The Art of Yearning

Nonfiction / RJ Eldridge

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate…
— T.S. Eliot, from “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”


And it is truly no exaggeration to describe the “concentrated distraction” that with its billions of tiny shocks focuses human attention on something that breaks it down, as attention deficit. It is possible to defend ourselves against the effect of this situation; in the immediate future it will not be possible to prevent it. But if you can count to three you can also figure out that what currently goes by the name of ADHD … is just an overture, a beginning, a tuning up, announcement, and anticipation of the main themes, just as in music.
— Christoph Turcke, from The Philosophy of Dreams


Since, as O.D. Creutzfeld points out, it is the mode of symbolic self- representation which functions as the external loop that links up with the neurophysiological machinery of the brain to create our “worlds of mind” or modes of consciousness, the world views through which we know Self / World and orient our behavior, the shift from the Divine Name to the Verbal Symbol Man—as in 1917, from Man to the Verbal Symbol, Proletarian—was a shift to the first secular mode of human consciousness.
— Sylvia Wynter, from “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism”

Part One: On Oneness

On this mild, hazy Wednesday in Hyde Park, I’m walking up 53rd street toward the lake. Walking, as they say, with purpose, like I have somewhere to be, even though today I don’t. The lake’s always there, and whenever I’m free enough I aspire to some time on the rocks at Promontory Point, where I can look north to downtown Chicago’s distant skyline. It’s late March, and finally starting to warm up, so lots of people are out today despite the haze. There’s a car in every spot along the street and a pedestrian every few squares on the sidewalk. I breeze along, passing first an elderly couple who hesitate at a Health Food storefront, then a cluster of teens who laugh at some shared joke one reveals from her phone, then a black man in tatters who asks me if I have any change today. Not today, sir.

As I approach the intersection of 53rd and Lake Park, I see the bright DO NOT WALK signal, and I slow down. The trail of cars that had been stopped at the red light move, one after another, like segments of a centipede. Their snaking brings to mind something on which I’ve been ruminating for a couple of days now, ever since that night I streamed a strange documentary about insects [1]. I remember sitting before my laptop screen mesmerized at how the ants divided their labor and paraded laurels through tunnels dug with their own heads. How the bees swarmed, farmed and danced with an order so deep, I doubted human minds could truly decipher it. I saw thorn-sharp wasps wage wars of enormous violence, their elegant legs dangling in mid-air. And in the wet, a glistening slug undulated on another in primal symmetry. The frame angled wide to catch these bugs in multitude, it was easy to imagine them as us, us as them. But when the camera zoomed in and the narrator spoke as though the individual insect that now took up the whole frame possessed a person, an identity, I felt strangeness peek through a boundary in me. I’ve been walking with its imprint ever since. This is what I thought: what if even one had an inkling of light in its mind? I’ve sprayed whole colonies of ants dead. Roach bombed apartments without a second thought. What could such a life weigh? That’s what I’m thinking now, as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons” magnifies on a motorcycle’s booming sound system and a siren slues fading around a corner. Chatter purls through air like restaurant exhaust, language to consume. Tires rush, grind, squeal. Horns compete for attention, echoing off glass and brick and steel. The trees are just in bloom and I hear from behind their branches the faint, piercing, bell-like calls of birds. I feel I’m being led somewhere, perhaps to an overwhelming question, when it hits me, the breeze around a corner in my mind:

Why do I keep going? What compels me to keep the days?

Were you to ask me what I do, I’d probably tell you I’m a creative, an expressive, an artist. I’m supposed to note what troubles me, what incites me to think, make and remember. Alive and awake in an era when one can earn a living for being oneself and telling about it, I should be exhilarated. After all, never have greater technologies of connection and communication existed and for this reason, among others, ours is an epic time. Yet in the haze today, I find myself unsettled. Walking through a crowd, isolation walks with me. I can feel it buzz. From the grip of this feeling I perform a common act of magic. I conjure a second person to share in my fate.

Part Two: The Second Person

All around you the people go. You see them and they see you. Their eyes say I’m interested, but what you hear is: Get in my mouth. You aren’t wrong. They aren’t either. You’re walking along a paved path when a dry mouth calls to you—Hey!— asking for change so its owner can get something to eat. When you say Sorry I got nothing, it says God bless you. But darkly, so you hear the God damn you beneath it. Maybe you imagine it. Maybe you think, Everybody wants something to eat. But when you ask yourself what do I really want, the answer surprises you: I want to get to know myself, part by part. And if possible, get to know selves beyond your body. You pray to make a habit of this knowledge-seeking, considering the divine as good a name as any for the source of all that can be known. Whether it exists or not has always been someone else’s problem. You’ve lost your religion. You seek to perfect a cycle, to place an obligation on yourself that you might actually rise to keep.

You’re not hurting for worldly obligations, as the bills on your kitchen table testify. You owe more than you’ve ever seen in one place in real life. You’ve stopped opening the envelopes because you already know what they’re going to say. You hate spoilers. What’s to gain from looking? So instead you carry them around in your head as you walk and when the collectors call, you tell them what you tell the people on the street who ask you for money: Sorry I got nothing. You check your Twitter and wade in the flood of news. You scroll the feed with your digit. Each swipe leaves a trail of data. Each mark lasts indefinitely in a cloud. Your remember how at the Museum of Science, you ran your fingers against the glass globe and blue lightning found each one in turn. And how later, overhead, the Tesla coils roared serpentine sparks, curved blue apparitions. Static electricity, you thought. Same principle holds with the phone. You trace the bolt across the screen, and the scroll unfolds its tropes. Brings you this new world’s new history in photos, videos, memes, likes, dislikes, prayers, peals, queries, entreaties. If information is wealth, never have we been richer. If data is food, then the feed is cornucopia; and yet, increasingly, when you go hungry to the screen, you feel hungrier after you’ve eaten. On the hardest days, you entertain a confusion between the food and the feeder: which, you let yourself ask, are you?

Part Three: Something There Is

I look up from my screen and on the sidewalk, a swarthy, fluffy-haired woman pushes a double stroller in which two light-skinned toddlers sit drinking from juiceboxes. A white man, capped, bearded, wearing a black suit, shoulders the light wind beyond her. Haze limits the distance I can see past him on this block. At its threshold, forms appear from it, disappear into it, like mirages, or the changes that occur in dreams. It happened overnight. One day it was a beautiful, quaint neighborhood rich with history and peopled largely by middle aged black folks who’d crowd into Valois Cafeteria or one of the cafes around Harper Square to tell stories of the good old days. By the next, it had bloomed into the jewel of the University of Chicago, replete with stylishly young, white settlers suited for skyrocketing rents. I’m an artist. I came in the night. I felt invited. I was, I suppose, part of their invitation. I didn’t foresee the Whole Foods, Michael’s, luxury apartments, Target, the Obama Library. Such is the nature of change: it surprises you. Just the other morning, on a rush hour-packed bus, a stocky, gray-bearded black man declared to everyone, “Y’all need to vote! Hil-lary Clinton!” and a young white man announced, “Right on, brother!” The whole exchange louder than seemed necessary, or even possible.

I return to social media to find it’s adapting to my political interests. I’m offered satire and scare pieces on Trump. Some pro-Bernie ads. He’s the people’s man. Critique of Hilary Clinton. The lesser evil. But she’s out of touch. She panders with one hand and holds a noose in the other. She and her husband are just alike. It’s all so super predatory. The social network to which my Internet activity most inclines me, according to AI computations: Democrats of the radical Left who like high contrast portrait photography of fashionable black people in urban or leafy settings, who share zodiac insights and self care routines. The latter is needed as I graze the feeds, immersing myself in a corrupted body politic. Blush-fleshed Donald Trump promises, as others before him have promised, to make America great again. So far, his propositions to that end have included building a wall between the United States and Mexico, halting Muslim immigration, forcing American Muslims to sign up for a registry, bombing the families of suspected terrorists, and getting tough on domestic opposition through beefed up police departments and fast tracks to criminal charges.

I know the list. Like everyone else, I’ve been memorizing it. I’ve seen him hug cops for photo ops and smile greasily into the camera, a wolf in wolf’s clothing. And I’ve seen the mostly white, mostly blue collar mass, gathered for the spectacle of exhortation, gleefully affirm. We’re going to build a wall. It’s going to be built. It’s not even—believe it or not—it’s not even a difficult thing to do…

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of that Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall,” most specifically of the refrain: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.” And of Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Square manhood, white as the unseeing eye. And of course of Hitler, because how could the association escape me, I, who like so many, am hungry? If not Hitler, then at least Andrew Jackson, whose Manifest Destiny and Trail of Tears echoes the call for brown expulsion, and who, if recent reports are true, will soon himself be sent to the back of the twenty dollar bill, to be replaced on its face with Harriet Tubman. Is this cold revenge?

But then Prince died.

But then Beyonce dropped Lemonade.

But then another black man was shot in the back by a cop and the video’s gone viral.

But then North Korea declared.

And the bees are still dying.

And the earth is still warming.

And nations churn outside these borders.

Event piles on event, a tower of invitations to the web.

What it all amounts to, I can’t tell. But you can see how I’m beginning to suspect that something’s shifting in the signs. Either that, or it’s finally time to admit that the empire’s signifiers might be as empty as the emperor’s closet.

Part Four: The Purge

In an Uber heading west on 63rd street, your black, NOI [2] driver, prompted, perhaps, by your silence, tells you Look out the window. See all them people with nowhere to go? Nothing to do? Fulfilling no purpose? A clustering-unclustering of folk, black, in grey light, deep shadow, near a diamond-barred corner store. It is an affront to God. He’s gonna use the white racists to purge the earth of them. A sign: BEER - WINE - GROCERY - LOTTERY. The Book of Revelations says behold a Pale Horse, and his name was Death, and Hell followed him, and power was given to them to kill with the sword. A pale horse. The scripture say that. Empty lot, cracked. Trash in the recess. A mural. A black boy and a black girl bookend a statement in wild style: Chicago Respect // Our City Kids // STOP THE VIOLENCE. That’s what Donald Trump and all this stuff means. God’s gonna bring his judgment so he can make a new world. Uhuh. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad said Anybody who does not have a knowledge of self has either amnesia or unconsciousness. He says this condition prevails among black people in America. You say nothing, keep looking out the window until you arrive.

Later, as you watch the Republican Debate, when a commercial for The Purge: Election Year comes on, you can’t tell if it’s a movie or a campaign ad, or what, in the end, is the difference. You watch House of Cards and think of all the people who vicariously ascend to their own imagined throne. Think of those seeking the real Presidency, and of the man who’s already there. You live in his neighborhood, the one that’s changing so fast. Every restaurant that’s been there longer than three years has an Obama Special. It’s Obama town in Obama city in Obama country. All bear the mark this man makes on history, the history of men. But what, precisely, is a man? Or the question might be, what is human? Or is it: what’s happening? Maybe sort of every generation has its sort of moment like this, where everybody sort of at once considers the sort of possibility of extinction. On the feed, Obama says ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States, but climate change is. Both in and out of your hands. On another, one young outspoken man among those arrested at the Chicago Trump rally cancelled due to violence (pixelated head-bloodied cops, men pulled hair-first to the ground, protestors and supporters in a mortal clash) says he’s willing to fight to his dying breath for justice because as a young person it will be his generation’s world to inherit. It strikes you as axiomatic, so you frame it in your journal that night: the old ones’ mess will be the young ones’ chore.

Part Five: Current

If the question is, What am I becoming? then the answer might be electric being. It might be node in a multiple, cluster of quarks and electrons. Or maybe aggregate of opinions shared in binary terms: Hegelian dialectic, Du Boisian double consciousness turned yea or nay. I can elect to like or not to like. Addendum from a selection of choice emoticons, expressive yellow faces given, perhaps, numerical value whose secret meanings only the programmers know.

When I play the computer in chess, I almost always lose. Its AI thinks several steps ahead of me and can’t be stared down. It learns my tendencies and teaches me by punishing my repetitive strategy. Is this knowledge? A gathering of computers recently beat a world champion in five straight matches of Go. Every news story reporting the feat bears some mention that the game is more than a thousand years old, ancient Chinese in origin. This isn’t the first time something manmade beat a man so well-versed in it. But it’s a new milestone. Go is far more complex than chess. The gathering of computers calculated each move from hundreds of thousands of possibilities. And they won five times in a row.

On Twitter, I ask sincerely, the Uber driver echoing in my head, When will they make a computer to beat the devil? It’s an old concept. New metaphors for this feeling might not yet exist. If the stimulus is new then the flight must be, too. If the subject has never existed, then the conjuring must also be new. Unless reaching for that which is always new and old at the same time, which is no time, the new must renew with those living it.


In Chicago, everyone knows to keep their eyes open. Nobody wants to be caught lacking, which is to say, unaware. When certain people enter a room, you can feel the electricity shift. I don’t know how I know it shifts, or even that it’s electric. It’s a sense, I think, not of anything so clear as danger, but of the weight of what we bring with us into a situation. The matter of that weight disperses in space, altering it towards a new equilibrium. Dogs have this sense. Insects, birds and plants have it, too. Watch closely how a potted bush responds to your presence. Sing to it and it grows. Scream at it and it withers. Over time, it’ll bend toward a source of light. Some cockroaches know when you’re looking at them with malice. What difference does it make when it’s you who holds the shoe?

Part Six: Event

Already you miss the illusion of a private mind. You shudder when you think of how predictive text evolved to predictive apps, how they—whoever they are—can target almost every quantity language can name and data can isolate. Yesterday’s personal matters are todays’ public domain, open to be consumed by men and swine alike. What once passed for a definition of human being—cognition—is now dwarfed in public opinion by the calculating power of what cognition has made.

Can such be rightly called nature, this world man produced, that leaps between nodes, masquerading as though subject to the whim of your fingers? Worry issues its faithful reminder: so much is in the air. Your body knows the speed of leaps it took generations to make. Biological evolution, natural selection—slowly walking towards this rapid moment. The ineffable machine as natural as struck flint, as organic as the method a gene applies to manifest its character in a sign. Maybe this yearning you feel is just life. Maybe all things age into the alien: cut off at the end of one story, pushed into a dark we can’t out-see in the next.

If so, it’s understandable that you’ve had trouble maintaining a face lately. Concerned and alarmed at your absence, loved ones ask if you’re okay. You leave, you tell yourself, to cherish moments of silence and the kind of solitude you never imagined you’d miss when you first encountered its cure. But the cure was antibiotic; it incited mutation. Turns out the remedy was more addictive than the disease, and just as deadly. So when you leave the fray to take a sabbath, and go to the words in your journal, trying to remember how you got here, you consider your obligation only to what you can actually touch. After sunset, you return to the fray and find the noise persists. The throng drags and burns. You have a suspicion about that. Others before you have thought it, too. It’s simple. The world’s already ended. The singularity’s behind us. We’re in a kind of afterimage, the blurred pull at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon. Nothing escapes. Then—something escapes, but we dare not say what it is.


1. Microcosmos (1996), directed by Claude Nuridsany & Marie Pérennou. [↥]
2. As in, Nation of Islam. [↥]

RJ Eldridge is a writer, multidisciplinary artist and teacher. His writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Vinyl, Kweli, Obsidian, the Offing, Puerto Del Sol and others. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Whiskey of our Discontent: Gwendolyn Brooks as Conscience and Change Agent (2017 Haymarket Books) edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Georgia A. Popoff. His photography, visual and performance work has been exhibited at the Logan Center, Chicago Art Department, Hyde Park Arts Center, Arts Incubator, Galeria Bianconi and others. His current body of work in text and images concerns yearning and the black mind.