ex post facto ex ante

Ah, coffee. The espresso maker hisses at me and I’m glad to interrupt my reverie. A friend once remarked that coffee could be the foundation of an ontology. He never followed up. Neither did I. But what was I thinking about? Right, I was imagining how the heated air spilling from a vent onto my kitchen floor sounds like a thousand whispers, the furtive clamour of a people who speak only in rumors: a pure language of noise. But it strikes me now, thinking again about this sibilous din of plosives and continuants, that whispers pulse and surge in exactly the way that paperweights don’t. Whispered rumors are more like flames. They’re seemingly nothing, flickering in and out of existence, yet burning nevertheless. No wonder Bachelard thought that fire could be psychoanalyzed (or rather, that “our convictions about fire” could). And it’s ironic how this thought of fire and the unconscious is chilling, so chilling that I get a shiver down my spine, which some call “frisson.”ezgif.com-resize

Some also call frission a “skin orgasm.” But the latter hasn’t stuck. Maybe because it’s just too accurate and we’re not prepared to think about orgasmic events taking place outside of those activities it pleases us to call sexual. Better to use the alien frission, I suppose. Its “pleasant tingling feeling” or “emotional thrill” doesn’t make us think what an orgasm makes us think. Which ideally is nothing. But this is a little ironic given that “thinking off” has become a new form of sex and because a skin orgasm is itself a kind of thought—thought incarnate, a thinking in the skin. And it moves. A shiver crawls down my spine, spreads across my arms, climbs up my neck, and pushes through my scalp. Sometimes it even pulses. Like an orgasm. A shiver down my spine has a rhythm. Like a song stuck in my head. The expression, I mean. But I suppose the thought, too. The stuck song, that is. I guess thinking in general has a rhythm. Woolf, thought so. “I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot,” she wrote. But she must have thought this, too. I’ve also tried to think a rhythm:

Now we are safe … Now you trail away … Now you lag … Now they have all gone … Now the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water in the white tide … Now we must drop our toys … Now they suck their pens … They wag their tails; they flick their tails; they move through the air in flocks, now this way, now that way, moving all together, now dividing, now coming together … Now the terror is beginning … Now I cannot sink … Now grass & trees … Now the tide sinks … Now my body thaws … Now we are off … Now I hang suspended without attachments. We are nowhere.”

I filched these bits from The Waves for Ludic Dreaming. The former is festooned with all types of nows that Woolf makes exotic. The latter’s nows, however, are not at all exotic. They’re completely ordinary. In fact, they’re infra-ordinary. Mine are endotic nows, the kind that Perec would find exceptionally unexceptional. Either way it still seems that where there are rhythms there are no wrong words. Bucket. But that isn’t hugely insightful, especially because my nows are just an abstraction of Woolf’s. Which is to say an abstraction of the rhythm of The Waves. Which is curious because The Waves is itself an abstraction of the rhythm of the waves. Which is even more curious since the waves—the spumey and spindrifty kind—are abstractions of tidal and atmospheric fluctuations. Rhythm it seems is abstraction all the way down. And strangely concrete, too, for the paradoxical reason that rhythm is the consistency we abstract from a world of continuous change. It’s why we hear “tick tock,” not “tick tick.” And it’s why a sequence of follicular erections is a shiver, not a pinch. But then there’s that song stuck in my head. It doesn’t tick tock. And it doesn’t shiver either. It doesn’t even really begin or end. Its comings are as unnoticed as its goings, which is to say that it doesn’t really go anywhere. It also doesn’t really do anything. But isn’t all thought nothing? “Thoughts are ephemeral, they evaporate in the moment they occur, unless they are given action and material form. Wishes and intentions, the same. Meaningless, unless they impel you to one choice or another, some deed or course of action, however insignificant.” This is a thought Ann Leckie had. Well, it’s a thought that the character Justice of Toren’s ancillary One Esk Nineteen had in Leckie’s sci-fi novel Ancillary Justice. A thought is nothing unless an effect can be deduced from its being had—”however insignificant.” A song stuck in my head must be even less than nothing, then, because its being had again suggests its being had the first time amounted to nothing. That is unless the mere fact that a thought about a song follows a previous thought about the same song “quasi-causes” the condition of “being stuck.” But if this is so then it’s only so ex post facto. And this would make “being stuck” an event that can only be extracted and expressed from a series of listening-like thoughts about the same song. In other words, “being stuck” can never be presented, can never be now. Like a law or a rule. Which is probably why it’s so difficult to shake the feeling that thought without deed or course of action is still causally efficacious. For instance, that my thoughts of white noise and rumors led to thoughts of flames and psychoanalysis, which in turn gave rise to the idea of a chilling fire, shivers down my back, and songs stuck in my head obviously substantiates a causal sequence. But there’s nothing about this sequence to suggest that it develops according to any rule or law, strict or non-strict. The mere exhibition of causal efficacy is enough to promote the semblance of a law. And a semblance of law is good enough for a corrigible mind. Honestly, who wouldn’t be seduced by the truth-value of “if not ‘p’ then no ‘q’”? It’s a counterfactual truth, but a truth nevertheless. Which is why life understood backwards (Kierkegaard) is always true. Which means that lived forwards life is never true. Which is not to say that it’s false but simply exempt from having to be true. Or obliged to deal with facts, for that matter since facts are a matter of understanding. Sounds great. But without the air of truth life chokes on its sheer happenstance. Which is to say that understanding breathes life into life by sparing it from actually being lived. But then again, who has ever not lived who has understood? Understanding is a kind of living. It’s life lived ex post facto ex ante—after the fact in anticipation. What else could it be? Call this living “knowing,” or better yet, call it make believe. Either way what’s lived as understanding is an abstraction. Like a melody. Which is kind of a lie, or, as Bachelard says, a “temporal perfidy”: “While it promised us development, it keeps us firmly within a state. It takes us back to its beginning and in doing so, gives us the impression that we ought to have predicted where it was going.” I suppose this means that knowing what one’s doing is a perfidy of sorts. What is knowing but a way of keeping oneself in a state of certainty, a state of suspended experimentation that brings one back to statements of fact which give the impression that what one thinks makes sense? So had I known what I was doing when I wrote this, what I was thinking about when I started plotting out one idea after the other, I should have given myself the impression that what I was doing made sense. But here I am, at the end of it, neither firmly in a state nor clearly at the beginning, and I can tell you with absolute uncertainty that this did not make any sense.

—Priest