I made a big and interesting mistake in trying to ascertain who you are in the essay “I See You Now.” Even the title sounded threatening. But this is what Negative Geography was built to handle — a place where I can stare back at my own footprints in the subtle mud of language and decipher where I go wrong.
And some of these mistakes reveal ancient confusions, ancient in that they are not entirely personal mistakes, but self-injurious reactions to transgenerational traumas as Mate tends to describe it, stretching back through human history beyond reckoning.
From one angle, this is the kind of mistake that our parents wisely warned us against — staring too long into the image reflected in the water, because we’ll drown in confusion.
However, I’m no longer susceptible to this fear. I think it’s because I already drowned a long time ago and now I’m beginning to crawl back to the shore like some kind of primordial shape, picture a mud puppy if you need to.
The first surface mistake was in devaluing the deeper personal and impersonal relationships I have with many of you. You aren’t some abstract conception of an Other; you are not merely mined for your value and then discarded, which is what I described. But the image I hold of the person listening is mysterious to me still, as if I’m picturing a mind that is still forming; but one that is partially revealing itself in many of you; and sometimes even in brief exchanges with strangers on a bus; with everyone who carries that charge of honesty that can change a life; and all this feeds the image of a wider mind that is listening, a real mind, in flesh and blood. And I made the mistake of accidentally discounting the fact that this potential is visible in real people reading, and is not abstract and disembodied.
So this led to the the second surface mistake — a failure to acknowledge how important these ongoing dialogues with you are in everything I write.
The underlying error, however, is solipsism. But solipsism is not merely a fancy way of describing a self-centered outlook.
When I was 13 years old I had what might be called a terrorizing insight that left me trapped in solipsism. I realized that everyone was a projection of my own brain, an excitation of nerve cells that could not be confirmed as actually having an existence beyond the thoughts that resulted from this excitation. It was a twisted insight, because it came through a powerful and undeniable realization of unity (not wholeness). Thought is a unity, a quality that is shared, which is how we’re able to talk or write to one another.
This irritates our sense of individuality, but our actual individuality doesn’t lie in the thoughts or images we hold. They are all red herrings.
The shapes of thought get bent differently in each human location, like waves take different shapes. But the wavelike shapes are composed of a singular fluid. And so my thought of Me is no different from your thought of you. This unity implies that what we usually take for our real difference and individuality is entirely an illusion.
I realized this with stark clarity that night as a boy, an hallucinated vision, which implied that only I existed, because there is no real other, which is a terror beyond description, so that I became a stranded consciousness inventing everything it experienced, fooling itself perpetually, in order to avoid the horror of its inexplicable isolation. The insight was more intense and undeniable than anything I ever knew.
This meant I didn’t relate to anything but a frightened and cowering imagination, and that this was true across the board, so that all these supposedly real and living people I encountered, my mother included, were all figments of my imagination. I couldn’t mention this to anyone without panicking. I was trapped within thought, and every tool I tried to use to extricate myself from this horror involved thought, which meant the problem kept spreading, and the hallucination of isolation kept intensifying.
Be thankful if you have never encountered this insight with sufficient force to derail your connection to the world. But it lurks in you as well, hidden, masked as a fear of death perhaps. But it’s in you because it’s a condition of thought itself, which is shared.
Thought covers the world in a transparency, which is not reality. And as a kid nobody wanted to look at this problem and why it was bothering me, because it was too outlandish to understand. I don’t blame them, but it meant there was no help at hand and I had to do something to resolve it. That much fear can’t be tolerated for long.
But it was impossible to disprove by the use of logic or thought, because these are also only tools of the imagination. All they can do is posit a new illusion of reality, so the fear would not go away.
But after trying for a long time to re-think my situation, the failure itself offered a quick insight into the nature of the problem. And I realized that it was necessary to acknowledge the essential truth of this unreality and stop trying to disprove it. And this quieted my search for a positive solution, which began to ease the fear.
How does failure do this? The realization of error stops thought short, and in this absence of a fearfully churning thought trying to find a way past its own image a relationship to the world commences that does not require certainty, or belief or identity (which are all images). Positing stopped long enough to alter my relationship to reality for a while. I realized what many people have discovered; that the unreality of life — this cataract of stories that creates a veil between me and you, undermining empathy and love — dissolves when the impossibility of knowing you is realized as a surplus, not as a deficit, halting the secret panic underlying a busy mind.
If this unreality is only partially realized, then we run in fear. But if it’s fully confronted, thought realizes its futility and stops, and with this cessation or negation, the torments of thought itself stop. It stops rushing through its hall of mirrors in search of an exit, which is always an illusion of an exit.
It’s ironic, but in realizing that there is no exit from thought’s illusions, thought quiets, stops creating illusions, and opens the way for a new kind of mind. This discovery dissolves the hall of mirrors that we mistake for our selves. A different kind of being emerges in the absence of a too literal use of thought; one that can’t be pinned down, who is known only through metaphor (never taken literally).
Well, we can often know the habits of thinking in another, even if it’s annoying to be so transparent to others. Yes, we make mistakes in gauging another’s assumptions all the time. But it’s still possible to recognize the patterns of thought. But our thoughts are not us, we don’t know the person. Thought is mainly a shared system that runs somewhat mechanically, conditioned by this into doing that. But our actual lives are unknowable and far more profound than mere predatorial mechanics.
This distinction is often lost on people who see themselves too literally, who regard their opinions as utter truths, and who then identify with their thoughts and fail to see that this is only a “foreign installation” that imprisons whoever the hell we really are.
But this is why it has made picturing a real person listening very difficult for me. Usually I don’t turn my attention to what or who the audience really is. I just feel the usual vague need for a mind with a certain bent or breadth of vision. It proves its reality by erupting now and then in many of you reading this. And I know it in my own responses now and then. But it has to be real, flesh, not a conception. And the only way this is possible is by realizing that the images we hold (which is everything in some sense) are all false. Then I sense the reality of the mind I’m talking to, can almost feel the presence of real readers embodying this quality in their own idiosyncratic ways.
But it’s ironic that we can meet each other in the flesh only when we realize that we can’t be known, captured, or cataloged by names and through images. Then in the absence of certainty you are felt like a negative space of some sort, a portion of an unfathomable whole, an active element, not a thing, a Being as ungraspable as the wind, and not the static construct blowing so noisily in that wind.
The Negative Geography essays started when this first dawned on me to any degree, becoming an inquiry into the limits of thought or the imagination; which is a re-emergence from this drowned state. Thought is employed along the via Negativa, but only metaphorically (not literally), and negatively, whereby thought confronts the illusions, futilities and limits of thought itself, thereby leaving thought suspended in a pregnant uncertainty — an alertness that never stops learning, never comes to rest in positive conclusions.
But the last two essays provided direct evidence of a lingering confusion which has somehow survived the irradiation of previous essays that dealt with this issue directly. I believe it is one of the most ancient fears a human being has encountered. Because it stems from an inevitable confusion between thought and thing.
The issue still hasn’t been resolved. I’m still relating primarily to my imagination. But I will not retreat into a new form of solipsism either, because I no longer doubt your existence, and I’ll never disrespect you in that way again.