01 November 2006

Joy and Its Opposite(s)

So busy, such ups and downs: moments of transcendence, moments of utter banality, moments of near-despair.

As a consequence, I haven't blogged things I'd like to. So I guess for now what I can do is offer bits & bobs of things I've been saying, but meant or wanted to say more eloquently. And may someday.

But the best is the enemy of the good. And done is better than not done. So here's something I wrote on a friend's blog, in response to his post on Joy
[I begin by quoting a piece of his post]:

this goddamn soul-crushing American fear of wasted time—the relentless drive to be productive at every moment of the day. Not to oversleep. Not to take a vacation that is longer than ten days, lest your life fall apart completely in your absence.

Two thoughts, one negative, one postitive:

1) When I read this section of your post, I thought immediately of what Auden diagnosed in us moderns--what I recognized all too well in myself on first reading it--in "In Praise of Limestone":

Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell.

But I also take comfort in his solution/offer of another perspective:

In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

2) And yet, there is a positive version of the desire to make each moment productive--not unreflectively productive of more Gross National Product, but of whatever it is that one most truly values. Love. Joy. Freedom. Choice. Beauty. It can come at too high a cost--and many devotees of Pater's gem-like flame could use some of Auden's relaxed approach--but I have always been drawn to his appeal to make each moment a significant one:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, -- for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world.... Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
(Conclusion to The Renaissance: online at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/pater/renaissance/conclusion.html)

On another note, I find this simple language of the natural world almost unbearably poignant:

on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening

or, from the Biblical prophetic writings (Jeremiah 2:2; loose translation):

you followed after me in the wilderness, in a land unsown

I've often felt that I don't know what to do, scarcely know who to be, or how I am to make my way in this world.

But as long as there are such words, such feelings, in it...I'll be all right, we'll be all right.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

(I love Hopkins so much...poor God-wracked GMH, crying so often not What I do is me but rather, out of those depths the psalmist knew as well, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed...)

And yet another way of seeing it, from the chassidic tradition:

Reb Zusya said: In the world to come, I shall not be asked, "Why were you not Moses?" I shall be asked, "Why were you not Zusya?"

I know I'm not Moses, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Helen Vendler, or Abraham Joshua Heschel...

I may not be sure of what it means to be Rebecca B. (and I've had different conceptions of the matter over time) -- but I do have some sense...and I owe it to myself and to others to try to find out...

rather than to try to remake myself in some ready-made, readily-approved form -- a doll, or series of dolls, plastic but not pliable: Successful Lawyer Barbie, Star Professor Barbie, Mother of Precocious Darlings Barbie, Big-Shot Mover and Shaker Barbie...

Hold fast to that joy. And to the search for it. And to what it makes you. Hold on.

Hazak hazak v'nithazek: let us be strong and let us strengthen each other.

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