I bathed for a long time under the sun and the starlight, and I felt nothing other than a slightly obscure and nutritive sensation. Happiness was not a possible horizon. The world had betrayed. My body belonged to me for only a brief lapse of time; I would never reach the goal I had been set. The future was empty; it was the mountain. My dreams were populated with emotional presences. I was, I was no longer. Life was real.
Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island (2005)
In a distressing series of events last month that began with the deeply troubling fact of my new room in Camberwell being bereft of curtains, light became my enemy, and I was not able to sleep properly, every night, for about three weeks. The delirium of exhaustion that ensued was the cause of my walking the streets like an alienated automaton, disconnected and whirling in my own a-temporal realm. For days, weeks, a month, each moment in time felt like a gaping black hole, and shifting from one to the next a constant struggle.
It could be said that I suffered a fully-fledged nervous breakdown. At my lowest point, I experienced around three to five anxiety attacks a day. The feeling went something like this:
Whether tutoring, grocery shopping, or drinking coffee with a friend, I would suddenly begin to experience incredible anxiety in my chest and my gut, immediately under the acute impression that everything around me was not real. My direct surroundings would seem overwhelmingly artificial and flat, as if the external world was a two-dimensional drawing on a white sheet of paper that was imminently going to be swept away and torn up into a void of nothing—an abyss into which I would also disintegrate. The intense sensation of oscillating between being and non-being – the “I was…I was no longer,” that Houellebecq so aptly encapsulated in the above quotation, as his protagonist lies in the bare outdoors, feeling himself almost merging with the mountain and the sun – became most prominently experienced in my fingertips, which, in these moments of existential doubt, felt as if they were about to start dissolving, cell by cell, into the emptiness that was waiting beyond me. Obviously, this never happened, and instead I was always unsettlingly thrust back into the constructs of reality, my tutee staring up at me, asking me for the sixth time if he’s spelt “enormous” correctly. (He hadn’t.)
Problematically, these panicked encounters with something beyond reality as we encounter it on a daily basis means that reality itself becomes all very hard to take seriously once you find yourself back in its strict matrix of prop-like signifiers. As expected, intense feelings of dissociation creep in. I would go as far to say that in this month I became entirely preoccupied with something that I could not tangibly explain – as if I was continually on the cusp of moving beyond “reality,” into the realm of knowing what was really awaiting behind its veiled screen of fictive images. On my most sleep-deprived day, I toyed with the notion that I was some sort of prophet. Genuinely. I felt as if my mind had been invaded by some alien life force that was about to illuminate me on “the secret answer’ to everything.
This “eureka moment” never quite substantiated. However, Slavoj Žižek’s latest book, Event, in which the philosopher attempts to answer the question “what is really happening when something is happening?” has been crucial in helping me come to terms with my existential breakdown.
Žižek positions Descartes’ infamous credo – “I think therefore I am’ – as the inception of “mad” dissociation as a subjective state in relation to the external world. What Descartes ultimately argued – as Žižek rehearses – is that we are, through our mental faculties, each an individual subject in opposition to the material world; our “self” is pictured as immaterial and in Cartesian opposition to the earthly and physical fact of the body and its lowly surroundings. If we do start to conceive of our bodies as mere facilitators to our thinking “self”, it is easy to understand why the material and “actual” fact of reality can sometimes feel illusory. As Žižek writes, one enters ‘a very precise existential experience of radical self-withdrawal, of suspending the existence of all reality around [you] to a vanishing illusion, which is well-known in psychoanalysis as psychotic withdrawal.” [1. Slavoj Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, (London, 2014), p.92] Logically, it is the invention of “subjectivity” or the stable “Self” as a construct that has led to what psychiatric institutions have often described as “madness.” It is the pursuit of individuation – (not so much in terms of “identity” through fashion, say) – but the very need to consider oneself as a complete and separate, fully-formed entity, marching along the stage-like streets and its accompanying backdrops like an unbreakable plastic toy, that lies at the heart of “psychotic” dissociation.
It is no surprise, then, that thinkers throughout the 20th and 21st century have been working to construct a new image of subjectivity; one, indeed, that has little to do with the human
mind, or even the human subject itself.
Recently, the term “intercorporeality” has sparked profound interest. First coined by powerhouse of phenomenological thought, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the term moves us further than “intersubjectivity,” a notion that considers how our subjectivity is formed and framed through our social relationships with other people; intercorporeality is instead interested in how we might consider our “self” as being equally in conversation with everything and every object around us. As art-historian/contemporary philosopher Jorella Andrews writes: ‘by focussing our attention on the life worlds of objects, and on intercorporeality instead of intersubjectivity, a powerful sense of agency is opened up that does not appear to be immediately directed to, or in the service of, purely human concerns.’ [2. Jorella Andrews, “Intending Objects and Signs Which Have No Meaning,” Visual Cultures as Objects and Affects ed. Simon O’Sullivan and Jorella Andrews, (London, 2013), pp. 39-40 ]
Andrews uses film entitled “Stone and Table” (1994) – RIVETING TITLE, I know – by artist Rosalind Nashashibi as an illustration of this intercorporeal set of relationships. And what is this film about? Not much, really. We see human shadows move between various objects – IN FACT, a stone and table – with every signifier of human concern, gender, and ideology being abandoned, so to focus our attention on the shared spaces extraneous to the confined world of the human psyche. Andrews reads this film through the thought of Leo Bersani, who has continually stressed that is in fact crucial to think of the human ego as an anthropomorphizing form outside itself, ‘having to do not only with mothers, fathers, lovers, etc…but also with line, shape, composition, colour.’ [3. Leo Bersani, Is The Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays (Chicago, 2010), p.178]
So, perhaps we might begin to overcome the imprisoning sensation of feeling like a sectioned-off human-alien through engaging in this notion of intercorporeality (though I’m not persuading objectiphilia as a possible solution). However, how about if, even if we do feel able to engage with the material and physical fact of reality, we still can’t help but doubt the very fact of this reality, still feeling as if there might be an alternative to the screen of images presented in front of us. Indeed, during my breakdown, I became quite convinced that I was being gravitationally pulled towards an invisible tear in the veiled picture around me, into which I would fall and be “no longer.” Of course I don’t have a solution to this existential conundrum, but yet again, Žižek has provided some comfort. In Event, Žižek moves to astrophysics to soothe his neurotic angst at the fact that he actually and irreconcilably exists. In particular, it is Stephen Hawking’s idea that no pure vacuum of “nothing” can ever be; it has been shown, in fact, that pure empty vacuums which are manufactured in the strictest conditions – where there is, in fact, nothing – will, eventually, with no logical explanation, see an electromagnetic wave appear from absolutely nowhere, the only theory being that this particle borrows energy from the future (a time in which matter will exist) to form itself. Trippy, right? The solace I take, then, is that even if I was to finally locate some rip in reality, and was, conceptually, able to hop through it, I would not find “nothing,” but, instead, would find myself transported into a material space of pure existence.
Isn’t this what Houellebecq so coldly portrays in our opening passage? Even if feel our selves dissolving into nothingness; our lack at being able to do so can only confirm that “life was real…it was the mountain.” Indeed, I now like to conceptualise my panicked feelings of disintegrating into nothingness as a pure state of existing itself—the material and fatty neurones of my spongy gooey brain experiencing Houellebecq’s “nutritive sensation” as something physical, material, and real. Paradoxically, this feeling of non-being as an unadulterated state of being itself.
I think I am not, therefore I definitely am?