Water in a closed hand

Cascando (by Samuel Beckett)

     1
why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

     2
saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

     3
unless they love you

Since the age of 22 I have found myself haunted by this poem, and now that so much of my writing deals with recurrence and the circularity of things, it seems hard to deny that this poem’s lines circumnavigate me like moons, firing their disruptive light into my writing. In fact, no matter how much I try to get rid of him, every time disruption occurs in my writing – either the disruption of body and mind, or that of human and time – Beckett pokes his nose out of a molehill, saying “Remember me?” Yes, you bastard, I do. 

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Merleau-Ponty & le Corps

L’énigme tient en ceci que mon corps est à la fois voyant et visible. Lui qui regarde toutes choses, il peut aussi se regarder, et reconnaître dans ce qu’il voit alors l’« autre côté » de sa puissance voyante. Il se voit voyant, il se touche touchant, il est visible et sensible pour soi-même. C’est un soi, non par transparence, comme la pensée, qui ne pense quoi que ce soit qu’en l’assimilant, en le constituant, en le transformant en pensée – mais un soi par confusion, narcissisme, inhérence de celui qui voit à ce qu’il voit, de celui qui touche à ce qu’il touche, du sentant au senti – un soi donc qui est pris entre des choses, qui a une face et un dos, un passé et un avenir…

[…]

Visible et mobile, mon corps est au nombre des choses, il est l’une d’elles, il est pris dans le tissu du monde et sa cohésion est celle d’une chose. Mais, puisqu’il voit et se meut, il tient les choses en cercle autour de soi, elles sont une annexe ou un prolongement de lui-même, elles sont incrustées dans sa chair, elles font partie de sa définition pleine et le monde est fait de l’étoffe même du corps. Ces renversements, ces antinomies sont diverses manières de dire que la vision est prise ou se fait du milieu des choses, là où un visible se met à voir, devient visible pour soi et par la vision de toutes choses, là où persiste, comme l’eau mère dans le cristal, l’indivision du sentant et du senti.


Maurice Merleau-PontyL’œil et l’Esprit
Salvador Dalí, Sleeping Young Narcissus, 1980

The Robot

Douter, c’est essayer des pensées, introduire des clefs diverses dans la serrure. 

Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1913-1914)

The Robot was built with a computer mind that eschews doubt. Doubt simply doesn’t occur to her. When she asks her friends to explain the concept, they say, “It’s the feeling of going about your daily activities and suddenly feeling yourself fall into the cracks between objects.”

The downside to most of her friends being poets is that she rarely finds their explanations useful. The tries to imagine doubt as it was described to her, but anytime she gets close she feels instead an urge to swing her arms at the objects in the room until they come crashing to the floor. 

The Robot was built deliberately; her friends, who are human, were not. In the process of her conception she was given predetermined responses and pathways for each problem she encounters. Her motives are clear, as are her goals, which flash as baby blue reminders in her field of vision. Her friends call her singularly determined, and admire her for this perceived quality.

But the Robot knows it is the absence of doubt that allows her to act as she does. Every part of her was deliberately placed, programmed with purpose. Every situation she finds herself in allows her to follow a given protocol. 

Sometimes, she wishes she could comprehend this elusive notion of doubt, even just for a moment, so she might understand her friends and why they seem to suffer so. With alarming regularity she finds herself on the phone with one of them and hears in their voice what she recognises as the chocking sound that comes from a human throat constricting with sadness. What made her friend sad, she asks, and the friend says, “The crushing weight of the world,” or “Unrequited love,” or “The unfairness of resource distribution,” and the Robot nods and says, “Yes, those are problems only to be solved by more advanced programming, endowed with a capacity for abstraction.” 

The conclusions the Robot comes to about similar situations often blend into one large mass. Unlike her friends, she isn’t subject to mood swings, or to cloudiness of judgment brought about by tiredness, sadness, or lust. She was programmed with very few basic moods, just enough to allow her to connect with humans on a fundamental level. She understands placidity, she understands upset, and she understands, though only in a rudimentary manner, attraction. Attraction, as she sees it, uses most of the same impulses as curiosity, but directs them towards a single person. 

For the most part however, the Robot’s capacity for desire is directed at the fulfilment of her tasks. She was programmed with the exact abilities required to complete her given tasks, and when she engages with the world it is in order to solve the problems that fall under the scope of her abilities.

When her friends tell her they lack purpose, she cannot understand what they mean, but stores the components of their statements for further analysis. Breaking things down into smaller pieces and organising them by similarities is her purpose. 

Like her friends, she is a composite creature with a material body and a programmable consciousness, although hers is programmable in a more straightforward sense.

The Robot knows the man who programmed her because he left traces of himself behind; while composing her mind, the man went through a break-up, and his own emotional reservations and short-circuits found their way into his intentions for her, his Robot.

As a consequence, her responses in romantic contexts mirror the programmer’s anxiety and detachment. It seems a kind of cruelty to have given her these features, but there are no accidents in building a mind like hers. She knows those responses were given to her deliberately, and they serve a purpose when it comes to fulfilling her tasks.

The very act of programming is an act of utter intentionality. 

But, needless to say, unlike her duties, her relationships all follow a curve leading to failure. Most of them even end the same way, and she could easily fold them all into one large mass of romantic failure if she didn’t differentiate between them by means of time-stamps and code-names. Her former partners, if asked, would give very different accounts of their relationship with her, but to her they all amount to the same path.

When her friends complain about feeling burdened by responsibilities, she doesn’t understand how this can possibly make them anxious. Responsibilities are tasks programmed into one’s set of functionalities, and which one can’t help but engage with. When the Robot encounters an object that fits into her set of duties, she drops whatever she is doing in order to fulfil the task at hand.

Why do her friends resist these tasks, and for the sake of what? What else is there? The Robot cannot see anything else, but has been provided with a basic sympathetic function allowing her to wish her friends could feel the bliss that comes with utter certainty.

Unlike her friends’ organic bodies, the Robot’s mechanical body can be taken apart without pain, and it is easily fixable. The reparative gesture is barely disruptive, requires no anaesthetic, and can be performed either by technicians, or by the Robot herself. She has the ability to recognise structural inconsistencies in her body and to seek out replacement parts. Luckily, few such amendments have been necessary, since she was carefully made by talented people. 

Only once did she find herself in a pickle, when after some serious exertion the screws around both her arms had loosened to the point where she had to sit still and calculate which of her arms was less likely to fall off if she tried using it to tighten the screws back up. Unfortunately, both arms eventually fell to the ground and she was left with no other recourse but to send out an emergency signal. When a member of her team finally arrived to repair the damage, the Robot felt foolish for a while, and retreated into silence. 

Still, it is an advantage to know that her body comes with a set of instructions, and that her entire construction process was carefully logged and monitored, and that she has full access to all of this information. Her friends often hold their stomachs and have no idea why they are hurting. 

The Robot understands that, in material terms, she bears little difference to the objects she spends much of her time taking apart and putting back together, such as light switches, toasters and printers. She cannot communicate with these objects because their programming is too basic and not set out for small talk, but even though she seeks out humans for her communicative needs, she has to admit that she feels more comfortable handling the hard, well-delineated materiality of a machine, no matter how primitive, than the soft, pulsating flesh of a human lover.

She feels the beat of human hearts, so different from the whizzing and whirring alive inside her, and she feels terrified. Suddenly, she finds herself saying something unkind to the loving human face looking back at her. In the next instant, the human has retreated, and is found trembling or crying in a corner. The same downward slope each time. The Robot is so familiar with it they all blend into one. The failure of providing the human lover with the tenderness she needs. The void of lost affection.

The Robot understands that humans have no means of compartmentalising their difficult feelings towards her, and so she tries to make things for them easier by disappearing physically. 

During the construction process, the Robot was given a soul. It features in her body as a material object, a cylindrical container which glows blue when she comes across something or someone that matches her predetermined set of sensibilities. Her soul’s aspirations are certain, and useful to the world she inhabits. Her mind was given room to learn from her actions. The Robot is not an accident, not an idle exercise in creation. Were she prone to doubt, the deliberateness of her existence would sustain her against it; luckily, doubt has never entered her mind at all. 

The Invisible Man

He wasn’t born invisible, nor did he choose to become invisible. He chalks it up to a set of bad habits that slowly took their toll on his reality, but he can’t be sure what those habits might be. 

For years, the Invisible Man hasn’t taken the path of presence; what exists remains unspoken in his mind. Nowhere does he feel as safe as in absence. For years, he has been unable to retain the layers of himself until nothing remained to show the outside world. No longer a complete man, he is written in little but negatives. 

The Invisible Man doesn’t eat meat, drink coffee or alcohol, smoke, dance, or self-destruct in any other popular fashion; he doesn’t see the point. Unlike most people, he doesn’t feel that there is too much of him, that he is a leaner self buried in excess matter from which he must be whittled.

The Invisible Man doesn’t like clothes, not that it matters, because he has nothing to hide. It’s not that there isn’t anything to show, but it’s also not the case that he wants anyone to see him anyway. He doesn’t not leave the house, but it’s increasingly rare that he does.

Being in the world is a challenge, because nobody recognises him. He cannot assume that his friends, no matter how close, will come up to him in public. He cannot assume others will be alert enough not to bump into him. He cannot sit in a public place reading a book and be pleasantly surprised by a familiar face leaning over him, pulling him from his reverie by saying his name with a smile. 

The Invisible Man isn’t a coward, he isn’t afraid of being seen or taking a stand. But he isn’t someone who needs to push his opinions on people. In his youth, he believed in being defined by his actions, a stance he finds less valid now that his actions can no longer be seen. 

The Invisible Man plays in a band. He plays the double bass because it is the instrument most like the human body, such a copy of it in fact that the body playing it seems a mere doubling, a drunken smear on the audience member’s retina. To play the double bass means not needing to be visible at all, and the Invisible Man cannot imagine playing an instrument that requires anything less from him than total effacement. 

He dates many people at once without getting caught. His partners vary greatly in age and appearance, and as short as his relationships with them are, they are all devoid of conflict; it seems that his self-effacing nature complements any kind of person out there. But this lack of friction doesn’t make him feel lovable; it only confirms his negativity. He supposes, however, that there isn’t much he can do to change this. 

Not infrequently do people speculate as to what made him invisible, their theories ranging from suppressed refraction to mind control, even magic. Some well-meaning friends assert that this state may not need to last forever, as he may one day encounter a person who isn’t like everyone else and who is, in fact, capable of seeing him. A child, most likely, or someone stuck between selves; maybe even a psychic. But the Invisible Man knows that such a person will inevitably be full of holes, impossible connections and missing parts, someone who was damaged into this ability to see more than is visible to a healthy mind. Who knows what such a person would see in him, if he permitted it.

The Invisible Man knows that, in a healthy mind, inner peace leads to the development of blind spots.  

The Invisible Man does not consider being seen a compliment. He wishes people weren’t so interested in what he might look like if they could see him. The Invisible Man isn’t vain; he knows that the mirror contains nothing more than the desire to be seen, and that the eye looking back at him is not an eye that sees but only a blind copy of that eye.

He knows how little there is to him, knows how little there is for anyone to care about. This didn’t occur to him in one fell swoop, of course; such insights take years to form. For a while he saw a shrink, but not regularly. Eventually, it was his shrink who stopped seeing him. Their sessions left the Invisible Man feeling being taken apart, and yet the sensation of air circulating between his vanishing parts wasn’t an unpleasant one.

At times he imagines that he is merely like ice, having melted from his solid form into something more fluid, less graspable, and that as the human equivalent to water he must now figure out how, and where, to flow. 

Orpheus and Nietzsche ponder detachment

Sub specie aeterni. – A: “You are moving away faster and faster from the living; soon they will strike your name from their rolls.” – B: “That is the only way to participate in the privilege of the dead.” – A: “What privilege?” – B: “To die no more.”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book Three, 262

For a while, Orpheus surrounds himself with those who cling to repetition to the point of illness. The body is something to be held while it is there, and let go once it wants to leave. Ravel echoes inside his walls. Nietzsche’s sickly figure hovers around in Orpheus’s chamber, repeating again and again his definition of heroism as the simultaneous movement towards one’s greatest suffering and one’s greatest hope.

“Been there,” says Orpheus, “and I have tired of it.”

“The tiredness of exertion, or the tiredness of paralysis?” asks Nietzsche.

“The former has led to the latter.”

“That’s impossible,” says Nietzsche. “They are fundamentally separate.”

“I am an amalgam of contradictions, buddy,” says Orpheus, and turns to face the wall. The moonlight outside his window is so bright even closing his eyes doesn’t bring relief. Nietzsche continues his floating laps across the room, exhaling sharply at each turn, like a swimmer when he reaches the edge of the pool.

Orpheus knows that Nietzsche is all too familiar with the feeling of feebleness that comes from losing access to the object of love, the repository of so much hope and care. But Orpheus doesn’t feel like getting into this with him, because Nietzsche has made things about himself in the past, and Orpheus isn’t in the mood for displacing his concern.

Instead, he watches the moonlight bring out the cracks in his wall and thinks about something he heard about the expression of emotions in God’s City, the idea that, to Medieval Catholics, the motus animi (movement of the soul) is necessarily embodied. In Augustine, the Fall is what broke something inside Man, making him incapable of responding according to pure reason to his own turmoil. Man is broken up by cracks through which the affect flows, torn between those emotions which lead him to goodness, and those which drive what’s bad in him. It is his embodied form which makes him vulnerable to the full spectrum of human emotions.

In Heaven, members of the divine hierarchy can feel emotions, but don’t express them by physical means, and any expression of divine emotion seeming to resemble that of a human is a deliberate act of translation, the way an adult aims to make herself understood to a baby through soft gurgles. An angel cannot shed tears, and God’s sadness or wrath could never be understood by mortals because it transcends their emotional language.

When Jesus, God-made-flesh, comes to earth in a human body, he obtains the capacity for affect: during his carnal existence, he can cry for the first time, can scream, probably, can laugh, too, and this, Orpheus thinks, must be such a head-fuck after all that self-containment and divine detachment. How odd to descend from holy abstraction into a carnal vessel and feel it respond acutely, and with very little dignity, to things that were until that point vague and diffuse.

Orpheus thinks about Eurydice down there in Hades, where she, too, is free from affect, conveying no love, no yearning, no sadness, no joy, and he wonders if he should be glad for her, or if he should punch a wall in her name because she was separated from the ability to feel emotion, which Orpheus thinks of as the most worthwhile part of human experience.

In death, Eurydice can no longer want Orpheus, and he understands why that is. Where she dwells, a kind of arrogance sets in. The dead, so relieved to have finally gone through the process they spent their whole life dreading, feel superior to those who are alive, and therefore still mortal.

“We will never be mortal again,” the dead think to themselves, and begin to see their living lovers as lesser beings, to look down upon their living bodies even as they themselves sit in the pits of Hades. They look around at the other perished, immortal souls and think, “Finally, this is the sort of distance and abstraction I can be comfortable in. This is the detachment I need from another person in order to feel comfortable enough to allow intimacy to emerge.”

Of course, true intimacy belongs to the realm of the living, and is bound up in transience.

Head over heels for their own immateriality, the dead fall in love with the dead around them. They engage in disembodied orgies, flinging their souls’ useless particles at each other. There is no risk left. They are immortal, they cannot be hurt or weighed down, a disappointment to, or disappointed by, the living.

Love what is mortal no longer applies in the Underworld; there is no need to fear being disappointed by another person’s shortcomings, because what faces you in Hades is no longer a person, merely the most abstract form of what once was a human being. This is what the dead find easiest to love: someone who can never be close to you, place demands on you, someone who barely exists, just like you. Someone who can never be too much.

Orpheus gets a second skin

In his transitional state, Orpheus binds his limbs with the bark of silver birches. He crouches near a river and softens strips of bark in the chattering water before enveloping his skin. The striations overlap with parts of him that have felt too open for too long. Birdsong drips from the trees, and the sun is wet like the nose of a mole. Orpheus wraps each of his fingers with stripes of light and dark, which serve as a visual reminder that boundaries come with their own topology. He seeks protection but not encasement, and to this end he gives himself a home inside a second skin, a temporary softness to inhabit, and in which to sleep while the riverbank mud sucks on his body as if to get closer to the shimmering swirls pulsating within.

Sometimes

Sometimes, you have to understand, I read Tao Lin because it’s all I feel capable of reading, wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t gravitate towards those who have written about the ache I feel in a more complicated way.

Sometimes all I am capable of hearing is an unnamable sadness followed by delicate swears. I feel more cradled that way. 

I think that when the plants around me die I am achieving some sort of communion with the realm I inhabit, no matter how small the rooms may feel; I have somehow transcended the limits of my mind’s flesh into a space that reflects my internal bullshit, like someone thrown up by a Brontë.

Sometimes just smelling coffee brings your face floating into the room like a goddamn hologram or a swarm of flies, and I very deliberately stick to drinking green and watery things so I can keep the colour of your eyes at bay. 

The immense sadness of losing you to yourself is like watching my brother detach and consume his own toe, knowing exactly where it will lead because it has led there before, knowing that the despair I feel at watching myself lose you from a distance, from the distance you carved between us with a toy shovel that says ‘this is for your own good’ when you press the right button, because pressing the right button causes your shovel to speak, which is not the case with you, and the despair I feel, like I said, is not because I love you, which I do, but because I am watching myself feel this and I see beyond it into the silence where there should be a pulse. 

Sometimes, no matter what bedtime stories I tell myself, I know that time is not circular and what is lost cannot return, because we all fall at different speeds and time is a cruel form of gravity. 

Sometimes the fire is not enough, and I see that when the rat climbs along the bars of its cage from wall to wall to wall it does so not because it is trying to break through but because in times of internal detonation dragging your belly along the reliable firmness of a limit feels good.

The other night I dreamt about your body in a dark room, sitting bare-skinned in an inflatable kiddie pool, your knees poking out of the purple plastic because you are not a child, and you were lighting candles, thousands of candles one after the other in this room that never got any brighter. I remember that the light flickered on your skin and for a moment I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, if I was seeing you through my eyes or through some kind of objectivity, because there wasn’t a single plant involved and there were no animal sounds in the air, and because as you sat there with your ass in the water surrounded by flames I felt an immeasurable affection toward you that is not like me at all.