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Up on the lowdown
I remember being told that “the dialectic of being and nothingness is becoming”, and thinking how clever that was. And then later thinking, isn’t an alternative answer also, destruction, ending, ceasing to be?
I am always becoming and I am always ceasing to be. I am scared of ceasing to be and so I pin my hopes on what I might become. But it’s always grounded in this picture of things just as they are now, and something extra.
There’s this little fragment of Marx from the course, where he says something like, an animal labours but the product of its labour belongs immediately to its physical body, whereas man labours and can freely separate himself from the product of his labour. It made me wonder, what happens to our animal bodies in a world where something like information can decide life or death for us? The social world exerts so much influence that our bodies are like weak pieces of flotsam on a dark and endless ocean. My body has a good chance, to breathe a great deal of air, process a great deal of food, endure a great number of years, because it is attached to a group of symbols which have great social significance. In fact, my body needn’t do anything - I could lay down in a gutter and someone would pick me up, and feed me, and keep me alive. If I gave up all hope of a good life, nonetheless all the requirements of such a life would be provided to me.
The indivisibility of signifier and signified, of mind and body, of person and place... I am already dealing with alienation as soon as I say “my body”, and treat the piece of flesh that types these words as though it were an object in “my” posession. “Me” in this case is nothing but the set of social symbols which collectively guarantee that body’s survival. Almost guarantee, I mean - death by freak accident remain possible, of course.
In an earlier piece of writing I wrote about the desire to solve a problem before being willing to look at it. The specialist doctor who can only deal with unconscious patients, happy to cut skin or sew membranes together but uneasy with the look, or words, the presence of fractious and difficult people in their space. I feel some sort of despair, in my arms and chest, a kind of listless heaviness, a weariness at life. “At life”, like a finger pointed, accusing. But I don’t care to admit to or think about this despair; only when I have some brave platitude to hand so that I can say, problem solved! And then only spend a few embarassed moments with that despair, like an awkward family member who one must dutifully converse with, brandishing the “solution” before making an excuse and departing.
But what if despair is the right... no, I don't mean right as in “the rational response”. I don’t mean that the world is sick and my response healthy or anything so arrogant. But, what if there is a kind of grace in despair that doesn’t exist anywhere else? Perhaps my... our only way to be with those people who we are most inclined to hate or to avoid because they make us hate ourselves is to feel sorrow for them and for ourselves, for a life that is temporary regardless of what we might build out of it, a life that is hopeless.
One of the things that disturbed me about the woman who conducted the teaching workshop was how openly she admitted that she had forgotten most of what she had been taught in her first year at university. The point she was meaning to emphasize was process over product; you learn how to learn rather than “things”, you acquire skills and so forth. But to me it seemed to say something about decay; that the universities are grand old institutions in decay, that people’s memories decay, that standards are falling... I have of course forgotten much of what I was meant to be learning in first year, but I don’t want to admit it. The project of the self, building, adding more knowledge to the pile which will make me a person of impressive erudition once it’s large enough. If I think that some of what I’ve thrown on the pile might be leaking away, it will make me despair of the whole project. I might stop adding to the pile.
But of course this “adding to the pile” business is totally alienated. None of the knowledge on the pile matters for its own sake; its only importance is to increase the size of the pile, which itself only matters insofar as it protects my ego from reality.
All of the students, all of my students and all of my teachers and everyone I know and me, we’re all going to die. I’m going to die and before I do I’m going to get old and crotchety and set in my ways and intolerant and inflexible and anxious about foolish things that I know I shouldn’t be anxious about but am anyway. Yet...
I just watched part of a documentary about the human shield project in Iraq and there was a very touching moment when the group was falling apart because of self-righteousness and one individual with a sense of ownership over the whole thing and an older man, with shaking voice and white hair, stood up and gave quite an extraordinary speech - he was angry and said “sorry to be angry” and although he did seem foolish he also had a kind of gravitas in the very, in the very foolishness of it that made him so impressive that nobody could answer him.
I feel so wretchedly cynical about this whole war business, it’s become so sour and unpleasant to even think about it because there’s no real dialogue happenning anywhere. Just self-indulgent people in Schwarzenegger mode, ignoring their own compromised positions in order to exaggerate all the more those of the other side. Someone I like very much said to me today, “I’m hoping for as many American casualties as possible”, and I couldn’t think of anything to say in response. I felt too tired to make any sort of argument - and what would the point be? To create useless hostility between the two of us, over something that neither of us has any effect on anyway?
I despair but it’s not because there are reasons to despair. I just do - or rather, I am. My body is this heavy, listless feeling of uselessness. For a few moments, watching these human shield people, I thought, you’ve got the right idea. Just go somewhere and do something, get away from all the nonsense - but of course when they got to Iraq there was all the more nonsense waiting for them. “Getting away from it all” - it’s another expression of alienation, isn’t it? Getting away from them, what they do to us, what they force us into... Sit still with despair for long enough and you get a kind of convulsion, a desire for violence, just some sort of spasmodic movement to get the blood flowing again. But it goes nowhere.
I want to say, the great gift of meaningful work is a gift because we have the ugly lethargy of depression to compare it with. But that’s another scheme of good and bad, where the bad is like the shell one has to break off the nut, somehow making the nut that much sweeter. Life is not a nut for us to break open and devour, discarding the shell. There is no kernel which serves as the focus, the point. Nostalgia and regret and embarassment and fear and hatred and insecurity are not problems to be examined and understood and rationalised and solved - they are life, as much as anything is. This despair, though I don’t mean to wallow in it, or celebrate or glorify it, for the moment is all I have of life. I cannot take my feelings to the marketplace and trade them for others I would like better.
“Give peace a chance”, so simple to see that this is the good side, but peace means compromises and a bitter taste and nothing much happenning about everything that’s wrong with the world. Isn’t it nobler in the mind to take up arms against troubles? It’s so easy for me to write criticism, so natural and undemanding - I had no idea when I started abridging my argument from the internet message board that it would come to 14 pages - so much verbiage with so little effort! And all I had to do was be sure of who was wrong, and dig around in the smooth rockface for handholds to start tearing pieces off him. When you win an easy conflict you feel ashamed for using excessive force, yet so long as you believe it possible that you might lose you’ll never restrict the degree of force you employ.
What’s at stake? Why does it matter? My little body, this particular scrap of flesh, my tiny despair in a world about to repeat history for all sorts of good reasons that make no difference to those who will die... what angels inhabit this space, I wonder? The angel of death is not a fallen angel, but a true messenger from God... when a messenger comes I always look at their hands, the parcel that’s arrived, some concrete piece of news, a clipboard that I might need to sign... there’s no thought that maybe the messenger is something more than just a functionary, subsidiary to the thing in their hands. Hands... my hands don’t have this feeling that I label as despair. So long as they can be brought to the right place, they work happily without the rest of me.
I think there ought to be something more here but I can’t find it now.
"You get me up on the lowdown" - Chris Smither
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