The Watcher

levitation, drug use, and intertextuality...

On the one hand, there is what is possible to write: what is within the practice of the writer and what has left it: which texts would I consent to write (to re-write), to desire, to put forth as a force in this world of mine? What evaluation finds is precisely this value: what can be written (rewritten) today: the writerly. Why is the writerly our value? because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.
— Roland Barthes, S/Z, 1970

He inhaled a breath of smoke and thought three things in quick succession.

First, he thought about the time he was in the emergency room, about to have his recently ruptured appendix removed. When the nurse injected him with morphine he felt his veins expanding like they were going to burst through his skin. But they didn’t. They just kept swelling outwards while the pleasurable pressure gradually filled his entire body, like a balloon. The following four days he was in the hospital the morphine never felt close to as good it did that first time. This was as he was inhaling.

As he began to exhale he thought about the smoke submersing him like a great fog, but more directly he thought about an image from a poem that had long been circulating through his thoughts. He couldn’t remember where he had heard it or who the poet was.

“The fog comes on little cat feet.”

As the last bit of smoke left his nostrils he felt his body dissipating with the smoke in the room. He felt light, like the papasan chair he was sinking into hovered off its wicker frame and floated out of his open sliding glass window on a cradle of smoke that joined with the fog outside. He often experienced this sensation of lightness when he smoked but today it seemed enhanced by the foggy night.

Beneath him he saw a village of 1970’s econo apartment complexes; all similar, rectangular stucco beige, endearing in their squalidness. He floated slowly over the top, only five stories above the ground, able to see the top two stories of each building over the low hanging fog. So slowly, in fact, that he seemed to be absorbing his surroundings with a new immediacy. It was an odd sentiment, difficult to express. Time had been lulled to a crawl and he was able to experience objects for the bundle of sensations and qualities that they were. A layer of cognition that is pre-interpretative, pre-conceptual;before the generalizing capacity of language asserts itself. Of course this was only a surrogate reality, for to recognize these qualia is to recognize their resistance upon your being and thus to destroy their un-segmented singularity. What he experienced was a slowness that made this firstness moment of perception seem more tangible than it ever had before.

He felt he was consciously creating memories.

Recently he had been noticing the impotence of his memory. His mind seemed dominated by successions of quickly moving images that were not at all memorable. He first noticed this when he was (with resentment) making himself read poetry. He was reading a poem by Keats that he had been told everybody knew and was ashamed for not having read it. The poem lingered on images for far longer than he felt comfortable. It sucked him into the pregnant details of the present moment. The poet prolonged temptation and desire but exercised no action, no quenching of that temptation and desire. Instead, he was provoking it, exploring its source. Committed to resolving his own intellectual inadequacies, he decided to commit a stanza of the above mentioned poem to memory, feeling that any erudite individual had a dozen or so of these popular poems he could recite on command.

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been

  Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country-green,

  Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South!

    Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

          And purple-stainèd mouth;

  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

As much as it unsettled him, he longed for the sort of meditative experience the poem espoused, which embraced each new sensation and did not run from it. This made him arrive at the conclusion that slowness of thought was a prerequisite for memories, and that it was the speed of things that was his problem. This was what he set out to remedy this night through his observations.

He looked down to see several cats congregating on one of the roof tops. Socializing in that way cats often do—lounging around each other but not directly with each other. One of them got up and nonchalantly wandered over to the other end of the roof to drink from a puddle. The others soon followed, slowly and equally as non-committal. He struggled to center himself on the cats with the same intensity in which Keats could focus on the wine.

“Once the weight falls away you can finally be observational” he thought, proud of himself for his sudden introspection.  “You can appreciate the converging details of a city --- watching each shape and sign intersect, feeling encapsulated within in, but separate.”

He felt he was making some progress; this was the sort of experience he had been looking for! But this self approval was ruined when he realized that he needed drugs to be introspective. He felt stupid, or rather he thought he should feel stupid… he really wasn’t sure if this was a societal expectation to be critical of drug use or his own expectation for himself. After some deliberation he determined that he indeed did not care about this. So what if this new condition of his mind and body was the result of some induced askesis. He went back to watching the party of cats. But the cats were far behind him now, for unknown to him when his thoughts focused inwards his travels intensely speed up. The newfound slowness he thought he was enjoying was only a small part of his observations and as it was in his normal state, it was still increasingly fleeting.

“Rhyme thoughts travel at a tremendous speed. Clouds of smoke and natural blends of weed.”

He had reached a damp inlet harbor surrounded by small mountains with the bright lights and towns on either side peeking through the fog, making the inlet feel like a large stadium built into the earth.

He suspended himself over top of a docked south Asian cargo ship. 

Surprisingly, there were workmen repairing the docks. He hadn’t expected to see anyone this late at night. They had just started on their midnight lunch break, sitting in several small groups with their legs dangling over the oily sea. They sat under powerful construction site spotlights that pierced the fog but were obscured themselves by the shade of massive iron cranes. The groups of men resembled the cats, displaying the same sort of non-committal camaraderie. He couldn’t see their faces except for when one of them puffed on his cigarette and the fog was momentarily brushed away. 

Watching people work at night always made him feel shitty. Not because he felt bad for people that worked at night—he knew several people who seemed to enjoy that lifestyle. It was because it weighed him down. It seemed too easy for the slow observational lightness that he strived to cultivate on this night off could grow heavy with the tedium of day to day fatigue… of physical labour. He felt the slowness of mind he was seeking transform into an oppressive force. Each instant became stretched out interminably, pulling him back to earth.

 “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. Perpetuity forced his chair down towards the ocean more violently than gravity.  He plunged, barely missing the deck of the cargo ship. He heard some sailors shout something in his direction. Had he been noticed? Was he even visible? This was the first time on his journey that he released himself as a body that is an appearance as much as it is itself a perceiver of appearances.

He felt himself crash through a surface that fought back against his weight. And with the shock of the impact he realized that it was only through resistance that we realize ourselves as those separate phenomenal beings called “I”. Naturally he had heard people talk about this, but it was only then that he realized it fully. It was not an intellectual realization, something he was taking on authority, rather it was something shown through experience.

He was startled to find he was in a city that looked nothing like his own. The fog had fallen away and the indeterminacy that had allowed him to concentrate, to focus on one object and gently lead him to the next, was replaced with the rapid blur of movement.

This neighborhood was full of those European apartment buildings with inward looking courtyards, where you can see five rows of separate boxes on all four sides of you. He decided to fly his detached semi-circle into one of these courtyards to observe the layers of people. He noticed he no longer felt ashamed of his inadequacy. He may have failed in the last episode but these new surroundings reinvigorated him, and made him feel more confident in his role as observer.

He floated into a courtyard. He was already quite proficient at flying, and he executed this maneuver with little difficulty. Many types of lights and furnishings met with different scenes of life. The building was that particular shade of fading brick. There were bursts of activity occurring behind the small single-paned windows, the stillness of the building’s stone exterior juxtaposed to the swirling dance within it.

A vast sea of small details and actions colliding. He associated this with Europe for some reason. North America meant to him homogeneity, but not with any negative connotation. The similarities made it easier for him to focus on things.  He reveled in following endless details in intricate webs of connections, but now he felt overwhelmed by the display of things before him. It was an overpowering of the multitude of the particular. He longed for vagueness, where out of complete indeterminacy we can focus our minds and transform our milky surroundings into something more lucid; more concrete.

This reminded him of the sensation he got when watching the news: television news presents all of its content in a condensed neurotic structure. Yet it conveys this frenzied progression with exactitude and precision, so an order emerges out of the pandemonium. Schizophrenically jumping all over the world, from plane crash to bombing to election, the amorphous throng of places and stories, contrasted against each segment’s stark visual detail multiply themselves into a web of misperception. Incidentally, he almost never remembered what he saw on the news in any detail.

This building possessed the same rapid unreeling of details. It created a pandemic of vagueness in a spectacle of layers of people. Drawn into a world of images upon images he lost the ability to generalize, to think abstractly.

To observe anything is to name it, categorize and systemize it, and thus to insert yourself into it. “To assign a name to a thing is to make a hypothesis. It is plainly a predicate that is not in the data.”

He couldn’t remember who had said this but it seemed appropriate. 

Yes, detail to him now felt violent and heavily devoid of form, like a gluttonous encyclopedia that had grown to such size, that it’s very content, ceaseless details upon details, had corroded through the pages and mutated the text so much that it was no longer recognizable. He wanted to settle into his flower petal cushion and take off his glasses to stop his mind from making these tired connections. 

But moments of detail kept attacking his senses: a couple fighting, screaming children, people coming and leaving the building. It was the sounds that assaulted his mind not sights or feeing. The Greco/roman culture we’ve inherited is certainly one ruled by the faculties of sight, but is sound not more all reaching for its ability to penetrate our minds from within? Like the Hebrew or Muslim god --- a god heard, not seen. He felt a rapid burst of speed while jagged details wrapped around him like thorns. He missed the comfort of the fog— or had it been steam? It did give off certain warmth; he reached for his pipe and abruptly felt his papasan cushion collapse into its flimsy wicker frame in his living room.