Genius Loci and Jamais Vu


Neil Gaiman offering a little bit of inspiration up in here.  You’d think the solitude would make the words come to me more easily.  Untrue.  My greatest distraction has always been myself.  It’s how it always was: that blank page staring so accusingly, crushing your rosy dreams with its stark truth.  

My friend recently talked to me about the jamais vu phenomenon, which is best explained in relation to deja vu.  Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before, even though you’ve never actually been to that particular locale in your life.  But it’s not so much that the place is familiar to you seeing as the location is still alien. Rather it’s that the emotion it evokes from you, that rises like a treacherous serpent from your chest, is familiar.  Jamais vu is the opposite, sometimes more sinister phenomenon.  It’s when a familiar place suddenly seems foreign.

I’ll admit that it has come to me amicably.  Notably, on a clear, cloudless morning on my way to The Strand bookstore.  Union Square wasn’t its usual eyesore.  The farmers’ market blanketed the earth with its early harvest.  And the city didn’t feel like home suddenly, like my old stomping ground, but rather as a place wholly unfamiliar and utterly foreign.  It was amazing.  I should explain that I was suffering a great deal of wanderlust at the time.  For me, that morning was a chance to leave while my feet were still tied to the ground.  If I could bottle that feeling to take with me and give the world just a light spritz whenever I feel too stuck in one place, then maybe I wouldn’t have the urge to travel every few months: to tie up my scarf and roam like a nomad over the packed earth.

Still.  There are times when it’s not so pleasant.  Like my mother’s whole apartment after her passing.  All of its home-like qualities vanished, and an unnerving darkness settled there instead: as bleak as the River Styx.  It was clearly and irrevocably not ours anymore, or familiar except in surface.  If it weren’t, you know, actually sharing three walls with other people’s homes I would have wanted to torch that place to the ground.  When I’m writing, in the future, and I need a genius loci or two I will have a model for one that is wholly unpleasant to the point of being evil—not in the double double toil and trouble sense necessarily, but in the twisted sense of reality gone horribly, awfully wrong.  Of the world careening off axis.  Of the familiar becoming alien to the point of incomprehensible.  Jamais vu.

I have that feeling now, slightly, sitting on the floor I actually spend the majority of time at at school.  I’m technically working, actually.  It’s Friday night around ten o’clock and I am seriously wondering why I’m still here, seeing as it’s become abundantly clear to me this evening that no one else will be showing up.  And in the quiet stillness, there is a slight sense of jamais vu.  Not for any sinister reason, merely because in my mind, except for in the very, very early mornings, this floor is always packed.  At least one of the buchlas is always screaming like a theramin, music and AV clips are always leaking out of different studios, and there’s always a bunch of stupid undergrads like me with our feet blocking the aisle, cursing ourselves blue.  To be honest, it’s a bit unnerving not to have all of that.  It sounds kind of stupid but this place has been my bedrock this semester.  While I’ve been losing my last parent and burning my childhood and leaving home, it’s been kind of constant. Unwaveringly alive.  To feel alone here is foreign.

Nothing like a little jamais vu to spice up your Friday night.


Secret Worlds

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

Neil GaimanSandman Vol 5 A Game of You

There’s a scene in Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker (Abarat is a series that I read voraciously when I was younger but probably will never revisit because it will give me nightmares now) where the heroine gets harassed for the contents of her dreams.  Not dreams like the ones that visit us in the night mind you, but our waking dreams that we may or may not share with anybody.  And in that scene, all of the characters carry their dreams over their heads like little universes: there for all the world to see.

Some days I wish I could be so open.  My dreams, or any part of my whole inner world, appear only when they slip out. Maybe the word I’m looking for here is not slip but ooze.  I’ve been told that I’m carrying all the worst parts of myself on my sleeve—something I should have realized myself, long ago.  It’s frustrating, because I know there is a shred of a kernel of me buried deep down that is as adamantine as diamond, as pure as Vajra fire, but it never sees the light of day.  Instead, I am all sharp smiles and serrated edges; so full of complex longings that my horrors have hydra heads: for each habit I break three more spring in its wake.

The lighter I try to tread upon the world the more I sabotage. My thoughts are treacherous. They betray me: selfish things I should deny or put away because they are too sharp, and to run with them means someone always ends up losing an eye.

The best part of you is that you always try to help other people.  A woman told me this when I was seventeen.  She encouraged me to play the cello from this part of myself, so that my sound would always be pure and fulfilled.  Oh, if she could hear me now.  How mean and thin a line my bow makes against the strings.

It goes back to worlds again. I hurt people (inadvertently, on purpose, in small or big ways) when I’m being selfish. In Chinese the word for I (我) “wo” has a dagger inside it.  The ancients avoided using it.

I am modern, and stupider than they.  I am selfish and do not live for others. And when I do not consider the other as having his or her own complex, beautiful world inside of them with a myriad motivations and sensitivities, I sometimes find myself wanting to change people or cookie cutter them, both of which are profoundly stupid things in which I will never succeed.  It’s hypocritical in the extreme to try to place people in boxes when one of my most firmly held beliefs is that there is always hope for change: that the malleable nature of humanity and the constant flux of the universe always mean becoming better is possible.

And really, the only times I ever feel hurt myself are when I’m being selfish.  When I focus only on how the actions of another affect me rather than realize that, in the grand schemes of their lives and motivations, I count for very little at all.

I should offer understanding instead. I should know that in the collisions of the universe, things that look accidental have reasons behind them all.  I should always try to do better myself.  There is no one I can change but me.

After all, there is a world inside of me that I need to cultivate so that when it flourishes, all of those around me may reap the fruits.