Thursday, April 7, 2016

He Thought That

He thought that fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life's instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do. Perhaps the woman after whom the master shaped his beautiful madonna is already wilted or dead, and soon he, too, will be dead; others will live in his house and eat at his table–but his work will still be standing a hundred years from now, and longer. It will go on shimmering in the quiet cloister church, unchangingly beautiful, forever smiling with the same sad, flowering mouth.

- Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

* * *

To fear death, is to fear life, to trade it as a paltry thing, of no merit, no value. The fear of death becomes the fear of life exactly at the moment it causes a hitch in your stride, a hesitation, a doubt that what you are doing at that moment matters in the broader, wider arcs of time and celestial distance. The fear of death is the fear of living because one is small, puny, a tiny voice crying in a tiny wilderness. This fear manifests itself in myriad ways: commonly in a vigorous/vacuous denial complete with ATV's, free porn, and politics. It is also shows its face in the aesthetics of aesthetes where everything is too fine, too beautiful to be spoken of. Both, and that which lies between the two, are death conquering life, the fear of death conquering the living out of a life in its fullest possibility. Conspicuous consumption, botox, hermetic withdrawal, a remembrance of every wound and insult, quick to anger–slow to forgive, channel surfing, corporate food, Citizens United, discrimination, terrorism, corruption, the nihilism of spring break, and fiddling while Rome burns are echoes of this predilection to despair, to giving up by giving in. Paint it brightly enough, it might even look like a good time, but at its root there is poison.

The poison is not death, itself, but shame that it should ever be so.

We fear death because we are ashamed of the time we've wasted, the losses we've allowed to govern our lives; we are ashamed of our bodies, so multi-various in form and color, but common in its decay; we pray in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples and the quiet stillness of a sleepless night for a way to conquer death, to submit to our fate without fear, to race it and die with the most toys. Always we frame our prayers, our actions in relation to death–be it defiance or acquiescence.

How different our lives would be if we framed our prayers and actions in relation to the life we have, the one in our veins, the one you inhabit at this very moment, without shame.

* * *

We dither with minutia, counting angels on the head of a pin and pennies in a jar, while the cacophony of the created world, the world where our bodies and our minds and our souls are loosed to see what may come of it, pours out a thunderous abundance of possibility. Dire circumstance is joined to our wit and intellect, our fear and tribalism and that circumstance is altered. Every circumstance is changed by our engagement with it. Whether we bring our desire or our dread, the circumstance is changed and we along with it. Hesse viewed our works as a wrestling match with death, a way of placing down a marker that would, for however long after, mark the path we traveled: death defied–you win my body but not my work.


I cannot deny this is what drives most of the world and we each are beneficiaries of that effort: our thoughts arrested by the beauty of the Belvedere Torso, aqueducts, alternating current, crepe pans, central air, children...

But most of the world is not all of the world, most of our progress is not all of our progress and isn't even the most essential progress. All that lies elsewhere, away from the dominance of death and the struggle for shelter and justice. Its home is in the burgeoning sense of life, the ceaseless creation and reinvention of life, in the transformation that is the very definition of life: from nothing then something, beautiful flowers growing out of shit.

Here the dichotomies of thinker and artist, civilian and soldier, life and death don't exist. They simply don't exist. Instead there is the circuitous path of the woolgatherer, the prophet, the crank, the outsider, the idler who is no idler, but is busy with life instead of being busy with death. Their works are not a statement against their days, in opposition to death, but rather an affirmation of the miraculous, the synchronous, the electric jelly of life meeting its partner, the one who can communicate his or her experience so another will not feel alone, so another will be both braver and kinder than they might have been otherwise, so that in simply doing the work their hands, their body, their minds bend to others will have the chance to be set free from the drumbeat of our foregone end.

Does this make sense?

Both ways of being in the world can create beauty, can be a sign of our genius. The opposition to death, the impassioned work to overcome it, still it, make it irrelevant can also carry with it more death, for those gifts can be weaponized in a zero-sum game of politics, economics and corporate tribalism. The way of the woolgatherer only seeds more life.

* * *

So, what is the difference between the two, what sends one to battle death, while another embraces life? What compels us to fear? What liberates us from it?

In a word: shame.

Shame is the power behind the throne of our fears. Shame is the progenitor of death, of ceding authority over our lives to the cult of death: achievement, war, discriminatory law, theological one-up-manship, wage inequality, sexual violence, violence itself. Shame is the stutter in your step, the doubt that quiets your voice, the caution that risks nothing and loses everything, the hail storm of ads for restless leg syndrome, depression, sleep aides, limp dicks, weight loss, dry eyes and menstrual cycles. Shame makes you dishonest. It is the fig leaf added to statues 400 years later. It is God's first punishment in Genesis. It is why we fucked fuckers are fucked.

And shame, my love, is never born inside us, but is rather a judgment placed on us that we then accept and internalize.

I don't know what it will take for you to see this, to feel it in your chest. I don't know what you will come across that will loosen that boulder and free you from the weight you've been dragging around. I don't know when it will happen, or even if it will. All I do know is the habit of gathering wool and leaving it here for you to find.

* * *

I wish you well.


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