Thursday, February 10, 2005

Deconstructing the Paul

Last night I had what poets like to call "a dark night of the soul." It was triggered by a meltdown in my Senior Seminar class, during which we took a quiz on Derrida. I answered a few of the questions as best I could, and halfway through the allotted time put the cap on my pen and turned the paper over. Then I stared at the speckles on the wall for a bit.

During the walk back to my room I conjured up clever and witty ways of slamming the class on the end of term evaluations. "You people are lucky I like the professor," I would write, "because otherwise I would've mounted an armed insurrection by now." Or, "The level of contempt I have for the subject matter in this class is outweighed only by the startling incompetence of the people who decided it should be a requirement for Secondary Ed / English majors." By the time I got to my room, I had shifted tactics: I would send my professor an email in which I would write out my frustrations. After taking her Scottish Literature class last semester, I felt like she could probably handle a pathetic and maudlin bomb in her inbox.

And then I realized that neither of those things would actually resolve the problem. My time at Amazon.com taught me that the discourse around employment is a hell of a powerful tool. It's easy to rile up a "bunch of hourly employees" when the nameless, faceless "management" has made a decision they disagree with. It's much harder – and much more beneficial - to talk about those decisions when you use personal terms like "manager" or "Paul." So basically I couldn't really blame the people who determined core requirements for Secondary Ed / English majors because first of all, they probably knew more about how to prepare teachers than I could possibly fathom, and secondly, I probably knew and liked them personally. No, mostly the meltdown was due to anger and resentment on my part getting in the way of functional thought. So I sent a polite and brief email to my professor asking to set up an appointment. With that taken care of, it was time to address the larger issue.

One of Derrida's trickiest maneuvers is that he is intentionally unclear. The logic behind this is rooted in the shifting center/sign of language (and actually, everything else up to and including existence, as I will address later) and the assured failure of meaning due to that shifting center. Rhetorically it's a pretty admirable trick: he won't come out and tell you what he means because to do so would subvert his position. In my brighter moments I can barely – just barely – get my brain around this. I'm not having one of my brighter moments, so the Dearest Readership will just have to live with the brand of Derrida Lite ("all the French pretension with half the big words," the ad would say) served here.

As did Lacan and others before him, Derrida suggests that we know a thing because of what it is not. That is, we know something IS a laptop computer because it is NOT a pine tree, fan belt, or plastic Wal*Mart bag. The same idea applies to words. The same idea applies to people. Derrida, though, adds that meaning is lost because we are basically collectively negatively defining these concepts, so the "center" slips. Apply this approach to larger centers like government, God, and existence, and suddenly your core of being is called into question.

Which is precisely what happened to me last night.

I've posted before that I've had a good emotional stretch. Last night the stretch ended rather abruptly. I was up until two or so, thinking about the construct of my own meaning. That is, Derrida wants us to look at a text/concept, figure out what assumptions it holds most dear (its "point of insistence"), look for the implicit binary in that point of insistence, and the process of doing so will reveal not meaning, exactly, but rather the process of constructing meaning. So in the throes of insecurity and self-loathing, I listed the things I hold most dear, the things that (I thought) define who I am, and reached a few conclusions: I'm a fraud, the fraud is a choice, but it's the only choice I have. Here I depart from Derrida (or maybe I haven't been anywhere close all along) and write, for once, truthfully.

I am at my core a fraud. I perpetrate and perpetuate this fraud as a way of coping with a set of traits, inherited, learned, assumed, or otherwise gained, that I intensely dislike (and why I dislike them is probably worthy of another post, but we're getting dangerously close to Freud here). I say perpetrate because it is fundamentally an active choice. Here again negative definition comes into play. Throughout my life I have strived, sometimes to the point of distraction, to be different and unique. My parents and various friends on the right side of the political spectrum think this behavior is weird at best, and confusing and even shameful at worst. My friends on the left think I'm a square and more than a little uptight. The thing is, even if I wore mumus and hoop earrings to class, or dressed snappier and shaved, I would be defining myself by what I was not. The image – body image, personality image, belief system image – that I project is neither what I think it is (since everyone else defines me differently) nor quite what I want it to be (since I'm reacting to what I don't want to be, I cannot create exactly what I want).

With me so far? The center of meaning is elusive precisely because we each define it – whatever "it" may be – differently.

This fraudulent image is also perpetuated by behavior in that I do, say, and think things that will protect or sharpen the image.

I wear outdoorsy clothes.
I have a kayak in my room.
I have a blog.
I don't shave very often.
I play guitar.
Lately I've been listening to a lot of Cream and James Gang.
I'm a liberal.

Anyone who interacts with me at all knows or recognizes at least one of these things. At their core each of them is a reaction.

Of course, the fact of the matter is, you don't and can't know me. I can reveal secrets – I really enjoy looking at naked women despite my leftist tendencies and well-rounded feminist upbringing; I don't want to live in the same town as my dad; I still have dreams of playing in a band – but those secrets don't come any closer to truth.

Who I am, and how I define myself, is continually shifting and therefore unknowable. This is a reasonable position and would certainly explain, say, Bob Dylan's electric shift in 1965. But last night I made the mistake of assuming that a created meaning is necessarily an untruthful meaning; that a created image is a worthless one.

And so around 1 AM, the fraudulent Paul had a breakdown. Feline cousins of Bukowski's tigers licked their chops in dark corners. (I can sense some of you, and you know who you are, reaching for the phone. Stop. I'm fine. But you're going to find the next several paragraphs a little unpleasant.)

Suicide is one of those things that you can't talk about without sending people into a panic, which is too bad, because it's a fascinating topic. I've been close to suicide three times in my life, the most recently being almost exactly two years ago. I've identified three stages of suicidal behavior and was well into the third during each experience. That third stage is nasty. It's where you look in the mirror and don't recognize the disheveled person repeating the phrase, "Just fucking do it already... just fucking do it already..." Or maybe you clutch at your hair, curled fetal, repeating the same line. Or maybe the sight and smell of your stuff makes you so angry you claw at your face, and then find yourself lying to your boss the next day about the weird marks.

I'm not kidding. It's not fun. Luckily for me I fell asleep before I could do anything selfish and stupid.

And that reminds me that there's actually a fourth stage: I fell asleep during those nasty moments because when things were at their absolute worst, when I was convinced I was actually going to do it, when I had the means ready to go, a surge of peace literally washed over me. The hair on my neck stood up. I felt a complete and thorough coolness unlike anything I've felt before or since. The only way I can describe it (language always fails us, remember) is a sublime sense of relief. Once you realize that you can kill yourself, that it's an immediate and viable option, the tigers retreat.

Those who have been close probably know the feeling.

Last night I just dipped my toes into stage one for a bit, using language as a weapon against myself, and didn't like it. I don't necessarily blame Derrida or anyone else for pushing me in that direction; personally I think anyone who spends that much time worrying about signifiers is wasting a marvelous opportunity to be having sex or something.

The truth is, despite Lacan's psychosis of language and Derrida's shifting centers, despite Foucault's violence and Saussure's inevitable failure, we try anyway. Fuck those effete assholes. Language is an imperfect system by nature. Gee, thanks, guys. But we already had that.

It's Thursday, I have no classes and a great opportunity to get some studying done. Last night was a blip; today I'm back to where I've been for the past two months. Which is to say: happy, and damn glad I won't be pursuing a PhD in English.

If you've made it this far, congrats. Probably way more than you wanted to know, but then again, it almost always is.

More as I get it.

2 Comments:

Blogger Anna said...

Well, let me be the first to say that I love you very much and that I think that hurting yourself in any way would be a bad idea.

Derrida is a fun game for people who enjoy that sort of thing. I believe, however, that human beings are hard-wired to need real meaning in their lives. For thirst there is water; for hunger, food; for questions, there is... well. You know my prejudices and I won't bore you by repeating them.

1:51 PM  
Blogger mary ann said...

I'm glad to hear you're doing better, anyway.

I read a passage similiar to what you're describing the other day, it was in Bitch: In Defense of Difficult Women (by Elizabeth Wurtzel)... about the calm at the end, how a suicidal person seems to be so fine in the weeks leading up to it... the relief of knowing that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train and all that.

Anyway, this is me not calling you and letting you know that you can certainly call me anytime.

I remember going out to dinner with you almost exactly two years ago and coming home and saying to my roommates "I don't know if I should have let him go back to that apartment. He was so bleak, like he wanted to shoot himself in the head." Call me if you need me. Please.

8:05 PM  

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