30 November 2016

Chaos, Cloud, Abyss

It's good to live in anxiety, 
good to hear one's teeth chatter in fear,
good to push life to the brink of ruin 
and start afresh next morning. 
                                              –Bohumil Hrabal

Of course, we would rather have it easy. Everything is clean and foreseen, everything planned, thus everything is “as expected." There’s a feeling that you are in control: what you expect and even demand, is what you get--as if by right and by privilege. We see this especially in those who age. Finding out that one has to at some point be responsible for one’s own life, we gather ourselves and summon all our strength in pursuing goals, goals we set out for ourselves, but really they are the goals of other people, thinking these ends will make us happy--because their accomplishment, we again think, shall give us solid ground to stand on, to build on ever anew. 

There is some truth to this. Getting what you want is always rewarding. But there are no surprises here. Whether you fail or not in graduating, getting that promotion, saving enough money, starting a family so as to “settle down”--there will never be anything new. Life becomes a game where the rules and standards of its results had already been pre-established. It’s a matter of struggling, which many have already accepted as the true nature of living.

But there are those who do not want to participate in this game (Who made these rules? Why make rules to begin with?). There are those for whom everyday is a surprise. And everyday is a surprise because there were no expectations made, no goals established, no desires to be fulfilled. The most dangerous man is him who wants nothing. Dangerous in its more interesting sense that no one knows how things will turn out after surviving these crises. 

Destruction, they tell us, is to be avoided at all costs. Now you have to build again, pick up the pieces and start all over. But what is there to destroy if nothing was ever built? Chaos, too, has its own blessings--and beauty. Beauty after all is what is extraordinary, what is striking, and it is striking because it is unlike the many--the singular. The singular man, the single life, he who parts from the crowd, the individual who stands out--stands out of everyday destruction amidst all those who build towers and skyscrapers and lives.

To live in anxiety means to be ever conscious that the primal elements of the world are always changing, that one never has a ‘grip' on things, precisely because things withdraw from us by themselves. And the withdrawal of things can only torment those who have always wanted to seize them. None better than Heidegger describes this anxiety: "The receding of beings as a whole that closes in on us in anxiety oppresses us. We can get no hold on things.” If anxiety nowadays is reduced to the phenomenon of a "general unease,” even watered down to a pallid nervousness, or lack of confidence in one’s self (because unable to exert one’s power over things)--these are merely surface symptoms displayed by those who have essentially seen the face of the world as the face which cannot be described, thrust into our concepts, regulated by our expectations of what things are, finally neutralized and reduced to what we control. 

But anxiety stares into the abyss as abyss--that bottomless free fall into the unknown, or that flight into the cloud of unknowing, that wondrous experience of not-being-able-to-see, most of all the inability to fore-see. Everything withdraws from us and in their withdrawing they approach us, suffocate us. He who is anxious thus cannot breathe.

But to live again amidst things as they are! Blessed are those who do not see, who do not want to build, who do not want what is easy and everyday. 

I was once there. And the abyss always invites still. But I choose to breathe.  

15 June 2016

One of Love’s Many Dismays

There was once a young man who had heard about a woman whose beauty was so legendary that no man was able to resist her. It was said that whenever she passed by, all men fell on their knees and worshipped her like a deity. The story also did go that while she entertained all the suitors who lined up at her door, that she would also turn down each proposal when she was asked for her hand in marriage. This broke everyone’s hearts, naturally. Pools of the tears of the many men who had desired her welcomed the next suitor by the threshold of her door.

One day this young man was so intrigued by this story of the woman he did not yet see, that he started daydreaming about her whose beauty was known to crush any man’s heart. She would be the first thing he wondered about as he awoke to each new day, and she, the woman of many possible faces, would haunt him in his dreams. He asked himself what she liked, what jewellery adorned her, what she did in the afternoons; or if she liked long walks, if she liked tea, or cake. These wonderings, and doubtless countless more, obsessed the young man to no end. Yet as what always happens when desire intensifies when what it desires remains out of its reach, no longer did it matter for this young man that he come to meet her face to face, to see for himself what beauty inspired her legend. It was enough to stay at a distance, safe from seeing her and possibly being disappointed, than risk a perfect desire--perfect, because he was perfectly alone.

Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at His Window, 1875

03 June 2016

The Burdens of Love

Gustave Dore, The Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn, etching, 1868.

We all know the story already. After being passed by on the road by a priest and a Levite, a half-dead man who was robbed of everything he had was tended to by a Samaritan, who bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine over him. And then the Samaritan picks up the man, places him on his donkey, brings him to an inn where he may rest and recover. Then the Samaritan takes leave of the man, pays the innkeeper for the accommodations, and then says: “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have” (Luke 10: 35).
            We were told this story in our youth in order to learn that helping others meant helping any man we come across on the road. That even strangers by the wayside deserve our aid when they need it. Also, we were inspired by the mercy that the Samaritan showed toward the fallen man; that mercy meant that urgent response to him who suffered; that one cannot, like the priest and Levite, simply be indifferent to the call to help which is right there. But looking back at the story when time has passed and life has taught you enough to understand old lessons anew, it happens that we see something new even in what used to be exhausted tales. And what has since struck me of all the dramatic details we glean from the Good Samaritan parable would be the last written line of the tale—or better, the last act of the Samaritan: his promise to go back and pay the innkeeper for any expense he may incur in caring for the stranger. This is so because making promises even after having accomplished what needed to be done, after already showing mercy, is what seems so difficult to make.
            But before the promise was made, we see in Gustave Dore’s etching The Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn (1868), the moments that transpired before the conversation between the Samaritan and the innkeeper. We find, as the story did go, the Samaritan arriving at an inn, where we see the innkeeper along with probably his attendant, welcome the stranger who had an unconscious man riding on his donkey. Whence the surprise of the innkeeper: who was this man with whom he will do business, what happened to him, what strange services will be required? The scene marks for us that precise moment when the Samaritan picks up the stranger from his donkey to bring him up to the inn. Because he is unconscious and dead beat from the beating he took from the robbers who preyed upon him, his weight is dead weight—making the tedious ceremony of bringing him up the stairs to enter the inn more difficult than desired.
So we see the Samaritan embracing the stranger, trying to balance himself. But he fails to do so. He has to lean back, considerably at that, in order to prevent himself from falling. His embrace, both arms wide open, legs wide apart, braces and supports the stranger’s weight, in order to deliver him safely to his proper rest. Or again: the Samaritan braces himself from a possible fall by embracing the man whose face he did not recognize, a face hitherto unknown, to support him and buttress his weight. And all the while the Samaritan himself turns his back to us, not revealing his face, himself without a name or title, recognized only by the general designation of the place from which he hails—Samaria—from which also hail a people known as indifferent to the Jews. Here is the Samaritan, perceived enemy at worst, a nobody at best, carrying the full burden of a responsibility which first he merely chanced upon but now has already assumed in all its weight. Yet that is not all.

24 May 2016

The Lover’s Advance

It is always the distance which worries us. Not because distance requires the impetus necessary in order to traverse it, which in itself can only come from a decision to take leave of that hell of a place you find yourself in; more so, because any crossing of that distance brings you to the point where you can no longer stop or retreat. Once you break into a life, there is no turning back--best of all, for the lover who advances.

Such is the dilemma of introductions, that otherwise casual and everyday occurrence of collecting names to be filed under the general heading ‘acquaintances’; those you meet by chance or by necessity, only to be discarded the following day like name cards as there will be no need to keep anything here. You meet, you smile, you pretend to care for a moment, and then that is all that can be said about that.

But there are some introductions that mark you. A name marks you, you see. Having won it, you also are granted the possibilities that come with his name. Shall I know you more? Shall we meet again? Otherwise, without a name to go with a face, we will be without a future because we shall forever remain strangers to each other. For precisely it is the stranger who is by name disqualified from being a beloved--he without a face, he who does not see me, he who does not know me. How can we ever love what we do not know?

Whence the necessity of the lover’s advance. The advance, we suppose, ought to address the distance by first of all addressing him in person, face to face, through a name. The face marks a passage because it leads to him, and the name ushers you to him, because it bestows permission to know him further. But one can verily proceed no further. To see the road to be taken is still different from taking it, and to be granted entry need not mean actually crossing the threshold. He can do this to me, either intentionally or through sheer indifference to me. He can block my advance, keep me at a distance, hold me in place by remaining in his place. The possible beloved must meet you at the gate, as it were; without that consent, without that rendezvous, the lover will and must still be alone. If I seek him, he, too must seek me. Otherwise, I, the visitor from nowhere, shall have to wander about, lost in that no man’s land, in love’s purgatory where all that can be done is to await the final judgment.

And it is that in-between, caught between two cliffs hanging only by a rope over a great abyss, which demarcates for the lover that place where possibilities become greater in intensity, enticing you to move forward; and where calls to surrender, to ‘give up’, to ‘cut your losses’ also beckon you to go back to that safe place from where you came. Thus all possible loves paradoxically begin with both anticipation and hesitation. Idle talk and everyday language call this period, or location, having a ‘crush’ on somebody--and this surprisingly apt name describes that joyful yet painful longing: you see him but you are not yet seen 'up close’, meaning who you are; you see, but you are too far away. Or again: he sees you but at the same time he doesn’t; while you see him but at the same time the possibility of seeing more possesses you to no end.

The anticipation to go forward is pulled back by the fear of not gaining admittance; the decision to seek him is pulled back by the hesitation which precedes all fateful decisions. For at bottom, what is at stake in this final--or first?--decision the lover has to make is nothing other than his fate in winning the title of becoming indeed a lover. And of all the decisions to be made by the lover, this is the one which will always have to crush him first: a decision which is crushing because his very definition--as being he who wants to love the possible beloved--is at stake, where everything is gathered into a great Yes and No; where each side has an equal weight, each having consequences of equal magnitude, that is to say, a No which balances the Yes, where the possibilities of love are held back by that possibility which always has to be included among them--that possibility of not being loved in return. As most of us know already, when those who had taken love’s advance look back at the many crossings they made, there are as many, if not more, advances that had failed.

John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1908.
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

19 May 2016

The Fullness of Charity

William-Adolphe BouguereauCharity, 1878

One of a number of works depicting the same theme, Bourguereau’s Charity here presents us the nature of charity in the figure of a mother. Five infants huddle around her, and one could imagine that caring for them all at the same time is no easy task, even impossible, with each one having its own needs which requires the mother’s ‘undivided attention’—which is precisely what our mother above gives to each one.

The mother has exposed her breasts, in order to feed any child which may go hungry. One infant tries to raise itself toward the her to receive the sustenance that only a mother can give—the milk from her breast. The other infant she holds with her right arm looks up to her, wanting nothing else but the sole attention of its mother. So she lowers her eyes in order to meet the gaze of the child; but under her watchful eye, even if she looks at this child, she is still mindful of the other four infants. Another infant is sleeping soundly in her arms; thus she does not want to wake it with sudden movements, making sure that the child gets its rest, the rest that it needs as it slowly grows up. So in her arms are three children with three different needs: attention, sustenance and rest. And she manages to give each one what it seeks, without taking anything away from the others.

Yet there are two more children at her feet. The one to the right seems afraid, or probably cold. Thus it snuggles up to her mother’s skirt, using it as a blanket or protection from what it may be afraid of. The gesture of hiding in a mother’s skirt still means today having her protect you from harm. The other child, to the left, resting on two books, is absorbed in his reading. The mother had already made sure that her children not only get the sustenance and protection they require, but that they also have the materials they need in order to learn and grow also in wisdom. We still recognize this until today: one of the most important responsibilities of parents would be to educate their children, not merely to prepare them for ‘careers’ as what most nowadays narrowly see as the goal of education, but more so to help shape them and inform them with the knowledge that enables them to understand themselves and the world. It is not only the body which needs sustenance, but also our minds.

Finally, we see the young mother’s left foot on top of a jar of gold and silver coins. The jar had been toppled over, and the coins had spilled unto the ground, even to the step below it. Her coins are abundant. They spill over because her love, too, is abundant, spilling over her children. That the coins spill over, lost or spent, is no matter to the mother. The generosity with which mothers care for their children is one which does not mind how much it loses—no price is too high in order to love. For precisely, charity does not count its losses, does not attend to and keep anything to itself in order to expend itself. It is unable to contain itself to itself, like the jar that spilleth over. As an outpouring, as excess, love cannot keep itself from giving whatever what it loves needs from it and asks for. Love loves until it is exhausted, until the breast is drained of milk, until the jar runs out of coin. Like Bourguereau’s generous mother, love gives every thing it can give, even itself, no matter how much loving may cost.

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Maira Gall