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Posts Tagged ‘existential’

mariaThe paradox of human life is the evidence of its apparent pointlessness juxtaposed with our innate sense of infinite self worth. We are each placed at the very centre of our universe, yet we are able to make very little difference to it, and instead seem more often the victim of mischance or the misdeed of others. Thus, at times, we feel acutely vulnerable, afraid of injury or even annihilation.

We also find ourselves in a world pre-made by our collective forebears, a machine of rules, ideas and interactions whose mechanism is so complex it beggars all understanding, but whose purpose is more clearly the distribution of money and power – power over others, from whom the more powerful might extract money. Thus the machine defines its only measure of self-worth: money and power. The more you have the more successful you are. That the weak starve and whither is irrelevant. The machine must discard them. It has no choice. We are complicit in this inhumanity because of a self inflicted fallacy that it’s not our problem, or that somehow we cannot afford it, that there is not enough money for everyone born today to be allowed to live out the full span of their natural lives.

The bank is empty, the credit card maxed out – these being the simplistic metaphors used by politicians and the plutocratic machine minders to convince us of the need for a nation to “live within its means”, while at the same time facilitating the mass sequestering a nation’s means into the pockets of the predatory super-rich and powerful. Thus the machine mimics crudely the principles of natural selection, the evolutionary survival of the more well adapted being – in the machine’s case, adaptation being predicated purely on ego, cunning and greed. But unlike nature, which favours the proliferation or decline of a species at large, the machine produces only a small percentage of winners.

The rest, the losers can aspire only to the role of robotic serfdom, that is until the machine replaces them with actual robots, more perfect versions of the human being, at least in machine terms, in the way they function, for robots do not aspire to anything better than they are; they do not wonder about their purpose; they are not distracted by emotion, by cold, by hunger, by danger, by love. They do not require healthcare. We see now why the development of robots are so important to the machine – they are the perfect player in the “world-as-machine”, mirroring its deadness, a dead facsimile of a being for a dead world.

There was a picture in the newspapers this week of a gold plated super car. I mean, why settle for paint, when you can afford gold? The gold plated super-car is remarkably conspicuous. It is also a grotesquely apposite symbol of the end game of the world-construct as a money-game, when in those same cities we find broken and discarded people sleeping in doorways. But this is only to be expected since such mass economic casualties are written in to the machine’s code as a perfectly acceptable consequence.

As the machine automates its functions and increasingly delegates the human tasks to its robotic serfs, it is inevitable, according to machine logic, more of us will be discarded this way. And, since compassion is not a phenomenon that arises from machines, human beings who are not favoured among the rich and powerful cannot help but fare badly.

For all the shouting in this seemingly endless election season, I see no political solution to the machine’s excesses. The radical, humanistic policies necessary for averting such a grim, inhuman future are shredded daily by a psychological warfare of algorithmically targeted media falsehoods, ensuring our votes are for ever cast in the direction that is killing us.We cannot help ourselves. The machine has entered our blood, our bodies, our brains via the proxy devices we clutch daily to our bosoms, and through them it has infested us with its virulent nihilistic memes.

It is not unexpected, for it is a very ancient and human, and accurate observation that all things tend towards excess. They also contain within them the seeds of their own destruction, and the longer a thing stands, the greater the excesses it achieves, the more sudden and violent its downfall. The machine has facilitated an excess of inequality greater than the world has ever known. It is beyond obscenity, beyond systemic correction, beyond control, but will decay of its own accord, and I am not assured it will pass peacefully.

We cannot prepare for it, other than to make sure we are not so identified with the machine we are damaged by its disintegration. Materially of course, we will indeed be damaged – jobs, savings, welfare, all will be hit. But this is not our life. The machine world, though it seems all encompassing, is only the situation we exist in. Mentally, emotionally, life is elsewhere. It is in the stillness of our souls, it is to exist, to co-exist and to nurture both one’s own potential, and that of others. But the potential to what? What is the truest measure of doing well in the world? Is it really no more than a gold plated motor car? Is that the best we can aspire to?

When, in the near future, a robot looks upon the stars at night, it will do so only in terms of quantifiable data. How many stars? What type of star? It cannot transcend the data and be moved by the vision. The vision, the faculty of “being moved” is something distinctly human, born of the emotion and the imagination. It is a thing of the moment, a connection with that which is great and Godlike in all of us. So, if the world seems unrelentingly bleak and fractious and febrile right now, perhaps that’s because it is, and it remains so because we have lost the ability to imagine it any other way.

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roamerInhibition. Self consciousness. It makes our dancing stiff, our singing flat, faltering, subdued. We know we can do better, but the crowd or at least the suspicion of its scrutiny puts us off. It’s better then to close our eyes, to believe we’re the only person in the room. But what about writing? Do we write best when we believe no one will ever read what we’ve written? For most writers this is a distinct possibility, but what’s the point in writing anything at all if you’re the only person who’s ever going to read it?

This is an existential question. The point of writing is opaque, defiant of reason, cycling between the black dog of depression and an over-inflated self worth. Both are damaging in their way, but in particular we fear that black dog getting the drop on us, for then surely we’ll never write another word.

For whom do we write, then?

I asked this question of Google and turned up one of my own blog pieces entitled, appropriately enough: For whom do we write? I concluded we write for ourselves, that the person we imagine reading our work, the imaginary “other” is a projected version of ourselves, and who am I to argue with my own analysis? But this is not to detract from the mystery of the process. Yes, we write for ourselves, but are inspired by the belief that any revelations we uncover in the process are potentially of value to others following in our wake.

1960AviaAs I write this evening, I’m wearing an AVIA wrist watch from the sixties. It’s nearly as old as I am. Although we’ve only recently become acquainted, it means as much to me as my father’s Roamer which dates to the late forties, and as much as the Rolex I bought myself with my first month’s salary, at the outset of my dayjob, in 1982. By contrast, I bought the AVIA off Ebay, last month for £20. Why should it mean anything? It’s worthless. What puzzle does it pose? And  why should you be interested in my telling you about it?

I mean, who are you anyway?

My father’s watch tells the story of his life, a story that ended when I was fourteen. I rarely wear it, but his life and its premature ending is what I think about when I handle it. It needs a minor repair, but one I’m not yet confident enough to tackle for fear of damaging it. The metaphor in this is complex and strange and deeply personal and may only yield further revelations when I have the courage to finally take the back off the watch.rolex

The Rolex was to some extent a marker of stability, telling of a time when I had stilled the stormy seas somewhat and established a way forward in life for myself. I wear it on special occasions, but am sometimes embarrassed to be the owner of an aspirational timepiece, all be it by now a vintage one – that a part of me once thought such things were important or impressive to anyone. I would never spend that sort of money on a watch today, no matter what my disposable income, yet I could never sell it, so appear to be clinging to those old perverted values, no matter what my opinion of them.

Then there’s the AVIA, a curious old thing that adds it own unique twist to the story. It tells of a thing as old as I am, one that’s survived the years in good condition, and is still of use, still reliable. The previous owner is unknown to me, as are the times the watch has known, a mystery only to be guessed at, times that have ticked away oblivious to my own, yet in parallel with them, yet also now suggesting a kind of collective completeness that might be revealed in the contemplation of its feeling tones.

I may of course be stretching my metaphors to destruction here, but these things provide sufficient energy to draw my fingers to the keyboard. But  I cannot allow myself to imagine your presence, your derision, your boredom, at least not until the thing is worked out and revealed at least to me as a valid commentary on the human condition. Then, my friend, you can take it or leave it.

A telling of any kind is an exploration of the mystery of being, and the conclusion is the opening of a door, one whose threshold we arrive at by entirely abstract means. And the revelation that awaits us might similarly be expressed in abstract ways, but the writer knows when the puzzle is solved, because that’s when the story ends, whether we’re writing literature, or a murder mystery. The tale of the three watches is still seeking its conclusion, and I use it here as an illustration of the underlying psychology and both the challenge and the necessity of  writing as if no one were listening.

A story is not real life. In a story the boundaries are set as a specimen mounted under a microscope. In a romance, often the telling is of the obstacles to love, commencing with the first meeting and concluding with the marriage, or the first kiss, or the long awaited making love. The story of a life however does not end in the same way. It goes on, rich in revelatory material, at least for the writer with sufficient sensibilities. But the love story is a familiar pathway, one most of us are familiar with, and it’s pleasing to be led along it, so the writer need not feel shy or self conscious in directing his pen to such an enterprise, even under the full glare of an imaginary readership. But what of those other stories, those other questions, questions one might even be afraid to ask?

For myself I have no interest in controversy, finding, as you’ve seen here, sufficient mystery in the tale of three wrist watches, and it’s perhaps for that reason I’m content to proceed without an audience, if only because I cannot imagine anyone being held rapt by the telling of such a tale. What provides the energy to keep writing in this vein is not the arrogance  my musings are as valid as anyone else’s. To be sure they may be nonsense, but in writing the only arrogance is the belief we are in any way responsible for the creation of our own work in the first place.

The question of the three wrist watches rises from a part of me to which I have no direct access. Yet it burns, and must be given voice to or the writer in me is not complete. In this sense then the audience does not matter. So yes, although it’s a hard thing to imagine, we must write like no one’s ever going to read our words. This isn’t so difficult as the non-writer might suppose, for the words themselves, even if they lead the writer on a merry dance to nowhere, are sufficient reward, and especially if, through their telling, the writer gets to glimpse beyond the doorway of one’s liminal consciousness to an abstraction of the universal revelation of what it means to be a living, thinking, feeling human being.

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southport beachI didn’t see the figures on the sands when I took this picture. I was more interested in seeing how the polarising filter would help bring details out in the sky, while leaving the sands recognisable as, well,… sands. It was only later when I put the picture up on the bigger screen of my PC, then cropped and zoomed,  other details became apparent, and the ghosts emerged.

No, I didn’t know they were there, I don’t know who they are, and of course I don’t know where they are now. They’re simply gone. But for that moment, at 14:53 hours and 53 seconds on the 17/2/2013,  they were everything, creating a living harmony out of what is otherwise nothing.

I get this same eerie philosophical melancholia from watching crowds. There are so many of us alive, and each life of infinite importance to itself, each of us viewing the universe from the centre of ourselves in a uniquely different way.   But for me there’s something about the lone figure or a small group of figures set against a vast landscape that turns up the wick, and applies a more intense heat to the question of what it is to be human in the world.

On the one hand the seeming smallness of our presence can make the individual life appear worthless and futile, while on the other it might be said it’s in the very uniqueness of our  perspective there lies a value that goes beyond the material –  that it’s in adjusting to this perception of ourselves, and seeing more clearly through what one might call the eye of spirit,  we each have the potential to realise the preciousness that is the individual life lived well, no matter how fleeting and superficially futile that life might appear to be.

I’m reading Field and Hedgerow by Richard Jeffries at the moment. Jeffries (1848-1887) was a small-town English journalist, essayist and novelist, who, after labouring long in obscurity, became quietly popular in the late Victorian period. Another of his works “The Amateur Poacher” has been my companion since childhood, and I still find much in him to admire. His particular forte was nature mysticism. To say Jeffries revered nature doesn’t quite get to the point of him, though revere it he most certainly did. Here was a man who could look at  a grain of sand under his fingernail and tease the meaning of life from it  – all without the aid of opium –  but he was careful not to over-romanticise – being conscious and respectful of the red-in-tooth-and claw dimension of nature as well. He was also a man who saw more of God in a Greek statue than in the whole of King James.

Stay with me, this is relevant.

lilithOf course we’re not all blessed with the divine attributes of a Greek statue, and I suppose Jeffries was getting at more than seeing a literal image of “God as deity” in hominid physiology. What the Classical Greeks saw in the human form, Jeffries hints at in his various works, while the rest of us cover it with loincloths for modesty, mistake it for a perverted Eros, and childishly titter at it. What is it? I don’t know, but if you’ll allow me a moment’s nudity, I can gaze for ever at John Collier’s Lillith (Atkinson Memorial Gallery, Southport UK), and see more than just her bosoms. There’s a ghost in her, and like my figures in the landscape, she gives me pause.

Getting back to the subject of nature, in “Field and Hedgerow” Jeffries writes of an unemployed farm labourer rejecting the grim soulless state-handout sanctuary of the Workhouse and choosing instead to survive the winter living rough, sleeping in out-buildings, finding what few scraps of charity he can from the farm wives. Jeffries suggests that in his struggle to maintain a personal dignified independence, against the rigours of nature, there is something noble, even Godlike about him.

Nature is impassive, impervious to our complaints. The rain falls and the frost bites regardless of our wishes, or the quality of our clothes. Still, on a sunny day, when the butterflies come out, you can look for God in it, a God that transcends deity, as the Romantics would say. Indeed when it’s not inflicting pain upon us, there’s enough stillness and sublime beauty in nature to see projections of all sorts of things. But whatever we discover, compassion will not be among its qualities.

In my  photograph, the tide is out. Three hours later it would be in, and the small lives that had scampered across the sands that afternoon would have to scamper for safety or be washed away. The beach is also known for quicksand. An unwary figure going down in them could not rely upon nature, or the gods, for deliverance. For the survival of calamity, or nature’s worst excesses, we’re always going to need the compassion and the selfless intervention of other human beings. We might pray to our deities but it will be another human being who pulls us from the mire, offers reassurance at our tremblings, and a hot cup of  tea to soothe away the aftershocks.

Some might take this as evidence the Divine works through us, that our capacity for compassion is a manifestation of the ineffable at work in the world. I’m coming to the same conclusion. It was Jeffries who taught me you don’t find God in mere deity, (Story of my heart), but only through a higher form of soul-life. And, incredible, as it seems, the fact remains that in a world apparently on fire, torn apart by the darker side of our natures, it’s only in human beings we find the contrary, even paradoxical evidence of a divinely transcendent and infinitely compassionate dimension, a dimension, the existence of which, is the only thing worth all the living and the dying for. If we are to understand the value of the individual life, no matter how fleeting or anonymous, like my figures in the landscape, we must first do what we can to nurture a compassion for the lives of others, and trust we’ll find it in others when we’re most in need of it ourselves.

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