A Forgetting

“Why do you think you are missing something you never had?”
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989)

I can’t quite pin this feeling down, but I know it’s been around for awhile—the lingering shadow of a leaf withering to the ground, in mid flight, on the draft of a wet Thursday monsoon. The rain blears the eyes—the lens of a camera out of focus. I listen to the sound of damp crickets, leaping in a careless canon through my open window—a mistuned string orchestra. I feel strangely absent.

I know I must write. I just don’t know why.

Years ago I told myself to write to speak—to speak past the meandering labyrinth of metaphors and metonyms and into the arms of a clearing in the lightless woods. The song would pierce the night.

Years later I know I have not spoken yet.

How do I outspeak the silence, when reason and rhetoric outrun my meaning? And all the time—out in the white noise of the world—I forget. It is too easy to slip into prefabricated gloves that fit so snugly, like second skin. Sometimes you forget there is something less invisible beneath the threaded fiction.

At times like these, I write to remember.

The Future is Restless

“Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (I.3.150-52)

To say that it was a fantastic year that began with promise and ended in fulfilment would be a flagrant lie. 2016 was, by all counts, outwardly nondescript; it was a year steeped in sedate contemplation of first principles and final destinations. I went back to the drawing board many times; for hours I stoked new fires from old, expired embers—they blazed bright momentarily, then vanished into the night sky of my mind. What had I set out to do before the churn of the middle-class machine drowned out the siren song? Where am I going—this bleary-eyed passenger whose life is beginning to slow down with the comfortable lull of the dreamtide? Restlessness and nostalgia were uncanny bedfellows this year: one in frustrated anticipation of an uncertain future, the other wallowing in the mists of a distant past.

As the socio-political pendulum swings right once again, the world is cloistering—each in their own sacred conclave, like houses shuttering against the onslaught of the angel of death. Truth be told, I have professed to hate politics in my earlier, more naive teenage years, content to muse and mope within the confines of oblivious youth. Now in my late twenties, however, I have never felt my psychology more influenced by global events transpiring outside my immediate locus. The recent scourge of anti-globalisation has induced in me a gnawing sense of urgency, and I cannot help but feel that time is running out. There are things I have yet to do. The doors are closing. The future is restless.

Recently, I’ve caught myself drifting back into the past like a ghost haunting a terrible shipwreck. It is one thing to let the flood of images float past consciousness; it is another to dive into the raging stream to search for something lost. The pursuit is almost painful. You latch onto fragments and inch your way towards a reconstructed whole—and, my god—when the picture of that tragic encounter is complete, the memory is suddenly saturated many times over, blinding like the piercing gaze of a passing foglight. Then you remember why you chose to forget.

2017 is a few hours away, but I still cannot seem to shake off this feeling that I have not accomplished anything noteworthy in the past year. Surely, this must be the work of a faulty perception that grossly understates what I have done. But for the first time in awhile, I’m prompted to consider what it is that truly affords me that elusive calm of fulfilment—or whether I’ve ever found it before.

Review: Alain Badiou’s Our Wound Is Not So Recent (2015)

In it15095149371s unreserved frankness, this seminar-turned-book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels disenchanted by the seemingly ‘senseless’ bloodshed that has recently punctuated the global narrative, perpetrated by those who have apparently gone rogue with religion. Unlike many other commentaries that play the blame game with late capitalism and festering inequality, Badiou’s analysis offers a more methodical investigation into what’s really transpiring at a systemic level. To make sense of the ‘senseless’—against our first intuitions that such attacks are irrational—is precisely what he sets out to do in this short monograph on the underlying cause(s) of last year’s Paris shootings, and the rise of the terrorist enterprise. ‘We can’t leave anything in the register of the unthinkable’, he says.

Despite the unmistakably continental posture that Badiou adopts in his prose, he remains incisively analytical in his systematic dissection of the global capitalist problem. His argument is distinctly structuralist in nature, as he explores the ordering of the contemporary world around and against capitalism and its cognates. True to his French learning, Badiou also makes occasional but striking allusions to psychoanalytic theory where appropriate, in so doing contextualising the contemporary problem within a broader system of desire.

Yet perhaps the most redemptive feature of his seminar is the humanising outlook he offers towards the end, where he tells of the need to understand and know the societal other that the capitalist machine has inevitably created and marginalised. This is, I think, the powerful message that his argument ultimately endeavours to convey to his (presumably middle class) readers—at once both jolting them into an acute consciousness of this sprawling, monolithic problem of (post)modernity, as well as charting a hopeful recourse that involves a fundamental paradigm shift at the level of the individual.

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.

Epistemology in Doctor Strange (2016)

“No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.”
Dr. Steven Strange

Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange opens with a character exposdoctor-strange-posterition of a man who is equal parts sardonic and insufferably full of himself; he navigates the confines of the operating theatre with surgical accuracy—a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes, so to speak. The dramatic irony is deafening. Later in the film, Steven Strange vehemently professes to be a radical materialist (no surprise there) for whom the spiritual realm does not exist. There is for him only one substance that constitutes the universe—matter, and nothing more.

His skeptical and monist convictions very much struck a deep and resonating chord somewhere in the recess of my belief system. Even as my eyes remained transfixed on the moving image on screen, there was a sense in which an inner discourse was unravelling; my thoughts were set in tense negotiation with what I had just heard on screen. Those words could very well have been uttered by yours truly—every syllable of it.

At some imperceptible point in my life, there was as it were, an asymptote of faith which inaugurated a movement towards the kind of paradigm subscribed by Strange. A young man who once championed an unerring confidence in an almighty deity had fallen away, like a withered leaf from the bough of a great oak. Even the word ‘falling away’ is contentious here, because it presumes a right path from which one could possibly diverge from, and in so doing, ‘fall’ or err. A proper materialist and agnostic would do away with such loaded terms.

I cannot remember exactly when this epistemological turn transpired—but the shift was pre-philosophical, even before my formal engagement with academic philosophy in my early twenties. All I remember was feeling an instinctive indignation at all the evil that was blossoming unchecked around me, and this whittled away any faith I held in an omnibenevolent higher being. Prayers for my own and my family’s safety began to feel immensely self-serving. Then I realised everyone else around me was doing the same. Prayers for others felt like incidental whispers in the dark—perhaps motivated by the need for our conscience to be heard in what seemed like an ‘indifferent universe’. We pray for divine assistance and expect help to fly in choruses of angels to Syria or the Rohingyas—for some miraculous change of heart in the antagonists whom we unwittingly believe belong to the fairy tales of bedtime rituals. Stories of glorious conversion and poetic justice. The mortal realm is regrettably far more complex than our consoling imaginations of the divine can fathom.

Yet even as I shape these seemingly wayward thoughts into words, a part of me is shaken still with some oscillation of uncertainty at my own convictions. How sure am I in my implicit claims to understand the ‘divine’—whether it is physical or metaphysical, real or imaginary, or perhaps a linguistic feature? Do I know enough to know that there is no transcendent reality beyond my own? These are precisely the types of unstable beliefs and claims to knowledge that the exposition of Doctor Strange seeks to challenge. Never mind if the philosophical problem is quickly and formulaically answered with displays of dramatic mysticism and CGI in the Marvel universe. It is nonetheless a question that still persists in our own—and it is one that I’ve been forced to confront time and again with renewed vigour.

At one point in the film, The Ancient One reprimands Strange with powerful counter-empiricist rhetoric:

“You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is “real”? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?”

The implicit conclusion here is that there are other ways of knowing beyond sense or reason. Knowing therefore becomes an event of meaning. There is no longer universal truth in the strictest sense, but only knowledge that makes sense within a specified context of knowing. And surely, this context we speak of is not one of culture or nationality or ethnicity—it is one of dimension: of the senses, of the mind, of other uncharted media. In claiming that we know how the world works, the only truth in that statement is the knowledge of how it works through the use of our senses or reason. That’s it. We can say nothing more of knowing beyond those human faculties.

I am as such, at every possible waking moment, myself reminded of the limits of my senses that no recourse to reason or a rationalist worldview could possibly bridge. There may be a vast repository of non-sensory or irrational phenomena unfolding around or within us that neither sense nor mind can decipher, much less detect.

And who knows—perhaps God resides in those gaps of silence.

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.