Standing in line at the Rock Café, I am jolted by the realization that I can no longer see like I used to. In classes, I begin to test myself by sitting in row 6, 7, 8, watching for when the professor’s facial expressions become harder to read. Looking out my window from the sixth-floor apartment in which I live, I wonder whether the leaves have always looked like impressionist paintings in the distance or if it’s my vision merging leaf into leaf.
When I finally drag myself to the eye doctor, he takes a picture of my eye and asks if I’d like to take a look. Vainly I agree to it and hope for a dazzling image of a green iris. Instead, I see pink flesh with wormy veins and recoil. This is the back of your eye, says the optician. I am horrified.
Cleaning out the refrigerator often brings out a certain aristocratic nature in my partner, who swallows his scowl as he nobly tosses month old leftovers into the trash, his voice hardening. He is repulsed by food “gone bad” and I try to talk him down from throwing away our mustard. He believes in the expiration date and I do not. I wonder if this revulsion has something to do with the Miralax left unambiguously on the kitchen counter – another instance in which he is reminded of our dinners: not of their loveliness, but of their end.
My partner talks about the sublime and listens to 14th century playlists of church music while he writes his papers: this, I have trouble understanding. I move between idealizing it – does he really know the sublime? Might he show it to me? – and wishing he would help me de-stem the parsley.
In the winter, the compost always smells of rotted out orange peels, up until the point when I smell death in the freshest pick.
Any given San Francisco techie will be working towards the same basic goal – to give you back time on x task such that you can spend it on “what really matters.” This promise often rings hollow as one contemplates what he will do with his saved time. The ordinariness of life, the repetitive things, give way to both the promise of meaning and the fear of its nonexistence. Without the patience to look for meaning in the seemingly meaningless, it becomes impossible to see it anywhere else.
My brother is a self-identified nihilistic adventurer, a la Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, by which I mean that he coasts on the utopian tech ideals of “Unlimited Time Off” and “remote work.” He spent all of June in Uzbekistan on a cocktail of PTO and OOO and when he didn’t have internet would mark his calendar do not disturb. He’s seen more of the world than anyone I know, and I call him just about every day when he settles down into some internet café with a glass of the regional specialty, a book and his calendar set do not disturb.
He is in India today, though contemplating an early return given the effects of air quality on his lungs.
He used to tell me about a book he wanted to write, about a tech worker that never worked and always set his calendar do not disturb, and traveled around eating the most delicious pasta while uncovering the total nothing of the world.
What would be the status of the book my brother wants to write, if only it did not bore him to write it?
After showing him a draft of this essay, he says, you can write whatever you want about me, but you know it’s not true. I did write about my nihilistic travels when I was abroad, you just forgot. They were short, depressing paragraphs, just like yours.
His company was recently sold to a larger one, which dedicated itself to relentlessly “setting expectations” by which they meant lowering them. If a customer could not access what they paid to access or a final deadline was extended, the solution was a conversation to “set expectations.”
He was in Peru a few months ago, backpacking in the vast countryside dotted with small towns, his automated email likely set to “Getting coffee – talk soon.” He called me when he reached Lima thrilled by the successful deployment of his backpacking equipment, the renewal of high school Spanish, time with his friends. He said, the ruins are cool, but small compared to what I’ve seen. I should remember to plan around bigger ones next time.
I asked him what he meant and he said that he’d already been to the Acropolis, and it was hard to get excited about old rocks left in particular formations.
We’d been to the Acropolis together, just a few weeks before, on a family bike trip that ended with my partner getting collarbone surgery in the regional hospital of Argos. After a few days in Athens, we hopped on our bikes and visited sites like Mantinea, where a few rocks would mark the boundaries of a theater or a bath house, and my family would rest by the visitor check in while my partner stood and imagined Diotima. I tried to see the beauty in it, but today I mostly remember my allergies.
But I wouldn’t have compared Diotima’s alleged birthplace with Athens any more than I would have compared Peruvian ruins with the Acropolis. Standing before each, I looked inside myself for the sort of flame that would show me that even these defaced buildings could ask me to change my life. And before each, I knew that I had to keep trying.
My brother and I both worked for the same company for two years. He climbed up the ranks and I applied to Divinity School. He still spends his days wandering in distant cities and setting expectations and I find myself immersed in Talmud and Torah. I hoped that books, when accompanied by their reading traditions, might bind together the world and the word.
But I wonder whether Divinity School could fashion an integrated being in this fractured and atomized world. I find I fit in less and less. When I was working, my nihilistic attitude towards tech and tech culture was part of that culture, just as missing the donkey in a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey is as much a part of the game as hitting the mark. But when I left that world behind, I thought that I was no longer playing the game. And I wonder what would be worse: that I have not actually left it behind, or that I have — and as such, Divinity School has no bearing on what my life once was.
At a school reunion in the Fall, I tried to make small talk with my old friends. Only a month or two into Divinity School, I expected it to be easy to talk tech but found myself stumbling over words. My friend Grace seemed depressed. She said that she was enjoying the emptiness of her life, given that her job was remote and she had plenty of time to bake and hike. I, ever tactful, asked her if that emptiness was in fact terribly depressing and she quickly agreed. She told me that the trick of happiness was just not to think too much and then she sought out a new conversation partner.
I remember trying to be interesting, but even a few weeks in Divinity School robbed me of my daily lies. I don’t think that is a good thing. I fell back to my brother and told him all about Baubo.
Baubo is written in the Homeric Hymns and famously brings Demeter laughter laugh despite Demeter’s grief: she pulls up her skirts and shouts profanities. Baubo’s epithet was “she who knows what is worth caring about and what is not.”
She is lewd and ruddy and in-your-face and profane. And she helps Demeter for a split second realize the total insanity of the world. If we believe Baubo understands a certain truth about the world, then it seems appropriate to recall that Baubo shines when confronted by tragedy and that she winks as she lifts her skirts.
The profane is revealed as a form of communication. Perhaps it goes without saying that if I were to lift up my skirts, it would not to reveal what ought be kept hidden (after all, nothing is sacred anymore), but a sort of performance akin to Mother Ginger in the Nutcracker who joyfully maintains that our layers can be deep.
What does it mean to write God today? I bet it means being able to take a deep breath in but not hold it there forever.
When I wrote that last week I thought I knew what I meant by it. Today I keep breathing in and cannot comment on the exhale.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.[i]
In Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the defiled statue has a gaze that is threaded through hip and groin blazing without the need for those lost apple eyes. And it’s not in spite of the statue’s loss that the gaze strikes the viewer so, but rather because of it. The weathering of marble – wind, storm, perhaps theft or pillaging – creates meaning anew. The statue, now a fragment of what it once was, commits the viewer to being seen himself. And when he is, everything changes. Why must he change his life? Perhaps at once seeing and being seen by this statue whose sight has fled downward gives the viewer the possibility of a wholeness he previously held impossible.
I’ve often called upon the Archaic Torso of Apollo to remember the human desire to be better today than we were yesterday. I find myself referring anyone who will listen to what Jan Zwicky calls the “love of Alkibiades.” As Alcibiades listens to the philosophic exegesis of Socrates he realizes that his life is worth nothing, that he too must change his life. “He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention.”
But perhaps I forgot that Alcibiades, so in love with Socrates, refuses to listen to him. The demands were too great.
Zwicky writes that To be brought to the realization that we must change our lives, we must experience living meaning. We must feel that hinge opening: our life could be this life.
We no longer believe that truth remains truth when one pulls off the veil; we have lived too much to believe this. Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, to be present everywhere, to understand and ‘know’ everything… One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties. Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds? Perhaps her name is – to speak Greek –Baubo?[ii]
So I go to the Harvard Museum of Fine Arts on the weekend to find some defaced stone and direct myself toward the Good. I find a Torso of Aphrodite, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue. Her figure is emphasized by the weeping fabric that cascades over her legs, at once concealing and revealing. I search for the smile in her loins – cliché, perhaps, but see only fabric.
I am not drawn to her headless head. I don’t guess the origins of that flattened stump. If not for Rilke’s poem, I would have imagined that the Greeks designed her that way the same way I imagine she was designed marble white.
I wander a bit after, and stand in shock before Rodin’s Iris, Messenger of the Gods. This figure is delivered to us in fragmented, defaced form, but we know that Rodin’s original study included the head. The statue shrieks from between the legs and some curator has raised it up so that you look it straight in the yonic eye. Bystanders move from Monet to Monet but I am gripped by the eye’s focus on me. She is a paradox: a messenger whose mode of communication has been replaced with her womanhood. What kind of message can she deliver?
Perhaps Rodin is saying that the form is the content: the message is the body. The message is the body? If this is the case, then it seems like a warning. Do not pull off the veil, whatever is beneath will surely devour you.
A friend was recently criticized for “having an attitude” at work. The suggestion? More emojis in her intra-company communication, and at least one exclamation point per message. My friend was shocked by the expectation that she dilute herself through the feminization of her communication. Please let your womanhood leak through your logos.
But it’s easy to go further still. If words are no longer good enough, is it because we have exceeded them or just failed to live up to what it might mean to mean? A corporate goal to tyrannize language until it bends into shape, upholding the most facile veneer of happiness in a company that sells advertisements to hotel chains.
But what of Iris? Is she the ugly truth behind this corporate nightmare, the message? The words we use to cover up Iris’s unbearable message don’t stand up to time but usher in the domination of emojis. Better to imagine a world where women have heads.
Talking the same day to a good friend on the phone while she was shopping at the mall, she asks me about the great sadnesses of my life, and as I begin to unburden myself I hear, “yes, size medium, thank you… … so if I come back in a few I can use that for store credit?”
Nietzsche writes in fragments – why? Perhaps the space between the text invites the reader to see connections for himself.
Or perhaps they are fragments because the whole has been destroyed. If only the pieces remain, what can one do but collect them?
Or perhaps there is another urge to group in order to create a whole. Redrawing the lines in the sand, if you will, but with a fear of the stick that marks the ends because we know we fashioned the stick ourselves, just as we fashioned the lines.
I have been imagining the search for meaning as a desire to drill down past a surface like peeling off layers of an onion. But the trick with onions is that the inner most layer is just more onion. Or is it more like Baubo’s skirt, beneath which is female profanity, or is it more like Mother Ginger’s skirt, beneath which are dancing children dressed as bon bons (but remember: this is a fantasy)?
Or is it possible that we should turn our attention away from these layers and what one can do with them? The fact is, we don’t know what they are. Is it the unlayering that should draw us in, or should we be more interested in our strange urge to pick at the scab?
So this is me, picking at that scab. And for me it turns out that picking at the scab looks a lot like writing fragments. Picking at the scab might be a symptom of boredom, too. Or it might be a reaction to it. The everyday is filled with boredom.
Boring conversations and boring books and flowers that grow the same every damn year. But writing does the impossible by keeping us engaged with our own boredom, even if we are writing just to empty ourselves of our own sod.
In Herodotus’ Histories, Xerxes weeps as he watches his army flood over the Hellespont. “There came upon me,” replied he, “a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Xerxes weeps for his crew, never considering that he will surely be victim to the same mortal fate. Xerxes’ architected ignorance of his mortality is too well constructed: his fiction, rather than allowing him to face reality, makes him think he can overcome it.
Lightning takes the fastest path down, hitting what is usually the tallest object. But if that is the case, how does lightning “know” the most economical path down? With what vision does it propel itself downward?
Karen Barad writes about pools of electrons discharged from storm clouds that scout out the earth ahead of a lightning strike. The negatively charged spark heads toward the positively charged earth, and when the negative storm electrons flitter above the earth, the earth sends up filaments to greet and welcome them. When the meeting takes place, the electrical circuit closes and lightning is sent down.
The lightning’s initial pools of electrons travel not yet knowing that they will be met with a response from the earth, and yet each time, through a mechanism not yet fully understood, they are met by the earth’s filaments traveling towards them. Do these pools of electrons not practice faith in every passing storm?
In a collection of essays on infant psychology, Winnicott writes that if “babies are left for too long (hours, minutes) without familiar and human contact they have experiences which we can only describe by such words as:
- going to pieces
- falling for ever
- dying and dying and dying
- losing all vestige of hope of the renewal of contacts”
The holding environment consists of the mother holding the infant. For the baby, it’s not a promise that the world won’t end, it is proof of this. When the mother puts the baby down, the proof is gone. But then the mother returns. Winnicott writes, “It will be appreciated that with good care these awful feelings become good experiences, adding up to a total confidence in people and in the world. For instance, going to pieces becomes relaxation and restfulness if a baby is in good hands, falling for ever becomes the joy in being carried and the excitement and pleasure that belong to being moved; dying and dying and dying becomes a delicious awareness of being alive, loss of hope about relationships becomes, when dependence is met by constancy, a sense of assurance that even when alone the baby has someone who cares.”
For some, automating routine tasks under the pretext of bringing meaning into the office makes up the day. For babies, a day is an eternal landscape of being lost and being found.
I like the story that Winnicott tells, that we need to trust our environments before we learn about our own vulnerability, for life itself cannot make sense to babies who think that they are forever falling to pieces. In order to develop properly, a baby must believe that his mother will return. It’s not a lie, necessarily, but it is fragile. Or in other words, contact with reality is impossible when you don’t allow yourself a hope that partially insulates you from what that reality might hold. What is useful in the thought that the mother might not return?
But a healthy baby does not know why the mother will return, only that she has returned before. She doesn’t return immediately, but the expectation of it allows the baby to grow. We don’t know why the earth rises up to meet the lightning, only that whenever lighting strikes, the earth is always there to greet it halfway.
Perhaps the baby depends on the hope of the mother’s return just like meaning depends on the meaningless.
Did you know that my brother thinks restaurants produce high art, and my partner forgets to eat at least one meal per day? I want to tell you about myself, but it’s so much easier to talk about the harsh caricatures of my loved ones: my brother’s daily hedonisms and my partner’s high-minded love of the “beautiful” that comes at the expense of regular nourishment. Did you know that they think they have nothing in common? Yesterday, my partner was so hungry that he couldn’t speak but when I mentioned that my brother experiences similar “hanger” he vehemently denied the possibility that his hunger could be commensurate with my brother’s.
I’d like to think there might be a middle ground, where lunch can mean something but not too much, and where many lunches accompanied by a glass of water and a grilled cheese might be not the end of all efforts, but not nothing, either. It’s not everything but perhaps it’s one way to start.
[i] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Poets.org, https://poets.org/anthology/first-poems-0. [ii] Nietzsche Friedrich, The Gay Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 8.
Barad, Karen. “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” Women, Gender, and Research, 2012, 25–53. https://www.academia.edu/1857572/Natures_Queer_Performativity_the_authorized_version_.
Herodotus, Herodotus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Edited by Bernard Arthur Owen. Williams. Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Accessed October 30, 2020. https://poets.org/anthology/first-poems-0.
Winnicott, Donald Woods. Winnicott on the Child. Edited by Thomas Berry Brazelton, Stanley I. Greenspan, and Benjamin Spock. Cambridge: Perseus Publ., 2002.
Zwicky, Jan. “Alkibiades’ Love.” Essay. In Alkibiades’ Love: Essays in Philosophy, 283–97. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.