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I read this title, it set off a cascade in my mind that I have restructured slightly and set down here. It moves from some of my undergrad experience studying Lit & Philosophy, to a specific existentialist idea, to examples of this idea in my own life, to a question about your own experience. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.


I had to read a lot of philosophy at uni. Sometimes I would find myself reading through a subject that is inherently interesting, like theory of knowledge and I would be struck by how abstracted the point would become. What was the use of a theory of knowledge that was logically sound, overcame theoretical objections, but was so technical that it could not possibly be applied to our daily experience? Surely there's an argument that we're better off without the concept of "knowledge" as currently understood, if we find that the concept doesn't ever really represent anything in how we live. This kind of philosophy seemed to have a place, and the place was pretty limited, mainly university libraries.

I was alone one day in the living room of the house I grew up in studying for my final exams. I remember one day feeling my mind so full and numbed by this kind of (necessary) work that I took a huge thick volume on logic, picked a point on the reassuringly solid wall across the room, and hurled the book at the wall as hard as I could. My action had no effect on the wall, and little effect on the book, such was their solidity, but I certainly felt better. I went outside to the sunshine of the garden, probably threw a ball for the pup a few times, and read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (the first novel I had looked at in months) in what felt like a few hours. I had been working hard but not working smart, I remember seeing that suddenly and clearly that day.

Not all philosophy is like that. I remember the first time I read Sartre describing the "transcendence" of the human mind apprehending a tree "alone and writhing in the heat", the interaction of the mind with objects outside of itself. I was, and still am as I recount this, deeply moved. If the text is available online I'll link it below. I went on to read Sartre's ideas about the uniqueness of our minds-in-the-world, as we encounter others in our environment, as we reveal and hide aspects of ourselves, and begin and fulfil projects of our existence. These ideas and observations were often given with examples from relatable human experience. Memorably, two people in a bar together, both pretending to ignore the romantic or sexual potential of the situation as they make their minds up about one another. One makes a gesture toward the other, for example allowing their hand to touch the other person in a deniable (but not as accidental as it first appears) way. The other person may continue the ambiguity, enjoy it even, and feign unawareness of the contact. This could be intended to avoid awkwardly or prematurely rebuffing the advance, it could be uncertainty, or it could be intended to prolong the enjoyment of the tension, the frisson.

Sartre called this ability to hold ourselves back, to create an artefact of our own body and presence that intentionally displays or conceals aspects of our "transcendence" (read - consciousness, subjectivity) "mauvaise foi" - "bad faith". This is often rendered as a negative - a failure to act authentically, a refusal of freedom. I'm not going to get into the deep discussion that can be had here, or attempt to present a full account of my thinking on this or Sartre's own, I'm on my way somewhere else. It's enough to state simply what you may have already seen - there is a paradox here, a choice to not make a choice, an ability that a Subject has to objectify themselves. This is where I want to go.

As we get older we build up patterns of being, and associations. For example, the term "Golden hour" might mean nothing to you as you read this, or it might mean something to you about taking photographs, or a specific visit to a special place. It will probably always have a certain set of associations for me, the quality of light through my apartment window, the foot of Mount Pleasant in Liverpool, a couple of other things. If I meet a person tomorrow and they say something like "Oh look, it's golden hour!", my reaction will be inward, my face a mask. We all have songs that have emotional resonances, "Oh me" by the Meatpuppets, has a power to recentre me within myself that I can't explain. I couldn't listen to "Keep the streets empty for me" for a couple of years after my dog died. Are there words and songs that you almost can't quite bear to hear, but you hold it down? What are they?

We've had words and songs. Places are a good one. Have you ever found yourself in a place and suddenly felt captured by the strength of associations, powerful beyond your memory, but drawing all their power from nowhere but your memory? I know someone who says that when we revisit places where we have strong associations, we're making "time crystals". You go to the park as a child, you and the park travel separately through time, and you reunite decades later, with whatever changed or remained the same preserved in your shared structure. A looping pair of worldlines intersecting through time. You can walk down a path you've gone down many times with the ghosts of all the people you've ever been.

It's me, by the way, the person who says that thing about the time crystals is me.

My conclusion comes in the form of questions for you. What are the associations, that drift unexpectedly into the foreground of your senses and really hit you? I don't mean songs or places or phrases that conjure faint or happy memories. I don't mean the stories that get edited between your brain and your throat either. I mean the things that when you catch them on the wind, they catch you back, and if you're with someone else, you don't know how good you are at holding yourself still and hiding how you feel.


Thanks as ever for reading, sorry if this one is a little strange. It's been a funny year.

The Sartre reference is "Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl's Phenomenology" (PDF)

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