On Living Ecstatically

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Hiking the Oregon Coast, 2009

There are a good many people of the same kind as Harry. Particularly many artists are of his kind. These persons all have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and man in Harry. And these men, for whom life has no repose, live at times in their rare moments of happiness with such strength and indescribable beauty, the spray of their moment’s happiness is flung so high and dazzlingly over the wide sea of suffering, that the light of it, spreading its radiance, touches others too with its enchantment. Thus, like a precious, fleeting foam over the sea of suffering arise all those works of art, in which a single individual lifts himself for an hour so high above his personal destiny that his happiness shines like a star and appears to all who see it as something eternal and as their own dream of happiness. All these men, whatever their deeds and works may be, have really no life; that is to say, their lives are non-existent and have no form. They are not heroes, artists or thinkers in the same way that other men are judges, doctors, shoemakers, or schoolmasters. Their life consists of a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless, unless one is ready to see its meaning in just those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos of such a life. To such men the desperate and horrible thought has come that perhaps the whole of human life is but a bad joke, a violent and ill-fated abortion of the primal mother, a savage and dismal catastrophe of nature. To them, too, however, the other thought has come that man is perhaps not merely a half-rational animal but a child of the gods and destined to immortality.”

-Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf

Hesse is one of those authors I always thought was speaking directly to me, or rather through me. If I could ever attempt to approach such a level of writing, here were glimpses of the reality I would speak of. I first read Hesse seven years ago and his work was probably the first time I ever had such a profound response to another’s ideas. He remains for me, one of Camus’ consummate artists, a man who “awakens for all in this world asleep, the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.” He woke me up anyway. I consider the moments I find such thoughts, whether through traversing libraries or cyberspace or continents, to be some of the most profoundly happy ones I have experienced. Here is the most unexpected of gifts, a safe harbour in the storm, a lightning bolt in the dark.

I often hear the subjects I choose to write about and the subjects I choose to make art about characterized primarily by their excesses of various unfavourable qualities. Such work is too dark, too angry, too cynical, too impudent, too depressing, too judgemental, too serious, too negative, too fatalistic. I am too much of an ideologue with too little understanding of reality. I am too young to really understand The Way Things Are. To continually focus my attentions on such topics (and attempt to compel others to do the same) is too unnecessary, too exhausting, too hard, too much.

I can even agree with some of that.

Why does one look into the darkness? Why paint the agony of the bomb and not the beauty of the landscape? Why write about the filth and the nausea of life when everywhere one is presented with examples of life’s most stunning beauty? Why insist on the horror?

Few things infuriate and sadden me as much as such questions. These are the questions of a binary world. Here is not the ‘The mother’s blood and the father’s, the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering’, but the belief that one must exist always at the expense of the other; an obvious world of black and white, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

Why does one direct their energies towards these ‘unpleasant’ issues? Because these issues exist. Because to have a passion for life, to love life, means that you feel it all and are devastated when you see life desecrated. Because to really attempt to live, means that you do not deny or try to justify these issues out of existence, but work to learn about everything you can, not just what is most convenient or pleasant. Because above all things, you believe that the world does not have to be this way, and it is in your power, it is your personal responsibility, to work to make things better. It is in such work that the happiness Hesse speaks of exists, there can be no greater passion; It is everything.

My focus on what appears to some to be very ‘unpleasant’ topics is a direct result of the passion I feel for this life, my reverence for it and my total awestruck wonder at the infinite complexity and beauty of the world. I am in constant awe of life. In awe of my luck of being here, now, to experience what I am experiencing. In awe of the variety of life around me. Everything is a lesson, everything is new, everything is astonishing. There is no separating the ‘bad’ learning from the ‘good’ for me, the ‘successes’ from the ‘failures’, the sunlight from the darkness- it is all life. Mostly, my impulse is to devour it all, the whole world, as quickly as possible, before I no longer have the chance. To take in all of that possibility, to understand all that I can possibly understand, to stand on the shoulders of giants and see as far as I can see. It fascinates me, all of it.

It is not possible for someone to love life in this all consuming way, without being horrified and repulsed when one learns of or witnesses actions that deliberately desecrate it. One cannot stand it, when they see that in all of life’s infinite variety and diversity, only the very smallest number of particular experiences, ‘truths’, and ‘realities’ are defined as superior to all others. One cannot reconcile such complete wonder at all life has to offer, with the knowledge that so many are denied the incomparable pleasure of experiencing so much of it. I don’t want to stop being horrified and repulsed, to try to stand it, to try and reconcile it. I want to change it. I demand that it changes.

Why should you care about bombs falling in countries you’ve never been too, freedoms denied to people you don’t know, where that homeless guy is going to sleep tonight? Because you fucking love life that much. The reason you care is because you are so passionate about something (anything!) that the knowledge that others are being denied the experience of that passion, a passion that you cannot imagine life without, is absolutely devastating to you. I don’t care what that passion is, if it is love for your children, or body building, or performing, or traveling, or building cars. Find out what it is so you can feel that profoundly about something. Find out what it is so you can imagine how it would feel to have the opportunity to express that passion taken from you, or to never have experienced it at all. Wrap your head around the fact that such an incomparable, universal feeling is denied someone, every day, because of the actions you do or do not take, right now.

It is true that I’m angry, too angry. I think I have every reason to be under the circumstances, and you likely have every reason to be as well. However, anger is not the best reaction when trying to build something positive and I am trying my hardest to work to change it. For now though, I would settle for any impassioned response. When seemingly the greatest emotion aroused in people who learn of the scathing injustices and atrocities committed on this earth is most often one of fatalistic apathy or guilty discomfort at best, I would happily take anger as some kind of foundation to build on. What I want is for you to notice this world that howls just past your evening TV programs, just past your car door as you drive to work, just past your experience every single day. I’m begging you to notice it, and I am begging you to feel something about it. I am begging you to love life that much, that you are so completely horrified by the actions and events you see unfolding around you that you can’t bring yourself to look away. You can’t bring yourself to justify it continuing.

Feeling this way does not have a repose. I cannot paint inspiring landscapes or write perky travel bogs in a world where bombs fall every day; where people are starving amongst a glut of food production; where love for someone who looks too much like you, or not enough like you can get you killed; Where the earth that sustains us groans under the weight of our disdain for it; Where we school our children in obedience and competition and fear to the relentless interruption of a bell; Where all of us are made conspirators in this endless cycle of our own destruction. This is the world you justify by your silence, by apologizing for it, by defending it, by ignoring it. It exists, and if you value the sanctity of a single human life- that is not acceptable. Some days, I can’t do much of anything at all except bear witness, and feel it, and not turn away. I don’t ever want to stop feeling it. I love life far too much for that.

I hope that more often than not in all of this darkness, what I am doing is something more than just bearing witness. I hope to be presenting alternatives to this undeniable state of affairs, I am searching for them every day as this world teaches me more and more. The more I learn about, the less I realize I know. The more I try to understand, the more I begin to realize I will never understand- and that’s ok. I can only speak of my truth, my experience of the world, my alternatives, and they are certainly no more valid or legitimate than yours. But what I am begging you to do is for god sakes, think about it, go out and look for those alternatives, come up with something to add. Ask ‘why?’ over and over and over like the child who takes nothing at all for granted as the way Reality works. Destroy the answers with your questions.

The world is not just ‘the way it is’ in some kind of benign, agency free vacuum. The deliberate injustice and poverty and torture and war that you see on the news before changing the channel to something ‘less depressing’ are not what define our nature and are certainly not what define any kind of inevitable ‘reality.’ It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change all of it. The belief that ‘that’s Reality and I’m just lucky/blessed, so all I can do is try not to think about it and be grateful’ is the true fatalism. That mentality is dark, that is cynical, that is depressing. I am asking nothing less of you than to help change the world and the very first step is to start actually living in it.

Hesse was an impassioned advocate of uncompromisingly embracing the totality of life in all of its aspects. He symbolized this idea in the gnostic deity Abraxas, who encompassed all elements of humanity, positive and negative: “You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.”

Say yes to everything. Shirk nothing. You can have your sunlight and your fantasies, but also seek the filth and the nausea. See the filth and the nausea. Really see it and I promise, you will want to change it. The desire to see the totality of life, the desire to work to change it for the better- that is the farthest thing in the world from a cynical, depressing negativity. That is the passion that makes life worth living.

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