There's something just plain old creepy about this concept of cheating — in romantic relationship terms, at least. I have to think about cheating in the broader sense. But in relationships, the word irritates me.
Picture this. You have a sweetie. She's cool and pretty and smart and funny and all the things you like. She's out on the town no doubt being cool and pretty and smart and funny. And she catches some guy's eye or he catches hers. They talk, laugh, and — whoa! — kiss. Then they kiss some more. Then they head back to his place and do what they want.
From one perspective, she's betrayed your trust. How could she?!? But what is it, exactly, that she did wrong? After standing five feet back from the scene, it is absolutely insane that this could possibly be construed as a bad thing. That this is cheating! Who is she cheating? Two people enjoyed each other's company. And not just any two people but someone you love! She enjoyed someone else's company and had fun. Isn't that awesome? When she comes home, shouldn't you be happy for her? And shouldn't she be able to feel happy and safe and content — rather than guilty and ashamed?
How does this become a crime? Well, because we — myself, I fear, first and foremost — are weak. We take our sweetie's pleasure in someone else as a rejection of ourselves rather than as an affirmation of her (or him, of course). In our weakness and self-doubt, we demand ownership of our so-called love's desires and actions, body and soul.
But that's not love. Love is infinitely forgiving. Love accepts and embraces. Love doesn't judge; it doesn't own. Self-loathing judges and owns. Ego judges and owns. Love, well, loves.
I'm not suggesting all fucking around is groovy. There are sleazy and manipulative guys and gals who are in relationships while enjoying the psycho-sexual company of others. They feel guilty but do it anyway. When questioned about it by an insecure lover, they deny and lie. They even make their presumed sweet pea feel like a lunatic for even thinking that they could be with someone else! And that — that lack of self presence — is reprehensible, or at least distasteful. This is what I want to call cheating.
Cheating is not the act of getting it on with some strange. It's the act of not being present and loving with your avowed partner. To cheat is to believe there's a way around being present, a way around being yourself, a way around the cosmos. Which is downright stupid seeing as everything, alas, is the cosmos. There's no way around it because you are it.
I am not saying that we must be fully honest with our lovers all the time. There is a space for secrets in all of our lives; these secrets can be a source of tremendous power. To be the only one who knows this thing about you can be affirming.
And, often, people confess their sins to their lovers in the name of honesty. But that's bullshit. If you're confessing then you believe you did something wrong and you hope, in declaring it, that you'll be absolved. That just repeats the Catholic regime of dominance and self-loathing.
Which is to say, there are times to keep your mouth shut, for sure. You don't have to tell your girlfriend about every fantasy and flirtation. Guilt should never be your motivation. Me, I'm not very good at keeping my mouth shut and, as I want to be self-present with my lovers, I tend to avoid doing anything that might make me feel I can't be present. I'm a terrible liar. Which is not a brag. In fact, if anything, I see it as a fault. I know people, including women I've dated, who can effectively maintain multiple goings-on, keep that fact from all parties, and feel just fine about it. Power to them. Indeed, I'm impressed by that ability. But I just can't do that. Perhaps I'm too under the yoke of bourgeois bullshit.
My point is not that we should or must tell each other everything. My point is that we should rethink romance as the work, and the will, to be present with one another. My point is that it's insane to feel guilty or judgmental because someone had sex or desires. My point is that we should shed all the bullshit of possession and ownership that our sense of romance demands and that marriage ratifies. Defining romance as absolute sexual and desiring fidelity makes everyone in the relationship weak; it justifies our guilt and our judgement. It makes all of us miserable. True romance, I imagine, is all too rare in that it demands self-presence and acceptance of the other — not judgement, ownership, domination.
Sure, sometimes all of us are weak. Sure, sometimes all of us are insecure, self-doubting, self-loathing. Sure, it's incumbent on the one who messes around elsewhere to be calm, cool, reassuring. But it's also incumbent on the other to be cool, calm, as self-possessed as he or she can. That's what marriage is. It's not saying I'll never bone, or even desire, anyone else. It's: I'll work continuously on being present to, and with, you. Relationships, and marriage, are not about dominating the other person, owning him or her, denying the other desire and frolic. It's about deciding to be fully present to another person. Marriage should be a commitment to excellence, not an act of ownership. (That is, if you feel the need to marry at all.)
I know this is much easier said than done. I know that the forces of weakness dominate our culture as well as our very selves. They sure as shit pervade me. It tells us that cheaters be cheaters and they're sleazy and bad. That it's good and right and normal and healthy to demand the absolute attention of our spouse or lover — all the time — when this is in fact the sickness, the madness, the disease that poisons the well of romance (not to mention life itself).
I say: Let's be done with the whole concept of cheating. People sometimes desire each other; that's not a bad thing. In fact, it seems like a good thing. So rather than ownership, let's seek self-presence with another. Let's make it ok and good to say: I love you and I wouldn't mind kissing that person's neck. There's no but, as it were. Love is and to infinity.
My mood changes. My opinions change, often behind my back (pace Nicholson Baker). Sometimes, I feel edgy or angry but only because I haven't eaten or slept or because that Ambien hasn't worn off. Although what does "only because" even mean? Does my fatigue or hunger generate my mood? Or do they fuel it? Or just create the conditions for its emergence?
Often, I am carried along by the mood of the day — the toothy exuberance of the San Francisco sun irritates me while the low hanging grey of fog and cloud mellows me with melancholy. Then there's traffic and my kid's issues and the toils, trials, and tribulations of dating and working and heaving this ridiculous body through space and time.
I mean, I can wake up and be so freakin’ angry with someone (usually, it's a woman). And I think: Oh, I'm so done with this! I'm ending this relationship! And then I go to the kitchen, make my smoothie, drink my coffee and find my anger has subsided. So she's a little nuts, I think. So what? So am I. My magnanimity trumps my rage — at least for the moment.
Amidst all this pushing and pulling on my entrails and moods, how am I to make a decision? Which mood is right? In which state should I make a decision? How do I make this decision? When I think about it all, it seems a miracle that I ever decide anything. Suddenly, I understand Beckett.
I've been rewatching the achingly brilliant Deadwood for the umpteenth time (my unbridled love and appreciation for this show deserves more space and time and eloquence than this). One ongoing issue is that Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant, has a tendency to fly into a rage, to let his immediate mood dictate his actions and decisions, often fucking things up for those around him. In fact, this is true of many of the characters in the show: they feel something and act in the same moment, usually to everyone's detriment.
But then there's Al Swearengen, played by the brilliant Ian McShane, who doesn't act on his immediate feeling but waits, thinks, strategizes, finds the angle, the best way to play the situation to the advantage of both himself and his community, namely, the camp of Deadwood. (Watch here >) He continually subverts his immediate drives in order to contemplate the angles so that he can make a good decision (whatever that is).
After all, making a decision based on how you feel right now is often silly. The now may be everything but it is not one thing: it is a juncture, a nexus of everything that has happened and everything that could happen. Yes, right this second, you drive me apeshit. But in an hour, a day, a week you may very well delight me again. So how do I make the move to be with you or not? To break up with you or not?
I, for one, tend to avoid decisions. I like to float along, to drift with the flow of what's happening. I applied to one college. I applied to one grad school. I've never applied for a job. But, working for myself, I don't solicit work: I let it come to me. At least this is how I've operated up to now; things can change. My feeling is: I'm not one to try and dictate the wills and forces of the cosmos. I want to slide into the pocket where I fit best. Even my divorce, like all beginnings and ends of my relationships, happened as it happened. I didn't bring it about; nor did she. We did it together.
Needless to say, this strategy doesn't always work out as I find myself at the mercy of events I'd rather not be and in relationships that have long soured. Which sometimes makes me wish I were some alpha dog who knew what he wanted and demanded that or nothing. Ah, but that seems so exhausting to me. It takes so much energy! Such exertion!
No, I prefer to play it loose — although not passive per se, even it often looks and feels and, I suppose, is passive. The fact is I don't trust my moods. I know they come and go. I know they can be dictatorial, demanding their way. And I know that the tenor of one day is not necessarily the tenor of the next. Somehow, I try to let things happen rather than deciding them, if that makes sense.
The day is filled with decisions, little and big — breakfast, which New Yorker article to read, whether to respond to this or that text, whether to shave, to shower, to buzz my balding head or not. I don't have a plan for any of these things. I await a moment that beckons me as much as I beckon it. I picture the banana, its taste and texture, its after effect and I see it play out in and over my body and then, in my actions, I say yay or nay.
It's a funny kind of surrender to the mechanics of the day. Sometimes, it works out well for me. Other times, less so. Sometimes, I miss the opportunities that nudge and wink, kairos passing me by — including financial, sexual, or appetitive delights. But, frankly, often I feel snug and content in the bosom of the universe, even when things go awry. Because what happens happens and amor fati and this is my life happening whether I do this, that, the other thing, or nothing at all.
My son is now 11. Each of his years has brought with it certain delights and challenges. Of course, when he was young, I kept thinking: When I don't have to change his diaper anymore, this whole parenting thing will be easier.
So he outgrows diapers but then it means we often find ourselves with about 30 seconds to find a toilet from the time he declares his need to shit and the time of said shit's arrival. And then I need to wipe his ass.
So I think: when he's older — say, 10 or 11 — this whole parenting thing will be easier. He'll be a person, not just a bundle of tasks. Which has certainly proven true. But now that he's a person and not just a bundle of tasks, he has real person problems — fears, anxieties, considered desires. I wish all I had to do was wipe his ass.
So then I think: I just need to make it until he's 18 and on his own. Then, oh then, this whole parenting thing will get easier. But then I think of my mother and all the things she's endured since her three kids left home, most notably, watching one of them die. Holy fuck, this parenting thing never gets easier.
Alas, there are no thresholds in life. There are no points we pass at which time life just gets easier, gets normal, gets sorted out. I know that I've imagined that adulthood — whatever that is — would bring a certain calm and continuity. I'd know who I was and what I wanted and how to get it.
But, well, I'm 45 and that's just not the case. On the contrary, life has only become more complex, more turbulent. Every day, I face the loss of youth and the onslaught of death and decay — mine and those around me. I have to earn my keep to pay for my kid's needs, the roof over his head, the clothes on his back, the food in his stomach. The humiliations abound.
And with these complexities, anxieties, and humiliations comes flux. Sure, there are stretches of time when I feel calm and composed, sure footed, even wise. And then something happens — I get evicted; the kid starts having nightmares; my girlfriend steps out on me. And, like that, my stretch of calm gives way to vertigo and existential mayhem. I careen. But then, just as I think this careening will never end, a new calm comes over me.
It's nice to imagine that life has thresholds: if only I get to that point, then everything will be ok. It's one way we parse the uncertainty and terror of time. All I need to do is make it to there then, then everything will be great! But that's not the way it is. Life is flux. Yes, there are plateaus but there is no normal, no true, no sure ground. There is no figuring it all out, ever. All there is is the ride, relentless and merciless.
Except perhaps for death. Death sure seems like a threshold, a continuous plateau. Man, I hope so. Can you imagine dying and still not knowing what the fuck is going on? Sartre nailed it: hell is eternal life.
Of course, this is one reason many profess the power of now, of meditation, of being mindful of the present, of what's happening. To try to throw an anchor either forward or backward is to throw yourself off kilter. Ah, but to focus on the now, to be present with what's happening, is to avoid the trapping of threshold thinking and its inevitable letdowns.
But this doesn't eliminate the flux! The flux happens no matter what. You can be the wisest sage in the world, calm and cool and collected, but you're still in the flurry, fray, and flux of it all. But rather than being surprised and disappointed, rather than skipping the now as you await some illusory threshold in the future, you welcome everything and anything else that comes your way — from getting laid to getting cancer. Because you know there's no there there. You know that your plateau is temporary and, like everything else, will give way.
A friend of mine calls this seeing through — seeing through the plateau to the flux around and below and through it. Seeing through the flux and mayhem to see that it's all flux — including yourself. This means not fixing your eyes too hard and sure but letting them see through the facades of certainty and uncertainty to glimpse the beautiful flux of it all.
I loved writing my dissertation. I was 27, San Francisco was beautiful and cheap and full of freaks, and all I had to do all day was think about how best to think about and express this idea I had. It was incredible to inhabit this one space, to build this structure of words, texts, and ideas into a more or less (mostly less, alas) coherent shape. It was like building a house while living in the house; I got to add whatever room, not to mention mood, I wanted next. It was luxurious.
For the few years after that — that was almost 20 years ago — whoa! — I was always writing a book. I never did anything with my books; publication always seemed like a chore, like another job. The joy, for me, was always the writing. I didn't do much editing. But I did inhabit a space for many months, even years.
After my son was born and, at the exact same time, San Francisco became incredibly expensive, I no longer had the luxury of writing books. I didn't have the time or space — physically, emotionally, intellectually. And so I began writing essays, first as a lesser version of a book. But then I came to love the essay — its freedom and brevity, its indulgence of style, its indifference to scholarship, its love of the next move, the next turn of argument or phrase. If writing a book is building a house from the inside out, writing an essay is catching a wave — thrilling, immediate, brief but intense.
Recently, I've started writing a book again. As I began writing, I realized that I had a lot of writing on my hard drive from over the years. So I began to peruse it, dig for it, even read it — including my dissertation (or at least parts of it; I will admit I've never read the thing all the way through).
There are times I don't recognize myself. All these quotes and references! All the pedantic readings of the minutia of a text — the prepositions and punctuation of the titles, the use of this or that metaphor, the chapter breaks. Parts of my damn dissertation are large passages from Deleuze in French! And translated by me! (Much Deleuze wasn't yet translated into English back then.) I don't remember knowing French that well. It's a very a strange experience to be reading things I've written, to recognize the thinking but not the writing.
Or, rather, I don't recognize the mode, mood, tone, and posture of the writer. Who is this guy? He seems so, well, annoying. Smart, yes, and out to prove it at every turn. But so annoying. It's exhausting to read. It must have been exhausting to be me. (It often still is.)
Then I found some essays I wrote in between then and now. And, well, some of them are incredible — so sharp, so insightful, the prose flowing so readily and gracefully from turn to turn of argument. I don't remember writing or thinking that well, ever.
Writing is odd like that. It's both us and not us — like shit, hair, or toenails. We make them but then they enter the world, orphaned (as Socrates would say). And then I come along all the years later as if that writing were my own even though I barely recognize it. I see all these different selves punctuating my timeline. Part of me can remember the energy that propelled such writing and such aggressive turns of argument and I at once sigh and shudder.
And yet I do recognize myself, if not in the prose or even the thinking, then in the ideas. But I've been conspicuously consistent lo these many years in what I think. So much has happened to me and the world around me — kid, divorce, balding, the internet, cell phones. You'd think my basic vision of the world would have changed. And yet when I think and write about things, I come back to this same idea — that language is not symbolic or representational but constructive and creative and that this yields, and demands, a different way of making sense.
But I question these notions of "coming back" and "the same idea." No doubt, there is conceptual consistency. But the way I think about this idea, my approach, my focus, my concern keeps shifting. For instance, I wrote 20 years ago that language is a living system, an emergent system and, at the time, that made sense to me. Now, I'm not so sure what that even means as I find myself trying to picture what language is — a separate organism? A part of our flesh? An element like air, wind, earth, and fire? Or an element like atoms? A spectral agent of concepts and bodies? What was once not even in my purview is now my focus. And this shift in focus shifts the idea — its tenor, its shape, it timbre, some of its implications.
I certainly think differently now. I see many of the same things. But when I was younger, I leaned forward in my seat, literally and figuratively. I noted and parsed every darn thing that came my way. I see it, feel it, in my personal archive. These days, I see all those elements but, leaning back, I am less moved by each detail. This shift in posture and hence focus creates different constellations of things and concepts, a different architecture of the idea. I am less interested in proving how smart I am; I am less interested in every little detail (even if attentive to it). I want something else now, a more resonant sensation. I am thinking the same idea with different parts of my body which, in turn, creates shifts in the idea — and certainly in my writing.
I will say that I repeat myself (in Deleuze's sense of the word — repetition always entails difference). It's not the same idea that I keep regurgitating (well, sometimes it is); it's an idea in motion, taking shape and being shaped as I shift my place in the world and the world itself shifts shape.
Henri Bergson says that a philosopher has an intuition, an image of how things go in this world. And then he, or she, spends the rest of their lives trying to articulate that flash, that intuition that this is how things go. I had, and continue to have, that intuition. There are times, for sure, that I think this idea out of habit. But, mostly, I feel it. I see it. I believe it. I know it.
And as it makes its way through my body and spirit (for lack of better words), and as the world changes around me, this intuition is inflected. I am tempted to say it becomes meatier or more refined. But I'm not sure it's worth trying to quantify it as a more or less. Rather, the idea has shifted its qualities, become something slightly different. Just as light fleeting through the universe bends this was and that with a universe that is infinitely dense, so my ideas are inflected in and through me. (We are all a general theory of relativity.)
In some sense, I've been living in the same house, the same space, since I had that flash and wrote that dissertation nearly 20 years ago. But, in another sense, this house and this space keeps morphing, sometimes so radically that I can't recognize myself. And, while sometimes alienating, it's always beautiful in its way.
Thanks to the madness of San Francisco, I'm looking for a new house to rent. I'm using Craigslist, of course, looking at pictures of my possible new homes. And then I go to these houses and, well, the experience is different. It's not that the pictures were wrong. It's that the pictures are different. They enjoy a different perspective on the scene. How could it be otherwise? A camera, not to mention a landlord, sees a house differently than I see it.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty — I do enjoy saying his name — says that a house is not a house seen from nowhere but a house seen from every possible perspective. This is to say, there is no absolute house, no house outside of it being presented to the world as something to be seen. This is not to say, however, that the house only comes into being by being seen but that the house only exists as something that is seen, that is experienced (by humans or not).
There's a house there. See it? I see it, too. But I see it from here and you see it from there. We are standing in different positions. We are different heights. Our views of the house are therefore necessarily different. And this doesn't even get into how we see, the amalgamation of experiences, ideas, concepts, memories that make sense of this house as well as houses in general.
And yet we're both looking at that house. Which? That one there. Our views of the house are not subjective; they don't only exist in our respective minds and bodies. No, there is a house which we both see. But we see it from different perspectives, literally.
To say there is no house per se is not to say there is no such thing as objectivity. It is only to say there is no such thing as a total or absolute perspective, at least not for any living thing (including humans). There is still objectivity in that we see that object right there.
The being of a thing is always and already run through with perspectives both actual and virtual, existant and possible. There never was, is, or will be a single, unified thing that is that house. The house is lived in, lived through, by bodies, ideas, bugs, wind, sun, ground. The house is multiple — food to termites, water to ants, a certain resistance to wind, home to you and me (and two different homes at that).
Each thing — human and non-human — experiences the house, sees the house, from its perspective. We all see the house, all experience the house. But it's not one thing we experience. Or, rather, it may be one thing but it is one thing that is many things, that is an assemblage (of materials, ideas, experiences, histories, perspectives).
Of course, my perspective is not limited to my precise physical perspective. Part of my ability to experience and see the world is to see from different perspectives. I have seen pictures of houses from all kinds of angles — including blueprints, which really offer a strange perspective. Blueprints are like ghosts of a house, its virtuality, its possibility, the house stripped of nearly all adornment including heat, speed, memory, smell, and touch. And yet they are a perspective that I see, in a sense, when I see the house standing right in front of it.
And part of what makes me something that enjoys perspectives is that I can imagine other perspectives, including yours. After all, I know that we are all stuff of this world, stuff going with stuff, stuff seeing stuff. (We can say that the house sees you as you see it only it sees in a very different way — it creaks, wears, bears weight and activity.) So when I'm standing in front of the house and can't see the back or the roof, I can be pretty sure that there is a back and a roof — not because I know there's a house there but because I know that other things, including me at another time and place, could see the house from there.
My perspective is not my subjectivity. I may have a subjective experience seeing that house. It may remind me of a feeling I had in a camp cabin when I was seven; it may smell to me like my grandmother's closet. But the house I'm seeing is not strictly speaking subjective. No, that house is an object (although it has its perspective and subjectivity) that I see, you see, the wind blows against, the termites eat.
We can say, then, that there is no absolute objectivity just as there is no absolute subjectivity. I am a thing in the world who has private experiences, sure, but I am still a thing that exists with other things. Those things and I go together, forging different kinds of events that more often than not are aparallel (I may be overwhelmed by the sight of that ocean but the ocean is barely nudged by my gaze.) But, in any case, we collide, attract, repel, touch each other (vision is a kind of touch) — we affect and, perhaps, effect each other.
For Henri Bergson, it's silly to ask whether there is a true house or if it only exists in my mind. That is a subject-object dichotomy that is abstract, existing only as an idea for philosophers who ask silly questions. (He doesn't use the word silly; he says "false.") It's absurd to ask, Is that house there? Of course that house is there. Look at the damn thing! And it's equally absurd to then ask: Is the house there absolutely? Who would ask such a question? Who would answer such a question? Only philosophers asking false questions, thinking outside of time, outside of experience, outside of life. (Many philosophers would echo this sentiment — Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, and Nietzsche, among others. In fact, Nietzsche calls those who think outside of life nihilists.)
And so, for Bergson, everything is an image. Or we could say everything is matter — to Bergson, the two are interchangeable because matter is always presented to us, to the world, as something to be perceived. It's goofy to ask whether there is matter absolutely or if we experience the world hermetically, locked in our subjective senses. I see the house; you see the house. We see the same house but we see it differently. This doesn't efface the being of the house. Or, rather, it does efface the being of the house by putting that being in motion — by transforming it into a becoming.
All things — including human beings and houses — are of this world, things going with things. We are neither absolute nor removed. We are of the world — multiple, dispersed, temporal. We are perspectives that are always morphing, lava lamp like.