Saturday, February 9, 2013

Toward a Certain Type of Literature

That tiny blue dot is Earth as seen from Voyager 1, 4 billion miles away.

I've been confused most my life. There was a brief time, around the age 19 or 20, that I had what one might call a real moral structure to guide most of my thinking about justice and ethics and so forth. From that window, I could see how the world had gone off track, how it had veered into the wrong. I could identify the parties that made it do so (capitalists, mainly -- being the socialist that I was back then). I could probably even name the men whose actions had turned the world from the just and verdant place I knew it could be. And because I could pinpoint the causes (all the causes) with a certainty I now find naive and maybe even stupid, I could also prescribe certain remedies. Step-by-step instructions on "How to Fix the Ills of the World, pt. 1."

Now, as you probably could already tell, I have no idea. Though I still (kinda) have a system of ethics, it's mostly just a bunch of vague notions and even those are riddled with holes. All the tiny bits of information that surround and support it are unstable, even volatile. I can't seem to know anything. I've accidentally slipped into a kind of moral relativism, which drives myself and everyone else nuts. Everything I know, all those bits of shit lying here and there about my brain, look different every time I give them a passing glance. They shift positions and color and size and blah blah. So my "system of ethics" is really just a big pile of unanswered and unanswerable questions -- which, someone could argue, rules out my "system" from being considered ethics at all.

But it seems too easy to write off that youthful time of certainty as mere adolescent arrogance. And it might be a little disingenuous to say that he (younger me) had been ruled by an unwavering stubbornness to see the world for what it is. Its murky and shifting surfaces, fluctuating necessities, selfish alliances. A place marred in the confusions of subjectivity. A place of competing ethics and histories, the competition of which almost always leads to the reliance on a narrative that normally expresses the domination of one tribe over another. (There's a reason why the Palestinians and Israelis, two peoples with a shared history but different books, have fought over their ancestral land for the last 50 years.)

Or maybe now I'm just too pessimistic.

That might be true. I might be a pessimist now. But still there is a piece of me that envies the xenophobia of the Israelis and Palestinians, the religious and nationalistic urges, envies my wrong-headed and arrogant former-self. There is a wonderful assurance and comfort, I think, in having a steady narrative to guide you (even if it is just based on a made up story). One that defines and sets the parameters of what you're a part, who you should love, who to befriend, who to shun, who to kill. It makes the world smaller and more manageable, while, amazingly enough, expanding and making more gloriously kind all that other stuff we don't understand.

The stories we allow ourselves to believe in are the only things that could sufficiently change our mind so that we may see this indifferent, spinning rock as a home. A place designed by God specifically for us. What a wonderful thought. Much different than how I sometimes see it now (and as it may prove be), an unknowingly malicious ball of the temporarily alive that could slip away without the slightest care that any of us were ever here.

It's hard to keep that thought in mind, while, simultaneously trying to maintain a healthy enough disposition to walk the streets with the occasional smile, or the occasional “Good morning” to that strange little kid I pass every morning on his sister's bike. The only reason I keep with it, the only reason I haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, is because, unfortunate as it may be, I think the pale-blue-dot-in-a-sea-of-darkness perspective to be true (or at least, more true).

But it isn’t all grim. I’m not a nihilist. Not even an atheist. I find solace in stories and art. And though I may not accept the dogma of any particular faith, I think all of them--yes, all of them... even the nuts at the “Church” of Scientology--have a story to tell me. One that to some extent will give me a better understanding as to why it is my feet are planted in these weeds, lost in that grass. And why that fact alone can at times give me so much joy.

We are, for a short time, stuck on this rock floating in a soup that will eventually be swallowed. This is my agnostic belief. But it isn’t all that different from the belief of most faiths. The world is broken and all fucked up, full of pain and suffering. Those are the Buddha's words (paraphrased, of course). “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the deep;” those the words haunting the first book of the Bible. And the Romans:

Ere land and sea and the all-covering sky
Were made, in the whole world the countenance
Of nature was the same, all one, well named
Chaos, a raw and undivided mass,
Naught but a lifeless bulk...
(Jealous much, atheists.)

But then, after the chaos, after the emptiness and lifelessness, comes hope. Hope in in the form of a great wisdom (this normally takes up the remainder of each respective book). This wisdom, more of man than any god, is what you might call my faith. The audacity of making a name for the unknowable--naive as I now know it to be--is what in the best of stories I find truly great and uplifting (even when it's depressing as hell). Stories of Moses, of Noah, Gilgamesh, Odysseus, The Prophet Mohammed. Stories of Ahab, Gatsby, Othello, Ferdinand. I see it in the secular and the religious alike. I read them alike. It is all just literature to me. And more than that, a hopeful, if yet painful, striving. 

One story that’s always caught my particular interest is the story of Babel: building the impossible tower to reach the land of the gods. What struck me even more than the moral at the end, was the collective and desperate effort put forth by all the people of earth to reach what they must know will forever recede from their grasp. Between the lines of the story there was a physicality. The hot sun beating on their labor, the heavy stone and the knuckles bloody with toil. All those anonymous, sweating bodies circling the tower, each struggling to push his tiny piece a little higher, a little closer to the top. Miles of men, each with their burden, lined around a tower no one thought possible, all with the hope and terror of some great unexplainable yearning. It is no matter that it fails (of course it will fail!), still is hope in the toil of the labor, every step a little higher.

Babel is the ultimate parable of man and an allegory for our greatest literature: weak and vulnerable, hopeful and idiotic, the author struggling to make something much larger than himself, bigger even than the collective whole. In the story they use both stone and language to build. One carefully placed rock, one smart word on top the other, to erect a great tower capable of reaching beyond the limit of what is known and what can be seen, allowing them to peak over the edge of the clouds and exclaim, “Oh! There You are.”
Every great story and story teller attempts to do this, even if they don’t know it.

And they all fail. The tower and our great books. Fail. No one thing can capture It. Not even the collected body of all the great works combined comes close (if there is a thing, a Him, to come close to). The tower inevitably falls. From there we abbreviate, build smaller structures, give trite phrases to what is great and unintelligible--spiritual, transcendental, whatever. But they are merely shorthand for something much more ethereal. And the names or phrases we give these experiences of grandeur end up empty and meaningless. “I had an out-of-body experience...” “I was one with...” “I saw a bright light from...” It all just sounds so stupid. But the experience, for whoever experiences it, is real and far from what any one word or phrase can define, even if it can be explained away by science: a misfiring synapse; a flood of serotonin in the brain.

So, the poet, with each poem, the story-teller, with each story, stacks their tiny pebble, one on top of the other. No one will do. He keeps writing, keeps building. He tries a little harder to explain what others can’t, a little harder to say what no one knows is there, to see what his eyes are incapable to see. And all this despite the fact that he is just the accumulation of particles, globbed together and placed on a pale blue dot so easily dwarfed by all the everything beyond it. No matter the insignificance, the shortness of our years, hope can still be found in audacity. We continue to build our tower of words up to the clouds so that we may one day look over it and say, “OK, I get it,” despite the absolutely impossibility of ever doing so.

By Adam Shutz

No comments:

Post a Comment