The Sublime and the Broken

“Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate and drift, through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me. A ton of worms in an acre, that is a wonderful thought, a ton of worms, I believe it.” – Samuel Beckett

In April, I was in San Francisco for a conference.  After the talk, we went to an all-night dance party where I was overwhelmed by the noise and anxiety arising from my inability to talk to other people due to the deafening loudness of the speakers. I realized how much I rely on language, both spoken and written, as my medium with the world, as if I have a body and face composed of words that is more solid and real than my body of flesh and bone.  So when I cannot represent myself through speech, and cocoon myself in words (ironically, as I am doing now), I become hyper-aware of my body; its slightly slouched posture; its anxious tics; and its physical presence in space as an object in the field of other people’s line of vision.  Second realization, my unease with dancing was due to this lack of trust I had in my body; as if my body would betray me, and make a fool out of me (as if there is a “me” apart from my body).  As if. For there is no spirit apart from the body (and vice versa) but there is also no unity between body and spirit – only fragile disjunctures and frictions and pleasures.   I digress.

Traveling alone though China last month, speaking only Chinese, I was again overwhelmed by a repetition of the same feeling I had in SF.  My awkward Chinese can manage to establish islands of communication (continually flooded by misunderstanding) and I can communicate basic, elemental needs, but always leave stranded in inexpressible solitude more complex thoughts and feelings.  As a result, I began to confront the question: how does one occupy space (or to use Heideggerean speak, “be in the world”) as a body without pretext, justification, or fear?  Perhaps, at stake is a struggle with society’s demand to have a reason for what you’re doing and a destination for where you are going.  Even ‘leisure’ and ‘tourism’ supply such reasonable alibis.  But a refusal to justify and offer up a meaning for what you are doing, and the heavy physicality of silence, provokes unease…When you travel, every government demands your reason for visiting and your address when you are in the country.  The basic existential condition of being a human drifting in ignorance will not get you a visa!

When I was in Myanmar, all of my reasons came undone.  Not in any traumatic sense, but in a way that, I think, released me from the anxieties of my own identity, speech, and so on – disarming my explanations of the world, expectations of other people, and my own personal limits.  Without a real reason for being there, I fell in love with the country.   My body, quasi-insitinctively, adapted to situations that were previously unimaginable to me, like walking in water up to my knees when downtown Yangon flooded during the monsoons (see picture below); standing in awe of the Shwedagon Pagoda at night (see picture below); showering with only a bucket of cold water in Pakkoku (for decency’s sake, no photo included), and waking up at 4am every morning to the sound of monks using a loud speaker to beg for alms; swimming in the lake in Yangon at dawn, and so on.  I felt like I was somersaulting through a field of contradictions: between the warmest and most wonderful people in the world, and the omnious shadow of soldiers armed with rifles patrolling the streets; the sheer magnificence and opulence of religious sites juxtaposed with the disrepair and poverty of surrounding areas… But most of all, the Burmese people, persisting in the midst of all of it, offered me a true glimpse of the sublime.

And suddenly,  I felt myself shatter into the world as flesh, sweat, laughter, and silence.

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