We think about Wallace Stevens’ famous poem and his evocation of:
“Nothing that is not there, and the Nothing that is”
And we come to the problem. How do we differentiate between a “nothing that is not there” with “the Nothing that is”?
Infinity has always been viewed as a mysterious and scary thing throughout the entirety of time. It’s a massive massive unimaginable object/entity/abstraction. Furthermore, it starts off with the simplest of thoughts. You imagine a grain of sand on the floor. You add one grain of sand to that grain of sand. You add another. You add another. Somewhere along the way your mind comes up with a conception of the ‘indefinite’, and this is both amazing and terrifying at the same time. The Sorites Paradox was based around this fuzziness, and Wittgenstein has plied his late-stage trade by unmasking all sorts of fuzzy paradoxes in our common-sense and daily speech.
Yet, much to Wittgenstein’s indignation, a weirdo by the name of Georg Cantor decided to come up with a notion of a ‘countable infinity’ and to try and place it in mathematical rigorous terms. And thus an amazing thing was discovered, that you don’t have to care about whether you grasp the actual something as long as you manage to extrapolate on its abstract properties. More important than getting an actual ‘thing’ of some sort, is to find a way to stick it into the system so that it makes sense with all the other numbers around it.
So now, we come to the crux of this small meditation. There is a literary fuzziness that does not make sense (or you can call bullshit), and there is a fuzziness that can make precise and powerful sense within the realm of words.
The literary fuzziness that does not make sense, I would like to designate as 曖昧 (Ai Mai). This term was stolen from Shinju no Yakata, where, in the story, it was used to talk about how ancient humans had little words to designate things and so they lived in a general sense of vagueness and ambiguity, until they managed to come up with the various names for their gods and whatnot.
The other term I would like to use is 玄 (Gen). This word appears in the most famous of Chinese philosophical texts, the Tao Te Ching, where it’s used to talk about the eternal mystery of the Tao:
(Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.)
The difference between the two is the difference between walking through an atmosphere of fog machine, and walking through a genuine atmosphere of mist and beauty like one of those mountainous Chinese paintings. When used haphazardly, it becomes a party trick, and merely has the appearance of a boring chaos. When used with specific focus, it becomes rife with power like an occult talisman.
To steal some analyses from Borges on Dante, it is also like the difference between the opening of the Inferno when our narrator poet is caught inside a murky and dark wood, and the end of Paradiso, whereby the poet is so awed by the majesty of the spheres that he begins to lose the actual words to be able to describe things.
There are many ways to generate the literary fuzziness Ai Mai. I will list some of them.
a. Stringing together words that denote vagueness
e.g. “He had the sensation of feeling all this before, somewhere – but there was no urge to this instinct that could be called ‘déjà vu’. The lonely mansion seemed something like a spot stuck between parallel universes – there was not even a firm grasp on the five senses here.” (Taken from my translation of some parts of Shinju no Yakata)
b. Paradoxes and contradictions
e.g. “The true comedy of it, however, was that in spite of all the things conversation with him wasn’t, there was still something. It was the kind of comedy that bred sorrow, demanded compassion, and that had, even, a poignant air” (Translation of Zaregoto Volume 2)
c. Invoking Unusual Names (a Fantasy/Lovecraft Trope)
“I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connexions—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum—and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.” (The Whisperer in Darkness)
d. Disjunct imagery (a kind of contradiction, but more poetic – Surrealism)
“Blood flowed at Blue Beard’s,–through slaughterhouses, in circuses, where the windows were blanched by God’s seal. Blood and milk flowed. Beavers built.” (Rimbaud’s After The Flood)
e. Psychological Descriptors or Descriptive Imagery with Psychological Correlate without Explanation or with Vague explanation
” Towards evening Andrey Yefimitch died of an apoplectic stroke. At first he had a violent shivering fit and a feeling of sickness; something revolting as it seemed, penetrating through his whole body, even to his finger-tips, strained from his stomach to his head and flooded his eyes and ears. There was a greenness before his eyes. Andrey Yefimitch understood that his end had come, and remembered that Ivan Dmitritch, Mihail Averyanitch, and millions of people believed in immortality. And what if it really existed? But he did not want immortality–and he thought of it only for one instant. A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter. . . . Mihail Averyanitch said something, then it all vanished, and Andrey Yefimitch sank into oblivion for ever.” (the ending of Chekhov’s Famous Ward no. 6)
f. Purposely Ungrammatical Sentences that abuses semantic ambiguities (e.g. man eating dog)
“anyone lived in a pretty how town/(with up so floating many bells down)/spring summer autumn winter/he sang his didn’t he danced his did.” (ee cummings anyone lived in a pretty how town)
Obviously the above are merely techniques and may or may not be able to reach the status of Gen depending on where they fit within the text itself. One well tried and tested way of creating the mystery is to have a narrative that pits many complex perspectives together and end on an ambiguous non-ending. If done well, it outlines the very puzzling nature of life itself, but if done horribly, it merely results in reader frustration. An example would probably be the ending of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, or Evangelion.
Disjunct imagery a different matter that depends on how wide a poet can throw his net without losing the crux of the poem. Generally though, you can sense that a poet is flubbing it ‘surrealistically’ if he develops a bunch of vaguely moodily connected lines without developing any of them properly. How well one does this is the difference between a person who writes a ridiculously long poem about all sorts of weird things and sticks it together, versus a crazy work like Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction by Wallace Stevens – whereby he changes the contents of the poem per stanza, talking about paintings in one time before switching over to cosmic imagery, but everything still combines into sense as it develops.
Paradoxes are cheap because they’ve been abused too much in postmodern theory. I recently flipped through Giorgio Agamben’s Nudities out of randomicity, and I realized that I could guess the trajectory of the essays by merely reading the first posit. So you have Agamben talking about the age, and then flipping over and saying that those who are excluded from the age are most likely the one’s who can determine it, or he talks about how we have the view of God’s Creation coming before Redemption, but in fact it’s Redemption that led to Creation – God created the world to redeem himself through redeeming us. I hear that his massive analysis in Homo Sacer is about how the most excluded man was the most sacred man.
Another time I randomly flipped through the few pages of Deleuze and Guattari’s Difference and Repetition, and it was about how repeating things are different (e.g. people repeat the same holidays and festivals but this is precisely what makes the difference) and different things are repeated. I flipped through Bataille’s Eroticism where he talks about how a person creates a taboo simply because they want to violate it. I also flipped through Girard’s theories of Mimesis where he talks about how we covet the object of love because we are desirous of the lover that loves the object rather than the object itself, and thus the lover becomes the object of our jealousy – we love what we hate. And, of course, at the bottom of it all is Derrida who is all about the breaking of binary opposites. See also: Kafka’s parable about how sirens are alluring because of their silence, and any Borges story out there.
It’s true that the greatest works out there almost seem to be so all encompassing that they pull you out of subjectivity by showing you how contradictions and complexities meld together to create depth. So you can see the image of two kissing sides in a Picasso painting, and this could either indicate how people are broken halves trying to find each other, or how lovers are so united as to create a single face. Yet these contradictions have to be won through setting up a structure whereby the paradox itself gains refined meaning. To do the old paradoxical twist – a paradox placed at the right moment makes the narrative shine with more clarity, simply because it acts as a catalyst to unite all the different sides. That is how you make a paradox make sense.
The Tao Te Ching has the benefit of being one of the first books of listing paradoxes out there, and thus it exemplifies everything that Gen is supposed to achieve. By the end you’re supposed to feel as though you’ve touched upon that thing that cannot be named but has encompassed all opposites. Yet, putting together opposites in a haphazard way is like saying that you’ll curate your mind by switching between reading the articles of raving Maoists and lunatic Fundamentalists. You will be able to imbibe all the alternate viewpoints you want, but you gain nothing in discernment and critical quality. You’ll be as schizophrenic as the plot of Re:Zero, jumping around between unbelievably edgy darkness to unbelievably sappy romantic unions.
In the end we can come to the conclusion that the achievement of Gen is like an image flowing through the water in a dark lake within a cavern. It is both reality and illusion, separate from time while entering into it. The curtains will fall and a raccoon will take his dice while reciting Marllame’s poetry. We can only hope to invoke the Coccyx of Ashram while getting ever closer to the Akashic Records found within the Super Saragasso Sea, while sense made off rest.