It’s autumn. The air is electric with death and the paper folded in my chest pocket echoes the existence of the rivers and trees that entered into its making.
Some of us ask, what do we really mean by the word ‘Being?’ And some of us answer: sage. Weight, movement, the smell of things. This rose. This thorn. This paragraph I’ve written. This scar, this bruise, this swollen foot. Gaudy swans on a scraggly lawn. A ball of muscle beating in a surgeon’s hand.
The sky speaks to us through the bright red stems of a Pacific Fire vine maple. It gives us words that we don’t understand. We must first awaken an understanding of skin. What is it trying to communicate? Is the world on the other side of my skin, or is my skin imbued with the world? Everything I am made of comes from the world. I am the world. My eyes are the eyes of the universe contemplating itself. My skin is the world feeling itself. My skin is the world feeling its textures, which are a text, a scripture of desire. The world is written in the history of my skin. The world is written in wrinkles and scars. The soft burning of a muted trumpet.
The indefinability of Being does not eliminate the question of its meaning: it demands scrounging. Spending some time in the closet. Looking at a willow. Adjusting to the rigors of winter. Viewing the vagaries of night through a pair of infrared goggles.
70 mph on the freeway at night can offer an enhanced view of things. Particularly if there is suddenly a number of lanes closed for repaving and there are lights flashing and a row of orange barrels forcing the flow of traffic into one of several lanes and the perceptions formerly lulled into quiescent attentiveness while sitting in a dimly lit restaurant among friends are now fully awakened and frantic and consciousness is a radical cloud of unknowing.
Do I want a Being that is impartial and above it all, or a Being so immersed in the fiber of the universe that it continually begins beginning itself? Do I have any choice? How much am I actually involved in the Being that is me? Isn’t there a general all-encompassing energy of Being in which I’m a part, a partial expression, a fleeting concentration? Should I speed up and pass this truck or fall behind and move to the right lane?
I feel like screaming in my head. The world is burning down. Fires in Portugal, Spain, France and now northern California, wineries and homes and vineyards scorched and melted. 600,000 people displaced. It’s obvious what’s going on. Yet nobody dares say it. The planet that brought us into being is now in jeopardy as a habitat. Which is to say the planet will be fine. It will go on being a planet and orbit the sun until one day the sun bloats into a red giant and vaporizes the entire solar system. Until then, the planet will continue to provide habitable conditions for microbes and insects. The future looks good if you’re a cockroach. But the planet of green meadows and grazing cattle and swimming pools and Hollywood and football is doomed, and quite possibly doomed within our lifetime. It’s an ugly scenario. One can surrender to the luxuries of nihilism or one can continue to revolt and make art.
Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being, says Pessoa.
It sure does. One might be living in a pile of shit and believe oneself in paradise. And one might be living in a luxurious mansion and believe one is living in a hell of meaningless junk. The world appears differently according to each identity, each set of sensors, each sentient creature, each nerve, each antenna, each finger and touch and organ of perception. And each entity, each identity, feels itself to be at the center, the very core of the universe.
Consider Nietzsche’s gnat: if we and the gnat understood one another, we would learn that the gnat swims through the air with the same pathos and “feels within itself the flying center of the world.”
The truth exists in interrelation. I know that sounds pompous. But it’s true. Come on. You can’t argue it.
Well, you can. Let’s make that clear. Of course you can. In fact, I encourage it. We should continuously argue about what truth is. It means we’re looking. It means we haven’t settled on any one thing. It means anything living and moving and hungry is experiencing the world in a manner similar to, but different than, our experience of the world.
And yet, thankfully, we human beings know that when a traffic light turns green it’s time to step on the accelerator and move on down the road.
We have traffic lights and language.
What then, is the truth? According to Nietzsche, it’s a “moving multitude of metaphors, of metonymies, of anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a notion fixed, canonic, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.”
There are truths that we agree upon: red means stop, green means go. Love means I like you, I like you a lot, I want to have sex with you, I like you well enough even when you’re a pain in the ass to continue sharing my life with you, I like you because you brought me into this world and provided me with food and shelter, I like you because you wag your tail and lick my face. It also means pushing someone to do something they’re frightened of doing but doing whatever it is that they’re frightened of doing will benefit them in the long run and so you push them to do it even when they get pissed because you love them. And vice versa: someone pushes you to do something. This may be someone who loves you, but it may also be a boss, or asshole. Most likely the boss is pushing you to do something because you’re getting paid to do something, fix cars, fix brains, ring people’s groceries up. This is not love, this is capitalism. It is important to distinguish capitalism from love. Capitalism does not love you.
Would life be a simpler as a gnat? Probably. It would also be a lot shorter. And this life, this human life, is pretty damn short.
And you can’t even fly. Except Superman, who is a fiction, invented by Jerry Seigel, who did the writing, and Joe Shuster, who did the artwork. They were high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio in 1933. The world was a pretty bleak place in 1933. It’s also the year that Adolf Hitler was appointed the chancellor of Germany, President Roosevelt began his fireside chats and prohibition in the United States ended.
So imagine swimming through the air as superman instead of a gnat. The truth will appear differently to you. The truth will be as simple as good and evil. You may want to wear leotards and a cape. You will be a humble servant of the people in your Sears Roebuck suit and tie but a veritable god when you take to the air.
For such is the power of art.