Tag Archives: truth

The truth and silver bullets

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There is no cure that is absolutely certain.

There is no perspective that is universally accepted.

There is no solution that will solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

There is no fix that won’t lead to other problems down the line.

There is no way to foresee all problems.

There is no guarantee of happiness.

There is no Promised Land.

There is no Messiah.

There is no easy way out.

There are always unanticipated consequences.

Hard work is all we really have.

There are no silver bullets.

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, ideas, truth, truth hurts

The truth and miracles

Miracle

Why do you need a miracle?
Miracles don’t pay your rent,
Pulse your nerves, light the dark,
Still the Earth, or make you well.
Miracles do nothing on their own.

Miracles don’t feed your heart.
This only blood can do, be it
Yours or mine, flesh to flesh
Dried in place.  Stained like rust,
Blood never lets you go.

Miracles live on air
Because they are nothing
New or old under the sun.
Borrowed or blue, nothing at all
But dreams too afraid

To cross that line and cut your skin.
Miracles are cheap excuses for love
Deferred, leaving hope for dead.
They are God-machines grinding down
Your sharp edges until you are dull.

I am no miracle, but I am more
Than you deserve.  Now as then,
Your treadmill grace beats your brow.
Too humiliated to save face,
You struggle for something else to save.

You wear this miracle like a shield
Of dreams.  Proud behind it, you have no fear.
That wish protects, but at a price
You know so well, and so do I,
Every time we go to sleep alone.

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The truth and dreams, 2: Exile

I am far from my country. It’s been long enough now that I am not sure what that means any more, apart from a nostalgia for things from my younger days, each year more frozen and remote, filled with artifacts and dioramas of a life long gone.

I am far from the people I once knew and cherished.  Many have passed away, the great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents.  My mother, too.  Those who remain have changed or disappeared.  At least one has succumbed to mental illness and is no longer the man we both knew.

I am far from everything that once made me who I am.  I carry some of this with me, in the food I cook and eat, the songs I play, and the point of view I have on the things that surround me now.  But it’s not quite complete, this lonely authenticity of the exile.

I live in only two times:  the past and the future.  In the past, I feed on my memories and fill myself with pride and sadness all at once.  The longing for places I have lived pulls me like a current, begging me to return to places I can no longer find.  I revisit the important points in time when I could have done one thing differently, one thing that might have changed the course of my life.  I wish, and then I lose my wishes against the impossibility of having done what I now wished to do.

In the future, I am different and splendid, having come through a desert separating one world from another.  Here I am, or at least I will be, a man who carries the burden of his life with a wisdom all can see.  Here I am, one who rose and fell and rose again from the very bottom of bottoms to a new place that is my home.  Yet this new place that I call home is always just up there, around the next corner, over the next hill, just the other side of that magnificent stand of oaks reaching up to the sky.

It is never now.  It is never now that I have lived my life, even my life past.  Never have I sat down to rest, to stop my thinking and dreaming and yearning just to say “thank you” to the universe and to those who love me.  I never have, I never did, and I don’t know if I ever will. In those moments when I try, I don’t feel like I have truly stopped. Something deep inside won’t let me.  The urge to get around that next bend or hill or stand of trees propells me forward and keeps me going, like a fish that will die if it stays still in the water for too long.

It is the special irony of the dreamer that our inability to live in the present poisons the past and the future, rendering both lands inhospitable and just out of reach.  The dreamer is the exile from time itself, a man or woman who has no home and no place to go, for home will be always around the next bend.  The only redeeming thing in the dreamer’s life is that his or her dreams may one day be useful to others.  This, at least to me, is the only way to fill an empty present with meaning, enough so that I can embrace the exile, take him in my arms, and give him the sustenance he needs to wake up one more day, neither closer to nor further from home but, as always, the exile.

Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  Sunset:  February 13, 2012, at Eagle Beach, Aruba.  Frozen pond:  December 17, 2011 in the Catskill Mountains near Walton, New York.

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Filed under ageing, ideas, life, truth, youth

The truth and memories

Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done.  In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.

The apple and the tree

One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.

The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.

It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.

He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.

What we choose to remember

William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.

As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.

One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.

The story

Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”

In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”

To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”

Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.

Notes and Credits

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.  It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there.  Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed.  I looked around for some time, but to no avail.  Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.

The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.

Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951).  The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world.  The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York:  Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49.  For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory:  The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2006).  An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.

Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.

As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.  On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon.  The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.

There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube.  In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922.  After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website.  The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans.  At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.

And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.

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Filed under fathers, ideas, life, media, memory, sons, truth

The truth and dreams, 1: Lost

Women, photograph by Lara Wechsler

I dreamt that we were around each other, but not really together.  Our recent split was a wound still open, and I was trying to follow you, to get back to you, to make you see me again as yours.  I knew that I had pushed you away in the first place and then raised the stakes for a reunion.  I never claimed to be the complete master of my emotions.  And you, being your locked-down self, said the same thing over and over, which in this case was like saying nothing at all, since I didn’t believe you wanted it to end.

All this was in the air around us when I saw the child, a young girl maybe two or three, walking around, uncertain perhaps where she was.  She was small, dressed in a pink Hello Kitty onesy, carrying a stuffed animal.  She bore a vague resemblance to you.  It looked as if she would begin to cry at any moment.

I didn’t know whose child she was, and there were no other adults around.  For reasons I don’t really understand or remember, I thought the child was with you, or that you knew where the parents were.  I pursued you with the child, and I told you that we need to find the parents.

I don’t remember that you said anything, but you took the child from me.

Then we got into a car and you told me to drive.  The car wasn’t yours, but I couldn’t figure out if it was stolen or rented.  On the way there—a “there” that only became clear as we got closer, since I didn’t know where we were going and was only following your periodic directions—the air between us was frosty.  Not much was said.  You held on to the child.

We pulled into the parking lot of a drug store, one of those chain stores that all look and feel the same, regardless of the name on the sign out front.  It was very white—the aisles, the light, the coats that people were wearing.  You took the child back behind the pharmacy counter and began speaking to someone amid shelves of pills and ointments and jars.  I couldn’t hear what you said, but you did something to divert me, something involving the car, and I left.

When I got back to the pharmacy, you were gone.  I shouted into empty space, “We have to return the car!  Whose is it?”  Then I saw you running away.

I followed you into a massive, dark parking lot, the kind of multi-story affair you see next to stadiums, shopping malls, and airports.  By the time I reached the spot, the car was gone and so were you.  I thought: I must call you.

I awoke shaking and covered in sweat.  I reached to the nightstand for the telephone, and that’s when I realized where I was.

Notes and Credits

This posting is fiction, but the dream was real.

Photography credit to Lara Wechsler, who let me use this photo for this posting.  Lara’s work can be found on flickr, and on her own website.   Her work is on exhibit with other local artists at 440 Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Her work is street photography, which mainly involves photos of street scenes and, in Lara’s case, photographs of people.  The photograph I used in this posting is the rare one in her collection not of people (or even one person).  In this case, it’s a shot that evokes a persona, the perfect image for this dream that made me think, over and over again, what do I want?

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The truth and grace, 3: The Unknown

Consolation. Macha Chmakoff.

This is the third of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Amalfitano

In the novel 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s character Amalfitano thinks about a drug store he used to go to in Barcelona.  For convenience’s sake he would go in the middle of the night, and he always found the pharmacist reading in his chair.  The pharmacist’s selections troubled Amalfitano.

“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartelby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.  What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano.  Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” 

To Amalfitano, this was a kind of cultural laziness at best, at worst a cultural sclerosis leading one day (and perhaps soon) to the death of culture (as he knew it).  Nothing will ever be learned about the world if we choose only the easy things, turning our heads away from those moments when, as Bolaño/Amalfitano continues, “the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Trying to understand the world requires some effort and the willingness to get dirty doing so.  To read the perfect works of the masters—indeed to rely on anything we might call “perfect”—is a graceless pleasure, for grace lurks in the shadows and cracks of the world, there for the taker, but only taken by the one who can see it.

The unknown is an essential, core element of grace.  Maybe it is where grace comes from, or perhaps it is the conveyor of grace, the medium through which grace passes into the light of day to touch someone’s life.  To recognize grace is to surrender control (or pride, hubris, arrogance—call it what you will), and in the surrender a new kind of freedom is born.  It is the freedom to make something of what we are given.

Taleb

Nassim Nicolas Taleb is a statistician, philosopher, and financial trader who has made it his life’s work to understand random events. It all began when civil war erupted in Lebanon in the 1970s and Taleb, whose family included two deputy prime ministers and a supreme court justice, became swept into the conflict.  The adults said the war would last only a few days, but it stretched to 17 years, and with each turn of events the adults came up with new reasons for it.

“Later, upon replaying the wartime events in my memory as I formulated my ideas on the perception of random events, I developed the governing impression that our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.”

The random is cousin to the unknown, and Taleb’s business is harnessing knowledge about randomness in order to help people make decisions that protect their investments.  His methodology separates randomness into two kinds:  the known-unknowns (more or less predictable, manageable patterns of financial fluctuation), and the unknown-unknowns (big, system-altering shocks like the stock market crash of 1987, the attacks of 9-11, or the economic collapse of 2008).  These unknown-unknowns Taleb calls “Black Swans.”  These are things quite out of the ordinary that do, in fact, occur from time to time.  Over his professional life, Taleb has made a modest fortune by dealing with risk and randomness in this way, both for himself and others.

Still, looking back at a quarter century of his work, he is troubled by his findings.

“Is the world unfair?  I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness.  The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature.  The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside.  Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more random than they were the previous day.  It is becoming unbearable.  I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting.”

Taleb, it seems, has caught Roquentin’s malaise.  Yet like Roquentin, Taleb finds ways to cope, and at the end of the book, he provides a list of 10 principles that might minimize the effects of Black Swans and help us deal with them when they do happen. The last principle is the clincher and the most important:  “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.”  That is to say, whatever we might do to hedge again the worst events (encompassed in the first 9 principles), we should be ready to pick up the pieces after disaster strikes, be it a Hurricane Katrina or a stock market crash, and rebuild with what is left, in whatever condition we find it.

It’s a good list, but it was incomplete in some deeper way that could challenge the Black Swans on their own, definitive, inevitable terms that take no prisoners and offer no excuses.  To do this required a trip back to his home town of Amioun, Lebanon.  There, Taleb went to the cemetery and visited the graves of his father and other loved ones.  With him, he carried the works of Seneca in the original Latin, bearing in mind an adage originally attributed to Cicero that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

“I wanted to prepare myself for where I will go next.  This is my plan B.  I kept looking at the position of my own grave.  A Black Swan cannot so easily destroy a man who has an idea of his final destination.” 

Grace

The Black Swans that Taleb writes about are mostly negative, harmful events.  For St. Paul, grace was a Black Swan of a different sort, life-altering, inexplicable, yet beautiful and redeeming.  For Ruby Turpin, recognizing grace in her life was the Black Swan that snuck up on her when Mary Grace threw a book at her and called her out for what she was.

For those who can recognize grace—whether in their own lives or in the operaton of the universe as a whole—grace becomes an expected part of life while remaining a Black Swan nonetheless, for they have no way of explaining their ability to recognize grace or why it was even visited upon them in the first place.  There may not be a “reason for everything,” a reason that might console us, take away the unfairness of life, or explain why one person deserves something while others don’t.  Truth be told, we really don’t need reasons for everything.

Be humble.  Accept grace and build a good life because of it.  Never count on it to last, but take it while it is given.  Seek no reasons for grace, but live with it and share it with others freely, openly, with no reason for sharing it but that it is good.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Consolation, and it depicts a person in the arms of another.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

Direct quotations:  Roberto Bolaño, 2666, trans. Natasha Wimmer (Picador, 2008 [orig. Spanish version 2004]), p. 227.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (Random House:  2007), p. 10 (replaying wartime events), p. 215 (Is the world unfair?), and p. 375 (cemetery).

There is much more I could write on grace, and I may at some point soon.  The twists and turns of grace in the history of the Reformation are instructive as a lesson in counter-intuitive consequences.  Some of the reformers who sought to return to a simple Pauline church of grace and community wound up creating new order of oppression—Calvin comes to mind most prominently here.  It’s a return to a fundamental question of the meaning of human will.  For the Calvinists (and some extent all Protestants, from Luther forward), faith and salvation by grace alone—sola fidewas a doctrine that freed ordinary people from the scrutiny of the Church.  In the Catholic doctrine, salvation through good works simply placed too much power in the hands of the church to rule on the affairs of ordinary people and political powers alike.  Sola fide took the Church out of the picture, but almost as quickly the Protestants began to create political and other alliances that arrogated to their churches great powers that were used to enforce a new orthodoxy just as brutal (if not moreso) than the Catholic orthodoxy it replaced.  This is, however, a discussion for another day.

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Filed under hubris, ideas, life, order, truth

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity