During an altercation, a man bludgeons his friend to death. He later on claims that there was a thing which caused him to commit the crime. In this regard, a thing is that which prods, it is that which provokes. All murders, one way or another, are prompted by a thing. Religious apologists will hasten to call this thing ‘the Devil’ hence naming the nameless. Religious sceptics will prob the possibility of God being the thing. After all, they ask, are we not all under His control. Did He not, by refusing the sacrifice of Cain, provoke the first murder?
What makes a thing a thing? What constitutes the thingness of a thing? A thing is that which exists but
But why speak of things in these abstract, bloodless terms. Allow me to veer towards the personal, for I too have a thing pulsating in the seat of my consciousness. It is a thing that radiates through my body, it is a thing that debilitates my bones, rendering me moribund. What is this thing that I speak of? I am not sure. One doctor tells me that the thing is a virus, another tells me that the thing is a bacteria, another tells me that it is neither a virus nor a bacteria, he tells me it’s psychological. ‘Ever heard of conversion disorder?’ the doctor asks, ‘ it is a condition where psychiatric symptoms manifest in physiological ways.’ In essence what the doctor is trying to tell me is that the thing inside me transitioned from the unreal to the corporeal.
In medical school, we used the word ‘ thing’ to denote a structure in the body whose name we cannot remember. And since there are many structures in the body, we usually spoke of many ‘things’. The Professor is aghast when, unable to recall, the student resorts to using the word ‘ thing’. ‘ The thing in the brain,’ the student mumbles,’ the thing that controls human emotions.’ ‘ Amygdala.’ the Professor chides the student, ‘ It’s called the amygdala. Have you been reading your neuroanatomy textbook?’
The German philosopher Novalis writes, ‘ We seek the absolute everywhere and only ever find things.’ Perhaps a thing is that which is not absolute. The existence of a thing still depends on the existence of others. Even seemingly independent things still quietly depend on the others for its functioning. We speak here, of course, of the interconnectivity of things.
Taking the notion of this interconnectivity further, Novalis writes, ‘ Everything that is lovable is a thing. One can only possess a thing.’ Hence a thing is that which we love and, by loving, possess. Love is that which binds us to another, the string that engenders interconnectivity. But we also know that love is thorny, and this thorn can prick us, making us bleed. It is often painful to possess. In one of the last poems he wrote before he killed himself, the Nigeria poet Akachi Chukwuemeka writes that ‘… love is a basket of painful things.’
When we are unable to remember the name of something we merely call it a ‘thing’. It is our way of maintaining a stranglehold on that which is desperately trying to stray from memory. It is our way of flinging it back into the confines of recollection, keeping it from dying. Because when things die, they fade from memory, and hence slide into non-existence. A thing becomes a non-thing.
PLATE # 13
A thing is that which we must not speak of, that which we evade. Because when we speak of it, we are forced to think about it, to rescue it from non-existence, to foist it on our minds. A thing is that which we think about.
A woman watches her son closely and notices him swooning over a boy. She asks the husband, ‘ Do you think our son is gay?’
The husband responds: ‘ We must not speak of these things.’
A thing is that which we do not acknowledge. But unacknowledged, the thingness of this thing still festers. It still endures.
A thing is that which we give life to. So in many ways a thing is an extension of the self that creates it. A writer’s book, an artist’s painting- these are things we create and by creating these things we imprint them with our essence. These things become reflections of our souls. Edvard Munch considered his paintings, his creations, to be part of him. This was why he was so reluctant to part with them.
PLATE # 12
Unable or unwilling to talk about the sources of their creativity, writers tend to use the word ‘thing’ to denote that which inspires them. They will speak of the thing that took hold of them, the thing that whispered lyrical and lucid words into their ears, prompting them to set down those words. A thing is that which brings forth writing; it is the wellspring of creativity.
From the incredible writer Maggie Nelson, I learnt that one can collect trivia and use it as the subject of a piece of writing. In her book Bluets, she writes about all things that are blue, things that are both real and ideal.
PLATE # 53
A thing is that which we seek, that which we yearn for. And because we are a species doomed to a perpetual state of insatiability, we are always acquiring things, cluttering our lives with things.
Could a thing be a virus? Could a thing be an idea? What is the connection between a virus and an idea? How is the thingness of an idea similar to the thingness of a virus? We now know that ideas can take on a virulent quality, spreading rapidly, invading insidiously. Of course presently there is a virus we must contend with, a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands. But we also have to contend with lethal ideologies, the kind of ideology that relegates people of a different race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, to a subhuman level. The world is awash with these harmful ideologies. Because of its lethality, because of its rapidity, the thingness of this ideology could be likened to the thingness of a virus.
PLATE # 21
Proving that a thing exists is more complicated than people would think. You would think that what exists exists and what doesn’t doesn’t. But more often than not we have been deluded into thinking that a thing exists when it in fact doesn’t. We realize that that thing is actually a non-thing.
This is the era of fake news, of hood-winking, of the perpetration of an illusion of a thing that doesn’t really exist. Most times this Illusion of a thing takes root and it becomes very difficult to yank it out. Left to blossom, this Illusion takes on a certain kind of potency.
There are those who take a perverse pleasure in cultivating this Illusion of a thing. These are mostly those who either do not know better or those who stand to benefit from the chaos that this illusion is bound to create.
PLATE # 11
A thing is that which is too powerful to name. A boy ties a rope to the ceiling and hangs himself. In his suicide note, he writes about this ‘thing’ that had invaded his body, coursing through his veins, pervading his senses, exacting an all too powerful control on the trajectory of his life, leading him to the doorsteps of death.
Blindness renders all things unseen. Seeing, we are told, is believing. But the blind believe even without seeing. So perhaps we should pay less attention to seeing, for seeing can be deceiving. Things we see might not necessarily be there. A hallucination is a sensory perception of things that do not exist. People use the term ‘seeing things’ to imply that a person is hallucinating. Much more than what we see, a thing is that which is felt.
We could consider a thing to be that which is unnerving, that which is disconcerting, that which is terrifying, a nameless fear. As children we were afraid of the thing that lurks in the shadows. But even as adults there are still things that terrify us.
A thing is that which, although on the verge of non-existence, has not yet died. It thrives, it throbs, it pulsates, pushing against that which aims to kill it.
A thing is that which we lose after the death of a loved one; it is that which creates a void in us, leaving us with a feeling of hollowness, of emptiness.
A thing is that which exists outside the spectrum of others. It is this distinctiveness, this apartness, that confers it its quality, making it a thing. Once it blends into others, it loses its thingness. But left alone for too long, a thing withers and dies, obliterating itself. To survive, a thing has to make contact with others, but guardedly, for it has been said that contact with others could also kill a thing.
But a thing is often the term people use to defer blame, to convince themselves that they are not bad people, that whatever evil they might have committed is not their doing but the doing of a nameless thing that took over their consciousness at the time of the crime.
A blind man claims that because he cannot see a thing, the thing does not exist. He takes one step and bumps into a table. He is reassured of the existence of things we cannot see. Oh how I wish that one of these days I will bump into God.
A thing is that which all murder mysteries are made of. A thing is elusive, it is ineffable. Here’s a murder mystery: A woman sits solemnly in her room writing a novel while her husband lies on the floor of the living room bleeding to death. Did she commit the murder? And if she didn’t, how will we ever know who did?
A thing is that which we create, that which we bring into existence. Let’s not assume that it is heretical for man to assume the powers of creation. Of course most people believe that God alone has the power to create. But if we believe we are indeed made in His image then we must also believe that he has given us the permission to create. But then we should also know that originality is a myth, for all seemingly created things are merely realignments of things that has already been made.
And just like you could have a thing for someone, you could also have a thing against someone. To have a thing against someone is to dislike the person in some way, to not want them to succeed. A thing is that which spurs on feelings of antipathy.
A boy grows up in awe of his father only to realize, after his father has an affair, that his father is only human, a flawed one at that. Now this boy has a thing against fathers.
I once sent a short story to someone and after reading it the person responded by saying, ‘The only thing I can surmise from this story is that women are unable to control their emotions.’ I was shocked. I hadn’t intended the story to be read in that way. But then I quickly realized that this person, this reader, has a deep-seated prejudice against women. To justify his bigotry, he went on to speak about the culture which puts the man in a higher place, about religion which says that wives must submit to their husbands. I countered by telling him that culture is not immutable, that culture can be changed, after all was the killing of twins not considered to be a culture at one point? About religion, I tell him that given that it is always open to interpretation, it could also be reinterpreted to benefit women. I preach about equality and justice. But these goes unheeded. This is someone who obviously has a thing against women.
PLATE # 18:
The Oxford Dictionary has various definitions of the word ‘ thing’. Here are the definitions:
Thing: that which is considered to exist as a separate entity, object, quality or concept; a word, symbol, sign, or other referent that can be used to refer to any entity; an individual object or distinct entity; something that is existent or generally recognized; whatever can be owned; the latest fad or fashion; clothes, possessions or equipment; a unit or container, usually containing edible goods; a problem, a dilemma or complicating factor; a penis; a living being or creature; that which matters.
A thing is that which gives us joy; a thing is that which brings us sorrow. A thing is that which tears us apart; a thing is that which unifies us. A thing is that which gathers; a thing is that which scatters. So you see, a thing is that which is coated with a thick layer of paradox, pill off that layer and you are confronted with more paradox. A thing is a balancing of opposites, an aggregate of unlikes; cold and hot, water and desert, sperm and ova, life and death.
A thing is that which a murderer leaves behind at the scene of the crime, it is that which will enable you to catch him. A trained investigator is adept at meticulously collecting things. These things include: hair fiber, a finger print, a bullet, a droplet of blood.
If God is a thing that exists, then how do we prove it? There are those who argue that God does not exist because we cannot see Him. But this is a perfectly puerile argument to make. We can’t see gravitational force either, does that mean it doesn’t exist? We have established that a thing is not merely that which we can see, it also that whose presence can be felt, that which exacts an effect. The argument thus follows that God exists because even though we cannot see him, we can feel his presence, and he has an effect on our lives and in the world. But I am not sure this is a better argument to make either. Despite the terror that has gripped the word, God doesn’t appear to be exacting any effect to make things better. Of course there are those who speak of seeing the ‘ white light’ , there are those who speak of being overtaken by the Holy Spirit, there are those who speak of omens, of premonitions, of revelations, but we now know that these things do not prove the existence of God, we now know that these things can be explained by neurology.
In his book Pensees, philosopher and physicist Blaise Pascal argues that the belief in the existence of God hinges upon a wager: either we believe or we don’t. If we believe that God exists and it turns out he doesn’t, then we lose nothing. If we do not believe and it turns out that he exists, we lose everything. Then, Paschal asks, why not believe?
Pascal’s argument, astute though it is, still misses something, and that is that the belief in God that entertains the possibility of his non-existence is not true belief. It is either God is a thing or He is a non-thing. He cannot both be a thing and possibly a non-thing.
Years ago, my mother had a miscarriage. I moaned the loss of a sibling I never saw. Before birth, a child is called a foetus. A foetus is alternatively called ‘ an unborn thing.’ Perhaps a thing is that which, although technically exists, has not yet made an appearance. A thing is an unseen presence. And the loss of this unborn thing, this unseen presence, will forever be seared in the mind of my mother, leaving an indelible mark.
PLATE # 57
Sometimes we use the word ‘thing’ to connote that which we are ashamed to name. A thing is that between a woman’s thighs. A thing is that which dangles between the legs of a man. A thing is that which is considered obscene, it is that which we must never name in a polite conversation. But why are we so offended by the mention of the names of genitals? Why is it considered impolite to call a penis a penis, a vagina a vagina? Why do we feel the need to replace the names of our genitals with the word ‘thing’ ?
A girl is raped by her father. After much prodding she finally admits this. She says that Daddy put his thing in her thing. On hearing what her husband had done, the girl’s mother is furious. She threatens to cut off his thing and shove it down his throat.
A thing is that which is easily fractured once assailed by the storm. And given that the world is a stormy place, we are all full of fractured things. A thing is that which is fragile, that which is delicate. A thing is that which is torn apart, that which is rendered into smithereens.. A thing is that which is broken but it is also that which does the breaking. The world is full of things breaking other things.
A thing is that which endures, it is that which persists, resisting its own demise.
PLATE # 20
A mother realizes that her daughter is pregnant. She asks the daughter who the father is. The daughter says that the father is actually the boy who lives just down the streets. After this conversation, the mother never speaks of the thing. Even as the daughter’s belly swelled, even as the delivery date drew closer, they never spoke of the thing. It is during labor, as the girl screams at the top of her voice, that they finally speak about the thing. The mother reminds the daughter that her labor pains are penance for engaging in carnal activities outside marriage.
PLATE # 15
Akachi Chukwuemeka once wrote: ‘ There are things we will never understand. Things we will never explain.’ Is it possible then that a thing is that which escapes our comprehension, that which befuddles the mind? The intricacies of love, the vicissitudes of life, the presumed benevolence of God arrayed against the terrors of the world- these are things we will never understand.
Objects, paraphernalia, gadgets, accessories- these are all things. But what are they worth? What is their true essence? We have been told that the only thing that matters is that which lives on even after death, that which is transcendent, the soul. But the problem with calling the soul a thing is that, just like God, we are not sure whether it really exists. The transcendent is alluring but the temporal is the only thing whose existence we can prove.
PLATE # 10
When we have feelings for someone we usually say, ‘ I have a thing for her.’ or ‘ I have a thing for him.’ A thing is that which binds us to another, pulling us into their ambience. It is that which, in the presence of the person, causes our stomach to flutter, our hearts to race. This thing isn’t exactly love. It isn’t exactly lust either. It oscillates between the two. I have catalogued people who, at one point, I had a thing for; there’s the girl who wouldn’t allow me to kiss her, there’s the lady who almost stabbed me, there’s the woman from whom I almost contracted HIV. I have only ever had a thing for people who have a tendency to ruin me.
A thing is that which is imbued with memory, a reflection of all that has been lost. A thing is an emblem of a world fading away, a recapturing of that which is receding.
The memories that a thing stores are evoked through visual or tactile sensations. When we see a thing when we touch a thing, the stories about that thing instantly come alive and we begin to relive these stories, to lose ourselves once more in these narratives. This is at once exhilarating and terrifying. It is merry as well as melancholic.
I am given to the evocation of memories through things. I am always nudging things to awaken the stories they contain.
Each individual has a thing about them, a unique feature, a particular predilection. It is the thing that gives them vigor, the thing that gives them verve, the thing without which they are nothing but a living corpse. What is your thing? Is it writing? Is it football? Is it singing? Beware ! This thing about us is always under attack. The world tries to snuff it out, to murder it, perhaps without knowing that by murdering it they are in fact murdering us. Many are those whose thing has been extinguished by the tyrannical forces in their lives. These people are now left to wander the earth with an absent look on their faces.
The absence occasioned by the death of a thing is not a true absence. Because when things die, their presence lingers on, like a resounding voice in the still night. When things die, they leave a mark on our minds, a stain in our souls. The absence occasioned by the death of a thing leaves what we might as well call, to borrow the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish,’ the presence of absence.’ It is an undying death.
Why is this piece written in plates? Well, when I was working on the piece, I didn’t think of the words as words. I thought of them as artworks. I thought of them as engravings, etchings on a slab.
Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash
is a fledgling author who is interested in pushing the boundaries of literature, illuminating the contours of our lives. His heroes are Ben Okri, Orhan Pamuk and Kate Zambreno. Amongst others.
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