Posts tagged comfort
fictions and contraptions

I finished Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being last night. It is a story about two women, two men, and a dog. It follows their lives as it plays out over time and geographies, reflecting on the nature of a post–war twentieth–century concept of being in the face of accident and chance. I loved it for its obsession with beauty and philosophical foundation yet something about it bothered me. I had been stuck on page 250 out of 300 for weeks, couldn’t get myself to finish it and couldn’t understand why. There was something to it that I just did not accept. I am still not sure I understand what it was, but in any case it made me think of this: fictions

Human beings create fictions. We live in a world of storytelling. The reason we are able to create grand narratives is the same reason we are able to uphold grand societies. Religion is a fiction. As are communism and country borders. But fictions do not only serve the grand and pompous. They also serve the individual. 

We create fictions about the people around us and ourselves because it grounds us and provides us meaning. Why am I acting in this manner? Because of the things that has happened to you, the inclinations that you have and the circumstances you find yourself in. In order to understand the self that inhabit your mind and body you engage in constant self–psychoanalysis. In doing this you create a story, and the story you create provide you answers and the answers give you comfort. Why? Because now you know. Inhabiting the unknown and the unknowable is uncomfortable. If you do not know where you are, you do no know how to act. And if you do not know how to act, you do not know what to do. 

So your fictions keep you safe. Granted. But how do you know that they are true?

Perhaps at one point they were. But perhaps today they have expired. You have reinvented yourself. You live and grow and experience and one day you find the fiction you have lived your life within no longer accommodate the person you’ve become. As a child you were afraid and apprehensive but now twenty years have passed and your soul has since evolved. Your hair is messier. Your nails a little dirty. Your sheets are bloodied, elbows scratched and heart a little torn and jagged. 

So what do you do?

You burn your past. The past that trapped you in a shape you were but no longer inhabit. The past of childhood friends and ageing relatives, the ones who only knew the blue–eyed girl from childhood. And you reinvent yourself. You write a brand new story. You contradict all that defined your former self and you leave it all behind. Your taste in music, the way you speak, the men whose eyes and hands you seek in love and combat and the way you make your bed.

Your new story isn’t frail and captive. The book you write today isn’t locked and hidden in disgrace. It is thick and fierce and maddening. It loves repose and refrain, French–born existentials and bleeding battered bruised black hands.

And? Now that you have burned it down, dug up the foundation and ground the pieces to a fine–grained dust. Are you free?

No. You aren’t free. You’re simply trapped within a newborn fiction. It may be grander and aflame but it is still a cage you forged yourself. It still fits neatly in someone’s narrow–minded brain and it still follows a path that’s predetermined.

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What you want is to escape. You want contradiction and complexity. Discomfort and irregularity. The truth is not a neat and fitted custom–made affair you made to soothe your need for order. The truth is messy, dirty, politically incorrect, counteractive and condescending. And you know what? That is why it’s beautiful. Frictions are what causes sparks. 

So tear your walls. Contradict the stories you tell yourself to feel safe and intact and content. Safety is no place for madness and creation. The known has never made a man surprised. By tearing down the house you built to keep you dry you are forced to enter unknown waters. That is where you find what’s interesting. That is where you want to be.

But you knew this. Right? This is why you love the new, the scary and the unattained. The jungles of the rough grand cities, the hypothetical and intricate and the anti–realism of limitless abstraction. The modernists figured this out. Their paintings of solid black squares are preposterous to some. What? This is nothing. True. It it nothing. But by virtue of being nothing, it is also everything. 

What you did in the past does not matter. Where you were born and whom your parents were, how much melanin your skin contains or the hormones flowing through your veins. None of that defines you. 

What defines you is today. What defines you are the actions you undertake right now. The words you speak and listen to and where you go and what you see and seek. Do what your mind tells you at this moment and do it fully, truly, without fear of consequence or repercussion. Sure, you may look back tomorrow and wonder what the damn went through your mind. That’s fine. It’s great, actually. It shows you you have grown.

That is it. That is what The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about. It is about a band of human beings trapped within their self–narrated stories of who they are and why they are that way. And because they are so rigid and determined and so sure this is the truth, the love they harbour for each other becomes not liberation but their deepest source of pain. Because they capture each other within their stories. Like animals within a cage.

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight”, Kundera writes. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.” Yes, human life runs straight ahead, and it does so because we are aware that we will one day perish. “It means to know that one is food for worms“, as Becker so elegantly put it. But that does not mean one cannot be happy. Human beings long for repetition because in this way the fictions we create are reassured. To be happy one need simply disregard the need for affirmation. Accept the irrationality and contradictions. And find the beauty within them. 

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” the man, surprised, asks the woman at the novel’s very end. In her eyes, her faults and flaws and weaknesses had ruined her lover’s life, forced him to abandon his life’s mission and surrender to a life of quietude. “Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions.”

"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself"
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Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars
 

I read Kerouac’s On the Road and Bukowski’s Ham on Rye back to back. It made me want to quit my life, steal a jeep and leave, somewhere, anywhere, it wouldn’t matter. Away from the fabrication we all so affectionately refer to as the system.

I never understood the sacredness of freedom until I spent an under–stimulated year of nine–to–five in a corporation. Clock in, clock out. Stamp your hours, crave the weekend. Northern winter Europe cubicle monotony, hurting strained computer eyes. Zero. One. Zero. And repeat.

Before this I had been a student my entire life, and it wasn’t until this point that I realized how happy that had made me. How happy I had been to spend my days in front of books, art, human beings and ideas. How valuable it is to spend one’s hours relentlessly pursuing whatever new obsession one may happen to come across. Finding connections between seemingly disparate interests and mould them into a coherence of something previously unfathomable.

Then you are done. You graduate and you are excited because finally you get to take these skills and contribute to the real world where it actually matters and – hang on.

Reality.

Reality is the fact that grand utopian ideas of the poetic potential of creative madness has no value in a world of numbers. Reality is the fact that people don’t want the absurd and the sacred. They don’t want unbound creativity and invention and inquiry and ingenuity. They don’t want freedom.

People love their cages because within these they are safe. Trading the comfort of your bulletproof home for a life of unhinged unpredictability may sound appealing to some, but in practice, most humans value security. Ergo, that is the society we have constructed.

So is that it?

Is that the compromise? Is it really that dualistic? You sell yourself to the big man, earn your money, health and safety but in the process you give up the now, the creation, the madness and the screaming manic frenzies in raging desert towns. Kerouac makes it simple. There is no higher virtue than that on the road, off the grid. But the truth is less romantic. If you really dare to leave the system, the system will have you punished. And no wonder. You disturbed the order.

For Kerouac, freedom is a beautiful and dirty hustle. For Bukowski it is stupor, pain and death. It is a swimming pool of liquor, filthy bloodstained t–shirts and a bottomless contempt. Because despite the merit of being individual enough to dare reject the system you are still trapped within a society that submits to it. Maybe in a state of nature you would be the only sane one on the scene. But in a society of indoctrinated collectivists, you are a fatal liability.

Faced with that, then, is it really worth rejecting? For Bukowski, it was. For most people, it isn’t. Understandably. Most of us want happiness, not freedom. Comfort, not liberty. Achieving both seems an impossible contradiction.

Huxley knew this too. In the pursuit of happiness one must ban all suffering, but in so doing, one must also ban anything that carries meaning. Why? Because anything meaningful will inevitably also carry some form of distress. “To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise”, Dostoyevsky rightfully mused in his 1864 underground novella. The same is true of art, poetry and freedom.

But what if you think that is a sacrifice worth making? What if you are one of the few who thinks meaning is a concept worth preserving, despite its bitter tradeoffs?

In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ 

There was a long silence. I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.

True freedom isn’t your millennial dream of Paris cafes with a MacBook in your lap, sipping grande oat milk chai tea lattes and writing poetry amidst the city sounds and smells of buttered scones. You may think you are free. But do you understand what it took to make this privileged reality of yours possible? How many underpaid service people and overstressed labourers it took to create this polished world that you so casually enjoy?

You work hard. I know. You have had your struggles. The fact that you are sitting here today is a marvellous achievement. But you are standing on the shoulders of giants. Small, underpaid, overlooked giants. But giants nonetheless. Perhaps bigger than you and I will ever be.

Freedom is a fragile, delicate and abstract idea. It is that which we most strongly desire but also that which we most violently fear. It is painful, burdensome and difficult to carry.

But in the end, it is the most valuable thing we possess. It is not enjoyed by everyone and it is never to be taken for granted. And we must fight to maintain it.

Today, and in the future.