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)