Thoughts on Self

Textmates, Presence, and Agonizing Grasshoppers

The Great Masturbator (1929) by Salvador Dalí (Source: Wikimedia)

Do you have a textmate? She asked me with a particular mix of nervousness and longing that permeated many of the conversations we shared, regardless of which language we were trying to engage in. Sitting on the sturdy tiled cement railings in front of the house in the hours of the day where no one would be caught dead in the smoldering indoor heat without the blasting chill of an air-con or the intense desire to nap, I contemplated the question and the unfamiliar phrase that I was surely misunderstanding. After that conversation I would hear it casually dropped in teleseries, read in pdf documents about the culture I was desperately trying to understand, and discussed with the language teacher who always indulged us with lessons on slang when someone would bring it to class. The description seemed simple enough, someone one texts with regularity, but the implications of being such meant something much more intimate, even if there wasn’t anything explicitly raunchy between the two participants. No, I responded, thinking about how much I would enjoy having someone to text with, even if we were hundreds of miles apart.

Sitting on the cool tile floor as a pervasive heat permeates from the ceiling, I notice a pair of king fishers bouncing along branches before diving out of view into the open barrel of water they usually use to bathe. My cat, equally as interested in the activity, perches herself on the chair with her head and front paws leaning on the the slatted glass of the jalousie window. A thought drifts into my mind about objects and futures and the alignment of celestial bodies. When space and time bends around two objects, is it even possible for them to meet and become one? It seems a bit absurdist, to acknowledge the way gravity pulls two objects together, how a series of events can lead to conversations about God and passions and what one wants from a partner, as though we can ever actually want something when it seems like it’s just the bending that decides our fate. I roll over on the blue black floor and place my head on my crossed arms, my eyes close and I can feel a warmth now emanating from my own cheeks and temples, anxious fears of permanent solitude.

“Hey.” Those words happen first every so often until they mark the beginning of each day, a notion to where one’s first thoughts are, or rather with whom those initial waking moments are intertwined with. Is that how you know someone is a textmate? When you wake up and want to ask them how they woke up and what their feelings are in this moment and what their plans are for the day and how you had this weird dream about them where you were both in their car driving down roads familiar only to them in the middle of the night with hands hanging out the window caught by the wind before pulling over, tossing clothes off, and diving into the moonlit sea? The solitude vanishes only in appearance. I stop paying attention to the way the stars shift with each night, my writing drips with daydreams rather than realities, I even start to tell friends about how important certain friendships can be in inspiring me to tap away at the keyboard or scribble in my journal or post unnecessarily long captions on social media structured merely for photos.

Am I forgetting who I am or where I am or when I am? Space and time is confusing like that, never quite revealing itself, like the withdrawal of objects not only from other objects, but also from the qualities they animate at any specific spatiotemporal location. One of the guiding principles in my life is the need to be present, to live in the moment, to release attachment (particularly from futures and pasts). Presence. The word alone holds some kind of power over me, drawing me into myself, removing me from the relations of Self from the reality of the interconnected yet independence of all things. I was asked recently about how I conceived of reality and death and souls, a topic that seemed to have vanished from conversation for far too long in recent months. My mouth opened and thoughts tumbled out like rushing water collapsing on rounded stones in the jungle. We’re all just little objects, assemblages of other objects too, with our relations distorting all the other objects like the earth and moon in a gravitational dance or our galaxy expanding from some other bend in the Universe or the microbiome in my stomach folding from whatever gets added to my assemblage, which is just a bundle of qualities rather than atoms and strings adding up to a greater whole. God is like the Universe which is just Oneness, another assemblage of objects with a finitude of knowledge, inexhaustible relationships, surrealist metaphysics.

Probably the most well known surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí and his works have manifested into pure kitsch, the object oriented nature of his metaphysics lost to the teenagers who purchase his prints to hang on dorm walls. “Perceived as fussily perfectionist illustrations of the dream world, Dalí’s work is taken to as evidence of, among other things, the movement’s failure to guard itself against the spreading ooze of mass culture and its clichéd notions about art, creativity and genius.”[1] However, one only needs to take a few moments to reflect on the object-oriented approach towards his thought where no distinction is made between the human and non-human in any of his works. In this regard, perhaps the closest one can come to a contemporary analogue would be that of Levi Bryant’s democracy of objects which ‘entails that we cannot treat one kind of being as the ground of all other beings.’[1] In so much as we are all objects with finitude and withdrawal, so are the objects within his paintings, the painting itself, Salvador Dalí, and even the room the painting hangs in (or the room you are sitting in when looking at his work).

For example, in the Great Masturbator we have the profile of a head with no mouth, the image of his most recent muse Gala (who has her own complex story of love and friendship), the bleeding legs of a male crotch, a featureless male is frustrated in his embrace with an inert female, the straight line of their shadow eloquently testifying to their separation, and a large grasshopper attached to the Daliesque profile in the place where his mouth should be, leaving him unable to defend itself or have any enjoyment. In a poem written after the completion of the painting, Dalí described the anguish inflicted on the self-portrait head by the locust or grasshopper:

Encounter in this still too bright evening hour
While the membrane which covers his mouth completely 
Toughens under the agony of the enormous locust 
Which had been gripped and glued to it 
For five days and five nights.[2]

‘The poetic autonomy of things,’ as Dalí claimed art should be, characterizes the notion that not only are the objects of the painting sharing relations with each other, but they also relate to both the painter and beholder.

There’s an agony in the silence, but also a presence. Where am I in the painting? Solitude, compassion, daydreams, pictures tucked in books, postcards read and reread until their words are committed to memory. In a sense, I’m always hoping to have a textmate, to escape reality every so often with a few messages here and there. While at the same time, as I sit here with a still phone in my pocket, it’s clear I’m just like the figure standing distant at the back of the painting. I’m looking into the horizon, hands raised in a welcoming fashion, connected but interrelated to the chaos of grasshoppers. In the agony of the five days and nights, daydreams fade into daymares and I pray for some kind of release, knowing nothing lasts forever and objects bend more than they connect. When you call, I still answer with eager excitement, when your name appears in messages I still smile with joy, when I close my eyes you still stand there before me with open arms on the other side of the horizon. Arum lilies, hikes through the jungle, clean houses, coffee shop noises, hand massages, overflowing bookshelves.

“With a drama feeling calmer and it’s a comma in the storm
Speakers are crying like a forest in the rain
I was so alone with my thoughts and my pain
And the darkness closed like a mouth on a wire”

[1] Roger Rothman (2016) Object-Oriented Surrealism: Salvador Dalí and the Poetic Autonomy of Things, Culture, Theory and Critique, 57:2, 176–196

[2] Descharnes R., The World of Salvador Dali, New York, 1962, trans. from Dali’s Lafemme visible, Paris, 1930