Adventure #3, Staring at the Wall: Meaning Falls Inward

(See “An Adventure a Week . . .” for a description of this project)

Week of February 19, 2012

One evening after work, I found myself staring at the wall, lost in thought and unable to move. I would say I had been hypnotized, but that isn’t exactly right. No agent was involved in placing me into an introspective torpor. Rather, I had settled into that place, not only state, of contemplation, a dimension not unlike that entered when counting grains of sand or delineators along the shoulder of the expressway. How long does it take to count to one million and, once achieving this, what does one do with the number?  The last time this happened to me, and it used to happen often enough, I was in graduate school.

In those days, I would get back to my apartment (furnished in the rickety, paste-and-plywood remnants of the 60s), either after teaching for pennies or nodding through a seminar, and drop on the lime-green upholstered couch. Fatigued, I’d stare into the liminal space between the wall and the air running along it; that moment in which the temperature is changing–never really one degree or another. In some ways, I was experiencing the caloric profile of a decision, the way thought transforms sugar into energy and how energy takes root as an image, and in this resonating object-thought I was transfixed, contemplating not really meanings but rather the mere presence of this wiffling supposition, riling among the off-white chips that gave texture to the wall.

A few evenings ago, finding myself once again similarly enthralled, drawn out of myself only to fall back in, recalled the netherly explorations of a few literary characters. In Kurt Vonnegut’s the Sirens of Titan, the omniscient narrator notes that at the time the novel is set the outward search for meaning had been exhausted and “only inwardness remained to be explored.” A few feet from the wall and its subtle textures, I felt something of this inward turn, and noted how it related to a scene in a story I published years ago. In this story, my narrator, who just happened to be wearing my life, receives a call from his frustrated girlfriend, who asks him what he was planning to do with his life  now that he quit his job at the bank. Sincerely, he replies, “I plan to sit for a hundred years.” Why, she rejoins. “Because,” he says, “I don’t know what else to do.” The complexities that define any decision, or that determine the acts required to make any decision, are those that paralyzes this character.

The old adage that not making a decision is still making a decision muddles the issue underlying my narrator’s distress and his girlfriend’s dismay. He can’t commit to a decision and she doesn’t understand why; it is inaction as a legitimate form of action. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s underground man, in his comically befuddled way, might offer some insight, but, as he would argue just to spite us, probably not: “I Am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am unattractive.” Yet this forty-year old isn’t spiteful, but claims he is out of spite. The man’s frustrating ambivalence (the issue that often drives dichotomy-obsessed students to distraction) indicates the nature of the liminal space into which I was staring: The way one decision, even when that decision is not made, is often immediately countered by an indecision that undermines the comfort often associated with certainty, creating the intellectual nausea or ennui that Jean-Paul Sartre describes: “Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quiet enough” (italics is mine). One condition or reality is equally manifested in its apparent (not actual) negation, if not its opposite–pain, for example, by comfort; love by hatred; or fear by joy–which makes any proposition reductive to the point of absurdity (e.g. “I love you” but as soon as I say it I know that at some time and in some place I am not loving you. These discursive conditions are irreducible).

And into this absurd moment, I gazed with my creased leather bag between my feet. I was embraced by the process of decisions emerging as images that were destroyed simultaneously by equally viable possibilities and alternative perspectives. And because of this, I could not move. As Keats knew, the inward turn leads to outward displacement, and living is the visceral, gristle-chewing confrontation with uncertainty. If I did not believe otherwise, I would assume I am still there before that wall, working on finding something that literally makes sense, but I am here and here is quickly being transformed into a period that begins the sentence ending with a thought. You are reading that thought that I wish I could end with this period.


About piferm

I am an associate professor at Husson University.
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