(This is a short story written for a competition. Discussion about love and meaning. Enjoy.)
Hi. Ben here,
I just want to talk to you for a bit. Not for anything substantial really. Still, I’ve been thinking about these things for quite some time now, although I’ve never gotten around to saying them to you. I don’t think I’d ever send them out if not for this occasion; why exactly I am doing so still eludes me.
First, just to clarify, this whole suicide business has nothing to do with you. And in this letter I do not aim to leave my last testament on the subject, so to speak. Frankly, I still don’t really understand why I did decide to kill myself. It’s all the more puzzling for me, because, you see, I’ve never understood why people hanged themselves or cut themselves. This is not because of (at least, I’d like to believe) a sociopathic lack of empathy, but mostly due to this inexplicable horror that seizes me whenever I contemplate death. I’ve become rather jealous of Christians, you see, because eternal damnation is at least better than oblivion; maybe that’s just my wishful thinking. I’ve tried my fair share of religion, but it’s not as if one has any choice in these kinds of matters. Scary, isn’t it?
I don’t intend to show how pitiful I am in this letter. It is somewhat against my, how do you call it, policy? to talk about death, since every attempt to talk about death runs the peril of being too false and dramatic. The same goes with love letters—though I’m not exactly sure whether I can really call what I’ve written a “love letter”. Whenever we try to approach Love and Death, we invariably lose ourselves in a sea of clichés, lies, and exaggerations, because, and this terrifies me, what shines the brightest shines most blindingly, what lies closest to us, what endows our lives with meaning, is also the farthest away.
I, however, can’t resist the temptation to write. No matter how futile an affair may be, it is human nature do it anyway. Foolish human nature, that’s for sure, but still quite admirable. But before anything, here’s a small request. Please don’t assign any responsibility to yourself. You, Helen Hofstadter, are by no means responsible for Ben Francis’s death. If you still feel terribly sorry for me, at least accept my apology. Please try to understand.
Do you remember how I would alternate between care and irony towards you? One day I would buy you some gifts and another day mock the story you wrote for English? These were all calculated. The coward in me did not want to expose his love under the light of your gaze, because your disapproval would invalidate his entire existence, so to speak, since the beautiful Goddess is also the cruelest judge. However, at the same time, waves of passion assaulted what barriers of indifference I erected—the irrational Ben attacked mercillessly the cowardly Francis. I needed to express myself. It became a biological necessity. But I was at the same time too afraid to do so. I resorted, therefore, to a kind of golden mean by throwing these inconspicuous signs that an attentive observer might potentially decipher, whilst making sure that it is so inconspicuous that no sane person—other than me, the deliverer of these signs—would spot what the signs pointed to. After appending this extreme tactfulness onto my actions, I begin also to take note of yours, hoping, like some ancient astrologist, that somehow the secrets of life, the words of God, our destiny, would reveal themselves to me in these signs. At first it seemed as if you were of the same state of mind as me. I intuited inconsistencies that worked themselves out as signs of your infatuation. The discovery brought forth great joy and excitement, but it was also the beginning of my despair, for it came to my realization that, because of the nature of the operation (its “inconspicuousness”), everything can be interpreted as anything—indifference could mean infatuation, infatuation, indifference, and both could signify a myriad of other moods. Behind all action, there was a disconcerting blankness. I therefore went no further. To approach you without certainty was, for me, a leap into Hell or Heaven without knowing which of them lies on the other side of the rift; I forwent salvation to avoid damnation.
This, since then, has been a recurrent nightmare of mine. Did I fail to seize the opportunity? Did I, in my cravenness, lose paradise? I devoted pages upon pages of analysis to no avail; a terrible fog surrounded my investigations. The more I thought about it, the more I arrived at a contradiction. Perhaps, what I really want is to feel the regret and pain of the missed opportunity; perhaps I, somehow, craved only the struggle in coming up with a conclusion, whereas the conclusion itself, perhaps, is unimportant to me. To fail to arrive at a conclusion may precisely be my wisdom, for in certainty the aura of life fades.
I dreamt of you, a lot. Almost every day. Not really. More like two or three times a week. (There’s always a tendency to exaggerate in these kinds of matters.) Upon waking up, there’s this uncontrollable urge to write, as if the dream is spilling through my hand like sand, and, somehow miraculously, words may allow whatever has passed, continue to be. And often (not often, but once a few months—though not so often either, more like once a year) I would weep upon waking up, sometimes from the irreversible falling out of the ideal dream-world, but weep also, sometimes, from the unbearable happiness that the dreams brought to the phenomenal-world with your presence. I wept there, always, on my large, blue bed, filled with the ephemeral; I would look to my side, only to find that it is empty.
Then comes the need to understand. I would lock myself on my chair, set a timer for two hours, and try to write this letter to you to make sense of the whole thing. I never finished the letter. I went through draft after draft of the same material, but the result is invariably the same: lying on the page are black masses of melodramatic, awkward, unoriginal phrases stringed together by grammar, insufferably bad. It is almost as if I visited the gates of heaven, with the divine light shining through, only to realize, at last, that its radiance is too strong for me; I tried to look straight at it and became blind. I’m Ahab chasing the whale.
You see, this is the trouble I encounter when I try to say anything about love. Gestures, maybe, actions, perhaps, but words, these strings of generalities, don’t seem to be up for the job. Perhaps I’ve committed myself to an impossible task. Maybe words cannot do because every instance of love is contingent: no definition can frame love because no cosmic law governs it, and therefore no words can speak it. And perhaps that is the beauty of it all: the unique transcendence above the prison of “the nature of man”, “the human condition”, “the categorical imperative” into these lines of possibility, these lines of flight, these lines of singularity.
But venture I still, like Quixote charging into the windmill. The decision is not mine. I’m only the victim of the dense, black mass of yearning that pulls me again and again back to the venture. And there, with every return, is this ever-increasing pang that is not so much a pang than a nervousness diffusing through my body—like when you try to hold your breath underwater or as you wait for the almost-starting-but-still-impending interview. And with the nervousness is this anxiety that feels almost like nostalgia: a tortuously sweet reaching for something impossibly far away. Then, crossing the event horizon and being pulled helplessly towards the center of the big black mass of longing, a primal passion that drowns all sense takes over me. I long, no, I desire, for your beautiful, black hair, your charmingly big nose, your slender legs, the tiny arch of your brow, more so, more so (and I’m very much ashamed of this) than thou noble spirit, thou kindly soul.
Then comes the most repulsive part of the process. I need to see you. But the more helplessly I long for you, the more intimidating it is for me to meet you in reality. So, with no options left, I would go on to hunt for you—or, more like, hunt for that perfect idea in my head: some emails sent to me a few years back, a photo or two that I’ve saved onto my phone (in a previous episode of desire), a vocal recording for choir… And there, for half an hour or so, I (almost canine) would look, smell, listen to these things mindlessly, fantasizing—like a helpless addict with no cash—about you. And only then would I realize how distasteful, even, disturbing what I’m doing is, like how masturbating to that statue of Venus in the Louvre who’d lost her arms is disturbing; this, however, only spurs me on to more mindless fantasizing as a way to fly away from the ever-pronouncing unease, and through this a self-hatred grows, and possessed by that hatred I—flagellating myself further down this path of wild, sickly fantasies—start to revel in my downfall. I fall, or, more like, plunge, further and further into the abyss, inhaling the sweet scent of despair. And down I down I go, from worlds to worlds, deeper and deeper. At last, I am left with nothing; abandoned in the depths of hell, even my self has deserted me.
Beyond the despair lies indifference. One that is not sadness, not grief, not melancholy—one that can’t even be properly called emotion—but just this alien entity that clears out a space for annihilation. Indifference is much worse than hatred, envy, anger, madness. Indifference is much worse than hell. In hell, one has, at least, the heavenly unreachables. In indifference, it is almost as if one’s dead: dead in such a way that one does not wish to live anymore but only to die keepingly. In indifference everything loses its significance and whiteness reins—the whiteness of the whale, the whiteness of the room, the whiteness of the snow, the whiteness of the flames, the whiteness of the sun, the whiteness of the stars, the whiteness of the future, the whiteness of the heavens and angels and Gods, the whiteness of the desert that whites shiningly, the whiteness of the white dwarf that whites in its death, the whiteness of that blank piece of cosmic paper on which anything, any book, any sentence, any word, any mortal, is born. The whiteness. The whiteness that, Helen, you see, I don’t intend this letter to be about my post-industrial angst, and I really don’t want to comment on the whole situation more than I’ve already done, but my pen, my arm, my self, are not in my control. This may hurt you—it certainly hurts me imagining you reading it. But, just like how liars cannot, of their own will, stop lying, I, for the love of God, cannot stop writing. Do allow me this last act of selfishness. Do tolerate me. Please forgive me. It has come to me that selfishness is always of the color white, the color that, by reflecting all lights, leaves no light for itself—the color that repels everything and keeps nothing in.
This selfish whiteness finds its companion in a blackness, an absolute blackness that just as intensely terrorizes as the white, the blackness that is also—by dragging all light into itself and emitting none by itself—the color of selfishness. This all-devouring blackness is the blackness of the black devil, the black ashes, the black plague, the black past, the black universe, the black death, the black ocean, the black man on the black field of blood, toil, and tears, the black selfishness that prevents anything from transcending its immanent sphere, the black manuscript with the black ink tattooed on it—this black barren—consuming all that is white no matter how bright it shines, just like how the white blank dispels all that is black. And here, the white blank and the black barren, the Ying and the Yang, who removes each other whilst at the same time exists always with one another, together constitutes the horror: the horror that is more like—in its rendering, its overwhelming, its sweeping-leveling-down—the elimination of the rainbow of difference, the in-difference. I first experienced this whiteness of the sky, this blackness of the earth, not in love—and this is perhaps why I so craved to love and be loved and was so fearful of losing it—for it is love that transcends the immanent, the selfish, the egotistical, the black and the white, and love, even in its self-destruction, still harbors hope, hope in overcoming the nothingness of the cosmos. As the faculty of transcendence, love is miraculous; it is a blessing from the Gods.
The true horror of the twofold oneness of the white and black revealed themselves to me in the hour before sleep. Lying on that large blank bed of mine, staring into the vast undifferentiated blackness of the room, in a state of absolute lethargy that prevents me from opening my eyes, my brain manages to operate at such great a degree of abstractness, despite? because? of the exhaustion, that I, there, felt like I was witnessing some divine happening, as if the entire cosmos was within my grasp: I’ve heard the silent whispers of Dostoevsky; I’ve seen strings touching and merging and bouncing off each other; I’ve intuited the antithesis subsuming the thesis, blossoming, as if in nuclear fusion, into a new synthesis that becomes a renewed thesis that subsumes again the new antithesis. But, precisely because of the bigness of it all, I could capture nothing. In these visions of the night, in that total blackness of the room, there is a horrifying whiteness in how everything passes through oneself, as if one is chasing the shadow of a butterfly using a net without holes. These ridiculous experiences, bordering on the mystical, pleased me a great deal, because the encountering of the colorful mystery attests to my humanity, but they also despair me wonderfully (for where lies the saving grace, there lies the danger also). Despair at what? Why do I despair? And why does this despair always metamorphose into anger—anger directed at nothing in particular? What is the nature of this angering despair? What is that terrible sadness in the rage that leads me to cry and groan in that silent hour of the night, afraid whilst lusting to be heard? Why do I—as streaks of tears, still warm, run down my face and drop onto my bare thigh—push all that is on the bed to the floor, leaving me ever more forlorn on my island? Why then do I entrench my nails into my flesh? Is it a protest? to prove that I am still capable of action, still capable of malevolence, still capable of pain? Prove to whom?
All this may sound melodramatic. It, perhaps, indeed is. So late into the night, reality and fantasy merge into one, and memory becomes less a reproduction than a reconstruction. It may well be a singular moment of a nightmare that is extending its tentacles from dream into reality; but that only makes it more unacceptable, for then, what is left of our world? Amidst it, everything becomes unbearably unsettling, as if, somehow, I, you, everyone—every tree and every grass, every ant and every bee—are all floating in the blackness of the cosmos as that singular white, guilty from our birth, with life itself serving as both our trial and sentence. And the failure of the words to convey what we feel is just, as we float in powerlessness, another source of the despair.
But the silence that lies after the madness evades characterization almost (though I know not how it is possible) more fully than the madness itself. In the silence, nothingness becomes me; indifference materializes not as the mere absence of mood, but a mood itself. And there, I finally understood why one would want to kill oneself. Understood, however, ex post facto, after I regained myself from the abyss. I wrestled, in dread, in terror, in all-devouring fear, with my memory (which does not really represent but delivers these poetic whirls of images that has a world unto itself to me) inducing in me a fear directed not at any person or any thing, but existence, the immensity of it—how there I was, a mortal amongst billions of mortals in this planet amongst planets, this galaxy amongst galaxies, this century amongst eons and eons, and with the past shoving me forward into the abyss of the future; and me, here sitting in the middle, dragged by both sides, paralyzed but nonetheless carried through, a swimmer overwhelmed by the torrent of time, as the color that is being erased by the black and the white; and how what was my past has now seemed so close to me and what was my future now already past—and there, lying in utter loneliness on my blank bed, death itself unveils herself in front of me as the cosmic nothingness that engulfs and suffocates life exactly by not doing so in the pure indifference that dies dyingly, only to, with a morbid pleasure and a sick grin, whilst life freezes itself into oblivion, deliver that thought to me: why not?
This idea is the pure embodiment of the void that confronts me. It terrifies me—perhaps justifiably so. To be dead? To lie there and never to be able to feel, move, talk, think, never to be able to love and to be loved, never to be able to suffer? What is this that I am considering? What insanity?
Elle. I’m afraid. I’m afraid now. I’m out of my mind. I’ve been sad, I’ve been angry, I’ve been in pain, but I’ve never felt nothing. I don’t know. Maybe oblivion is better than hell. I don’t know. Maybe they, by their nature, cannot be compared. Maybe they refer to the same thing. Same places with different names. America and Amerika. Elle, I’m afraid. Elle, I’m so anxious I can’t even cry. In fear, there’s at least something to be lost. In crying, there’s at least something worth crying over. In sadness, there’s at least joy on the other end! Maybe oblivion is just hell without heaven.
Elle. Am I being melodramatic? Am I faking this? Am I capitalizing on my anxiety for sympathy? Is this what the indifference amounts to, a show? And my love? just another act? But I can’t stop playing. Is it possible to reveal the voice under the persona in the cosmic circus? Given that I have not yet dissolved into a pure blob of anxiety, that, in all my confusion, I still want something, still am something, still have something to say, still have someone to say them to, is there still hope? Can anything save me?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. Can colors dwell with one another without becoming the black or the white, but merge into a rainbow? Is it possible for us to live like notes on the piano—you, an E, me, a B—whose individual insignificance metamorphoses into a harmony?—a rainbow out of the black and white keys? Some meaning out of the numbing cacophony? Beautiful notes, notes with transcendent meaning?
I want to love. But I don’t even know whether I’ve ever done so. It remains a mystery to me whether I’ve genuinely been in love. Sometimes, you see, one can fall in love merely to have something to say. Maybe this entire letter is an act. Love does not need scrutiny. It cannot be scrutinized. Scrutiny destroys it. That I’ve written so much to you about my love is perhaps enough evidence to invalidate it. Life, have mercy on me…
Elle, don’t be sad (I am presuming, of course, that you do care about me). Suicide is my saving grace. In death, there is a perfect symphony; one is at last settled. The changing mass—the person who is a stranger to himself because he is never himself for he is always becoming someone else—finally gets to rest.
Perhaps I shall never send this letter out. Distance is the kindling from which love receives its strength; idolization is its language. In me, you have assumed the place of a metaphysical entity, a platonic form. But reality is never perfect. This is the great pain, and this is perhaps what I don’t have the courage to do: to learn to live with imperfections. And suicide? Perhaps I shall not do it after all. God knows… The joy, anyway, lies not in suicide, but in contemplating it. But one should never trust the testimony of the defense.
In E-flat Major,