Reprisal

“I am infinitely strange to myself.”
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

Almost two years have passed since my last entry—before the interminable rush of professional life smothered the echo of those last words. It was the longest I’d ever stayed away from honest writing; my prior hiatuses and phases of linguistic exhaustion were few and far between, and never for extended times. But with the lulling, pounding, metronomic onslaught of the necessary tide—so much time and energy was spent fighting the waves, that I somehow lost the will to write. It didn’t help that l for a time felt as one imprisoned in a panoptic cell with all my thoughts exposed; but isn’t that the portion of one consigned to the public service (at least for the next one and a half years)? Eventually, a not-misplaced paranoia doomed this little trove of thoughts to be forgotten—I closed the blog. It once did cross my mind to revive my old scribing habits; but the hyperlink was lost, and with it what remained of my creative will.

(Seems like I am right here at home with my unsurprising melancholia—some things never go away.)

I once did write that words are, in the sense of both material signifier and metaphysical symbol, an extension of my Self. So when I stumbled fortuitously on this languishing space (originally and for nine years on Blogger), it was like re-encountering—alas, the corpse of my old persona preserved, embalmed in a series of unfamiliar markings on screen. But it didn’t take very long for nostalgia to reanimate the dead, if in nowhere else but memory. As my gaze fixed on and traversed the metonymic rails, line after line, a flood of flurried images, half-moving, coursed through the cinematic screen in my mind—of moments that I described, and more vividly, the euphoric rush of sentiments. I felt like a reunion. That romantic turn of phrase, that lingering em-dash, that self-aware yet indulgently theatrical tragic touch—undeniably fragments of past lives performed, recovered.

Yet that familiarity, at first a welcome gush of velvet warmth, very soon lost its hospitable texture. In the sympathy there was a sharp awareness of the painful distinctiveness between the subject apprehending the object and the object itself. Familiarity, or similarity, is not identity. The exhilaration left me very quickly. I suddenly became acutely conscious of the strangeness in my present—the radical difference between my current consciousness and this historic subjectivity. Then all nostalgia took on a phantasmal quality, like ghosts—haunting; the (im)material of loss. There was a jeering vacuity.

With the momentary receding of the school year—as the tide draws away to reveal some ancient footpath, but only for a time before it is drowned again—I have been forced to confront the tragedy in the feeling that I have done nothing for myself over the past two years. In the absence of the flight and frenzy that besieged the academic term, the shore is laid bare—naked and questioning. Professionally in every way, I have outdone myself and rejoiced for it. But there resides a reef (dead or inanimate, I’m not sure) beneath the veneer of coursing, vigorous blue; as though one day the tide brought in an imperceptible toxin that blew out the life from those deep corals.

Sure, I have consistently worked twelve-hour days from dawn and leaving only at dusk to return home; but only to continue the labour inwardly—lesson ideas, task-tracking, self-doubt. Dinner was a running checklist; did I forget to collect some administrative paraphernalia from the students? Do I have time to finish this scene of Romeo and Juliet tomorrow with only an hour to spare? How can I appear to be a more credible resource to my students given my age? Am I doing enough—can I ever do enough? The overcompensation for a wanton insecurity was immense, if not catastrophic. And weekends were sold in Faustian transactions at an empty Starbucks—wrestling with an unending slew of marking and lesson planning—trading time for the myth of absolute assurance.

And the worst was that there was nowhere to give voice to these spinning gears—spinning, at times, almost past control. It was the mute running of an analogue timepiece—silent and measured in its advance, but beneath those striding feet, everywhere a clattering of microcosmic sounds heard only by the watchmaker. But there was no stopping; Time’s only way is forward.

Now fast-forward; two years and a thousand unsaid but unforgotten thoughts have almost gone by. I sit here at the turn of the year resolving to write away this inward alterity—a Sisyphean but necessary working through. The difference runs deep, like a fault line born of a some seismic turmoil. Given the nature of my profession, I know I risk—even with painstaking precaution—the intrusion of some ingenious eye with a knack for finding a needle in a haystack; I have learnt not to underestimate the shrewdness and persistence of the adolescent digital native. But I can no longer remain silent. I must resume my quest for meaning, without which I am non-sense.

This search for self-knowledge, while always to me an intuitive pursuit, has only gotten more fraught and frantic as I grow up trying to find a place in the world—before I am shuffled off the edge of a delusional eternity. No, it is not a pragmatic or functional place; not even an existential one. If the world is plainly a phenomenological construct of the mind (as empiricists believe), then the crisis is a profoundly psychological one.

And even now, as I begin writing again, I find myself still trying to write out—against the unspeakability of thought—the signs of my own mind, like one roving thread into a bundled fiction of the Self.

Bodies of Evidence

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
H. P. Lovecraft

I’ve been sitting here on a cold Tuesday evening for the past two hours with words that I have written and rewritten, and still the page remains a bleak, whitewashed canvas. The trappings that now streak gingerly across this desolate waste are all I can afford; I send them to their doom—nomads in the middle of this silent sahara. There is no doubt an urgency to write—this gnawing anxiety at things undone—after remaining silent for so long. But I fail to speak, again. A thousand thoughts swirl and converge in a raging tempest, but its updraft cannot raise the dead in the most literal sense. These are the dead-weighted corpses of those who have wandered and lost their way in the boundless dark—they are strewn in solitary lines, and their bones litter/letter the blistering tundra. The dead—they say, but they do not speak.

Perhaps it is because this place has been given to the public eye/I of late. I mean, it certainly has always invited visits and stopovers from the wandering reader, but recent developments (read: school) have reminded me of how much I dislike my writing being read for all the wrong reasons. My words supplement my Self—it re-presents it, it does not make it present. All writing is belated in the simplest sense. Every Self-in-writing dies with writing. Consequently, I am never the person I write as. The last thing I want is for my words to misrepresent me just because they have been misconstrued by those oblivious to who the ontological Self is. I can control the prose I craft—their cut and quality, shine and contour; but I am powerless over the gaze of the one who spectates—this is the portion of all writers, I think. So as much as I wish to remain authentic (in the existentialist sense) and true to my principles, there is a precarious line between honesty and exposure—especially when conflating them may engender repercussions across other facets of life, from fleeting inconveniences to more insidious hearsay.

Words are dead, yes. But they remain the bodies of evidence.

For Writing’s Sake

So it’s been, what, slightly more than two weeks since I last scribbled something here — and not having the time to do so is only one of the reasons for this tardiness. Between grappling with mid-terms essays (not many actually, but as usual procrastination is a problem) and WoW/dance, I’ve found myself sorely lacking the presence of mind to actually sit in front of a blank, white screen, and move my fingers to the rhythm of my thoughts — to fill the empty spaces with representations of experience — something which used to be so intuitive, but has now become almost a chore in light of other more gratifying enjoyments (such as WoW and dance). With that in mind, I think my working life (by working here, I mean it in a functional and not social capacity) is presently more or less bifurcated distinctly into work and play, and the proverbial balance is a very unforgiving one. So, when I’m not wracking my brain over a philosophical principle or musing about research possibilities for my Honours Thesis project, there is an almost necessary swerving of consciousness to the other end of the experience continuum — the abandonment to an almost sensory or non-intuitive, non-intellectual state of mind (or non-mind). This is of course not to imply that WoW is a brain-draining void — it’s just that the mind’s engagement with it is more spontaneous, and gratification is correspondingly more immediate. The same can certainly be said for dance, which is several orders of magnitude more intense and moment-bound than WoW, no doubt.

Yes, I thankfully checked myself before tumbling down that soul-consuming rabbit hole again. I’m constantly reminded that I no longer have the patience nor time to muse idly and at length about the philosophical implications of certain trivial matters; but the impulse to analyze and procure rational meaning is indefatigable. This is the allure of creating knowledge, of conjuring and constructing architectures of meaning from the base brickwork and steel scaffolds of experience — an exercise in world-fashioning.

I think I’ll force myself to stop here, and use this as an opportunity to disrupt the self-imposed expectation that to write is to write voluminously. Apparently I have enough academic writing to do this semester and the next, so I’d rather that vein of lengthy, self-conscious, self-assessing mode of writing not seep into my reflections here. The less laboured my rhetorical logic is, the greater the ease with which I write, and the more natural and less encumbered my thought processes become. Hopefully writing tersely will encourage me to write more regularly in the coming weeks, although by the looks of it I really can’t promise myself anything.

Thoughts — they are always running, sprinting, vaulting in the concave of my mind, across parabolic walls in intersecting lines. Now they languish in the ambient panorama, now they force themselves into vivid consciousness. Sometimes they become so convoluted, or so enmeshed in the viscera of emotion, that they are tedious to express, if not inexpressible. Or sometimes we don’t bother, because to represent them in writing is to ontologically affirm them — to give them meaning that transcends their transience — to arrest the transaction, to catch at the breath of speech, the spark of neurons — to give them material weight. And we all know that too much weight soon becomes a burden.

Writing, Dance, and Desire

I can’t believe that I’ve actually been sitting here for almost an hour thinking about what to write, in the meantime alternating, with considerable languor and inertia, between YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, and Facebook; in short, doing anything but writing. I seem to be deferring the act itself, of rendering thought material. Somehow I’ve lately been made more acutely aware of the irreparable disjunction between thought and speech; the process of transcription is so heavily modulated (by the forces or Force that be), that I’m beginning to realise that my words are so contrived – without my meaning to be. I feel depersonalized, or de-subjectified; my thinking Self slides out of the visceral machinery – the writing Self, the aggregation of physiological operations – and I watch my fingers run the length of the keyboard. My ears prick at the mechanical tapping, the morse code, the clattering of raindrop words on whitewashed pavements; marks that stain them with language and taxonomy. These eyes are glazed over, enthralled by the stream of materializing thought – the metaphysical, prephysical made physical, visual. Such an absorbing spectacle – this utterance ex nihilo, this hypnotic trance. But enough of this; I grow weary of meta-thinking, meta-writing, or meta-whatever. I want to feel as, to desire as. I don’t want to know what it is, I want to know what it is like to be.

That is why writing seems like an insufferable chore these days. I write, but there is no satisfaction, no closure, no guarantee of a one-to-one transaction in which what is spoken is what is heard. No, it is through no fault of language; if it is fallible, then its fallibility is an intrinsic property, and not a defect. We have always operated under the premise that unless speaker and listener are one and the same, meaning will always be refracted and distorted in the transactions of speech. The discrepancy I speak of, I think, lies with the speaker. The speaker that second-guesses his words, or whose thoughts cannot seem refuse to be circumscribed in the markings of the institution. It is not that he is above language, but contrarily, that he feels subjugated by its constructions. Is it paranoia? I don’t quite know – I’ll have to ask him one of these days. It seems pretty laughable, to be honest, for someone to feel like he must be wary of his own words; wait, his own words, you say? Ah, now there’s the rut. But well, even if they aren’t his own, at the very least it has been with his own volition that these words have found enunciation in writing. Still, he is not absolved of being the object of surveillance; when we deploy language, we assimilate and exercise its rules – we perform the very institution. The panopticon is within us. I am your jailor, as much as you are mine.

Or maybe it’s because of late I’ve unlocked a radically different, more instinctual sort of writing – in dance, where desire and energy are projected outwardly, immediately – intact and unadulterated in their raw form. Every movement is an expression of a fundamental desire to move, to navigate and traverse space and time. Dance does not pretend to be transcendent; it is immanent and situated in the here and now – the performance (hurhur) of the carpe diem philosophy. It is premised on the moment. Desires hitherto obstructed or inhibited are channeled into locomotive impulses; they inflect the moving physiology with a certain attitude – some call this swag. Somehow, I’ve never felt freer while dancing; but that doesn’t mean I am any less at ease or free as I am. I guess there are two modes of freedom implicit here: the first belongs to the self-reflexive/existential domain – I am aware of being free even as I operate under certain restrictive frameworks. The second (afforded by dance) is a momentary freedom to desire; it achieves the polar opposite – it demands that constructed Self is abandoned and self-consciousness is abjured. This gives precise meaning to the advice that is usually dispensed to beginners: “Dance like no one is watching”. Aye, not even your Self. And so you disinhibit this body of transcendental superstructures, and allow for the emergence of latent desires and their transient mastery over physical locomotion. By latent desires I certainly don’t mean the Freudian or Lacanian sort; I mean the ones that have been suppressed in deference to a higher social agenda (and which may essentially stem from said primordial desire). But since they are not equivalent to nor do they constitute the Lacanian primordial desire, it follows that some imposed regulation must evidently be in place despite the unbridled mobility of desire. Therefore even as one embraces this ephemeral surge of freedom, he still operates within an arbitrating framework, albeit a considerably more forgiving one that certainly resides outside the purview of the symbolic Father, or is at least several degrees removed from His damning gaze.

As usual, what I’d intended to be an obligatory, token update has burgeoned unwittingly into yet another pointless tract on (what else but) desire. I’ve realised that my writing has taken a rather clinical (and skeptical) turn of late, and it’s beginning to seem a little tiresome. (If writing is already a chore, then proofreading is probably Sisyphean). But then again, this harks back to the issue with words – their unreliability, inadequacy, exclusivity – that makes writing these days so laborious or almost meaningless. So unless I endeavour to establish some sort of ecliptic alignment – some way to steer the trajectory of thought in tandem with the trajectory of language – in which I may not simply write but write as, I’m going to find myself held hostage indefinitely in this dreary existential drama of words. And even as I write as I, I will always be writing in the third person, because it is not the existential I (author-equivalent) that speaks, but the symbolic I (narrator-equivalent) which, in virtue of being situated within the symbolic order, is forever the obsequious, desireless object – the intermediary, messenger, mouthpiece.

Like a ghost in the machine.

Next Stop

I think I’ve run out of words to say what I really mean; or else, I am no longer the writer that writes to mean what he wants to say.

I watch the flickering bar traverse with hesitant speed the width of white space, leaving black marks in its wake, segmented or circumscribed by intermittent chasmic distance. My fingers type – they speak; we call those, words. Each little carriage is fettered to its preceding and succeeding car, and the entire vehicle we say, is a sentence. The engine groans and sputters, and throws its pioneering weight forward into the dark, like a throbbing, desiring body. It is fed fuel – it insists, and plies the length of those rust-enrusted rails. Chug, chug – metonyms for movement. The train, it moves because it has to; no, because it wants to. But it is condemned to run these weatherworn tracks, to get somewhere. Where? Wherever these rails take us, I suppose. The captain is asleep at the controls; his breathing is light, and regular. He twitches, he is smiling – is he dreaming? Well, does it matter? Next stop: next stop.

But the passengers, they always want to get somewhere some where, for who takes the train if only to commute from point A to point B? Husbands all suited up for work, mothers taking their kids to school, and the listless maid dragging her empty burden of a trolley to the market; they all intend to go some where, and they get there eventually. But there is no one on this train. No one ever embarks anymore. If anyone does, it’s usually the destitute and desperate homeless who make nowhere their destination, who get on and never leave. They die there, and the captain (when ever he is awake) binds their hands and feet and tosses them overboard, into a black stagnant stream from across a bridge, or along the natural gutters – tall grass and wild shrubbery that line the tracks. No, you don’t want them crawling around and begging even when they’re dead.

The captain falls willingly into slumber, to the sway and metronomic clocking of wheels against the iron tracks, because he knows that the course is determined – there is only one way, and that is forward, and forward along these familiar rails. What place does intentionality have on this journey? That is why he sleeps, because sleep is the theatre of possibility, of a world without tracks, or else of trackless trains. In this somnolent drama, he leaps off the verge of a carriage with doors flung ajar, and tumbles onto the grassy meadows of the countryside. There he lies, catching his breath, and taking in the immensity of his self-directedness. He goes anywhere but forward; no, he does – he goes forward in different directions. He darts from side to side, stopping when he wishes, hastening when he wants. Now he’s sprinting to catch the sunset and its fading last light, now he’s chasing the shadow of the night that flees in the face of dawn. After awhile, he grows tired, and slumps against a great rain-tree in the middle of a nowhere that is a some where, and falls awake to the droning of the eternal engine, and the sobering beep of buttons and rickety levers that demand attention.

I have watched the flickering bar traverse again and again the width of this white space, leaving black marks in its wake that try to mean what I say, but fail. The bar continues to flicker. Now there is speech and nothing, now there is only speech. With utmost vehemence, I make the bar stay – I signify it. | On this side, at the moment of fixation – of fixing the bar – there was at first empty space and a silence. I tried enunciating this silence – describing it, and to make myself conscious of it – but it immediately ceased to be silence. The bar, once made material and inscribed as ‘|’, loses its symbolic function – it becomes just another metonym, just another mark. It no longer delineates signifier from signified; it is no longer the resistance to signification. It has itself become signifier. It is the corpse of the metaphysical bar that perdures – still flashing, ahead. And so silence is deferred, again, and again. There is something in this raw, primordial silence lying just beyond the bar that wishes to speak; but this train, this language, this imperious prismatic vehicle refracts, distorts, and maims the voice, so that it always only says, but does not speak. When we try to articulate the silence, it is not silence that speaks, but the words that stand for silence. Try as we may, we only re-present silence; we can never present it. But there is so much this silence wishes to communicate – a fecund infinitude before us, unreachable.

So this elusive bar continues to flicker with condescending, nonchalant regularity – on my screen, at the verge of abyssal silence, and to taunt, knowing that it is transcendental – it stands outside speech and silence; it is the system. I know that you wouldn’t, and you can’t – but I dare you anyway. I dare you to vault over this archaic, discarnate barricade – the monolithic wall of our symbolic Father, taking with you none of His words for companions, into the primordial unspeakable.

I dare you to cross the bar. |

The Metaphysics of Poetry

I really ought to thank one of my professors for introducing us to the Paramedic Method of prose writing. Since then, I’ve recalibrated my verbiage extensively (I think) – staying away from passive voice, using fewer dashes (my favourite punctuation), and cutting down on prepositional phrases that dilute the thrust of the sentence. I wouldn’t say that I have managed to completely excise artifice from my writing, but as far as keeping the text consistent and reasonably succinct, I think I have come a long way.

Recently, I’ve been plying through some of my old poems – haikus, blank and free verse, sonnets – that were written in an instantaneous, lurid discharge of creative energy, or what we usually call surge of inspiration. Some, if not all, are simply cringe-worthy, not owing to overly romanticized and idyllic content – they remain philosophically and personally relevant. They are difficult and embarrassing to get through because of the convoluted and ponderous extended metaphors I deploy; not that it’s bad or anything – I love metaphysical poetry. It’s just that the figurative language, already complex in itself, was made even more unwieldy by the sheer proportion of periphrastic description of the same metaphor, to the effect of ‘my cup runneth over’. For example, if I deploy the castle to metaphorically embody Reason, the conceit tends to run amok in various parallel directions; this not only dissolves the logic of the extended metaphor, but also spreads too thinly the evocative power across the verse, such that the poem becomes dense and hollow at the same time – dense with verbosity that lacks a poetic punch. I begin talking about the excluding and secluding castle walls one moment, and then leap to the King of the castle, then to his guards, then what lies outside the castle – you get my drift. It is nigh impossible to establish a one-to-one relation between the symbolic system of the extended metaphor, and the immediate concerns of the poem. As such, a (modern) metaphysical poet should select and expound upon elements of the conceit that are most significant, or he risks making the liaison between sign and reality disconcertingly and (worst of all) unintentionally apparent.

In any case, I’ve begun to revise my previous works in the hope of redeeming them from obscurity (pun intended), and at the same time distilling the essence of what it means to be a competent poet. I’m rather skeptical of ever holding my own in the local literary scene, largely because my subject matter is more metaphysical (in the strict philosophical sense) and of the Western tradition than most, and I know at least one person who has accused me of falling sway to residual colonialism, the very taint that the local scene is probably trying to rid itself of. But I’m not particularly concerned about that, since my personal investment still resides with the essay form, and there are other channels through which I can share my compositions.

It’s true that as a still relatively nascent city-state we are struggling to forge a national literary identity, and so we ravenously grasp at anything and everything Singaporean by eliminating the overtly colonial elements. Even if we do integrate colonialism, it is always on our own terms – this is natural and even highly encouraged. I guess I’m just resentful of the fact that the education system has hitherto fed me with the canon of Western literature, and it now expects me to conform to the phantom of literary nationalism. But the creative malleability to attune one’s idiom to the rhythm of local, cultural experience despite having been steeped in the classical Western canon, is perhaps a defining trait of a true modern poet. In that sense therefore, I still fall dismally short of expectation – there is this openness to experience that I presently lack.

When I’ve done away with this latent indignation against this two-faced superstructure, I’ll be able to write poetry about construction workers, post-colonialism, and the paper-chase that most Singaporeans would find resonance with. Yes.