Saturday, October 29, 2016

The test of ambiguity always has to decide by himself in the darkness, that he must want beyond what he knows.
Why do you run away? What is hidden there – beyond the blurry images frantically moving, obscuring the view? Stand still and look past them, look into the centre. There what do you see? 
You see only ambiguity. Neither good nor bad, it’s only the feeling you have when you climb to a great height and you look down. Vertigo. You are dizzy. You want – in the most panic stricken way – to stay alive but at the same time you want to jump. You dream about it, you obsess about it and you can’t look down because of it.  You want to stop fighting, stop trying. You want the ambiguity of whether you can cling onto the surface of that high tower to end - and you want to do it in a way you can be certain of. Anything is bearable if it’s not a surprise.
But this is the lesser known test of life and it will not leave you alone. What do you do with your share of ambiguity? Make no mistake – as Beauvoir sets out in her Ethic of Ambiguity – it comes with freedom. They’re one indivisible package. You are free to create the meaning of your life and the meaning is unlimited. And yet you start in the mud as a worm, struggling, wriggling, turned blindly towards the sky but not knowing what you are reaching for. You do not know that ambiguity is the same thing as freedom and freedom the same thing as responsibility. And so you put it down.
Its unbearable, the ambiguous depths you can fall into, just like the dizzying heights from the top of that tower. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Into the emptiness

The feeling of emptiness comes and goes. Don’t fight it, don’t analyse it, don’t act on it. Just be still and sit with it. Hold it. Accept it and it will go away again after a while. And then sometime later it will come back. The thing to do is, again, sit with it, stand with it, lie with it, roll around with it and accept it. Allow it to be there however long it needs to be there, until it goes away again. It’s a cycle – don’t you see - that will go round and round. As long as you stay on the ride you can carry on with your life – as husband, father, dentist, brother, Jew, immigrant, non-immigrant, American, writer, fictional character and whatever else you happen to be.

Some though wont’ or can’t ignore the emptiness. And here’s what happens when you run into the emptiness in search of something – you run up against Roth’s Counterlife. For those of us who are self-destructive enough to have to explore what is there just because it’s there, the reward you get is a tangled mess of identities – what you are, what you’re trying to escape, your attempt at rewriting it or being rewritten by someone else and the totally alien one you’re trying to leap into – each one just as unsatisfying as the first, the one you would have had had you just stayed on the ride.

Yet we – the selfishly destructive curious ones – know there is something in the emptiness and the dissatisfaction. It may even be the dissatisfaction itself. It’s the universal constant. Anytime you try to define something by giving it an identity trouble bulges at the seams – whether that’s nationality, ethnicity, religion, or marital status. It is begging our pesky human need to rewrite things – and that’s where Counterlife gets so interesting and so clever – because all these bulging dissatisfactions are examined in parallel with the writer’s neurotic need to write and rewrite the narrative. The author who is trapped by his own fictions and the process of writing, the fictional characters trying to escape the author, the real characters trying to avoid being fictionalized. We are all of these things. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Circular ruins

Gradually, in this way, she came into possession of what was already hers. 
I wasn’t sure what I was trying to convey. Maybe it was the ceaseless aroma of eucalypti in the gardens of a villa of infinite symmetry; maybe it was the humid garden saturated with time that forked, time that diverged, converged or ran parallel to each other, unawares, for centuries; maybe I was trying to capture the invisible persons of all times, busy in that saturated garden in their multiple forms. I know I wrote about someone who woke from sleep and wasn’t sure if she dreamt, while the day and night turned above her. She mistook dusk for dawn. I know I wrote about someone who had arrived with no past and no future in the ‘unanimous night’, dragging herself nauseous and bloodstained to the circular ruins.

I know there are no new metaphors –none that matters I mean – so I am only a mirror, reflecting back in a slightly different light what has been said already (and will be said again). We spend most of our time repeating things. That’s why it’s possible, for Borges in this quote to form time into a circle in a sentence – with no awkwardness at all in grammar or tense. That possibility was always there, in the language, in our psyche.

But inside that labyrinth, at its centre, what I really wanted to convey was the depression, the mourning that we are all engaged in, constantly, because of the selves that die every minute we are alive. You yearn most for the things that were once intimately yours, you crave and you search but you cannot come into possession of what was already yours; you cannot catch up with the selves you’ve already lost. They are always ahead of you, in a circle, in earth’s gravity, in orbit, falling away from your grasp. So you fall together continuously. You mourn because there is no way to change that fate, you cannot escape time’s progression.

Except in dreams. They discovered that the brain doesn’t just respond, it anticipates and it creates a world for our selves to inhabit before that world has had a chance to intrude. It is its own mirror. So in dreams you are reunited with your selves, the things that were already yours; big vivid dreams that take up the whole day – or even a whole lifetime. But then you wake up and have to actually live again. Wouldn’t you be exhausted? Wouldn’t you think, you had lived two lives? And which one makes a deeper impression? There is a part of me that can’t tell the difference.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

5. The procrastinating writer

The procrastinating writer had quit her job in order to write. Such a radical move she (the procrastinating writer) reflected, with more than a little secret satisfaction, placed her perhaps among the 1 or 2 percent of the population that did not follow, sheep-like, conventional norms. This was a promising sign already of the unforseeable leaps in form, structure and perhaps even in the very etiology of word construction she would pioneer - without yet having written a word. The very blankness of the clean, white, pristinely untouched sheet of paper in front of her was promise of that, more than any scrawling black letters could have been.

Though she had, for the past 22 years, worked at an insurance company where she processed claims for workplace injuries and wrote, for that whole duration, nothing more strenuous than sentences such as, ‘likely cause: whiplash to the lower spine’, finished work at 5pm and had evenings and weekends entirely to herself (having resolved to ‘marry’ her calling, i.e. writing, rather than a man), she had saved her creative genius entirely and unreservedly for the day she would be able to fully and joyfully, surrender herself to it, rather than insult the idea of what it could have been by plonking down half-baked sentences in her 19 hours of free time weekdays, 48 hours on weekends, 120 hours of bank holidays and 600 hours total annual personal holiday (which was generous at the German firm she worked at) in case they turned out, in hindsight, to be hideous.

Instead she had, during those 19 hours of free time weekdays, 48 hours on weekends, 120 hours of bank holidays and 600 hours total annual personal holiday, prepared thoroughly for her pending writing career by talking about it with a select group of creative individuals in her ‘milieu’. These creative individuals were sourced carefully from a wide range of extra-insurance activities which she had researched, trialed, then selectively invested in, at great personal expense, energy and time, as a sign of her commitment to the craft. In addition to being in-touch with their ‘inner creative fountains’, which was of course non-negotiable in this select group of individuals, she had painstakingly sought out a more elusive and indescribable quality: that is, an unreserved support for and faith in that which is yet to be realised, since what is art if not unrealised - as every piece of art was at one point - particularly those truly pushing the boundaries, because they could not have been conceived by the limited and plebian imaginations of the prevailing zeitgeist.[1]

This (the accumulation of her select group), of course, was a subtle pursuit, requiring great tact and delicacy on her (the procrastinating writer’s) part and it took much of the last 22 years to identify and bring into her ‘milieu’ those individuals with the right ‘understanding’ to whom she could really and authentically talk about her prospective writing career. This spiritual support was particularly crucial given the un-affirming cruelty of her family. She had four boorish siblings including a doctor, lawyer, banker and engineer, respectively, who at various family gatherings never failed to make a show of supporting her dreams, making lavish proclamations of wanting her to do well, offering financial and other forms of help, such as introductions to their successful publisher friends, and plied her with various tired, clichéd tropes about ‘reaching for the stars’ etc., together with regular, annoying, insensitive, wholly unnecessary, hurtful and counterproductive proddings about when she would start.

But - she was sure - behind her back these materialistic brutes (i.e her siblings), who could really see no further than their next six-figure bonuses, saw her as nothing more than an insurance clerk and was delighted at this pathetic, tangential and largely accidental path she was on, as it made their own achievements that much more (conventionally) impressive by comparison, and so secretly wished she would fail. She refused all their help. She would show them.[2]


[1] Indeed, it could be argued (and she often did argue) that even art that was seemingly finished was, in its most important aspects, mostly unrealised and unfinished. Anything that could be said to be truly, completely finished was, to those with less limited and less plebeian imaginations, definitively mediocre.

[2] Then there was her cruelly unaffirming father who laughed openly a few years after she accidentally became an insurance clerk and told him of her dreams of being a writer. Over one particularly miserable family dinner he, with his mouth full of food, had burst into a (for her) catastrophic fit of laughter, finishing after only what seemed like five, full minutes with comments to the effect that she had never written a word and had just about more aptitude for taking up space as a shapeless blob. She would show him too, when she was published and rich and famous and her book had been made into a Hollywood movie.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

4. Fragments: yellow ochre


He stepped off the plane and onto the yellow earth. Yellow was the colour of the East. Yellow was the colour of dragons, who passed it down to emperors, their representatives on earth, who only wore gold. Now though it was the colour of an unnatural fog, heavy with industrial pollutants that mixed together and was added to year after year. A yellow ochre veil hung over the lowering sun, dragging it west down its long descent.

This could have been a cowboy story. Our hero is a young American in his early twenties. He comes from the Midwest, where the big country was wide and empty, and there was nothing in the way of riding hard and fast all the way to the horizon.  Our hero is adventurous: being a mixture of Irish and Jewish descent (with even some Arabic genes in the family tree). He loved languages and had spent time in France and a kibbutz; he had boundless hunger for the new. More than that he was possessed by a demon he didn’t know who could paint a door in a blank wall and make it open.

But our hero had stepped into the East, and so the story shatters into different possibilities; incandescent, all but one of them would burn out and disappear. China, newly re-emerging, was by far his most exotic adventure and he was drawn to its improbable transformation. But this big country was dense with not just people but history - a back story that had already carved tiny paths, walls and hidden valleys into every inch of ground; China’s newness was deceptive. And then everything is not as it seems with our hero, either. With his thick blond, almost red, beard and dressed, always, in a neat buttoned down shirt and pants, he seemed much older than his years. His eyes, which remained still and cool even when the rest of him was animated, were the only part of him that looked tired. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

4. Fragments


    He had worked in that job for six months. At first it had seemed like a good deal. G had landed in a foreign country with nothing - no skills, no experience, no money – and managed to talk his way into a sales job at a carpet company. But having lived for six months on $500 a month and sharing a shambolic two bedroom flat with four other people (two of whom squatted in the living room together with the only washing machine) he decided it was time to change. He wanted better; he needed an upgrade.


It was Wednesday night and time for the mid-week drink. A new rooftop bar was opening that night in a rundown part of town that was becoming suspiciously trendy. First straggling groups of artists had moved into the narrow Shikumen buildings, happy to live without running water or electricity. Then some buildings were bought by two Swedes who had had the vision (and the funds of unclear origins) to makeover the skeletal warehouse and 19th century slum dwellings into flattering, young, post-modern/post-colonial versions of themselves. A ‘concept bar’ it was called. G knew the Swedes, he had sold carpet to them. In return he was in on the vision, the dream, of hacking back the virgin urban jungle to reveal their fortunes. It came with perks too: VIP tickets and free rounds of drinks for him and his party. 


Saturday – but it was no day of rest for him. Even though he slept in til noon and had no intention of going to the office, G was still working. As he slept his phone was pinging, sparkling, twirling on the bedside table; star of the show, it received messages like flowers on a stage. As soon as he opened his eyes, he reached for it and scanned them. Lunch for five, then coffee with a potential client, followed by a bike ride with new contacts he met Thursday (who might become clients), then pre-dinner drinks with old friends, followed by dinner for ten or so. He struggled to remember who the dinner the party were, most likely colleagues, clients, new friends and randoms he had met the past week; they were merging into an unfocused blur. But then, ah, well, then the night was open.


G was in the other room sleeping. In the past two days he had spent only three hours in the flat: he crashed through the place - going there just to sleep - before crashing out again. She sat on the sofa in the living room as his roommate made dinner cheerfully, leisurely; whistling and occasionally changing the music on his ipod. The bland, warm smell of steaming rice started to fill the room. The roommate was excitable and naieve about her reasons for being there. Under the coffee table she saw a French textbook; she picked it up and leafed through the pages which were carefully marked up, interesting vocabulary underlined in G’s neat handwriting. It was the work of a diligent student. She smiled as she thought of him, with his love of languages, spending hours on the book by lamplight, opening a new world. Then she noticed another book that had been hidden underneath the textbook: ‘Surviving Suicide: A Family Guide’.


He stared angrily at the screen. The email was sent, it was done. It was their fault, they made him do it. He was too good for a carpet company, too special, too destined to be following their rules. G saw further, higher. He knew that the man who came home at 4pm to play with his children would never amount to anything. He knew that the man who trusted the system was like a blind, plodding horse: doing all the heavy lifting just to stay exactly where he was, while others got on its back and elevated themselves. That’s why, to hammer the message home, he created some other email addresses from a login that he had copied on the sly (and with foresight) from a client last month. And from those fictional clients he splattered his former boss, and his boss’s boss, with messages about the way he was treated and how he was irreplaceable. That was a neat extension of something he learned early in his sales career: feeding tidbits of praise, or otherwise, up the management chain eventually filtered its way back down to him, and to his kickbacks.

That would show them the truth. By the way, he added, some unethical practices had been noted in his colleague: that slick guy who wore shiny suits, who did no work but got all the credit. Nice guys always finished last, like his father. Finally, he cleared out the account that the company had prepaid for his expenses, and which also contained seed money for a venture he had persuaded six business partners to invest in (though he, being the ideas man, had invested nothing). Now this was a decent return, he thought, and enough to buy a ticket home. 


G saw her there, at the party, between people aimlessly drunk and revolving round the room like washing spinning in a machine. She saw him too, her eyes blank, she was already dead. ‘Hello,’ he said. He was on home turf. Three whiskies down already and plenty of distractions, plenty of ways out. ‘Hi’ she replied. She stared. She was nothing like the girl just seven days ago, who had cried in the café as he refused to order and sat there teetotal, telling her how little he had to offer. He had arrived 40 minutes late and then left early because he had to catch a flight at 8am the next morning. He left her to finish her melting ice tea, and she had been on the verge of saying it, trying again, reaching across the divide to touch him. He had an answer ready: ‘the richest man is he who needs the least’.

But he never had the opportunity. She had turned on him – she of all people - and accepted his thin excuses at just the point where they were least true. Now, confusingly, as the too-loud music pounded the senses out of him, he found himself shaking his head illogically, saying, ‘I made mistakes, I’m sorry’. Now it was her who seemed to be looking for a way out. Her eyes blank, they looked behind him and around him. As he stood there still nonsensically shaking, all he could remember was when he didn’t turn up, the day he was going to tell her how his brother died - and she had told him to come later. ‘I need to tell you.’ ‘I know’, she said, and squeezed his hand. ‘I’m leaving in June’, she said, ‘I’ve decided’. June? He felt the machine churning and the music garishly louder. All the exit options shut at once. He felt the doors lock from the inside. She had planned it three months in advance, so as to have plenty of time to say goodbyes and have good times, ‘you, me and all our friends’.
He had failed with her, just as he had failed with his brother, to prevent later from turning into never. He saw for the first time, what he had not allowed himself to see: his brother's car a dark grain of dust in the lonely vastness of an interstate highway, driving between two of the flattest states in America, somewhere between where he was and where he wanted to be. They had found him there, for the last time, stranded. G decided then on failure, even as the remaining time with her stretched a good way into the distance. After that it was easy. Then it made sense. Why, the mistakes practically repeated themselves, and they unfolded reliably, in just exactly the same way as the first time.