Posts tagged suffering
I wrote this in a fever

(Apologies for incoherence)

I read a story about a man enslaved inside his own mind. Too much time spent in contemplation has made him view the world outside as foreign, irrational, dirty and repulsive. He has grown cynical and embittered, antisocial, morose and full of spite. He values nothing but a few timeless classics of literature and music which he worships as if they were infallible immortals. All else is shallow, disgusting, meaningless and abhorrent.

His name is Steppenwolf. To escape this despicable existence he resolves to kill himself, but is in the end too much a coward to pull through. As luck would have it, he is found by a girl who understands him. She pats him on the head and calls him silly. And slowly, one day at a time, she teaches him how to live again.

I have so much to say about this book yet somehow anything I write seems futile. Anyone can retreat into their mind and wallow in the fact that the society we have created for ourselves is one of suffering, abundance, trivialities and despair. Anyone can refuse to partake in the world and resolve to a life of cynicism. And anyone can do all this and blame it on the fact that they are merely too enlightened. Too aware to lead a normal, healthy life in this grotesque, shallow, complacent and ignorant world we have established for ourselves.

Anyone can fade away. It isn’t difficult to die. What’s difficult is to keep on living. You think you lock yourself up in your room because you are too damn good for the world? Because you are the only one wise enough to see this shallow, cosy, stupid world for what it is?

No. You lock yourself inside yourself because you are too afraid to go outside. You refuse the invitations, the singing crowds and dancing mobs because you are too damn frightened to encounter friction. To mess things up and deal with contradiction. To face yourself within the mirror of the people you encounter. To know yourself and all your flaws. “You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”

The problem is you are correct. This world is shallow, vulgar and obscene. Too much of what humanity admires are a pointless waste of time. “Do you think I’m incapable of understanding your fear of the foxtrot, your distaste for bars and dance floors, your resistance to jazz music and all that sort of stuff? I understand it only too well, just as I do your disgust with politics, your sadness at the way the parties and the press ramble on and kick up a fuss about things, your despair over wars, the one there has just been and those still to come, and about modern habits of thinking reading, building, making music, celebrating things and providing education!”

Humanity is too content with way too little. It has to be this way or else society wouldn’t function. If it were inhabited solely by individuals who think outside the norms it would collapse. Those people are too inquisitive. They ask too many questions. They don’t just swallow and accept things the way they are presented and as such they pose a threat to order. “You are right, Steppenwolf, a thousand times right, and yet you must perish…It is no home, this fine world, for people like us who, instead of nonsensical noise, demand music; instead of pleasure, joy; instead of money, soul; instead of industrial production, genuine labour; instead of frivolity, genuine passion…”

The fact that you struggle in this state is no surprise. That does not mean your place within it does not exist. It just means you have to search for it. You have to put in the work. You have to dig a little deeper. Deeper than the world as it appears. Deeper than your inclinations, your proclivities, your innate personality and whatever fiction you claim to constitute your self. “[T]he conquest of time and escape from reality…means simply the wish to be relieved of your so-called personality. That is the prison where you lie.”

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Discard your simplifications. Your life is no mere good or evil, true or false, wealth or worth or nature or reason. It is no mere struggle between opposing extremes where one trumps the other. It is all of those and infinities in between. “His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.”

Your quest for completion is a fiction. The self is no mere singular conquest of which once you’ve reached its peak you may retire. Simplifying the grandeur of a human mind to that extent is a mistake and grave disservice.

“[A] man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves.” These selves overlap, contradict, rejoice and engage in combat. Anyone brave enough to venture into their unfettered mind is well aware of this. It is shunned and dubbed insane in our society because complexity invokes contradiction. Unsurprisingly. It is easier to herd a flock of sheep than a band of wolves. But in punishing the mad, you castigate the genius. “In consequence of this error many…are looked upon as mad who are geniuses”.

Never fear the irrational, the extraordinary, combative and complex. It is the friction of contradiction that birth the sparks of invention. “Just as madness, in a higher sense, is the beginning of all wisdom, so is schizomania the beginning of all art and all fantasy.”

Keep worshipping your idols. Praise them on your bruised black knees with bleeding hands and torn red nails. Lock yourself inside your room with nothing but your soul and blues, stacks of books by men you love and women you admire. Beating rhythms to whispered words, heaving lungs so violent your ribcage bursts and shatters. Do this. Do it all and then again.

Then go to bed. Sleep it off.

Your worship of the genius, breathless, ocean–deep and speechless is laudable and precious. But don’t take it so seriously. Perfection is a heavy burden and these saints are already weighed down by the stones above their graves. “Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists…in putting too high a value on time. […] In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke.”

Head outside in autumn rain. Call your sister. Claim a stranger in the street. Tell a man you met but once he reminds you of your soulmate. Make best friends with girls in nightclubs. Close your eyes. Flow along. It’s fine. It really is. To appreciate the depths of oceans you must first venture knee–deep into clear blue colourful lagoons. Set your anchor here. Make yourself at home and when the time feels right, dive into the depths. Find your jewels and return them to the surface. Yes, that is the point. To venture deep into the unknown and bring those treasures to the surface where they can be aired and dried and understood. “Your faith found no more air to breathe. And suffocation is a hard death.”

Be brave enough to venture into darkness. But do not forget that lightness has its value too. What else would the point be of all your crazed imaginations if not to realise them in the world? To help you make your life a little less confusing. A little less afraid. And a little more in love.

“A girl had bidden me eat and drink and sleep, and had shown me friendship and had laughed at me and had called me a silly little boy. And this wonderful friend had talked to me of the saints and shown me that even when I had outdone myself in absurdity I was not alone.”
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.
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.

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. 

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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.

perspective
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You act almost as if matters have to hurt to be of value, a man of weakness told me once. Clearly overstepping his authority. Broad–brushed, over–simplified, untrue. But not entirely. Perhaps when battle is your default it is difficult to trust when someone offers you a deal too good to seem legit. Legend has it, when it sounds too grand, it usually is. Allow yourself sufficient relaxation and someone’s gonna jab you in the throat when you expect it the very least. It’s the natural order of things. Does it ever get easier? Will there ever come a time when you’ve passed the age of heartbreak? Probably not. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Your doomsday prophesies will do nothing but feed your worried soul. So what should you do, in the dawn of yet another imminent catastrophe?

Be grateful. It’s all you have. Take a breath and open your eyes. It is Sunday afternoon in a place of clear blue skies. Your city is at rest and your country in repose. No one is bombing one another. You aren’t slaughtering each other in the streets. In a moment you are buying food not because you need to but because you can. You never go hungry and you never fear for famine. Do you realise, you millennial child of avocado–toasts and extra cream hot chocolate–you, the absolute incredible and god damn other–worldly bloody wonder that is? The fact that you never have to go hungry.

I’m reading The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński. About a wartime child abandoned by his guardians, wandering the villages of a haunted winter Poland. Everyone hates him. They think he’s cursed, a demon, the devil. His hair is dark and eyes black, of course they do. Everyone is trying to kill him. Everyone is trying to kill everyone, actually. It was the fashion of the time. People are poor, desolate, desperate. Beating each other, raping each other, their wives, their children, their horses. Abusing animals for enjoyment. Instilling madness in their eyes and watching slaughter for amusement.

But you don’t live there. You live here. In a city where the only reason people cuss off strangers is when they cut each other off in traffic. In their shining fancy leather–seated eco–driven cars that everyone can afford because humanity brought poverty to extinction and replaced it with endless opportunity to anyone with enough sense and free will to grab it. Where spoon–fed spoiled children complain of not knowing what to make of themselves because they can’t stand sitting in an office eight hours a day for the rest of their lives (I admit guilt) despite the money, the stillness and the unbound security and peace of heart and mind. No, my darling, we want freedom, you see, we want adventure and creativity, liberty, fear and madness. You know what adventure meant eighty years ago? Getting eaten alive by rats because you blacked out from cold and hunger in the wrong place at the wrong time. This dear hunger of yours for adventure, this thirst for fear and freedom and the unknown?

It’s a damn privilege. Remember that.

springtime light–aired skybound
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Post loss blues in a land you once belonged and cherished. Now your eyes alone are bleeding. Springtime light–aired sky–bound sunsets and the noise you hear conceal whichever truth you try so desperately to confront. Vanity.

You know this lie they tell you, that in the end death is something beautiful and cherished and in one’s final moment everyone’s forgiven? And sorrow is just another treasured part of the ordeal. Because what does sorrow really imply? That the departed will be missed, yes? That their loss of life is a fact alone to mourn for. I applaud you for your idealism. Go ahead and look for beauty anywhere you can. But you’re an indoctrinated romantic and it is making you a biased naive fool. In the end some people die alone in their own filth and blood and vomit and there was nothing one could do. Good luck finding the meaning in that. And the living end up left behind and free to wallow in their own bad conscience because they were selfish enough to save themselves.

You know this airplane procedure we’ve all been through, the one where oxygen fall from the ceiling and before you help others you have to help yourself? There’s a metaphysical truth for you. But even then it might be too late. You held your breath long enough to keep your organs running but the other person didn’t and now they’re gone. Was it your fault? Perhaps. But perhaps it’s not your job to save the damned. Especially not someone whose fundamental job was to safeguard you.

No one’s dead. Not yet. But sometimes people die despite being technically still alive and breathing. Be grateful for the time you’ve had I’m told. I am. It is what it is. I just wished the ending could have been as beautiful as the beginning.

That’s all.