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Ep. 16: The Trauma of the Image and the Aloneness of Authenticity

Updated: Jun 20

Listen to this episode on Spotify here, or Apple Podcasts here. 

"Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered..." Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The key points in this "speaking":

  • On the sensation of time passing, the threat of invisibility as we age, and the desire to give up the pursuit of bodily beauty. (We can never be worthy of love. Love, if it is to be love, must disrupt those calculations of worthiness, of deserving). 

  • We think we live in an empirical age, but our empirical data is wholly abstract. In fact, we live in an elaborate world of conceptual virtuality. We have lost the senses (i.e. the felt sense of the world/ body).

  • An image is a third party relation through which we triangulate objectivity— language and even events are also social signifiers (like a wedding day, funeral, or exotic location). While the word "trauma" is often overused, I think image-identification is an original kind of trauma, the rupture/gap between one's blind experience and the "objective" signification of such an experience.

  • The age of the image, the age of the screen, the age of the spectacle is an age in which our social signifiers make everything appear to be the same. We live through these mediated symbols to such a degree that we can no longer feel the particularity of our own experiences. 

  • The same applies to the particularity of romantic, fraternal, or familial love: we love images, not people. We love what is seen by society, not what is felt.

  • We use these social signifiers because we don’t want to inhabit our lives alone. We want to be seen. But only you can inhabit the life you were given.

  • To be truly yourself, you have to die to the public gaze, you have have to be willing to betray the calculation of what others deem to be happiness, and you must accept that the truest happiness cannot be expressed.

  • The most beautiful moments and profoundest loves are kept and guarded in silence because no translation can do them justice. This is an age that has forgotten that language can capture only the smallest territory of inner experience. You must travel your vast terrain of inner experience alone (but this is precisely the intimacy with others that you seek—intimacy with the other of your self).

Other Notes:

  • I'm not sure why I emphasize aloneness so often (and death—my work is certainly un-fitted to the peppy self-help age!), but I suppose it's because aloneness has plagued me from a very young age— and because it can be seen through as being fundamentally unreal, but only when lived to its ends (even death can be lived to its ends). In this essay, I write that "illusion is the road to Reality. Reality is nothing but illusions made transparent to their origins."

  • I have found that the fastest way to sever intimacy with the world is to need the world to love me or to salve my aloneness. And yet, I don't advocate aloneness in the sense of external relations, but rather see aloneness as a state of internal integrity/ self-belonging/ authenticity. In fact, we all require strong bonds and deep communities, and I feel incredibly grateful to have both in this life season. Paradoxically, such supportive friendships embolden me to face my own "aloneness," my own ever-shifting life experience.

  • Two books come to mind on this topic: Rilke's ever-giving Letters to a Young Poet, which I recommend everyone read, poet or not (the previous link is a free pdf you can read online) and Vivian Gornick's Approaching Eye Level, a book of beautifully written essays, many of which approach the topic of aloneness with clear-eyed honesty (originally recommended by the brilliant Matthew Morgan of Art of Conversation).

  • Also mentioned (in name only, but the book is short and worth reading) is Guy Debord's classic Society of the Spectacle.


In this episode, I mentioned that we primarily love images of the person/people we claim to love, not the person themselves. So I crafted this practice in order to uncover the intimacy of unknowability:

Unknowability as Intimacy:

Is your desire to know your romantic partner motivated by a gentle curiosity, or driven by a need to control? Not “control” in a straightforward way, perhaps, but the need to control the narrative of who they might be and what future you may have together. Many of us share a compulsion to categorize, predict, and make transparent the people and things that seem most crucial to our sense of safety and fulfillment. If you can know your lover fully, says the mind, you can keep her— both in the perpetuity of a possible future and in the cramped confines of your own mind. Like a locket made to keep a tiny image of the beloved, we use our conceptual minds as a means of controlling the image of the one who could hurt us most deeply. But the picture is not the person, and no category or thought can pin down the one you love. The more you grasp, the more the beloved eludes you. 

In fact, the more intimately you know the lover sensually and spiritually, the less you know them conceptually. The deepest intimacy arises from the freedom of unknowability. 

Here’s a practice of deep sight you can try with a person you love, whether romantically or otherwise:

  • For a few minutes beforehand, cleanse your mind of your false graspings. 

  • Lay down, breathe deeply, and recite in your mind “know nothing, know nothing, know nothing.” Let this be your mantra until your mind unwinds its knots of certainty. 

  • Mind split back into wonder, open your eyes. Give the lover the gift of your spacious sight. 

  • Make eye contact for 5 minutes, until the initial awkwardness and insecurity subsides. Watch the face unfold new landscapes of expression, new depths.

  • Rest in the newness of love between: a newness without grasping, without needing the lover to be anything but this open pulse of shared seeing. 

If you crave this intimacy without grasping, you may also enjoy this podcast episode on Why Your Partner Can't Complete You (and why we convince ourselves, in spite of our most avowed skepticism, that they can).

Listener Insights: 

How do you express yourself in the visual age? How do you make peace with that which cannot be expressed?

If you want your insights to be shared (with your name or anonymously), comment on this blog post, email me, or answer the Spotify questions attached to the episode.

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Beautiful insights. I wonder how this might be approached phenomenologically, experientially:

"To be truly yourself, you have to die to the public gaze, you have have to be willing to betray the calculation of what others deem to be happiness, and you must accept that the truest happiness cannot be expressed." What is that like, to die to the public gaze? Rather than an act to DO, this seems to be to call for a radical willingness to SEE how I am alive to the public gaze, how my integrity, my deeper aloneness, is compromise by this attachment and identification with the public gaze. What happens as I start to even contemplate letting go of that? What kind of fear, loneliness vs aloneness arise…

Replying to

These insights are so helpful. I love the focus on identification with the public gaze, as I believe death of identification is the only "death" that can really occur. The idea is not to go underground or leave swaths of experience unexpressed out of fear of being misunderstood. Rather, the idea is to cease identifying with the calculation of public narratives so that some things MAY remain hidden/ unexpressed if that is where authenticity leads (or if such experiences are not fully translatable). And YES, this requires that we face all the ways we hope our self-shaped wound can be filled by the self-shaped wound of another individual (or the abstract individual of the public). Real communion is not completion.…

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