Romance and Metaphysics

“We’re going down,
And you can see it too;
We’re going down
And you know that we’re doomed.
My dear, we’re slow dancing in a burning room.”
— John Mayer, ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’

If there is any one lesson I’ve internalized after years of grappling with the Fall, it is this — that one should never take love seriously.

I remember long ago (in one of my entries) making the distinction between phenomenology of love — the feeling and sensation of being romantically involved — and the logic undergirding the performance of love, the mechanics of romantic desire. If I’m not wrong, I implicitly argued that while romantic feelings are spontaneous and erratic, attraction is a very rational process. I mean, there are cultural, psychological, and biochemical processes explaining how and why we fall in love (with someone); and if we are hardcore determinists — at the risk of being overly but justifiably reductive — we can maintain that at bottom, love consists essentially in the collision of atoms and molecules. Of course, no romantic would want to grant that, and we are all romantics in some guise or another, whether we believe in Fate or interpersonal chemistry. Such a scientifically reductionist approach to defining or understanding love grates against the strongest of our intuitions — although love makes us believe anything sometimes.

Yet even if we remove the microscope a tier or two higher up the explanatory hierarchy — at the level of psychological analysis — we still observe the same casual relations subsisting between discrete units: neurons, psyches, individuals. All we have done is simply to overlay the disconcertingly mechanical operations of love at the atomic chemical level with more aesthetic or intellectually comfortable concepts; we replace collisions with desire, desire with love, and love with Love capitalized and transcendental. Still there remains a thread of logical rigour that weaves these seemingly disparate strata of discourses into a unifying fabric — a kind of operational blueprint of romance. While ostensibly counter-intuitive, this systemic conception of love is a no less valid one. Before the clueless romantic gets all up-in-arms with accusations that I have desecrated the altar of Eros, I wish to remind him/her that this is an objective account of love. Just because you don’t immediately see or feel the underlying causality (and we can’t) doesn’t mean it isn’t operant.

Anyway, all is well and reasonable — this polyvalent yet conceptually singular understanding of the causal action of love — until we (or rather, the romantics amongst us) venture passionately to claim, perhaps under the auspices of Aphrodite, that love is nothing but an inexplicable, intoxicating feeling. That is to say, love just happens, and when it does, it is mysterious and esoteric. What we would have done in making this assertion is to not only (1) make the convenient leap from ontology (love as system) to phenomenology (love as experience), but also to (2) deny one and privilege the other.

To transit from the logic of romantic action to the sensation of love — to equate and conflate them — I think, is a kind of fallacy of identity.

A romantic fallacy, if you will — something that perhaps the aforementioned romantic would champion and fiercely defend. Yet in his construction of love as pure sensation, it deserves mention that the romantic would be just as guilty of the reductionist charge that he had leveled against the determinist earlier (for reducing love to mechanics).

Now, as we observed earlier, from physics to biochemistry to neural systems to psyches, and finally to individual persons, the causality or logic of love at each tiered system is evident (and essentially identical). But once we stack the phenomenology of love onto this equivalence hierarchy, the thread of identity is broken. This is because while the chemical, psychological, and cultural machinations of love are rational processes, the sensation of love — its phenomenology — is anything but rational. It is purely and only felt, and no depth of intellectual discourse can induce in a mind the feeling of being romantically affected. It is no different from the fact that we can never reproduce a touch, or a taste, or a smell, or an image by means other than a spontaneous engagement with the senses. Even in dreams, their imaginary analogues cannot ever match the degree of intimacy that characterizes the immediate sensations — of actually smelling a rose on a mildly drizzling evening, or waking up to a warm wash of sunbeams pouring forth from an open curtain.

Why then are we so intuitively inclined to conflate the raw sense impressions of love (what it feels like) with its objective ontological account (what it is), such that — falling as much in love as into the trap of the romantic fallacy — we claim that love is feeling the rush of dizzying adrenaline, or the self-consuming desire for another? The answer is pretty straightforward: we only have access to the phenomenology of love. Can we see the undergirding clockwork causality — the directors or stage-masters — of romantic performance? No; what we feel is the pathos of the performance, the enthralling heights of ecstasy and the annihilating abyss of loss. We do not and can never perceive the biochemical precursors to what we feel and identify as phenomenological love. What we immediately perceive is the very intimate force of romantic sense impressions engendered by mechanical processes we cannot see or feel. This is why it is so easy to say that love is and only is phenomenology — pure sensation. At one level it is; but one cannot discount the fact that there is another dimension of romance that is operant as a foundational substratum, and which brings into effect or causes the sensations of love that we spontaneously experience. The relation between the invisible logic of love and the experience of love is not one of identity, but causality.

Because all we personally know of love is the sensations it impresses upon consciousness, we can only refer to them, or their memory, when we make decisions or judgments that may affect the course of our romantic endeavours. As we all know, love as phenomenology (or feeling) is fundamentally irrational in virtue of consisting in sense impressions, since as mentioned earlier, sense impressions are beyond the purview of Reason (and therefore not-rational). As such, just as how we spontaneously perceive light from the Sun, or heat from a stove, feeling romantic affect is immediate — that is to say, it is not mediated by the judicious gatekeeper, Reason, or the wise old man, Memory. When we feel attracted to someone, we don’t form internal arguments from premises and arrive at the conclusion that we like him/her; we just feel. No act of judgment is involved, at least not until we make decisions on the basis of these sensations.

And when finally we do, we are susceptible to the same errors of judgement as one unwittingly falls prey to upon believing that he sees a yellow wall in front of him, when in fact what he perceives is a white wall under yellow light. Our senses deceive us — or rather, they are imperfect and thus fallible — and latching onto those faulty impressions, we inevitably make misguided judgements that do not immediately seem faulty. The same mode of misrecognition and misjudgment is evident in our experience of love and how we navigate our romantic geography. Often along the way, there are mirages of reciprocal attraction — perhaps we misinterpret a certain gesture or a particular vocal inflection, and thus mistakenly infer the possibility of affection. Then we begin to invest our expectations and ideals in what we perceive to be a prospective relationship, only to realize later that the oasis is a lie — a self-conjured illusion. And it is very difficult to blame anyone but ourselves, because no one else sees the same things we do — our emotional states inflect our personal phenomenology. Truly, we see and feel what we want to, and sometimes not even the incessant hammering of Reason at psyche’s door can convince us otherwise.

And so no matter how rational and mechanical the underlying processes of love are, there is always the possibility of delusion at the level of sensations, and subsequent errors of judgement in decision-making. We are only granted access to the irrational facet of love, and because its foundational system of surefire causality is irrevocably removed from us and our senses, we can never be too sure of ourselves when we do fall in love. Our only certainty is of what we feel when we are finally loving someone. Nothing can prepare us for that, or anything that follows from that moment of genesis.

In short, romance is a kind of religion, if you ask me. Not in the sense of being an institution with a monolithic center, but rather in the way that it demands a leap of faith — to jump even though we’re not quite sure what lies ahead. The essential difference is that you may lose your footing while making that romantic vault, but no God will be there to catch you when you fall. Because not even our faith can save us, we’re better off wearing simulacra of our hearts on our disposable sleeves, while keeping the Heart safe where it rightfully belongs — right here, at Home.

One should never take love seriously.

Four and Twenty

Let’s be honest, this isn’t going to work – this one-post-per-week regime that has emerged as an instinctive knee-jerk response to the sheer absence of any impetus on my part to write. It’s not that I no longer enjoy writing; I just don’t see the point in writing (here, anymore). This is no longer the authentic act of what Heidegger terms poesis – of the Self – of unconcealing the eidetic core of the I, and bringing it to the fore into the unravelling ellipse of epiphanic light where shadows disperse on all sides to reveal the I as it is. Of course, it is unwieldy and unnecessarily naive to expect that words can in anyway operate as the touchstone of the soul (whatever it consists in). As I’ve probably iterated a gazillion times (to the point of nausea) in the preceding entries, the world – our experience, ourselves – we are forever refracted by language; and it doesn’t end there. This conclusion is an auxiliary that only paves the way for a much stronger claim. (And as usual, at this juncture I proceed on an annoying tangent that is completely not the point of this post, but which I have to take to its upshot because I’ve already begun. Ignore the following paragraph if exasperated).

If as Hume suggested, we cannot be certain of the existence of an external cosmos, then all experience is empirical, and all knowledge derived empirically. Our epistemological grasp of the world is a whirl of sense data, albeit differentiated – but by what framework or template? How can we tell the red apple sense datum from the wooden table sense datum? Intuitively and ineluctably, our taxonomic navigation of the world is made possible by nothing other than language. So we have data on two very different but compounding metaphysical strata. In the primary, we have raw, visceral sense impressions – the softness of fur, the redness of an apple, the coarseness of wood. This constitutes fundamental apprehension (of objects in the world, although by using the term ‘objects’ I have already presupposed some degree of linguistic taxonomy or naming); until our entrance into language, these perceptions remain an undifferentiated chaos. In the second, we have the nomenclature – the linguistic ascriptions – of these perceptual phenomena; we call that soft silky stuff ‘fur’, that edible red fruit ‘apple’, and the material rough to the touch, ‘wood’. This involves a voluntary judgment that, as we have discovered, is collectively determined by the society in which the language in question is operant. Needless to say, it is language as a system of differences that accords our experience – our perceptions – meaning, without which one wouldn’t be able to distinguish a cat from a dog, or (to use a more fitting example), where the sea ends and the sky begins. As such, if we are only granted access to the ‘world’ through sense perceptions, and can in turn only differentiate (and hence render useful) these impressions by linguistically organizing them, then it necessarily follows that our world in its entirely is an immense textual space. Heck, we may go as far to say that we are language.

This is the more forceful claim that replaces the earlier one – that language refracts. If phenomenology is all that we’re assured of, then language does not refract any extant world or ontology. There is no world to refract. This world is language, a fiction – a text, and this is the Truth.

After that insufferable digression, I (finally) return to the crux of this entry – my writing has ceased to be poesis. I am not writing myself anymore. I am not writing to clarify – I am writing to obscure. The above wall of nigh incomprehensible jargon and the series of entries leading right up to this one are explicit (implicit?) testaments. I have been indulging in intellectualization to shade, to dissemble something – sentiments. Pathetic sentiments that struggle always to reach out towards the surface – to break the boundary between liquid silence and sonorous air, but fail again and again because the repeating waves smother them; or else there is a perpetual tempest thrashing and flailing above that drowns (out) these voices.

I turn 24 in less than thirty minutes, and I can’t help but wonder where the I is, under all this. Behold, here is another post fed full with immaterial theories and conjectures that flourish on a different plane, away from the immediate, away from what I am feeling right now – away from the things that matter to me now. Do you really believe all this time, while going on about psychoanalytic desire, language, and phenomenology, that I’ve actually only been thinking about them? Why yes I have – but I have been feeling and thinking about something else too, something so much more relevant and pressing to myself than these metaphysical castles that I’ve built out of the time meant for more genuine reflection. It’s the dreamwork all over again – displacement; the transvaluation of mental elements – the inversion of the hierarchy of importance, such that what really matters is relegated to the surrounding mist, the thin, vapid atmosphere – the stage, while some utterly dreary, pedantic trapping is correspondingly monumentalized and even fetishized – as the spectacle. But no, no place for theorizing right now – I want to stop.

***

saudade, n.
sauˈdadə
The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. It is the mysterious melancholy which sighs at the back of every joy. (OED)

Saudade was once described as ‘the love that remains’ after someone is gone. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence.

This emotional state appears to be a symptom of losing someone to some kind of uncertainty or non-closure. It’s like someone tells you he’s going out to get some groceries, but he never returns; and so you wait by that open door everyday, with an intermixed sentiment of hopeful vigilance and dire resignation. And somehow this intolerable complex of emotions can never, ever be resolved because the time and place for resolution has come and passed away. But still, there is a sliver of possibility – it’s just that the contrary, impossibility, is so overwhelming that this possibility is seized and sublimated into a kind of fantasy or fixation. Sometimes it’s so difficult to tell whether there truly is still a chance of return, of reprisal; or if we merely miss something so much to the point of constructing an enduring imaginary ideal in its absence. Thus we phase in and out of self-conjured fictions and brutal reality, like the ghosts of shipwrecked mariners who have missed Charon’s vessel, wishing always to go home, but all the while knowing that the only home now is anywhere but home.

Somehow I think, this is going to last for always.

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.

The Mourning After

“The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love. In yet other cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”
Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancholia (1917)

What have I lost, that in its losing I have also lost the best days of my life to this pathology of indefinite mourning? Wait, no – it’s melancholia, says Freud; exactly what it is. In every waking moment of my life since the great Aftermath, there has been this lingering spiritual presence of mourning – an ashen pall that inflects my phenomenology with a hue of irrational sorrow. Occasionally I forget, and momentarily I am free – the colours return, and there is a bloom, a letting go, and a freedom. But soon after, the oppression returns, redoubling in vehemence – an insistence on remembering, on prolonging, on recreation, on reanimation; and every present and future event becomes an iteration – no – reiteration of the Past, a repetition of grief in each atom that bears the faintest resemblance to the unspoken and the unspeakable. Of course, after three years, I know better than to allow Memory and pathos to conspire against the best of my Reason and wreak unholy havoc on my emotional constitution. But as master of my Self, I am as much fettered to the Other in my guardianship, as he is to me in his compelled subjugation. Ever so often, in my wrestle with a restless and resurgent Memory, I suddenly lose all awareness of my bearing, my coordinates, and the slave who to me is inextricably bound seems – in all his ferocity and adamancy – so much like my master. Or so much like myself. In that moment of recognition, I reel in horror, but my retreat heralds his advance, and so

This is the chase;
I am gone forever.
— Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (3.3.56-57)

I make no exit, pursued by no bear, but enter again and again into repeating frames of memory – my own mise en abyme; encompassed all round by the vacuum that opens and reopens the door to the Past, one after another, unendingly and untiringly. The sorrow is always the same – like the sonorous, nasal reverberations of stiff steel beams in the afterthoughts of passing aircrafts.

Yes, it always feels as though I’ve been mourning for one who has died, if feel is how I should be accessing this done-to-death grief. Is this a pathological case of over-romanticization, which if left unchecked boils over my phenomenology like a dreadful contagion, infecting one cell of experience after another, and precipitating a fulsome, overwrought, self-indulgent prose such as this? I always do this, this hyper-consciousness of consciousness, this meta-analysis of thought and emotional processes. Am I feeling right? Am I thinking right? Is my sorrow justified? Rationally? Logically? Conventionally? When finally the cacophony of over-excited neurons drown themselves out in their own firing, the noise becomes silence, and I am left bereft; of what, I never know.

I know and do not know what I have lost. It may have been a person; it may have been a memory; it may have been an ideal. I know I have lost something, and I’ve been spending the past few years repairing the void of its loss, swerving between joyous epiphanies and disempowered hopelessness. I am afraid that what was once a phenomenological gap – the departed experience of love – has now reified into a permanent and positive ontology. No, don’t mistake me; by that I don’t mean a real absence – I mean a real presence, of an absence; a cavalcade of endless substitutions of phantasmal presence that always refers to its absence.

I know whom I have lost, but not what I have lost in me. It is no longer – and it hasn’t been, for a long time now – about the particular instance of that loss, the relinquishing of a sensory possession, the experience of a person. It is now about a lost philosophy, a lost ideation. Is that what I have lost in myself? What does Freud mean? I know: what part of myself have I lost? Yes, that is what I have lost – the access to a Platonic form; it is not something extraneous – it is intrinsically a part of my psychology, and I have lost it. I have lost someone and Someone.

At this point, I laugh at myself, half-amused, half-unamused. It’s been such a long time. But it’s a rupture, such as this one, that dredges up the entire rotting corpus of Memory, together with its accompaniment of emotional codes. Like one in a darkened room who is suddenly met with his face in the mirror, I recoil in horror at what I find. And even after I regain my composure, and peer at the echo of my own body in the glass, I can’t help thinking – that isn’t me. Or why then should I be disturbed and unsettled by my own image? Popular discourse on the uncanny is irrelevant. This is not psychoanalysis; this is simple phenomenology. I just want to know why I seem to forget which side of the mirror I’m on. The more I scrutinize the planar spectre, the more disembodied I feel. Am I looking at myself, or is my Self looking at me? I gaze and gaze;

Until there is nothing but an image left.