A Little Therapeutic Writing

I need to write my way out of my situation. I’m feeling sick, both physically and emotionally. I’m going to talk about the negative situation first, then I’m going to get to the positive, therapeutic part, so be patient.

The physical part might be the flu or an ear infection. I’m not sure. For about five days, I’ve had trying headaches, some dizziness, a sore throat (that’s actually been with me off and on for maybe a month), and strange tingles on my upper torso.

Emotionally, I’ve been down, perhaps, because of what I’ve been reading. Joyce Carol Oates, judging by her early novel, Expensive People, has a disgusting sense of life. She sees the suburbs as completely shallow and alienating. Only really superficial people can find any contentment there, and then only at the price of distorting their souls. Her narrator is a little boy who murders his mother, which is a lot more interesting than anything else in the story, let me tell you.

This is far worse than my other recent novels. While Sigrid Nunez’ The Last of Her Kind was partly about a horrible person, a sixties radical named Ann Drayton, the story is generally upward-moving That is in large measure because it is narrated by another woman, Georgette, who, though not very ambitious careerwise, does struggle to make herself educated and to find love (which she succeeds at). There is no sense that Nunez’ world has gunk clinging around the edges, as there is in Oates.

Sometimes the descent from Mount Olympus is rocky. I need to remind myself that a novel need not be by Rand to be healthful. I don’t think I should read another novel about a disturbing character like Drayton for awhile, even if she is balanced off by a Georgette. I think I’ll read another novel by Ward Just. Life is no birthday party according to Mr. Just, but even tragic events take place in a rational universe.

Colin Wilson. Looks harmless enough, doesn’t he?

To make matters worse, I am reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Somebody compared my forthcoming book Killing Cool to it, so I thought I would check it out. I think what that somebody meant is that I was writing as an independent thinker with a new, middle-level abstraction to offer. In that sense Killing Cool is like The Outsider, but not otherwise.

Wilson published his popular work when he was 24 (I am 51, by the way). It is about existentialism, despair, nausea with existence, unsavory sexual encounters and other bon bons from modern literature, all allegedly supporting the idea that the man who sees the farthest is the one who sees that life is just nothing.

I reject this idea – intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, spiritually, categorically. It’s not that I haven’t had some of the experiences that Wilson describes – I have, and probably more than the average person. It’s just that I don’t blame reality or humanity for those times when I’ve been ill, or clinically depressed, or unable to find uplifting cultural resources – or for those times when I’ve tied myself up in knots with all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing or context-dropping. When I feel overwhelmed by these things, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” (And no, I don’t “get high with a little help from my friends”!)

So now, I’d like to “accentuate the positive” for a little while. Sing along if you think it will be good for you.

First and always, I am happy about my marriage. My wife and I have been together for 25 years. I will respect her privacy by not describing her to you; I will just say that we get closer and more supportive of each other all the time.

Second, my writing is going very well. I published a long essay for Kindle earlier this year. It has sold well over 500 copies so far. I am very proud of its content.

In addition, as you can tell, I started a blog, and I’ve been pleased with most of what I have posted on it. My favorite essay, “The Bust of Caesar,” was published on Joshua Zader’s Atlasphere. I should mention that Joshua has been a very good friend to me, setting up the blog, giving me advice and making my essay look really good!

Best of all, in the writing department, I am mostly finished with my first book, Killing Cool. It is a collection of essays about living in reality, getting centered and developing authentic feelings. In it I offer a vision of life as it might be and ought to be. I’m not sure I can boil this vision down to just a few sentences, but I see it as a life in which you feel present, not scattered or rushed. Your self-awareness is a glowing, serene majesty.

Things that excite you are energizing, but don’t make you hyper – instead they make you feel more deeply your connection to the world. You feel at home in reality and you are comfortable sharing a space with those you respect, in mutual awareness. Playfulness, yes; games, no. Earnestness trumps cynicism every time. This sounds a bit woozy, perhaps, but I ground it in practical advice in the book.

It does bother me some that to talk about better ways of living, I have to analyze the

Rembrandt, self-portrait

bad ways of living that many or most people engage in. I don’t want to be negative, but I think it’s true that when you’re drawing you can’t depict the light without depicting the shadow. I have tried very hard to sketch the lifestyles I’m criticizing respectfully and without sarcasm. Sometimes it is a little hard to spend time with people who face life through a mask, rather than exposed to the fresh air. But I keep remembering my vision of life and I keep making sure that gets into the book, too.

Another recent source of pleasure has been the refinding of an old friend from high school whom I have not seen in 30 years. I thought she was pretty special then, but I actually didn’t know her that well. I think she’s more special now. I look forward to what unfolds. She’s been a big help with Killing Cool.

There are a lot of other positive things I could write about here. My job is going better than it has for years, as an example. But I just want to mention one more thing. It may seem trivial to you, but it’s not to me: Pinterest.

For those of you who don’t know, Pinterest is a website, free for now, that allows you to collect images and videos and “pin” them on “boards” organized along whatever lines you wish. The pinning tool makes this extremely easy, and some members have thousands, even tens of thousands of “pins.”

I love looking at pictures. I own literally hundreds of photography books. Buying them was getting to be a financial drain and it was often frustrating trying to find what I wanted. Pinterest solves both of those problems.

Maybe I should explain why pictures are so important to me. I have a deeply aesthetic appreciation of the world. I am a very intuitive thinker, especially for someone so devoted to classifying things. In addition, I have this cognitive quirk: I have almost no visual imagination. If you asked me to close my eyes and imagine my wife’s face, I couldn’t do it. The best I could probably manage is to remember a photo I took of her. This is probably due in part to my having involuntary eye-movements called a nystagmus. It’s hard for me to perceive stable images of things.

It’s much easier if they are just pictures. So I get my visual, aesthetic stimulation looking at pictures. My color vision is very good and I have a geometric mind, so I gravitate toward well-composed photographs, preferably color, although I like some black and white, too.

Pinterest has been a blessing for me: a way to find beauty without spending money. And more: it has convinced me that the world is inexhaustible. The more I explore, the more I find. The internet isn’t just pictures of cats! And who knew there was Art Nouveau architecture in Riga?

And have you ever heard of temari – Japanese balls made of fabric scraps and embroidery? Galileo said that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics. If that’s true, then this little geometric confection could be seen as a microcosm.

temari ball by Dana

OK, you might think that’s going a little overboard for a ball of string, but it’s not for me. This is why I love William Blake, who saw God as a geometer.

At any rate, I am not inviting you to share my particular ecstasies. I am trying to regain my normal sense of the world, which illness and bad writing have taken from me. And it’s working. I feel much better. I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn through my mind. Please share something of your own experience.

Ancient of Days, by William Blake, 1794

The picture of the mountain is by Anton Jankavoy. Its source is here.

The Bust of Caesar

About 20 years ago my wife and I were walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when, at the end of a corridor, I came upon a bust of Julius Caesar. It was made about 500 years ago by Andrea Ferrucci. He seemed so real, I felt a jolt when I saw him.

The statue portrays Caesar at the age of 45 or 50, showing some wrinkles, but still quite vigorous. He’s a good looking man: thin, broad forehead, direct eyes, beautiful Roman nose, nice mouth, smallish jaw with a slightly prominent chin and a long neck. He’s wearing a magnificent breastplate with a screaming Medusa – to turn his enemies to stone, presumably – and a Roman eagle.

But it’s the expression Ferrucci gave Caesar that really impressed me. He has his head a little cocked as if he’s curious and amused. His eyes are intense, with creases at the corners and he is looking off to one side as if something had gotten his attention. His mouth is a little compressed, as if he is in control of himself. Overall he looks focussed and composed, but also as if he is able to see the humor in things. He seems self-aware and very confident.

Because of its “casual” posture and carved-in pupils and irises the bust looks less “stiff” than most other statues, more “natural.” Yet it is a masterpiece of stylization. Ferrucci’s Caesar is idealized, compared to the traditional representation of the dictator as balding and maybe a bit past his prime. But the expression represents a triumph of characterization. I don’t know whether that was what Julius Caesar was actually like, but it is definitely the image of some kind of greatness.

The real Julius Caesar is not a hero of mine. He had many virtues, but he was an agent of Rome’s loss of freedom. The person in the bust, however, is a hero to me. You look at him and say “There is a man!” Nietzsche thought the real Caesar was a superman. I’m not sure I buy that concept, but this depiction does make the idea plausible.

However, it’s not greatness or heroism per se that most fascinates me about the bust. It’s another quality, which I have trouble pinning down. I call it the “exquisite.” It refers to a kind of perfection of character, so particular that it could be real and at the same time almost archetypal.

For example, the character of Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is exquisite. It’s not that he’s morally perfect: he keeps helping Keating when he shouldn’t. And it’s not that he’s psychologically perfect, either. Actually Roark is practically a freak. We’re talking about a man who is surprised to find himself thinking about a woman the day after he first has sex with her. He’s interesting because he’s a freak. What makes him special is he does not start out all tangled up with other people as the rest of us are. He has to learn to be connected. That learning process is an exquisite thing to watch.

Caesar was morally ambiguous and Roark was good, but I even appreciate, if that’s the right word, exquisiteness in the portrayal of evil. In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand are both exquisite characters. Toohey gets the best dialogue Rand ever wrote. Wynand gets the second best.

Also on the evil side, I love Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Ever since the movie came out in 1972, Don Corleone has had a grip on the American mind. For a while, all young men had a Godfather impression. That’s because people sensed, without having the explicit concept, that he was exquisite. Interestingly, there’s a connection between Corleone and Caesar. According to the novel, Vito chose a path of crime because he refused to have his greatness crushed by a corrupt society. Caesar was in a somewhat similar situation. And given his criminal behavior, Corleone is actually reasonable – for a criminal – and his evil deeds are tempered by his “family values.” Corleone is also somewhat similar to Wynand and both are romanticized notions of bad people. Real criminals, of course, are not generally so “pure” in their motives and are not exquisite.

All the examples I have discussed so far have been “great” men, in the sense of being larger-than-life human beings of superior ability. But an “exquisite” character need not be great in this sense, nor a man. Take for example the character of Ripley as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien movie. She is a thinking person. She is not reactive. She is healthily assertive with the men on the spaceship. But she’s just a second officer on a towing vessel. Still, I look at her and say “There is a woman!” And it’s not just the climactic duel between her and the alien that makes me say so. She’s admirable throughout the story. Sure, it’s just science fiction, but her character is still indelible.

Ripley is still impressive as a great survivor, even if she is not a “great woman” in a general sense. But greatness need not be a feature of the exquisite character at all. Take another of my favorite film personages: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The story concerns a teacher at a private school for girls in 1930s Scotland. Miss Brodie tries to make her charges into something above the run of the mill, tries to bring some refinement into their lives. Unfortunately, this includes showing slides of her Italian vacation when she is supposed to be teaching history. Even more unfortunately, it includes her sharing her admiration for the Italian dictator, Mussolini.

Jean is what I call a “Pretender.” She adopts a false sense of life, not as a pose for others, but to try to become something she’s not. (I write at length about the Pretender type in my forthcoming book Killing Cool.) The false sense of life that Jean adopts is one of “sophistication.” She believes in Art and that all of her little girls are the “creme de la creme.” Jean is an exquisite example of the Pretender.

But Miss Brodie is still a formidable person in her own way. Exquisiteness can also be coupled with vulnerability and then it is a thing so piquant that it’s breath-taking. Look at this painting. It’s the sketch for “Alone Together,” and it’s by realist painter Maria Kreyn, who is based in New York. (The painting is oil on canvas, 20 x 11 inches, done in 2012. You can see more of the artist’s work at www.mariakreyn.com.)

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I love about this painting. I tried to look at it as I did the bust of Caesar. The woman is comforting the man, her fingers in his hair as he lays his head in the crook of her neck. She is not looking at him. She is looking to one side, like Caesar, but I don’t think she’s looking at something specific. I think she’s looking at a source of her own private sorrow. She may share that sorrow with the man, but the pain is her own. She is vulnerable, not controlled: her lips are parted (where Caesar’s are compressed.) He skin is very pale and delicate, also a sign of vulnerability. She almost looks as if she is going to cry, but she doesn’t look like she’s breaking down. She just looks like she’s living with it, whatever it is. She seems present to her feelings. Where Caesar is the paradigm of a person who makes something happen, the woman in the painting is a paradigm of a person letting something happen.

Now I certainly don’t worship pain. But this woman is beautiful in her suffering. I almost imagine that this is a couple who has lost a child.

Some sadness is part of life. The only way you can avoid it is to withdraw from caring in a stoical or Buddhist fashion or to adopt some kind pollyanna-ish “It all happens for the best” attitude. But how much more life-affirming is it to face pain and go on? This painting shows us the answer to that question. That is the gift Maria Kreyn has given us.

It’s very difficult for me to describe exactly what exquisiteness is and why I am in love with. It’s almost a cognitive thing rather than a moral quality: I love the perfect example of some human quality, even if it is not a morally admirable quality or a happy quality. I love how a representation of a person can mix unexpected, even paradoxical qualities and not come out just a muddle. I don’t belong to the cult of moral grayness, but freakish, ambiguous and even evil characters can be exquisitely subtle and therefore cognitively engaging.

Good art shows us what is possible for human beings, for better or worse. The best art gives us not just an abstraction of a single characteristi but a concretized realization, with all the individual notes. Roark is not an allegory of Independence, but a fully realized person, freakish in his separateness, loyal to the earth, naive when it comes to people. The unexpected, yet logical juxtaposition of these traits, and many others, makes him seem real and at the same time becomes a whole too integrated to reduce to a philosophical abstraction.

I would compare exquisiteness to sense of life. You could say that a person has a joyous or a tragic sense of life, just as you could say that Roark embodies the virtue of independence. But the individual notes that make a person unrepeatable would be missing. The joyous person always has something else going on, too: something a little mischievous, some silent wonder, a patient wisdom. The exquisite character is the same way – that’s what makes him a presence.

If I can be forgiven for borrowing a phrase from the creationists, the exquisite character is an example of irreducible complexity. He adds up to something definite – independence in Roark’s case, pretended sophistication in Miss Brodie’s – but he cannot be deduced from that characteristic, any more than a real person can be deduced from a principle. Reality is richer than our concepts, and an exquisite character is greater than the principle he embodies – although he embodies it very well indeed.

The exquisite is a dimension of beauty that counts too, sometimes even more than classical beauty or the sublime or even a moral ideal. The exquisite gives us hope that we will not fizzle out into a tepid gray puddle, but will continue to be interesting and alive. The exquisite energizes the mind by showing it what subtleties it is capable of grasping.

Human beings are the most fascinating thing in the known universe. Their specialness is prior to philosophy and in a way transcends it. Look at how Rand’s positive characters struggle to find philosophy. They are already something beautiful, if sometimes tortured, before they do find it. Roark never does find a full-fledged philosophy, just some isolated bits of wisdom. Ah, but there is a man!

We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our passion for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely not wanting to die.

The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” At the risk of trivializing my meaning, I will say that that’s what I’m talking about: the most distinctive and impressive kinds of human beings, good or bad, happy or sad, pure or mixed. Such characters provide us with reassurance that we as a species are not ordinary, drab and merely “nice.” They are pinnacles.

And now I’d like to know what you think. Do you believe in the idea of an unforgettable character who can transcend good and bad? And was Francis Bacon right when he said, “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”? Please leave a message about one of your most unforgettable characters.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

A Light Through the Trees

Forest Light, Colorado, by Christopher Burkett

Christopher Burkett, as an Orthodox Christian, sees the light of God in nature. I am not going to argue with him.

www.christopherburkett.com