How shall I string together just the right words and images to convey but a hint of this eerie and cheerless mood in which I am steeped this morning? It is a beautiful morning, as far as weather goes—and days blending such bracing briskness and sunny dryness are regrettably rare in this Gulf Coastal Plain city. And yet my spirit is anxious, fretful, and snugly ensnared within the vice grips of an enclosing solitude. The stark contrast between the day’s breezy brightness and this ponderous weight of doom within my heart throws my melancholy into sharper relief. Were the skies gray and gloomy, I might more easily be able to project my interior blackness outwards upon a correlative scene—as if into an expansion chamber—and thereby dissipate some of its suffocating intensity. But the fine day smiles back in mischievous mockery of my mysterious woe.
Now I wonder if perhaps I haven’t seen this coming, these past few days. I have observed a mounting sense of restlessness—a more or less manageable sense of inner chaos, a bubbling ferment in the basement. I have serious doubts, moreover, about the possibility of remedying this sinister condition in any lasting or permanent way. My suspicion is that all common remedies—whether love or reason, wealth or renown—ultimately turn out to be diversions from an essential aloneness, an aloneness with these daimonic drives and forebodings which will be heard…will be accepted, and reluctantly allowed to have their occasionally torturous way with me.
Being the peculiar bloke that I am, I want to believe—perhaps need to believe—that there is some good that can come, or must come, from my voluntary submission to these sullen states of soul that overtake me from time to time. My hope is that in weathering their leaden heaviness and their occasionally paralyzing bleakness, I will continue to be spat up from these ruminative ordeals a more resilient and sober-minded man. If they fail to utterly crush my spirit, then I will have come away a wounded survivor of what may justly be regarded as the psychic analogue of an avalanche or a mine cave-in. A great mass of snow or stone thunders over our all-too-mortal bodies and we are either excavated later or we are crushed and buried on the spot. Now, some will tell us we should not have been skiing or looking for gold in a dangerous mine, but we know that we never had much of a choice in this. We either needed to ski for the rousing delight of our intrepid-devilish souls or we had to mine for gold in order to feed our kin and ourselves. Simply to live our lives wakefully is to encounter risk of avalanche or cave-in. We know this whether we are ascending the slope or descending the shaft.
Certainly one of the recurring impressions produced in my mind when these somber moods capture my soul is the familiar, but still doleful, sense of the futility and ultimate vanity of most human plans, purposes, and presumptions. It is not so much that they are vain and futile in themselves, but when confronted by the stomach-punching power that lurks behind these moods, even the grandest and noblest human ambitions and institutions seem to be reduced to more or less elegant sandcastles at the approach of high tide—or elaborate houses made of cards where a furious breeze gathers in the distance. Sure, when the chaos within has subsided (as mysteriously as it earlier erupted), I return with customary obedience to my tattered, dented, and graffiti-covered designs and projects. But with each sequential resurfacing from the black, cavernous depths below, I re-approach my life and all that fills it with a sharpened sense of salutary mistrust and irony—with a resolve that grows increasingly provisional and less and less suffused with juvenile enthusiasm. All is impaled by this cold venom from subterranean, reptilian fangs.
Youthful enthusiasm, as it happens, is joined at the hip with youthful ignorance, while adult enthusiasm depends largely on a marked talent for forgetfulness. As one saddled with a biting intellectual conscience, I am not inclined to eulogize adepts in the ubiquitous art of forgetfulness, even if I unabashedly envy the precarious joys that their studied ignorance procures for them. In much knowledge there is indeed much sorrow, I suspect, but the bliss born of ignorance shares far too much DNA with the euphoria of the opium addict. Eventually, greater and ever greater doses of the mind-numbing narcotic are shot up the veins to sustain the slave’s imaginary immunity to a reality that would only too mercilessly chew him up and spit him out. I do not begrudge such persons their crutches, but neither can I pretend to respect (or to endorse) their craven reliance upon such poisonous props and anodynes.
We all find our level of spiritual development, or maturity, which is largely determined by our capacity for honestly and courageously withstanding the darker, weightier, and unavoidable facts of life. As I say this, I am perfectly aware that my own sense of honor and my own standards of intellectual integrity have no power whatsoever to fundamentally alter the grim conditions of naked human existence—that is to say, the reality beyond the bubble of consoling myths and ideals. I am every bit as fragile as the next fellow when personally confronted with an avalanche or a mine cave-in, but I may have one advantage over him in the event of a catastrophe. Because I’ve actually spent some time on the slippery slopes and down in the cavernous mines, I like to think that I’m a bit less likely to lose my wits altogether and freeze up when things get out of hand than are the un-exposed and the un-inoculated. Flexibility, presence of mind, and a cultivated ability to move with the flow of the oncoming forces are helpful, if not crucial, in surviving an onslaught. Those who freeze up are generally snapped like a twig or swallowed whole.
Exposure to ever-enlarging doses of the transpersonal ‘poison’ I’ve once again been injected with may be the psyche’s best protection against our premature extinction—just as weathering a sore throat, rather than rushing to the doctor for a prescription of Amoxicillin, may prove better, in the long run, for the strength of our natural immune systems.
When we are brought up to bank on lies and distortions (unwarranted notions of privilege, of inherited—as opposed to earned—entitlement, of national or racial superiority or pre-eminence, of divine sponsorship, etc.) that have little or no foundation in direct, lived experience, we are correspondingly weakened and rendered unfit for an actual struggle with those challenging chunks of reality that are precariously held at bay by our naïve projections and our innocent ideals. We are obliged to suffer in the process of removing the rose-tinted glasses through which we have been educated (that is, dubiously indoctrinated) to gaze. The degree of suffering involved is roughly proportional to the magnitude of the errors that must first be uprooted and burnt away in the process of aligning the mind and the heart with the existential realities of the general human situation. A human life attains dignity to the degree that the mind and heart come to terms with the truth of the human situation in all its gravity and complexity. Life sets the terms and provides the standard, not the wishful and whimsical, untried and insulated man-child.
I have come to regard my efforts to acquire knowledge (on most fronts) as the chief means by which I am able to gradually narrow the gap between spurious ideals (my own and those of my society and age) and the often murkier, generally buried ‘truths’ which are more accurate depictions of the way things occur in the everyday world. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that significant advances in our acquisition of such knowledge—whether it is psychological, philosophical, historical, or what have you—can have a decidedly dampening or chastening effect upon our general enthusiasm for ordinary human endeavors, at least initially. Such sobering truths can pose a threat to the creative spirit insofar as the zeal for enterprising pursuits is founded upon a set of consoling and optimistic falsehoods. For example, many of us, in our imaginations, innocently but grossly exaggerate our personal importance to the world. Our vanity and our fundamental need for positive recognition from others combine to provide a basis for our idealization of ourselves. However modest and devoid of the swagger of a Douglas MacArthur or the bombast of a Hitler he may be, the unconscious vanity of the ordinary man often assists in preserving his general enthusiasm for his existence—his plans, his purposes, and the roles he plays in others’ lives.
The danger that can beset the man of knowledge who must ‘get to the bottom of things,’ is that, in seeing into the depths, he may eventually succeed in seeing through practically all his former motives for action. The drive to self-assertion may very well begin to lose a good deal of its accustomed strength. He has, let us say, acknowledged the unsettling ‘fragility of goodness.’ Any exhilaration he may feel over the success of his perpetual wrestling match with the serpent of wisdom is tempered, if not altogether paralyzed, by the venomous strikes he continues to receive in the process. This wounding, leaving its numbing poison in his blood, if it does not kill him, has left him practically indifferent to the world of popular human ambitions and ordinary enterprises.
To put it figuratively: as his eyesight has become deeper and sharper from this continual wrestling, his arms and legs have lost a good deal of their former vigor. He can diagnose collective ills that he is more or less helpless to remedy, since the problems appear to be inseparably bound up with the unenlightened, scarcely moderated passions and instincts of his kinsmen and peers. His insights, then, are accompanied as much by a growing sense of alienation and futility as they are by any joy of discovery he may otherwise claim for himself. So as not to succumb to the gloomiest despair and pessimism, he redoubles his pursuit of even deeper and more thorough knowledge of the previously hidden world his excavations have unearthed—but the same two-sidedness, or mixed blessing, persists, so that he finds himself repeatedly taking sides with knowledge against what begins more and more to look like the claims of life itself.
Life—or a vital, whole-hearted commitment to the advance and the expression of the life impulse within us—would seem to require deception, illusion, and ignorance for its furtherance. There appears to be a fundamental opposition—even a mutual hostility—between the competing claims of Life and knowledge. As Turgenev noted in his brilliant essay, Hamlet and Don Quixote (1860), the idealizing, deluded knight was never lacking in enthusiasm for exploits for which the Dane would have given not a moment’s serious concern. Don Quixote’s folly is ‘redeemed’ in view of the life-affirming spirit that is always evident behind his ‘madness,’ while Hamlet’s madness—where it is authentic and not feigned—stems precisely from his refusal to permit one after another pretense, ruse, or display of painted words to go unchecked and unexploded. He is compelled by his nature to get to the bottom of everything, to see through all semblances, and to expose the pageant before him. Don Quixote, on the other hand, just as energetically strives to lift himself up high enough above the uninspired and vulgar actualities of La Mancha so as to blur and blunt their sobering power over his relentlessly idealizing mind. He wants only to see what is possible, not what is actually there, in the rustics, barmaids, and windmills around him—while Hamlet looks for the worm, the wolf, and the minx in the royal personages and court attendants around him. If one may be charged with excessive amplification and distortion, the other has been charged with undue reductiveness and cynical brutality.