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?

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.