“My mother is a fish.” Here is a sentence I have loved, one that stands like a ragged cairn at a joint in my life’s passing, a beacon visible not by the light it shines but the shadow it casts, a chasm creeping forward like a plant in step with the blackening dusk. This sentence says, when I read it again or bring it to mind, that here was a place of import, whether as a site of loss, a mark of guidance, a warning, or bare monument of inscrutable human intention. It is a tower among several dozen—perhaps hundreds—that are sprent like stars into restless constellations awaiting from me their mythologies and cartographies. “My mother is a fish,” alluring and enigmatic; is it hysterical? Does it seem to say, “come and try to know me, to divine my purpose, the pathway I mark, my secret meaning, the one stone among my thousands that, when shifted, when properly caressed, transforms me entirely into an abyss of unspeakable joy, a dark ocean of knowledge, apocalypse and apotheosis, a threshold so profound its stillness sets the air to ringing, a promise that will stop your heart”? My mother is a fish.
My mother is a fish because they are both dead. Vardaman and I are walking together, surrounded by ghosts, the summer sun burning away the limpid sheen of the scales and eyes, the noisome disembowelment desiccating in the weeds, silence for miles accompanies the rhythm of our footsteps through the crackling stalks of scorched grass. The drumming of a grasshopper’s erratic flight, perhaps. “Do you remember the time,” I ask him, though he carries on as if I had said nothing, as if I were another among the spirits, “watching the old man, railroad tie driven into his belt, catch his fish and rip from them his hook and grip them about the fins, ribbons of muscles tense along his forearms, all to be destroyed by the single obliterating stroke of the tie to the skull and I, later, five- or six-years old, no tie upon my person and panicked, the fry seizing at my feet on the rivershore, held aloft the nearest stone like Abraham with no blade and no angel to deliver me from my charge, to crush through skull and brain and the site of all life and need in this animal that made no cry and left no monument behind but what? Its eye.” And mine and me, seeing myself in it.
Trauma. Wound. Dream. I scatter palmfuls of sentences alongside the passages riven into our speech like scars on the earth because they are trodden daily by us all as we sketch our course toward death, driven by love, by the god called Eros (the god residual, left behind after the lightning blast like a consequent precipitate. Here is a god who compels us to attempt any number of things but one above all: to speak, to craft encomia). ‘To cast alongside’, to produce a place in space that serves as a perfect eclipse, a mask upon a face, a stone before a tomb, an obstruction that by darkening frees a light of singular intensity, a radiance of meaning signaling a unique conjunction, an essence of space. That is the parabola and parable, space and syntax intersecting here—meaning as a product of incidence and remainder: hyperbole, ellipsis, parable. Each of these gives shape to our language—they describe an orientation with respect to the boundaries that make certain intersections possible in conic space. And for any of these curves in space there exists a line that approaches and never intersects, never falls together with it (as the etymology would have it): the asymptote. If the cone has an inside and outside this means that there is always a line accompanying a curve, in some sense determining its possibilities, and never touching it, beyond it. To touch dissolves the alpha-privative and leaves us not with asymptote but symptote, a falling together, contact, symptom, a crossing of borders.
The trajectories of our enunciations suffer the same fates as moving bodies—they are warped by the conditions of the air, the mass of the earth, the vagaries of chaos. What is in physics called gravity is in psychoanalysis called the unconscious. Perhaps it is also the asymptotic. There is no arriving there, seeing it or touching it is impossible; its existence, like the graviton, is hypothesized, a residue of speech, a by-product of language. We know it is there because our calculations solicit it, because there are symptoms in the formulas. There are parapraxes. Things don’t square, and as we interrogate these mistakes, these deviations, we discover that they are the voice of an irreducible insistence, a force that cannot be dismissed or absorbed into the clouds of acceptable deviation. It says, ‘here’, and it is spoken by no one. At the limits of our space, up against the walls of the cone we understand as the known world, there is the sound of something close but not touching, the resonance of its internal harmonies vibrate against the walls to which we press our ears, and if we listen we discover familiar patterns. I hear: ‘The unconscious is structured like a language.’ Further, it is an effect of language. It is why when I read ‘my mother is a fish’, I stop as though I have been cut. It is why I am looking for something. It is the stranger on the bridge in the storm, the one we saw in Petersburg, the one for whom, as Dostoevsky writes (Dostoevsky, the one who endured the sack over his eyes, the rough threads against his nose, the dimpled blackness, hands rope-bound with his back against the immovable pine stake, empty grave at his feet meant to receive him; he who listened for the quick breath of a sabre cutting through the air to signal to the officers, rifles at the ready, to fire, to reveal if there will be pain and how much and will he be alive enough to feel himself thrust into black earth before his death arrives; Dostoevsky, the one who wandered all the way to this horrific precipice only to be pardoned, to be mocked, to be forced to wonder if the only thing worse than death is to have it taken from you by the Law; Dostoevsky, who therefore can write like few others can even imagine), writes of this stranger on the bridge that there is no hatred, no hostility, not even the slightest animosity toward it, the stranger, and yet not for all the treasure in the world would one want to meet it. The stranger, Dostoevsky tells us, whose name we know perfectly well—first and last, patronymic and sobriquet—and yet again not for all the treasure in the world would we want to name the stranger, to recognize the stranger in any way. The stranger passes on the bridge, ignoring all looks and words directed at it, passing along as if asymptotic to this world, going where? Through the square, passing house after house until it turns into the courtyard of the building where we rent our room, snow collecting on its overcoat, all the way to the door of our room, the place where we sleep, where the stranger enters and sits to face us. It is as though we are standing at the mirror, insensible from horror. The horror amounts to this: a gap, the space between identifications, the split between the thing with which we identify, and the thing by which we are identified., what we have been told is the difference between the imaginary and symbolic.
What is education if it wants to know nothing about this stranger? We arrive at another cairn in a different clime: “do I dare disturb the universe?”. How might I? One cannot know the consequences in advance of moving a stone from its place to another, abutting one word against another, building unreckonable monstrosities gathering like a golem quickened by the magic of speech: can we endure the poetry termed metaphysical? Teeth white as clouds, eyes like spiders’ eggs, burning skies to dust—a certain force is required, a strength of thought, a taste, even, for the sadistic. How else to intrude upon the blithe, enthuse the resigned? But I find myself tarrying with an answerless question as a young woman leaves the room three weeks after attempting to put herself in a coma. She says to me, “be careful what you say to us, don’t abuse your power over us, we struggle enough as it is, the horrors of the world will make their way to us in their own time, with or without your teaching.” She leaves and I continue to wonder still if the universe will stand any disturbing, wonder why my desire compels me to revere these thoughts hard as fists that have razed and ruined the dreams of childhood and unstrung the platitudes we circulate like coins tallying a meaningless balance, thoughts that puncture like teeth, brief and implacable: “the suffering of thinking”, “the use of philosophy is to sadden”, “to philosophize is to learn to die”.
To educate is to lead, to lead outward, from one place to another. It connotes a leaving home, a standing outside the usual, the ex- of this prefix takes its bearings, we suppose, from some center, some small mythology not yet recognized as such. To educate is to lead away from this, out into the cities or the plains, by ways pocked with still more cairns, some more, some less, severe, or sublime; none of them though, above all, common or familiar. None of them lie within the boundaries ruled by kings and merchants. Do they guide us, perhaps, to Antigone’s wastes? To the expanse where unfolded the burials and suicides? To the very flesh of justice? And what maps do we follow as we do our leading—those that chart the holy pilgrimages, or perhaps those of our own masters? Or do we lead our followers according to what is in the end a map of our desires, insisting they esteem a singing tree or empty hill because these have been loved by us? Have we merely ciphered our enjoyment? Do we educate or seduce, and is it even possible to untwist this uncanny couple?
Socrates himself, with Alcibiades his pet, is confounded by these two: seduction, education. Leading astray, leading out. Lessons Alcibiades takes with him into exile and back, to Socrates’ grief and regret. Here I have come to some ambiguous affinities, some puzzling arrangements in the ruins: the sadist, the seducer, the teacher, the lover, and I will add the analyst. What specific operations tolerate substitutions of these terms for one another? Is Dolmancé a seducer and nothing else? Is Socrates a teacher and nothing else? Don Juan, Merteuil, Lacan, the Teacher, the Student, the Lover, the Beloved—what do we discover when we look at them all aslant, from unimaginable vantages or reflected off burnished brass? We see, perhaps, the flowers of desire suspended in the vase of knowledge—yet one or both seem ghostly, resplendent but obscured, like a mirror in a dream.
One of the most famous stories of our popular myths is one, precisely, of seduction and education, a lesson unfolding in a dream. “Squat like a toad, close at the ear of Eve, assaying by his devilish art to reach the organs of her fancy, and with them form illusions, as he list, phantasms and dreams”. Leading her astray; an astray, however, toward knowledge—and thus a teaching. “Is knowledge so despised?” he asks. Satan here a force of pure negativity, seducing by subtracting, by articulating for Eve what before this she cannot imagine: a lack. “Happy though thou art, happier thou mayst be,” and this is enough to introduce a beyond without which it is impossible to imagine lack. This promise here, this is seduction, this entrancement, is the supreme promise of knowledge, and what is especially diabolical about Satan’s seductive education of Eve is that it is by means of a dream that is dismissed as being a dream by representing precisely the truth that is the dream’s consequence: you are eating the fruit, you are getting what you most deeply want. A seduction that, antidiabolically, leads one exactly to where one is going, a seduction that retraces, and erases, the very mark it originally wrote, the very path it plotted, the trappings of its fiction had in fact been the barest truth, an undreamly dream, a dream beyond interpretation. Satan’s is a deception by means of writing the truth in what is known to be the language of deceit (proving Satan is no animal).
The proximity of knowledge and the dream, what does this suggest to us? The knowledge we offer under the aegis of the university, is it the stuff of dreams, or baubles on display in the marketplace of facts? And to what end do we induce the students to dream? Do we revere the thing called ‘the real world’ or is this reality itself a question for us, a problem that forces us to consider the unreal, the phantasy, the dream?
A father, having exhausted his body and heart grieving the death of his young son, a child lying in his own bed, a few of his things in their place about the room, this father leaves this room to sleep, being ravaged by the cruelty of his loss. The father asks an older man of the house to keep watch through the night, just please watch the dead child, and he lays himself in his own bed, face to the wall. Let’s watch the father as he sleeps, eyes black with weeping, an animal sleep of profound fatigue, we watch him there in his room, alone, breathing heavily now, the midnight stillness of last century’s European suburbs freezing everything but the man’s chest as he breathes, collapsed under the weight of this pure rest. But let an hour or so pass and the stillness is met with the gentle breath of smoke approaching like a ghost across the threshold. This ghost and the unmistakable smell of smoke thickening, pass through one threshold, that of the room, the scene we are watching unfold, and pause at another threshold, that between reality and the dream of the father. Perhaps they pause there for many minutes. Let’s leave this scene of precipitating catastrophe and enter, if possible, into the non-space and non-time of the father’s sleep. To him, let’s imagine, it seems as though he has just shut his eyes, entered into that liminal darkness preceding sleep, it seems to him that he has not even begun to sleep before he sees the room all around him again, everything in its place, even the discomfort, perhaps, of having fallen to sleep in all his clothes, the room to him is all in order but the ghost of smoke we recall from our last vantage is not here. Instead, with footsteps just as light and silent, drifting like a cloud across the floorboards to where the father sleeps facing the wall, bringing in its wake the smell of thickening smoke, is another ghost, that of his young son, who reaches out to him and, voice full of reproach, with a vengeful grip on his father’s arm says, “father, can’t you see I’m burning?”
We wake with the father to our first vantage again but this time the creeping smoke is no mere ghost but a full fog of gray hills rolling horribly across the ceiling and we learn that the father’s dream was in the service of keeping him asleep, of protecting the rest he so desperately needed. And in the boy’s room there are what? Flames spreading like a horde of insects across the room, a child dead and burning, an old man, reclined nearby, who fell asleep and is dreaming a dream we will never come to know.
For a moment, in this story, there is a conjunction of spaces and times. We saw this conjunction when in truth we watched the father fall asleep and watching him surface from his sleeping blackness to a room in perfect order moments before the ghostly child enters the room. A conjunction of realities, the facsimile produced by the dream perfect in every way. So what intrudes upon this reality-like dream of the father? The dream-like reality of his dead son, who in reality lives on in the father’s memory to deliver a message that is in excess of the reality the father allows himself in waking life. This excess, this rejection, is that reality about which we want to know nothing. As teachers, where do we stand with respect to it?
A third cairn, standing somewhere between the mother and the universe, revealing a new itinerary: “the desire to die is the desire to know; it is not the desire to disappear, and it is not suicide; it is the desire to enjoy”. Death, knowledge, desire, enjoyment. What is an education if not the site of knowledge? But what will education make of this remainder that knowledge courts, these three lurking in the wake: enjoyment, desire, death? The desire to die is the desire to know, to know that which lies outside the edifices of the typical, the conventional, the legal. The desire to die is the desire to know those things for which one can receive no reward or return, the desire to expend without reserve, and this is the tie that binds writing and knowing. The desire to die is not suicidal: it is the courage to approach the ends of things, which is thinking. The desire to die is not a mere morbid curiosity, a fetish for limbs or decay, but rather the desire we all as doubles of Narcissus have: the desire for a fullness beyond fullness. We must, however, unlike the languishing and tortured Narcissus, enjoy never obtaining it. The desire to die is the desire to enjoy this failure—even to enjoy failing at enjoying it.
The final cairn: “the only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write.” This sentence stretches out deep into the distance, seeming to guide our work here at the university where we perhaps nurture a hope that this place will house us as we write without condition. This sentence marks the place we will never travel to, the asymptote, but nevertheless the place toward which we are always writing. I have been told that I am struggling to find a language that conjugates with the discourse of the university, about which we have already been told several things, most importantly that it is the other side of the hysteric’s discourse. It is the hysteric’s discourse that leads to knowledge that precedes the science that drives the university. The hysteric—she or he or otherwise—sits in class and senses that something is insufficient, senses that, despite the fullness of knowledge here, there is in her or him some roach or bird vouchsafing secret terrors and raptures that seem in excess not only of whatever facts one hears but of language itself. Let us presume for now that literature is what, precisely, sets these roaches and birds to flying, and ask ourselves what it means to teach it.
I’ve come here seeking entry to this university discourse—are there then keepers of the gates? Am I standing, like Kafka’s avatar, before the Law in hopes of proving my compliance, enjoying its protection? Beyond the gates (and we are told that there are countless gates, each guarded by a keeper more terrible than the last) at some center—there must be a center about which all this orbits—there is what? Whatever it is, it serves as the index by which exchange is regulated. Is it possible to think a teaching that cannot be qualified by the structure of exchange? A teaching or writing that would be practiced even in the absence of any possible return, neither prestige nor money nor love? A teaching that does nothing but mark a site, like an ancient cairn, silent, immobile, solitary, seductive, and you next to it totally alone?