By Damian Rollison
A Talk Given in the Temple, October 20, 2019
I wonder if there’s a way out of this mess we’re in.
I don’t know, she said.
I mean, I can hardly remember ever being in such a mess before.
I know, she said.
I keep thinking that if there was a way to trace everything back to where it started, and then follow the path to where it began to go wrong, we could figure out exactly what we should have done differently.
I’m not sure that’s possible, she said.
But I feel like I want to understand it better. Like, if I could just understand the sequence of events properly, the decisions and their consequences, I would know exactly what to do, and nothing would ever go wrong again.
I don’t think it works like that, she said. You might just repeat the past over and over again without ever realizing it.
I think I’ve already done that many, many times over. Repeated the past without realizing it. Or eventually you do realize it, but only when it’s too late. It all looks familiar in retrospect.
The Buddhists call that the wheel of karma, she said. There’s only one spot on the wheel where you can stop it from spinning again. Just before you take the first step.
But how do you know you’re about to take a step?
I don’t know, she said.
I don’t either. Life just seems like a mad rush of necessities piling on top of each other. I don’t remember ever thinking I had a choice. It was just on to the next thing. Either you have to do something to survive, or someone wants something from you and you have to do that. Even not doing something that someone wants you to do is a response to an external demand.
Sounds familiar, she said.
But on the other hand, all my life I’ve had people tell me that I need to make time for myself. And I don’t think I’ve ever really known what they meant. Usually, I just think of it as a respite, a pause. So, like, you can watch TV or read a book or stare at your phone, and for a while you stop the world from spinning, but when you go back to it, it’s all still there. You can escape from it for a while. You can drink some wine and slow it all down for a while. But it comes rushing back quickly enough. Work starts the next day as though it never really stopped. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up in the morning and basically said, “Ugh, here we go again,” or even, “Are we still doing this?” You can repeat the same pattern over and over for years and it comes to seem inevitable, like there’s no other way to be.
But you know it’s happening, she said. You’re participating in it while it’s happening.
Yes. You know it’s happening. You even catch glimpses of yourself watching yourself from afar, watching your life as it moves along in its track. Kind of like watching a movie where you want to yell out, “Don’t open that door! That’s where the killer’s hiding!” But you know they can’t hear you.
Yes, she said. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I simply can’t recognize myself. It’s like looking at a different person. The more I try to remember, the less familiar I seem. It feels like I’m falling into a pit, like I might never get back.
I know what you mean. I think that’s what Freud called the uncanny. Meeting yourself in a dark alley and thinking you are looking at a face that seems oddly familiar. The word he used in German is unheimliche. Not home-like. When your home appears before you as the house of a stranger.
I wonder why it happens, she said.
I don’t know, but I know that as long as that moment lasts, everything you’re used to seems strange. Like when you say a familiar word over and over again until it doesn’t sound like a real word anymore.
But I don’t think that’s quite what Freud was talking about, she said. The uncanny isn’t when you look strange to yourself, it’s when you encounter something new and it seems somehow like you’ve seen it before. It’s like deja vu. Or when you meet someone for the first time and discover they grew up in your town, went to the same high school, have two girls and a boy just like you. Meeting your doppelganger.
Well ok, you’re probably right about that. But maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. This feeling that the usual order of things has been temporarily suspended, suddenly and for no reason. The familiar becomes strange and the strange becomes familiar.
When you put it that way, she said, it reminds me of when I was working in New York City many years ago. The building I worked in was a few blocks away from the Museum of Modern Art. On my lunch hour, I used to walk over there and look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I just stood in front of the painting and let myself be absorbed into it. The first time I saw that painting in person, it was a few days after I moved to New York. There are a lot of famous paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, but this is the one that floored me. I remember thinking how different it looked from the reproductions I’d seen in postcards and books for as long as I could remember. The reproduced version was beautiful, but the real painting was so much deeper and more complex. You could spend hours following every line. The strokes of the brush were laid down with such intensity of feeling that one hundred years later they still seemed fresh, and what they had to tell me still seemed like news I needed to hear immediately.
What do you mean? What do you think the painting was saying?
I’m not sure how to describe it, she said. But I guess it’s kind of like that poem by Rilke called “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” where he stares at a bust of Apollo in a museum and eventually decides the statue is telling him, “You must change your life.” I think Starry Night is saying something like, “The world is alive in its every fiber. Haven’t you noticed? Are you paying attention?”
Yes, that’s more or less what Van Gogh tells the tourist in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Dreams. In the movie, a Japanese tourist visits the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and stands looking at Wheat Field with Crows, which is supposed to have been his final painting. Suddenly, he finds himself transported inside the painting, and he walks along in the countryside until he encounters Van Gogh himself, standing at his portable easel. Van Gogh simply turns to the tourist, as though annoyed at being interrupted, and says impatiently, “Why aren’t you painting?” As though the landscape was calling out to be painted. As though only a fool could fail to answer that call.
Yes, she said, I guess you could say that standing in front of a painting and letting it take you over, or reading a poem and losing yourself in the world it creates, these are examples too of getting out of your own head, stepping outside your daily routine for at least a few moments. And sometimes those experiences feel profound. Listening to a symphony. You can feel like everything you’ve ever wanted to know has been summed up in a few minutes of music. But I’m not sure that it actually changes your life. Does it? Is it just another form of escape?
I’m not sure. I guess it depends what you do with it. When Rilke says he has to change his life after staring at the statue of Apollo, did anyone check to see if he actually did? Or was Rilke just being a good lyric poet and capturing a momentary feeling we’ve all had from time to time, the feeling that one’s life might change? Was he even talking about himself? When Wordsworth says in his sonnet, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” is he telling us to stop everything and do something about it? Or is he just lamenting the fact that we’re all caught in the same net?
Well, she said, if we’re playing the poetry quotation game, you know what Auden would have said about that. “Poetry makes nothing happen.” He was talking about politics and saying that poems don’t change the minds of politicians, that even Yeats for all his genius couldn’t change the fate of Ireland with poetry alone. But there might be a double meaning in the phrase, right? It isn’t “poetry doesn’t make anything happen,” after all. He says “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing might have more value than we think it does. What does it mean to make nothing happen? Maybe he was talking about opening up a space in between the layers of reality that usually appear to be seamlessly connected. Maybe poems, and paintings, and music, and any experience that surprises you out of your routine, maybe these are valuable because they make a little gap that’s like a keyhole you can peep through into another life. When Van Gogh paints a sleepy village under a starry sky, or a field of wheat besieged by a flock of crows, he’s forcing us — no, not forcing — he’s asking us to stop and pay attention to things that we usually gloss over in our hurry to get on with what we think is more important. The Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky said that the purpose of art is defamiliarization — to make the familiar seem strange to us so that we can see it afresh, as though it were new.
So how does any of this help us get out of the mess we’re in?
I don’t know, she said. Maybe all these quotes and theories are just another form of pleasant distraction. But I know that there are times in my own life when I’ve been able to step away and it has made a difference. Even when taking a vacation. Think about that concept. To vacate. To make a space where you once were standing. Vacate comes from Latin, “to leave empty.” When you take a vacation you empty your days of the normal cares, and you leave yourself empty as well, open to new inputs, new perspectives. Maybe it’s another way of making nothing happen. It can be fleeting or life changing, but maybe that just depends on how seriously you take the opportunity.
See, that’s what I think we might be getting at with all of this. Even though I’m the type of person who has never been able to sit and meditate for more than a few seconds without feeling like I was going to go crazy, I’ve begun thinking that what I really need is meditation. An attitude of mindfulness as a daily habit that will help me remember I’m a conscious being making choices, not an automaton or a slave to necessity.
Yes, she said. That sounds to me like a daily version of the same thing, like a daily opportunity to create some space in your life. It sounds very peaceful. So why does meditating make you feel crazy?
It’s just the thought of meditating. Being alone with my own mind. It feels like it might be absolute torture. I guess I’ve habituated myself to this way of living where something is always happening that I really ought to be paying attention to. Something in the news, some message from family or friends that I need to answer, and of course the endless round of urgent but ephemeral nonsense that is life in a corporate job, probably any job. If someone appeared in front of me and suddenly asked me, “What do you want to do right now? What do you really want?” I don’t think I would know how to respond. That’s why meditation scares me. I guess I’m afraid that a huge unanswered need is going to well up inside me and take me over. Or that I’ll just sit there worrying about everything I ought to be doing for other people or for more practical reasons.
That sounds awful, she said. But I think what we’re talking about here is breaking one habit and forming another one. Maybe it would feel strange at first. It might even make you feel like you’re going a bit crazy. After all, sometimes I think sanity is just doing the same things in the same way over and over again without wondering why. Maybe we all need to go a little crazy once in a while. Remember Rimbaud. He said the poet has to make himself a visionary through derangement of the senses. We don’t all have to be poets, just like we don’t all have to paint the wheat fields of France. But we could all stand to lose ourselves in a revery. I mean I know that isn’t the same thing as meditation, but in a way it is. Mindfulness ought to awaken you to life as it is, rather than life as it seems to be. And life as it is is infinitely beautiful, so why not swoon?
That’s very poetic.
Thank you, she said.
Somebody has to make dinner though.
Yes, she said. But it isn’t that hard to do after all.
Have we found our way out of the mess we’re in?
I don’t know, she said. But maybe we have. Maybe it’s as simple as saying, if you’re in a mess, here’s a rag. Here’s a mop. Get on with it.
Yes, I like the sound of that. Even talking like this is maybe a way of getting free from the trap of necessity. But how do we know we won’t repeat the same mistakes again?
We don’t, she said. I don’t think there are any sure things. Life is change. You have to learn how to dance with it. I think that’s what people mean by mindfulness. Staying awake to the moment you’re living in. Every conversation you have, every relationship in your life, even your job, all of it is a matter of choice. You opted in. Nobody forced you. As much as it might seem otherwise. And that means you’re in control of your fate. And we’re in control of ours. There’s no such thing as a mess that makes itself.
I suppose that’s true. I guess what that makes me think of is that feeling I was talking about earlier, that all of my daily routine is about responding to the needs of other people. What if everyone feels that way? If they do, then we’re all living the same illusion. We’re all standing at the doorway saying, “After you, my dear Alphonse.”
Yes, she said. It’s kind of impossible for the world to be composed only of victims.
Right, but all of that is easy enough to say. The hard part is putting it into practice.
Sure, she said. But it’s not as though we don’t have any guidelines to follow. I think we spend quite a lot of energy pretending life is more complicated than it is. My mother always told me, when in doubt, check with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Perhaps we’re living in a reactive age, where the most remarkable part of that simple rule might be that what you choose to do unto others is more important than what you think they’re doing to you.
So, if it’s true that life is change, then there’s really no way we can ever end this conversation.
I think that’s right, she said. Nothing ever really ends, just as nothing ever really begins. I had one lunch hour at a time to look at Starry Night. When it was over, it was over. But I’ve carried Starry Night with me for twenty years. So in a way those lunch hours never stopped at all. And every time I tell that story it means something a little different. So I guess that’s life. And if Van Gogh found his Starry Night we can find ours. Perhaps it’s there waiting for us at every moment.