Monday, April 30, 2007

Reality Bites

I want the life promised me in the movies. A life of drama and adventure, of true love and the happily-ever-after. It is not hard to see why Plato banished the poets from his Republic, movies and television offer us grand expectations with no guarantees of attaining them.  For much this same reason the Puritans banned theatre during the Commonwealth because they believed it told lies and, at least in part, they were right. We cannot always be living in a state of ecstasy as our entertainments whisper seductively to us. Those who try to match the intensity of the world they see on film will only wear themselves to a shadow and lose all sensitivity to the little joys. It is largely due to this indoctrination from an early age in Romanticism, that we are left with a feeling of anti-climax when at last we attain our liberty, only to learn that liberty carries a price of its own.
T.S. Eliot reminds us that: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We are always wishing to escape from the life we know, to one we think would be so much better. “Amor fati.” Said Nietzsche, love your fate. That is, love the life you have been given and build the best with what you have. This is an injunction that is hard to accept, and the desire to dull our senses is at least understandable within limits, but the current state of the world is not inclined to moderation.
Romanticism is about the past, or rather, reclaiming an idealized past. When Hitler came to power, it was on promises of a return to the good old days. Even now, and in not so different a form, politicians use a similar rhetoric when they evoke family values. One wonders how much this should alarm us.
The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima had all his life venerated the ideal of the Samurai, at last reached a state in which he could no longer go on without his fantasy. Reality had grown too stale to hold the ideal at bay---and so--- he cut out his entrails. Such an example is extreme but points to the dangers that can develop in a mind so disenchanted with this world that one would do anything to bring about another. I have in mind specifically religious fundamentalists, some of whom are so taken with the idea of apocalypse they would quite happily sacrifice the human race to bring about the return of their messiah.
The concept of otherworldliness brings us again back to Plato, whose idea of a hidden perfection behind all things would lead the early church to denounce this as a fallen world, and so, disposable; a suggestion that is even now having disastrous repercussions for the environment. Thus, when we turn away from the harsh realities of this world to seek another, we may in the end lose both altogether.
Reality cannot be circumvented by material goods or passionate denunciation; it must be met on its own terms and accepted as is, or at least make some attempt to improve it. We have only ourselves to blame if we feel a poverty of incident in our lives since it is only we who can enrich them.
On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be said for the romantics of this world after all. If life were truly so wonderful there would be no need to invent stories and, as one who enjoys telling them, at least one soul might be worse off for that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Because It Was He...

I learn something about myself every day, unfortunately, much of it is merely relearning what I had learned before and forgotten. This is a habit of all thoughtful people but is always more productive when shared with friends. We discuss with them so often the highlights of our lives that our patterns of thought and our little idiosyncrasies echo our identities back to us, so in an almost selfish fashion we find our common humanity mirrored in them, and feel through them as though we are truly part of the world instead of merely passing along its margin on our way to the grave.

Lacking this connection is one of the sharpest stings that life can inflict. It is not just the mere loneliness that is painful, but the absence of one who understands us to our very core. An equal in both temperament and tendency. The great humanist Michel de Montaigne invented an entirely new genre of literature, the personal essay, just out of this need to communicate with like souls.

“Besides this profit I make of writing of myself,” He wrote “I have also hoped for this other advantage, that if it should fall out that my humour should please or jump with those of some honest man before I die, he would then desire and seek to be acquainted with me…..many things that I would not confess to any one in particular, I deliver to the public, and send my best friends to a bookseller’s shop, there to inform themselves concerning my most secret thoughts.” And again: “Did I, by good direction, know where to seek any one proper for my conversation, I should certainly go a great way to find him out.”

Montaigne found such a friend just once in his life; his name was √Čtienne de La Bo√©tie. He was a young man of exceptional abilities and, as is so common of the irony of this world, was dead by his early thirties. To explain what it was that drew each to the other he replied simply: “Because it was he, because it was I.” What further explanation is required? Montaigne never recovered from the loss of such a conversationalist, and so, put to paper the thoughts that might otherwise have been lost on the air. Perhaps no greater monument to friendship might exist.

In a similar fashion, Henry David Thoreau, who has been popularized as a hermit that shunned the world of men, idealized friendship to such a degree that it is unsurprising he never found it. Like Montaigne he had no recourse but the pen and unloaded his heart and mind to his Journals. These were no school girl exercise books in gossip however, but a great storehouse of ideas that in many cases would reappear more properly as books and essays for publication. Not an uncommon practice with any working writer even today.

It has been said before that such efforts share much with the world of blogging, at least in spirit. The main difference being the lack of authority we take for granted from print, and the quality from it which we demand, but that is beside the point. The object is the same now as it was for Montaigne and Thoreau, to reach out to those who might otherwise never hear our voice, and in doing so perhaps make that noble connection which is the greatest desire of the human heart.