Friday, September 23, 2016

Irony Is A

Irony is a hedge, an insurance policy against further affliction. It erects boundaries that we hope will protect us from the world by forbidding it access to us. Or, differently put, we double the world, creating a safe, fictional version atop the real one–whether in our heads or on the Internet. We believe that interacting with this fictional copy of the world will save us from both pain and boredom.
     But instead, once the distinction between fiction and reality breaks down, as it always does, we end up rewrapping the proverbial sofa in a new layer of plastic. And on and on and on we go, wrapping and rewrapping our lives and everything within them in increasingly more futile layers of protective covering, all the while knowing that the last one failed to protect us even more than the one before. Irony is an asymptomatic death march into nihilism, one that legitimately claims it averts futility by never quite getting there.

- Ian Bogost, Play Anything

* * *

     Our ages have evolved. We have moved from the Holocene (the interglacial period that birthed us as a species and encompasses the whole of our history) to the Anthropocene where the impacts of that history, especially since the Industrial Revolution, are destroying our ability to sustain ourselves and myriad other life forms on the warming blue marble we call home. With this move from history to the effects of history we have also moved from paranoia to irony as the singular means of confronting reality. Paranoia is the watchword of politics, of nation building, of enemies of the state, enemies of the church. Paranoia exerts itself in the tribalism of opposite pairs: us/them, black/white, capitalist/socialist, Irish Catholics/Irish Protestants, Republicans/Democrats, north/south, ad nauseum. It is the product of believing in acquisition, conquest, control, as if a final good could be reached once and for all to enshrine the winning team's history (to be subsequently erased by the next set of winners). But even the most full-throated endorsers of the way it's been know the chain has slipped. We swim in new, warmer waters: the bill due on hundreds of years of extraction and conquest.

Enter irony.

Irony is the arm's length, the refusal to be sincere, the smug appraisal and the snark driven commentary. Irony withholds itself, holds itself above the fray, outside the toil and moil of securing a livelihood, a shelter, a way to try and stem the tide of rising tides. Irony doesn't lift a finger; it is clever, self-satisfied, the smartest guy in the room able to riff on all that is wrong or unworthy, but incapable of anything more. To do more, to do something would be to betray the distance created by irony, that carefully curated distance broadcast on every social media platform that both begs for attention and dismisses said attention as folly. Irony numbs us to reality. It takes the actual and places it on a shelf, behind glass, where it can do us no harm. Except the seas still rise and they care nothing about shelves or glass or how many followers you have on Instagram or how clever you are or how sad you are that you were born too late to enjoy the days when no one cared about who or what has been lost or the simpering namaste whispered to one's self as a panacea for sins. Irony is always self-centered, narcissistic and cruel. It is the nadir of the chant to "mindfulness."

* * *

Bogost quotes Oliver Burkeman, who works from a quote from Alan Watts:

"When we feel insecurity, we are really feeling the wish for our own permanence. "We do not actually understand that there is no security," writes Watts, "until we realize that this 'I' does not exist."

And as Burkeman also divines, mistaking the world for our world is another name for irony. Thinking of ourselves as centered bodies drawing meaning and contentment towards ourselves like gravity to planetary bodies, bodies that deserve something from everything. But our refusal to relinquish faith in the "I" that does not exist, says Burkeman,

...explains in the most complete sense why our efforts to find happiness are so frequently sabotaged by 'ironic' effects, delivering the exact opposite of what we set out to gain. All positive thinking, all goal writing and visualizing and looking on the bright side, all trying to make things go our way, as opposed to some other way, is rooted in an assumption about the separateness of "us" and those "things." But on closer inspection this assumption collapses.

* * *

Which is to say that the central construct of human life as played out over millennia, namely that we human beings are of a higher order, closer to God, chosen by God for dominion over the things of the planet, that we are central, Ptolemaic, the heavens spinning around us, serving us as we serve as overseers is the defining assumption of history: conquest has its rationale. And now, with no more territory to claim, no more gold to mine, no more room to move (save for the last strips of rain forest), the effort to control the terms of our willingness to meet the world has moved inward. The self-help section is larger than the history section at Barnes and Noble. It is all about you, baby. You got this. You can do this. You can find love, lose fifty pounds, work 2 days a week, start a revolution, raise charming children, improve your SEO, and find your inner goddess by throwing runes. 

We have subverted the idea of mindfulness and turned it into a competition, a spiritual one-upmanship that only leads back to the self, the impermanent self, the self that craves permanence. It cannot be done, so we hold all things at arm's length and criticize the thing we'd like to be able to love: life itself. We deem life an unfaithful lover: why bring me here, why show me this beauty, this horror and leave me so helpless in front of it, so transitory?

But that is what fucks us, love.

We are of life, not separate or above it. We are one of many, of millions, of billions. We are owed nothing: not happiness, not fulfillment, not meaning, not purpose. Nothing. 

We are, however, free to see what there is to see. But the price is to stop placing yourself in the center. The center is everywhere at the same time. Our innate ego, the thing that convinced us that we were essential, is stubborn. It wants the stage for itself. How different would your life be if you could share that stage, let go of the need to be right, to win, to control? This isn't to say what makes you unique and singular is to be discarded. Not at all. This isn't binary. You are one. You are one of many. You are whole. You are part. We destroy our lives and the lives of others we share this planet with by insisting on an imagined primacy. It simply doesn't exist.

Yes, be mindful if that helps you. But try being worldful as well. Meet the world as it is, not as you would have it be for yourself. Meet it in its desolation and dream. Meet it and love what you love without reservation or distancing. Meet it in its transience. Love what passes away. Love what comes next. Our ego, our "I", wants permanence, but all is transformation. Paranoia and irony both refuse this. 

* * *

You are here, so you might as well play. Your life is not for you alone. It belongs to those closest to you, to the ones who knew you when, to the ones that will follow. Your life belongs to the stories you tell and the stories told about you. Your life is larger than your solitary self, it reaches further than your ego. To unfuck what's gotten fucked in your life you have to be able to see yourself as something other than your personal desires and tragedies. You are in context, here, now, at this moment and not any other. Happiness cannot be pursued. It can only ensue when you give yourself to a cause other than yourself. And through that door no irony can pass.

* * *

I wish you well.

__________

Friday, September 16, 2016

They Ask Me

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep remembering
mine

- Lucille Clifton, "why some people be mad at me sometimes"

* * *

You see, it is through poetry the world is known, made knowable. At least in part.

* * *

We toggle through our days running for something, towards something, from something: running because others run, because there's a track, because we have feet and running feels right, because stillness brings an encroaching fear that maybe we aren't certain about our running and our feet and the track and the others out there running. We toggle through. We run. We get good at it. We get good at not noticing things, at not seeing the details clearly - more a blur, something possibly seen at the corner of our eye - at not wanting the detail for it would bog us down, slow us up, trip us up and bring us down. But even as we run, even as we toggle, topple, toddle, tipple and fall and catch ourselves before we fall a memory appears against our will: a piece of grit in the soft palate of an oyster. This memory troubles, grows, becomes a pearl of very great price: it is us, it is our I-ness, it is the burr of our soul irritating every step we take. It will not let up. It will not cease its growth until we stop to consider it, to turn it over in our hands, to marvel at its color, to wonder at its presence in the midst of all this running. And there it sits in the palm of our hand, small, round, the size of a hazelnut. We look and we say to ourselves, "What can this be?" and the answer comes without volition, "It is all that is made."

* * *

To know a truth about yourself is to be in opposition to the truths others have for you. To know your story against the stories others would have you know is to be in opposition to them, to their stories. Not as an adversary, but simply separate, distinct, vital without needing approval. Others, unless they are strong in their own story, will find your insistence on your own memories, your own knowledge about yourself and what your life might be, difficult to understand, possibly a threat to their own participation in the running stories that keep them runningandrunningandrunningandrunning without a moment to themselves. You might be asked about your story, but they really want you tell them about themselves, to assure them they've done well and they did you no harm. Give them this story, give them this memory and approval awaits. Validation is yours. Refuse their offer and your story finds no venue.

And it is here doubt comes calling. You may decide you've been kidding yourself (it's so hard to know for sure!) and you set aside that truth, that story, that memory, that pearl of very great price, place it possibly in a lovely box that you keep on your dresser as a sort of talisman to youthful exuberance, a talisman to being unwise and you find you can forgive yourself for such indiscretions. It is easy to do and you get on with living a different sort of life, one that knows very little about pearls and hazelnuts, but a great deal about running and blurring details and being welcomed home by the other runners.

And if you are lucky, very lucky or blessed as you see fit, a memory appears against your will: a piece of grit in the soft palate of an oyster. This memory troubles, grows, becomes a pearl of very great price: it is you, it is your I-ness, it is the burr of your soul irritating every step you take. It will not let up. It will not cease its growth until you stop to consider it, to turn it over in your hands, to marvel at its color, to wonder at its presence in the midst of all this running. And there it sits in the palm of your hand, small, round, the size of a hazelnut. You look and you ask, "What can this be?" and the answer comes without volition, "It is all that is made."

* * *

You are free to repeat this as often as you need to.  Some will need to gather but one pearl in their lives. You and I, well, we might need a bag full. Our sorrows, our failings, our losses, our missed chances, our mistakes, our fears, our doubt, our tragedies, our wonderment, our hope, our memories, our desires, our love, our goodness, our faith, our laughter are all bits of grit, the source of our identity. Or at least, they can be. It is up to you what you will remember, what you will use to build your life around. For, in the end, anything can be the place where you begin and the rest of the stories separate themselves from you. And make no mistake, you will make others angry and uncomfortable with your insistence to build up your life around an idea or memory that they consider odd or difficult or unworthy. It can make for loneliness, but only for a while. That never lasts. It isn't permanent, or doesn't have to be. By staying rooted in yourself, by heeding the call of this memory, this truth about yourself and by organizing your days around that you become a light that draws others into their name, into their memory, into their truth. Your life, lived by the soul of your truth, becomes connected to others who live so, or are trying to be so. In the simplicity of being true to that which animates you, you are a sign and a signal pointing to a truth larger than yourself, a cause greater than yourself. And you accomplish this by letting others be mad at you, and keep on remembering that pearl, that bag of pearls, the hazelnut in the palm of your hand: everything that is. 

And you are its keeper, its steward. At least for a while and then it needs to be handed off. The works you leave behind are the means of that transition, a bet placed on the courage of those you'll never know.

* * *

I wish you well.

__________


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Goethe's Saying What

Goethe's saying, "What is important in life is life and not a result of life," is the answer to any and every senseless attempt to solve the riddle of historical form by means of a programme.

- Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

* * *

There is a divide, perhaps more felt than acknowledged, that exists in anyone who reads, who thinks, who dances, who creates, who struggles, who wonders, who doubts, who prays, who tries to move on: the divergent impulses between following a path and cutting a new trail, between a scholarly, businesslike approach and the free form of discovery, between the mechanical and the organic. We are, in some ways, data points on that continuum, leaning more heavily in one direction or the other as suits our needs and predilections. The closest example I know of is the teaching of creative writing. No such thing exists, but the process of engagement with the creative impulse has been turned into a commodity with matriculated steps along the way and a useless MFA at the end to hang on the wall. When you layer a programme (such ancient spelling) over an inherently organic and undefinable process you create the illusion of mastering it and its focus is on outcomes (another commodity) and not the process itself.

As above, so below. How you do anything is how you do everything, etc.

It is easy to give lip service to valuing process over the product. All that alliteration makes for a pithy meme. But instead of process, perhaps a better word is life. Now the formulation changes and becomes at once heavier and lighter than any process: What is important in life is life and not a result of life.

An emphasis on life's products, on the mechanics of life is, inherently and inviolably, a backwards looking approach to life. An emphasis on life in life, on the organic is, inherently and inviolably, an emergent world view.  The former breeds satisfaction as its highest good, the latter engenders courage and dance.

* * *

It isn't as easy as flipping a switch to move between these ideas, these approaches. There is a great deal of incentive to devote yourself to the mechanistic world view. There are well defined routes, and very specific rewards for sublimating the life you feel in your veins. Yes, you give up some (okay, most) of your autonomy, but you weren't using it anyway, and besides you have bills to pay, debt to service and its time to get on with the business of being an adult. That is the unfair, knee-jerk description of what is, in reality, a very muddy picture of conflicting desires, expectations and possibilities. Just as unfair is what is likely presumed by the term organic: all drippy with folks whispering namaste and being in the moment. Not at all. No, that, too, is far more complex than the associations we've built up around the word organic or natural or free form, etc.

If you are a scholar or a businesswoman, it is entirely possible and indeed preferable, for you to approach your work with a sense of discovery and the not-yet-here, instead of a pre-determined outcome. If you are a painter or poet do you create to discover what it is you have to say, or do you say what is expected of you? It does not matter where you begin, or even where you are right now, or the work you do to sustain yourself.  For the matter at hand, those concerns are immaterial. What does matter, what does have the power to guide your life is either a reliance on someone else's program, or the one you discover and hew into place by looking ahead and not behind.

It is fundamental: if you are fucked and stuck and going nowhere, you are looking backwards; you have slotted yourself into the mechanical. To get things moving again you must have the courage to be uncertain with what comes next and trust you'll come up with a response that will keep your feet moving. That's what I mean by organic: as yet unknown, but knowable moment to moment.

* * *

There is this also: all organics are perishable.

This must not be avoided. It is, in truth, the essential dynamo for what comes next. 

To adopt or acquiesce to the mechanical, the programmed, to the world of products and outcomes and results is an act of narcissism and a retreat from life. It says, "These goods that I have accrued are the sum of life." It is a cultish (by definition - narrow) response to what is possible. It leaves nothing for those who come next except an intact program to follow. It is reductive. To dare uncertainty, to engage with life's processes of waxing and waning, is to look forward, is to imagine a future other than your own. It is generational and a cause larger than the self's ego. It finds meaning in life, not life's results.

You will die, my love. I will die. Better to keep this forward in the mind instead of pretending it doesn't exist and won't happen. This is not to be maudlin, but instead is to serve as the spark to get your feet moving while you have feet to move. Those close to you will be changed by such courage and the things you discover as you emerge and walk the leading edge of your life will encourage those who come after you and help them to dare to pick up their mantle and do a bit of courageous dancing in their time.

The mechanical life is a wheel: cogged and precise, built to repeat itself
The organic life is a wave: never the same twice, but ever pulsing.

* * *

My comments about the teaching of writing were just how it worked out for me. My MFA is an albatross. But for others I know they used it as the engine of their discovery. Anything is usable. Anything can be the door you pass through to another way of living. If it is at hand, use it. 

* * *

I wish you well.

__________