“A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.’” So says Wittgenstein in aphorism #123 of the Philosophical Investigations. I’ve been re-reading the book, as well as other research material, so I can continue working on the paper I failed to submit last semester. I had notes, a working outline, and several paragraphs written down. But in the months since I last opened my file on Wittgenstein’s concept of essence, I seem to have forgotten everything I studied in grad school. I have the notes, and the outline, and the paragraphs, but the thoughts do not cohere, words do not come. I cannot say, “Now I can go on!” (§151)
I spent last Friday night nursing an overpriced mug of coffee that bought me time in a well-lit café with comfortable chairs and unobtrusive music and people that left me well alone to work on my paper. I intended to stay there until closing time at 3 a.m., then move to the 24/7 fast food place some fifty meters down the block. But an hour and a half before midnight I began to doze on my armchair. So I closed the file and the book I was holding like a pillow to my chest (Garth Hallett’s, on Wittgenstein’s concept of meaning as use) and browsed through my video library. I decided to watch a bit of Crows Zero, a Japanese action movie, just to jolt myself awake with several minutes of roaring, roundhouse kicks, and blows. I ended up watching the whole thing. And I was very, very surprised that I liked it, and not at all because it starred Oguri Shun.
I don’t usually go for movies that smack of so much machoshit, but I found Crows Zero deeply philosophical beneath a plot that’s basically about high school boys beating the crap out of each other. These boys studied at Suzuran High, the most notorious school in Japan, breeding ground of cutthroats and thugs. Coming from troubled backgrounds, their best hope for the future was to become yakuza, so they spent their schooldays getting into riots to see who was the strongest, who could gain control of the school. Since they could never take part in a society that took them for rotten and puked them out, why not create a system that gave them some sense of merit and success, right? They all ended up bruised, bleeding, broken, and in bandages, if not dead—but what does it matter? In the larger scheme of things they might be shit, and their lives nothing but nasty, brutish, and short, but at least they got to lord it over Suzuran, for a while. A spark in their otherwise grim, purposeless existence.
I thought Crows Zero an excellent absurdist text.
In the past half-year I: moved residences thrice, got a new job, enrolled in grad school, went on travels alone, fell in love (or thought I did), climbed eight mountains, gained weight, got periodically depressed, applied for a writing fellowship, applied for my dream job. I didn’t get the guy, didn’t get the fellowship, didn’t get the job. I cut my hair four times.
I’ve been thinking about absurdity these past months. That guy who wooed me was already engaged to be married—absurd! That course I enrolled for, I don’t actually have time for it—absurd! That job I enjoyed, I resigned from—absurd! That institution that wanted to hire me rejected my application—absurd! So you know, The Future I’ve been building, the scenarios I’ve been preparing for, all the mad scheduling and scrambling, life-plotting and leave-taking, well they don’t matter now—absurd!
The past few months have also taught me how absurdly easy it is to pack up and leave everything. My family doesn’t need me, my friends don’t need me, I’m needed at work now but I’m always replaceable. So why don’t I go live in an indigenous community in the mountains, be a schoolteacher, and plant vegetables. Or be a travel writer and earn peanuts but get airfare and bus tickets and board and lodging free. Teach English in the countryside, or in China. Whatever. In the end we all die, why do I want scholarship grants and publications and a Ph.D to my name.
When I was six years old, fresh from kindergarten, I got it all figured out. I’d finish elementary, then high school and college. I would become an astronomer or an archeologist. Get married at 28, have two kids (a boy and a girl), and live in a bungalow with a large lawn and a tiny house up in a tree. Spend all my free time reading up in the tree.
I still like stars and ancient artifacts but now would rather study literary texts. Now I don’t want a husband or children, but I’d love a boyfriend and a dog. I still want a tree house, and a cottage at the foot of a mountain, overlooking the sea. Spend my free time reading, writing, and drawing, hiking and running along the strand.
Now I know the difference between planning and dreaming. I’m learning how to deal with detours and disappointments, to make peace with the quotidian. To formulate feasible plots.
In the years after graduation, I just did and did, and did not think much about the doing. Because I’d done all the thinking back in college. I got A Plan. I only had to follow it. I wandered off the path every so often, but that’s okay, because I had a map and went by my itinerary, more or less. Now the plan no longer applies, and suddenly the future has become a blank page to me. An open window in Microsoft Word, with that cursor, blinking, taunting. I see many options, but I do not know how to go on. I don’t know my way about and I HAVEN’T HAD THE TIME TO PAUSE AND THINK. About what I really want, what I can and cannot do, what matters to me now, and what will continue to matter in the coming years—i.e. where I should invest time, effort, money, and tears. I am paralyzed by the thought of everything I haven’t figured out.
I’m young, of course, I’m only 22 (yes, I’m only 22). Got time enough to check out all the trails I’ve been wanting to take. But what if I die in a freak accident tomorrow? What if I forget my dreams, the way I forgot what I wanted to write in that paper? What if I wake up one night and decide that I can’t, don’t want, to go on?
In the coming week I am supposed to:
A. Enroll in grad school
B. Move residences. Yet again. And before that pack and prepare the paperwork.
C. Submit my essay and get rid of that INC
D. Get a new modem and a new cellphone because they got busted over the weekend
E. Pay the bills
F. Renew my employment
G. Host a friend from abroad and all that entails
H. Travel to Ifugao Province and help rebuild the rice terraces in Batad
All that in between 8-hour workdays, 5-hour daily commutes, and about 2 hours of letting off steam at the gym, on the pavement, or on the mat, so I don’t go crazy and throttle my stinky seatmate on the bus or lock myself in the bathroom and fall asleep crying against cold tile.
I think I’m gonna cross out A, B, C, and D.
I miss the summer I spent watching East Asian horror films and reading Japanese novels. Why can’t life be so simple.
I should make a new tumblr: fuckyeahfirstworldproblemsinthethirdworld