Cat Pierro

Capture Yourself Alive


The title for this piece comes from Natasha Bershadsky’s story, “Capture Alive.” Wandering around Kyoto, the narrator, Senia, thinks,

Hey, maybe what I wanted all along with my women amounts to a basic principle of Japanese garden design. “Capture alive.” There’s something beyond a garden’s boundary – a waterfall, a hill. One constructs the garden to lure it inside. You plant a few cryptomerias in the right spots, put up a little fence to conceal a factory in the mid-distance, and, bang! the far-away ridges are trapped.

Remembering a love letter from his elusive lover prompts the association. But the idea, “capture alive,” applies to more than just his pursuit of Antoaneta. Senia spends his time in Kyoto wandering formlessly through his memories, which have a mind of their own: they appear when he doesn’t seek them and they fade when he tries to envision them. The story ends with a Calvino quote that shows his groundlessness in relation to himself: “And the desires—‘in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape...’” Like his activities with women, his acts of self-interpretation attempt to take in something uncultivated, to make it more his own.

A person’s own being is obviously not simple to capture and bring into harmony with a design. We risk taking the life out of the object. Or else we risk capturing it inadequately, leaving some piece both unincorporated and unreduced—an eyesore that threatens to break the illusion. Or finally, even if we make sure to incorporate as much as we can see, we risk being led to a design that won’t suit our purposes—a coherent territory but of weeds and brambles. We can’t and shouldn’t be impartial when we interpret ourselves. We all want to be(come) someone. And the extensive material that faces us, though it provides no analysis on its own, is teeming and reactive.

Part One: Apart From the World

An old friend of mine, Aaron Shelhamer, makes a good case study in self-interpretation.

Some time ago Aaron stopped believing in free will. Back then, I argued that he shouldn’t be sad about the loss. I had a theory to prove this, one that located freedom somewhere other than in uncaused behavior, but he didn’t buy it; he was still disappointed.

Several years and several thoughts later, I wrote him again to ask about what happened. Developing a universal theory of freedom was no longer my project, or anyway, I didn’t think I could approach the question directly and in isolation. Instead, I wanted to think about how theories of freedom interact with the lives of people who hold those theories. Do they capture those lives in rich detail, do they bring color to life experiences, do they effect any lifestyle changes? This was his response (boldface mine):

The reason the thought of myself not having free will makes me sad is because it would make me less than what I had imagined myself as being when I was younger. Now the shattering of adolescent preconceptions is nothing new to me, but what makes this one so important is that it is about what makes me “me”.

Before I had a certain mental categorization of myself and of humans in general as different from all other animals in quality of mental faculties and also a very definite separation between the animate and inanimate.

If free will doesn’t exist that categorization becomes nearly meaningless. In my mind what was “me“ was not just my physical body + the forces acting upon and within me; there was all of that plus something else. That tiny bit of free will. Something separate from what makes up a brick or a dog. Something akin to a soul. A more spiritual person might call it a soul or “a spark of the divine.” Something borderline supernatural (actually for many, supernatural is exactly what it would be). I am not a believer in the supernatural; I do not believe in god, ghosts, angels, santa claus, the tooth fairy, or trickle down economics. I pride myself in being grounded in reality. That concept of free will gave me this feeling of having a special place in the universe. A feeling that as a unique human being I was not just a cog in a machine, but rather it was almost if there was a piece of me that was apart from the world. That this soul-like attribute of consciousness was a universe unto itself. That there was some sort of metaphysical wall from behind which my thoughts could extend into this world, but which no physical effect of this universe could reach back and molest. A “me” that was apart and unchangeable that worked in concert with my physical body and all the physical forces that we experience outside and in.

Instead I now find the concept I have for “me” is not the same sort of unique. now it is the same kind of unique that a stone on a river bed might be unique and pretty, but not really different than any other pretty rock that’s ever existed. I think when I became an atheist I had neglected to reintegrate the concept of free will and what makes me “me” with my new found relationship with reality. I had built up so many experiences since then based upon my old view of self that when I was confronted with my friend’s argument that free will could not exist I felt myself having a mental crisis of sorts. I simultaneously felt that the straight forward nature of his logic, and that his arguments were all based upon things that I also believed to be true made it seem undeniable yet it seemed so abhorrent, so contrary to the arrogance and narcissism that I viewed the world and my personal relationship with it that I couldn’t make myself believe what I knew had to be true. It’s almost as if I prevented myself from totally realizing how true I knew it had to be, based upon my other beliefs, because it was too much to bear.

It now makes me think of how people used to believe the earth was the center of the universe despite what they could observe because they couldn’t bear the thought of how the universe just might not give a shit what they did on their crappy planet.

This new view does give me a good excuse though. “The thought of having no free will makes me sad because I have no free will and thus am forced to feel sad, and that’s just the way things are no matter how much I would like them to be different” :)

Illustration by Tom Tian

That Secret Something

A “tiny spark,” a suddenly appearing and just as suddenly vanishing light—something that hints it could be dazzling and overwhelming, but something that’s easy to miss. Something that in its tininess and transience must make itself shown to you and you alone. You take it to a safe place (“a metaphysical wall from behind which my thoughts could extend into this world, but which no physical effect of this universe could reach back and molest”) where the world won’t step all over it and there you let it glow. Your word “spark” suggests visibility, but tinyness, barely-thereness, vulnerability—it lets us wonder about the something’s relationship to other people and their gaze. Is that gaze too clumsy to see something so naturally rare and fleeting, or does the spark sense a danger in being seen all too clearly? Doesn’t it seem to hide? Maybe other people are a threat to it; maybe they can demonstrate that it doesn’t count for anything; maybe they see something else on you instead. In any case, the spark becomes your special friend; you protect it and hold it in its smallness, and in turn it’s always there for you; as you say, the thing that really makes you “you.”

We can consider what it’s like to keep a secret. On the one hand, you miss opportunities to let other people talk to that part of you; you might build an anxiety around letting them in; you might feel a greater rift between you and them the longer you keep your secret inside; the secret’s importance might intensify while it’s bottled up, since it represents that rift. On the other hand, if you let them, other people may not handle the secret with the delicacy it deserves; they may not understand. Keeping a secret from the world can give you the space you need to come into relation to your secret, to let the secret grow into its meaning.

I am not saying that you kept secret the fact of having free will. But your “tiny spark” metaphor suggests a relationship with free will that is primarily private and intimate. A friendship so private, so apart, can refuse the insistences of the world and especially the threats of the world, and in so doing it can let you believe in your own potential and give space for this potential’s gradual growth.

That Certain Something

You know that either all humans have this something, or none do. Viewing yourself through the lens of this something makes you a representative of humanity as a whole; your particularity is abstracted away. When you stop believing in your own free will, you unearth a tragedy for everyone. But if anyone has it, it’s yours and yours to keep, no matter how you might talk or feel or make decisions on a day-to-day basis.

Personal anxieties that might distinguish you from other people—anxieties given to you by your own circumstances, your own history, your peculiar relationships and peculiar choices—don’t come into consideration when you ask, “Do I have free will?” You might as well ask, “Do humans have free will?” And if they do, then no matter how bad your appearance, behavior, or job prospects, you have this other something through everything and can always fall back on it. Likewise, if they don’t, it is not you and your particularities alone which have failed. You don’t risk intense personal shame by investing in free will. You especially don’t risk having to think about your ranking with respect to other people.

In this way, setting up the hierarchy “free will/not free will” can be a way of building walls to block from view things about yourself and your experience which another interpretive lens might have captured. You are left with a walled-in space “which no physical effect of this universe could reach […] and molest.”

To call inhabiting such a space “escapism” or “avoidance,” however, may not be fair. The full scorn of those words should not apply to every instance in which someone ignores an aspect of the world. There are a vast number of good reasons to turn your attention away from particular things: they may be distracting if you’re trying to do something, they may leave you stuck playing a role, they may cripple you with self-doubt, or in any other way their visibility might make another thing harder to see. To see clearly is not to see unselectively; often things must be seen “past” or seen “through” in order to find what you’re looking for and do what you want with it. The words “escapism” and “avoidance” suggest that if you faced your issues, you could deal with them and move forward in life, whereas in the place you escape to your life “goes nowhere” and just plays your dreams on repeat. Neither assumption need be true.

That Special Something

Although you don’t take the risk of aspiring to rank higher than other people, there do exist entities you feel attached to being qualitatively different from, categorically better than, absolutely above. It cannot be a matter of degree; it must be indisputable.

What entities are these? “Animals” on the one hand, “the inanimate” on the other. These two inferior groups are very different from each other—are they nonetheless interchangeable in the economy of self-evaluation? Is the only point to be part of a superior species?

Although this is an important thing that they both do, each choice undoubtedly calls different aspects of yourself to light. To be other than an animal calls to mind language, and reflection, and that eternal metaphysical realm (“apart and unchangeable”) where you feel safe, where your thoughts are unmolested. To be animate is the point from which your physical capabilities begin—movement on your own and the mysterious inner spark that propels such a movement.

That Extra Something

You seek your essence in the unaccounted for. You aren’t “just” a body plus some forces upon it. You have something that has been stripped of identifying characteristics, something invested with the magic of being unnamed.

We might suspect the negative nature of this conception. It persists beyond any limitations the world might like to set upon it; it squirms away from concrete formulation. We know from our earlier discussion not to say that you’re being “escapist,” but isn’t it somehow a problem to have a view of yourself that’s unverifiable? Isn’t it suspicious that you can’t be held accountable? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. In everyone there are qualities that as of yet are unformed and need space for experimentation. And there are pieces in us that don’t belong among the words we have invented. And finally, let’s not kid ourselves—there is magic.

Beauty as Consolation Prize

What is left once free will is gone? You become a rock, a mere object; you become “objectified.” When you’re no longer a subject with a gleaming interiority, with secretiveness, with restrained potential, the only access to yourself is from outside yourself. You become part of the world, whether you like it or not. Hence the new question, if you wish to have any ground on which to continue loving yourself—how do you look?

One way to interpret this change is to say that before it happened, you escaped your life and replaced it with “a universe unto itself,” but after it happened, you had no choice but to make a universe out of your life. Indeed, with the onset of this question, “how do you look?”, your being shows itself as full of details, often trapping details. How you spend your hours, the myriad ways in which you feel and move and think, the ways you are caught in a web of activities and of relationships with other people, your physical body—all of these can present themselves to you as possibilities for an artwork you must make of yourself. Any of them might cohere into an aesthetic object. That you will see this object as a thing of beauty (and not, for example, ugliness) is by no means a given. To become beautiful to yourself is a feat. It’s a feat of reappropriation; what you ran from before (we might say), now you must learn to embrace.

To appropriate the repulsive details of your life and nature—that can be a wonderful thing. Where there was once a schism, you may learn to have compassion for your various places and moments. You may attend to little things that always persisted but were persistently ignored; you may bring your heart into the food you cook, the things you say to your siblings, your choice of temporary jobs. So we might say that you’ll see yourself more the way a reader like myself might see you—someone whose mind’s activity is part of an entire textured existence.

However, we must be sure that our ideas of what counts as “world” and “life” and “nature” are not limiting. While it’s clear that with this change, some details will be newly incorporated into your sense of self, it’s not clear that no details will be lost. Calling yourself beautiful like “a pretty rock on a riverbed” already suggests what slice of life you might choose—a passive one, not a powerful one; one that is static and unchanging. Your attention will privilege affective states over aspirational principles; you will notice that you are full of pleasure sooner than full of the potential to fulfil a project. Your rosy-colored glasses will bring monotony and leveling; prioritization and hierarchization will be less available to you. You will no longer be “unique.” You will be unlikely to brush off the mundane and stifling in favor of a goal because all possible goals will have less value for you; they are only a little rock’s goals, only the goals of a pretty object. You will be unlikely to take any hope of yours with the weightiest seriousness; it is unlikely that you will allow yourself to be seized with frenzy. No wonder, then, that beauty is merely a consolation prize, a silver lining on the cloud of that extra something’s absence.

Forced Alternatives

While as a reader I see each of your alternatives—having free will, or having a rock’s beauty—as full conceptions of ways of being which are structured by non-obvious metaphors, it is clear that you see them as the only two available alternatives. Either you have this incredible something, or you follow the logic of an apparently straightforward outlook—which tells you that you are no different from a rock, which tells you that you are stuck. If you are sad, you are “forced” to be sad.

Both before and after your conversion, you made a complete world out of an interesting and worthwhile slice of yourself. The vitality of these worlds can be seen by the fullness of your descriptions, your rich use of metaphors. These metaphors are simultaneously prohibitive and empowering. Unfortunately, your impression that the metaphors are not your own, but are merely consequences of a right or wrong idea, increases their prohibitive intensity. You miss the fact that more is available to you than these two possibilities of relating to yourself, that a multitude of different gardens might be constructed.

Part Two: Ambition

Though she doesn’t submit to an “objective” interpretation, our second case subject doesn’t seem to have it easy. Once we recognize the plurality of ways we could see ourselves, will self-interpretation become uncomplicated? A host of issues linger, or appear for the first time. What do we look for in ourselves, and what do we hope to find there? What kind of garden do we want to be, and what do we do if that garden seems impossible to build?

If only I were sharper, quicker on my feet. The world is very compelling to someone who can’t formulate arguments against it; you just have to go along with it. That’s why I’ve always just been a follower—one person’s follower, then another’s.

If only my energy level were up all the time. As it is drowsiness is always overtaking me. And then I can’t engage people. They can say things to me, or I can say things to them, but it never comes to anything; we never really talk.

If only my hair weren’t so frizzy and messy, like someone not even presentable, like a homeless person. If it were straight and smooth, I would have the confidence to look people in the eye and to speak to them directly. I’m fine with looking like a tomboy, but I want to look like a fun, sunny tomboy, somebody you’d want to play ball with or something.

If only my speed were exactly right—slow and graceful enough to absorb, to think, to speak with reason; but not sluggish. Feet apart, mind ready. Then I would catch the moments as they went by and throw something back into them.

If only I had willpower. I try the lighter with my little resolutions and there are sparks sometimes but never a steady flame. I’m not a resolute person. I’m just a person hoping for a miracle.

If only I were born in the slums and arrested for armed robbery. In my jail cell there would be no distractions and nothing to stop me from rising above my station. I would memorize the dictionary line by line. After that I would be very intelligent, and I would make a list of all the things I should write treatises on. Then I would go down the list and write all of them one by one.

If only my house were cleaner and fresher and calmer and more exotic, like a Japanese tea room. Then I could sit down and inhale the air and feel ready to do anything.

This passage comes from a friend’s meditations about an episode of her past. Note just a few things:


If only you could be removed—removed to a jail cell, removed to someplace calm and exotic. If only you were “slow” enough that you could remove yourself, and not always only follow, not always go along with the world that keeps compelling you forward. But at the same time, if only you could have the energy and speed and vivacity to participate; if only you could really interact with people, and burn as a flame, and catch and throw the ball. You admire an intensely active realm; you would like to be removed from the sticky, rolling morass you’re in so that you can take the time to inhale and ready yourself to enter that realm.

You know two realms—one a miserable and dreary swamp, the other forbiddingly alive. Emerging from the former into the latter seems nearly impossible.


If only you could have any one of the things you wished for, it could allow you to develop a higher form of being. Here beauty (smooth hair) is not a consolation prize but a magical power. Though somebody could see many of the things you wish for as small, insignificant changes, for you they take on an intense life. They are substitutes for a deep and important thing, keys to the active realm.

@bigsley’s tweet of 2/24/11 expresses the bizarreness of this kind of substitution: “one cannot actually lose one’s humanity. there is no ‘smarter’ or ‘dumber’ or ‘realer’ or ‘faker’ or ‘skinnier’ or ‘fatter’ to become.” The surprise of this comes through especially in its denying the existence of “skinnier” and “fatter,” obvious, concrete qualities. But they don’t exist, the logic goes, in their primary role in your consciousness: as qualities that bestow or take away humanity. It’s strange that when you strive for something fundamentally important, for the quality of being somebody, of being human, you can identify that humanity with any number of characteristics, each of which seems to express it completely. Each one, in the moment you envision it, is both necessary and sufficient to grant you a better life. But each one is something you don’t have.


If only you and your acquaintances could ever “actually talk.” That’s an odd thing to say—you never talk to people? Of course you do in the usual sense of the word, but you have a high ideal for what counts as talking, a vision of something precious, and what actually happens doesn’t match up.

You take an ordinary word like “talking” and invest it with a meaning that makes it hard for you to do that very ordinary thing. The result—“we never really talk,” or (we could imagine) “I’m not really living,” “I’m not really myself”—is to state very aggressively that nothing is happening; that whatever happens doesn’t even qualify as something.

Talking/not talking is just one of your several binaries that draw a wedge between being and nonbeing. You’re a “follower” who only ever “goes along with the world”; you never grapple with it as a subject. And because you don’t have a speed that’s “exactly right,” your moments just pass you by, and you don’t get to participate in your own life. You participate on the side of nonbeing; you inhabit a space that you violently discount. This means that you don’t get to talk; you don’t get to experience moments; your existence is invalid; your life is not even anything.

Rumination vs. Reflection

If only there were a healthy, nonviolent way to criticize yourself and reject some aspect of your life. Oh, but isn’t there? Emphatically, YES. Consider the following gchat.

person1: i got up at noon today
person1: i mean first i woke up earlier, but i had an erection and was avoiding walking into the living room to get my pants
person2: hehe
person1: so i just laid in bed waiting for my erection to go away, but it wouldn’t go away
person1: of course i didn’t realize that’s why i was staying in bed until after the fact
person1: (or i would have braved it)
person2: hindsight unhelpful as always lol
person1: yeah

Person1 could think “if only I were the sort of person ever to stand back and look at my experience, a person capable of giving himself the law instead of just reacting, then I could get out of bed in the mornings.” But we have no reason to think he will mull over this failure and treat it as general. He learns from his experience and next time, he’ll remember and act differently.

Seizing Your Self-Interpretation

You don’t seem to wield your self-interpretation in the interest of carefully considered ends. The garden you imagine is a worthy one, but you haven’t begun to capture it; it’s not within view; you’re surrounded by desert. The question is how to move forward rather than standing still.

I wouldn’t suggest you give up on your ambitions. But it may help to establish goals that are specific, rigorously defined, and achievable from the place you currently stand. If you do that, then you can begin to ground your projects of self-respect in their successes rather than their failures. And though it may sound petty to a person so ambitious, I would suggest happiness as one thing to treat as a success and a reward. I think a lot can be learned from restructuring one’s life as an anti-depression project.

Part Three: Capturing Ksenia

Finally we come back to Senia, Bershadsky’s narrator. Our third act of self-interpretation will at first seem more like an act of other-interpretation, since the greater part of Senia’s thoughts in Kyoto concern his ex-wife, Ksenia.


Ksenia got into birds during her first year in the States. There was a parakeet colony in front of our windows in Hyde Park. Shrieking in the snow. Their nests suggesting feral sweaters caught in the trees. She more or less hibernated till the end of March, then woke up and started to chirrup. She sat in on some advanced Italian class, and also began disappearing twice a week at 7 AM with a birding group. She experimented with the form and content of ravioli. She resented her name being spelled with x, so she was constantly engaged in mock-desperate battles with various services over the phone. “I’m going to spell it for you. Khh, like kingfisher, s like sparrow. No – sparrow! Sparrow, like swallow. Like starling! E like emu…” She loved lists of things and the vague narrative possibilities they entailed. She came across a frequency dictionary of English and conceived of reading it from cover to cover, preferably to me aloud. “Years before between country,” she shouted from the kitchen. “I’ll give this title to my memoirs.”

I asked the author why, though I liked Ksenia a great deal, I had the impression that she was somehow not much, a small person, someone in need of a project. Natasha reminded me that we only see Ksenia through the eyes of her husband. For this reason, she told me, it made sense that Ksenia would come across as having no direction.

This aspect of Senia’s view of Ksenia comes across more obviously if we read on in the story:

Her bird-watching activities always seemed to me alarmingly autistic. I don’t know why I was so bothered that she never managed to identify with certainty anything apart from robins and cardinals. Even at those she would look protractedly, statically. When she was seeing something very interesting – a nuthatch or a wren – she would become even more hermetic. When I asked what was up, she would smile and keep staring. She never described what she saw. I also soon discovered that I was better than her at spotting. I wondered whether her birding was a pretext to be passive and indistinct.

Here Senia self-consciously looks down on his wife. The first block quote above shows his condescension more subtly. Ksenia is seen behaving like an animal (hibernating, chirruping), performing a domestic task (ravioli), delighting in a pleasant arbitrary thing (the frequency dictionary), fussing lightly over a small matter (the spelling of her name), and picking up a number of hobbies. Seen doing all these things right in a row, she reminds me of my own analysis of Aaron’s beautiful pebble: her activities look leveled, homogenous in their importance, nothing taking priority. She looks like a woman who is full of details.

A Curious Absence

We might ask how Senia views himself in order to look at Ksenia this way. He must be directed, purposeful, profound. But if so, this side of him shows up surprisingly little in the story. He mentions “fostering an absurd suggestion that I have a professional interest in” Japanese gardens, but not much else.

More clearly, he is intensely sexual. Everywhere he thinks of sex: looking out the window in airplanes, watching birds, comparing cities. He cheats on Ksenia serially and keeps his mind on his mistresses. While not directed toward any purpose, not serving the interest of anything longterm, his sexual drive has nonetheless the structure of purposefulness: capture for the sake of capture.


“Here wigeons have rust-colored heads,” the story begins, “though now it’s irrelevant.” While they were married, each of his mistresses reminded him of one of Ksenia’s birds. Now, a year after their divorce, Senia is still birdwatching absentmindedly. He spends his days in Kyoto waiting—his girlfriend Antoaneta is in a conference—and while waiting he thinks of Ksenia. Probably because “her placidity rhymes with the mood of the gardens in which I loiter.” His observations sound like things Ksenia would say, her lists, her word games: “Unaffiliated white dots spin to the ground like sparrows or afterthoughts.”

We have said that Senia’s thoughts about Ksenia are not just an other-interpretation but indeed a self-interpretation. Ksenia represents a period in Senia’s life. But more than that—she represents a mode of his life, or several modes. She embodies the domestic modes, and the modes of watching, the modes of waiting. And because so much of life exists in these modes, it seems fair to say that Ksenia is a part of Senia. That which he rejects as belonging to him, he reincorporates by imagining as hers.

The Limits of Interpretation

Ksenia’s ability to assert her presence as a live being should be taken as good news against misogyny. Senia’s view of Ksenia can be seen as demeaning but remains gentle and at times admiring—because Ksenia is a real being outside him, because he cannot help but let her make her mark upon his mind. Likewise life’s long moments of waiting and its irreducible details will refuse to be ignored.

Of course, interpretation and life aren’t perfect enemies. Hence the “alive” in “capture alive.” The subtlest task and the highest prize is to find a view that suits life and suits you at the same time.