Notes on wayfinding along the seas and sands of the via-not
by Lital Khaikin
Roberto Matta, The Vertigo of Eros, 1944 (detail)
An ‘inscape’ of the psyche. Fine filaments connect the corridors of biological matter, neuron and bone interpolated alongside cosmic eggs in transience of small voids. The lungs spark outward, capable of containing all.
Is it, it?
How do you know you know?
Do you come to it via the yes?
Or do you come to it via the no?
Grasping richness through negation is a dance on the edge of play. To learn flight by falling. To savour light through the darkness. To side-step, shift, duck, and fumble. It could be by choice, in which case it really might be play. It could be at wit’s end, in which case the dance might be a child of grief, looking the other way. Coming to know, coming to – arriving by way of the via-not – this approach is provoked in its paradoxically fragile and fierce state by metaphysical poet John Donne in “Negative Love”:
“If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be exprest
But Negatives, my love is so.
To All, which all love, I say no.”
The finitely knowable is made cheap, banal and perverse, irretrievably open to exploitation and ransom. Love, as in Donne’s poem, and play, in its most beautiful forms, doesn’t know it is what it is, doesn’t assert itself in its own name, and doesn’t present a catalogue of traits or prescriptive actions that are satisfied by execution and acknowledgement. It is content in itself without need of performance or proof, elusive in its revealing by way of not-that, irrepressibly made external because of its internal integrity – and, through that same elusive quality that cannot be so simply distilled, completely whole.
Donne returns to this principle of a visible love, through a subject’s concern for how their love looks to others, in “A Lecture Upon the Shadow”, where he writes:
“That love hath not attain’d the highest degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.”
A constant tension between visibility and invisibility, performance and eclipse, certainty and validation. In a person’s diligent concealment that is rooted in shame, and in a performative exaggeration rooted in uncertainty, love, like play, loses its essence. In attending primarily to its own awareness, it is already lost to that limited notion of itself.
Or, as Jeremy Fernando wrote in “On Love and Poetry—Or, Where Philosophers Fear to Tread”: “For if the mystery of the other is unveiled, then the love for the other person is also a completely transparent love: one that you can know thoroughly, calculate; a check-list. And if they are knowable, this suggests that they can also be negated, and hence, the love can also go away. Only when the love for the other person is an enigmatic one, one that cannot be understood, can that love potentially be an event—and if it is an event then strictly speaking, it cannot be known before it happens; at best, it can be glimpsed as it is happening, or perhaps even only realised retrospectively.”
Toyen, Development, 1945 (detail)
Toyen, Far in the North, 1965 (detail)
I planted a seed a long time ago, when I buried a book in a barren field. For years, I forgot about it, or it forgot about me, it’s not clear which came first. When I remembered so many years later and ran back to the field, I was full of fear. But I found that, even in the droughts and storms that kept the soil cold and naked, the seed had grown into a bird, and that bird that grew from the seed had eaten my book, and the words that grew from the book had unspooled into the sky. So to recover my words, I turned my fear into feathers and planted a bird in the mist.
In his essay on German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich from the volume Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears, Hungarian art theorist and essayist László Földényi refers to the trend of “re-enchantment” as a metaphysical consolation to the “ever more irresistible march of secularization”. Földényi keeps the essay contained within the context of the German Romantic movement, describing the “general longing of the Romantics to retreat from prosaic life and find in nature that universal meaning and connection which civilization was supposedly no longer able to provide.” The abandonment of the mystical, transposed to the present moment, is not equipped to deal with the depths of the psyche confronting the reproduction of meaninglessness that accompanies widespread automation of labour, the superficiality and fragmentation of social connections, pervasive psychic isolation, and entrapment in the sacrifice of dreams for survival.
The absence of enchantment is endemic to the ever-constricting compromises of selecting and navigating intimate relations, which must exact wilful efforts to escape being subsumed by the logics and rhythms of capitalism. Such relational commodification relies not only on alignment of class-based lifestyles or mannerisms, or education and income characteristics, but on internalised value systems by which romantic and platonic – and something-more-or-otherwise – relationships become extended performances of accumulation and human capital, of one’s own worth, where depreciating value is unacceptable and discarded or avoided.
“Nothing random, no chance encounters,” says Badiou in response to Nicolas Truong in the book In Praise of Love, on the sleight of hand of relationships that appear to be wilful, but replicate the dynamics of arranged marriages. “Love confronts two enemies, essentially: safety guaranteed by an insurance policy and the comfort zone limited by regulated pleasures.”
Reaching one another through illusionary surfaces, ready-made networks. An abandonment of the uncertain for the ‘already there’. Possibility of closing distance between strangers? Only if mediated by algorithm, by the assurance of known-knowns. The vagrant is a supernatural transient of the mediated world, passing above and outside, the unseen-unseen.
But arrival via the ways of not-that is the default condition for trauma. When there is no pre-existing understanding or recognition of a form, it makes itself known over time, over a long time, revealing through receding edges in an interplay between inside and outside, neither of which have been given the chance to be stable. Wayfinding is by lurching headlong into sources of re-traumatisation, through the chronic doubt that streams beneath the hope for the world to return one into one’s self. Unable to enter into absence within one’s self leads into a chase for the next personality, the next story, the next event, the next follower, the next lay, the next…
Else Thoresen, Bjerke-Petersen maler, 1937 (detail)
Someone tells me there are precious stones in the water, and pulls them back into the night before I can reach them. I can only watch.
There is desire that grips, and desire that maintains an elusive balance between certainty and uncertainty. In Lacan’s love letters to Sharon Kivland, he wrote: ““Desire substitutes the ‘absolute’ condition that is resistant to the satisfaction of a need. Desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results. […] it is not enough to be subjects of need, or objects of love, but that we must stand for the cause of desire. […] It is for that which you are not that you wish to be desired as well as loved.”
To stand for the cause of desire, when such desire has been eliminated from a world of certain characteristics, certain futures, probable outcomes. A desire that courts and accepts the void inward. To be loved through the negative space.
When the surfaces of the world have frayed, when there is only bare nerve bearing humiliation – when there is nothing else to stand on, then, as Paul Celan writes, “The world is gone. I must carry you.”
As Antonio Machado wrote in a sonnet to ‘Guiomar’:
“La guerra dio al amor el tajo fuerte.
Y es la total angustia de la muerte,
con la sombra infecunda de tu llama
y la soñada miel de amor tardío,
y la flor imposible de la rama
que ha sentido del hacha el corte frío.”
The war gave love its heavy wound.
And it is the total anguish of death,
with the fruitless shadow of your flame
and the fantasised honey of belated love
and the impossible bloom of the bough
that has felt the cold cut of the axe.
Salah Taher, Metaphysic, 1977 (detail)
A desert is transited over eras by shrouded figures that have willed themselves out of stone. Inside each, a chamber large as a cavern, into which the desert peers. Perhaps there is someone sheltering inside?
As Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace, “Far from thinking with all the intensity of which we have capable of the values to which we are attached, we must preserve an interior void.”
When she wrote of “fidelity in the void”, it was into this silence into which faith would be cast, tipping, tipping – nevertheless, despite. Nurturing within barrenness, planting seeds in the desert, watering the seeds just because they are there. To witness presence through absence. To attune to a shape through negative space. To hold onto lack. This is the first and last poem. Without this gesture, there is no delicacy to a world of accumulation alone, a world moved to have only, to need always, to fill everything.
There are social and economic imperatives for rushing on to the next, before finding if one is really in place or has not been hurt deeply and invisibly along the way, bleeding outward. Amid the dissolution of attention, how to wrest back the fragile emotional self from the economic and cultural pursuit of instant satisfaction, the fear of emptiness, of confronting one’s inadequacies – of being alone?
Feeling that is large, that takes up room, is met with cruelty. Feeling, the wrong way. The way that gets tangled and loud, messy and catastrophic, silent and suicidal, and altogether takes up too little or far too much space, demands too much presence or grips too tightly to absence. Yes, we know it’s there, it’s all so heavy, but why does it have to make itself known?
Amid Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious that unravels in the volumes of the Black Books: Notebooks of Transformation, he identifies the loss of the dignity that is inherent to acts of concentrated intention. The absence of prayer to which he refers, is the absence of a directed, focused intention that concentrates all of a person’s awareness and presence. Do we give attention to one another, or just fill out the time? Do we hold absence? Do we know absence, when we can always swipe, left or right, right or left?
What about slow time, about time as a poem that unfolds over an entire life? What about the duration that touches the limits of hope?
In his Black Book vol. III, January 1914, Jung refers to the anchorite, before contemplating a scarab in the rare grass of the desert: “He probably does not know – we have no more prayers. How should he know about our nakedness and poverty? What has happened to our prayers? I admit that I miss them here. This must really be because of the desert. It seems here as if one ought to know how to pray. Is the desert so very bad? I think it is no worse than our cultural deserts, which we call cities.”
In Tertium Organum, Russian esotericist Piotr Ouspenskii wrote: “Temples of love and the mystical celebration of love’s mysteries exist in reality no longer: there is the “everyday manner of life” and psychological labyrinths from which those who rise a little above the ordinary level can only desire to run away.” Without space to become lost, without the knowledge and attention to the edges of void, without knowing how to carry a profound lack – these are deserts of distraction, leading always farther and farther from the interior abundance that knows the way.
The psyche of a city is the reflection of its facets turned upon one another, refracting light and shadow in ways that bend, contort and consume, trapping inwardly and unable to flow. Cities in which one cannot be at home with lack. Tricky thieves of internal and external spaciousness, to which one turns less in consolation than in distraction – in which a visible sorrow is to be met with suspicion, retreat, derision. Cities that abandon and are abandoned, from within, become incubators of fracture even under the illusion of connection, where one shatters against another in a repetition of seeking and entrapment within intentionless anxiety, growing the inner desert outward and taking in the strange sands of others.
Leonor Fini, Enroulement du silence, 1955 (detail)
Bird-woman has crooked wings. One day, a man saw bird-woman through the eyes of shame. He concealed from her, gave her very many of the smallest lies, redirected her eyes from questions for which he had no answers. He told her he wanted a bird-woman but kept looking in her for a woman of bread. He said he wanted to be a branch, but rebuked her when she flew. When she flew to him to arrange her feathers near him, when she was near him arranging her feathers, he was angry and demanded to know, “Why are you even here?” She used to fly her crooked flight between continents, between moons, between planets. In the smallest and the largest of ways, he kept reminding her of how crooked her wings are, and somehow never asked “why”. Was she born with them? Did someone break them? Did many people trample over them? Her wings became robed in silence, until she remembered only her crookedness. Gradually, she became smaller and smaller, until those wings gave up her enormous flight. She didn’t even notice. Then, at the very edge of one long day, someone saw her crooked but told her, “there’s no need for shame.” There she goes again…
Look, within paces of the desert’s edge, a skeleton, eyes bandaged by the hands of a well-meaning man!
The desert is frightening, but it is barren only in a language that is poor in expanses. Drought is to be honoured with attention, through which the mysteries of nourishment are revealed, the inner waters stored deep within the marrow, the arch of momentum against a world that bends to the laws of inertia.
The desert outside of consolation is the desert of poems. How can we know what has been lost – what has quietly slipped away when we weren’t looking, what absence makes itself known – without remaining, for a while, with the desert? Without knowing what is lost, how to know what to look for? The work of the desert is to feel all the edges of hunger, to drink poison in place of water. The richness of the desert is habitually rejected, is kept at a far distance by the illusion of plenty of the “cultural deserts” – yet how many poems has the real desert given to the wayfarers? To embrace drought in a wasteland, to cross with the improbable strength of knees that buckle…
–“but there was plenty of room,” said Alice. The desert eventually reaches the sea.
What lies within the unknown unknown, in a world that tolerates no secrets? The metaphysical horizon – the mystical space of poems and the intimate prayers of yearning – has shifted from a numinous sphere, abiding not so much in some imperceptible outside, but in the delicate space in-between one another. Where there are no predetermined, ready-made, already-there connections, this space is made all the more delicate because it demands stepping outside of the maya of anxiety, the distortion of control, the dissection of prejudice and stigma.
And then I thought I couldn’t take it any longer…
As Lawrence Vogel writes on Heidegger in The Fragile “We” : “Anxiety opens one to the uncanniness of existence, to finitude without refuge: to the dizziness of authentic freedom-unto-death. […] The irony here is that anxiety over choosing for oneself and risking change traces to anxiety in the face of death; and yet a life stuck in time is a kind of living death.”
No time, no time – no room, no room – move down, move down… Where to?
Or, as in Hannah Gregory’s poem: “‘Love’—run.”
About the Author
Lital Khaikin is a writer based in Tiohtiá:ke / Montréal. Her literary experiments appear in and around 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and the “Vestiges” journal by Black Sun Lit. Her journalism appears in Canadian Dimension, Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and elsewhere. She is completing a novella called flight, and embarking on a second novella called nigredo.
Note on the Text
Details from paintings reproduced here under fair use. This essay is published for non-commericial, educational purposes.
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