The omen of nothing

A strong gale. Tiles blow off the roof and fall hither and thither. The tiles had no choice in being tiles or for being placed thus as tiles. But they bear the consequences of being tiles on a roof on a windy night. The moment of the fall is a still, an arrested conjuncture. But the effect is instantaneous, and lasting. Sometimes, tiles may have to bear the initial responsibility, which is what Simone Weil feels, when she compares such falling tiles with people who we designate as criminals.

The impotence of penetrating the mysteries of our predicament is actual and technical; not real. The consequences of such predicament are material and far reaching. To be placed in the world is irreducible. To be placed in the world is to be exposed to affliction. Apportioning responsibility or susceptibility to agents for contingent acts and happenings is a matter of debate.

Robert Bird, a scholar on Russian literature, film and modernism, and a universally loved man, died of colon cancer on 7 September 2020. In an essay published shortly after his death, Bird considers Andrei Tarkovsky’s final months as the latter battled with lung/throat cancer. Bird tells us that “Tarkovsky’s enigmatic final words in his diary, dated 15 December 1986, provide a brutal verdict on his cruelly curtailed life: A camera negative, cut up for some reason in many random places.”

The central question that occupies Bird in the essay is whether there can be any meaningful relationship between Tarkovsky’s ailment and his works. How does one account for such a pernicious and impersonal force? Bird systematically goes through Tarkovsky’s own attempts to reconcile his works, thoughts and his ailment.

One way to generate meaning is to retrieve the works as redemptive sacrificial acts. As his condition deteriorated, for a brief period, Tarkovsky sought solace in heterodox methods, like anthroposophy: trying out untraditional, natural medicines and immersing in bucolic surroundings. He was disappointed though, and soon returned to chemotherapy.

But “medicine teeters unsurely on the border between the body and its grave, soma and sema.” The sick body needs to be poisoned again with radiation. The other way of grappling with such an ailment is to work towards a clean conscience or memory, which will prepare oneself to die. But what use personal penitence for propitiating the “misbegotten cosmos” that we inhabit? If Tarkovsky’s body is being consumed by the prayers and protective spirits that he invokes, what faith and commonality? Cancer destroys the very faith in miracles.

As he writes, Bird makes an important pronouncement: “Cancer is a disease without moral cause, but not without moral consequences.” The crucial thing is the environment of fear and anxiety that it fosters. And stigma, with no other external signification. It is an altogether different frame of living where power of a random force coheres inextricably with the numb pain of a new being within the canceral, and therefore, carceral environment.

An ingressive intrusion

This interruptive, anonymous force is the subject of the book, what Bird calls: an omen of nothing: “The contingency of these omens is something I hold onto. It drives home the fragile wonder of the world we share, as taut and fluid as the ocean. It is so different for each of us, yet it becomes a medium through which we share stories, images and words. Like the cinema. Like cancer. Like Tarkovsky?”

By recording his sensation in words in such a manner, Bird does something extraordinary. He looks directly at the moment of his reckoning. Eye to eye. He considers what the Spanish savant Miguel de Unamuno has described as “our moral destiny without flinching, to fasten our gaze upon the gaze of the Sphinx, for it is thus that the malevolence of its spell is discharmed.”

Contingency is constant. It is the commonest thread that binds us all, something that we conceal from even our innermost core – skirt or camouflage – lest we break down and dissipate in highlighting our vulnerabilities. But are we ever a collected bundle of nerves and muscles (as Hume had experimented)? Contingency forces us to confront idle randomness in a serrated cosmos.

Like grass and water, we begin to tremble and shake when confronted by calamity. Like fire, we rage and rummage for a cause where there are none to be found. Contingency is necessity; an opaque and inert force that goes on creating violence and vulnerability, a sealed-off vortex, where there is free play between power and pain. Nothing is transparent in that territory, nothing motivates acts and pronouncements. Force refuses to see us. All communication, all subjective exchanges are withheld and frozen. Buffeted, embodied traces of beings clutch onto a blank routine. That is all.

The mechanics between power and pain begets the creature. Suffering ceases to make sense for the one who is afflicted with pain. Suffering does not have the formal elegance of pain. Only the anonymous focal point of affliction brings forth a being that we call creature. The creature begins to interact with the world in a new manner. It eats, sleeps, takes a walk.

But a mastering, ingressive intrusion now shifts the light. The spatio-temporal dimensions of its existence alter irretrievably once the creature becomes aware of its journey on the knees – as a thrall and a journeyman nomad. As the hunted, it confronts the eternal indifference and mutedness of force. All identity is frozen. The world passes by such a being. This is the state that the philosopher Jonardon Ganeri would call internal exile. The more it endures, the greater its perdurance into individuating itself as a creature.

Transgressing the soul

It is an abiding conundrum, another act of contingency perhaps, that the one who endures agony also exerts it as a force over another body in equal measure – not as acts of vengeance or bad faith, but through deeds of forgetful randomness. The hunted turns into the hunter as the fresh prey emerge in the horizon. The impulse for this inversion has to directly do with the astute observation of Peter Wessel Zapffe in his seminal essay “The Last Messiah”:

“The craving for material goods (power) is not so much due to the direct pleasures of wealth, as none can be seated on more than one chair or eat himself more than sated. Rather, the value of a fortune to life consists in the rich opportunities for anchoring and distraction offered to the owner.” Simple preying is an exercise in distraction. Collective preying is a form of purchasing social indemnity.

The latter soon develops into a gestalt, a manner of making meaning in certain culture circles. When power/pain inserts itself within sequentiality and accident, each creature begins to disfigure and distort the other, as it were. Nay, each transgresses its own soul. This inherence of power and pain in the same being/collective is a running thread in the book.

Sometimes, power is refinement, a certain disdainful style of operation. In such cases, it rises above mere consolidation of material goods or aggrandisement. A disinterested force, it simply reveals itself out of nowhere. Such power is magisterial, like the one described by Robert Bird: we can name it force grande. Regardless, power and pain are circular pursuits.

Each feeds on the other. The arc is the distillation of a supernova that erupts within creatures. Creatures themselves are brought within the ring of such necessity and are reminded of their status by emerging circumstances propelled by force. Sometimes, the collective fury of such creaturely vulnerability turns combustible, inverts itself and converts the natural into the social. Pure dread reigns.

Second sight

Creatures are reminded time and again that they are but bones and skin. They are hounded, tracked down and nonchalantly abandoned, maimed or annihilated through clinical methods of relational sociability. Such nonchalance has much less to do with the primitive rituals of scapegoating or sacrifice, than with periodic rifts in little spaces, where, like scorpions and hamsters, creatures are unable to distinguish between mutual slaughter and mutual embrace. And yet, they needs must operate from within such caverns of relationality.

That is the reason Gabriel Tarde says that everything is social; there is hardly anything natural with and within creaturely accommodations. Tarde’s formulation is even better expressed by the American poet and art critic Maggie Nelson, when she says, “Everything is nice.” This zone of sentient neutrality, one that runs athwart nature and the human, is where all identity is suspended. Nothing is revealed. All that remains is radical inarticulation. The one who is branded by affliction shall keep on only half his soul, as Weil had predicted.

On rare occasions the arc takes creatures to the shores of the marvellous and the miraculous. Such events are inflections. Those are moments of fragile and receding emergence. Between power and pain, in such rare moments of emergence, hovers a kind of aching generosity that comes from afar—surpassing love and submission, which are open to the demands of the capacious spirit. The distance between such love and all creation is infinite. But the expansiveness of the soul-force is totally and completely felt, and becomes tangible, for such generosity is always open to our desires, hopes and dejections. The stirrings can be felt in the marrow.

But such a form of generosity is also blind and distant, giving yet erratic. Is grace powerful enough to abolish temporal horror? One can prolong security, but cannot avoid absolute wreckage. In the tentacles of the ‘pure arbitrary,’ creatures have no holder to lean upon. The right to weep and curse ends in resignation and in the absurd.

But resignation does not take away the material impact of force. The idea of absurd is far too abstract to confront catastrophe. Metaphysical or philosophical placebos are mere distractions to the creature. Within the regal realm of catastrophe, despair resides alongside awe. Only rarely does such a condition produce limitless generosity in the creature – one that has begun to trudge the abandoned pathway. The rootless and the nomad can feel the touch of such generosity. This is the “second sight” for the creature.

Excerpted with permission from The Creature: in Power and Pain, Prasanta Chakravarty, Bloomsbury India.