Oxford, 2018

Oxford is one of those places I can never be lonely. My relationship with it has always had the magnitude of a romance. Now, however, it feels like thwarted love. It crowds out other thoughts, desires, it makes me ecstatic, yet breeds avarice.. It is a land that belongs only to itself, that swallows and then regurgitates people whose cynicism masquerades as enlightenment and whose brilliance wears common clothes.

I happened to smoke with a somber young man whose eyes conspicuously avoided me until he had reached the butt end of his cigarette. His dissertation was on the Anthropological Mechanisms of Epistemology, or something similar. He seemed very proud of how long it took him to say it. He had allegedly been falling asleep in the library, clutching two pints of Guinness, as he plodded on with his work. He was no more than twenty two, yet his pronounced nasolabial folds, sunken eyes, the thickness in his throat, and the disdain in his voice made him look ancient. I was both afraid and in awe. It appeared to me that he had become so wedded to his work he had become a mere  vehicle for its birth into the world. And indeed, many at Oxford are this way. This strange, quasi-religious self-sacrifice in favor of one’s own intellectual and academic pursuits is nowhere as pronounced as in this ancient town, and it makes me wonder where I stand on that spectrum.

I feel as though I have nearly transcended the crust of my unhappiness. Yet I am still asking myself, what does it mean to write, and consequently, what does it mean to live? Recently, I read Baudelaire’s Une Charogne, A Carcass, where he compares his love to a rotting carcass he chances upon during a walk. The poem itself gives one an eerie feeling, almost similar to that of the Book of Revelation. The truth weighs down the words, they press against you, like the whisper of a prophecy in a closed room:  “Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure/ À cette horrible infection/ Etoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature / Vous, mon ange et ma passion!” “And yet you will be like this corruption / Like this horrible infection / Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being / You, my angel and my passion!”

We will all, no matter how desperately we are loved, rot and retreat underneath the earth. Baudelaire, however, dwells on this consolation: “Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine/ Qui vous mangera de baisers/ Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine/ De mes amours décomposés!” “Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will/ Devour you with kisses/ That I have kept the form and the divine essence/ Of my decomposed love!” He has cheated mortality with his art, his godlike power, his grasp of poetry, has allowed him to preserve the spirit of his love despite her body’s inevitable decay.

This is nothing new. We cling to the material, but the material never lasts, so we cling to the intangible in the hope that it will. We are tormented by the fact that what gives us the greatest joy now is finite, and so we give all we can to something greater than ourselves. In a way, every ardent student has had their own ghastly vision of a charogne, a carcass. A fear of absurdity, a fear that their talents and aspirations will prove pitiful in the grand scheme of things. The most anxious find themselves in the library with two pints of Guinness, chain-smoking intermittently. But must we really be motivated by fear? Is it not wonder that should spur our desire to explore the generations of wisdom before us? After some deliberation, I would say both.

Wonder is the catalyst, but there is nothing like fear to carry us safely through to the end.

 

 

 

 

 

McAndrews Revisited: A Memoir of A Family.

“To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom,” says Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Throughout my lifelong apprenticeship in affection, I have felt this to be more and more true, in particular due to the McAndrews. Even after I try to expunge them from my life, they invariably return and strike some kind of bizarre, universal chord within me. Being acquainted with them has been extraordinarily formative: to be attuned to not merely another person but another group, to see how they work, how they grow — but most importantly how they change, and how I change with them. I have fumbled with my buttons since I could grasp them, and I still do. The McAndrews are a bit like that.

Perhaps it’s the whole family dynamic; I know these people so absurdly well. Mary and John, the forebears, Eliza, Chris and Rob, the progeny. Even after months I can anticipate what is going on with whom, who has lowered the bar and who has earned a place on the mantelpiece. When I love people it usually hurts a bit, and it hurts now to listen to Mary talk about her worries, her husband, her son. She still calls me on rare occasions, although it has been nearly a year since I broke up with Rob. She envisioned us being together forever; in fact, I think she may even have cried more than I did when we agreed it was over.

But I understand. 

The part of me that wanted Rob and I to work out was not merely the part that loved him, but it was also the part of me that had a great admiration for fate, coincidence, history; I have always been drawn to the intersection between dreams and reality, things that have a shadow of the Extraordinary. My mother once said to me, after an awful fight with her father-in-law, that “when you love somebody, you don’t just marry them– you marry their family.” This is true. The formation of a person’s life lies in where and how it began. Why else would psychoanalysis rely so heavily on buried childhood memories? It is difficult, even now, to speak to Mary. I could never force myself to despise her, even though her anecdotes about Rob’s new girlfriend are far from comforting. She simply lacks tact, and at this point in time, I don’t think she will ever learn it. Blake’s eternal words, “Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face” revolve in my head like a mantra, reminding me to accept it. Accept and forgive, accept and forgive. I am no Saint, but I have sinned and I would like to be accepted and forgiven myself.  In our present age there is a widely held belief that, in order to save oneself, we must retreat into our own spheres in order to properly “love ourselves.” It is almost a kind of secular bastardization of the Religious Life, the way we are encouraged to revere and normalize even our abject sins.

When Mary McAndrews’ father Charles Harper, the MIT astrophysicist, died, the entire Harper/McAndrews family gathered for a family reunion in California. They then rented a large white van and drove all the way down to Texas with the body in the back, like a strange homage to The Grapes of Wrath. It took three days, with no respite even at night. On the way they stopped in National parks; hiking, swimming, building campfires, exulting on mountain tops. I had never seen or heard anything like it. When asked, Rob replied simply, “It’s what Grandpa would have wanted.”

A wealthy man, Charles Harper’s death precipitated an influx of funds the McAndrews were not prepared for. Thus, his generous inheritance was spent on a lengthy skiing trip in Italy. It seems to me that no matter how sophisticated some members of McAndrews family were, spontaneity is what most characterized their actions when natural human order seemed to falter. In the face of death, Mary McAndrews — an otherwise very organized champion of matching china — threw caution to the wind and agreed to travel across the country in a large van with twenty other people and her dead father’s body.

A few years after Rob, her third child, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The first time she underwent radiation, all of her eggs were eliminated. She had been struggling to have another child for years, but this marked the ultimate end, the crossing of a line she could no longer retrace. One way her devastation manifested itself was in a trip to a foetus museum in Chicago with her family, her three small surviving children. Years later, her son recalled the incident vividly, speaking of the warped and blotchy foetuses as “beautiful.” Rob would rationalize this tumultuous period in his own life, his mother’s depression and periods of neglect, by saying he was glad to be the youngest, and that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Being the youngest means you don’t have to be serious all the time.” I suppose that’s how he saw the rest of his family — “serious all the time.”

His father, a Dean of Philosophy at a University downtown, disapproved of his son’s epicurean taste for life. Of course he loved him, but he could not bond with him on that profound emotional level at the crossroads between paternal love and philosophy; the one that in ancient times was stimulated by discussions of the works of Aristotle and Plato — What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a son? What does it mean to love between them? 

Yet, Rob loved his father in the way one loves some inscrutable yet influential figure, whose authority could be argued against, but not avoided. It was a childish love, tinged with rebellion, for John’s wizened face with drooping spectacles was one likely to incite rebellion in a child — in a way it symbolized the old and eternal, two things invariably at odds with the transient euphoria of youth.

John’s relationship with his wife was similar. She bustled around, intent on making Worry her second profession, while he “studied,” reading the Church Fathers in the adjoining room. I recall Mary’s anxious party planning fondly: the bizarre folk who would stumble into that small house with its lovely elevated yard, the garrulous Italians, the St. Bernardus beer, the baklava, the perennial pulled pork, the flower arrangements, the vegetable pickling, the swing-dancing… I always wondered how John felt about the basketball hoop his sons had insisted on placing at the very back of the yard, marring the beauty of his clipped lawn and clusters of hydrangea.

Perhaps Rob’s party-throwing, with the vomit, the beer and the gyrations, was simply a convoluted form of his own parent’s hospitality. “I wish you would come,” he’d tell me, “because without you here I’ll have no one to kiss.” And then to make up for my absence, he would call me at 2 am amidst the din and tell me how much he missed me, until a plate broke or a table leg gave way during beer pong. To live and thrive at the height of chaos seemed to be his way. In my secret heart I think I loved this, this side of him I had always tried to cultivate in myself, during my years of insecurity and tenuousness as a younger child. He was the embodiment of cool — down to the way he carried himself, the way he walked, broadening his shoulders so the outline of his pectorals could be seen through his linen shirts. When walking through the stained streets of foreclosed houses in my exhausted neighborhood, his checkered shirts and matching cardigans would cause the eyes of passerby to linger on this bizarre paradigm of American abundance.

For a young man so intent on living a spontaneous life, he held a handful of very firm convictions upon which he based the foundation of his identity. In terms of his Catholicism, the central theology of the body and the restrictions against fornication were a grey area for him — he lost his virginity on a Friday in Lent after Bible Study. The regular attendance of Mass, however, was imperative — he went every single Sunday and Feast Day without fail. The mere act itself of entering a Catholic church and obtaining the sacrament ticked the box; it didn’t matter as much whether or not the homily was moving or the music was up-lifting. Once, he sat at the back of a church where the entire service was in Afrikaans, received the sacrament, and left. Refusing to make promises was also a monumental principle of his. “I can promise nothing,” he would tell me when I begged him, “I am telling you ‘yes.’ Jesus said ‘Let my ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and my ‘no’ mean ‘no.””

We were so different in every way one could imagine. I loved the beautiful and the numinous, silent ecstasies of beauty; he loved the vibrancy and energy of effervescent life. This was clear on New Year’s Eve of 2015, when everyone was encouraged to recite a poem. I chose Gerard Manley Hopkins’ As Kingfishers Catch Fire: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places/Lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not His/To the Father through the features of Men’s faces.” He chose Jim: Who Ran Away From His Nurse And Was Eaten By A Lion: “He hadn’t gone a yard when — Bang!/ With open jaws a lion sprang/ And hungrily began to eat/ The Boy: beginning at his feet.”

We are all similar up to a certain point, until we taper off to different ends like the dendrites of a neuron.

To see a person’s flaws, the chinks in their armor, the great, and often comical contradictions in their lives, has always been, for me, the most difficult thing. I have always wanted to love like God, for I believed that to love like God allows one to patch up the embarrassing chasm of childishness and incompetence inherent in youth. However, I have not understood until now, that to love like God is in part childishness, it is vulnerability, it is weakness. It is meant to cause pain. “…Let these be your desires/ To know the pain of too much tenderness,” wrote Gibran, “To be wounded by your own understanding of love/ And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”

To love someone and not understand them is hard. It presupposes a kind of unconditional love, what the Greeks would call agape, “selfless love.” It is the kind a parent has for their child, or family members have for one of their own who is incurably ill. That breed of unconditional love is something everyone must strive for, but when you are young, to jump into that, to experience it alongside the first pangs of adulation, is like doing quadratic equations before you can divide.

I have examined the minute layers in between and I still don’t know quite what it is about these quirky families that enables them to wedge themselves into our hearts long after they have ceased to be the way they were when we knew them. It is one of my silly fantastical theories that young people who were once in love will always be in love, on some infinitesimal square of the vast space-time continuum.

“I am no longer in love with her, that is certain,” writes Neruda, “But maybe I love her… Love is so short, forgetting is so long…”

entry – sophistry personified

I have come to think, as I continue my journey more bereft of companions than ever before, that I have become more of an idea than a person. I am immaterial. I am like a vision someone has when they are young, before they realize they prefer the immediate fulfillment of reality. Shakespeare’s famous lines only serve to reinforce this:  “True, I talk of dreams,. Which are the children of an idle brain,. Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,. Which is as thin of substance as the air…” What are words, when you have since subsisted on action and immediacy? Words can be mobilized to the extent that they are affirmed by action. The sociologist Mircea Eliade spoke of the transition of objects from the sphere of the prosaic to the numinous; the sacred and the profane. For myself, it has been a reversal of fortune. Everything sacred or remarkable about me has faded like dry chili. Perhaps I am only special insofar as honesty is rare… But I am not even that honest. Relationships are messy, they are complicated — but this unpredictability is what makes film great, what makes a story great. This is not idealism, this is truth.

It is possible that this continued introspection is just the result of having been alone with my thoughts for a very long time. It has been a while since I’ve been immersed in the chaos of community. Like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the thoughts simply collect and collect with no particular purpose but to sit and stew. This lack of drama has allowed me to pick at all the scabs in my personality, for better or worse. These feelings arise in part, from a desire to be affirmed. What am I doing now, in writing this and revealing it to the world, but asking for the anonymous affirmation of my insecurities? “I have nothing else to offer you but my own unhappiness. Please say that it, at least, measures up, that it is a proper sort of unhappiness,” writes Walker Percy.

At my very core, I know that I cannot change who I am. I will always have a penchant for the abstract, the numinous. This is alright — it can’t be helped. Besides, I think there are far worse things than reflecting on the meaning of one’s actions and what one can do to improve them. In Bellow’s Herzog he writes that “…People of powerful imagination given to dreaming deeply and to raising up marvelous and self-sufficient fictions, turn to suffering sometimes to cut into their bliss, as people pinch themselves to feel awake… a more extended form of life, a striving for true wakefulness and an antidote to illusion.” We artists have a sort of creator soul; we are constantly absorbing beauty and caught in this permanent state of wonder, powering an urge to transmit everything we see to the public and the world. Yet when you are constantly experiencing such feelings of effervescence, there is also a yearning for a sort of human channel via which you can transmit your art, one wherein it will be reflected in order for it to be fulfilled.

Everything is a just a preface to some great Love.

 

entry – neatness?

I dislike the idea of neatness when writing. Writing should not be neat, it should not fit so nicely between the invisible lines on a computer. It is messy and aggressive, saturated with emotion. Typing on a computer, back-spacing, deleting– it diminishes all of that. What to do. My integrity is not compromised too much by taking this shortcut. Although, there is something to say for a clear thought-process. All I do is vomit words on a whim. Is there true love without Eros? There. Writing gets the thoughts flowing like this.

Moreover, I am too much of a control freak–concerning what I write, what I say. Everything has to go through some sort of bizarre filter that churns out a comment tailored to whoever I’m speaking to. Saul Bellow was right when he announced that he believed “sincerity impossible,” in an interview. Fundamentally, these carefully curated expressions arise from fear of being prosaic, fear of being boring. When you treasure your intelligence, build your identity around your brain, you’re terrified of losing a reputation. It’s the same with being popular for looks. Everybody maintains their image. Tale as old as time. It’s so frustrating to want to write when you feel like everything has been written. Perhaps that’s why we do it. Tantalized by the possibility of abstract ‘newness,’ the budding author seeks new and exciting pastimes, more and more radical combinations of words, disciplines, sentences, sentence fragments. There’s a lot of horrible stuff in the world. Horrible horrible things. Art redeems, but only up to a point. Art is not the only salvation. Artists always have a keen intuition and sense for the “what ifs” in life; to them everything is a possibility. And this can be damaging because the whatifs are given real credit, they are endowed with credibility, because the artist either cannot or does not wish to differentiate between what is distantly possible and what is immediately and likely so. Therefore, they are easily disappointed, easily led on. The robust realists have no false notions, the whatifs are carefully kept in a cupboard.

When you write, you have to feel very deeply. Your dialogue between your characters must fit within the realm of things you would say yourself, discussions you would have yourself. I am not that clever traditionally but I am very philosophically aware of the world. Maybe Hobbes is right. Maybe it is because I have lived my life by the luxury of leisure; I have had all the time in the world to think of these things, brood upon them. But it still holds that I feel so strongly, ‘love so intensely,’ and I must find an outlet for it.

 

entry – “to love again”

The artist, or aspiring artist, scopes out the lonely man by the curve of his limbs and the stoop of his shoulders, the spectacles sliding gradually down a hooked nose turned inward. He spots the secret smile of a beggar child who has just spied a stray kitten from underneath a pile of rubble and newspapers. He is always attuned to the quiet moments of contemplation. He can recall the reddish tinge of passion on flushed cheeks and preserve the memory long enough to recreate it with peach and violet hues.
The artist views his art as a more exalted form of reality. The details do not escape us, rather, the details are what we find most captivating, for it is the details that distinguish one person from another. Taking time to truly observe the form of a man — how he sits, whether his eyes meet yours, whether he clenches his fist or lets his fingers fall — all of this lends insight into who he is. Henry Miller once wrote that “to paint is to love again, live again see again…” The artist and the writer both observe the bald patches on the head of a man on medication for his alcoholism; one traces the smoothness of the exposed cranium, the other wonders how it feels as the hair comes off in his hands – gently? all at once?

Compassion is born from attention to detail.

entry – what i said only in my head

“You see, most people have compartments in their minds and in their hearts: there is a compartment for ‘people I love,’ and ‘people I loved,’ for example. Its hard to take you out of the first and put you in the second because it means the drawing of a boundary I don’t know whether I am ready to draw. It just feels so limiting, although it doesn’t have to be. But that is simply what it feels like.”

entry – “purpose”

I have been here about five full days, and I have adjusted well enough. I have learned how to fill my days adequately and reject the distractions of the internet and communication. I don’t even feel terribly close to Greg anymore; the umbilical cord has been weakened as if too little of the essence of life was being shared between entities. I’ve gotten used to his absence in a world so diametrically opposed to the one in which I am accustomed to seeing him; perhaps that is the reason. I don’t feel like doing my SAT work at all either; it seems so dull in comparison to the customary chaos and the drama of life here. Teaching the special-needs children is actually quite arduous; as they so clearly belong to a world separate from the present reality. Its frustrating how difficult it is for me to write lately, words used to come to me so naturally. Perhaps this is God’s punishment to me for my sin; or maybe Greg has simply hijacked my brain by clogging it with memories of him.

Every single moment is important, and so far I have been using my time well, although it can always be better. I am still struggling with how I can actually develop a permanent solution or lasting framework for the ills at hand. It is a difficult job and I am discouraged so easily. I feel trapped in my feelings of impotence and threatened by the “pantheon of heroes” that have come before me. I’ve been in a strange mood lately, easily irritable probably due to hormones. Hopefully this issue will resolve itself and I can return to my full mental and emotional capacity. I despise feeling impotent and incapable of translating my life experience into words and sentences with the force of an image. My inspiration has left me, and I am resentful. I am paralyzed by a fear of wasting time, yet paradoxically bent on either enjoying myself or wallowing. I think the best thing to do is pray about it, continue to read, and continue to write, letting the atmosphere reveal itself. I find the bathetic that continues to creep into my writing repugnant, and so the curse of repeated words. I am nothing besides my verbal prowess and my ability to correlate multifarious media; criticism on these counts is chilling.
Greg is enjoying his time with his cousin in Oklahoma. He really is such a boy, a young, naive, American boy, who is bound, inevitably to become a yet naive and tentative American man. The sincerity is there but it is so overshadowed by trepidation and the limitations of familiarity that I can only pause with fear and pity. It is not superiority that one feels, exactly, when exposed to an environment like this, but I hate to reduce the effervescent life around me to the narrow context of my life experience. I exist-like any person who has felt deeply the different worlds in which they have lived- in part as a product of the disparity between the two cultures.
Women imageSometimes in order for one to deal with overwhelming misery or sadness one feels some kind of primal need to take refuge in superficiality in order to dull the commanding reality of pain. “The soul must be hollowed out and then filled, hollowed out and then filled.” I don’t know exactly why this is; maybe because superficiality is ubiquitous and it is relaxing to plunge again into the matter, the substance that makes up, and is found in, all the hollow world.
~ I worked with the special-needs children today. They are all differently handicapped but they are grouped together in the same room like a motley traveling circus. They are sweet children. I haven’t seen any tantrums so far or any crying so perhaps the members of this group are either carefree by nature or simply bottle up their frustration. The teachers are clearly devoted to the children, which is something by which I’m relieved.
There is a sort active “component” or edge to the gratitude experienced sometimes by people here; they feel compelled to return and give back. The children themselves are similar to all mentally deficient everywhere. There is that permanent childishness, that stubborn innocence that doesn’t seem to relinquish them from its grip as they continue to fumble with sentence fragments and proper punctuation. What has struck me so profoundly however are their eyes. Their eyes seem to be the only true outlet for expression, that enduring state of wonder from which they subsist in a world so disillusioned by the numinous. There is one boy with great big eyes and an expression that reminds me of Gavin’s, the full lips faintly parted in concentration. It catches me unawares at times when I am waiting for him to answer a question, and I can feel it transcend the caverns of my heart.
The hesitation, the restlessness, the yearning for affirmation that is present in so many of these children is present in so many of us, who have greater control over our faculties. Are these children like a foil for the character of others? Do they exist to reveal the nature of those who interact with them? Will someone, even one who is most strongly convinced of the immutability of the human dignity be able to treat these children with equal respect every single day without fail? In the general context of purpose; when one writes about one’s “purpose of life” and making an impact, what does it mean in the drama of their lives? Eugenicists of the past and even the present were intent on the perfection of the human race, even worshipping a distinct ideal. With the progress of science, human beings will carry on happily with their tiresome quest for the best, the most conventional and the most beautiful. I by no means wish to idealize or praise “mistakes” or an indifference to suffering or even escalating scientific progress as a whole. However, fallible humans must never exalt themselves so high as to believe what is starkly in contrast with their nature; namely, that those who are severely disabled are somehow “subhuman,” but this is a complicated thing to grasp.
Unconditional altruism is not always a perennial flower; there are some months during which it does not grow. And sometimes it is uprooted altogether. Not everybody has the time to meditate on the idiosyncrasies and logistics of individuality… The dirt-baked, weather-beaten farmers who walk with calloused feet to pick up their ill sons and daughters have no lofty notions of “purpose”…that is the luxury of the fittest.