Taking Risks

“Risk is necessary to understand what matters in depth, another risk — chance — to give oneself over to what one has understood.”

What is the payoff of risk other than survival? Or the new understanding that one can weather more than first thought? Nietzche’s genericsed aphorism, “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker“, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, feels like the true topic of Bataille’s Inner Experience. But what strength exactly? How is this strength experienced in actuality? How is it measured?

Trauma is not so much experienced as risk survived, instead risk remembered, outside the heat of the moment. Strength in the moment dissipates into abject weakness after the fact. Strength is but a weightless memory.

Reviewing Bataille’s book, Blanchot explores how the person of inner experience “knows something… that appeasement does not appease and that there is a demand in him that nothing in life answers.” In the heat of the moment, we may feel an innate desire for survival, for flourishing, for self-renewal. But if — or when — we stop desiring, no longer fueled by the energy that rises up in us in the eye of the storm, it is a dangerous place to be: “the disquiet of the lie”, with our exhaustion becoming the only truth left.

For Blanchot, these stopping places may be innocuous or destructive — “science”, “happiness”, “war”. I wonder about a combination of the three, no so much as abstract and towering concepts, but points of orientation: the science of neuropharmacology, the pursuit of happiness, the war with self.

I wonder about the current difficulty of caring for myself, the desire for wellness undone by a newfound recklessness, fearlessness. I lean into what, a few weeks ago, felt intolerable, dissociating periodically, but not once turning away from any risk. It is not a self-destructive or self-sabotaging drive to undo myself on the road to wellness, of adding “horror to horror”, but of taking a kind of vaccine, a concentrated dose that the body is more capable of withstanding only now, of cultivating a “care for the causes that empower the horrible and give it a greater sway.”

To lose oneself in the moment is at once that ultimate horror and the thing most desired. (Thanks, Eminem.) “Any exit is a lie; any stop is the confession of a failure with which anguish and the mind of struggle arm themselves in order to substitute a new movement for it.”

To so many questions about my current state of wellness, the answer is often “I don’t know”. I don’t know how I feel, how I should feel, and there is a deep frustration that rises up on me as a result. But in the few moments I feel able to accept this unknowing, allow it to untether me from questioning, moving towards unanalysed action, I feel truly free.

The next day I take a walk through Jesmond Old Cemetery, passing writings and husbands of above and corroded grave stones like rotting flesh.

I got quite drunk last night reading Blanchot on Bataille and felt the sedative mix with the remnants of the powerful hypnotic lingering in my system. I lay awake in a daze, slipping in and out of consciousness, incapable for hours of opening my eyes. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is playing at the Tyneside. I try and putt off the thought of chewing on zopiclone and drifting away before the angels.

I should go home. I can’t go home. I will go home.

“To the individual thus closed in on himself, experience offers a subject with which he can communicate; this subject cannot be completed or grasped by action, for with it there would be no communication but simply servile taking of possession, pleasure, that is to say reinforcement of the egotistic ‘I’…” But I find myself frequently tongue-tied, uncommunicative in experience, failing to communicate with experience except when writing.

Postcapitalist Desire has been translated into Italian. I still think about so many of Mark’s amusing asides. “It speaks to…” He says he hates the expression. Conceptual resonance is hardly a conversation. What is speaking, exactly? In what way are we capable of “speaking to” experience? What can we communicate to objects? Just because we listen, does not make us privy to things said between things.

Who or what is the journal actually addressed to? To a universal reader? I hardly recognise the writing self when typing up these notes at the each of each day. To read another, transmute the text into experience, addressed through writing, only to read the self back as a stranger… Complex disorientation. To write and read in solitude is nonetheless an attempt to make oneself heard over a crowd.

Communication … begins being authentic only when experience has stripped existence, has withdrawn from it that which linked it to discourse and to action, has opened it up to a nondiscursive interiority where it loses itself, communicates with itself outside of any object that could give it a purpose or that is could serve.

Writing today fills me with dread. It remains the only thing to do to pass the time effectively. It serves other no real purpose, is repetitive, every day circling the same void. What is being said? In action, I am lost. In writing, lost. In sex, lost. Love, lost. In the city, adrift. In life, adrift. In drink, drowning. In smoke, fading. In self, absent.

I haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours. No hunger. I am not communicating with my body. It says nothing to me, makes no demands. Drunk, I go along for the ride. Authenticity is an alien concept, surely impossible to feel if not define, always processed through a self, or a nonself, the desires and impulses of which are hard to attribute to anyone. Has experience stripped existence? More likely vice versa.

… without recourse to techniques that disengage sensibility from action in which it is caught, man arrives with difficulty at a true calling into question and dissipates his efforts in an idle search in which he tracks only his own shadow.

Each Blanchot quotation feels more opaque than the last. I copy each one down out of a sense of resonance, of elusive speaking-to, with the subject being addressed having failed to come into focus. Only this final quotation has a ring of truth. In hoping to excavate something from Blanchot’s musings, I find only my own shadow, itself misshapen and lacking definition.

I have long hated my own shadow. In the noonday sun, a rectangular mass without contours. No characteristic human form. The peculiar pleasure of weight loss is the gradual acquisition of a form unsoftened at the edges.

Have you ever noticed how alcohol makes your fingernails grow? I am biting my nails voraciously, a habit I cannot remember developing, a hangover from a nervous childhood. I always notice my nails. Jagged, broken, right now they have the distinct appearance of having dug myself perpetually from a grave.

Perhaps I need to channel a prior stoicism again. I lost sight of Spinoza, chased off my Miller’s lion. It is the lion now that barks out risk.

I feel lost in a medicated numbness that leaves me without direction, for better and for worse. Blanchot describes Bataille’s will to chance as “a throw of dice that allows me not to win but to play to the end, to put what I am in play, in an extreme feeling by which I exhaust every risk.” I feel I have re-rolled the dice, adopting a new persona perceived from without, borrowed from others, trying on a new mask for size, not winning but playing on. The risk inherent to this new round of the game is not being subsumed by anguish but passing it on selfishly to others. I have received; I am now drawn to giving it away, sharing my own confusion, as if to look on it from without. It is cruel.

I keep thinking about the film It Follows. Not so much a mediation of the transmission of STIs, the laziest possible meaning, but the psychological torment of fleeting intimacy and love unrequited. What is passed on is nothing so biological as an infection or virus but heartbreak.

A girl sleeps with a boy in a seemingly passionate encounter, awkward and anxious before a crush experienced from without. Her neighbour loves her and his torment over the pain she feels at being loved and left is palpable. He would act differently, and he’ll do anything for her not to feel how she feels, even weathering the heartache of an experience with someone that is not him, which leaves her haunted and isolated.

Sex becomes meaningless, but is not numbing. It is the transmission of raw affect, untranslated into language.

I remember my therapist reluctantly quoting Freud, who is supposedly the source of the truism that the only way to mend a broken heart is to open it again to another. But there is an evil in opening other hearts. Progress is not linear. One door is not closed because another opens.

I feel myself trying to learn and weather the dynamics of Newcastle’s social scene. It is a deceptively small city, in which I am not yet used to the encounters others experience regularly. The feeling of seeing someone approach over the horizon fills me with the deep and sinking feeling. Faces known and unknown descend on social situations, permeating the city with an anxiety, through which any contentedness could be interrupted by a memory of fraught communication or its painful lack. Who are you to me? Who have you been? Who could you be?

It is an experience made all the more unfamiliar by the Covid years. A cloud of risk, faced or avoided, a socio-sexual fragility can make itself known at any moment. “You get used to it”, friends say, or find a way to remove oneself from it altogether. It all sounds so melodramatic, but many know the ambient anxiety of malformed connection. That’s just life in Newcastle. The drama of a city so expressive and horny. I recognised it immediately from the outside. It is a steep learning curve, a few months in, to feel embroiled in it, after years of Covid and a decade-long relationship.

So many friends have been through what I am going through — breakdowns triggered by the low-level intensity of existing and experiencing the city. Communication with oneself is inseparable from communication with others. Losing and finding oneself is a constant tragedy.

Shake it off. Shake off the navel-gazing, the overthinking of encounters. Get back to mediation, experience, all for oneself.

The absurdism of this constant wrangling for clarity in an unclear moment, an unclear world, is not to be ignored, however. Writing in the journal itself becomes a Sisyphean task, allowing each day to be survived, withstood to some extent, before beginning over again, on a new page, reading a new text, but never satisfying anything.

Blanchot later writes about Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, one of the first works of philosophy I ever read as a pretentious teenager. Some fifteen years later, it is intriguing to find in Blanchot’s assessment of a work so associated with adolescent existentialism a nonetheless resonant truth.

In the Sisyphean task, he writes, one “finds a being who aspires without rest to clarity, who calls out endlessly, faced with the diversity that he meets, to a unity that hides itself.” A description of the average experience of adolescence if ever there was one, but the adult lie is that unity is ever found. Today we might interpret Camus’s text as an easy reflection on our capitalist world, of course; a mediation from ancient myth on the bullshit jobs of now. But it is also a mediation of life’s most elusive experiences, on life itself, on the work of understanding a life that is inherently absurd. The absurd, in this sense, “comes from unceasingly confronting the absolute, man’s object of desire, with the relative, the world’s answer to this desire.”

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