Saturday, October 8, 2011

a love letter, to no one and everyone

I often read personal ads. I sometimes write them for fun. I get a kick out of not sounding very appealing in print: “troubled former athlete, pushing middle-age, balding with perpetual love handles, seeks ...”

I preferred the ads when they appeared in newspapers, and were distilled into a (very) few lines. I had a girlfriend who always pushed me to answer this ad that ran weekly in San Francisco when I lived there: “Hairy, skinhead switch seeks same. Will fight for top.”

I've only ever answered one. It was on a BDSM forum. Turned out it was the girl I was living with. I didn't know she'd placed the ad. She didn't know I read them. I thought it was very romantic in an “If you like piña coladas/ And getting caught in the rain ...” kind of of way. It bothered her for some reason.

Once, I placed a missed connection to a motorcycle I met on the bay bridge. I couldn't see the rider. But her bike was a super-cute, Elvis-pink, early 70s 350 twin. I met her later at a party. It was a little embarrassing.

I'm thinking about this because I feel basically alone in the world, so incredibly alone. It's overly dramatic, and wrenching. But it's funny.  Funny because I am absolutely not alone. I have plenty of incidental human contact, meaningful meaningless connections with people all the time. I know how to smile and be charming and be genuinely interested in people who are not at all like me. I also have close friends, family, and lovers who are part of my life, daily, many of whom have been a part of that life for decades. And people tend to reach out to me in very personal ways because of the thoughtful and honest way they see me through my work. And yet the longer I am alive, the more alone I feel.

I realize it is somewhat irrelevant. And also an incredibly narcissistic illusion about self-loathing and vulnerability and who knows what else. But it could also be, that we are all simply alone. From the moment of self-consciousness through the moment of death, we will each only have our own unique experience of being in the world. And the presence of another in our lives is always, eventually, transitory.

I tend to break my own heart. At some point I walk away, or manage to (accidentally?) create an intolerable circumstance, like poor Oedipus. Fortunately, I tend to live through these things sans incest, murder, and eye-gouging. There is always constant tension in my life between isolation and community. The trouble is that I don't find either entirely satisfying. Or more precisely, I find them both equally intolerable and absolutely necessary. So I often act like an idiot, or a yo-yo.

I have only been left once (sort of). And of the many lies we told one another, the one stands out in my mind is the story about how she wanted to find herself, to find that thing within herself that outlasted all transitory relations. She was walking away for Godot. At least that's the story she told at the end; she had been (in love with me and) pushing me away from the start. I must have loved her because she was just like me. God (who I don't believe in) might have decided it was my turn to see what dating me is like.  Frankly, it was kind of terrible... and wonderful.

My first artist statement was for a library show in high school. I wrote an honest, silly something (slightly pretentious perhaps) about finding a place where I fit, about square pegs and round holes and how the artistic process was a way to explore that. What I should have said is that I was calling out for Godot, acting like an idiot while nothing happens and no one comes.

In this empty tension between isolation and community, between the self and the other, between the will to power and the herd, between the lover and her or his beloved is all of human life, all of it's pathologies, politics, metaphors, and language. This part of the discussion could merit a book or two, has merited several. But for now I just want recall these few lines from Nietzsche's “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense
Insofar as the individual wants to preserve himself against other individuals, in a natural state of affairs he employs the intellect mostly for simulation alone. But because man, out of need and boredom, wants to exist socially, herd-fashion, he requires a peace pact and he endeavors to banish at least the very crudest bellum omni contra omnes [war of all against all] from his world.

[…]

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in
short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished
poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
This means a lot of things. And there are many different ways to navigate this model of truth, of language, of the human. What's important to me here and now, is really quite simple. This anti-epistemology calls for us to think differently about truth and power; about the human power relations concealed in our languages, in our truths, and in the way they play out in public and private.

I encountered this very Nietzschian declaration in an unlikely place the other day, in a TED talk by a social worker talking about vulnerability. Brene Brown's basic premise in that talk is that what we all want, neurologically, culturally, is a sense of connection; and the thing that keeps us from establishing that is shame, a sense that we are not like others, or to state it in a slightly different way, that if they knew the real me, they wouldn't like me; and that what this shame leads to is a desire for certainty, to stave off insecurity and isolation; and that this need for fixed realities produces conflict/ pathology, both personally and politically. On it's face this is opposed to what we generally think about Nietzsche; isn't his point to surpass the drowsy herd, not connect to it? Yes and no.

For Nietzsche the too human condition that produces the empty truths and worn out metaphors of our knowledge is the need to mitigate “the very crudest bellum omni contra omnes,” a vulnerable position for everyone, to say the least. In her talk Brown points us towards the vulnerability of epistemological insecurity, mystery, the divine in place of the numbing, sleeping truths of taking fat from our ass and injecting it into our face. This sounds very similar to the trans-valuation of all values, to me. Nietzsche's super-man overcomes the half-truths of the herd to see the reality concealed in its mobile linguistic army. That for Brown this means connection, seems somewhat irrelevant. For her connection is merely that thing we are alienated from. For Nietzsche it is the will to power.   Different yes, but both of them want us to burn everything down in order to get there. I honestly don't know what would be left in Nietzsche's view. Nothing but what we make, I think.  Brown might agree that the nature of this new world remains to be seen.

Her premise works well for me. I have argued in my work and writing that many thinkers situate our humanness in the anguish of separation from: the teat, from the divine, from the will to power, from the excess of life and death, etc.  In an essay I have been working on, and in my most recent painting (unfinished because of the time I've spent with my dad in the hospital), I explore the tyranny of happiness, that happiness itself is alienated and alienating. What Brown suggests is that we numb (seek to suppress discomfort/ pursue happiness) in order to cope with vulnerability.  The only thing is, she says, that we can't numb selectively. When you numb, you numb everything.  So in order to experience joy, well-being, etc., you must also experience anguish, fear, sadness, etc.  And I more or less agree. In effect, in a very  Kierkegaardian turn, when I suggest that happiness is tyranny, I am also saying the only way you can be happy (in the sense of experiencing well-being) is through the rejection of happiness, or more specifically the rejection of the search for happiness. We must not protect ourselves; we must be open to the possibility of, and the reality of, assault and trauma; we must risk it all. Anything less is inauthentic. And our humanness, meaningfulness itself, is in this endeavor. We are da-sein, throwness; we are overmen; we are lovers.

In other words all of human life and art is a love letter – a declaration of love, an insinuation of separation, a longing, and a deadly violence. These letters, that always betray the multiplicity of love, are an avowal and a plea. Or, they are desire and murder. 

Certainly my work is a love letter, to no one and everyone.



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