Tag: desolation

aesthetics of desolation

Life May 17, 2020

I haven’t been active on this blog lately except for the time when I posted a bunch of overdue edits that I took over the year before the pandemic. (Please check them out! I am quite proud of them.) Truth be told, I haven’t been writing much at all. I am not going to make up a lame excuse that I have been busy or piled with work, because time is what everyone has left at this time. Lately I have been spending increasingly concerning amount of time on Netflix, been paranoid about every slightest, briefest interaction I make on the streets, however insignificant that may be. I worry a lot — which surely can be an absolute time-killer — about a lot of things: my flat back in London for which I am still paying rent, my short-lived writing career that ended in a blink of a season, or what I am going to be like just in a year (because it is indeed a strange time, and there’s no way of telling what lies ahead. But that is a whole other rant.)

I have been productive in the most superficial sense — I have written one essay, did some translation work, found some passing moments to actually sit myself down and read, and cooked. I haven’t exactly done nothing, but it definitely does not feel like something. Time is fleeting away, and the conscious effort of lifting myself up from my bed every afternoon is a constant, flinching reminder how ungrateful I am of the ephemerality of time. If you look up the definition of time, you will get this: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. Time is not just a set of numbers you see on your clock. It is a measurement of your existence — in its totality and necessity. Time is indefinite, but our time isn’t. So to think that I am letting some of my pivotal hours of existing slip by isn’t the most calming topic to mull over.

This term I took a class that explores how narrative frames cities (or how cities frame narratives) in East Asian Literature. One of the works we studied was Zhang Ailing’s novella Love in a Fallen City, and it is about Liusu, who comes from a very traditional family meets a Westernized womanizer Liuyuan and falls in love. They exhibit feelings toward each other throughout the narrative and yet because Liusu’s goal is to get Liuyuan to marry her (for the benefit of her family and her social reputation) and Liuyuan’s isn’t, they have a constant discord in their emotions. Only when there is a bombing is Hong Kong, they realize nothing else truly matters other than each other’s presence. This is the moment where the commercialization and frivolity of emotions are rendered meaningless.

Zhang calls this the ‘aesthetics of desolation’. She defines the word desolation as the sense of destruction and emptiness that comes from destruction. The perception of annihilation that is caused by external, and often physical forces, which ultimately leads to the feeling of lamentation and sorrow over what is being lost. But why is it aesthetic? Where does the beauty come from? How is the scene of your world crumbling down before your eyes be in any way tasteful? In the grounds of ruin and ineluctable doom, what could you possibly witness?

Only at this strange and surreal time I thought of this phrase. The aesthetics of desolation. The aesthetic is that it provides revelation. The significance of ‘what really matters’. The destruction of our physical walls also mean that stripping the worldly concerns away. Our reality is vulgar, and people are desolate and solitary. So right now I am thinking about what really matters. I think about the people I left behind, things that I didn’t have a chance to say because I was scared. I think about the ‘thank you’s and ‘I love you’s that I have been too petty to use. The time I didn’t call my parents, the time I bailed on my friends because I didn’t feel like walking the distance, or the time I avoided a goodbye which little did I know then, would’ve been the last. I would have said plenty if I could to go back. But we can’t, can we? We live with these losses.

We all have a list of things that we think that matter, but are you going to think about those in your deathbed? When the world comes crashing around you or everything you have believed and known dissipates, are those still the things you are going to hold onto? We live in a streak of actions and choices, and in a certain trajectory that we think is proper and standard because apparently, there is a point to all these. There better be a fucking point, because I hope to God that I am not thinking about apartment-searching in Bloomsbury or the futility of Tinder in my deathbed. Because I am pretty sure they are not what really matters. And I certainly hope not. 

I am trying to untangle some thoughts as I write so bear with me. I guess what I am trying to say is, I am trying to grapple with what matters the most to me. There is a constant motif of loss in my life, but the resurgence of this age-old notion is especially palpable right now. But I am trying to put it to good use. It is a time of desolation. And in times of desolation there is always an unease about the unstable and turbulent everyday. I just hope we can use this unease to really look into the unprocessed, undiluted thoughts of ourselves. To find out what really matters.

So wherever you are, I hope you are safe. And I hope you find what you are looking for.