The Inapparent: A Personal Essay by Daniel Boscaljon
By Daniel Boscaljon
Prayers, more than most other patterns of meaningful intention, promote a relationship with the inapparent. At such times, one is open to the revelation of a presence, a voice, a thought, a calming, an inspiration. Prayers invite the inapparent. But sometimes the inapparent arrives, unbidden. Sometimes you hear your name whispered from shadows, from sunlight, from space. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the unseeable winking at you from unfathomable impossibilities.
Taking attendance before teaching about theology or phenomenology—something along those lines, I decided to follow up with a student who responded “Here,” looking idly at a phone with bloodshot eyes and hair jammed into a ponytail, beneath a hat, with a line of questioning that seemed suited to the situation. “How much of you is here?”
I received in reply a blank stare that seemed (at least in my mind) to validate the question. Other students were listening, so I continued. “Did you read the assignment thoughtfully? Take notes? Bring questions?“ The answer, in the negative, was apparent beyond the need for words. The next step was clear: “What could it mean to be here without having done the work to arrive?” The bigger question suggested itself to all of us, pretty quickly: were any of us there?
Because I value being honest with students, I admitted that I was probably not suited to the present. I had not been getting enough sleep, had not prioritized exercise, was having difficulties balancing my duties as an adjunct instructor at a few different institutions of higher learning against my duties as a parent and my duties as a friend, a vast and toppling set of calculations that were weighty enough to squeeze out all but a few rudiments of joy.
The Inapparent never appears in its fullness, but the scale of what does not appear is staggering. Consider the vast circumstances of all of the unseen—that which hides in light frequencies you cannot see, or sound waves that you cannot hear, or whose dimensions are incompatible with what you observe because they are too small, or too large. Consider all of the history shed in a room, the weight of grief and the cries of joy, consider the circumstances carried in the clothing and bodies of people with whom you share a room—after all, if you’ve had an experience with the Inapparent, this was the singular one for you. Each person carries a singular, distinct potential vast Inapparent. The world is saturated.
I read the next name on the list. “Present,” was the perky reply. But a question still loomed in the shadows of the classroom, the kind of shadow that the harsh and unrelenting frequency of light unleashed into the room by the fluorescent bulbs invited rather than destroyed. I looked, and the student had been in class for long enough to understand the import of the look, and sighed, resigned to what was going to happen. I shared both the sigh and the resignation. Sometimes we act from scripts authored from a shared future that more looms than teases.
“How much of you is present?” Some of the class laughed, which was probably appropriate. “How much should be present?” This was different. “How many of you would trust this random aggregate of students, most of whom you probably feel actively ignore or possibly dislike you? How many of you have been socialized into only showing the slightest version of yourself, leaving the worries and concerns of your personal life—much less the anxieties and joys of your inner world out of this room? How much of you is actually present?”
This student, whom I will call Jennie for the purpose of this essay, was game. “Not much.”
“What percent of you is ever present anywhere? Ten percent? Fifteen?”
“Maybe twenty percent.”
I opened it up to the rest of the class: “Does twenty percent present sound like a pretty good estimate for what’s socially appropriate? Does this class deserve twenty percent of your presence?” Most people nodded.
The shadows persisted, growing heavier in the space behind the buzzing vibration of the light. I persisted as well. “Do you even know who you wholly are to be present? How many of you do things you wish you didn’t do and don’t know why? How many of you are aware of how your past has programmed predilections that persist even when you’ve outgrown the context? How many of you are haunted by people and relationships that are perhaps more ‘here’ or ‘present’ than even you are? What about your unconscious motivations? What would it mean to be present?”
I was thinking. I could feel myself starting to perspire, as though I were using some sort of metaphysical can opener to dislodge the lid off something that had been covered. The buzz from the lights became a whine.
People pray for a second coming: they hope for apocalypse as their bodies slouch toward paychecks in rough shapes. The apocalypse is omnipresent, simply Inapparent. Madness and destruction, bloodlust and trauma, circle above and below and around like prey birds salivating to feast.
One more step.
“What if your whole experience of life was just as impoverished as the sense of yourself as present?” I offered a quick reminder of the phenomenological postulates that we’d already covered, the ways that objects never reveal themselves fully: we only see the side of a thing that faces us and never experience, visually, the totality of it. Something is always inapparent. Existentially, of course, the reluctance to really manifest in presence further slices down the experience of what it is to be “present” or “here.”
The light flickered again.
“What would it mean,” I continued, looking again at the first student who still smelled of cheap beer and sweat, “for something to really be here? To actually be present, in a full and complete way?” I gestured to the Klean Kanteen thermos that faithfully conveyed my coffee to each class. “What if this coffee thermos were fully and actually here?” I paused. “Would anything be more terrifying or grotesque than for it to really be here?”
Someone made a bored sound from the back of the classroom, and I realized that this sound was a commentary on more than just the conversation. The light continued to buzz, casting shadow/light/shadow/light with a rapidity that seemed to make the darkness disappear.
Another direction opened.
“What would it mean for the inapparent around us all to decide to join us? What if everything really became present, or if you developed eyes to see all that is invisible but could potentially be seen? What if you could register each spectrum of light, could feel the full history that determines the gravity of this space, could know the intimacy of every ghost of fear and joy that each of us has brought into this space over the past weeks, and all of the psychic stains that otherwise color things here?”
The room was dead silent. It was time.
“On that note, let’s turn to chapter three of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, which everyone was to have read…”
The Inapparent holds the equal capacity for what was once called miracle, but now is simply called strange. The oddity of smiling on a sunny day for no reason at all. The delight one feels at a coincidence, when the universe seems to align just for you. Over time, this Inapparent seems to recede behind spaces obscured by manifestations of a more malevolent provenance. This exists—the world of warmth, of joy, of miracle, of delight, of courage, of skill, of integrity. This exists: it simply remains Inapparent.
Live there anyway.
As a humanist, Daniel Boscaljon explores the human capacity for the infinite that comes through embracing, rather than overcoming, our limitations. He has received two doctorate degrees: his first was in Religious Studies, where he focused on agnostic theology; the second was in English, where his emphasis was on 19th-century American Literature and narrative theory. He has spent more than twenty years as an educator, working in high schools, colleges, prisons, libraries, and senior centers. Daniel’s current commitment to public education led him to co-found the Center for Humanist Inquiries and to create a series of workshops designed to emphasize the skills and concepts important for living well as an adult. In his free time, Daniel enjoys thinking about the function of the arts for human flourishing. For more about his work, please visit his website: www.danielboscaljon.com