"Its tragic dissolution is Wagner’s, a quarter of a century later: a potion that, rather than making something possible, heightens impossibility, loosening the tie to life. The fluid that Brangaene gives the hapless pair does not just reveal (and therefore unleash) a feeling. It undoes a world. Love subtracts them instantly, totally, from civil society, from normal ties and obligations, to cast them into a vertiginous solitariness (rather than a romantic solitude à deux) that brings on an inexorable darkening of consciousness. Where are we? asks Isolde at the beginning of the opera. Where am I? she asks at the end of Act One, after they have drunk the potion, as the boat lands in Cornwall. The King is here, someone says. What king? says Tristan. And Tristan does not know where he is when he awakens in Act Three. What herds? What castle? What peasants? he asks – as his loyal retainer Kurwenal explains that he has been brought home to Brittany, his own kingdom, that he is lying on the rampart of his own castle. Love is an antignosis, a de-knowing. Each act begins with a tormented, paralysing, anguished waiting by one for the other, followed by the longed-for arrival – and concluding with other, unanticipated arrivals, which are not only disruptive but, to the lovers, barely comprehensible. What duty? What shame?
Passion means an exalted passivity. Act One opens with Isolde on a couch, her face buried in the cushions (Wagner’s stage direction), and Act Three has Tristan in a coma at the beginning and supine throughout. As in Parsifal, there is a great deal of lying down and many fervent appeals for the surcease of oblivion. If the opera ended after its first two acts, one could regard this pull of the horizontal in Tristan and Isolde, the paeans to night, the dark, the equating of pleasure with oblivion and of death with pleasure, as a most extravagant way of describing the voluptuous loss of consciousness in orgasm. Whatever is being said, or being done on the stage, the music of the Act Two encounter is a thrillingly unequivocal rendering of an ideal copulation. (Thomas Mann was not wrong when he spoke of the opera’s ‘lascivious desire for bed’.) But Act Three makes it clear that the eroticism is more means than end, a platform for the propaganda against lucidity; that the deepest subject is the surrender of consciousness.”
Images from Faustine Steinmetz AW14 collection
Photography: Pierrick Mouton
Stylist: Nina Walbecq
Model: Fanny Kisbajcsi
-Hélène Cixous in conversation with Mireille Calle-Gruber, from Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing
*"Loving not knowing. Loving: not knowing." Also read: durgapolashi on John Cassavetes’s Love Stream and love as the act of not knowing.
Two weeks ago, I cried behind the cash register at work when I didn’t get the job I really wanted. The store was empty, thankfully. My best friend was surprised when I told her about this two weeks later. That was the first time I evoked resentment to describe my feelings towards New York. I would not have cried if this was anywhere else in the world. This city defines you by your ambition more than any other city I know. I resented myself for losing track of how what I wanted out of living in New York gave way to what I have to do to stay in New York. The New York that has been mythologized, romanticized, framed, eulogized, aphorized, dreamed, and now resented. But that day, I was too tired to fight it. Someone, somewhere, has already written the story about how crying in public completes their New York story.
At some point, rejection becomes more like reaffirmation of the status quo rather than fresh burn marks. It’s nothing personal, the mantra goes. But I’m still not grasping how could being turned down for what I want to do can be separated from who I am. There are factors beyond your control. But what if there was one more thing I could’ve done? One more person I could’ve reached out to? One different thing I could’ve said? Now it is becoming harder to tell whether I really wanted a job or I really wanted the job I thought I would get. It is also very hard to take consolation in the fact that getting interviews after interviews is in itself an achievement. In spite of the perspective from the kind and wise voices around me, I don’t know how to unsee the process as a zero-sum game yet.
One of this week’s two bad-news emails tried to tell me nepotism won. It is not every day that someone finds the time and courtesy to remember losers, too, have the right to know that they lost. To quote Chris Kraus again, “Reality is in the details and even if you can predict what’s going to happen you can’t imagine how you’ll feel.” I processed the joy a second quicker than the grief this time.
I try to see everything for its best. I turn often to Lucy Morris’s Theory of Third, because it speaks to me tendency for self-rationalizing balance. It goes like this:
If the three central components of your daily life are your job, friends, and romantic preoccupations, you are allowed to fuck up at one of the three at a time. If you are happy with your community and how you spend your days, it’s okay to act impulsively in love. If your relationships of all kinds are fairly stable, you are permitted some imprudence with work.
In my case, however, the practical theory is inversed. It seems like I don’t often get to choose which third to fuck up. Something is almost always already, preemptively fucked up. So eventually I revised the theory: I am allowed to leave the fucked-up third alone, as long as I don’t also fuck up the other two and collapse into a puddle of fucked-upness. The caveat is that I may be reckless in the maintenance of positives. For example, I can push myself very hard at swimming, prepare dinner slowly and even-handedly, clean obsessive-compulsively. Now it is about maintaining the positives as prevention, rather than as a condition for negatives.
After work on Friday, I went swimming and grocery shopping, two of my favorite activities in the world, and which keep me balanced and content. I recently, finally joined the YMCA (one thing that would make me feel cringingly American is calling it the Y) after beginning to miss being in water—a life-hack way to be transported to an alternative way of being*, if you, like me, are also compulsively drawn to finding visible ways to disappear. But it was the sauna that quieted any reluctance to pay a monthly fee I am not even sure I could afford right now (in the way accountants would advise). The sauna would elevate the new routine from a purely physical one to a spiritual one.
The last time I was in a sauna after swimming, I was 11. I used to take swimming lessons at our club (private clubhouse is not an uncommon amenity of Hong Kong residences), whose locker rooms are equipped with inviting, well-maintained sauna rooms. One day, someone had the bright idea to suggest that we could change in the sauna after shower. We would be able to dry off quickly, avoid fighting the dampness in the changing room, and stay warm. That was a stand-out memory of locker room solidarity and the better memory our first foray into the pleasure of extremes, as people and as athletes. The link between swimming and sauna was also ritualized this way.
I always, by instinct, took the upper corner in the sauna, folding my body in three and hugging my knees. I took the corner tonight, too. There was only me, and the oppressive sensory experience pulled my focus towards only one direction. Here was childhood again. The sharp, clean aroma of cedar wood. The privacy of the dim light. The containment of a closed chamber. The then-perverse logic of pleasure under heat (like whiskey, like spicy food). All of which signified, back then, the benign, sophisticated, mysterious territories of adulthood. Like trying on our mothers’ lipsticks and mink coats, our trespassing into the sauna was another manifestation of our awareness of the privilege of grown-ups to take care of oneself (to the annoyance of actual grown-ups using the facility). It was driven by pragmatism. We bragged to our mothers for being clever, prompting them to see ourselves differently from our age. I wonder how or if I would do or feel anything differently now if I hadn’t learned the difference between bragging and making someone proud.
*James Nestor articulates this well in this piece on deep diving: “If you choose to dive deeper, the transformation will grow more profound until you bear only a passing resemblance to your terrestrial form… The ocean has different rules, and often requires a completely different mindset to truly comprehend.”
"I see myself and my life each day differently. What can I say? The facts lie. I have been Don Quixote, always creating a world of my own. I am all the women in the novels, yet still another not in the novels. It took me more than sixty diary volumes until now to tell about my life. Like Oscar Wilde I put only my art into my work and my genius into my life. My life is not possible to tell. I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations. I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles. I weep when I find others play them for me. My real self is unknown. My work is merely an essence of this vast and deep adventure. I create a myth and a legend, a lie, a fairy tale, a magical world, and one that collapses every day and makes me feel like going the way of Virginia Woolf. I have tried to be not neurotic, not romantic, not destructive, but may be all of these in disguises.
It is impossible to make my portrait because of my mobility. I am not photogenic because of my mobility. Peace, serenity, and integration are unknown to me. My familiar climate is anxiety. I write as I breathe, naturally, flowingly, spontaneously, out of an overflow, not as a substitute for life. I am more interested in human beings than in writing, more interested in lovemaking than in writing, more interested in living than in writing. More interested in becoming a work of art than in creating one. I am more interesting than what I write. I am gifted in relationship above all things. I have no confidence in myself and great confidence in others. I need love more than food. I stumble and make errors, and often want to die. When I look most transparent is probably when I have just come out of the fire. I walk into the fire always, and come out more alive. All of which is not for Harper’s Bazaar.
I think life tragic, not comic, because I have no detachment. I have been guilty of idealization, guilty of everything except detachment. I am guilty of fabricating a world in which I can live and invite others to live in, but outside of that I cannot breathe. I am guilty of too serious, too grave living, but never of shallow living. I have lived in the depths. My first tragedy sent me to the bottom of the sea; I live in a submarine, and hardly ever come to the surface. I love costumes, the foam of aesthetics, noblesse oblige, and poetic writers. At fifteen I wanted to be Joan of Arc, and later, Don Quixote. I never awakened from my familiarity with mirages, and I will end probably in an opium den. None of that is suitable for Harper’s Bazaar.
I am apparently gentle, unstable, and full of pretenses. I will die a poet killed by the nonpoets, will renounce no dream, resign myself to no ugliness, accept nothing of the world but the one I made myself. I wrote, lived, loved like Don Quixote, and on the day of my death I will say: ‘Excuse me, it was all a dream,’ and by that time I may have found one who will say: ‘Not at all, it was true, absolutely true.’”
—Anaïs Nin declining to be profiled in Harper’s Bazaar, from her diaries
I don’t have the technical vocabulary to pin-point the details, but Ballet School’s debut album The Dew Lasts an Hour is a pretty neat intersection and summary of music I’ve grown to love in the past two to three years. It came out with perfect timing, like how these first crisip, cool days is wrapping up summer.