the bardo of composition

First let me say that I am far from an "expert" in Buddhism. However I’ve had an intellectual interest in Buddhism for some time and more recently some practical experience in adopting daily meditation (which has been fantastic but isn’t what I’m going to focus on here).

Bardo is a concept that is particularly integral to Tibetan Buddhism. As Soygal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, "the word ‘bardo’ is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened." In approaching my thinking on composition from this angle, I need to be careful. I don’t want to belittle this important spiritual concept. I also don’t want to appear to be draping some kind of mysticism onto writing (I don’t think of Buddhism in that way, but someone else might).

Anyway, in my view, bardo rests upon the foundation of Buddhism.

  • impermanence (anitya)
  • no self (anatman)
  • no concepts (nirvana)

In each moment the world is made and unmade. This is not a mystical concept. It’s not even about quantum physics. It is simply the observation that in each moment the world changes; birth and dying occur. Moments pass from a virtual future into an irretrievable past. The present moment is a kind of bardo itself, a liminal state between the birth of the future into the present and the death of the present into the past. Indeed Tibet Buddhists refer to life as a kind of bardo. 

So things change in constant flux with one another. As such, there is no real self. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching "nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you. During the past hour, different elements have entered you and other elements have flown out of you. Your happiness, in fact your existence, comes from things that are not you." Finally though, we see that even impermanence and nonself are concepts that must be surrendered. One must even let go of "letting go." All these concepts are tools that help us, but in the end they are only tools not reality. Reality is not conceptual and cannot, in the end, be conceptualized.

Perhaps because I come to Buddhism with Derrida and Deleuze in my head, I see it in those terms, particularly in relation to writing. Of course the concept of nonself fits. Of course the idea of impermanence fits with becoming and multiplicity. I also think here about Blanchot and Orpheus in relation to death. But I’ll focus on this one point where Deleuze and Guattari note (in Anti-Oedipus) that "the body without organs is the model of death." Here are a few related passages from this section

The experience of death is the most common of occurrences in the unconscious, precisely because it occurs in life and for life, in every passage or becoming, in every intensity as passage or becoming.

death is what is felt in every felling, what never ceases and never finishes happening in every becoming–in the becoming-another-sex, the becoming-god, the becoming-a-race, etc., forming zones of intensity on the body without organs. Every intensity controls within its own life the experience of death, and evelops it. And it is doubtless the case that every intensity is extinguished at the end, that every becoming itself becomes a becoming-death! (330)

The I continually dies and is reborn in each cycle, impermanent in each moment. Writing, as a machine, also lies outside of the self and its concepts. When we seek, logocentricly I suppose, to assert ourselves and our ideas or concepts as permanent entities, to extend the permanence of our presence in time/space, we come in direct conflict with these conditions.

But what does all this have to do with composition? Everything, of course. Before you have a theory of composition you need a theory of … well…. composition. That is, writing is just one category of items that are subject to a more generally concept of composition. If we think about the composition of the world, our selves, and our minds in these terms, then by extension we must rethink the composition of media/writing.

Here I turn in part to Blanchot and the idea of insouciance in his treatment of Orpheus. The danger here lies in trying to rediscover or hold onto an origin, to fix the meaning of the composition. Instead one must turn away, with insouciance. If compositions are impermanent, then we look at them differently. Look at whatever it is you are writing today: what will it look like in 100 years? a thousand? Eventually all things fade away, but at the same time they carry on, transformed, mutated. Impermanence is not a cause for sadness for writers! It is a cause for celebration. If the world were not impermanent, we would be unable to compose anything new.

A few weeks back I wrote a post wondering why writing made me such a jerk. And I’m starting to get an answer to that question, I think. Writing causes me suffering when I attach so much to it, when I try to control it. This is not a call to just let it all go or give up "rigor" or whatever. It’s a reminder (to myself first of all) to remember that composition is impermanent; that it neither begins nor ends here; that my "self" as an author is just a concept in this space; and most of all that writing can only take place in the bardo of the present moment.

Interestingly in meditation one seeks to focus one’s attention on the present moment, to see what is here, now. And yet, ironically, there is no other place we can be, so we try hard to find the present moment when we are inescapably in it. I think the "bardo of composition" suggests something similar. It is also inescapable. Yet we are called upon to pay attention to the composition of our thoughts, to their articulation in language and formation into text or media.

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