Here at the End of All Things

Well, so my undergraduate sojourn has officially ended.

Strangely though, as with thesis submission earlier, there is neither boisterous fanfare nor any impulse to indulge in proverbial retrospective ‘meaning-making’, otherwise known as sentimentalizing. I do not feel compelled to weep inwardly, in reverent silence, at years gone by; nor wax poetic about my Odyssean feat and how I steered between the twin colossi of Literature and Philosophy in four years (and suffered for it in ways I wish to forget). Neither is there poignant regret or remorse at things left unachieved, dreams left unattended and unfulfilled. I have done all I have set out to accomplish, and I highly doubt it would’ve gone any other way. Except maybe—if I could—I would’ve gone for SEP instead of slogging at my second major, which in my future employer’s eyes, seems almost worthless.

That moment was a nonchalant calm; this weatherbeaten vessel, having served its dues, glided airily across that last stretch of placid lake, parking itself almost gingerly by the jetty. Just a soft knock of sea-salted timber against timber, like a rap on the door. We’re home.

But there was relief, certainly—calculated or muted. As we stepped on shore, we made sure to hold our footing; it’d been awhile since our sore feet—sore from the spray of the mercurial sea—felt firm ground. They pressed almost ecstatically against the soft, cold sand—familiar in its moist amorphousness, yet in every way reminding us that we have finally disembarked. It was raining then, as I left the exam hall (MPSH6), almost too confident because I’d literally just transcribed two prepared essays onto my question paper (it was open-book, and you know how I wrestle open-book exams into submission—yes, by gross over-preparation: six self-sufficient essays written a day before). I’m terrible with spontaneous writing (and thinking and… anything spontaneous really). So I tend to compensate by fixating on any window of time in order to maximize preparedness, or what I call pseudo-spontaneity; I appear spontaneous sometimes because I have my arguments memorised. Okay it isn’t as hopeless as it sounds, not now anyway. My efforts to naturalize class participation and speaking up over the past few semesters have truly paid off. If I feel even the most atomic vibration of a desire to voice an opinion, I force myself to seize it—like the last light of an expiring star—and project it outward, stretching that beam out as far into the darkness as my energy can afford. Sometimes speaking becomes an almost out-of-body experience; I speak and forget. Then I slump back into my chair, like a meteor that has run out of starfire—a muffled ember. But I have spoken, and that is all that matters.

I actually feel obliged to etch out a ponderous post-undergrad reflection, but really, my mind is presently incapacitated because of the sheer amount of mental inertia sustained from suddenly stopping a blazing comet—blazing for four full years. A perfect deceleration to zero. Can you imagine? But I promise (myself, at least), that I would count my stars and blessings, when the thrill of end time has plateaued—when I realise that this terminus is one massive delusion, and that very soon, I’d be thrust, like the phosphorescent rapture of a solar flare, into the Great Beyond.

With Bolder Wing

“Thee I revisit now with bolder wing
Escaped the Stygian pool though long detained
In that obscure sojourn while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th’ Orphean lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night.”
John MiltonParadise Lost (III.13-18)

As I climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the ELL department office on the sixth floor, there was none of the proverbial surge of anticipation before the end; nor did I feel overwhelming relief as I hastily passed my softbound copies and other paraphernalia through the window at the counter. Perhaps it was because much of the pathos and sentiment had been lost in the frenzy and rush of printing and binding. That was quite an adventure in itself—a kind of parodic rite of passage—which brought out the technological idiot in me. I say this unflinchingly. If you had been there to watch me run between printer and computer terminal no less than 14 times (I subconsciously kept track), you’d have been torn between feelings of amusement and pity.

I got up early to arrive in school at about 8:30am, and settled myself comfortably in the library to begin my last round of proofreading before printing. When that was done, you should have seen the conviction in my eyes when I strode up to the printing release station—it was a glorious moment. Until I realised that I printed EVERYTHING double-sided, including the peripherals like title page, acknowledgements, contents page. The triumph very quickly turned to comedy, and then threatened to slide into the burlesque tragic. But thank God I printed only a single copy (you know, just in case exactly what happened happened). For the next hour, I wrestled with MS Word’s (heresy, I know) printing function like dear Jacob with God, trying to segment my print order such that the first few pages printed single-sided, and the body of the thesis printed double-sided, AND each chapter began on a new page. I almost literally bled paper; my condolences to Gaia and her leafy offspring.

In exasperation, I decided to manually print chapter by chapter. Things turned out fine for the first few pages. Then when it was time for the chapters proper to be printed, the system refused to differentiate between Arabic and Roman page numbers, and all that effort went to hell. At that point, I told myself “f-that, I’m just going to print my hardbound copies single-sided”. I would have made that the order of the day across the board, if I hadn’t heard one of the other Lit majors quip to her friend from the terminal behind, “the Lit department is quite eco-friendly.” Drats.

So I spent the next one and a half hours figuring out how to selectively print my softbound copies (the two sent for marking) double-sided. By 10:30am, the amount of scrap paper I amassed from my gross incompetency had piled up to slightly more than an entire thesis printed single-sided—that’s upward of 71 pages. I surprised myself with my nonchalance though; but any closer to 11am and I would’ve begun freaking out like a live fish in a frying pan of oil.

My saving grace dawned on me in a mockingly matter-of-fact instruction from one of the technicians, to those two equally exasperated Lit majors behind me—”just print in PDF.” I swear, at that moment I would’ve flipped the table—four terminals, keyboards, people and all—if I had been less occupied with cursing MS Word inwardly. The twist? I had the PDF version in the same thumb-drive all the time. Somewhere halfway around the world at that moment, someone probably heard something that sounded like a cataclysmic whimper.

It took all of 15 minutes.

After this technological farce, everything was more or less in the style of The Amazing Race, from binding to submission, which brings us back to the point of exoneration. It was one of muted joy, with muffled notes of tragic, as I turned in the upshot of my six-month labour. Unsurprisingly, it felt like I was letting part of myself go—fixing it in the past, and acknowledging its undeniable facticity. So much investment—time and otherwise—had gone into the writing. If there is anything I’ve learnt from this brief stint with Paradise Lost, it is this: the Fall of (Milton’s) Satan is the true tragedy of the epic, and not the Fall of Man. While the latter is promised a prospective redemption, the other is eternally consigned to damnation. And I think many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—forget that Satan began just like us, and perhaps even more initially esteemed, for he was created the first archangel of Heaven. It is as much a reminder of an equal susceptibility to evil, as it is a sobering realisation that his transgression was nothing Man couldn’t have possibly done himself, in that capacity and circumstance.

One more thing: having mentioned it innumerable times over the course of my thesis, I’ve learnt, ironically, not to misuse the term trauma. In many ways—between the symbolizable and unsymbolizable—it is not simply an absence as my thesis has suggested. It is more negative, more radical, more fraught than absence. It is the excruciating void at the heart of the subject that abjures being in spite of ontological presence. I am here materially and viscerally, but in my metaphorical heart and soul I feel an annihilating absence; and at every moment, there is a violent crossfire of cosmic forces—a rending and tearing of the body, spiritually and existentially. Trauma is not merely loss. It is a loss that cannot be understood because we survive in being, in the aftermath, when so much of us has died inside. To be honest, if there is one way in which I feel my thesis has fallen short, it is that I have not done the phenomenology of trauma justice; then again, can any discourse ever embody in writing the soul-wringing despair and agony of loss? No matter how much I endeavour to circumscribe the experience of trauma, it will always be a dispassionate, clinical exercise—naive and almost ironic. Perhaps it is only when I have myself come face to face with the prospect of self-annihilation—only then will I be fully aware of the limits of language, and the experiences that transcend language not because of their high sublimity, but because they are so incredibly visceral, primordial, and unsignifiable.

Whatever the outcome of this project, I think the journey itself has sufficed as just reward. Perhaps that is why I feel no absolution or weightlessness, post-thesis. Perhaps it was never truly a labour. Perhaps in my exegesis, I was simply writing my own narrative, and the narrative of the Everyman for whom Eden has been lost, and lost irrevocably.

“All hope is lost
Of my reception into grace; what worse?
For where no hope is left, is left no fear.”
John MiltonParadise Regained (III.204-6)

Dawn of Reason

“O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce
And evil turn to good more wonderful
Than that which by Creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!”
John Milton, Paradise Lost (XII.469-72)

This is my obligatory ‘recovery’ post, because if there is anything writing my Honours Thesis has taught me, it is that I need closure, no matter how spectral, no matter how specious; presence must always succeed absence, and recovery, trauma. This presence does not need to be ontological—existing. I only need to believe it—it only needs to be epistemological; I only need to feel it—it only needs to be phenomenological.

When I first conceived the subject of my HT—tracing the fall and rise of Milon’s Satan—on a train ride home about eight months ago, I thought: hey, this potentially qualifies as a kind of self-narrative, doesn’t it? I mean, it is the allegorical performance of everyone’s life; it’s about losing Eden and recovering that lost presence in another guise. But as I proceeded with a more detailed formulation of my thesis this semester—when I finally began writing—I realised Paradise is forever lost to Satan, and there is no recovery. No, I don’t mean the actual corporeal Paradise, or the paradise within; I simply mean that state of fullness and self-assuredness—that simple vocalization of identity: this is me, I am he. As I wrote my first words, I wanted adamantly to redeem this fallen morning star: if he is precluded from divine salvation, then at least, at the very, very least, please return him his Self—the most intimate possession of any sentient being. But no, I’ve realised, even that reprisal is impossible. And my thesis has metamorphosed to reflect this futility, this debarring, this immense void irreparable.

I am done with the nexus of my thesis—the twinned architecture of trauma and recovery of Satan, amounting to some 8500 words and more. And I realise that I’ve unconsciously projected more of myself into my work than I’ve dared to imagine. Every single section is a discursive repetition of some event, some fall, some rise; in my writing I have inadvertently procured reasons for why I do the things I do, or feel what I feel. At times I half-remember tapping out those same words over whiskey—half-drunk—here on this page, in the dead of night, many nights ago.

And although I know we can never return home to Eden, maybe—just maybe—Eden has always been within us, always, now and forever, in the trying.

The Long and Last Winter

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!'”
Rudyard Kipling, ‘If’ (1895)

Yesterday marked the start of a 12-week sojourn into academic research and writing—an honour which (I think) is the crowning object of an intrinsically fraught but fulfilling undergraduate career, and perhaps a foretaste of the future. And what better way to close the chapter than by marrying the two literary realms—Critical Theory and Renaissance Literature—that have, over these semesters past, afforded me incredible insight into other worlds, and worlds within worlds?

Yet while I have much to be thankful for, there lies a festering ambivalence in the heart of a seasoned though restless mind whose labyrinths are occupied with thoughts other than the thought of its imminent labour. Lately, the HT seems more of a foil than a scholar’s fortune—an almost insurmountable colossus standing between me and what would otherwise be a clear, wind-swept brickroad to the finish. But you and I know we could never imagine graduating without doing a HT; I mean, it is (to us) inherent in the definition of an undergraduate education to round the journey off with an epic feat—the hallmark of one who has gone there and back again. Still, the prospect is daunting, if not debilitating. I realise that in the days leading up to this moment of beginning, my mind has begun to feel (can minds feel?) the redoubling weight of commitment and expectation—once old friends, now old enemies, as battleworn as the battered body that plods this course: we’re tired of each other.<

Occasionally, whether haunted by the ghost of an academic exhaustion that refuses to die, or the dread that precedes another round of feverish rushing against deadlines and self-imposed standards, I have contemplated just getting by this last semester. You know, just wind down and deliver the minimum, and forget about grades that would qualitatively make no difference. But in my psychic vocabulary I find no entry for minimum; how does one give minimally? There must be a critical threshold for the minimum, no? What is it? That’s the problem—I don’t know. Neither do I know what maximum is, but according to reason and experience, it is always safer to err on the side of caution. So I err.

Even now, I find myself fighting to resist the encroaching belief that—in choosing to write on Paradise Lost—I have unwittingly steered this wandering bark into an oceanful of icebergs or floating mines; that I have overestimated my capacity to approach this cataclysmic masterpiece in a composed, circumspect, and mature manner. I usually have no problems hitting word-limits or even exceeding them by questionable lengths, but this is the first time I’m writing on solely one text; to me, 12 000 words on a single work seems almost overwhelming, although I understand that Paradise Lost is essentially inexhaustible in its interpretive value as long as the hermeneutic enterprise stands. Self-doubt is a dangerous diversion; but I know this seemingly Herculean labour can be completed—I’m just not sure if it can be done with finesse enough to justify the risk that I’ve taken, or the ponderous mental shadow that will linger until the project reaches its upshot.

Some people probably wonder why I’ve chosen to potentially encumber myself with Milton’s magnum opus, and together with it three centuries of critical scholarship, not to mention the immense burden of doing a decent job with a text of such intense literary and historical value. It isn’t the impulse of ambition—that much I can be sure of. My decision was intuitive, and not calculated. I have a deeply personal investment in Paradise Lost, though I’m cautious not to let it interfere with my academic engagement of the text proper.

Time and I shall tell what my research will yield—what answers, and what vindication.

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)

Autumn’s End

3:07; when it was time to stop writing, I stopped, but only clicked my pen shut.

The initial feeling was like someone had pulled the plug on something; something stopped working, and with its termination ensued a wave of emptiness that purged the air of meaning. There was a new lucidity – a kind of clarity of vision – if only because meaning had departed, and in its place precipitated a non-meaning that was transparent, raw, and honest enough to let in the searing rays of light that illuminated the space as it was, or had been – empty.

With (intellectual) desire now divorced from its object, it is now at liberty to roam and seek out new uncharted spaces, and new dark places – to explore with its shaded light, just below the radar, fueled by the very thrill of getting caught. But as we all know by now, desire is always two, three, four steps – a lifetime – ahead of us, of consciousness, of conscientiousness. The recognition of its trajectory is always belated, and we might, and will, always find ourselves tracing only its aftermath – the phenomenal blinking of a star that has long imploded, expired; or the flittering stardust in the waste of a passing comet. Right now as we speak, desire has turned its gaze somewhere, ahead of us, in front of us, unnoticed. Desire chases after, and we chase after it, or at least those of who are concerned with what or who we are; after all, what we are now was once what we were becoming, and how else do we become if not through the force of desire, of want. We want, imperceptibly – this want inaugurates the becoming. And so desire is a becoming, and in time long before our knowing, a being. So can we say, that to be is to desire? To chase after desire is to therefore embark on a quest to unveil, unearth, unforget (perhaps?) who we are. It follows that to elucidate desire – to identify and fix it epistemically – is therefore to know the Self. But, no – we are always too late, belated. The that we now know intimately is merely a shade of a desire that is now somewhere else, somewhere far ahead of us. Today’s Self is yesterday’s desire.

Do you see? – to desire is in fact, always to have been, and we are the aftermath of desire. In this sense, we will never be able to know who the I at this very instant t, is. What we do know however, is that we are becoming at some metaphysical, projected level, because desire is mobilized, is moving somewhere. All we have access to, here and now, is the belated light of that star; a belated Self.

***

Good God, now that I’m out of that trance, let me just say that it was an unintentional digression altogether; I’d actually promised myself not to spend the first evening of my newfound freedom scribing at intolerable lengths, and I’m glad I stopped myself just in time. In fact, I’m going to make a conscientious effort to reprise the familiar routine of blogging at regular intervals (now that I’m supposedly free-er), rather than bludgeon the conceptual reader with a wall of text every one and a half weeks or so.

Anyway, this semester hasn’t been a good one at all, on a hindsight fresh from experience. I won’t go into details, but it involves a lot of self-sabotaging, especially regarding module selection and timetabling, coupled with an untimely bout of academic exhaustion, and obsessive procrastination due to overwhelming expectations (that’s a mouthful). EN4223 (Topics in the 19th Century) and PH2222 (Greek Philosophy) together gave me a really hard time. This is the only semester so far that I’ve had so much backlogging, that not even the reading week could redeem me. In any case, I managed to ease (finally) into the groove of EN4223 in the last few weeks of the semester, but PH2222 remained an inscrutable enigma right up till the very end. Sometimes I honestly think I lack that critical edge for Philosophy (mostly powers of reasoning), and that it is only my idealism and a wish to live the Renaissance paradigm that has kept me going. Well, no room for self-doubt now – we have only two modules of Philosophy left to read. I’m not going to embark on my usual humanist stock-taking for the semester; I suppose I just wish to forget, though not without knowing what I did right and wrong – but those have already been made conscious, so I do not wish to belabour (for my own sake) those personal lessons.

Special Term begins in exactly a week’s time, so allow me – and I address the I – these seven interstitial days of abject rest and recreation before once again the monolithic discourse – that sometimes insufferable deluge of time and social necessity – picks me up on the fringes of its foamy limbs, and bears me away.

***

The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how

Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

— Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Delay’

Confessions of a Ghost in the Machine

Sometimes I wish I were more intellectually spontaneous—more cerebral—and did not have an inexplicable tendency to conjure mental impasses during examinations where there might have been none. Then I wouldn’t have to write up to eleven pre-written essays for two of my open-book examinations in an opportunistic attempt to exploit the system, to compensate for my utter inability to think quickly on my feet (or on my brain, for that matter). After tomorrow, there’ll be one more closed-book (thank God for that)—English Renaissance—and another open-book exam, Philosophy and Literature. Well, actually there isn’t much to be thankful for since I’m going to be memorizing thematic mind maps for Renaissance to grapple with the stress-induced mental incapacitation—a typical (atypical?) idiosyncratic closed-book strategy. I’ve come to the point where I’m actually scaring myself with the amount of preparation I’m doing for these modules, when in fact less than half of the essay content that I’ve painstakingly prepared will be mobilized during the examination.

Of course, I soothe my indignation and horror by reminding myself that I’m in some irrational sense, handicapped by my own thought processes; and in light of this awareness, I must make the very best out of any preparation time that I may be privileged with. To alter or prime my intuitive and thinking faculties for spontaneous exercise is something that takes time and conducive space, which unfortunately the exams hardly afford. I’m also pretty conscious of the fact that under the raging furnace fires of pressure (almost typed ‘pleasure’), they would not be tempered as iron or steel would, but instead ricochet along the concave of my metaphysical mind as one would expect gas particles to behave in response to the application of heat. Anyway, back to the point about open-book examinations, I think they’re quite detrimental to my already dismal thinking capacities under the pressures of time and circumstance, because to be honest, they leave me completely dependent on preparatory work. I find myself transcribing my pre-written essays word for word with the occasional reorganization of syntax or introductory and concluding scribble. Nope, there’s not even a step forward—only two steps back.

Needless to say, there are other stray thoughts that have drifted into consciousness during the frenzy that has been revision – thoughts that require some rumination and perhaps logical processing, but it’s 12am and I ought to get myself ready for sleep. (I’d usually delay bedtime till 2am on a normal day—for no other reason but to browse Tumblr and reddit—but I think I’ll cut myself some slack even though the exam’s at 1pm tomorrow).

I’ve realised that this post has become an unwitting confessional centred on my rather unorthodox (or overly orthodox?) exam preparation techniques. Move along, there’s nothing to see here. I mean really—pre-writing essays? God, this guy is off his rocker.