Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Heart Like the Ocean, Mysterious and Dark

"...You have greatness, she continued, but Mr Ramsay has none of it. He is petty, selfish, vain, egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs. Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr. Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness..." - Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

As you may or may not have noticed, I've been undergoing some form of identity restructuring over the past year or so. I have rejected - completely - Judaism and Zionism and embraced in their stead and as their replacement, as it were, the more universal and humanistic Taoism and democracy.

But something is missing.

Being a part of the Jewish people or the Zionist enterprise means more than just lending your support to a particular hierarchy of values. To use a problematic expression whose dubiousness is probably actually appropriate here, it ennobles you. It gives you a sense of participation in something that transcends space and time; of a metaphysical mission; but it does something more too. Something that the metaphysical missions of Taoism and democracy don't quite suffice for.

Going back a few (okay, many) centuries to the ancient Greek civilisation about which I know remarkably little, we encounter a curious phenomenon.

It's called Greek mythology, though I suppose at the time it was called the history and reality of life among the gods, and no, I'm not about to compare it to monotheistic religion, at least not directly, but to make the point that a civilisation presumably not entirely composed of complete idiots, chose to base their "hierarchy of values" on a system more or less congenitally devoid of both morality and reason.

This argument would be neutralised in the eyes of those who assert that both morality and reason are relative concepts, but I contend that the Greek gods were arseholes by any standards, and doubt that many people anywhere at any time would honestly disagree with me, including the ancient Greeks.

As for reason, it is perhaps less clear-cut, but the fruits of Greek civilisation suggest that they conducted themselves far more responsibly and adultly than their gods did, and in any case, Olympian gods are never exactly made out to be paragons of wisdom, unless I'm forgetting some stories - in stark contrast to, say, the monotheistic God.

So what did the Greek Gods have going for them? The conventional explanation I at least always seem to encounter is that they helped explain away annoying things like natural disasters and bad harvests and military defeats and kept people from going into Woody Allenesque funks over how small and insignificant they were.

That's probably true, but another central aspect of Greek mythology is that the stories are really fucking cool. And not even action-movie, bombastic cool, but an understated, morally ambiguous, film-noir cool. There is an aspect to this cool that is rooted in the unknown - in the irretrievably mysterious, so that the Olympian gods, just like the Abrahamic god, appeal to us not only because of what they explain, but also because of what they render romantically mysterious. They embrace and promote a Something Elseness.

This institution isn't exactly neglected by the secular world, and in fact it's admired, but from afar. It's called art, and normal people dip into its fruits once in a while usually because they feel they ought to or as a means to relax, and sometimes because they missed it and enjoy it for its own sake.

Weird bohemian types spend their whole lives wallowing in it, exploring, pontificating; most importantly creating, even if nobody else ever shows interest or satisfaction in it.

I say "pontificating" dismissively, but that's actually the activity I want to consider here. Exploring or creating is between you and the artist or audience, respectively. Pontificating, or speaking Artsy-Fartsy, or communicating in idiosyncratic emotion, is between you and the people in your life. Your loved or liked or at least acquainted ones, with names and faces that you recognise and mean something to you individually.

Most people respond negatively, with varying degrees of intensity, to Something Elseness, unless it comes in a framework where they were expecting it, like religion or art. Even philosophy usually meets people's resentment. There's an automatic aversion and alarm at this sentiment, possibly to do with the scientific revolution, but I won't get ahead of myself.

People who behave strangely are considered to be behaving wrongly, regardless of the actual effect their behaviour has on people. It is a significant leap to be able to continue in the face of this criticism, which is often superficial and easily forgotten by the criticiser later, but it's a leap you must make if you want to be an independent person, free of arbitrary and harmful allegiances, and have a chance of self-fulfillment and happiness.

This is what I was trying to talk about a few posts back with trying to impose on life your aesthetic sensibilities. I'm beginning to think that it's less in what you do than in what you say, or at least in what you express. If you say something to somebody and they look at you bewildered, that is a positive development. And it is this point that I can't seem to convince myself of or even properly present to other people. I wonder if this signifies a change.

Bob Dylan's album Desire is a great example of this, and probably what first got me thinking about this business way back when. Three of the songs on it (Hurricane and Sara are fairly well known) are his colourful and emotive romanticisations of real people and real events. The one I quoted in the post title isn't, as far as I know, but seems to illustrate my point pretty well, especially when you consider that if the protagonists were real, they'd most probably lead a miserable and monotonous existence.

Have at you:

One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)

Your breath is sweet
Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky
Your back is straight your hair is smooth
On the pillow where you lie
But I don't sense affection
Nor gratitude or love
Your loyalty is not to me
But to the stars above

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

Your daddy he's an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He'll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade
He oversees his kingdom
So no stranger does intrude
His voice it trembles as he calls out
For another plate of food.

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

Your sister sees the future
Like your mama and yourself
You've never learned to read or write
There's no books upon your shelf
And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark.

One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee 'fore I go.
To the valley below.

1 comment:

  1. I don't get it.

    Also, the scratch on the comics disc made one of the comics unreadable. I've had to burn the disc again. You ought to take better care of discs, they're really fragile.