The Fixed Point of Survival

Well, I want to talk about engineering, and also, “getting strong”.

Engineering, I propose this word as the summary to our difficulties. I acted out the drama of returning to reading, and how confused I was, and how dangerous a thing reading was, but also took care to note ( — I don’t think I’ve every actually made this “error”, I had always been aware of this) that this reading was not an experience, it was not the experience of confusion. Reading presents us with an engineering problem — that of surviving or emerging intact. One of my favorite tropes is the warp, we can imagine reading to be such a space. Movies such as “Event Horizon” or “Space Odyssey” remind us of the dangers of interstellar travel, which is probably not unlike the attitude towards early naval exploration. Yet the emphasis here is not on foreign lands but rather the voyage itself. It’s not at all a stretch to include “Heart of Darkness” with those two movies. Engineering, then, is involved to enter the warp and emerge intact.

There is actually one thing I forgot to mention, which is, that there is the difficulty of recognizing the warp to begin with — to recognize a transport for a transport, to recognize the problem at all. Or, to be able to expose oneself to the warp.

Actually, the engineering metaphor may be misleading. The only way to survive the warp intact is, actually, not to be intact in the first place.

Now, the question arises: can we read without exposing ourselves to the warp? I actually want to say, “no”. Or, actually, I want to say no to the implication of this question: are the mass of people brainwashed, does culture tend to brainwash? This is what I’ve been implying, when I (1) say that the entire purpose of culture is to suppress paranoia, and (2) when I complained — “why had no one warned me about reading?”. The implication was that people had somehow dulled themselves to reading. But — however possible this may be psychologically — I believe that people do not really “dull themselves” to this paranoia, but rather, have developed sophisticated strategies for dealing with reading. You will notice, for example, that people (and especially teenagers) often reach these impasses when dealing with literature, that they describe this experience in the same way, or seem to get the same thing out of every book. This may be an impasse, but it is not really insensitivity — and in fact this impasse is quite interesting — and maybe we are in fact impassologists? — it reflects some engineering construct, in the mind, made to handle the warp.

But, as we said, the only way to survive intact is not to be intact in the first place. I actually have, as a kind of mental image, a mapping that maps something onto itself. For example, something that has rotational symmetry, such as a circle, would survive this distortion intact. More exotic examples of retaining identity under increasingly exotic transformations would be the fractal. A person can survive the warp if their very existence is … permeated with the warp. This basically involves two things:

1) The retrospective understanding (and we can call this part, “engineering”) of some event in the past, of some disruption. Remember that this is a personal understanding, and not merely conventional heresay — it is the retrospective attempt to deal with some event of profound disruption.

2) The shifting of one’s identity (and we can call this part, “becoming stronger”) so that one is haunted by this event in the past, so that all one’s actions is sort of shrouded by this past event. We can actually call this, “being traumatized”, too.

… just to give a more concrete example, from the heart of darkness. We made reference to the “jungle”, which is a kind of mnemonic overload, or the warp — the jungle is this profound disturbance. But it is actually too general. One is indeed warped by the jungle, but the issue here is in fact surviving. An implication of what we are talking about here is that what remains is not so much the strong (unless, of course, we were to define strength simply as such, but in which case, we would have to equate strength with flexibility) but rather the invariant. What survives is almost least common denominator. The quote from the manager comes to mind — “In order to make it out here a man needs to have no entrails.” This is very interesting, the manager does very well in the jungle. Kurtz fares far worse, and we might imagine him to be an example of strength, but there is a sense that he survives too, or rather, that his ghost survives, but this ghost is in fact detached from his existence as a person. My point is simply that Kurtz survives as a central figure, as an invariant, even though he does not survive as a person.

In the jungle, one clings to survival, one clings to the invariant. In the jungle where everything is overturned, the only thing that remains is, well, by this metaphor, the axis of rotation, the origin. Suddenly Marlow discovers that he is “just a big a lier as everyone else out there”. And in the final pages of the book, the scene with the intended, we realize that this entire book may be a lie — “his last words were your name.” That is, this entire book is not so much (but we knew this already) a factual account of what has happened (nor is it, on the other hand, fantasy)but rather the point of stability, a tainted account of what has happened but one that is unfalsifable. In fact, this is what stands out about every passage that one reads, that the book is haunted — well, the story is about haunting but in order to tell such a story the book itself is necessarily haunted. (Ie, “Why are you telling me this?” “Because I am haunted.”) Every passage is paradoxically at once indefinite and intentional. And this is because this is part of Marlow’s survival strategy.

That is, even though the jungle acts as a kind of general disruption, the survival strategy is what allows each person to retain their identity. The world is stabilized, for Marlow, not because he knows the final answer to everything but because he knows about the mystery, he knows that he is haunted, and he knows that his own words will haunt.

TBC: The Specificity of haunting


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