“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?