Monday, May 20, 2013
Digging Up Bones or, The Labyrinths beneath Our Feet
by Tom Jacobs
There is a story that I want to tell you. It's about a man who lives alone at the edge of town. In a small house without much to recommend it. He finds that there is little for him to do other than to look out the window. Which is something that he does. A lot. Most every day and for most of each of those days. He looks out this window, examining the microscopy of the world outside his window, paying close attention. This is what he does. It provides a certain amount of pleasure to him.
Some begin to worry that he's losing his mind. He begins to think that he is approaching some kind of revelation. Who is to say which is which? Maybe it can be both.
He begins a project. He begins to examine the surfaces of his home, convinced that there is something beneath or behind. The floors, the walls, the ceilings. Eventually he finds himself in the basement, palpating a crack that runs through the middle of his foundation. He becomes convinced that there is something shouldering itself into the floor of his basement from below. So he begins to excavate. As he digs he finds what he believes to be a labyrinth. He excavates this labyrinth like an archaeologist over the course of many years. As he unearths the whole intricate thing he becomes convinced that there is some great secret there, some infinite thing of happiness and hope. He continues to excavate and explore the labyrinth but can never find his way through. Knowing in his heart that that he's uncovered something important, he goes out into the street to tell someone about it. This is the first time he's left his house for as long as he can remember.
The first person he finds is a man who lives down the block and happens to be passing by. He tells him about what he's found. The man is skeptical but intrigued.
Together they go back to his house so that he might show him his labyrinth. They explore the labyrinth. The man on the street had read somewhere that if you keep your hand on the wall, you will eventually find your way in (or out). Eventually they find the center of the labyrinth. At the center there is a door in the floor. They open the door and, holding hands, they walk together, through. And then they disappear and are never heard from again.
I told this story late at night the other day while I was making cocktails for friends, and I didn't think much about what it was about or what it meant or where it was headed. I just told it. But I can now see some kind of pattern, some kind of meaning in the bare fabric of the thing. A warped reflection of what's been passing through my mind lately. There's something there about what happens when we excavate and examine the past. It can as easily induce insanity as it can generate revelation. To some extent it's about how we regard it, about how we comport ourselves in the presence of history. We can choose to hold it close or to cast it away. It can engulf us or it can reignite something that's been lost or forgotten. Either way, the excavation will lead us to seeing and maybe even understanding something new and strange.
There are labyrinths beneath our feet all the time. Beneath our apartments, our homes, our towns and cities. They are there.
I remember reading that when they were moving a fountain in Washington Square a few years ago, the construction people were instructed not to dig lower than three feet. But of course they did. And what did they find as soon as began scraping the surface? Skeletons. Lots of them. 20,000 of them, actually. An entire graveyard that had been mostly forgotten.That's one labyrinth. But there are others.
Ever since I was very little I have always been obsessed by the notion that there is something out there, beyond the end of things. Something that defied the already incomprehensible idea of the infinite. Like everyone, I suppose, I was fascinated by what the "end" of something meant. The end of the universe. The end of love. The end of life. How can any of these things properly end? Don't they just go on forever and ever? How can they not? Infinity will always defy our ability to understand it. It's an idea that seduces and ridicules. This is the way things go with all of the crucial things, the things that are fundamental to our baseline understanding of the world but that ultimately don't really make sense (e.g., life, loss, experience, love, death...etc., etc.).
I am no scholar of Greek, but there are two old Greek words that have been haunting me, nibbling at the edges of my mind lately. One is Hôrâ. The other is telos.
Hôrâ, as I understand it, refers to the moment when the time is right, to the right moment in the right place, the seasonal time, the beautiful time, the time when things are perfectly ripe. It's the time when everything comes together.
Telos refers to the notion that everything has some kind of purpose or goal or end that it bends towards, a direction towards which it inexorably moves. Telos implies teleology, which means that there is a point to things, a true narrative rainbow that everything, while it is exists, and whether it knows it or not, follows according to its particular spinning essence. A turtle moves towards becoming an exemplary turtle, and humans exemplary humans, and life hurtles towards some mysterious culmination that implies some mysterious fulfillment. Everything has an end, a purpose towards which it can't not but careen..
I suspect that this is all bullshit, that there is no Hôrâ or telos or essence, that these are merely ideas and names for some of our deepest and most profound desires of what might or could be. But it's impossible to walk through one's everyday life without absorbing and performing these concepts. Even if they are mere inventions that help us cut through the vapor and fog, they are helpful and useful.
When I was younger, Hôrâ was something I felt quite distinctly, and I felt it almost all the time. The time was always ripe.
Back then a friend of mine had occasional access to his father's old Cadillac. It was an enormous, yellow vehicle, and five or six friends of mine bought a case of beer drove out into the thick remoteness of a hot summer Nebraska night. Someone had the idea to put the Caddy in low gear and then each of us climbed out onto the car as it sauntered up and down the gently rolling hills while someone held their foot on the steering wheel. We sprawled out on the hood and the trunk, rolled down the windows and sat on the unbewindowed doors, idly drinking beers and talking about whatever seemed relevant at the time as we glided past cornfield after cornfield beneath Nebraska's milky way.
Mostly we talked about girls.
At one point the car reached the top of a hill and each of us looked out over a glimmering field of wheat that stretched out in the darkness. The field was teeming with thousands of fireflies, swimming about and flashing in night as they do for only a week or two, marking the very height of summer. Each of us was struck dumb and breathless for a few moments, gaping at this strange and unexpected sight. I think we all felt a kind of intense communion—with each other, with the world, with the stars—but only for a moment. And then it passed.
The car rolled down the hill and we picked up our conversations about girls again, but something had fundamentally changed…each of us was changed, however subtly, by the vision of that field of glimmering lights, cutting through the drift of that directionless night.
It was a perfect moment. I felt an insane fullness of being and sense of fraternity that is not sustainable but that is real and pressing, if only for a coupla seconds. I've had maybe five or six of those in my life, and each one has become a kind of guidepost. They help me find my way through the fog and to remember that it's not all darkness, that there are fields of light that pulse and throb, even in the blackest of nights. Some small sense of grace emerges, makes itself felt, and then disappears. It reminds me in a way that is both soothing and irritating that we, each of us, can be better than we are.
Somewhere Raymond Chandler wrote that "The first kiss is magic. The second is intimate. The third is routine." This is a problem and it's true. Things emerge into our life and then they recede and fade and disappear. That's just how it is. Kisses can't incandesce forever. The habits and routines that form the armature around which our lives are wrapped become a source of repugnance. We want strangeness. It might also be true that we are most truly alive when we cast our gaze inwards with excessive intensity, when we examine our motives and the patterns we've left in the dust. All of this is unpleasant, but completely necessary. And the dusty riddles that each of us trail make for damned interesting reading.
(and now I've moved from "me" to "we"... This is not a homily, even if it sounds a bit like one, and I can only assume that what I assume, you assume, and that, even if it's on the lower frequencies, I speak for you...)
We want both everything all at once and to feel that we are doing no harm. We are all caught between wanting to be simply happy and wanting to make a difference. Or at least most of us do. I think we've not learned to inhabit the space that might be carved out between the two, between the infinite obligation we feel towards ourselves to be happy, and the infinite obligation we feel towards others…to make things a little less difficult and awful for those who have it worse.
Clearly there is much work to be done. We long for immediate happiness—that's why we buy silly things to wear and exhibit—but we also want to feel that our presence on the planet isn't hurting others. On both counts, though, we probably are. People are suffering and we are, in all likelihood, perpetuating all of this.
Figuring all of this out requires a peculiar kind of commitment; it requires the focus of your whole being and has nothing to do with academic braininess. It requires a willingness to enter the labyrinth, which is scary. There are minotaurs and long periods of lostness.
Here's something that Joseph Campbell once said about the relation of labyrinths to life…it should give you chills…:
We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us - the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The very things that we fear might destroy us have the capacity to transform and redeem. And I think that's true. As long as we allow for a little bit of grace and luck.
There is a kind of rough despondency that inevitably descends in every life. That just happens, and at those moments there is just no way to get a proper handle on things, on one's self, on one's very being. The darkness is sometimes wildly visible. Cribbing from William Styron, who cribbed from Milton, there is this passage that ramifies and reverberates in too many directions and dimensions to pursue. It's a pretty good description of what it's like to be depressed, but Milton is actually talking about his vision of Hell:
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar'd]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain'd
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n
As from the Center thrice to th' utmost Pole.
It's so strange to think that the dark flames of whatever it might be that consume or warp us are occasionally made visible. I kind of like that contradiction, that darkness can make itself as perceptible as sunlight. And if you've ever read the opening of "Paradise Lost," it is clear that Satan is a completely fascinating dude. One can't but understand that the deities that provide the possibility of redemption are invariably less interesting than the forces that drive us towards malaise and madness.
As William Blake once noted, we are, each of us, bound by mind forged manacles. We need only to invent and then find the keys that might liberate us from our prisons and wake us from our waking sleep. There are labyrinths to be explored, that must be explored, and they are just beneath our feet. And one must assume that at the center of each of our labyrinths, just there, where the dark visibility makes things most clear and coherent, there might just be a door. If we get that far it will be worth pausing on the threshold, looking back at the world we once knew and thinking hard about what it is that we want.
It's as lovely to emerge as it is to disappear .
Posted by Tom Jacobs at 12:30 AM | Permalink