A case of two halves

Abstract Painting (726) 1990 by Gerhard Richter born 1932 Abstraktes Bild (726), Gerhard Richter, 1990, oil on canvas


I edit myself into boldness.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (2015)


As a child, I was a painful perfectionist and my conscientiousness trickled down to even the most mundane of tasks and occasions. Standard events such as Christmas or a friend coming to visit caused immense and unwarranted stress: ‘But what if an ornament was in the wrong place?’ I worried. ‘Or a napkin incorrectly folded?’ These insignificant details played on my mind: why do it at all if it wasn’t going to be just right.

This is how I have often lived my life. I am driven by the desire for things to be proper and just so, or else I am corrupted by a wretched, undesirable laziness, the dull, crushing numbness of ‘what’s the point’? At some point during my later teen years, I accepted that I could not hold minor particulars to such high regard, and settled into a downward spiral of ‘why bother?’.

Recently, it has come to my attention that somewhere along the line I have ceased to care about very much at all. Perhaps, to an outsider this is less obvious, but to myself, I can acknowledge a definite carelessness. Rather than fussing over details, I am more likely to be found meekly shrugging my shoulders.

This is a curious thing for me to admit, but I am compelled to explore what has caused this shift and what the link between perfectionism and failure and the transformation of one’s identity may be. I have moved from a place of personally-imposed rigid perfectionism to a collapsing, changing and volatile space of failure and flux. Simply-put it could just be the natural move from childhood to strange adulthood, where security and certainty are out of reach to almost everyone.

A few years back after finishing my university degree, I sat at my kitchen table with not the slightest idea of what to do next. What would I do? Instead, I went out walking and one day I could hardly breathe with the suffocating realisation that at some point I had missed a beat. I am all too aware of how lucky I am to have got to go to university, and now that I find myself to be studying once more in a new city, I am haunted by this privilege every day and particularly that I have been afforded time to ‘think it out’.

In the interim, the poetic notion of ‘uncertainty’ has granted me great solace. Uncertainty awards us time and a thoughtful sensibility. I distinctly recall sitting alone in a gallery in Dresden (which I have written previously about here) surrounded by spectacular Richter’s and finally realising what his work means, or at least to me, after years of trying to figure it out. Paradoxically, Gerhard Richter’s work is loved, I think, because it is about uncertainty, the grey areas of life, the things that are not easily seen, discovered and understood. In short, the characteristic ‘blur’.

The blur, the haze the fracture of life, I held it all dear. When my diligently carved identity seemed to be crumbing before my eyes, I hung onto a conviction in opacity. But there comes a time when obfuscation isn’t enough. It’s all well and good to be uncertain about things until it starts to actively contribute and even be the cause of your unhappiness.

A few weeks ago I read an essay by Jia Tolentino on poetry. In it, she quotes a poem by Louise Glück, which I pinned to my desktop because somehow it feels like a different side to wavering uncertainty:

The great thing
is not having
a mind.

Now, in a new stage of life, there is less room for toing and froing with a finger perpetually poised over the proverbial backspace. Rather, I find myself more often than not trying to re-build, exaggerate and conjure some kind of certainty regarding what I want from life. As life has progressed, uncertainty does not offer me so much anymore and I frequently toss it aside in frustration, regarding it as merely another word for overthinking, a treacherous compulsion to twist everything until nothing makes sense.

Yet, as Tolentino explains in her short but powerful piece, this quote (and for her poetry itself) invite multiple meanings from a place of unknowing. For me, I read these lines to be about uncertainty, yes, but they also represent a dialectic between uncertainty and certainty, a sureness, a confidence even, in the OK-ness to be uncertain, or conversely, the ‘no-time-to-thinkness’ that goes alongside conviction. It’s about the freedom of beginning from a blank space, a pure starting point that’s not contaminated with what has gone before.

The magnificent Maggie Nelson discusses these ideas of uncertainty, unknowing and ambiguity in her outstanding book, The Argonauts. Without a doubt, Maggie must find herself to be the unlikely poster girl for all those studious girls who don’t really know what they are doing or what they got themselves into half the time. Nelson writes beautifully about her belief in uncertainty, and like Tolentino, she regards it to be multiplicity just by another name. Uncertainty provides an outlet for thinking in multiples, in complex rhizomatic structures without beginning and end. Like Nelson, I too wholeheartedly desire a world of Deleuzian ‘becoming’, a sphere of infinities devoid of definitions offering only gorgeous, wounding possibilities.

However, what got me most was when Nelson admits to her flailing conviction in uncertainty and her frequent shying of assertiveness. She writes:

But whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn’t all of it. I know now that studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognising that one may have to undergo the same realisations, write the same notes in the margins, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again – not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change but because such revisitations constitute life. (140)

I was struck by this paragraph, because even Nelson as she tries to write a truly radical book on ambiguity admits to the essential human necessity for things to fall into place, feel right, the mighty urge to keep going, put down roots; how much effort we need to put in in order to simply live in this damned world!

Ideally, in an ongoing conversation, we could potentially learn to manage the two. I have come to understand certainty as a condition that makes us sticky, it puts wheels in motion, we can do something with it. But on the flipside, uncertainty is what grants us strength and knowledge, the ability to open one’s mind and to think afresh.

In the end, it would seem that ours is a world of both fixity and ‘flicker’, to borrow Nelson’s phraseology; a place of movement and stasis, an infinite realm of and and and…