Despair & the Classics

Tanuj Solanki

Tanuj Solanki lives and works in Mumbai. His stories have been published in The CaravanOut of PrintOne Throne Magazine, and numerous others. His first novel will be published in 2016 by Harper Collins India.

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(0)

“…with despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up—the self.”

from Alastair Hannay’s translation of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death

(1)

Unconscious of despair

In Panchmarhi, when we were on rented bicycles, letting the stubborn summer grind over our heads in that ill-planned vacation, you told me that I should read the classics. My mind immediately catalogued all the lightweight versions I’d read in my childhood—Moby books’ abridged editions of Dickens, Conan Doyle, Verne, so on. But you’d meant the classics of antiquity, something you clarified by asking me if I had heard of Oedipus. When I said I had heard of the Oedipus complex but didn’t know much else, you nodded. Then you narrated to me Oedipus’ monumental tragedy from what you remembered from the Sophocles plays.

You weren’t pushing me to read the old classics as much as you were trying to find a way out for me. There was that question that I’d been posing a lot those days, and since you knew it well, you wanted to help me out. Perhaps you thought that a struggling writer who couldn’t cook up any new stories should go to old stories for inspiration, in a gesture akin to going back to first principles.

But it wasn’t possible for me to take your advice to action, despite every word of yours being important for me. In those days, my trouble with writing was not not having anything to write about but having only one story to write about. I was full of you, of us, of our story, of the novelty of my sensations, each one of which seemed to me to be the beginning of the universe. To me we were ourselves the first principle, the only reality that I could inhabit or come back to.

So in Panchmarhi, I listened to you telling Oedipus’ story with all the attention I could muster, memorized it as something that you’d told me while we were on bicycles bang in the middle of India, and I think I memorized the event of that telling more than what was told. I had thought that I would never come back to Oedipus as anything other than this memory.

(2)

In describing his categories of despair, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard could not have imagined a despair so self-conscious—and therefore so intense, as per his own logic—that it placed Kierkegaard’s categories of despair side by side and routinely attempted its own categorization among them (and routinely failed). Yet that is precisely the kind of despair (more like a damning intensification of despair) that Kierkegaard added to the world. We cannot blame him for it. Writers do what they can do; and what writers can do, they must do.

(3)

In despair not wanting to be oneself

Before you met me, you’d had been with many men. Your first serious relationship was with a half-Cambodian half-French man. I will call him L here.

In our lighthearted conversation atop a rooftop bar in Diu, you told me that you were always breaking up and getting back together with L. He always found ways to become miserable without you. Once, during a separation, his sister established communication with you and asked you to mend your differences and get back together. She quoted his abject misery, exhorted you to give him one last chance. You took pity on the sister, who’d become a good friend of yours, and got back together with L. But since you were unhinged mentally, you also thought that the arrangement was only to provide L solace, and did not in any way restrict you from seeing other men. Knowledge of this would enrage L; he would become aggressive and pathetic. He would plead you to marry him, to have sex with him with the same ardency that you used to. These trials bored you; you shouted at him. Then one day you left L for the last time.

On another occasion, when I inquired about how you got together with L in the first place, you told me a beautiful story of two nineteen year olds meeting in what you called classe preparatoire, a two year period before higher education. He was incredibly handsome, you said. But he was more interested in your friend, a Moroccan girl who was better looking than you. It was some time before the Moroccan rejected L and the two of you got together. You soon discovered that you liked each others’ habits and smells, and fell in love.

Since the day I heard that story—not the one of your separation with L but the one of your falling in love with him—I wanted to be L. I wanted to be that handsome nineteen year old who fell in love with you, whom you fell in love with. I wanted to be the agent of that first stupid flutter in your stomach.

Once, when we were in Gurgaon, camping in my friends’ living room because we were jobless and didn’t have anywhere to sleep in that godless city, you and my friends started talking about your relationships before me. In jest, you said something about me: “I got together with him because he looks a lot like L____.” I smiled wistfully. I so wanted to be L.

This wanting to be L seems to have survived the capitulation of our relationship. Sometimes when I am bored late at night, I look into L’s Facebook profile. I look at his posts, his photographs. He looks happy, and although he has gained some weight compared to his self from the earliest photographs of him (those that you kept on your laptop and I sneakily peeked into), he still looks good. There’s a blonde girl next to him in most photographs. She looks like someone quite your opposite: someone who takes her decisions slowly, who smiles in a restrained manner, who doesn’t blush as often. I do feel attracted towards her.

(4)

Adapted from Wikipedia:

Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. There was a nasty prophecy when Oedipus was born: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Laius wished to thwart the prophecy, so he left Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, baby Oedipus was found by shepherds and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope as their own. Oedipus learned from the oracle at Delphi of the prophecy, but unaware of his true parentage, believed he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope. So he left for Thebes. On his way Oedipus met an older man and quarreled, and ended up killing the stranger. Continuing on to Thebes, he found that the king of the city (Laius) had been recently killed, and that the city was at the mercy of the Sphinx. Oedipus answered the monster’s riddle correctly, defeating it and winning the throne of the dead king – and the hand in marriage of the king’s widow, who was (unbeknownst to him) his mother Jocasta.

Years later, to end a plague on Thebes, Oedipus searched to find who had killed Laius, and discovered that he himself was responsible. Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married both her own son, and her husband’s murderer, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them.

(5)

Wanting in despair to be oneself

After you left me, my coping mechanisms were many and varied. I started drinking and smoking more than ever before and I cared less and less for my weight. Strangely, I also began to enjoy some things. I started indulging in the unhygienic street snacks of Mumbai, reviving a habit from childhood that had been repressed because of your categorical distaste for anything unhygienic. I started calling cabs even if I had only to go walkable distances, something that was unimaginable if I was with you. My relationships with my friends improved, for I could indulge in some of the excesses my friends loved—like video-gaming through the night, binge-watching serials, calling a beautiful woman a ‘hot chick’—things that you totally disapproved of and understood as symptomatic of terrible lifestyles or characters.

There was, it might be said, a coming back to a certain part of myself. Although to assume that there was no pain, or that the pain of separation was alleviating itself with any pace, would be wrong. The pain persisted; the minor pleasures were my coping mechanisms.

The most important thing, though, and also the most difficult to explain, was that I finally made peace with the fact that I was a writer. I had always told you that I wanted to be one, and you had thought that you could help me write, that you could help me with the ideas. But I had always been making a complex pretension to myself: that being happy with you would allow me not to be a writer, that writing could be relegated below the project of happiness with you. But had I ever been happy with you? I had been jealous of the men you’d been with. I’d always been worried that I would lose you. I had fantasized about becoming L

These tangles relaxed when you left me. Happiness was not for me, I realized. I embraced sadness, sadness that was always mine, with or without you. Thus, left bare, the answer came easily to me: I was a sad person who wrote. And it didn’t matter if I hadn’t written anything substantial yet.

Slowly I began to make the transition from being a non-writing writer to a writing-writer. I wrote about the pain of you leaving me, exaggerated it to coalesce with a larger, more abstract and more romantic idea—that of the impossibility of love in the 21st century. This chicanery accorded importance to me—as a representative of a certain type of individual, someone who had loved and lost, and lost not because of his own follies but due to the world as it was.

When this writing was published in small magazines here and there, it divided the tiny opinion it received. Some called me a deft confession-maker. For some I was a writer who had nothing to say and who depended on the vacuity of the times to be able to write at all. Both these reactions hurt me.

But I was a writer, and I had to write. So I thought of doing something that would disqualify these assessments. Instead of indulging in the impossibility of love, I sought to seek redemptions from this reality, to make my writing about seeking those redemptions.

What exactly was the qualitative 21st century, or the qualitative 20th century? What was in our times that made love, or any other such ideal, impossible? Was my assertion even true? And if it wasn’t true, if love had always been difficult throughout civilization, why did my claim of the lovelessness of our times appear so viscerally true?

The internet searches I made to seek these answers took me to concepts that at first seemed to explain everything, but on a second pass complicated matters rather gloriously. I wrestled with that loaded term, post-modernism, for quite a bit. I locked horns with post-structuralism. I pored into the historical ramifications of the Second World War. I read about colonialism and imperialism. My modest wardrobes started getting stuffed with books; I started spending less and less time doing anything other than this research for a question I hadn’t even formed clearly in my mind.

Into the 19th century at one point, I somehow bumped into Soren Kierkegaard. I read his works about irony, and they made a profound impact on me. I immediately understood every increment of modernity as an intensification of ironic gestures. But that wasn’t the only reason why Kierkegaard became important to me. The real reason was that Kierkegaard’s repeated referral, in his work, to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Kierkegaard thought very highly of Socrates, claimed that Socrates would have provided the way out of the predicaments of his time. This harkening to antiquity, this compelling us to look back—not just because we wanted sustainable lifestyles but because our intelligence itself had become too polluted—appealed to me.

And it appealed to me because I associated it with another harkening to antiquity: the memory of you telling me, in Panchmarhi, about Oedipus, to help me write. In a blazing epiphany, I concluded that the answers were all in the classics.

(6)

Unconscious of despair

In Lyon, your god-mother took us out for lunch to an expensive restaurant. For some reason, she had taken a special liking to me. In the most discrete manner, she said I was a good man and asked you if what you had with me was serious. The question was posed in French, apparently under the assumption that I would not understand it. But you knew that I would understand it. Your answer, also in French, stunned me: “It’s big love. Sometimes we think we should make a baby.” The answer also stunned your god-mother, who looked at me with an expression of great love, tears in her eyes. I did not know how to respond to her tears, so I just smiled. You’d lied, we’d never talked about making a baby, but now you were crying too. You hugged your godmother. I realized at that moment how badly I wanted us to have a baby, and I believed you too had wanted one strongly enough to say what you’d said.

(7)

In despair not wanting to be oneself

We returned from France and returned to our lives in Mumbai (by now we had jobs and bosses). But we never talked about making the baby. I thought it indecent to bring it up, and I felt that for you the intensity of that emotion had dissipated in Lyon itself. Needless to say, I was disappointed. You continued to take the pill.

In the months that followed, as your disillusionment with a life in India increased, I cultivated a fantasy. If we were to have a son, I would name it Orhan, I decided. Orhan would be half-Indian half-French. This half-ness was something Orhan had in common with L, and there was a significance in this semblance that I wasn’t able to grasp when I first considered it.

I imagined Orhan’s features to be a cocktail of ours. Clean eyebrows like mine, the nose slightly upturned like yours; big upper lip like mine, the chin round like yours; ears big like mine, eyes the color grey like yours; and skin color somewhere between yours and mine.

And: the poetic impulse from me, the high sense of possibility from you; deft in Hindi, French, and English; aware of Mahabharata and Iliad, both; the ability to accept things from me, the nerve to reject circumstances from you; the need to theorize from me, the imperative to act from you…

I had nearly completed my construction of Orhan when we went to Goa on a four day trip. By then I was beginning to sense that you wanted to leave, that you wanted to go back to Europe so badly that you didn’t care if I could join you or not. I wanted you to stay, if only to show me that you loved me enough.

We talked about many things in Goa, but there were crucial silences between us. By the end of the second evening, there was enough potential energy for a fight. Inside the hotel room after dinner, I said something nasty without provocation or preamble: ‘You seem to be reaching your relationship tenure peak with us.’ You didn’t understand it, and I didn’t flinch from explaining. I told you that you’d been with L for four years and now you’d been with me for four years. ‘And you’re giving signs to suggest that four years is what a lover gets from you,’ I said; ‘give or take a few months.’

You were offended; you walked out of the room. In the silent hum of the room’s air conditioner, I realized that I was ruining any chances of things becoming better. So I went outside and searched for you. I found you at the beach, sitting on a little mound of sand, staring at the waves. I sat next to you and said sorry. ‘It was different with L,’ you said, and cried. I got the impression that you were crying for your relationship with L and your relationship with me. Looking at the black sea before our eyes, I once again wanted to be L, the person who could move you to tears four years after you’d left him behind. I wondered if four years later, you’d cry like this for what we had.

For some reason, I told you that I had the idea for a novel. You asked me about it, so I narrated a patchy story about a half-Indian half-French man named Orhan. Orhan’s parents died in a plane crash when he was only a kid. ‘And so for all his life he had to shuttle between France and India, between two cultures that couldn’t be farther from each other,’ I said. There was silence after I said that, as if I had emphasized some sort of a termination point in our relationship. ‘Are we the parents?’ you asked me after a while, and I knew that I had somehow conveyed, through Orhan, that I too felt that everything was over. ‘Yes,’ I said. You stood up on your feet then and patted away the sand. I stood up too, and we walked towards our room silently. I knew you didn’t love me then. You’d fallen out of love with me like you’d fallen out of love with L. The only person who would never all out of love it, the one that you would love unconditionally and till the end of time, was Orhan. But Orhan didn’t even exist.

That night, with you sleeping beside me, I thought I wanted to be Orhan.

(8)

Wanting in despair to be oneself

After you left me, I accepted that I was a writer and looked for the answers in the classics. It was not long before I came around to the Oedipus story again. By then, I was aware of Aristotle’s critique of the plots of Greek tragedies, and knew very well that in the Aristotelian sense, there could not be a better tragedy that that of Sophocles’ Oedipus. The moment when Oedipus realizes that he has killed his father and married his mother, and is thus the reason for the misfortune of Thebes, is perhaps the most tragic moments in the history of the Western canon. There is great recognition and great reversal—the two great qualities of tragedies according to Aristotle—in that single moment.

There was something in Oedipus that detained me for a longer duration and halted my intellectual voyage through the classics. As I considered Oedipus, I also remembered the days of wanting to be Orhan, my own unborn son. My mind juxtaposed Oedipus and Orhan. Oedipus had destroyed his parents’ relationship; Orhan was the product of that destruction. Oedipus had married his mother; Orhan was created as a receptacle of his mother’s love. I could only laugh at the complex maneuverings, at the tangles that my mind was intent on creating for itself.

I soon gave serious thought to the idea of writing a novel with Orhan as its protagonist. I began to create a set of circumstances around him. But as weeks passed and the plot began to take some amorphous form, something in me rebelled. Was this the answer that the classics had given me? Was this the question that I had been seeking to resolve? Was I to return to my own personal tragedy, again? Was Orhan the remainder of the 21st century’s incapability for love? No, that couldn’t be.

In the days that followed, I was unable to write anything at all, for Orhan’s was the only tale in my head. I wasn’t able to create any other fictions. I had to write him. And I could not write him. It was all so terrible, and in many ways it was quite like the early days of our relationship, when our story had seemed to me like the beginning and end of the universe. But why was I here again, after six years, a heartbreak, and so many books? What made it worse was that I was conscious of being in this stage. My doubts snowballed. What kind of a writer was I, who, despite knowing precisely why he could not write, could not still write? I had thoughts that I knew were silly but still felt those in all their power. Like the one that said that Orhan, in seeking the love of his mother, had terminated the creator that was his father.

***

Image: Bijaya Datta

One thought on “Despair & the Classics

  1. Pingback: Content & Contributors – August 2016 | aainanagar

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