I’m not sure how, exactly, to write this post nor how to put into words what I’m trying to express. It all sounds so trite when I put it to paper. I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with me for thinking this is a sort of revelation or something wrong with me for having this sort of revelation. I think it’s an experience of what Lacan calls the “real” in one of its variations, but who knows? Every so many years I have a sort of “revelation”, not unlike Pascal’s horror before the infinite, that hits me like a kick in the gut and that sends me reeling. I’ve never fully understood it, still struggle to understand it, and it sounds trite and obvious when I put it into words (interpretation: I feel very vulnerable talking about this). It happened, perhaps, for the first time when I was 14 or 15 years old; though I remember experiences as far back as kindergarten. I had recently moved to a new town and my friend was coming to visit me that day. I was very excited to see my friend as I was lonely in this new town. As I recall, at the time, I was reading Sartre’s Nausea or Heidegger’s Being and Time. As I was standing at the locker to get my books between classes, it suddenly hit me that as he was driving he was experiencing and thinking entirely different things than I was experiencing at that moment. We were somehow a part of the same world, yet entirely different and disparate worlds at the same time. And then it washed over me. This wasn’t simply true of me and my friend, but of everyone in that bustling hallway, everyone on the road, everyone on the planet. All of us are seeing a different world, interpreting things differently, noticing different things, and are filled with different desires, longings, worries, anxieties, loves, hatreds, and all the rest. We seem to occupy the same world, but really it’s a pluraverse, not a world.
I was overwhelmed to the point I could hardly breath. The world that had once thought was common or the same was really a set of– as Deleuze says –divergent series without any sort of overarching unity. A trite observation. Sure, I had known it. I still know it. Yet what was different about this traumatic experience was that I really felt and experienced it. I experienced the dissolution or the collapse of the world in this plurality of perspectives. I felt it’s collapse into a chaotic kaleidoscope without unity.
I mean really, how do we get through the day and “the” world with each other without working on the assumption that we’re living in the same world, seeing the same things, and interpreting them in the same way? Isn’t this really the fundamental level of fantasy? That the world is a shared world? Let’s begin from the premise that the fundamental condition for any social relation is trust. The day to day way we relate to others is truly extraordinary. We can’t read their minds, so we don’t really know what to expect from them. Look at how trusting we are! We drive through green lights without any thought of the other drivers at the four way intersection ramming us. We hand over money and credit cards without any worry that our change and the card will be returned. We trust and we trust because we attribute a certain sameness to both the world and intentions. But really this is a fantasy. There isn’t a sameness of world and intentions. There’s just this pluriverse of perspectives without anything that these perspectives converge on. If I were to put it in “Lacanese” or Lacanian terms, I would say that I had had an experience of the non-existence of the big Other… That there isn’t, to put it crudely, some sort of unified “world code” that we all share and act according to. If this experience is so traumatic and disturbing, then this is because it undermines that fantasy, that certitude, then it was because it undermined the unity of the world or what I could expect from others… That I could expect anything at all or that I could know at all what I am for others (Lacan says the fundamental question of desire is “what am I for the Other). If it is true that the big Other does not exist, that there’s nothing but a “pluriverse”, then there can be no answer to that question.
Maybe I’m exaggerating. Yet it hit me again the other day. I was thinking about all of the frustrations I experience with various issues at my college and I was taking these issues to be real. [Again, it’s frustrating writing about this because I can’t quite get the words out or around it]. Maybe it’s because I was thinking about Stoicism and the Stoic thesis that it is not the world that causes our anguish and psychological suffering, but our judgments, desires, and interpretations of the world. Change how you think, the Stoics say, and your emotional response to the world will change. And boom. There was the horrific swooning again, the nausea: there are as many “colleges” at my college as there are faculty, staff, students, and administrators. They all see a different college. A faculty member, I thought to myself, could go through their entire career at the college without “seeing” any of the things I see or being frustrated with any of the things I’m frustrated with or without seeing any of the problems I see. In some way, I thought to myself, I am choosing the problems and frustrations that anguish me. They aren’t “out there”, they’re me.
I know. I know. I sound like a trite and vulgar relativist, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not trying to say that it’s all relative, because I ardently believe that problems are real. I’m just saying that the two of us can inhabit the same world and nonetheless “see” entirely different things. We can even be talking to each other about these things, thinking that we’re talking about the same things, while we’re nonetheless talking about divergent things. There we were, having this discussion for years, only to wake up one day and realize that we were never talking about the same things and that the sense that we understood each other was all a fantasy or an illusion. The only thought that gives me more indigestion is the thought of the infinity of the universe; and, I suspect, these thoughts aren’t unrelated. No doubt this is why Lacan cautioned against understanding in the clinic. Nothing is harder than listening, really listening. We think we’re listening, but 99% of the time what we’re really doing is filtering the words of the other through our “interpretive scheme”. “Understanding”, Lacan said, is always filtered through the lens of the imaginary, of that sense that we’re alike and that we’re the same and that we mean the same things. But it’s not like that. The most difficult thing is to hear, to really hear. Nothing is harder, I think, than really hearing the otherness of others… Their universes.
And that’s really the tragedy of it all. That’s the anguish of it all. We always find evidence for our interpretation of others and the world. We always find confirmation. So maybe this is what interests me in the moment of this experience: not so much the moment where the Other dissolves and I encounter its non-existence in a pluriverse without rule or unity; but rather that moment where the pluriverse “closes up” and the illusion of unity and a shared universe that is the same returns. My relation to the universe is “filtered”, it is seen through a frame– Lacan said that “fantasy is the frame of reality” –but the strange thing is that we can’t see our frames. Our frames and the world are experienced as identical. “That’s just what the world is”, we say, not noticing that the world is always filtered through a system of desires, traumas, and experiences. How then to really hear and how can we intervene in the frames of others, when they’re interpretive filters or frames always find evidence for their interpretations? I’m haunted by these questions.