Allowing the full Influx of the World
Artistry mitigates disaster and keeps us alive. I mean both the artistry of the world and our individual artistry in responding to it. It’s a balancing act, a ballet on the back of a dancing bull.
Artistry, incoming and outgoing, from the world and from us, gives us both freedom and happiness, both joy and misery, both terror and adventure.
I used to think the world was full of either/or’s, and your life would be measured by how you resolved them. Sometimes such choice is in fact center stage.
Either you leave home or you don’t; either you join the party or you refuse. But say we want to lead a full life. Does that mean picking and choosing among things of great worth?
If we choose happiness have we rejected freedom? Or if we value joy do we discount the contribution of mild terrors or tremors in our lives?
We can both love and fear a great storm at sea, or an impending contest or trial, or the prospect of the birth of a child. Fear for the safety of a friend is a sign of our care. The goodness of care shines through the shadow of fear.
Zadie Smith, a wonderful novelist, has an essay that places joy closer to terror than to happiness or pleasure. Real joy, she says, attacks your sense of orientation, sweeps you away. It can be fearsome.
They don’t hold still long enough for us to get a reading of their subtle importance, to get this one thoughtfully compared to that one, to get a reading of their complexity as they emerge here and there.
Like a fine wine, a cool summer sea breeze has a rich complexity. What if, like fine wine, its tangible, visceral presence is there for some — and not at all for others?
If joy is mixed with terror for Zadie Smith, it’s clear she has a rich sense of the complexity of joy in its blending with scariness — a sense that can be lost on the rest of us until she alerts us.
What if learning the complexity of an emotion or mood is the venture of a lifetime, like learning the complexity of ancient Greek or of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or of Schubert’s late Sonatas? What if complexity grows, when it does, only with age?
A rich life will be made of many elements that can breathe and blend their complexities. A life of no freedom is slavery, but yielding my freedom to follow the dancing swirl of love, or to follow the fine movement of a Haydn String Quartet, can be a great good.
But what is my measuring stick? Perhaps it’s less a yard stick than the cane of a blind woman.
A life of no happiness is not worth living — so it seems. Yet yielding up happiness for the scary thrill of combat or hang-gliding makes for an exciting, adventurous life on the edge. Does the extreme adventurer seek what you’d call a happy or contented life?
To say, “Yes, adventure is her happiness!” flattens out her life. Why not say, “She seeks adventure and meaning in adventure whether or not the outcome is happiness.”
Some kids in China climb rope ladders over two thousand feet straight up a rock face, school backpacks and all, to get to class. I wonder if they have the happiness of those who skip along suburban sidewalks?
The eighteen year-old all agog at joining the Marines may relish the foretaste of danger, honor, fraternity, tests of courage. We’d miss that if we said only that he’s in pursuit of happiness — or freedom — or satisfaction. Perhaps he has a death wish.
You can hear funeral bells and heavy steps in Schubert’s D946 Sonata. They toll sadly for the composer’s early death, a death he was certainly aware was upon him. He had no death wish yet faced death joyfully, or with joy in the mix.
These dark tolling passages are interspersed with phrases of child-like happiness. He writes somberly of death yet joyfully commemorates life—all within a moment or two. What was he seeking at that stage in his life in those compositions? Openness to wonder? Composure?
Two wise and candid women have said to me recently, independently, that we need to live in the moment. Thoreau announces that this is “the newer testament, the Gospel according to this present moment.”
If we accept ups and downs, joys and pains, happiness and freedom, in a way that lets us flow with their complexity, perhaps a well-lived life won’t be just one thing or another.
It might instead be a responsiveness to the complexities of life as it arrives, a filtered responsiveness that minimizes distractions and opens to the significant, whether good or evil.
There is no one sentence or one term key to the good life. To latch onto the phrase “living in the moment” doesn’t help separate worthy from unworthy moments. How does one get to taste and cherish complexity?
This way of putting things — living in the present — will exclude some things. It will rule out dwelling morbidly on the past or dwelling on it as the arena of our triumphs, or dwelling anxiously on dangers the future will bring, or on the future as the arena of triumph or glory.
The content of a present moment is something that often arrives in its own time, unbidden – not because we want or don’t want it.
Living in the present moment often means putting our wants and desires in the back seat, and putting our anticipatory and retrospective judgments there, too.
We are often creatures of burning desire and creatures of critical judgment, and thank God for that.
But we can also be creatures of the moment, suspending desire and judgment in a pose of openness to what may be given — in an alert quietness beyond wanting or judging . . . almost a pure nothingness that allows the full influx of the world. Thank God, this can often be a good thing, a crowning gift.
The artistry of openness is a precondition of harvests of happiness, satisfaction, joy, or adventure — even of knowledge or justice.
My friend, a philosopher and poet, thinks that such artistry is at last a gift of age:
To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets–to know the mighty ones,
Job, Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Emerson;
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt–to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
— Old age, and what it brings from all its past experience.
I’ve come to think that the “lilt” and “tints” of things are part of the song of the world, and that good philosophy — and we who seek it — ought to be acknowledging those lilts and songs and tints.
And yes, these sheens and rhythms seem to arrive more vividly, subtly, and frequently with the quiet coming of Age. Not that life becomes quiet, but that the soul takes on a stillness that allows life and soul more space, more playing time.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
See Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009.
Credits: Zadie Smith writes on “Joy” in The New York Review of Books, Jan 10, 2013. Thoreau, “newer testament,” is from “Walking,” Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems, New American Library p.254, 4 paragraphs from the end.The poem, “To Get the Final Lilt of Songs (Whitman)” is by Kelly Jolley: see his blog “Quantum Est in Rebus Inane,” https://kellydeanjolley.com/. The first image, “The Ballerina and the Bull,” comes from Google Images, attributed to Adbusters.com. For kids with red backpacks on a rock face see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/27/chinese-schoolkids-climb-a-2625-foot-cliffside-ladder-to-get-home-now-theyll-have-stairs/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_rainbow.