performative love

John Austin distinguishes two types of speech: constative and performative. A constative refers to an existing reality, declaring such reality to be the case. A performative produces a new reality. Most speeches fall into the first category, as speaking, writing, and verbal language in general are conventionally considered to describe/express things. But the performative does not express anything. It performs, acts, does things. Example are the “I promise”, “I swear”, “I order you to”, “I accept”, “I declare”, and the famous “I do” in a wedding ceremony. These sentences are neither true or false. The very reality that it “expresses” comes into being with the utterance.

Roland Barthes wrote that the sentence “I love you” (Je t’aime) is a performative. It does not express what the amorous subject feels, on the contrary, it is said with the desire to produce an effect, “I expect you to return my love”. Even the subject herself, by saying “I love you”, reifies her love: I do not love you until I declare my love for you.

I think that not only performative utterances as in Austin’s category are performative, but all speeches are. Do we not always have the feeling that something is not real until it is said? The signifier, i.e. the written word or the acoustic voice, does not exist independently from the signified, i.e. the meaning, the concept, the mental representation of “the thing”. The same way humans are embodied subject and the mind is not separated from the body, meanings and (written/spoken) words are not two distinct entities, but come into being together.

I often think that language is the public life of ideas, feelings, or whatever abstract thing it conveys. The love that is kept secret is private. Once spoken, it takes up a social existence. It exists in the eye of the Other, be it the lover or society. This leads me to reflect on the nature of being itself: do we exist without being recognized by others? Is a solipsist existence possible?

When two people are in a relationship, they make it official by announcing it to their family and friends circles. “Official: having the approval or authorization of an authority or a public body.” The idea of authority and publicity is central here. Such public approval marks the moral distinction between an official, recognized relationship, one that exists in the light, and a love affair, one that is kept secret. Love is a thing between two individuals. Is it? I’m not so sure. It depends on whether you take the perspective of love-for-love’s-sake, or love as embedded in a wider web of social relations.

Years of being in a long-distance and secret relationship, i.e. one that was not known to everyone in my circles and was intended to be so, has resulted in my profound skepticism of the reality of love. On one hand, recognition acts as a kind of social surveillance that makes sure that you stay faithful to your partner, otherwise there will be severe public sanction. In the end, it makes the love real. Two people are in love because they are so in the eyes of others. But then it is not a private thing anymore. On the other hand, if this love is not made official, as it was in my case, then it feels like it does not exist at all. My partner had a social life of which I was not a part. So when he took on his other social roles (than the role of being my lover), our love’s existence was dismissed. He could very well have another lover, as secret as I was, that I did not know anything about.

In the end, what is real? How do we know that feelings are real? Do we need words and social conventions to make them real?

I often imagine myself waking up one day only to find out that it has all been a hoax, or an illusion. Nothing personal, though. I imagine that I could delete all the proofs that testify our love, and there will be no trace, no evidence left. Would it still exist then? But then I remember how feelings could be so deeply engraved in one’s heart. After all, the things that we cannot erase by a physical gesture are the most difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

breathe

hơi thở

I want to take your hand and gently place your palm on my cheek
to let my whole being enclosed in the shelter of your presence
then timidly I shall clasp your fingers
but fear no force, for tenderness is my only strength
like spring petals caught in a wanderer’s hair
you wouldn’t even notice.

I shall steal a breath from your skin
then fill the space between your fingers with mine
for a breath is the only tangible trace
that I could keep of you in this physical world
where you will never be mine, but it’s alright
because the air you give
makes me stay alive.

a walk in the swamp

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an autumn afternoon’s fading warmth
an ephemeral glow on the swamp
the geese sing melancholic notes
flapping their wings along the river
shining golden canebrake.

From Het Bossche Broek, ’s-Hertogenbosch, March ‘17. Photo and translation by me.

  • swamp [ENG] ; broek [NL] : an area of low-lying, waterlogged, uncultivated ground ; a bog or marsh.

blank canvas

I look at heavy clouds as they fill in the space
between the high-rise block and the pine trees’ top
like a child coloring a picture
through the classroom’s window frame

The view transports me back to high school
those March days where the light was new and pure and fresh
the world was born again
and for a while
we could finally breathe

there I sat in our old classroom
me staring out the window
you staring at me
secretly
both of us
looking forwards
to something yet to grow
but already born
like green sprouts stirring under spring’s moist ground

I was alone in my gaze of the sky
so were you in your gaze of me
two universes
apart
yet together
in the solitary exercise
of silenced affection

The clouds are now long gone, and the canvas blank again
there I draw my vision
of us being in the same room
locked in our own solitude
comforted by parallel secrets
and I keep fixing on the empty space
between the high-rise block and the pine trees’ top
in fear of the picture erased.

I wish you a home

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I wish you a table
to sit and write letters
I wish you a home
a happy place to rest

I wish you a teapot
a bag full of secrets
a heater, and the warmth
will never vanish

I wish you a corridor
with dozens of doors
I wish you a garden
full of scents and colors

I wish you a window
to peer out at the world
I wish you many friends
and also good neighbors

I wish you the sun
and I wish you the moon
so that you could choose
where to go and to stand

I wish you a road
free of nasty holes
I wish you a tree
to take shelter from rain

I wish you a book
to go through dark days

[…]

Spot on a window in the street of Tilburg. Unknown author. Translation from Dutch and photo by me.

dissolve

I am living the quietest days of my life, both externally and internally. I am bound to no one in my immediate surrounding, no social obligations to fulfil, no acquaintances to bother me on the phone. My friends, too, seem to drift away, as my journey has gone into a direction that is so far from them, so strange and so uniquely mine. Only a very few stay, as they always have. Finally, my heart is tranquil, no longer occupied by an Other, thus free from expectations and frustrations. Sometimes I feel like a ghost as if I do not exist anymore, but most of the time I feel blessed to have this interval of solitude entirely for myself, in which time ceases to move forwards.

I have taken up the habit of doing my things in public, and have learnt to carve out my own space in the crowd. I do not have to force myself to concentrate, nor do I shut the world down. At some point, silence just naturally takes over, a silence that I can hear, that my ears can distinguish from all the other noises, that in turn, renders these noises silent. It is not a mental process, as it does not emanate from within my mind. It is part of me as much as it is part of the world. The boundaries that delineate my being from the outer world are blurred as I blend into it. Its noises are appropriated as mine, while my silence spreads into it. There is no inside versus outside, subject versus object. Strangely how I am fully in the world, when I seem to be the most disconnected from it.