Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pilgrimage

It's funny how the colours of the like real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
--Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

You are a little soul carrying about a corpse.
—Epictetus

There are no bystanders in life.
Dignity is an aloofness from passion. It is the essence of the civilized individual. Yet civilization is people, and every day one’s dignity is compromised and risked in navigation of the multitude. The individual's dignity depends on a common morality.

We affect a false sophistication (perhaps man always has) that we have transcended the unnatural (as if there were some inherent virtue here in "natural") conventions of the past. But social convention has never been the denial of nature but its recognition. Formal manners, in imposing order and kindness on nature’s chaos and cruelty, recognize the fundamental conflict of being human: simultaneously possessed of awareness and by passion.

Modern comforts have so removed us from nature that we can now afford the pretense that we have banished convention and manners as, yes, pretense. Individuality and egalitarianism combine to make our new self-contradicting creed. Since this creed precludes shame as sinful, ridicule is the means of coercing one into, ironically, conformity. Curious, how much those who most loudly proclaim their individuality resemble one another, and are easily classified by type, in all their tattooed, pierced, sartorial desperation. Notice how often they pride themselves on belonging to a cultural subset, and the disdain with which they view those outside of it.

We have made a mass fetish of individuality. Yet individuality made into spectacle becomes so cheapened as to be rendered meaningless. True individuality requires privacy. Sanity requires privacy. There is no privacy left in the culture. So we retreat.
Community, as we've always understood it, is obsolete. This is a brand new development. In its absence we all necessarily exist at various stages of emotional remove from humanity. Some of us are in complete flight, and refuge has never been more near and easily attainable as we insulate ourselves within an electronic cocoon of a simulated human condition: drama, violence, comedy.

This is not a call to return to an irretrievable past, but merely a lament. It's just that it's in my nature to tally what is lost; I’m compulsively retracing my steps always. And something is always lost.

But in our insulation also we are privy to the most intimate features of the lives of our Olympians, the ever growing celebrity class (under constant surveillance); we are now even let into the lives of the rabble so we can point and sneer, via "reality" television. Every craven desire is titillated; every snobbish vanity humored. The laws of boredom and momentum require ever more revelation and and exposure to novelty. Distortion of reality is inevitable; so is the blurring of the line between ourselves and the electronic spectacle. Our media is a fun house mirror entertaining a populace that is tripping on acid. I’m not pointing fingers but merely owning up.

Every society has its heroic mythology. Ours is that we've vanquished hierarchy. Egalitarianism is the nearest thing we have to a common religion, and as such it is as mythological as any to come before. Predictably, it has delivered mediocrity instead of meritocracy. Our president, inheriting a birthright of wealth and power almost unheard of, postures as a regular guy. His lack of intellect is openly presented as a virtue for a populace suspicious of intellect. His lack of expertise is viewed as one less encumbrance. For all the derision he draws from the Left, he is the logical result of the sixties generation's assault on standards. Our first postmodern president; eschewing empiricism, rigor, and reserve in favoring of crafting narratives and emphasising the importance of faith and feeling.
A recent article revealed his fondness for fart jokes. Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States. His purported love of flatulence humor, sadly believable though it may be, is not the cause of my dismay; it's that this is offered as reassurance that our leader is no less human than we are. We, apparently, are afraid to be led by the exceptional. Indeed, the new order of things is to denounce and deny the existence of exceptional people. Fetishized worship of egalitarianism and individuality yield neither in practice, as even the president is an affable vulgarian.

Having discredited the idea of exceptional moral character as the bigotry of our forefathers, we are now left only with our reverence for the cunning and prowess in manipulating human networks that, as always, determines status. It's the only exceptionalism we'll allow ourselves. We are also insulated from being morally affronted (or confronted). To question all of this is to be a patsy, or worse: a "traditionalist", and all that entails (racism, sexism, etc.). How curious, when tradition becomes a term of derision.

But this isn't what I came to say.

He who removes himself from the fray and the company of others, whole or in part, thinks he is holding at bay the messy consequences of his humanity. This is a conceit. He is engaged in self-deception; his is a false dignity. He thinks life only scars you at close range, when there is no range—life is a point-blank affair for every one of us. Even the hermit in the deepest forest is no further removed from it. One can no more hold life at arm’s length than he can do the same with death.

A man who removes himself from society thinks he is escaping the consequences of being human. The world appalls him as it recoils before mortality; he thinks he will cheat it by refusing to care, but his is the most desperate flight of all, and he will die with no less, if not more, bitterness and regret. There is no escaping. If it’s true that none get out alive it’s also true that none pass through without living. There are no free riders.

From the moment of conception a life is speeding inexorably toward its ignoble demise: decline, death, and the body’s reclamation by the earth. Even as a man travels the triumphal upward half of his arc, his decline is written, not in the stars but in the genetic code. We console ourselves with wisdom, or its illusion, but would still trade the knowledge of the world for youth’s return. We shed an extra tear for those taken early; but it is of the rest of us that the highest bravery of all will be required. This is non-negotiable. There is no greater courage than that shown by aging gracefully; no greater and more embarrassing folly than to fail to do so. It is no less than heroic to do this one thing right.

To live is to decay. To live is to be part of the appalling ferment of germ and bacteria; breathing it in and breathing it out, enveloped by it. We are repulsed when it breaks out into the open.
How can this be, in a world of such remarkable beauty and creation? But it is. Clothing, convention, manners, art, artifice; civilization requires mass denial of the porous nature of humanity’s ectoplasmic shell. All art and religion is a refutation of the indignity and compromise of living. But one can’t choose not to get his hands dirty; quite literally. The obsessive-compulsive who fears contamination is one who has lost his ability to self-delude; he’s lost his sanity-preserving veil. He’s become more keenly aware of the microbial soup he lives in, and he’s gone insane.

Nature is cruelty; it takes this cherished body of yours, grinds it down and parcels it out to the elements with indifference. As if you were but a momentary and accidental coalescence of matter. And the only consolation you have, your only recourse, is to rail against this in a futile pursuit of immortality as you try to make a mark, any mark—any evidence that you’d been here. We are scratching our names in the windswept sand over and over again. All this noise and fury? All this building and tearing down? War, art, love? The aggregate of a billion voices raised in a cacophonous protest against mortality.

Still, there is a core consciousness within us that will not age. Is this what they call the soul? This disembodied consciousness is why we are apalled by the deterioration of our bodies despite fair warning. All the weariness, the disillusion, the heartache and vanity is draped about this unchanging core that witnesses it all with horror. If only I could free myself, it thinks. This consciousness, this soul, is trapped in its mortal vessel; captain of a ship he knows will sink, taking all hands to the bottom. To be human, sublimely conscious but no less an animal, is to be the only creature forced to witness its own demise.

We console ourselves with ritual. Some we don’t recognize. An atheist has to make do when it comes to ritual. I have no Mecca, no Holy Land, only the narcissistic return home. Retracing my steps. This periodic return serves to set in relief the changes in a place; it also reveals more starkly the changes in the pilgrim, whisking away the illusory veil of steady gradation.

For me, it’s a return to the scene of a crime long solved and forgotten. I’m forever returning to trace the chalk outline of my youth. I'm counting bullet casings, poring over transcripts, reconstructing scenarios. I will find nothing but I can’t help myself. I’m trying to disprove the reality that I am no different than anyone else. I'm the narcissistic, existential equivalent of a conspiracy theorist.

I walked a pier as I had years before, watching the waves, marveling at the thought that they have been continuing ceaselessly in my absence these many years; yet no two the same. Trite, perhaps, but that makes it no less confounding to me. I’m peering into these banalities as if I’ll find something, some key. And always the irrational, stubborn vanity: do they really exist if I'm not there to see them? Of course they do, and this too is hard to take: the insignificance of being one and small among the endless multitude.

Bikini-clad girls were loitering at the water’s edge; young, oblivious, beautiful. They are the same as the girls of my youth, and they too, like the waves, have been here always and are no two quite alike; different individuals, each absolutely self consumed worlds of their own like me. We pass through the thing itself, youth, and leave no mark. This is a bitter reassurance: it will all go on, without you.

The sense that time speeds up the nearer we come to our end suggests a destiny that we are vaguely, unconsciously aware of. After all, what do we really know of how we perceive time when we have no alternative to set it beside? There is no standard. Perhaps we know intuitively our position on nature’s cruel conveyor. Like the impossible idea of eternal recurrence—you have only the one life with no companion with which to compare it. If time doesn’t exist as we conceive it—and how could it?—then it could also be that there is but one moment. How does it contain us all?

Existence is like a constant we pass through. Death is as well, and in passing through to our uncertain fate we endure the suffering of every one of our fellow humans to come before. We suffer along with the multitudes who've died in countless wars and plagues, with those lost and alone praying for rescue, praying to the whole of humanity (they are praying to us over and over again, right now), eternally going unheard; we perish with all those that have expired en masse, voicing their agony in one horrifying voice. Contrary to what it seems, you are not alone when you die; you are never less alone.

The physically intangible thing that is the ideal of humanity is more real than any single, living being. How then does an idea expire, once thought? How then, does a life expire, once lived? The reality of humanity’s propagation, the mysteries not yet discovered, the cruel indifference of nature and its inestimable mass, all of this crushes the individual.
This then I realize: individuality is a fiction.

3 comments:

C. Van Carter said...

"Having discredited the idea of exceptional moral character as the bigotry of our forefathers, we are now left only with our reverence for the cunning and prowess in manipulating human networks that, as always, determines status."

I'm reminded of something Richard Weaver wrote (in the essay 'Individuality and Modernity - have you read it?):

"We have gone to the extreme of attaching importance only to function, while deriding the idea of status. The current feeling is that the measure of a man is what he does, and everyone is to be judged by results, like baseball players or salesmen."

What "results", in this sense being used here, derive from having a moral character? Few, if any; in fact to an ever greater degree (the logical result of this) persons who sacrifice "results" for the sake of character are seen as misguided or suckers in some way.

(By the way it's "And no more turn aside and brood"...you know I'm as happy for Fergus as the next guy, but why exactly is it I shouldn't be miserable just because Fergus has a new car?)

Dennis Dale said...

Thank you. I have corrected the quote.

Anonymous said...

It seems you Have been reading my mind. Maybe these themes are common to men of a certain age in a Houellebecq-ian fashion.