Posts tagged dostoyevsky
evil and the unknown

Hermann Hesse wrote in Demian of something that has obsessed me for a long time. It is the same idea proclaimed by Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Nietzsche and Carl Jung and all those other nineteenth–century Europeans who knew a thing or two about inferno. It is about evil, about the darkness and the damned and about how these things exist in each and every one of us, no matter how precious and agreeable we all would like our hearts to be. 

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible” Dostoyevsky wrote in his 1880 novel of internal moral struggle. “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Eighty years later, Solzhenitsyn followed up. “[T]he line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Demian is about a boy who bears a mark that makes him stand out before the rest. It is a branding on his brow that only those who carry it themselves are able to detect. It is a mark that means he is blessed and cursed with the potential for enlightenment. 

The boy grows up within a home of solemn light–drenched peace and bliss. As he enters the world outside, however, he discovers the reality of evil, darkness, suffering and injustice. His youth is marked by a battle between these worlds, at once within the world of light and then again cast out into its darkness. He falls into the depths of despair only to ascend the heights of elation. But neither is a place of permanence. Something within him understands that neither is the truth, neither is enough. How could it be, for a person bearing the burden of awareness?

There is a reason the maxim ignorance is bliss is so widely accepted and prevailed. If enlightenment was simple, everyone would get there. The reason it is not is because to get there one must face the devil. One must face all that is wrong within the world. Including all that is wrong within oneself

And people don’t. Of course they don’t. Who wants to admit to their deepest flaws? It is so much simpler to live one’s life pretending all is perfect. We all like to think we would be the person hiding refugees up in our attics rather than inform upon our neighbours just to save ourselves. Truth is, most of us would do the work of the informer. Who wants to entertain that fact about themselves?

So we live our lives in deep denial. We deny our failures, we deny our insignificance and irresponsibilities and the fact that we are weak and faulty to our cores. We deny the shadow that harbours deep within our souls. But suppressing the shadow only makes it grow, and one day it will come back to haunt us.

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be” Carl Jung wrote in 1938. “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The only road to fulfilment is understanding one’s shadow and incorporating it within one’s life and being. Failure and you are no more than a ticking time bomb.

Good and evil, the known and the unknown, darkness and light, chaos and order, yin and yang, left and right, progressive and conservative, whatever. These dualities exist and always will. The proper mode of being lies nowhere on the peripheries, ignoring and condemning whatever lurks hidden on the other side. The proper mode of being recognises both and successfully incorporates them, balancing on the fragile tension somewhere in–between. 

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That is art. That is music. It is travel, love and friendship. It is all you stay alive for. 

This is not a new idea. It has existed for millennia. “Virtue…is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect” Aristotle wrote two thousand years ago, and it has been relevant ever since. But perhaps today, right now, with the political gap seemingly growing wider all over the world, it is useful to remind oneself of its importance.

The depths of the far right is no place we want to inhabit. We have seen its woes. We have read the books and seen the chambers and piles of mangled gauntly bodies. We are not going back. It is not a place in which we want to dwell. 

But neither is the deep far left. We have seen those chambers too. Its skeletons and body pits. Why do the fringes always culminate in death camps, anyway?

To understand the potential of both the evil and the beauty that exists within yourself you have to look within. You have to turn your gaze towards yourself by cultivating whatever makes you you. Whatever makes you an individual, apart from the masses and the hordes that make up ideological extremes. Only by doing this will you be able to truly serve the world in which you are so deeply intertwined. From within yourself. Yourself as as thinking, independent, individual being. 

“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to follow the path that leads to himself” Hesse wrote. But it is of the utmost importance that you do. It is the only way to justify your existence as a member of this fragile realm. “I live in my dreams — that's what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own. That's the difference.” That is the mark, the mark on the brow of the people awake enough to understand their own significance and duty. And by cultivating this understanding, you will be justified to serve the world.

Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again. That is why every man’s story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfils the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of consideration.
"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.