Sisyphus’ Music Box: A dialogue on race and interruption
by Prathna Lor and Fan Wu
Prathna: Our dialogue opens with a poem that serves as the epigraph to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. I suppose I chose this poem because I wanted to think about Orientalism and ornamentation, about race and desire, about body and gesture and how such things commingle at the level of ethics and aesthetics. Fan and I met at school and our styles of friendship are immensely divergent – I mean, you could say that about a lot of people, but it’s these styles which, I think, come out in this “dialogue.” I say that with some stubborn reticence because it might not look like we’re actually talking to one another. Our conversation quickly spirals out and, if anything, it’s a demonstration of how – and not what – one desires. According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, when one speaks one always misspeaks. One is constantly misunderstood, misrecognized. So to bring that to light, like an illuminating wall, that’s what I think is the necessity of intimacy. Often, it is about finding your own treasures hidden in a mouth you didn’t know was there.
Fan: William Burroughs speaks of a three-column format for the daily practice of discontinuous writing: in the first column you record the goings-on of your quotidian existence; in the second you record memories, feelings that circulate in your sensorium; in the third you record quotes from books or films: language that strikes you from outside. All of these things make their way into the fabric of a friendship, the warp-and-weft of thought charged with intentionality: I wish to share this with you, in a way that only you could understand. (Namely: amorous denial, adoring white people who wistfully gaze eastward, the spectrality of being racialized.) Something more than communication is at stake in friendship – something other than the demand for a response. In this dialogue, we honour each other’s stubborn silences; we reserve each other the right to stupidity, obscurity. For you, I hope it offers the suggestion of a lesson, and the intimation of our casual urgency.
The waters are blue, the plants pink; the evening is sweet to look on;
One goes for a walk; the grandes dames go for a walk;
behind them stroll the petites dames.
—Nguyen Trong Hiep, Paris, capitale de la France: Recueil de vers (Hanoi, 1897), poem 25
I’m not a Benjamin scholar. But I wanted to take this poem, which opens The Arcades Project, as a starting point for thinking about racial residue. In a footnote to “poem 25” in Nguyen Trong Hiep’s 36 quatrain book of poems about his impressions of Paris, a reference is made to a Chinese book of poetry, “a kind of poetic treasure,” in which one can find the line: “Les grandes dames marchent ensemble, suivies de petites dames” (The grandes dames go for a walk, behind them stroll the petites dames). If Benjamin’s reflections on Paris begin with the impressions of a Vietnamese poet as a particular threshold, what happens to such a threshold when we see that Hiep’s impressions of Paris were informed by Chinese treasures? What does it mean for us to imagine Hiep listening for the echoes of Chinese poetry in the Parisian grandes dames?
I wonder if I’m obsessed with trying to find the image of myself in the machinations of thought. Am I listening for Narcissus’s scream or his scream repeated by Echo?
I open Jean-Luc Nancy’s Corpus and read the following line: “The signifying body – the whole corpus of philosophical, theological, psychoanalytic and semiological bodies – incarnates one thing only: the absolute contradiction of not being able to be a body without being the body of a spirit, which disembodies it.”
People often ask me to repeat myself because I speak so low and mumble but I always feel like I’m yelling. It’s taxing to use one’s voice so I turn my head and grimace. “Haunting” is such an ugly word but sometimes you move your hand and it becomes a moon and then your hand again.
One can imagine Nguyen Trong Hiep trailing in the clandestine shadows behind Baudelaire, Benjamin’s most beloved poet. But whereas Baudelaire speaks in the booming voice of decadence – I’m like the king of a rain-country, rich but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch – Hiep speaks in a whisper that does not admit of a subject in a first-person pronoun (one goes for a walk), that suspends its gaze in midair so it does not become an instrument of forceful comprehension (it only reports what it sees). There is a strand of Chinese poetry that foregrounds the self’s dissolution into the landscape. What speaks is not a person so much as the fragrance of an inclination. Perhaps (if I might speak too soon) Benjamin needed from this poem the covert attunements to ordinary life that Baudelaire’s bombast could only fail.
How is it that I heartily reach for calamity and manage to always land on incremental progress? When your echo reaches me it is no less a scream. I felt older than you for the first time when you described your fresh wound, while I sat there knowing myself long steeped in the aftermath.
I open Nancy’s “Shattered Love” and read its first line: “The thinking of love, so ancient, so abundant and diverse in its forms and in its modulations, asks for an extreme reticence as soon as it is solicited. It is a question of modesty, perhaps, but it is also a question of exhaustion: has not everything been said on the subject of love?”
I love you, Prathna, without being able to say why. You withhold what I need from you, as though you intuit that this withholding is what I need most. We tangle with each other in the thickets of psychoanalysis; we treat the psyche like a chess game, each ordeal a moveable feast. I believe I can learn from your palatial self-regard but likely this is the fantasy that keeps me from learning a thing. The subject of love is inexhaustible so long as we spare the love of one subject.
Two citations by Anne Carson:
1. “The Sublime is a documentary technique.”
2. “In ancient Chinese tradition (I have heard) there is a genre of poems written by ghosts… A blackness in which I am suspended, you are suspended, and its water is sold for mirrors. Ghosts are distinguishable from regular people by their gliding walk, apparently on no feet.”
Some observations from ordinary life:
“The thing that angels do” / “powers of destiny” / “the education of desire” / pedagogy vs. education / sickness / bad dreams / a grown man ordering a cookie / brown nipples / the first suggestive mirage of the sexual / sexual difference / activation or reminder / a complaint / rather than as a permanent instantiation of disgust / “level-headed” / “infantile amnesia” turns childhood into “a prehistoric epoch”
Tenderlessness – and the amount of endurance it takes to scold the necessity of adoration into stickiness.
The relationship between experience and enunciation maintains its frazzled tenor of incorrigible thought in the domain of open secrecy. Or, to pose it another way, what happens to criticism when criticism takes the form of oceanic associations that seemingly dissociate us from what’s ordinarily called the political? Is the mirth of what Barthes called “psychoanalytic listening” a generative space between thought and unthought where action takes the name of solitude and patience rather than complacency?
Speak nothing of love. You ask your question as if it troubles you. Rearrange what you take in for splendour. Then tell me you love me.
Last night I had a dream with a voice with which I could not scream; I was wearing the wrong coat, evidently.
“At a particular moment, the psychoanalyst defines imaginary inter-subjectivity as a three-term structure: 1) I see the other; 2) I see him seeing me; 3) he knows I see him. Now, in the lover’s relation, the gaze is not so devious, so to speak, it lacks one of these trajectories. No doubt, in this relation, on the one hand, I see the other, with intensity; I see only the other, I scan the other, I want to penetrate the secret of this body I desire; and on the other hand, I see the other seeing me: I am intimidated, dazzled, passively constituted by the other’s all-powerful gaze; and this panic is so great that I cannot (or will not) recognize that the other knows I see him (which would dis-alienate me): I see myself blind in front of the other.” (Barthes, “Right in the Eyes”)
Barthes is obsessed with the position of love as the possession of nothing but displacement. Barthes, ever the overactive semiotician, needs the gaze to be broken down into steps. This way the lover can be excluded from an essential step, therefore moving himself into another economy: that of the refusal of recognition. But even this refusal is optimistic. Isn’t the lover the one who sees the other even though blind, blind in the first place, blinded to begin with by how love wounds the gaze?
We speak parallel to each other at best, but luckily for us writing does not need us to touch for the resonance of communication to sound itself. (Explicitness wrings me out.)
Is it criticism that you care for, or is it for us to begin the work of making our worlds a temple in which, finally, silence is permitted?
Anne Carson wades into Japanese and Chinese thought like a careful anthropologist. She will tell you where she found her objects, or she will tell you it’s all just hearsay. Was Hiep one of Benjamin’s ghosts, whose evenings were made of glass? Are we the spectres of which she speaks, suspended in the neither-here-nor-there, the neither-me- nor-you of exile?
All night, I ride shotgun side by side with the ghost I call failure, for whom gesture, if not entirely the one language left, is the only one he still trusts, though there are times, even now, I forget this: he takes my hand, and I hold it – tight.
And I turn my head away.
I write endlessly in the register of prayer. Not for myself, nor others, but as a vehicle for speaking and giving some sense to what hidden remains I intuit. Perhaps my optimism is overdetermined by thinking that something emerges from the crevices which form around every monolith that inhabits even the slightest of my gestures.
Lacan speaking similarly, though less romantically, about vision articulates the “moment of anxiety” as “the impossible sight that threatens you, of your own eyes lying on the ground.” Or, from the song, “Candy Says”: What do you think I’d see – If I could walk away from me?
Whenever someone asks me how I’ve arrived at a certain point of self-understanding, I hold back from telling them that I’ve always hated my body.
I chipped my glasses crying on the street last night.
Have I made too much of friendship as mutual abandonment? As though a friendship, once brought into the fold of oneself, reaches a state of completion after which one responds to the friend’s need – need is beyond the confines of friendship – but loses the feeling of wanting the friend’s company. For what is it to want what you already are?
Your gestures: a still pool for ghosts to hover over. My gestures: the demand for someone to come and whisper place names to me all day, names that sound like what they are, Junco River, Los Angeles.
Is it hatred of our bodies that propels us to trail the grandes dames and petites dames of this world, to live in their shadow even as we see ourselves in them? Race makes my gaze spin so it lies sprawled on the ground, neither mine nor white. Candy says: I hate the quiet places / that cause the smallest taste of what will be. One goes for a walk, sweet evening, blunt noise of the ebbing future.