What If? ALEXANDRA VANGSNES
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ALEXANDRA VANGSNES grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, but currently lives and works in the banlieue of Paris. She is a student of religion and philosophy at Harvard University.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.”
-T. S. Eliot
What if we are born wise? What if what we have been told is a process of growth and learning, from birth to maturity, is actually a process of forgetting?
This is what’s running through my mind when, feeling unmoored and awkward as I usually do when visiting the house where I grew up, I turn to home videos in search of a point of origin. The image of a me twenty years younger appears on the screen. I’m trying to explain something or other to my parents that clearly seems to me to be of pressing importance, but the message isn’t getting through to them. In an instant, I’m back inside my two-year-old consciousness. I recognize in my hesitating expression the struggle to express the dreams and impressions that whirled within me with no language to categorize them.
I can still see now what I had been trying to say then, even if my parents hadn’t managed to catch on. My thinking hasn’t really changed since then: I still make associations and assumptions in the same way that I always have. Granted, my vocabulary has improved; I have adopted society’s ways of saying that this is this and not that. Since infancy my education has told me that my mother’s smile is something separate from the sunlight that illuminates it, that my inner worlds exist only as long as I do, that the miraculous is commonplace and the commonplace a burden. Now even my thoughts fall naturally into cubby-holes, and the wordless ones come only rarely—but powerfully, and with the fulfilling character of déjà vu, as if they were conclusions to stories that have their origins in dreams I no longer remember. But I wonder whether I’ve truly come any closer to expressing myself or I’ve only become better at lying, at pretending that what I’ve said approaches what I’ve felt and seen, that any word is ever the right one.
What if education, society’s long initiation into personhood, only brings us ever further from our first selves? Family, culture, place, and language—all of these gradually bury us beneath their influence.
In my mind I break my life into stages, their beginnings and endings marked by graduations, relationships, and changes of address; but these imagined stages are really just another form of categorization, a way of breaking the thread of my consciousness into manageable, comprehensible pieces as it winds unbroken through dream and wakefulness. What wisdom might lie beyond the veil of my earliest memory? And what if I could somehow trace the thread of my consciousness back past it, like Theseus in the labyrinth; what if that knowledge is somehow still buried deep within me, still accessible? How can I hope to find my way back to that condition of sound without language, light and darkness without passage of time, joy and pain without need of meaning? And will my mind even be able to comprehend it if I get there?
What if the senility of old age is an unbridling, a sinking back into that state of comfort with the unity and incomprehensibility of all? An old woman mistakes her grandson for her teenage sweetheart. As her mind’s ability to categorize and pigeon-hole breaks down, perhaps she’s unable to express what she has realized: that the separateness of these manifestations is illusory, that love can’t be bound by human notions of time.
Why should our existence not be cyclical? What reason have we to believe that we differ from everything else in creation in this way? Why should our stream of consciousness be unlike an earthly stream in having a beginning and an end? What if instead our consciousness is like the earthly stream: it dissipates and is caught up into the ether; it becomes indistinguishable from the atmosphere around it, before gathering itself once again into form and falling once again into motion and change? What if all the knowledge we accumulate throughout our lives only serves to help us struggle in futility against the ultimate merge? And what if it is only the very old and the very young, wise in their unknowing, comfortable in their proximity to nonbeing, who grasp what we think to be ungraspable? What if?
Published: February 5th, 2015