Lately, I’ve gone through quite a big shift. I don’t know how to explain it really. Between wanting and not wanting, caring and not caring.
Of course it’s a lot more than that too. Shock and aura. Things are stronger and brighter and I feel on the edge of something inexpressible. Coded messages in the in-flight magazines. Energy shield. Uncompromising care. Electricity, colors, radiance. Everything is a signpost pointing to something else. And, lying on my bed in my frigid room, I watch the clouds reflected on sliding panes and marvel how even my sadness can make me happy, how wall to wall carpet and fake Bierdermeier furniture and a softly murmuring announcer on the radio can all somehow seem necessary and right.
I’d just as soon forget, but I can’t. It’s kind of the hum of a tuning fork. It’s just there. It’s with me all the time.
White noise, impersonal roar. Deadening incandescence of the boarding terminals. But even these soul-free, sealed-off places are drenched with meaning, spangled and thundering with it. Sky Mall. Portable stereo systems. Mirrored isles and Chanel No. 5. I look at the blanked out faces around me- hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark- and I think about what he once said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.
Only what is the thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love and care about is illusion, and yet- for me, anyway- all that’s worth living for lies in the charm?
A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand- we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.
Because- isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted-? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm: reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or- like him- is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?
It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That’s the first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.
A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.
And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it- although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Path of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.
I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence- of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do- is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous “Our Town” nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn baby, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &co. For me- and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly until I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no do-overs, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death. Who do we complain to in this shitty place? Who is in charge here?
And- maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein, although it doesn’t matter since no one’s ever going to read all of this- but does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end- and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?
To try and make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I only see a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.
And I’ve written this, on some level, to try to understand. As terrible as this is, I get it. We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to ruin us. We can’t escape who we are.
And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between “reality” on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blue to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.
And- I would argue as well- all love. Or perhaps more accurately, the middle zone illustrates the fundamental discrepancy of love. And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color against the sky- so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.
I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life- whatever else it is- is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe ever if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping our eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion follow through time- so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists, and it keeps on existing.