Stares, Fluids, and a Dream of Summer in Midst of Winter
An essay by Chloe Miao
It was during one of those less lustrous, and perhaps less vulnerable days of my throbbing juvenile delinquencies, that I painted this portrait of myself. Now and then I harvest under the inflammatory idea that I may be responsible for my own looks; that whatever the convoluted mazes of my past and (might as well) my future, they could be summarized in the pointedness in my facial contours, akin to a gypsy fortune teller staring into tea leaves. Surely this was a vacant thought: on what grounds could I impose this divine power of unraveling so much of life’s mystery to a single glance at something ordinary, repetitive, and plain - a face?
Nevertheless, it was likely that a lunacy as such might rise from an entrenched desire, or call from the bottom of our heart, to be recognized as unique. Each of our moves would be then endowed with seamless dramatic intensity, striving for a certain distinction and to be remembered among a non-existent audience in the theater that its boundary between reality begin to blur. And just then the question arises: what if art, itself a product of individuality, comes precisely because of a necessity to prove and carve out one’s exceptionality, exclusive and unparalleled? If sketching exists to draw me into the subtleties of the grand scheme of things, and writing is for me to figure out the maddening puzzles of my indefinite eccentricity, then the process of art may well be to live a life reimagined, different at every second because of the uniqueness I discover in myself and the irreplaceable changes in the outlook of things around me that vary accordingly. The first valiant attempt of the young gangster (yes I was a gangster then, and probably like this since) sitting in her enclosed room years ago, struggling to keep strokes of herself down, was just the awakening of something (no matter how illusory) that may slightly diverge from the mass, no less different than a Neanderthal trying to make sense of his surroundings by drawing the primordial circle representing the sun. To make this day stand out from that last, and all the future ones to come.
It doesn’t matter that the girl in this awkward sketch does not look a bit like myself according to everyone who has seen it. Much as I wanted to smugly occupy the dominating place of her creator, once the tip of graphite left the paper, she remained there – staring back at me with a will of her own, and such proud humility. She stares into the unknown void of time and monotone, yet with such relentless grip of the moment that in the staring a very sharpness had surely been rendered perpetual.
Last night I had this dream of slipping into slippers that told no difference between the left and the right. But when I woke up, I couldn’t remember whether I was really the pompous, possessed inventor, or if I had just read of the product’s existence somewhere along the line. Only the sour remains of certain pride crept up at the corners of my mouth. It had indeed gone bad.
Sometimes, when she got really sad, she started to turn to those vulgar vocabulary-building books, like Barron Word List 3500, and read her favorite words. Ephemeral. Asunder. Jigsaw. Monolithic. If these mere words were consolation. She would move her finger along the winding path of a river on the map (if, luckily, there was one around), because she did enjoy spelling out its name. After all, she belonged to the ulterior lineage of the raconteur, the storyteller, who can instantly make out a world from the immersing thesaurus. If in the ceaseless (or rather coward?) weaving a tranquility slowly emerged from entropy. But then still, the time would rise and doubt would surely come again: did she, maybe, love those crazy tales of words more than the things for real around?
Or perhaps she was going mad. It became hard for her to neglect trivialities. She couldn’t let go of the details; once entrance was gained into the byzantine of her brain there was just no way of forcing out. It could have been that she was suffering from a big heart. She sunk back into sadness again, but more grayish, more uniform and temperate (one may be tempted to say, peaceful), like a scant puff of smoke. The slight darkness of pavement after a puddle has evaporated from it.
At that time she no longer knew what to think, so she thought of death. Not in the desperate, melancholy self-moaning which was so much the tide. Instead the desire to recoil into that reticent corner of timelessness; its pockets of thought were at least a temporary escape from the seamless flow. To be dead was to be exempt of time, she thought. As if death would be a safe and comforting silence, without the pending sword of Damocles. The lights out. The curtain falls. But it’s comforting noneheless, the conspiracy of the dark against all else. She knew every long night would inevitably end, but spent that time drowning in the fictitious quiet it allowed. A blackness, a purity.
God now I am afraid. After all it is easy to look back and reside masterfully omniscient in the third-voice. What have I left but the sincerity, the flow I am ashamed of while in others, the ebb. If only the hot liquids at the corner of my eyes were understood. The restlessness in them solidified to the fragments of this paper.
It was all just to make me feel that bittersweet prick about the eyes, the constant brimming of tears: what is at the end of the roaming? Assuming there’s even an end. Cut me. Then I would be bare, and my rivers could run from all darkest corners of the unspeakable sewers, a humble flow that’s too ashamed in daylight, through which I glance peeks of an eternal grace?
The worst of all is being dry. Hope and passion are both something humid.
I fear the inability to care or feel again, to no longer feel the presence of water in the wells, and to never tremble in the torrent of emotions. My moist and unquenchable soul agains the barrenness of the world. I’m among a daedal ice palace, convoluted, fragile, tempting in its clarity yet ungraspable in its well-poised indifference. When would I melt the stillness of the ice and make it run? And just then, the poignancy of the gaze in the yellowing portrait stumbled upon me — a sudden contraction of time and space — she’s still there for me. The same desire for an unknown intensity in life, the ambiguous yet hopelessly optimism over something there ahead, lurking beneath the simple facade of the quotidian, and a very stubborn negation of the immediate paucity close at hand stare back at me across time. Yes, she is a slice of me I roughly chopped off and scribbled down in that almost drowning desperation of that winter, and has been preserved it that way ever since. To combust. To burn out. Against the backdrop of the smothering oppressiveness of a vacant sky, for the first time ever these undeniable throbs of life come clear to me. It is only in the midst of winter, I realized that the invincible summer, says Albert Camus, for that was I was dosing on then. She tilts her head, yet her look does not shy away: and that's just how I realize — the watery haze, the smell of dampness of newly-cut grass, the salty fishiness just returned from the sea — are still with me.
A note from the writer:
“It is no nation we inhabit, but a language...our native tongue is our true fatherland.”
- Emil Cioran
I didn't grow up speaking English, but somehow this second language becomes the medium of my creation. Studying literature in English is indeed a challenge but it nevertheless becomes a thing I love because of its adventurousness. My constant juggling and interweaving between foreign and native languages has rendered me an inhabitant on the border of languages. In the crossing-over, as both of them show insufficiency, I tried to disentangle the labyrinth of the longing, the inexpressible, the poetics, a becoming. Is it possible, to find shelter in a language, by the mere power of words? Where does the true homeland lie? Thereby, more often than not, to write is a regressive look back to the origin, where strength revels anew without constraints of time and space.
Chloe Miao studies Comparative Literature at Brown University. She is interested in language as a home and an absurding unreality, and in its ability to be these two things in the same breath.