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I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

Church Iceberg flotante, 1859

There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.

But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.

Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.

Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.

“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.

His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:

etna erupting“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

Or: Herman Melville 1885

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

That ain’t Hemingway.

But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.let us now praise cover

But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.

The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.

The intensity, the engagement is the thing. 2006.13.1.8 002

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”

Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.

Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:

“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”tao te ching

The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.

I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.

If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.

The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.

These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.

Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”

“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”

For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.

maistre book 2And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.

Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.

NEXT: The books age with their reader

goldin 4 black eye

Even when they stand before us stark naked, the only part of their anatomy that matters is their eyes, which hold us paralyzed in their gaze. They are mirrors of infinite sadness.

One of the perennial sellers among photographic books is Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a woeful tale of the underbelly of the art world told in a series of primitive color photographs full of battered women, tattoos, transvestites, pimps, drugs and hangers on.

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Ballad of Sexual Dependency

They look out at us, bruised and lost.

Over a period of 40 years, but primarily in the 1980s, Goldin has photographed the beaten underside of la vie de Boheme — the art world and the pretenders to the art world, the gay world, the broken and wounded, the young who have found what they are looking for in being lost.

And it is an impressive accomplishment. Some 700 photographs, each an intense shot of emotional cocaine, are accompanied by music, ranging from blues to heavy metal to opera.

Goldin has photographed this subculture from the inside. She bears no objectivity: These are her friends and lovers.

“I don’t choose people in order to photograph them,” she has said. “I take photos straight from my life. These photos come from relationships, not from observation.”goldin 1

The pictures are raw, like snapshots, and the life is even more raw: They love, shoot drugs, party, cry on each others’ shoulders, smoke Marlboros, dress up in costumes and search for — and intermittently find — meaning. More often, they find pain and suffering. And in the age of AIDS, they also find death.

These are people on the edge, their nerves raw from abrasion. For them, “unprotected sex” is spiritual as well as physical: Their souls are wide open and vulnerable.

The photographs at first appear nothing more than snapshots, but the cumulative effect of 700 of them proves that Goldin is instead a rare technician, able to create the effect of spontaneity and carelessness at will. The figures’ motion shows as blur in the pictures, usually lit with the garish glare of the flashbulb. The colors of the pictures are the brightest Kodachrome blues, greens, violets and golds. Goldin has created a style perfectly suited to the subject matter.goldin 6

The faces are both pathetic and heroic. The young bohemians, living in squalor, clearly see themselves heroically, participating in grand love affairs, where violence can easily be confused with passion and romantic dreams can comfortably ignore their rat-infested surroundings. It is cold water flats with concrete floors, soiled sheets and nose rings.

Which gives them a certain nobility: They know they are alive.

Most people have seen the photographs published in book form, but Goldin didn’t intend the series as a book. It was first a slide show that she dragged around the New York art world in the 1980s, showing in night clubs as well as galleries. It is meant to be accompanied by music, which is missing in the book. The music is as important as a score to a film. goldin 11

The show, which takes 45 minutes to sit through, is not endured by many museum goers when it has been shown at major museums, most of its watchers come and go after seeing a minute or so of the presentation.

And its intensity does make it hard to sit through.

But Goldin manages to keep it all coherent, scripting the show in smaller bursts of slides grouped thematically, or as an episode in a single love affair.

Because she makes you see the flow from one slide to the next, it never becomes the interminable horror of a neighbor’s travel pictures. Unless your neighbor is Dante.

Yet, it isn’t quite hell, either. It is relentlessly romantic. Goldin is never the outsider, seeing the pain and filth and commenting on it. She is instead an avid participant, able to play-pretend with all her other subjects that she is in the middle of some grand opera of love and passion. goldin 16

And while at some level she must recognize the ugliness, she is no moralist, presenting shocking scenes in hope we will pass laws or enforce a social code. Lewis Hine she is not.

No, she gives us a layered, complex vision of her world that alternately repels and attracts. She makes us want to give in to the romantic illusions, but the bruises on her face brutally contradict them.

Indeed, Goldin is a major participant in the story she tells. She appears in a large number of the photographs, including the climax series, wherein she sustains the abuse of a boyfriend and wears the black eye he gives her.

But this is never a tract about domestic abuse: Goldin clearly takes responsibility for her own actions. She is willing to trade being terrorized for the drug rush of romantic obsession.goldin 12

This is la vie boheme in the age of AIDS and crack cocaine, and Goldin is its Puccini.

And that is the key to the success of these photographs as art. We do not need to live in rat-infested cold-water flats like Goldin’s subjects, but we do need to know we are alive.

It is the primary duty of art to reacquaint us with the fact.

Daily living takes the edge off life for all of us. Habit and conformity dull our senses. We may feel more mature and less reckless than Goldin’s druggies and transvestites, but if we are honest, we also must admit that what we call maturity is too often composed of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion.

Goldin’s people risk everything, even death, for the rush of feeling alive. goldin 13

In that, they are like the Medieval stories of Tristram and Iseult or Launcelot and Guinevere. Our notion of romantic love had its beginning in these stories of adultery. For the sake of their passion, the lovers accepted not only death, but the eternal damnation they believed would follow. The assumption of such stories was that transcendent experience could not be found in the routine, in the sanction of society; it must be found outside the rules. A life lived only by rules is a mechanical life; authenticity is found only by acting from the purest impulse.

It is a grand and romantic notion.

But we were not asked then to become adulterers and we are not asked now by Goldin’s work to go out and score a bag of heroin. Art must be understood metaphorically, not literally. The message we learn from both the Medieval and postmodern is that life requires risk, that any risk less than all doesn’t count.goldin 7

So Suzanne, Cookie, Siobhan, Claude and all the rest of the recurring denizens of this demimonde, including Nan herself, who is a principal in her own opera, throw themselves into relationships — into experience — with a foolhardy disregard for their own self-preservation.

When I call this impulse “romantic,” what I mean is that it attempts to connect with those things larger and more eternal than a smooth running society. It tests the limits rather than acceding to them.

They are a La Boheme for the current age. The violence is always mistaken for passion; the sex is always mistaken for love.

When you see something like Goldin’s pictures, you begin to understand some of the attraction of the life with its unmade beds, dirty drinking glasses and cigarettes extinguished on the rug. Perhaps you or I would not like to live that way, but there is an underlying romanticism to it: They are not living the quiet, safe world of their parents. It is a life taking chances, living on the edge, a desperate chance for transcendence.

So, the women risk beatings by their boyfriends and the men risk thrashing by their drug dealers, all in the name of feeling overpowering emotions and not giving in to what they see as the gradual death of conventional living. goldin 15

For the secret romanticism, whether it is Nan Goldin or Percy Shelley, is its aspiration to transcend life’s limits. Nothing should be forbidden and the only thing worth doing is what is impossible.

There is a wonderful scene in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. An angel brings the poet to a precipice and from their height, they look down on “the infinite abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black, but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swim, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption.”

On being told of this vile place, the poet innocently suggests, “if you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also.”

Much of what passes for art in any age merely keeps us lulled: Pretty pictures or numbing farces. People call for beauty, but what they really ask is for an anodyne: a buffer between themselves and the difficulties of being alive.goldin 8

But if we risk feeling alive, we must remember that to be alive is to suffer. Americans sometimes like to forget this fact; we live comfortable lives, insulated from the hard certainties. We kill to eat, although we never think of the slaughterhouse when we buy our burger; we grow old and die, although we spend billions on cosmetics and plastic surgery to deny the inevitable. Our love cannot protect our children and our best intentions cannot prevent us from hurting others.

But as Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one must recognize the universal tragedy and still act.

And, like Nan Goldin’s art, manage in the face of suffering and death to say “yes.”