5/4/20: Collage 1: The Present

I’m doing some kind of unintentional macroscoping of any and all activities these days. Other than the continual atmosphere of anxiety – which, anxiety is always a kind of subsumed, taxing activity anyway – I feel like I unconsciously arrange my day so that the few things I do have to do throughout it take up unnecessary amounts of time.

I think it’s an unconscious attempt to make the time pass faster, as if rushing through the days will bring me – us – back to normalcy again – which, of course, it won’t, especially in this brainfucked country. One element of this pandemic that I’m sure of, one certainty, is this: that we’re failing to grasp what is; we refuse to look at life in the pandemic without the context of the misspent, misremembered, normal past, and an at-this-point imaginary, normal future.

Look at the stream of shitheaded ‘news’ stories about how coronavirus will affect this or that thing, how X or Y will never be the same again: even these headlines live in the fantasy future where we’re beyond the pandemic itself and able to look back on it and trace out its repercussions.

This possibility of normalcy is an illusion being propagated everywhere, most insidiously of course by the government at all levels. But every news outlet in the country is babbling about it unhelpfully. And like anything that is talked about continuously (and whether an individual voice is talking about it positively or negatively is immaterial), eventually it begins to exist; it becomes another piece of furniture in their thoughts, another recurring ornament in their conversation; erroneous or not, it’s real.

Lots of good people understand that things are more complicated, of course. This impulse isn’t a function of stupidity as a rule. But I think we all recoil from the present on some level or levels, in ways big and/or small. This happened before the pandemic, too; it’s only the extremity of the situation that’s making me acutely conscious of it.

Proust says that when we say we love somebody, we’re actually playing with a doll that we make in our head. These created realities are also dolls: we say we understand a thing, but we really only understand something we have created – a memory, a hope, an impression, an opinion – in imitation of, or in reference to, the thing itself.

These illusions are created on an unconscious level. We don’t know that we’re fabricating false realities (in which category both the past and the future are included) explicitly so that we can avoid confronting actual reality, which is the present and the present alone. A failure of the human mind or spirit is our inability to address the present (possibly related to why it’s so hard to address in literature the actual process of thought, which occurs explicitly in the present even if it engages with the past and future; we can’t articulate the thing that is articulating the present).

The present is a language we don’t understand. We can only contextualize it in terms of befores and afters.

“Then he had felt himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt that the best happiness was already left behind.”

Anyway, the impulse to move one way or the other off of the present seems reflexive, if not completely, irrevocably ingrained. Thus with filling my days with long, mundane tasks I push towards this vision of normalcy, even though I don’t know if or when it will exist. And I also pore over episodes of my past (the parts I can remember) and marvel at my attitude towards them then, or regret something I said and did intensely, or wish with all the acute, stupid, simple longing of futility that I could go back, or experience it again.

Maybe we fall into the present for stretches of time here and there, at least partially.

But then again I’m not so sure: I think about what I consider to be the happiest stretch of time in my life, and think that I only thought of it as such long after it had past.

But maybe happiness is only a contextual emotion. Maybe it can only exist with either the past or the future as referent. Maybe to engage with the present means to give up on our endless trudging towards a happiness, or another, or another.

I used to think Ishmael was happy, that he was one of the happiest characters in fiction. On my second reading, though, I’m not so sure. Maybe the exuberant energy of his prose comes from the horrible concatenation of his engagement with his own mind and spirit.

Conversely, or also: unhappiness comes from the future or past, but exists unmistakably in the present; or, it obfuscates the present from us, lives inside of it like some kind of parasite.

To think that there are people who describe themselves as “happy” is weird for me. I think a lot of times people mistake “content” for “being happy.”

The present: this weird lacuna between what we were, and what we may become; this blank that we are inexplicably unable to occupy, and instead become nomadic within our own brains and souls, moving towards other homes we’ve promised ourselves: into the elusive future like a wreath of fairy mist that evaporates under our touch, or looking back at the stone corridors of the past, irretrievable, retreating away behind us.

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