That night in November, I had allowed my MacBook to run out of battery. The screen went dark as I was waiting for the New York Times Election Results page to refresh. I staggered into the night. There were no cars parked outside—our neighbors, the only other house on our narrow end of the street, had moved out the week before. I received a text message from an unknown number. It was from a friend of mine whose contact details I hadn’t yet saved in my new phone. The message read, ‘Are we okay?’ Something rose up within me.
In Sartre’s Nausea, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, tries to articulate a similar dread. He fails, at first, and then grasps it. “I felt like I was gently slipping into the water’s depths, towards fear,” he says. Heidegger said that dread is a thief: it robs us of speech, of our faculties, and reveals the nothing. It is as if you open your eyes and your furniture is missing, your kitchen is bare, your bedroom is empty, and your cat is gone. It’s overwhelming. It’s nauseating. According to Sartre, nausea is existence revealing itself – and existence is not pleasant to see. It’s unpleasant in an artless way, in a way that ends coherence. There is no such thing as a barbaric poem, at least not in a way that has ever made sense to me, but there is such a thing, I believe, as silence.
The poet Anne Boyer once observed that poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice. I’m not sure I ever understood sentences like that. I’m not sure I understood Theodore Adorno, who wrote that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But here I am, quiet, afraid, and robbed of coherency: is this what silence is? Is this barbaric?
I’m thinking of a friend of mine who is a fine poet, and who has a sense of justice so lucid and felt that it seems prototypical, almost Platonic were it innocent and un-strident. We sometimes have conversations about art, and about poetry, and about the purpose of poetry and prose and all that stuff in between in the face of all the stuff out there, in the world, where our bodies are on the line, where children are dying and the polar ice-caps are melting and yet the world is still sliding, loudly, inexorably, towards doom, as if it wasn’t yet enough. He tells me that stories saved his life. Books saved his life. Fiction and poetry saved his life. I wonder what saved my life? I read things on the internet. News, information, sometimes even poetry, but mostly funny things and silly things and things concerning the lives of my friends. Very rarely do I read something that I can point to and say: this is why I am alive. Very rarely. Almost never.
My ancestors may have been sailors: they’re a coastal people, so it’s possible, but they never left Africa, not permanently, until my father and my mother came to Australia. The story of humanity, at least the National Geographic version of it, always starts with when humans left Africa. That they had fire and caves and complex systems of social interaction recognisable to us as human, and then they left. They went to Europe and maybe lived with Neanderthals for a while, obtained some of their DNA, and maybe killed them. They went to Asia where they also maybe lived with Neanderthals and also obtained some of their DNA and also maybe killed them. They crossed deserts and plains and steppe and mountain, all the while carrying Neanderthal DNA in little sacks tied around their waists. Some took to the sea and found islands and entire continents, bringing Neanderthal DNA to new places. Sub-Saharan Africans are the only people on earth without Neanderthal DNA, but every article I read about Neanderthal’s mentions that these ghosts are present in ‘human DNA’ and whenever I read that I look at my wrist and think, there’s a continent full of people being erased here. Those humans stayed in Africa and moved and fought and settled all over its breadth, all without Neanderthal DNA. Some, like my parents, didn’t leave till 1993. What about those humans? Where does their story fit into things?
What happens when you deny someone their story, even by accident? Well, the story doesn’t just disappear. It gets stolen and co-opted into something monstrous. It also becomes profoundly boring.
Of course, it’s still that night in November. After leaving the house, I met with a friend of mine and we talked for a bit about our lives and we also talked for a bit about Donald Trump. The conversation came easily, then, which I find strange now, because I can barely speak his name these days, and the idea of talking about him seems unspeakably profane, like Voldemort, so instead I read things on the internet, and I try to navigate this silence.
Many friends of mine cried at home and went into work the next morning anxious and afraid. I drank too much wine and worried that my art had become suddenly obsolete.
I want to write a novel and every time I sit down, freshly shaved and showered and shot full of caffeine, I think to myself, ok, this is what it is about: A young man with a sick father and a young wife who isn’t a shopaholic but instead the star of her own television series (until the pregnancy, of course, which initially gets written into the show, but becomes tragic when she suffers a miscarriage and is the forced to pretend to be pregnant in her pretend TV show universe because in that universe they already had a miscarriage plot-line and, besides, it’s too early in the season for a plot-twist) and then I read a novel or book of poetry or book of essays and I’m immediately shamed. What is this? Why even bother committing to something when it immediately shames you? Why even write? So I deny my stories. The young man falls ill and dies. His young wife attains some success before she too dies. The father, inexplicably, survives for far longer than I had planned before he dies. Soon there is no novel because the novel, you see, has died.
And now, there’s the internet, which is where lies wish to live, so my own fiction seems strange and grotesque everywhere else, especially in this world, where the polar ice-caps are melting in the summer and failing to re-freeze in the winter, and you can now sail right through the north pole as if it’s just another sea.
Instead of denying people their stories, a better thing to do is not understand them at all. I think this is why Trump is so profane to us: we understand his story perfectly. We have seen his fist-like face and his fist-faced children and we have their measure; his incoherence and narcissism hides nothing from us; his sinister viziers are known to us; his methods are not at all new. Yet we cannot deny him so we must oppose him, which carries it’s not insignificant portion of despair, because in war you lose battles and we can’t afford to lose battles in a world where half of all species are set to go extinct in less than three decades and polar bears are drifting on sleds of ice in warm seas and the ocean itself is, in some places, painted red and whale carcasses are shot through with dynamite-tipped harpoons.
If only the world was so much more like poetry. If only it was a better thing to only understand a little of it and an even better thing for it to be strange.
And I return to Anne Boyer who, in her collection of prose poem-essays, Garments Against Women, writes that information is the poetry of people who love war.
She also writes poems that are strange and beautiful and incomprehensible and then says that it is not justice that is enthralling, but ‘justice-like waves, and a set of personal issues, like the aestheticisation of politics and the limitations of reading lists before the digital age.’
So here are a set of personal issues:
- Why does philosophy remain interesting right up until the moment it becomes boring?
- What are the limits of poetry in the face of dread?
- Can people change?
- Instead of aestheticising politics, can we de-aestheticise the world of ‘not-politics’ in such a way so that only the body remains?
- Even if aesthetes aren’t merely sophists, what’s so bad about sophistry?
- When I tweet ‘This failing cafe ran out of so-called muffins today. SAD!’ am I aestheticising politics? Is this profane? Or is it just a boring parody that achieves nothing except hiding the dead bodies that are buried in the words?
- Are stylistic flourishes in storytelling deliberate ploys that enhance the text or merely a mask for a lack of polish?
I once read a sentence in a novel that went something like this: ‘He devoured her with a look.’ Beyond the basic digestive philosophy of it: that ‘to know is to eat,’ I struggled to actually imagine what this type of gaze would look like on a person. The closest I can get to imagining this gaze is to imagine a look of hunger, but that’s just the image suggesting itself, and besides, what does hunger look like anyway? Yet I know it’s a real look: it’s a leer. It’s a violent gaze.
Whenever I struggle to run a very basic visualization exercise in my head (i.e. What does a grin look like? What does a leer look like? What does a glare look like?) and I inevitably fail, I often find myself thinking, What if there are other seemingly fathomable things that are actually unfathomable to me? What else am I missing?
Elie Wiesel once said that, sometimes, in moments of grace, writing can attain the quality of deeds. I think about this often. Five times a day or more. But not about the act of writing, but about the relationship between writing and thinking and deeds. It’s like this: I want a cigarette but I am not really aware of this fact until I am reaching for my pouch and pinching the filter between my lips as I measure out the tobacco. I am only aware of the deed, and I don’t even think to ask myself: where was the thought? Relationship to deed is the difference, I think, between writing and thinking. Thinking is father to the deed, but writing is, at best, a translation. But sometimes, in moments of grace…
My psychologist, in our very first session, taught me to observe my problem thoughts, and place them in a box, and place the box in the hands of a sturdy agent, and have the agent get into a black car, and have the car drive through forbidding back-country roads, till it arrives at a sinister building carved out of a mountain. The thoughts get placed in a vault, and the vault is locked. The vault, the car, the back-country roads: they are my invention. In her exercises, she taught me to imagine the thought on a leaf, and to imagine my hands cupping this leaf and placing it gently on a stream, watching it flow away into the calm, distant waters of obscurity.
These exercises don’t always work, but sometimes, in moments of grace, they do and I find that my chest has calmed and I don’t quite feel so strange and so small anymore.
Khalid is a writer, fiction editor for the quarterly literary journal The Lifted Brow, and Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival.