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.

 

IMG_5088 2.JPG

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)

 

Brief Candle

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.19-28)

I was fearful of what I might see. How much has Death already taken away from a man struggling to breathe, not to drown under the weight of his own mangled body? Pallid green curtains, like a shroud of shadow, enclosed the beds—encapsuled—each leaving its resident to fade away in quiet privacy; or else to shield the wet eyes of those to be left behind, weary with grief, from the visible inevitability of what is to come.

We stepped into the ward. There was a silent pall hanging about in the still sanitised air. The short path to the bed at the end was lined with a scattering of mourners—here a pair, arms about one another in shared pathos; there a solitary boy, face hung with blank resignation; then there were the unmistakable sounds of sniffling and blowing noses like the early drops of rain before the monsoon.

As the hospital drapes were drawn, an unfamiliar visage faded into view—more unfamiliar, and distant than I had imagined. He was a crumpled canvas, almost bleached white; his cheeks were hollowed out like a palette that had run out of paint. The easel that once stood propping up vital colours of boyish mischief and paternal severity lay now in shambles. How vividly he had appeared in my memory as I left him some ten years ago, when our cars left each other at the Tuas causeway after our routine family trip (the last of many) to Genting Highlands. I still remember that face—full, glowing, my father’s friend. I recall navigating the theme parks with his boys, my childhood partners-in-crime—all of us blazing with unspoilt youth, all of us candles dancing in the dark.

Now I see them standing around me, heads once dizzy with childish delight, now hung with indescribable sorry. We have all grown up, some taller than we remember. All of us look tired, like the years have chipped at our gleaming mantles and left the frays drifting in the wind. How I wish I could reach out to embrace each of them with the same yesteryear innocence and careless glee. All of it has passed, irretrievably.

I look at his face, spaces once filled with hearty laughter. I do not recognise him. Those gentle eyes are now bereft of joy, only agape in shock like one trying in vain to escape the onslaught of an oncoming catastrophe—a speeding train, or the sudden collapse of civilisations. He stares as each of us draw closer in turn, his sobbing wife whispering our names as though they were her best kept secret. I know she wishes we had met one more time before, under lighter circumstances; now she sees us for the first time in years, all past our childhood prime—like her own children. Oh, how the years have worn us out.

Standing bent over what is left of her husband, she seems not to have aged at all. Her trembling fingers sweep his fringe to the side, and turning, she flings wide her arms with bitter reunion. We embrace her, the three of us—like her own children. And she sobs into us; we are all helpless. The scene melts into a torrent of tragic nostalgia. I feel his skeletal fingers as they twitch in my own, and I know it wouldn’t be long. He nods weakly, like a leaf of a book flipping in the breeze. What could I say? How much I wished I had seen him when I still remembered him as he was? Now the rest of him floats in frozen images in the darkroom of Memory—undeveloped spools of less trying times up in the cloudy mists of the Malaysian highlands.

“Rest now, close your eyes,” she says, maternally, in an assuring but broken voice. And he momentarily shuts them, but opens them soon enough, mouthing in weak whispers something else back. Here, there are no more formalities; the hiddenness of private souls are laid bare. Here, in a room at Gleneagles Hospital, on a Sunday afternoon, there is only a naked, desperate, helpless humanness—among us all, between us, we know.

I know he is going.

The Poetry of Witness

“… and those blessed to survive wrote their poetry not after such experiences but in their aftermath—in languages that had also passed through these sufferings; languages that also continued to bear wounds, legible in the line breaks, in constellations of imagery, in ruptures of utterance, in silences and fissures of written speech.”
Carolyn Forché, ‘Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Art’ (2011)

The experience hit me like a slate of cold light—illuminating, but not without a sense of abandonment. I imagine: it is the leaden feeling that settles in when the lid of an innocuous box is turned over to reveal a convenient grave. The skull stares eyeless at me—a hollowed witness.

It felt like this when I read Miklós Radnóti’s poem ‘Forced March’ (1944), a forlorn rendering of his staggering with thousands of others en route to Hungary during World War II—where he would later die by gunfire, shot because the Nazi soldiers were ‘unable to find a hospital with room’—a tragic perversion of the nativity. The original ‘manuscript’ (if one may term it that) is a withered leaf off the body of a notebook found on his corpse after his grave was exhumed. Soaked in what looked like the fluids from his body, so they say, it was later left to dry in the sun. The stains remain on the original like an unfinished chromatogram.

eroltetett-menet1

Manuscript of Radnoti’s ‘Forced March’ (1944)

The penmanship is remarkably measured for one tormented in both body and soul—for one whose mortality lingered on the fray of a frail thread like the sword of Damocles. But it is ponderous; the ink does not bleed, it curves with a heavy finality. It does not stray, but bends to an unseen, final purpose. There are blots that try to scratch out honest mistakes—an endearingly human gesture. Even in such savage scenes, there remains the impulse to perfect and revise that reflects a mark of aesthetic sense. This man seems to have been lucid till the very end, for better or worse. You can see it not only in his poetic resolve, but in his methodical verse architecture. The poem is cleft in twain by what appears to be a fracture that runs in a meandering chasm across its length—a concrete signifier of a spiritual wound and lacerations hidden by linen tatters. It is a trauma made visible and material; it is the cry of a man in the throes of a death that he foresees. In these undulating lines, there is a seismic shattering. They are condemned hereafter to speak to fill the spaces between.

What is the reader to do? I can only gape, mouth ajar, like the jagged perforation on the page. Now reproduced in print on a sheet of white paper, there is no stain. Yet the wound seems still to bleed; it is slit and carved in all the right places. In duplicating the poem, one has also duplicated the wound. The fracture is a sign that seems to have escaped the deconstructive impulses of repetition over time and space; how is this possible? I trace the emptiness with a tentative finger, fearful of what I may find in the crack. I see a dishevelled Radnóti, clothed in filthy despair, purposively pausing his pen to leave an aching gap in the line—in every line; the gaps begin to appear in deliberate unevenness to create a disturbing asymmetry. There is the scrunching of Nazi boots nearby—he tucks his notebook, gorged with crumpled paper paraphernalia, into his pocket. He is done. The poem is torn apart.

I stare off into the space in front of me. In my sense-making quietude, the zigzagging fissure on the page seems to chastise me for my melancholia which, in light of this man’s monumental suffering made material, is nothing but the petulant groan of a good-for-nothing modern romantic.

The Spaces in Memory

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
Joan Didion, The White Album (1979)

I’ve been seeing you in the places I least expect—in the sand-swirl of gravel roads less travelled by, along the corridors of nondescript buildings we never visited, in a sky that is no longer the same since we left. Memory is a morning that coats the most unlikely spaces in a diaphanous cloak of dew; and momentarily, even the most mundane object glistens with a familiar light like no other. Your phantom fingerprints smudge like the hiss of a burning brand—on benches that we never sat holding each other, watching the rain. Out of sheer exasperation at times, I try to shake myself out of this retrospective stupor. But the nostalgia bleeds into the present and tints the future a faded gold that cannot stay.

It is difficult to see how things could have turned out any way other than the melodramatic banging of clenched fists against closed doors we’d shut from the inside. Had I the perspicacity of hindsight, I would have let nature run its wrecking course and grind what was left of it to the ground. I would not have, in defiance, ended it before its time. That would have saved the both of us the debt that one of us would continue to pay long after the curtains fell. How would I have known—how would you have known? All the time after, I wish I knew better.

Sometimes (admittedly) I find myself wading and wallowing in these dysthymic pools that show only a reflection rippled with wistful regret. Like one Narcissus who reaches out to caress his lost image in a liquid looking glass, I set the surface in motion to witness history repeat itself again, and again—if only in my mind. I draw nearer the threshold: a part immersed in fantasy, the other gasping in doubt. Therein lies the danger of drowning in shallow water.

In writing I sometimes try my very best to recollect the bitter harvest and recreate the picture in finest grain. Yet it is either too painful or too inexpressible—I always find myself falling short of representing the scene in its tragic fidelity. To be sure, the actors are positioned on the stage, and memory—this masterful dramaturge—orchestrates the movement and the sound. The transparent look of naive wonder on your face, the tentative glance half wishing to be returned, or so I think. We stare out at the relentless downpour from the safety of the shed—the world disappears. How did I feel then?

Many a year ago in chemistry class, I learnt of what I thought was a rather poetic phenomenon at the level of the atomic nucleus. At any one time, either the position or the momentum of an electron can be determined—but never both simultaneously. This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And this is the catch-22 of memory: to remember the factuality of the scene is to forget the drowsy sensation of something a little like love. It is a feeling that is at once an ache and a warm glow. And yet to recall this is to let the canvas dissolve into a knot of irresolvable qualia. I can never piece together the full picture. Or else, I fear that doing so would finally fill the absence and extinguish that imaginary flame. Memory is a wall of dancing shadows—every man’s private Plato’s Cave.

Now I understand what you meant when you said feelings are a funny thing. We never really forget them—only how to describe them. For all its signifying potential, the reaches of language are frustratingly limited. I have realised, with protracted dismay, that I will never be able to render in writing the firing of a billion neurons on that rainy afternoon—and that terrible, terrific memory of something a little like love.

I can only fill those spaces with words, words, and more words.

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.

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.