an online magazine of fragmentary writing



Spring 2010 :: Current Issue


Ora and Otto

Ora: Are you willing to go on & on like this with me, no matter how bad it gets between us?

Otto: No matter how bad things get, unless you say otherwise.

Ora: That’s amazing. I had no idea you were in it for the full hopelessness all the way.

Otto: I believe you did and do have such an idea. The only thing I can add here is that “hopelessness” has a different color and feel to it from this end.

Ora: I guess you’re stronger than I am, then, because I can’t come out and say something like that with certainty and conviction. My mind would always be trying to find an alternative, like opening the window just a bit so air can get in.

Otto: Exactly, and I think it is part of your being to react like that to the first sign of hopelessness. It’s not a bad way to react. It has a certain amount of grace. One can even develop the moral conviction that it is incumbent on us to react that way, and rather cowardly not to, or that it is at least something one should try before passing on to some more dire state of helplessness.

Ora: Your conviction sounds like you’re married—not to me, but to your will. Your conviction sounds like “till death do us part,” like it doesn’t have anything to do with me or our situation. It’s just you and you. I am in a relationship with you, but you aren’t in a relationship with me.

Otto: It sounds as though ‘my will’ is a dear possession of mine, one that I will not let go of under any circumstances, like a child refusing to give up her grip on a stuffed animal in the face of parental demands. That must indeed be how it appears to some who, if they had a ‘will’ so dear to them, would so treat it. I don’t remember accurately anymore if there might not have been, indeed, a time early in my life when that kind of stubbornness was still possible for me. But there might have been. I can say now, however, that it does not reflect present reality.

’My will’ is not something separate from me. It’s not a possession. The word ’will’ is not a word I use for anything I ’have.’ What comprises my being has simply absorbed it… There is a sensibility to ideas, but the ideas are external—completely unwedded—to the sensibility. A musician may hear music where others hear natural or artificial noise. Similarly, with a visual artist and colors and depiction. What they must see distantly enough to compose from must be sufficiently outside of themselves. I perceive thoughts quite tangibly as ‘out there,’ not ‘in here,’ and spend a great deal of my waking hours, and probably sleeping ones too, manipulating them to suit some compulsion. I remain completely agnostic about the rightness or wrongness of this. I know not everyone feels so neutral. What you perceive as ‘will’ may be this compulsion.

It may strike you a little strangely (for someone like me so seemingly self-confident), but in all the significant relationships of my life, even with my cat, I have never been able to ‘possess.’ I have been the object of someone else’s possession. It seems that role is best suited to me. Study my relationship with ‘my’ cat and you will see all there is to know about me and relationship. This inability to possess has, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, not always been conducive to a fulfilling relationship, at least with some persons. The possessor has to reveal a lot more than the possessed. This does not always sit well. Your relationship to me is definitely that of possessor.

Ora: You are in a relationship with your dead philosophical heroes in books. And what you do with me is a way to test how strong you are under their influence.

Otto: You needn’t be jealous of them. They are not objects of my possession either.

If it can be said I have a virtue and if it can be said that loyalty is a virtue—both dubious propositions to me—then you might say I have a certain compulsion to be loyal (once again, let’s not be ‘willful’ here). What I am ‘loyal’ to occupies the center of my consciousness. You, my cat, thinking ghosts, are all that I am truly loyal to. But, alas, being loyal is no substitute for possessing…and, I will admit, makes for a skimpy relationship sometimes.

But test how strong I am under their influence. Testing usually involves a method for gaining knowledge of something. I long ago learned how weak I am, how painfully dependent on others. Me, not being a good possessor, I barely exist. Yes, I am sort of weak (see, I can’t even say I totally ‘possess’ even weakness), but if I were to discover strength somehow, I strongly suspect I would misplace it very quickly, on a ledge somewhere, the breeze would blow it off… That seems to happen to things of human value and me.

Ora: I get the feeling that I’m irrelevant, though, every time I bring up something personal, as if you’re throwing logs in your own fire, to hell with the fire of relationship.

Otto: I guess by now I should admit that the only heat I’ll ever have for a relationship is the heat you’ve noticed that my body seems to give off.

Ora: You respond with a joke, silence, or certainty. But perhaps certainty is a sort of death. To live certainty is to live death. No wonder I’m against the kind of certainty that you proclaim and live. If there is certainty, what is left? If you already know, there’s no need to look elsewhere, no need to be open. To know is to be closed. To know is to be dead.

Otto: My certainty is the Socratic certainty of ignorance. Now, what never ceases to amaze me is other people. They go around being humble. Saying, “well, we don’t know, but we got to keep looking.” This is a pretty cool trick. Sort of like someone saying, “I lost something and I’m looking for it.” When you ask “What?”, they say, not wishing to appear cocky, “I don’t know.” Is this wisdom, stupidity, politeness, arrogance, despair, sarcasm, or what? Here’s what I think: all the above (including the ‘what’)…

About the need to be open… I’m about as open as the open door of the ruins of a house where not much but the door and its frame still stand. This kind of openness is not of much practical help, we agree.

Ora: It seems that all you care about is your distance from me, it seems you’re quite “happy” living exactly as you are. As if you have no use for the personal any more; or, if you do, it’s satisfied only in the most superficial ways—like the very fact that I’m in your life at all.

Otto: What is ‘the personal’? I must have really slipped a bit off the deep end to have to ask this question, but I must ask it, nevertheless. No doubt you will consider these words to be completely impersonal because they’re marinated in my ‘philosophy.’ Where is my unpremeditated rage, where are my ‘secrets’? Where are my confessions of indiscretion or inadequacy or insecurity? Why can’t I share the thousand little ways the universe snubs me everyday? Where is my empathy for those who are so affected by the failure of persons everywhere to pay homage to them? Why am I so damn passive? I don’t seem to curse enough. Or slam doors or tear up pieces of paper. Why do I wait to be hit before striking back? And sometimes not even then.

I must not have a ‘person’ to be personal about. Back to my possession-impairment. I almost want to agree with you about being dead. Except that I really can’t remember it being any other way with me. So perhaps I’m not dead, having never been fully born, a necessary prerequisite. At earlier times in my life I can remember wanting to practice being alive by imitating others, but I don’t think I fooled anyone for long, not even myself. There is a theory (Pascal) that if you practice long and hard enough at trying to be what you are not, you may actually accomplish it (e.g., become a believer in God). The theory may be correct. But I didn’t do it long and hard enough. What explains this? Maybe my proto-life or whatever condition it is I persist in is not so miserable as all that….

My mother early on noticed how inexpressive a baby I was. When other babies were loudly expressing themselves ‘personally,’ I seemed merely to stare, eyes wide open.

My mother was correct to consider me a little fragile in a not so straightforward way. Her fear must have run something like this: if he doesn’t express normally his humanity, then it will fester inside; if it festers inside, it may have long term disastrous consequences. But what could be done? The fact is, a quiet, apparently level-headed baby/child/boy/man is a pleasant and convenient one to have around. No alarms are raised. No hairs are pulled out. Society proffers him benevolent neglect. Until disaster strikes. Until he either kills someone else, himself, or nobody at all—which, in certain extreme cases, is just as bad….

Ora: As if you’ve never expressed pain…but you have, in the past.

Otto: Oh dear, and to think I might have to again… Will it never end? No, the expression of pain must be something salutary, and even the pain itself if it leads to such good things. Once again, I am humbled. I have grown more cowardly and complacent. To fear the expression of pain is to want to stop learning.

Ora: It seems that only loss makes you vulnerable and open. Like when I first met you, you had just been left and you were desperately looking for another woman to be in your life. But as soon as you “have” a woman to fall back on (like background music—to fill up the silence so you won’t go totally crazy…and so you at least have someone to tell your jokes to), you go back into your secret cave.

Otto: You know, Laura once said I was just too clever. You may not believe it, but I have tried to tone it down some here. ‘Only loss makes me vulnerable and open.’ It’s actually more sophisticated than that. The impending shadow of loss makes me clever too. The cleverness rides the vulnerability like a horse off a cliff.


Ora: I ask questions because I’m trying to understand what I can’t fully know, and also to force myself to face something that would be terribly painful and difficult to perceive otherwise. I want to find some sort of bridge between my perceptions and what goes on outside of them. I ask questions because that’s the only way I can shock myself out of myself. I rage after truth.

Otto: You assume there is “a truth” to rage for. From your history, I gather you’ve been deceived by appearances, illusions and ordinary surfaces. You are profoundly suspicious of them. With reason. But with how much success? When have your suspicions uncovered “a truth” that satisfied you, that left you feeling: “this is the truth I was looking for. I know it now. I understand now…” I believe you can’t point to a case. If you could, then I would be suspicious: how could you separate your satisfaction with the discovery from the convenience of it? Your rage is understandable to me because it longs for the impossible.

Ora: You said the other day that there was a terrible longing and sadness in your life, that the terrible part for you was the fact that the source of your discontent can’t be defined in concrete terms that would stay the same from one day to the next. You said it was like the weather—you couldn’t sustain a long discussion of its details. That sadness I can sense; but the longing? What is the longing? What could you possibly long for, given the conclusions you’ve come to, the hopelessness you accept and live?

Otto: What do I “long” for? I told you that what was so terrible about it is that I cannot describe it. I can try to live my life in a certain way, but beyond that there is only despair in trying to express it. I write abstract but true stories by fictional authors by way of illustrating it—but that’s as close as I can get to telling you what I long for. Since I cannot describe it in meaningful, unappropriated language, it leaves me in the same place as though it were not a possible object of longing. My longing will forever go empty-handed. But I haven’t the temperament to rage like you. I just get sadder. I try keeping it at bay with various, sometimes humorous, strategies. (I’m afraid someday they may fail me, I’m very afraid of that.)

Ora: You also said that, in personal terms, there was only an “ordinariness” about you. You said, “But if it were not for that element of ordinariness there would not be much of me left that would be recognizable as sane—perhaps even breathing. That ordinariness is not secure…I genuinely live in fear I may lose it.” Just hearing you say this, putting it into words, makes me see what a large part of our conflict is about. It’s the ordinary, or the ordinary in the way you choose to live around it, that confuses me, seems to present endless contradictions (but I’m not quite sure what you’re defining as your “ordinariness”). I worry that you want/need a woman, mainly, to help you sustain this ordinariness that you speak of, so the intensity of your thoughts will be more balanced, won’t consume you and kill you. I really wonder what I am to you in your life.

Otto: You want to know what role you play in my life besides the day-to-day mundane one you so much despise. My writing takes a long time from the time it is first written to the time I will dare show it to anyone. (This has gotten more extreme in recent years.) But I can tell you now who the “you” in my writing often is, who the first reader I imagine when I write is, before whom it is I am trying to justify or explain something in just about everything I write these days. It’s you.

You have given content to much of my writing these past 12 years. Even when the issues seem abstract and remote, they are by discernible and describable paths connected to the very concrete connection to you. Not for a minute am I suggesting that the direction I take thinking, inspired by you, is one you would follow. But it is from our seemingly hopeless relationship that the seeds of my thought spring.

Ora: You’ve said that your writing/thinking is your obsession, that you’re obsessed with it nearly constantly, that your nature is not to be personal. Given the vastness of your private world, I suppose it leaves little room for anything else, especially personal expression in the moment. Perhaps that’s why you’re satisfied with so little that’s truly personal—because the personal does not enter into the country of your main obsession. In contrast to you, my main obsessions are very connected to everything personal. In fact, they have grown straight out of them. (I don’t know if I’m ever impersonal.)

Otto: You are the personal. I try to figure out what ’personal’ means. Near as I can tell, it is an attempt to relate to what is just below the surface in speech and behavior. The personal is psychological. I don’t think everyone has a psychology. I’m not the first to think this. Though we are vastly different in so many obvious ways, one thing I have in common with Gertrude Stein is that she didn’t have a subconscious. (She describes an experiment in which she and other students of William James partook to explore, through “automatic writing,” the subconscious. James was asked about whether one of the results should be thrown out since it suggested the person didn’t have subconscious experiences. When he learned the result was Stein’s, he said leave it in. Though she was only an undergraduate, he greatly respected her. If it was her result, then it must mean some people just don’t have a subconscious, an important discovery in itself. Just like there are some people born with strange baby teeth that persist well into middle age, so there are some who fail to come equipped with psychology.)

You must be thinking that it means to get to a buried truth that a well-placed question can unearth. This strategy might work when the subject has a psychology. Which is all about what goes on in heads when people aren’t minding the brain. Actually, when I’m not minding the brain, nothing is going on there. So it appears at times I’m so dense, so unsharp, as you like to notice. It’s not that secrets are happening in there that might benefit all concerned if they were dragged into the light of day.

But when I am minding the brain you are not going to get in without being invited. So don’t bother too much. If there are secret truths of interest to you in there, you are going to have to wait until they come out of their own accord. If they are of a sort I should be ashamed of, then you’ll have to trust that I am properly ashamed of them. We can both hope that I act as befits one so.

In other words, if you want to know, you will only confuse us if you ask a dozen questions when one or two would be enough to determine whether what you want is forthcoming or not. The rest of the questions are wasted on one who doesn’t have a psychology, someone who, for better or worse (and probably worse most of the time), is transparent when he is not absolutely opaque—but who is never translucent.

Ora: I go along thinking that there really is some sort of connection between us, in spite of it all. I guess I need evidence to convince myself that my intuitions are not wrong. I don’t want to live false hope or illusions. I rage as a way to uncover illusions, as if I can burn them right out of existence. The truth seems to be just out of reach, though it occasionally comes crashing down. My questions are my way of “fishing” for the truth, and I’m starved for it, I want to swallow it whole. I fast until I can find a piece of truth I trust enough to eat. (Or is it that truth eats me when I find it?)

Otto: Naturally, if I wanted you for money, for sex, for your looks, one could say I was using you. So why not say the same thing of my using you for inspiration?

But we want someone to want to be with us because of “who we are,” not because of any identifiable external characteristic we might have or function we might serve.

At this point we get transcendental trying to describe what “who we are” means. It doesn’t do to say it is any one of those things or even all of them together. I am not a reductionist. I will not say “who we are” is just the sum total of what could be said about us. I don’t have an answer for you. Except to mutter the obvious: that “who we are” may be the most important thing about us and the most intractable.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you have to have faith that you are wanted for “who you are.” You have to be a little religious. Our gods and goddesses have failed us in the past. No wonder the suspicion. The fact that you have been with me as long as you have must be a sign that you are not devoid of such faith.


Ora: You say these thought-provoking, disturbing things to me (when you say anything at all), and I still don’t know how to take your words if I’m to take them personally. You aren’t a stranger, I’m not reading words in a book written by someone I don’t know. I “know” you. I’m with you. So how am I to take your words? How do you want the person who’s closest to you to take your words?

I think I trust you, you seem to be the only person in the world I do trust, and then when you write as you write, I feel sudden distrust. As if you’re not even with me. I don’t know what I mean to you anymore (if I ever knew).

Otto: Why should you not trust me? What does trust mean to you? You have often said you can’t stand clichés. Yet the language of trust and feeling is extremely clichéd.

The only way these things can be expressed and not be clichés is for them to be expressed through who the person is. This will not always mean in words, if words are not who the person is. Or if in words, words from a language that few speak.

I am driven to make every serious statement come out of me as though the thought was being expressed for the first time by anyone in the world. This means that it can seem that I am not speaking in ordinary words or language. This refusing to speak a known language can make me seem distant, cold, abstract…but it is me.

Do you want to trust someone? Or do you want to trust me?

When I am speaking a common language, I am not serious, I appear to be joking. It’s as though my mouth were not the proper shape to mouth these words and have them come out sincere.

If you really do “know” me, then you know this by now about me.

Ora: I don’t distrust you except during those moments when you proclaim something that seems so different from what I thought you were or what I thought you felt for me. I feel distrust when I feel betrayed, when you speak to me as if I’m someone who isn’t close to you. When I feel that way, it’s as if you’re pushing me away deliberately with your words. You keep most of yourself hidden, so that when you do expose something, it comes as a shock. The feeling of betrayal confuses me, and the only way I know how to respond is to question you, probe you, to make sure I’m understanding what’s going on.

Your words hit me hard because they are “words from a language that few speak.” You speak your own language, when you do speak, and I’m always trying to understand what you’re pointing to. And you show little emotion, you reveal so little in wordless ways (your face is often flat, like a mask, especially during moments that produce the most emotion in me), so I probe you, not fully believing in the exterior, wondering what’s hiding in there, or if it’s empty space. Wondering what your emotions are. You must have some emotions. But what are they?

I want your words, especially since you so rarely give me words. I don’t care if you seem cold; but I do care if I don’t understand. I always want to know what you feel in addition to what you think. And if you can’t express what you feel in words or in general emotions without words, I don’t really know who you are, I don’t really know what’s there inside you. I suppose you could say that who you are can’t be expressed in words or emotions…but when you do use words, so much is there, your words open up Pandora’s box.

You say, “Do you want to trust someone? Or do you want to trust me?” I don’t agree with what you’re getting at. You are not a someone; you are The One. There is no one else. I’m not looking for a someone.

My whole relationship with you—my interest in you—is based on words. What I most distrust is silence (and appearances).

Otto: We distrust different things. Appearances I don’t distrust because I assume they are just that, appearances. It is what we are convinced is behind those appearances, what we think is most real and true, that has the greatest potential for harm and is, as such, deserving of distrust. Apparent dangers are harmless; it’s the real ones that count. And the real ones are always precisely the ones you do not want to believe are real. We are most liable to self-deception exactly when we think we are in touch with reality, with truth. The truth is personal: it is always “what you don’t want to believe” and since “what we don’t want to believe” will vary from person to person, the truth will vary accordingly. My demons may not be yours.

Ora: Yes, I think it’s true that we distrust different things. And we talk about these things in opposite ways. Most of all, in you I distrust the unwillingness to try to communicate, even if communication is impossible. Just the trying is what’s important. But you refuse to try. It’s as if someone has to accept your terms 100%. You feel unbendable to me.

For someone who distrusts words so much, it seems you’d pay more attention to the wordless things. But you hardly see what’s in front of you. My facial expressions are sometimes radical, but you don’t notice. This shocks me—all that you don’t see that’s right in front of you. If you were more aware, on a personal level, I wonder how you’d use words.

Aside from the fact that you are with me, and stay with me, I still don’t know what you feel for me, what you want from me… It seems you want to be alone, but since you’re already with me, you’re stuck with me, you feel a certain responsibility, like feeding your cats, and so you tolerate me. But it doesn’t seem that you want to be with me or even appreciate me, I’m simply here…at least that’s how it feels.

The most striking thing about you in this relationship with me, now, is the fact that you refuse intimacy. And if there isn’t intimacy, what’s left?

Otto: Men and women do nothing the same. They don’t go to the bathroom the same. Their food doesn’t taste the same. The clothing against their skin doesn’t feel the same. They are not creative in the same way. They are not destructive in the same way. They don’t experience pleasure or pain the same. Their relationship to killing and dying is not the same. To birth and nurturing, to work and play, to sex and romance, to art and science, to toilet seats and maps, to language and thought, to being lost, to fear, to love, to violence, to touch, to numbers and shapes, to pitches and smells and colors, to crime and morality, to rules and…to all these and to a thousand other things, all, all different. No doubt heaven or hell will be equipped with separate restrooms.

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