunging headlong into the uncharted dark. The point had to be brought across.

I’ve always been counting my blessings, but momentarily it did feel that I was now tossing them aside like coins that have lost their shine.

Regardless, I have cast the die; and now by Fortune’s hand and my own, I can begin to shape the future. On all counts, it was not an easy nor wise move.  Some may think it a misplaced and foolhardy idealism given the tumult of the present time. And as much as it was assured me that the immediate future remained undimmed, there was an unspoken inkling—a premonition, perhaps—that I had unravelled the best of my plans, or else undone the plans others had for me. But it had to be done.

Now I’m beginning to see more clearly. For the first time in awhile, the mists have dispersed to reveal some kind of nebulous half-fiction of a bridge, one that stretches into a horizon made barely visible by the dawning clarity of my own inner vision. So much work remains to be done to pave this road—so many silent prayers left to be said along the way in hope that the cobblestones I lay will not be kicked up and dislodged by the stray wind.

The yoke of expectation, mostly stemming from an inner guardedness against failure, is heavy. There is and will be fear and dreadful anxiety, no doubt. I am not one for volatility and change. Even as desire lunges ahead, my purpose is uncertain. There is so much self-questioning to do, so much stock-taking and loose ends to tie up. Words come easy, and so do thoughts. When the time arrives (as it surely must), will I have the strength to strike out?

But this is a willing burden that if shouldered right, will eventually take me a step closer to the myth of self-actualisation. Had I embarked on this enterprise years back, it would have been with an optimistic gleam in my eye and a head held high against the wind. Now all that remains is a tentative treading of feet that have not done much walking since—and the voice of the cautionary third-person.

I see roving silhouettes in the far distance against what seems like early dawn. Whether they are prophecies or projections of an overreaching mind, I do not know—but I need to know.

Homecoming

Green, black, and white,
Colours mock me like a mirage—
Oasis at the tip of the tongue,
Vanished. On the white sails
Of my shirt pocket, the gryphon
Once glided with overachieving ease
A season past, too soon.

Now I see in those young, scholarly eyes the same
Primordial light—gaze of gladiators.
Prometheus would be so proud.
I remember awaiting the anthem melody,

That never came
While others took flight
Through foreign gates—eagles soaring
Home on the phone calls
That I never got.

And though the disapproving fingers
Of the clock turns to tell me to
Forget, not to hope still for that
Better age—lost Eden,

Still sometimes, in the
Forgotten stillness of the night
I sleep
To wear once more the colours:
Green, black, and white.

***

Note:
This piece materialised a couple of months back out of a longing for closure in one of the darker chapters of my life—one that came to set the general mood of disconsolation and festering resentment in my late teens and earlier twenties. I don’t think I’ve gotten over it—I probably never will.

Flickering Compass

“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’ other—”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (1.7.25-28)

I’ve always counted myself as one quite vehemently resistant to change, perhaps in part due to my pathological sentimentality: an undying, smothering longing for Edens that I have lost—and that I lose every day. I think about moments that arrive, linger, and pass on, never again to be experienced again in their phenomenal immediacy—only as haunting phantoms in crude succession, like a silent opera in the amphitheatre of the mind. Never a day goes by without my peering out, rather forlornly, of the weatherbeaten window of Memory at the swathing vista of what has been—temporal fabric in folds undulating into the yellow of a perpetual sunset. I always go back.

But nestled in the coils of this recursive hindsight is always a desire to strike out against this sea of similitude. Ambition is a strange thing. It empowers and emboldens—and arrives in sporadic surges of gripping adrenaline; and momentarily, we are Herculean and all our labours become wit and strategy—the games we win in our heads. These moments flash by in comet streaks: in the privacy of a warm shower, through the dew-bleary windows of the morning bus-ride, at the deafening monotony of our work-desks. They, in their serendipitous passing, pull our thoughts in the trajectory of their trail—and jolted into a realisation faster than the speed of light, we contemplate the possible future. A want—an aspiration, its forward movement—is inaugurated.

But oh, how in two minds we are! Our steadier judgment anchors us to our resting place where we have been content to take root and blossom—and yet there is such hopeful dissatisfaction that makes our mind wander so far from home.

As I edge towards a certain future (in both senses), I can’t help but feel that all I’m doing is fulfilling a prophecy—connecting the dots, or walking through open doors. Like a passenger gazing wistfully out of a train fastened long ago to the rails of an ever receding track, I watch the nomadic pedestrians amble aimlessly, all going somewhere—and I wonder why I haven’t thought of getting off. I got on years ago wanting to get somewhere, but I think I’ve lost track of my destination—or else, I have set my mind on some other realm to which this train cannot run, or runs too slowly. There is an anxiety—for the first time, of youth and daring. We do not grow younger.

I’m arriving at the station soon in less than a year, to be exact. My feet have been set so long on the worn-out cobblestones of this straight and sure path; how then can I step out when the road home is so clearly lit—when the road itself is home? When is it ever rational to step away when the ground before us is so firmly trodden?

Still the more I wonder: what lies beyond the lighted way?

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Road by Scarborough Beach, Perth, Australia.

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?