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?

Dawn of Reason

“O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce
And evil turn to good more wonderful
Than that which by Creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!”
John Milton, Paradise Lost (XII.469-72)

This is my obligatory ‘recovery’ post, because if there is anything writing my Honours Thesis has taught me, it is that I need closure, no matter how spectral, no matter how specious; presence must always succeed absence, and recovery, trauma. This presence does not need to be ontological—existing. I only need to believe it—it only needs to be epistemological; I only need to feel it—it only needs to be phenomenological.

When I first conceived the subject of my HT—tracing the fall and rise of Milon’s Satan—on a train ride home about eight months ago, I thought: hey, this potentially qualifies as a kind of self-narrative, doesn’t it? I mean, it is the allegorical performance of everyone’s life; it’s about losing Eden and recovering that lost presence in another guise. But as I proceeded with a more detailed formulation of my thesis this semester—when I finally began writing—I realised Paradise is forever lost to Satan, and there is no recovery. No, I don’t mean the actual corporeal Paradise, or the paradise within; I simply mean that state of fullness and self-assuredness—that simple vocalization of identity: this is me, I am he. As I wrote my first words, I wanted adamantly to redeem this fallen morning star: if he is precluded from divine salvation, then at least, at the very, very least, please return him his Self—the most intimate possession of any sentient being. But no, I’ve realised, even that reprisal is impossible. And my thesis has metamorphosed to reflect this futility, this debarring, this immense void irreparable.

I am done with the nexus of my thesis—the twinned architecture of trauma and recovery of Satan, amounting to some 8500 words and more. And I realise that I’ve unconsciously projected more of myself into my work than I’ve dared to imagine. Every single section is a discursive repetition of some event, some fall, some rise; in my writing I have inadvertently procured reasons for why I do the things I do, or feel what I feel. At times I half-remember tapping out those same words over whiskey—half-drunk—here on this page, in the dead of night, many nights ago.

And although I know we can never return home to Eden, maybe—just maybe—Eden has always been within us, always, now and forever, in the trying.

Hall of Mirrors

There is either a black hole, or a tremendous weight in the very heart of the subject I call ‘I’, whose ravenous gravity tears at him from the inside. Everyday, its vehement force — its distorting mirror — twists and contorts the Soul (whatever it is) within, and shows him an internal difference, an epistemic alterity.

Get out.

But you cannot; I cannot. We both rush for the door that opens to each other, and upon prying the portal ajar, we flinch in horror at each our unfamiliar visage — unheimlich. Where then is our escape before we fall senseless into each other’s abyss? I am your mirror, face to face; but we never stare each other in the eye — our gaze is always on the everlasting hall of mirrors behind the other. We struggle to break free; but every mirror that shatters against our desperate blows begets yet more — our hideous progeny. There is multiplicity within; and the reiteration of the signifier is disempowerment — death.

So please, if I may at least speak to plead: speak. Escape the Imaginary. Get out before the mise en abyme ensnaresconsumesobliterates. Speak — desire — do anything but stay here, inside, where your own gaze — thousand-eyed — damns you.

So speak, to break the silence of these cyclic mirrors.

A Second Shadow

‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart, and bids it break.’
Shakespeare, Macbeth (IV.III.209-10)

When he finally knew — when it was finally enunciated, explicitly — the Past fell on his face in liquid shadows that only he could see; like a curtain call after a tragic play, the curtains descended, crushing beneath its velvet weight the courtiers, the jesters, the masquerade. A dark silence passed from stage to audience — the only audience: he, who had stayed when he was supposed to leave, and watched as Romeo imbibed his vital poison — again, and again.

It has been said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. But it didn’t make sense; it shouldn’t have happened again, because he remembered, all the time — in the theatre of his mind, where all the dead do is die and the living mourn, because it is their dramaturgic destiny. He staged the tragedy with different actors, in different spaces, and at different times, but all permutations spoke the same tragic narrative. At first it was remembrance, then it regressed into compulsion, and it was only after the compulsion turned to habit, and habit to ritual, that he understood the meaninglessness of the repetition — the repeated staging. The signifier, once so inextricably intertwined and enmeshed with its traumatic signified, was finally cleaved asunder from its transcendence, which had, in fact, long vanished behind the devouring mists of a Past that was always rushing forward to meet the Present; the (first) meaning died with its genesis — the rest was the work of a Memory that refused to abandon the dead, but instead held nightly vigil beside those empty graves. Resurrection? No, they have returned to dust and only dust, or else they have always been — dust. Those gaping subterranean spaces are the resting place of convenient projections, ghosts — (im)materializations of the unattainable — of those we wanted to love but never could reach.

This is grief, you say? No, it is merely an emotional inconvenience, and its destabilizing force but a faint echo of a tragic Past. There is here no ruined castle, nor burning pyre, nor flame-seared banner, nor placid death. There is here only the silence of knowing.

When he finally knew, the Past returned to him like his own face in the mirror, in the dark. There was a blinding horror, and because he was blind he could not run away. There were invisible hands — clamps, cold and calculatedly placed — which held the gaze and forced it on the glassy abyss, in which he saw a forsaken cadaver, the body of abject pathos — his own — emerge from its watery blackness.

He looked, and he by looking knew. But even as the hopelessness fell in silver-black drapes around him — even as he could not turn away — he did not shut his eyes. He stared at the face of horror, itself horrified; he blinked, and he blinked. And for the first time he felt, if not a material oneness, then at least a specular communion with he who peered from beyond the glacial surface. That is me, said he — and suddenly, there was no mirror.

That is me, said I. Yes, I have once again felt the full force of tragic inevitability that one feels when confronted with loss, but by feeling the fatalism in its visceral completeness — by owning it, I expended — I consumed — the feeling, and by many orders dampened it. No doubt there still lingers the familiar existential weight that one grapples with in the aftermath of loss, yet this time the only object of mourning is the absent one, and not the one that could have been.

This time, I think I will not put out the sun by shutting my eyes against its blazing light. We have done that in the Past; we, wanting in our naivety to preserve and contain the Fall in its full presence, monumentalized the loss by willfully catastrophizing it — by suddenly abandoning the world (the person) that had abandoned us. The self-shattering trauma rounded off that narrative perfectly, and petrified it in bloody amber — a tragedy in three acts, the last being the most momentous. But what followed was an indefinite, damning eclipse that left us crawling and clawing, on all fours, in the shadow of a colossal loss that no amount of light could dispel.

But neither am I going to gaze myself blind, trying to take in at once the total philosophical intensity of this/that recent loss — to attempt in vain to come to terms with the fact that the sun I see is no longer there and shining.

I think, I shall simply sit on some forgotten rock by the coast, and watch the light of that phantasmal sun die — from glorious high noon, to funereal twilight.

Saving Oedipus in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963)

While it is never explicitly revealed why the birds started getting all belligerent in the first place, there is an overt speculation by one of the Bodega Bay townsfolk, a mother of two who turns hysterical as events take a turn for the worse. She openly brands Melanie Daniels (the female lead) as the cause of the avian blitz on grounds that it is only after her arrival in Bodega Bay that the attacks transpire. However, that itself is at best a weakly grounded correlation, since there is hardly any screen evidence for her being in any way consciously malicious, and thus no reason to believe that this hypothetical evil in her has caused this uncanny event.

However, I do not think that this unequivocally absolves her of all possibility of being a causal agent in the movie’s narrative trajectory. If anything, we may have sufficient justification — at the psychoanalytic/symbolic level — for positing that her sudden presence in Bodega Bay and within the Brenner household is, if not the direct cause, then at least the anchoring premise that leads up to the bird attacks.

Despite the movie’s (or Hitchcock’s) conscious and explicit declaration that the relationship between Mitch Brenner and his mother is anything but Oedipal in nature, our spectator’s intuition grates against the grain of this suspicious profession. Perhaps that is exactly Hitchcock’s intent — to bring the unconventional mother-son relationship to the fore by denying its strangeness even when there is strident cinematic evidence to assert otherwise.

Let’s suppose the dyadic relation between mother and son here is precariously Oedipal; after all, Mitch’s father is dead, and Mitch has effectively usurped the position of the patriarch in the household. The Oedipus complex has re-emerged, short of mother and son being interlocked in forbidden desire. Really? I’m of the opinion that the mother in fact desires Mitch (possibly a transference of affection from husband to son), and this prompts us to observe an inversion of desire dynamics within this localized Oedipal system. Now, it is the mother who desires the son-as-husband. Regardless of this modification, the Oedipus complex retains its structural integrity — the boy/son Mitch remains ensnared in the drama of desire. Only this time it is not him that must negotiate this forbidden desire, but his own mother.

Enter Melanie Daniels, an attractive young lady for whom Mitch develops affections and eventually pursues romantically. Immediately, it is evident that the mother becomes jealous, at certain junctures almost to the extent of being hysterical (such as the bed scene above). She is afraid of losing her husband-in-Mitch to another woman — this is almost an uncanny case of extramarital affairs (and perhaps even qualifies as a second death of her husband). The mother begins to overtly exhibit nuances of possessiveness that verge on being very much like the spite of a jilted lover. Inevitably, his mother’s aversive response to Melanie’s presence compels Mitch to develop an awareness of this abnormal relationship with her; castration anxiety instinctively follows this consciousness of the familial taboo, and this forces Mitch to disavow his mother’s subversive attempts to claim him as her lover.

On screen, this castration anxiety is squarely displaced onto the fear of the bird attacks. If we notice carefully, the unfortunate deceased of these attacks always have their eyes torn out or gouged out — this resonates neatly with the tragedy of Oedipus who, when he finds out he has married his mother, proceeds to blind himself with her brooch as self-punishment. Blinding is therefore an act of symbolic castration — a psychoanalytically necessary consequence of indulging in incestuous relations. The deaths of Annie Hayworth and Mitch’s neighbour (and more saliently their blinding) therefore qualify as harbingers of Mitch’s castration, a trauma which would come to pass should he not sever himself from the prohibited desire of his mother.

In this sense, Melanie Daniels’ arrival is not so much an omen or malediction to Bodega Bay; at least to the Brenner household, it is a salve or corrective force that forestalls what would have been an instance of psychosexual trauma in a coastal suburban family.

Self and Shadow

‘But cloud instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, for the book of knowledge fair,
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.’
John Milton, Paradise Lost (III.45-50)

And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out. This is the wisdom I wish I possessed, but which has been innately, irrevocably removed from my epistemic grasp. It is unlearnable, unfathomable — beyond even the most complex of intuitions. I have tried reconstructing the knowledge from sense impressions — from analogous experience — but all that my vain efforts have yielded is a scarecrow that wards off who else but myself. The more I enforce upon the psyche this patchwork knowledge, the more I withdraw and reel, part in uncanny unfamiliarity, part in broken resignation. The absence of this wisdom, a gaping void — the something that is supposed to be there, but is not — forces me to be acutely aware of a necessary darkness, my own. Therefore in negotiating presence (Self) and present absence (Shadow), I have unknowingly established for myself a catastrophic internal dialectic of opposing forces that refuses to be reconciled in synthesis or resolved in deleterious victory; and this psychic tug-of-war is such a tremendous burden to bear. Like two gladiators in ferocious combat, they slice at the air with their swords and break their shields against the heavy bludgeoning of maces, and all around them many aftermaths unfold. Sometimes the blade scars an innocent bystander here, or blinds a passerby there. Sometimes the hammer crushes a shrub, or shatters the bark of an unwitting tree.

The Aftermath did not emerge in the wake of that colossal upheaval three years ago — it has always been unfurling in chaotic fractals, spiraling and branching like infesting brambles and briars that creep into the cavity of every available space. But these strangulating tendrils — they flourish and fester the most in shaded nooks, twisting themselves into burgeoning monstrosities that remain eclipsed. Tell me, how do you illuminate the entire soul or psyche (whichever you prefer)? You cannot. At any one moment, our consciousness is akin to a sweeping radius of light. I cannot be conscious of everything at once. So as far out as we manage to throw the rays of our pathfinder’s lantern, there will always remain obliques of darkness that creep at every angle of receding light. But take heart — as much ours as this light is, these shadows too, they belong to us.

And who likes walking in their own darkness? By darkness I certainly do not mean the phenomenal absence of light, nor do I mean the generic typification of evil. I refer squarely and only to everything you are ashamed of — everything you absolutely fear, everything you absolutely hate. So visceral, so immediate. The blackness swimming in your blood – we just don’t see it, and we ought not to. Or perhaps we do, in the indigo of those fleshy veins, carrying lifeblood starved of oxygen, rife with absence, choked with shadow. We carry absence in our blood, in ourselves. We are our own shadow.

This is not a cynic’s reflection — I never meant for this to be a piece of dark expository. Like the imaginary Other, the Shadow is a construct that is as much a premise as it is an outgrowth of the Self. To take a psychoanalytic detour, Self and Other are inseparable; by ‘other’ I don’t mean an-other body. I mean the self-contained Other within the Self. Look into the mirror, who do you see? Your Self? Wait, then who is the one doing the seeing? The Other?

So, it is easy to experience our innate fragmentation/delusion of Selfhood, even after the Lacanian drama of the mirror stage (when the ‘I’ is formed). Even at the level of perception, there will always be a disjunction between the visual image of the Self and the raw experience of Self-hood — the physiological operations, the aggregation of which we also call ‘I’. This is the Self-Image relation, which is essentially a psychoanalytic model mapping the visceral Self onto the spectral Other (image). Similarly in analytical psychology, the Self and the Shadow operate with the same deconstructionist dynamics — though distinct, one is contained within the other.

However, the (Jungian) Shadow in question, and hence the psychic Self-Shadow dialectic, is neither visual nor bodily. It is epistemological and psychological. The Shadow I speak of here is not imaginary alterity — the visual image of the Self (i.e. the Other). It is the psychological reflection of the Self, the hidden knowledge that remains in the unconscious, and thus away from the gaze of conscious experience and knowing — one polarity of an entirely disparate metaphysical dualism. The Shadow is entrenched within the psyche of the Self — it is the Self — but often unknown; or if unintentionally uncovered, then it is hastily replaced, with ten times the earthen cover heaped upon its burial ground. The Shadow is everything we are not, and the prospect of it being an integral part of our self-construction is simply unthinkable; we reject the notion immediately, even though in some dark recess between the spaces of consciousness and the unconscious, we may recognize it as a representation of our own flaws.

But Jung mentions that a balanced psyche is one that is constantly made aware of the Shadow, even though mastery over that shaded beast is weak and underdeveloped. One should never neglect to sustain psychic contact between the conscious Self and the inverse Shadow; after all, it has always been said that knowledge of the enemy is essential in battle, even if the enemy is yourself. Absolute polarity between Self and Shadow is a perilous state of affairs, because at any moment, the Shadow may emerge, perhaps in others, and so remote and abject is the Shadow, that the recognition of it as inextricably part of the Self may culminate in profound trauma. The Self, being utterly disarmed and deprived of any knowledge of the Shadow, may turn and flee in total terror; or if he is bound in shackles and made to face his sheer alterity, he may well abandon himself to his own inverse, and the Self may be lost forever.

I have always been struggling to commune with whatever constitutes my Shadow, but it hasn’t been easy, nor have I expected it to be. But there remains the Shadow of alterity — my inherent otherness. And so much of myself resides in that polarized, darkened space, that I might spend my entire life trying to let my desperate light reach those lightless corners.

‘Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.’
Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)

Jung and Existentialism

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
— Carl Gustav Jung

Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
— Jean-Paul Sartre

The philosophy that undergirds Jung’s humanist psychology, I realise, is strongly existentialist in the sense that it is concerned with the future – nothingness and absence, or that which has not arrived and therefore does not yet exist. In this anticipatory space-time lies possibility and the potential to transcend the factual Present; the malleability of this amorphous nothingness consequently engenders individual freedom – the cardinal principle of existentialism. Not the gratuitous, anarchic compulsion to act, but the authentic choice to act in a way that would propel the Self into the future, to intentionally become.

It may sound absurd (and freedom fundamentally is), but one could say that the Self is pure absence – a being that is always in the process of becoming.