“Maggie Siebert’s Dead Kitten as the Persecution of Consciousness by Reality’s Imitation of Eternity”: Charlene Elsby’s Review of BONDING

“Every Day for the Rest of Your Life” is the final story in Maggie Siebert’s Bonding, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t leave you, because it elucidates something fundamental to the persistence of the terrible—a fundamental premise we know to be true, but which isn’t made explicit except by madmen and metaphysicians. Maggie Siebert’s magic lies in her placing before you things that you had relegated to the underbelly of consciousness, things to which we tend to have a dual reaction—I know that’s obviously true, and I wish to fuck it weren’t.

In this case, it’s the genesis of a universal from the repetition of particulars.

Like when someone declares out of nowhere, “Oh, this is a bad day.” That utterance occurs only when someone has noticed that several things so far have gone awry. That what those events all have in common is that they’re bad. And then instead of reacting to each of them, we intuit what those things have in common—that they are bad—and package them together, send them away into the abstract. And doing this brings a sense of relief. “It’s a bad day” is now our explanation for why things continue to go wrong, for why upsetting things are still happening, a way of removing ourselves from the present, when the present is deemed to be objectively terrible. It’s a generalization according to which we take our observations of the past and present and project them into the future, a fortification against the ongoing onslaught of bad shit happening—a denial of the present in favor of an abstraction.

An abstract generalization to save us from the particulars.

Maggie Siebert’s story calls our attention to a similar phenomenon—when one thing happens that’s so affecting that it imprints on the psyche and recurs there, again and again, despite and against our best intentions. When you’re suddenly transported back in time to a place you don’t want to be, to people you don’t want to be around, doing things you don’t ever want to remember. Like in Siebert’s story, when that kitten dies, and along with that comes the realization that you can indeed love something to death, and it’s something you remember—every day for the rest of your life.

The same thought happens over and over, but is it one thing or many?

Consider “thought” is broken down as an intentional act (in the phenomenological tradition). Thought is an act of consciousness, directed towards something. There are two main aspects to it—the form of the act and its content. How you are conscious of something, and what you are conscious of. In the case of a memory, the form of the act is the present act of thinking. And the content of the act is the dead kitten from the past. You think in the present of something from the past, and sometimes you do it over and over, again and again (every day for the rest of your life).

How many thoughts really are there, then? It depends if we’re differentiating those thoughts based on the present thinking, such that each recurrence of the memory counts as a distinct thought, in which case we would have many thoughts, all of which have something in common. But if we define a thought according to what it is about, then it’s the same thought we’re having—again and again, but actually, just one thought that’s there, that’s always there, and which occurs with such a predictable frequency that it becomes part of your background consciousness, just another thing that’s inevitable.

So, is it many thoughts or one thought, many times?

There’s a story by Jorge Luis Borges called “Funes the Memorious.” Funes falls off a horse and gains the mysterious ability not only to remember everything, but every one of his perceptions of every thing. While everyone else believes that they are seeing (for example) the same kitten many times, Funes believes they are in fact, distinct—that the identity belongs to the perception of the kitten and not the kitten itself. While we believe that there’s one kitten with one name, Funes proposes we give the kitten a name for every time at which it is perceived—to correspond with the many kittens he conceives of as existing, as distinct perceptions. (The kitten at 2 a.m. is distinct from the kitten at 4 a.m.)

It’s a critique of empiricism, which holds that we group like perceptions together into unities. We call all kittens “kittens”, because they are relevantly similar. And in the same way, we group a bunch of perceptions together (perceptions from different times) and name an individual cat “Russell”—one entity that’s supposed to persist over time, even though the only evidence we have of that is our multiple perceptions. This is the theory that led to the critique of what happens to the world when you’re not looking? And to which Bishop Berkeley came up with the unsatisfying answer that it’s fine; god’s looking. But under the theory itself, we have no reason to believe that the kitten you left this morning is the same one at home when you return. There’s no “sameness” in the universe to perceive, just cats (on this theory, not mine, to be clear).

If we play the same song over and over, we don’t doubt that it’s the same song, heard many times. We say the song maintains existence over time. And Siebert’s narrator is plagued by the same cat. Day after day, an intrusive thought that doesn’t seem so much like an act of consciousness as it is something foisted upon consciousness. So many dead kittens, or one, persisting through time?

The persistence of a traumatic memory isn’t so much a willing voyage back through time, like how we might return to a pleasant memory from nostalgia. It’s the past bleeding into the present and with such regularity that it becomes the everpresent. When Plato described the creation of the universe in Timaeus, he claimed that the gods made the planets exhibit repetitive motion, because repetition is the best our universe can do to imitate eternality. Every day, the same cat returns, becoming immortal through persistent repetition. One dead cat through all time and space—one small cat becoming universal and persecuting your consciousness.

“Every Day for the Rest of Your Life” is clearly my favorite story from Bonding, but I recommend all of them. Siebert’s prose is natural and transporting; there’s an entire reality discernible in these sentences and, in reading them, you become its character. Her fiction is a uniquely placed perspective from which all sorts of truths become evident.

Bonding, by Maggie Siebert. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Apocalypse Party, February 2022. 140 pages. $13.99, paper.

Charlene Elsby received her PhD from McMaster University working on Aristotle’s concepts of truth and non-being. She is the Vice President of the North American Society for Early Phenomenology and General Editor of Phenomenological Investigations. Her fictional works include Hexis, Affect, and Psychros.

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