- William Henry Channing
* * *
I have always loved the cadence and certitude of nineteenth century writers. It is a verb strewn existence: to live, seek, be, listen, study, think, act, hurry, let, grow… Active, not passive, and filled with an enthusiasm for its subject that we are too cynical to attempt. And where did all of their certitude and facility with words get them? A long dirt nap. Though none of their efforts could save them, those same efforts can save us–for a while, at least, and that seems to be the best bargain available.
I possess a slim grey book called Right Living As A Fine Art, published in 1899 and written by one Newell Dwight Hillis who takes Channing's Symphony as a starting point on how best to live. It, too, speaks of a time of gentleman scholars and serious inquiries into the nature of our being and how to manage the life thrumming before and within us. As I say, I love this sort of writing because it has something that has fallen out of favor, out of consciousness, out of our minds: faith. Not religiosity, but faith in one's self; faith in the possibility that one could be connected to all and that the fate of one was the fate of all; faith that there was more to life than it being brutish and short; faith that an individual could find his or her way through this life by allowing the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, to grow up through the common. It makes me believe I have lived before because I can find no other explanation as to why these seemingly fussy and old-fashioned ideas and words move me so other than to suggest that I may have once spoken or written them.
* * *
But what of it? Channing, like Emerson and Thoureau are long dead and their language dies in the mouths of us modern fucked fuckers who have no time to think, but can only ape the fears of our age.
Here's what: it doesn't have to be this way.
The difficult poet Ezra Pound would ask of those he met, Are you a serious character? Think a minute before you answer. We have come to equate serious with ponderous, humorless, dull, and certainly those who find themselves to be worthies are often ponderous, humorless and dull, but such thinking misses the mark. Read Channing's Symphony again. It is in the common that the spirit grows–unbidden and unconscious. To unfuck your life you have to quit angling for prizes and instead live content within yourself. This is what Pound was going after.
But you're fucked, right? How can you be content?
Here's how: by being serious instead of frivolous, instead of heavy, instead of assuming only you have suffered a fool thing in this life, instead of assuming that the tonic to suffering is denying its existence, by paying attention to the stuff of your life and using it build meaning and purpose into your days.
We get hurt. We get lost. At times this hardens into a protective shell that walls off anything that might trouble us again, but we are troubled just the same. Channing wants us to look into what is common to find our depths, to find our place. Our deaths are our common fate so it must then be our lives that inform our deaths, that stand outside of time. Every life is presented with the same task: figuring out how to live. If you are fucked and stuck, then, baby, you ain't living. You're just waiting around to die.
* * *
The clue bag is open. Every generation wrestles with these questions. For thousands of years now they've been writing down their answers.
You can't say you've never been told.