How much will I be changed, before I am changed? –Lucie Brock-Broido
Death alienates long before it happens. That’s to say, all through life humans dream and philosophize, have nightmares and conversations, write macabre poems and serious essays about human frailty, the end days, death—always associating the latter with some final Farewell: to this world, our loved ones, our lives, our selves. Not coincidentally, even the person who believes in heaven and believes himself en route, often still finds a theological loophole through which to ruminate over his posthumous isolation: he will think to himself, how will I recognize my loved ones if they’re not in human form? Or, what does “love” mean in the absence of pain and pleasure? And, surely it won’t feel the same… In proportion with the intensity of our earthly desires, any Elsewhere seems intolerable, and is in any case incomprehensible: how will I know where I am (and that I am) without my sense organs? How will I love or be loved in the absence of a ticking clock, and the romantic sense of urgency it invokes? How will I tolerate an eternity without human affection? Will I spend my last, my everlasting day, weeping—trying to weep without tear ducts—to some stoic God? Will I die a second death, of heartbreak? And a third, of boredom?
The ambiguous heaviness of heart one experiences in advance of a breakup, before moving away from home, preparing for the death of a loved one and so on—is the psychical anticipation of one’s own death: an isolated event she’ll undergo in utter isolation. Because it implies transformation and hence loss, every major (as well as every minor) rite of passage—marriage, recovery from an illness, revelation, labor—evokes and affirms our ultimate alienation. But our association of alienation with “death proper” is, however logical, specula: in theory the analogy holds, but how could we know how death feels? Can we psychically experience it the way animals physiologically “detect” a coming storm? Where fear of dying has an object—soma—“fear” of non-existence is by definition object-less, pure abstraction. Thus, let us call the psychosomatic counterpart—the “ambiguous heaviness” that goes along with our mere conceptualization of death as irremediable alienation—“angst.”
The experience of angst, the “ambiguous heaviness” of alienation that we synchronously project on the universal, “death”—gets lost in the particularity of the former. In other words: when I’m lying awake late at night and imagining my own death, trying to grasp (or trying not to) the “alienation” of non-existence, I draw from my experience as a misunderstood poet, whereas previously I drew from my experience as an anorexic qua abnormal psyche/social deviant, whereas before that I drew from…etc. etc.—while my friend draws from his experience as a Christian homosexual qua outcast, whereas before that he drew from his experience as a homophobe qua closeted homosexual, whereas before that he drew from…etc. etc. It’s these particularities that our perspective gets caught in, preventing us from glimpsing the common nature of our experience as alienated beings-toward-death: as to glimpse this nature for ourselves through the vicissitudes of becoming is hard enough—to recognize it in another, through all their transmutations, which appear so foreign to us, seems utterly impossible. For there’s a difference between knowing conceptually and understanding, knowing immanently: between thinking “you are like me because we share X” —and being struck by just how stunningly fragile, how strangely beautiful, i.e., how like myself, that lone soul.
So regardless of the alienating (or un-alienating) nature of death/dying/non-existence, our sharing in the common-denominator of death is not the key to understanding and non-alienation, or freedom. If I’m conscious, I can see that you’re dying; but if I have a pulse, this knowledge doesn’t liberate me. Besides, what does it mean that we both cross life’s threshold alone? Do two people who’ve never been to China and who know nothing about China, but plan to visit the country, share much common ground? We’re all dying—and? It’s this existence—which indeed presupposes and is conditioned by impending destruction—it’s this existence that we seek to understand each other “in terms of,” and to free ourselves within. Death enters into the equation only qua object of consciousness: only in terms of how we think and feel about it, how our unique and ever-changing minds and bodies anticipate its coming.
* * *
I’ve missed a good deal of pageantry by being born a Jew –L.B.B.
For the socialized psyche, i.e., the average American: immanent experience of alienation, and so of angst, stems from a belief in the social construct known as identity: a self made to endure change, but which may also get “lost” in that change—like a sheep that escapes the fold and gets devoured by a wolf, or distracted by another sheep and led further astray—or so we’re led to believe. Thus identity—representation, and its opposite—misrepresentation or “identity loss”: cause angst. Or do they? Identity, like time, is a social construct: imaginary. Can a cause be imaginary? Or does the imaginary “object” of our angst simply obfuscate, redirect us from, the actual cause? My suggestion is that the cause of angst is, as stated, not identity as such: not the fact (nor the illusion) that we have hidden in our innermost mechanisms, our sheep skins and wolf costumes, our butch or femme haircuts—an immutable kernel of truth or soul or essence that’s uniquely our own and that cannot be communicated; but rather it’s our attempt to shove into identitary straightjackets and pour into imaginary molds the enumerable feelings, thoughts, beliefs, habits, tastes, fears, and dreams that we are constantly evolving in and out of, trying on and tailoring and wearing out and giving up, that alienates us and produces the angst that we then project on death. Stumbling up the stairs with your addiction hat on, flowing around the city in a trance of almost unnoticeable anguish.… (1) Angst is a symptom of the imaginary, but no less alienating molds we strut, or rather stumble, around in: like the Emperor in his new clothes.
What alienates me, and is by proxy both the same thing and not the same thing that alienates you, what gives me angst, is that I cannot express my self in full—but only in moments, which themselves seem senseless when (mis)taken for fragments and so (mis)taken in isolation. I for instance cannot explain why today I am not afraid of heights, whereas I was terrified of them five years ago. Or better yet: it’s that words cannot describe by what miracle I now enjoy food, and am no longer afraid to “take up space” with my body, whereas three years ago I’d been dangerously thin and dangerously in love with starvation for almost a decade. It’s hard to “make sense” of the fact that I both practice yoga and smoke cigarettes; that I both pray and don’t believe in a higher power. All these facts and anomalies, even the seemingly contradictory ones, make perfect sense to me immanently: I experienced it all: I’m the witness, I lived it: I’m the proof—but so much of that experience was wordless, and hence a-logical—to you. It isn’t that I was anorexic and you never were, or that you are, and have no plans to recover, or that my mind is too deep, or too shallow, or too flighty, my “nature” too eccentric or piecemeal for you to “penetrate”—rather, it’s that I move too fast for you to grasp me in my self-identical entirety; and I move far too fast to grasp you in yours. This is not to say that I don’t want to understand you, or that I’m just too busy, too wrapped up in my own transformations to be mindful of yours: it’s just that I, like you, undergo so many changes at such rapid speeds that it’s impossible for me to figure myself out once and for all, or even just once—let alone to delineate you and your endless viscissitudes. What—have I offended you? Pardon me, who are you to ask to be delineated?
We know understanding is possible—hence why you’re reading this essay, and why I keep writing. I have seen you see your soul in me. I swear to god, I’ve seen my soul in your poem: my god in your soul. This is Recognition’s glimpse: the momentary experience of unity in difference, freedom in infinite otherness. When I see you recognize your truth in mine, your tears in my eyes, your voice in my soul-poem: not my identity, but my immanent experience of this moment, of the world-poem here and now: not the labels or costumes or histories or vocabularies I’ve amassed through the course of my (socialized) life, but the force and the form I right now embody: not in spite of my past, nor as its product, but as an organic part, a glimpse, of the world-poem: the becoming self-identical Whole.
If there is any meaning in this life it must be this one: this wordless recognition, my catching your glimpse through the flames, the burning glare-gaze of society, the nihilo and misunderstanding, subjectivity’s apocalypse—when hands and tongue are tied and our eyes, for all we know, are the last sight we’ll see of the real World of Difference—a glimpse into the infinitely other, eternity if you like—but why go there? We’ll be going there so soon already. —
—Stay with me. Lay beside me, for just another moment, just until we die, here, on the mountainside, here, among the trees all ablaze with dry lightning, no—one ablaze with lightening, the rest with its contagious flame of death. Tell me your name. Why do you keep your distance?
—What’s in a name? I’m singed like you, am I not? Shepherdless, bleating….You’re afraid that I’ll give us away? You want me to lie down and die with you, is that it? A biblical a Shakespearian death—our bodies welded together in the shape of desire, fair Verona in an uproar casting lots for our last tufts of wool? I’m leaving—why don’t you come with me? It’s not safe here—I’ve never heard thunder like this before you should’ve seen your eyes. Why aren’t you afraid? Why do you look at me like that, my Lord, my Romeo why don’t you look at me? .…You need me to free you? From what? I see no bindings, you’re not bound—now come quickly, before the flame consumes us.….You won’t go?….Bite through your bindings? I’ve told you already, there are none….
* * *
In my dominion, to die is to turn completely, gorged with change, bound…. —L.B.B.
If you expect to “grasp” her in her totality, you won’t—and if you approach her this way, you do so at the expense of both of your freedoms. Hence I approach the Other with a single desire: to glimpse in her, in all her particularity, the world-poem of which I too am part. As to the rest, all the small talk, all the non-sense, all the bullshitting: what past? What identity? What bindings? What blindfold? What burning building? What burning bush? You are a god, and these, your mere hallucinations. Shall I wake you from them? How shall I, if you’re dreaming me as well? Can a hallucination correct its creator? Can a dream-character wake the Sleeping? Touch me—I am real. Shake off these invisible, these imaginary chains of which you speak—what identity? What past? What name? Do you not see me? Am I, too, bound in shackles? So I am—in your mind I am. You’re still dreaming. When you wake, if you wake, come to my house and look again.
The glimpse is based not on the common denominator of death—but on the common denominator of subjectivity: of being/giving self-identical expression, or rather countless self-identical expressions, to the world-poem, the godhead. But the result of being-incommunicable is still alienation, the necessary byproduct of which is angst. Alienation is however only “necessary” to the extent that it’s impossible for us to transcend difference—no, not to transcend it: to recognize ourselves in it, by recognizing the world-poem, the god, in our own otherness, and by proxy recognizing the god in the alienated Other, and how both of our soul-poems, wildly different as they are, represent a moment, a glimpse, of the Whole. It is this glimpse of recognition whereby difference is preserved and alienation transcended, whereby the particulars and the universal sustain each other, whereby everyone and every poem can be understood-as-belonging to the whole, and therefore, to each Other.
Because “glimpse” as we’re using it denotes not the length but the mode of understanding: analogous to the peripheral, depth, color, and distance modes of vision assumed by the eye—it can be ongoing: you and I can continue to delimit one another by seeing/reading one another as moments and so as the free, irreducible beings we always already are. For us, every moment spawns two new individuals, two new poems, or rather readings of the world; hence it is by adopting (reclaiming) a prehistoric view of self and other—which I call the glimpse—that we see through the social constructs (e.g., history and identity) that otherwise obliterate our ability to understand the moment as enduring through change— as a melody through key change, as a skeleton key through all doors. It is this understanding that the glimpse restores, and which emancipates us from our soul-prisons.
1. From Tessa Rumsey’s “Special Transmissions Outside the Teaching”
Lucie Brock-Broido, When the Gods Go, Half-Gods Arrive