The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.
♦ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
I deeply regret losing the fire of mathematics. I am not so far away from it now that the time when calculation came naturally doesn’t foreclose a clear, bright memory; the joy of accomplishing acts of pure reason did certainly burn like stars on the page, as well as in the brain. Still more I miss how it used to be possible for numbers to act as ciphers for more emotive and illusive signifiers. I used to derive equations that spoke to me of conflict, of the complex relationships between adults and children, of the yearning that emanated from the undisclosed x, the loneliness of the y; and, of course, of secret shames that harboured deep in the recesses of an analytical but also very superstitious mind.
My relationship to faith has been fairly cordial, though progressively more distant, since about the time that math and I began to part ways, but Joyce is not just capturing a guilty psyche riddled with paranoia here—there is something in this passage about the affective registers that lurk in all of human cognition. In the spaces between the most ostensibly unsentimental activity, passion exists. To be brought to interpret tenor and tone, even in the most monochromatic, matt surface of proofs, this shows something that elevates human accomplishment and has the capacity to suggest that a greater pattern governs the whole of mortal endeavour. A lesser intelligence begets the possibility of more powerful observation. Where and how is it localized? As we solve our affairs what is left in the margin? Does the remainder rest, and how is it evaluated?
The answers remain cold and disordered, alienated from heaven.
[A] book about the attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life. As that fantasy has become more fantastic, with less and less relation to how people can live—its attrition manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival.
♦ Laren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
There is reason to take issue with the historical present. That we have gradually, inexorably, been becoming detached from the genuine prospect of realistic achievement of a collectively entertained (and entertaining) fantasy life seems almost cruel in itself to acknowledge. The negative injunction—”don’t look!”—could rightly and more reliably be expected to emanate from an internal source rather than an external one. We do not desire to examine the very tenuous foundations on which we are so hastily and compellingly erected from. The project of living today in the Western world almost requires a blindness complicit with the unachievable nature of our ambitions; ambitions which are manufactured against the impetus of an ostensibly easily accessed sense of reason, along with features of social and political realities that we willfully attenuate to the point of polite dinner conversation. Actual, meaningful, cognitive assessment of the terms, conditions, cost, reliability, and plausibility of the models we project outward and upward from ourselves, on which we base life changing decisions and evaluate one another in society, can feasibly be apprehended to be inherently repulsive. Too much of our sense of coherence and intelligibility relies upon a hope that may in fact be toxic to any real form of stability. The point that Berlant hammers so deftly is one of precarity: as supporting and driving institutions continue to shrink from the business of real service to a larger community, and instead mobilize people as statistics which serve the bottom line of not even the 1% but rather composite, covetous corporate and national entities, the prospect of success becomes hazardous. It may never arrive. It likely won’t, not recognizably. The “good life” is so utterly contingent in a world with so few genuine supports that its mirage may be better understood as a form of abuse; but where does it emanate from? The sources at this point are inscribed on inner spaces as deeply as on outer. The “situation tragedy” which Berlant invokes lurks at the periphery of most modern lives, as a pessimism that acts almost as a force unconsciously moves in to inhabit the regions of projected futurity, spaces that were once mediated by a sustained and nourishing sense of hope. Perhaps we should ignore the injunction despite the allure of ignorance, and look to reevaluate our dreams.