Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Response to a Reader's Comments

On my essay, "The Divided Self," a reader left this comment:

Your story is eerily similar to mine. I was leading a completely stressful life - a LOT of drinking, smoking, zero exercise, eating crap. And then, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I instantly changed, did a complete 180 didn't touch a single beer or a cigarette or a slice of pizza. All I ate were cupfuls of cheerios, protein etc. No more than one slice of bread per day. I exercised 2 hours daily. In 3 months I dropped 55 lbs, and my doctor said my blood sugar was back to normal and I wouldnt need medication to control it anymore. He even wanted to do a case study on how I did that.

And then - I graduated, got my PhD. A month later, it started with one beer. and now a year later, I am pretty much an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. No more exercise and lots of crappy food. I gained back all the weight. I cough, freak out for a while, throw my cigarettes out. and then go search for them in the garbage. I use my asthma inhaler and then go and smoke. I don't even know why I do this. The entire duality of my personality has me beat.

When I was taking care of myself - i was a LOT calmer, reading philosophy, whatnot. BUT I was nowhere as creative as i am now. Iam a musician (stereotypes woohoo), and I find myself writing more often when I am drunk and disoriented and so on.

Now which life do I choose? I guess it all comes down to balance - but HOW? balance seems forced. balance seems complacent. or is it? It seems so to me - the other desperate life is much more interesting - but it just might kill me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts - a friend suggested your blog to me. If you find balance, tell us how.

I was moved by the comment and wanted to answer the commenter's questions to the best of my ability. Here is my response:

Please do not take this response to mean I have all the answers, I certainly do not. But I'm living as you are, and trying to cope with many of the same things, i.e. quitting unhealthy behaviors and adopting healthy ones.

You say, "I guess it all comes down to balance."

Here I'm tempted to say, "No, it all comes down to timing."

In an ideal world, I think all of us would want to lead more balanced lives--eating moderately, exercising moderately, working less, and so on.

But in the day-to-day business of living, I feel balance is not so much of a choice we have. We just deal. As you said in your comment, any attempt to create balance, feels forced.

I re-read "The Divided Self" after I read you comment. It is very similar to an essay I just posted, called "The Undiscovered Self".

I'm looking at my life now from the perspective of these two essays, which essentially try to grasp the same problem.

It's strange. I don't even think about smoking anymore. I quit. It's been three or four weeks now. I just don't think about it. Which is very strange in light of the essay, "The Divided Self". Because in that essay, I'm describing what appears to be my utter inability to quit smoking.

The thought to have a cigarette will cross my mind, but for some reason, now, I don't act on it. And before I was helpless. So what explains this phenomenon?

I'm reading John Dewey's seminal work, Art as Experience, and he talks a lot about the ebb and flow of human experience, nature, and life. As humans, we really do have to go through these revolutions, these cycles. Granted some people with have more accentuated rhythms than others, higher peaks, lower valleys--all of us are familiar with these cycles.

Listen to how Dewey describes it. He's wonderfully accurate:
Life itself consists of phases in which the organism falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it—either through effort or by some happy chance. And, in a growing life, the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed.
And here:
Nevertheless, if life continues and if in continuing it expands, there is an overcoming of factors of opposition and conflict; there is a transformation of them into differentiated aspects of a higher powered and more significant life. The marvel of organic, of vital, adaptation through expansion (instead of by contraction and passive accommodation) actually takes place. Here in germ are balance and harmony attained through rhythm. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension.
And so, from these passages, you can infer that there is meaning behind our "bad periods"--that is, the periods where we pick up smoking again, have lots of casual sex, drink too much, etc. This does not mean unhealthy, compulsive, addictive behavior is acceptable. It just means that the human being can be understood as moving through phases of order and disorder, but that each stage of disorder has the potential to lead to a higher stage of order, a higher level of consciousness.

I think there is great sense in this philosophy.

You mention that since you returned to drinking, you're more creative. In this post, I examine the effect of pot on my creativity.

Everyone is different, of course, in regards to creativity and intoxicants.

I too had the sense when I was taking drugs that I could at times tap into a well-spring of creativity. But for me it was an illusion.

Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, etc., generally occurs during a person's phase of "disorder". And yet, I had a tendency to see order in my disorder. This was part of my distortion.

I began my response to your comments by saying I thought it all came down to timing instead of balance. Reading the passages by Dewey, however, it does seem to come down to balance.

From the point of view of nature, yes, balance is what makes the human being whole. It is the complete cycle, from order to disorder and back to order.

But from the point of view of the human being, I still believe it's a matter of timing. Where you are at in any given moment of your life will determine your "success" at living. But fear not, because according to the philosophy of Dewey, we are all on a self-balancing path, even in our darkest moments.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Undiscovered Self

Examine the spirits that speak in you. Become critical. --Carl Jung
For Christmas, my girlfriend bought me The Red Book by Carl Jung. It's a gigantic book with spellbinding illustrations and exquisite German calligraphy--the second part of the book is a lengthy introduction and translation of the work.

I used to read a lot of Jung. As an adolescent, I went through a Jung phase. I recall reading the fat white psychoanalytic volumes, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Symbols of Transformation, Alchemical Studies . . .

What drew me to these scholarly works I could barely understand? It was the prolonged stage of my life when I always had a book in front of me, my eyes fixed on the pages, almost obsessively. And yet, if you were to ask me to explain what I was reading I couldn't tell you--

Jung's scholarly work was elusive enough to capture my imagination. I could project anything onto the pages--and I underlined and highlighted furiously. I communed with these books I hardly understood.

Buddhism was something I experimented with for about five years. This was the period of my sobriety--after years of drug abuse. Disciplined, vegetarian, clean and sober, I exercised profound control over all areas of my life. I meditated, read spiritual books, and only on occasion wanted my life to be otherwise.

Eventually I grew away from this rigid lifestyle. Somewhere I faltered. I stopped going to Zen "sits". I went out to bars once in awhile. Picked up smoking.

New Age spiritualism turned me off. Not that Jung ever belonged to that movement. But he practically heralded it, and whenever I would think of Jung, I would think of those New Age bookstores sprouting up everywhere in the city. So I stopped thinking about him.

At the tail end of another reckless period of my life, I've returned to Dr. Carl Jung. Over Christmas, I read The Undiscovered Self. My father has an entire shelf devoted to Jung. My impulse was to read as much as I could before plunging into The Red Book, so as to understand it better . . .

The story behind The Red Book is this. At the time of Jung's death, an unfinished manuscript entitled "The Red Book" was discovered. It was stated in his will that all of his published, scholarly work should be made available to the public, but Jung did not take a position one way or the other on "The Red Book."

This may have been because "The Red Book" did not fit into an easy categorization for one of the founders of psychoanalytic theory--it was a creative work. Inspired by Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Carl Jung set out to write an account of his "fantasies," or confrontations with his unconscious. The book began as a series of notebooks, called "black books," which were then used to create the final version of "The Red Book".

I am a lover of pictures. If you know anything about my online presence, you will know that I post an enormous amount of images on the Escape into Life Tumblr. Turning the pages of Jung's Red Book, I sense a similar visual tendency in him--an obsession with design, color, typography . . . and then the tale itself, which has been described as both archaic and modern, fascinates me. But I haven't begun reading it yet; I've only thumbed through the German text, a visual treat, a cornucopia of symbols.

Let me return to my experience on Christmas night, reading The Undiscovered Self. It's important, I feel, because it cemented my convictions about quitting drugs and alcohol for the last time. I sensed from before that my obsession with drugs was a chimera, but I had to go through the heavy use one more time. I had to re-learn what I had forgotten.

I had been tempted by the promise of a carefree life. It started with a girl and proceeded from there, to smoking cigarettes, to going out to the bars, to taking drugs. The disciplined life seemed so austere, so dry, and unnecessary. I wanted something new. I craved novelty.

But this was not novelty. This was repetition. I had been here before--like a blind rat turning the same corner, entering the same dead end. My conception of myself never changes. It is a wonderful script because it is so utterly the same; I live it over and over and over again.

The Undiscovered Self:
When the fantasies reach a certain level of intensity, they begin to break through into consciousness and create a conflict situation that becomes perceptible to the patient himself, splitting him into two personalities with different characters.
Fantasy does this to me--it splits me into two different people, each in conflict with the other. I fantasize about drugs or women, about getting high or having a romantic encounter, and soon I'm at war with myself. I'm at war with the part of me that wants to get high or have sex and the part of me that thinks it's not such a good idea.

And the fantasy grows. It grows until it tears me apart, and the next thing I know, I'm acting out that other person--the cheater, the liar, the addict.

What does it take to keep the human passions in line? It seems I barely manage. With advertisements everywhere telling me to eat this and buy that, I wonder how modern man is able to have a mind of his own. We're pulled out of ourselves constantly. But I don't need Hollywood pulling me out of myself when I have a built-in fantasy world doing it for me.

The Undiscovered Self:
This task is so exacting, and its fulfillment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being. In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.
How these lines resonate with me! I've even chosen the name "Lethe" for my alter ego. Lethe comes from the River of Forgetfulness in Greek mythology. I've been using the name in my fiction for years. When I read the words, "he forgets himself in the process," I smile. Because that's why I chose the name to represent me. I forget. And my forgetfulness is my character, my original sin.

But let's talk about what Jung says here: "putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being."

What does it mean? It means that our conscious self, or ego--constituted primarily by its aspirations and inner problems, by its suffering--is merely an idea of the self, and not the real self.

How do I know this is true? Because mostly who I parade in front of my friends is who I think I am--it's the elaborate narrative I've subsumed into my personality. And if you're a writer, like me, you're good at telling stories.

My "conception" is essentially a story I have about myself. It has a pattern-like quality. No matter what happens to me in my life, what unusual events befall me, experience is sublimated by my ego or conscious self. I absorb everything into my conception of myself. And I live in the (fake) knowledge of myself. But this is only my conscious self, and sadly, it is a fraction of my spiritual person.

When Jung says "the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality," he is talking about the negative potential of thoughts. Each thought that occurs, sometimes with a strong force of emotion, perpetuates the illusion of the conscious self and further separates us from reality. We lose touch with the immensity of human experience when we live inside the repetitive script of our conscious, thinking selves.

The irony of being human is that we seek to escape our "selves." We are drawn to novelty and new experiences, new lovers, new foods, new ideas . . . The irony is that within the confines of limited ego-consciousness, we are determined to find a way out. Our escapes, however, only leads us back to our known selves.

So then, what is true novelty? What is true unknowingness?

It is outside my conception of myself. Outside my conscious ego. Outside the person who I think I am.

I'm sick of repeating the same dramas in my life. Perhaps you too have some of these. I just wonder if I can trust in something that is unknown. How do I learn to trust in the unconscious, which by definition, I do not know what it is?

This is the world of Carl Jung. The collective unconscious. Accessed through dreams. Or meditation. Or what Jung called "practicing active imagination."

What will we find on the other side of our conscious selves? Who will we discover?

Life is depressing if you always know what to expect. The same mood of dissatisfaction, the same loneliness, the same longings, the same annoyances. But when you realize that there is this whole other way to view yourself, namely through not-knowing who you are instead of through knowing, then life begins to feel like it might be sufferable, or better yet, it might even be fun.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

32 Outsider Art Masterpieces



Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Escape into Life: Issue no. 6

DRIP DRIP by Mel Kadel

This issue of Escape into Life caught me by surprise . . . I received an email from a friend, telling me about his band's latest EP, Hearts on Faces. After listening to the album for about a song and a half, I just knew it had to be in the next issue of Escape into Life. Here are some highlights:

The Museum of Everything . . . author and art critic, David Maclagan, takes us inside a truly original setting for London's latest collection of Outsider Art.

The Poetry of Peter Davis . . . poetry like you've never read before, be prepared to laugh hard.

Electric Literature . . . Gretta Barclay, EIL Book Critic, reviews a new literary magazine hailed by The Washington Post as a "refreshingly bold act of optimism."

Hearts on Faces . . . hear the full EP of The Equines and read all about this indie pop act with a contagious sound.

Escape into Life, arts and culture webzine, is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Obscene Bird of Night

4. The Obscene Bird of Night, by Jose Donoso

The epigraph of the novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, is taken from a letter by Henry James Sr. to his two sons.
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its subject's roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.
The novel opens with a stately funeral procession for Mother Benita, the Mother Superior of La Casa del Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacion.

The Casa is a huge, gothic convent with labyrinthine hallways, "endless courts and cloisters connected by corridors that never end," many of them being boarded up now that the building is no longer used as a convent. Instead, it has become a refuge for a horde of old women who inhabit the dark, sequestered rooms.

Much of the story takes place inside this ghastly building. The narrator's description of the convent is so meticulous and repetitive, almost like a refrain, that the setting is impressed upon the reader's mind.

The narrator of The Obscene Bird of Night is practically an enigma, moving between the voice that opens the novel--holding an endless, open conversation with Mother Benita--and various other narrative voices in the first person.

Reading the novel for the first time can be an exhilarating but also somewhat confusing experience. Only after my fifth reading do I feel confident in saying I understand the logic behind the panoply of narrative voices.

You may think there are several narrators of this novel. For example, there is Mudito, a mute who lives in the Casa and is ordered around by the old women; a nun who is indistinguishable from the other nuns; and Humberto Peñaloza, secretary to the wealthy landowner and politician at the center of the novel.

But in fact all of the narrators are the same person, the various guises of Humberto Peñaloza, who, later in the story, we also learn, is a writer assigned by Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia (the wealthy landowner) to write "the history of Boy's world" . . .

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

As a writer myself, The Obscene Bird of Night endlessly fascinates me for its subtle and intricate construction. The tense shifts, point of view shifts, and various story arcs, all contribute to the grand illusion of Jose Donoso's unique magical realism.

This quantum fiction is geometrically precise, laid out like concentric circles around a common theme. Three or four narratives overlap each other, each with characters that act as doubles, or doppelgangers, to the characters in the other stories.

Beyond this literary pattern-making, Donoso's fictional world acquires its strangeness from absorbing an abundance of genres, including legend, fable, fairy tale, detective story, memoir, Modernist novel, and Realist novel. It also serves as a veiled critique of the ruling class in Chile, and a handful of other South American countries which operate similarly. But the critique never becomes too literal because the novel adeptly weaves in and out of a myth-like story with fabulous creatures and unlikely characters.

It is also a novel about a colony of monsters.

Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia must produce an heir for the continuation of his family line. Here is his uncle urging him, as a young man, to marry:
You can't go, Jeronimo. Listen to me, son, be reasonable. You're the only one left . . . and I had to take it into my head to become a priest, may God forgive me for saying it. You're the last one who can hand down the family name. You don't know how I've dreamed about an Azcoitia playing an important part once more in the country's public life! I waited for you so anxiously, assuming your obligations while you were enjoying an immoral life in Paris. But you're here now, and I'm not going to let you go.
Jeronimo falls in love with the "prettiest, most innocent girl who frequented the social salons at the time, a distant cousin with many female Azcoitia ancestors behind her".

After he proposes to her, he has a vision of perfection about the two of them. He sees their union as a "stone medallion", part of an "eternal frieze" of more medallions that carry the family name. We read, "He merely took pains to see that the magnificent legend of the perfect couple was fulfilled in both himself and his bride-to-be."
Jeronimo kissed her into silence. The womb heaving against his body would open to procure immortality for him: through their sons and grandsons, the frieze of medallions would extend forever.
There's only one problem. Ines has a nursemaid she's had since childhood who Jeronimo rejects. When Ines was young, she had a stomach illness that almost killed her. Peta Ponce, the nursemaid, preformed a miracle which removed the stomach illness from Ines by transferring it to Peta, the healer. Ever since Peta made this sacrifice, Ines has shown a fierce loyalty towards her.

Jeronimo believes that Peta Ponce is a witch, and he may be right. Trying to get her husband to overcome his fears, Ines takes him to the place where Peta lives. The grotesque setting, full of strange odors, large crates, and old clothes, repulses the aristocratic Jeronimo.
The heap of rags gathered itself together in order to give human reply to Ines's call. The old woman and the girl embarked on a conversation Jeronimo wasn't prepared to tolerate. The scene didn't fit into any medallion of eternal stone. And, if it did fit into any, it was into the other series, into the hostile legend that contradicted his own: the legend of the stained and the damned, who writhe on the left hand of God the Father Almighty. He had to pull Ines out of there immediately. To prevent her from taking part in this other series of medallions, the ones linked to servitude, to oblivion, to death. Ines was only a child who could be contaminated by the least little thing.
Ines's relationship to her nursemaid separates her from Jeronimo even in marriage. We are also told that "the heir began to take longer to arrive."

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

A prolonged waiting period ensues, with Ines spending more time with Peta Ponce, and Humberto becoming closer to Jeronimo in his duties to protect him. Each character is a double of the other--Jeronimo and Humberto, Ines and Peta. On the one hand, Jeronimo could be said to represent the light, and Humberto, the darkness. The same goes for Ines and Peta.

But Jose Donoso, in his Jungian intellectual and artistic vision, wishes to invert the simple, fixed equation of light and dark. And so, he blurs the characters and their interactions to create an alchemical reaction, an inversion of light and dark, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.

In the middle of the novel, after Jeronimo has been married to Ines for some time but has not produced an heir, a sexual act takes place. You have to read the novel to understand how ambiguous this part of the story is. We never really learn what happens. There are only possibilities, speculations, hypotheses. Either Jeronimo is finally able to impregnate his wife; or his secretary, Humberto Penaloza, impregnates her; or--and I believe this is the most likely of the three possible story-lines--the narrator impregnates Peta Ponce.

Whoever the child's parents are, the outcome is an heir for Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia. Jeronimo's vision of perfection, symbolized by the stone medallion, "one section of the eternal frieze," is at last a reality.

And here's when the story really starts to get interesting:
When Jeronimo finally parted the crib's curtains to look at his long-awaited offspring, he wanted to kill him then and there; the loathsome, gnarled body writhing on its hump, its mouth a gaping bestial hole in which palate and nose bared obscene bones and tissues in an incoherent cluster of reddish traits, was chaos, disorder, a different but worse form of death.

This post is part of a series of posts on "25 Profound Works of Literary Genius".


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shakespeare's Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,

Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee--and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

his sonnet by Shakespeare is a remarkable demonstration of the flux that goes on in the human psyche, and how abruptly self-perception will shift from one extreme to the other.

We are presented with a depressed point of view, the very attitude and frame-of-mind each of us know intimately. It's when we measure ourselves against others that we feel so inadequate. The "outcast" state springs to mind because suddenly we're fixated on our lack versus what others seem to possess naturally and have a sheer abundance of.

If only I had Richard's talents, or Geraldine's riches, or Samantha's good looks, or Marko's confidence . . . then I would be happy!

I know because my mind will often drift into this "sullen" sphere. Before I met my girlfriend, I believed my luck with women was horrible. There were so many men who "just had it"; it was something I couldn't define, but I was sure whatever it was I did not have it.

And I deeply resented this about my fate--I was destined to watch women flock to other men. When I contemplated my future, I was very much in the mind of Shakespeare's discontented speaker.

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

The shift in the speaker's self-perception is remarkable because it represents the shift that occurs when we stop obsessing about ourselves and turn our thoughts to a loved one.

The fixed belief I had about my poor luck with women changed when I got a chance to spend a weekend with one woman in particular. Then my thoughts were set on her--not myself--and I was able to hear, if not the "hymns at heaven's gate", then maybe the chorus of "Mother of Pearl" by Roxy Music.

The last line of the poem enacts a complete reversal of the first in sense while it mimics the precise meter of the first line in sound.

Between the first and last line, Shakespeare has given us a microcosmic demonstration of the self. He dramatizes the process of self-reflection--moving from an embittered, deflated ego to an elated, love-swept self that affirms the Beatles when they sing, "All you need is love/love/love is all you need."


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Escape into Life: Issue no. 5

Nicholas Hance McElroy, from The Heart is Bigger than the Gland

This last week I've been researching the next novel for "25 Profound Works of Literary Genius" . . . so expect that soon.

In the meantime, I have the pleasure to present to you Issue no. 5 of Escape into Life, online arts journal. A wonderful synergy occurred with the coming together of this issue--from the fabulous poetry of Chris Tysh's "Molloy" to an in-depth interview with Juliet Harrison, a horse photographer who is not your typical horse photographer. Here are some of the highlights:

White Horses: An Interview with Juliet Harrison . . . . Harrison told us in the interview, "I call myself an artist, first and foremost. My objective is to create Art that in turn can speak about the horse."

Molloy: The Flip Side . . . . Chris Tysh's verse transcreation of Samuel Beckett's "Molloy". Mark Kerstetter, poetry editor for EIL, gives a wonderful reading of her work.

Revolutionary Content: Online Publishing . . . . In this inspiring essay, Dan Kern talks about how new media is changing our world.

Knowledge is Pleasure: Ambient Mixtape . . . . Enter the vast ambient landscape of Escape into Life’s guest DJ, Wildcat.