March 15, 2013

You Are Your Accidents

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What is the issue?

I don’t know squat about tarot, tea leaves, or the I Ching. But, that said, I get it. Everything we do is necessarily constitutive of who we are. Or, rather, it’s constitutive of how we go.

This may seem like a pedantic distinction but everything turns on it. Because if you are who you are then what happens to you doesn’t really matter. Your being transcends the accidents of life. Yes, I slept with someone else but I, I am faithful.  I can hear Paul Scofield’s Sir Thomas Moore in my head (in A Man For All Seasons).

But if you are how you go, well, then everything you do constitutes you. Accidents are no longer accidents. And not because everything happens for a reason — that’s theological silliness — but because everything that happens is the world, is you. To sound like a douche bag, ontology is not a teleology but a teleonomy.

What makes this hard to grasp, hard to believe, is that this everything includes things that happen to you. If you were a being who just was who you were, then you’d be an absolute self that enjoyed a clear distinction between you and everything around you. But if you are constituted by how you go, this going includes when someone steps on your toe or hits your car or when you get the stomach flu twice in two weeks.

I know women who say, I’m just not lucky when it comes to men. This seems to assume that luck is something other than what they are. I’m a good person so why don’t I meet the right person? But the thing is: You are what you do. If you’re not meeting someone it’s not luck; it’s what you’re doing.  (Maybe the thing you’re doing is assuming you need to meet the right person and that you’re somehow unlucky.) What drives me crazy about this claim is that it blames the universe while absolving the woman of all responsibility. But you are the universe! You are your luck!

This gets harder to think about when we consider sickness. We might be inclined to say that if we are our accidents that we somehow deserve our accidents — such as, say, cancer — or that they’re our own fault. But that is not what I am saying at all. There is no deserve just as there is no reason. We go as we go. We are this way of going in the world and this way of going goes like this. This this changes over time. And this this is complex and multifarious. There is no agenda; and it’s not all causal. You are a cog within a cosmic engine. The world exceeds you, always, flowing endlessly. You might need to change which cog you are or which flow you’re in.

If we are as we go, then we are not Is (how does one write the plural of I?) who act on the world. We live in what’s called the middle voice — neither active (I fly) nor passive (I was flown) but at once active and passive, neither active nor passive. I’m told Classical Greek has a middle voice.

Anyway, back to tea leaves and tarot and the I Ching. If you are everything that happens to you, this includes the tea leaves in the bottom of your cup, the cards someone draws, and the way the sticks fall.

The thing about those things is that they demand keen interpretive skills. None of them gives an answer as if there were a definitive future waiting for you. It says here to wear your hair in a bun Then you’ll meet your man! This is not a teleology, after all; your life does not move towards a certain end (well, other than the obvious one). It just moves — with a kind of purpose just not a known, certain, or pre-defined purpose (ergo, a teleonomy or what Kant calls purposeful purposelessness).  A shrink does the same thing as a tea reader but has tons more data to work with. All a tea reader has is some soggy tea leaves.

His task is the task of all of us all the time: to make sense of the accidents we are. (And then figure out what to do. And then do it. It’s a relentless process.)

David Woodard and Burroughs standing in front of a dreamachine invented by Brion Gysin; Burroughs collaborated with Gysin in popularizing the literary cut-up technique, with which he wrote The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.
David Woodard and Burroughs standing in front of a dreamachine invented by Brion Gysin; Burroughs collaborated with Gysin in popularizing the literary cut-up technique, with which he wrote The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.

William Burroughs would cut and fold his writing, along with newspapers and other novels and such, and reassemble them in different ways. This was his dominant writing mode; his writing tools were a typewriter and a pair of scissors. See his essay here. Now, there’s a lot to say about the cut ups. But one big realization I had was that while the cut ups introduce chance into the writing process, they are not about chance per se but about navigating that chance. Which is to say, the cut up method demands discernment. After all, Burroughs wouldn’t keep each and every cut up. He’d select which ones to keep and then how to use them (which, in its way, is another kind of cut up). The cut up method is life condensed.

Head VI (1948), Francis Bacon
Head VI (1948), Francis Bacon

I just stubbed my toe. That happened. But, feh, who cares? Now, were I to stub it again or bump my head into the cabinet or drop a plate, I’d begin wondering about my clumsiness. I’d stop, slow down, take heed, shift my rhythm with the world. Years ago, I cut up my hands badly three times in as many months — a knife while cutting vegetables; a broken glass while washing dishes; a fist through the window to deter a crackhead on the fire escape. These may have all been accidents but clearly I needed to change my way of going.

Francis Bacon would begin his paintings by smearing paint on the canvas with a broom. He’d then work with what was there, put it to use. “All painting is an accident,” he said. “But it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.”

This, it seems to me, is the trick. Knowing how to read the flow of accidents that I am. Which is hard. Often, I feel like I’m just looking at some shmutz at the bottom of my cup. TC mark

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