The Temptation of Saint Anthony
“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
“Le monde est l'œuvre d'un Dieu en délire.”
-Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Antony
I. Saint Anthony
According to Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint Anthony, also known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of the Desert, and the Father of All Monks, wandered into the Egyptian desert of Thebaid after 15 years of hermitage in a hut just outside of his native village of Coma, in Upper Egypt. He had sold all of his worldly possessions and property, inherited to him by the passing of his wealthy parents when he was only 20, and donated the proceeds to the local poor. The passing of his parents also left him with the charge of his younger sister, whom he placed in the care of a sort of early convent, referred to in Athanasius's account as pious Christian virgins. During this time as a hermit, he made ends meet for himself and provided alms for the poor by doing manual-labor, which is possibly how he became associated with the pig, working as a swineherd.
An animal which incidentally reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon is also said to have a particular affinity for. If I had to guess why, judging by characters like Tyrone Slothtrop and Doc Sportello, is probably because of the basic fact that, if a pig is anything, it's absolutely true to its own nature. And there's a kind of humility in that. A plump, waddling little creature who will happily eat slop and roll in filth, but which—and representatives of the meat industry will never ever tell you this—are said to live complex social lives, respond to music, possess an average intelligence greater than that of canines, and which are generally extremely well-intentioned and playful animals (thank you PETA.org). Picture that next time you eat bacon, the thing which you are poised to stuff into your gullet is more intelligent than many of your beloved house-pets and is likely so easy to fatten, herd, and kill because it craves human contact and just wants to be your friend. Food for thought.
According to the story, Anthony was besieged at all times by attacks enacted on him by the Devil. As a result he was pushed further and further away from civilization, first to his hut, then to a graveyard, where he lived in a tomb, and finally into the primordial desert wastes. It was here that he wandered, experiencing strange temptations, which appeared out of the desert sands like mirages. The Devil left plates of silver and gold for him among the dunes, he teased him with visions of beautiful naked women like erotic specters shimmering out of the desert heat. The delicate form and grace of the flesh assaulting Anthony's famished lusts. I can imagine him almost shivering, even in the heat of the sun, desperately trying to remain chaste through his incredible thirst. Not only for sexual contact, but for basic human interaction.
With his parents dead and his sister all but abandoned with a sect of early nuns, I can only imagine the kind of hesitation he'd have to keep going. How much easier would it have been to simply turn back and start his own family to fill the void of his loss? In a warm home with the laughter of children and the loving embrace of a wife, built on solid foundations rather than leading a life lost and aimless across these shifting sands; a formless, abstract landscape populated by feverish mirage and Satanic hallucinations. He wasn't only attacked in the realm of desire, there were also fearful apparitions and demons. Hateful shapes and malformed creatures between man and animal that harassed him endlessly, apparently even beating him to death at one point in a cave that he took to as a refuge and place of meditation. A fate from which he was said to have been resurrected by God in exchange for his bravery and steadfastness.
Or maybe it wouldn't be any easier for him to give into his temptations. Maybe turning back and retreating to the comfort and safety of a more traditional existence would serve only to imprison him. As a stifle on his obsession and need to become one with the divine, to attain ultimate spiritual enlightenment without the distraction or frill of emotional and material attachment. Maybe the thing that was in him, driving him to the outer edge of society and out across the desert, was beyond his control. And for him a safe life, a conventional life, was completely unfeasible in the first place.
And what's to be gathered here is that temptation, as metaphor, isn't an express route to a fulfillment that happens to be packaged with damnation in fine-print, as it so often seems in Christian lore, but to a fundamentally unworkable situation. A nature perverted against itself and remaining forever ungratified in any real sense. The curse of restlessness facilitated by way of an illusion, that there is something better for you than your true nature, your deepest want and need. Like the painter who settles into an office position with an advertising firm or an astronaut driving mail-trucks for the US postal service. What if Einstein had stayed a patent clerk for financial security? What if Shakespeare never had the courage to pick up a quill or Da Vinci hesitated to imagine that he could be good at the unreasonable number of things he was so good at? To deprive the self of that pure need and drive is to deprive the world, not the other way around. After all, if we look to the grandest examples, Nelson Mandela could have quietly placed his hands in his pockets and walked on, past his appointed place in history, with his head lowered in passive submission. Ghandi could have too, and Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa, in most cases they may even have lived longer and more comfortably by doing so. But what then becomes of the world that they touched if they were instead to hesitate and pull their hands back? You might think these are very lofty examples, who have little in common with you. However if you squander your own potential, you really don't know that do you?
Eventually, after wandering the desert for some time, Anthony came upon a mountain, which he scaled, and somewhere in its heights, after cracking his dry feet and hands bloody on the hot rock, he found an abandoned fortress. And it was this vast empty ruin which was to be his new home, where he would live in the dust behind shattered walls, praying and meditating. Eventually he did come to defeat his desires and temptations, and it was said that he connected purely and fully with God. And it's this very point, where Saint Anthony the man passes into legend, where myth intersects with flesh, that is the most important. Where he reaches through time with his shrieks of agony across the desert sands and his prayers whispered in the dark and becomes immortalized. Whether or not any of it is materially factual ceases to be the point altogether and Anthony explodes into a new body made of symbols and dreams, illustrated in vibrant color and fluid, changing figures down through the ages.
His story becomes a living human parable, populated by impossible creatures and events, such as the ones I've described, illustrating a grander psychological reality. And the idea passes down through history, transforming naturally with the passage of each era and in the translation through each unique artistic voice. The Temptation of Saint Anthony has been immortalized for the past six-hundred years by master painters from every generation, stretching all the way from Bosch to his twentieth century descendants in Dalí, Carrington, and Ernst. Even the Renaissance Master Michelangelo's first painting, when he was just 13 years of age, was a rendition of Schongauer's copper engraving of Saint Anthony. And it's influence of course hasn't been isolated to the world of painting, Gustave Flaubert alone spent the years of his life from the ages of 24 to 53, just 4 years short of his death, drafting and redrafting his novel based on the story. He considered The Temptation of Saint Antony his greatest achievement and, quite literally, his life's work.
And it's in these transformations and mutations down through time that I think the real magic lies; the true fulfillment of Saint Anthony's lifelong journey, his walk across the delirious desert landscape which stretches now endlessly, along with his ultimate triumph, through the infinitude of human expression.
II. Salvatore Arnoldo
I first came out to the desert in April of 2013. I had just turned 20 years old at the beginning of that month, on the 6th. It was an extremely difficult decision for me, as I knew it was the right one but I was leaving behind a life of comfort and safety under my parent's roof. And with my father being a surgeon, it was quite comfortable and quite safe, my every need was provided for, my every immediate desire met. Only superficially though of course, there's only so much you can do living under your parent's roof after having dropped out of college and become totally isolated socially from anyone your age outside of your family. The situation had gotten so desperate, after only less than a year or so out of school, that I was actually considering joining the military just to put myself somewhere and my life on a track, even if that somewhere wasn't quite the right fit and that track was a bit forcible. This was quite an odd decision for a pacifist like myself to come to, a person whose had both mixed feelings about the military his whole life and a spotty relationship with authority. Essentially what it all boils down to is that I had completely lost hope and I was looking to be literally beaten into shape.
You might ask, like my father did, with no little concern, "You realize right now joining means going to war, right?" My response was very simple, and that was that I simply didn't care anymore. All of my life had been building up to going to college, and when I got there I started out starry-eyed and optimistic. Even though all of my friends from high school had left town, I thought it would be easy to meet all sorts of new people and that my life as a writer was going to begin in those halls. In this new place with professors giving lectures and students interacting with real interest, studying things they wanted to study, paving the way for their bright futures. But I couldn't speak to anyone, the anxiety that followed me my whole life trailed me like a suffocating shadow into those bright, starry halls and I choked on my own aspirations.
I got progressively worse and worse, it got to the point where I could barely look people in the eye and finally I stopped going to my classes. I would go to school and spend all of my time in the library reading books and writing. Having one-way conversations in those pages with people who had been dead for years, writing page after page without an audience or thoughts of an audience of any kind. Finally I stopped even doing that, it got to the point that I couldn't set foot on campus anymore. I couldn't even pull into the parking lot, I was afraid of all those eyes falling on me. People who could actualize in the world, who knew how to talk to each other and achieve their goals. I felt somehow malformed, disfigured. Even though I looked normal on the surface, it was seemed to me still clearly visible that I did not and could not belong.
The tragedy of it for me was that I didn't feel any animosity or resentment towards my peers at all, there was never anything even approaching hate. I've always loved people, but I've struggled monumentally in trying to bridge the gap between myself and them. I've never had any patience with people that declare proudly, or bitterly for that matter, that they hate people in general. Fuck you, no you don't. You've managed to maneuver yourself comfortably into a hutch of insular social contact, from which you feel comfortable throwing stones at the rest of the world in order to help alleviate the sting of your own insecurities. You have somebody, even if it's just a small group or one or two go-to's, if you were well and truly alone you wouldn't have the balls. Because in spite of the inherent problems in this particular arrangement, which are many and varied, I admit, one another is exactly all we have.
Even when it's working, now as an adult, I still can't quite wash that taste out of my mouth of the awkwardness, the maladjustment. Incidentally it was around this time that I first read the Harlan Ellison story, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and I can think of no better phrase to describe my feelings on my own social anxiety. The sense of impossible isolation, like you're caged off from the world by your own mind and you can't even begin to figure out how to free yourself. It was also during this time that I became familiar with a Biblical phrase that stood out to me, in Latin, "Vox clamantis in deserto." which translates in English to "A voice crying out in the wilderness." It was used in reference to the prophets and saints who lived as hermits, far removed from society, usually in the deserts.
I admit, I went pretty off-the-rails pretty quick. I've always been a fairly sensitive kid, to put it mildly, and if you couple that basic artistic temperament with the fact that I, like many in my generation, went for a full 18 years without having to legitimately understand the meaning of failure, you have a pretty toxic mixture brewing. The problem with coming from a generation like mine, in an upper-middle class bracket, is that you really don't have to do much of anything, and even for someone who over-thought things at the painful length that I often did, it was easy to take things for granted. Speaking of, I was also unlucky enough to be able to practically sleep through high school and still get ultimately passing grades. My SAT score was only a few hundred from perfect and this was on the first attempt with no prior studying, or really any concern whatsoever, on my part. I remember practically wandering into National Honors Society on accident based on my performance in a regional art competition, that I wasn't even supposed to be allowed to take part in because of my low grades in classes like Math and Physics. The big problem with this was that I had ambitions and desired social contact pretty intensely. I wanted to travel across the entire world, I wanted exposure for my work and to exchange ideas, I wanted to meet all sorts of people and have wide ranging experiences. And so restlessness ensued accordingly.
Luckily, I didn't join the military, you can imagine the colossal mistake that would've been. Really it was sort of a blip on the radar in a number of ridiculous possibilities I entertained during that time; I'd also considered becoming a forensic psychologist, an astronomer, a boxer, a doctor of some kind, and a historian, among other things. I had developed a really hostile relationship with arts of all kinds, I started sealing myself off from them and resenting the part of me that wanted to express itself. I remember thinking about the pointlessness of the arts and the humanities, and how they completely lacked any practical value, whatever that meant, and that my desire to pursue them was completely self-centered and lazy. I essentially came to view any self-expression and any pride of purpose, to basically be my own narrow self-aggrandizement. And I told myself that the only noble professions would be ones that were strictly utilitarian in the most obvious, tangible ways—doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, etc.
Which was funny because during this entire time that I was thinking about how pointless the arts were and how I wanted to do all these other things, I wrote non-stop, material that was becoming more and more escapist in nature. I remember outlining entire space operas and vast sweeping fantasy epics, getting further and further away from any semblance of my reality. And more than that, it was the kind of stuff I never even thought about writing in the times where I was seriously productive and inspired. None of it ever culminated into anything complete though, I was extremely mercurial, I spent way more time obsessively outlining than actually doing. And what I did write were these scattered snippets from across a vast, impossibly long narrative that I could never finish. My creativity was like a whirlwind, maybe a dust-devil, that kicks up a certain amount of momentum and lingers across the landscape for a short time, before giving out and falling back to earth, as a loose billow of dust and dirt, a momentary spurt of energy. Entire fantastical and pulpy worlds rose and fell like that all the time, short escapes that were doomed from the start, the gravity of the situation ultimately against them, they invariably fell away to nothing each and every time. It was sort of like a drug, never as good as the first hit when I was an impassioned kid going to school, feeling totally comfortable and secure tucked away in his room, in his parent's house, safe to work and imagine with impunity. But I kept using and using it, if for nothing else than to form a buffer between me and my less than desirable reality.
Finally, my best friend Brandon, managed to convince me, with the help of a girl, to move out to Phoenix. He needed a roommate, as well as an occasional writer, as he was going to film school and our entire lives had been geared towards making films together, up until I fell off track. I would come out and pursue my writing while he went to school and developed his own craft. More than that I'd be on my own in a strange new city, which I'd only been to twice before, once when I drove in with Brandon two years prior to start school at the Art Institute, the second time for Christmas. I'd get the dramatic change I craved without having to be shipped out to another desert, this one halfway across the world, on a mission I didn't believe in, to possibly be blown up or shot or worse. In the language of the story of Saint Anthony, the proverbial Devil had hounded me for a long time then. All of my anxieties and all of my depression and negativity building into a swarm, sweeping me up off the ground and pulling at me and gouging my flesh with implements like Anthony's demons. And this was the moment I entered the desert, as the hut had long since become the tomb. I was pushed further and further from society until finally I had to leave altogether.
"This place is like a cave." was one of the first things I said, upon entering the apartment in Glendale. It was sort of dingy, the area wasn't great, and we'd discover over time that the entire complex was a roach-trap. Of course these observations weren't all immediately available to me at the time, my comment was simply on the darkness. There were windows in the front, but we were on the first floor, on the inside section of the complex, hidden away from the sun. And from the windows the length of the apartment stretched back into the kitchen, which was totally dark, and to the left a hallway which gave way to my bedroom and bathroom. Appropriately Brandon put a Christmas gift his mother had gotten him over the front door, a metal sign which read, "Man Cave".
It was within the first month that I ended up getting mold poisoning in that cave. Brandon had a coffeemaker, from his old apartment, that had a filter full of wet coffee that had been left in it for what was apparently a long, long time. I remember opening it up and taking out a powdery gray and white clump of material, and tossing it into the trash can. I'm not sure why I used the coffeemaker after that, even having done a cursory cleaning, it's really hard to blame anyone but myself for thinking that it would end well. I noticed feeling a bit light-headed and dazed from the coffee a few times, but nothing was so bad as the outright delirium and borderline out-of-body experience I had after drinking nearly ten cups one morning, while I watched The X-Files on Netflix.
I began slipping early, I was putting my shoes on to go to a deli with Brandon and his girlfriend at the time and began babbling listlessly about what it will be like to experience death. At the deli itself I kept getting up from the table, before I ate my sandwich, halfway through eating it, and then especially after I was done, and going to the bathroom, threatening to throw-up over and over again. I remember slumping over the counter limply while I ran my card and it was declined, my head spinning and detached—insufficient funds, I was horrible at spending money when I first got here. Finally Brandon agreed to front my bill, as he could probably see I wasn't going to be able to deal with this situation, my vision tunneling and my tongue going numb.
When we got back to the apartment, I finally threw up, for the first time in nearly 7 years I'd estimated. And I immediately called in sick to work, as it was becoming increasingly clear that going anywhere was going to be impossible. And then I spent the next 3 or so hours completely delirious in the dark, I was totally convinced at a few points that I was actually going to die. I remember sitting on our old futon and clenching the cushions until my knuckles were white to try and hang on to reality itself, I asked Brandon frantically, "I'm still here? I'm still here, right!?" The best way to describe it was I felt like my conscious awareness of things was separate from my body, and the deeper I sank into whatever the hell was happening to me, the more it slipped further and further out of my body. Not even just my body, but reality together. As if everything my senses interpreted, sight, sound, touch, were two-dimensional, almost plastic. And I was getting pulled further and further out of it, like a Hollywood set that was caving in, the matte painting backdrop falling out, and the sweeping wide sky and landscape beyond becoming visible. Too early. I thought of my mom and my dad, I thought of my brothers and Brandon and his family and my girlfriend at the time. It finally occurred to me that I really did not want to die.
Finally the mold worked its way out of my system, and my symptoms had become mild by the time Brandon and his girlfriend left. I remember the door to the outside opening and closing as they went to class, the room dark except for the TV and that small break in the hot insulated space where outside air came in for only an instant. The brief flicker of the world outside of that apartment, and outside my spinning head, was my first inkling of a wake-up call, a soft beacon. The anxiety had passed, I once again had a sense of my own outlines and my feet were placed solidly on the cheap vinyl flooring. I spent the rest of the evening sitting on the floor, eating a cheap 5 dollar pizza, and watching Shanghai Noon, a screwball action western from the early 2000's starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. I'd remembered having seen it with my parents when it first came out, when I was just 7 years old, gathered together in the family room. And somehow it made me feel safe.
This was only the first incident in those early months though, there was a second one which was much worse. I didn't feel like I was going to die this time, but the long-term psychological side-effects colored the tone of the following year and a half for me. Or the entire time my relationship lasted with my then girlfriend. Let me start off by saying, it wasn't good, in fact it was a fundamentally unworkable relationship from the start. We dated long distance for a bit, we'd met in high school and she ended up somewhere close to Phoenix around the time Brandon was trying to convince me to move out. After she broke up with her then boyfriend we started talking on Facebook, then on the phone, and we hit it right off. I've always been very romantic, it's a big problem for me.
After I moved out to Phoenix, I drove back and fourth to see her where she lived, about 4 hours away. Usually my months built up to those two and three day blocks when we'd be together. There was one such visit where I brought her back down to Phoenix with me. And the thing about her is that she smoked a lot of weed, to the point that she seemed almost psychologically dependent. During this visit, deciding I wanted to act in good faith and take part in her world, I asked her to shotgun some of it into my mouth. Which she did, and I held it and coughed it out. What I didn't realize is that she was so dependent on it, and so used to what we'll call hard stuff from her past, that she bought it anywhere she could get it on the street and wouldn't notice if there was something extra. Meaning that what I'd just smoked was cut with something very unsavory, probably a whole number of things, things made in somebody's kitchen from ingredients not intended to be processed by the human body.
Not to mention that, aside from the occasional drink, or an occasional few drinks on a night out with friends, I'm not particularly into drugs to begin with. This event in itself represents pretty much the sum-total of my experience with marijuana, before or since, excluding the odd encounter with the stuff back in high school—a perfectly healthy part of the growing process, at least if you ask me. So for the longest time, I actually thought my reaction was just a lightweight, nonsmoker's bad reaction to really powerful weed. I was very naive.
After taking that single hit, I at first felt euphoric, I remember looking in the bathroom mirror, at my drooping and stoned red eyes, an idiot satisfaction washing over me. But after I looked in the mirror for a moment longer, I felt a twinge of something else. A sinking feeling in the pit of my gut as I looked deeper into my eyes, a sudden change in tempo. There was an abrupt twist of revulsion and disgust deep inside of me, I felt hatred for myself as I came to resemble, in my mind, the types of guys who dealt my girlfriend weed and then, after another leap, the guys who my high school girlfriend cheated on me with. I imagined myself wasting away in that apartment, laying in the dark, eyes glassy, stoned out of my head for the rest of my days, until the flesh began to sink and tighten on my bones. I had a sense of something like a stale sweat, locked away in a quiet, unchanging room forever. And then things started to get really strange, as if that instant of hate and my acceptance of it was like a knock at the door of my soul. My welcoming and embrace, by way of the anger I felt at all of those analogs I knew, of those dead, stoned eyes, those guys I went to high school with, those guys who wanted to fuck my girlfriend, was me opening the door and inviting it in. And then I started to get scared.
I went to my girlfriend, who was in the kitchen and started following close behind her, like a child tugging at the pant leg of his mother. For fear that if I lost track of her, I would lose track of myself and be lost. It brought back memories of the first girl I really made out with, in my freshmen year of high school, how we were alone in her parents house and how my head was swimming with endorphins from the warm, soft touch of her lips, and she practically had me on a leash for the rest of the night. Except this was much different, my reality was literally beginning to fracture into pieces and I was clinging to her for safety. Each moment of perceived reality became almost like a still frame, a series of snapshots rather than a continuous reel, and I felt as though I had no way to trace one moment to another. There was no thread of continuity and I felt that at any moment the rug was going to be pulled out from underneath me, and there would be no more moments, no more snapshots, just darkness. It was like the French film La Jetée, the basis for the American 12 Monkeys, which was a narrative comprised almost completely of black-and-white still-images. That was my reality; deep, dark apocalyptic overtones and all. It was like my perception was tunneling into a narrower and narrower point, my whole world dancing on the head of a pin.
Eventually, after I'd panicked for awhile, she got me into the shower thinking that it might help. Later she would say that I spent the entire time standing there, looking nearly catatonic. My arms crossed and one of my hands held up to my mouth, my index finger absently stroking my bottom lip and chin as I stared straight down. I was trying as best as I possibly could to keep it together, remaining very steady as each new visualization, and now sound, came at me. The entire shower was changing colors, I stood there and for some reason thought about the light pink and baby blue decorative soaps my grandparents used to have in their bathroom. And so the tile walls of my bathroom in the apartment turned a vibrant hot pink and then a magenta and purple and baby blue. And I would imagine these sounds, like they'd appear somewhere deep in my head as subtle hints, mere ideas, then they'd erupt so loudly out of thin-air that I swear it made my ears ring—which I realize makes next to no sense. I remember hearing this loud overwhelming noise, that sounded like a cross between a laser gun from a science fiction film and a horse whinnying, and then a whole range of weird cartoonish sound effects, that were all so loud they seemed to nearly bring me down to my knees.
After we got out I basically remember her carrying me down the hallway to my room, still practically soaking wet in my underwear. She left me in my bed alone and shut the door, as I lay there trying to wait out the drug—I still don't know what it was, after the fact it sounds almost like I was experiencing the effects of multiple hard drugs and hallucinogens mixed together. As I laid in bed I remember staring up, at the point where the wall met the ceiling, and seeing this strange blurring occlusion. It had definite edges and shape, like a pentagon maybe, it reminded me of the sorts of polygons that you map 3D models with in imaging software. After I realized that I was hallucinating, I shut my eyes in fear. And behind my closed eye-lids the shape remained, except it was tracing itself in a sort of bleeding green neon. And then there came a yellow, an orange, red, pink, and the shape kept tracing itself and with it more appeared, an ever-complexifying series of geometries etched into the dark of my closed eyes.
In fear, I ended up getting out of bed and going into the next room and sitting on the couch while Brandon watched Seinfeld. After about five minutes of total silence, which felt like a half hour or an hour to me, I asked Brandon whether or not I'd actually been talking the whole time. He simply shook his head no, as if very confused. I nodded and went back to the TV, realizing only then that I was hearing a clanging sound at regular intervals, like a hammer falling on sheet metal, and with it a whole orchestra of discordant machine and industrial sounds—which were clearly not apart of George Costanza's subplot. These got more and more intense, more cacophonous, and I put my hands over my ears and fell into my girlfriend's lap, who was suddenly sitting next to me. She twisted her fingers through my still dampened locks of hair, her thumb tracing circles at the back of my neck, near the base of my skull.
After the effects had finally worn off, I sat out on the front porch with my girlfriend while she smoked a cigarette. I spoke absently about how the trip had felt, everything I had went through, and she kept saying that it was so strange that I reacted that way, she had no idea how it could've happened. Meanwhile I stared at those words above the door, not really listening to her, the sign, "Man Cave". And I drew some murky relationship between it and the stories of ancient shamanic initiations; in damp, dark caves with psychedelic plants and roots, which they'd use to affect visionary states and talk to gods and spirits.
For the following year and half, during the time that it took for our relationship to finally run it's natural course and fall apart perfectly, I experienced flashbacks from whatever it was that I'd had in my system. Of course I didn't put together that I'd even had anything in my system aside from simple, plain, vanilla marijuana, so what I'd feared was that I was possibly experiencing symptoms associated the onset of schizophrenia—which I understand usually takes place in the early 20's. The episodes I had never constituted a total break with reality, they were never a danger to any one but myself and my own place of mind. They were usually these intense spikes in anxiety, but associated with really strange things, these sort of sinking feelings like I'd realized at those instants that I was looking over the edge of a very tall building. It was almost like a metaphysical feeling of vertigo.
For instance, once I remember laying on the couch and realizing that there was nothing anchoring or securing me to the earth. Like my consciousness could just float away, leak right out of my body like somebody had poked a hole in my head with a sewing needle. I had this weird sense of the earth's movement, it's rotation and orbit at incredible speeds through space around the sun, like a vast active vehicle of man and animal and vegetable. I can't even fully describe some of it now, it seems so alien and bizarre. I remember legitimately shrinking at my thoughts, like I was suspended, dangling, over the abyss, a perfect void of uncreation. At any moment it could just be over, you could flicker out into darkness, and no one would have any idea what happened. I wasn't so much concerned for myself, as I was for everyone who loved and cared about me, my girlfriend admittedly less and less so as time went on. What would become of them if my body simply emptied? Wherever I ended up, whether it was a void or paradise, I'd know it, but they wouldn't. I had to continue through the desert, wandering in slow circles as many times as it took me to find myself, but I couldn't get lost there, I'd decided this simply wasn't an option. I clung to my flesh and my thoughts, and there were never so much visual or auditory hallucinations as weird perceptual ones like that.
One time, when I was at work, a gig at a large retail outlet at the time, I remember experiencing the sinking again. But this time I became paranoid of my own thoughts as they moved through my head. I couldn't see them, I couldn't touch them, as far as I was concerned they existed completely beyond material reality. So what were they? I remember breaking into a light sweat over it. Luckily this one passed very quickly. Another time while I was there walking through the isles of shelves, I thought they looked much taller than usual, as if I'd shrunk by several feet and they towered over me. Again, luckily ones like that were very brief.
The one serious visual one I ever had during this time was fairly unsettling though. I was sitting on the couch with my girlfriend one night, I was pretty miserable, because she had one of her friends over. She had a few of them, pretty much all guys, that she'd either met at work or around the apartment complex. This particular one was one of our neighbors, he was sitting opposite us on the futon drinking a 40. They were talking and I was sitting there idly in my uniform from that very same retail outlet, literally twiddling my thumbs, just waiting for it to be over.
And then I started to feel strange, not like in the way I did with the other episodes, it was less of a deep sinking feeling and more of a light note of fear. I glanced up at her friend, sitting across from me, and I noticed something over his left shoulder, flickering over the blinds behind the futon. It looked like a sort of crack or distortion in the air, almost like heat refraction or a floater in my eye that just sat there in that one spot unwavering. I looked away and looked back, it was still there. I closed and rubbed my eyes, and when I opened them again it was just sitting there, hanging over him. So I stared at it, and the longer I stared at it the the darker the room around me seemed to get, no one else reacted, they just kept talking, though their voices seemed slightly muted, far away. Eventually I somehow developed the sense that this thing was intelligent, which if it was a projection of the mind I suppose that goes entirely without saying, but it seemed to me at the time that it was thinking and had intentions. And finally I thought, "Leave him alone. Go away." and "You're not welcome here." and the thing abruptly dissipated back into thin air.
Something similar to this happened one other time, the night before my girlfriend left, after we'd already broken up but were still living together. So this would be late August or early September 2014. She was out with some other guy all night while I sat up until dawn drinking coffee, Red Bull, and writing. It was a really toxic situation. I had just seen Season 1 of True Detective, which I had loved, and I was sinking really deep into this sort of Lovecraftean direction. I had become obsessed in my writing with other worlds, parallel dimensions, gods, demons, quantum physics, and men as futile puppets in a universe and reality they couldn't fully understand or appreciate. I wanted to write a really powerful horror story and so I stayed up all night creating my monster. I did research into all sorts of areas, mostly pertaining to the occult. Finally I settled on an entity mentioned by Aleister Crowley that stood out to me, Choronzon—the demon of the abyss; he is the void, the fever state, the madness, the shapeless chaos beyond the Self. Supposedly this was one of the beings contacted by Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley, in their Ennochian rituals in the 16th Century. So I continued doing research, writing notes on him and thinking that name over and over again like a mantra, "Choronzon, Choronzon, Choronzon..." drawing recreations of his sigil for my notes and obsessing over how to represent him in a story.
All the while my feelings of anxiety, as to where she was and what she was doing, coupled with my feelings of fresh heartbreak swirled around inside of my body with a cocktail of sleeplessness, caffeine, and taurine. These images all burning into my eyes from the hot glow of the computer screen, the eerie geometries of Solomonic and Ennochian seals, created hundreds of years ago by would-be magicians and occultists, and the symbols of the Kabbalah, a Hebrew text which is thousands of years old, meant to contact energies from other worlds. Utilizing a surprisingly sophisticated cosmology in fact, which refers to elements strikingly similar to modern thoughts about String Theory, Quantum Entanglement, and the Multiverse, much like certain texts in Hinduism and Gnostic Christianity. Eventually I took a shower and tried to lay down to bed, the room dark but for the sun that was just rising outside and beginning to creep through the blinds.
And then there was a sudden flutter of anxiety in my chest. I began to feel off-balance, as though something was about to happen, sort of like the feeling before a lightning strike or a storm. I thrashed around in my bed a bit and then opened my eyes to see a flicker of something above me, like dim red and blue orbs of light. I closed my eyes after an instant though and can't be quite sure what I saw, only that when I opened them again I thought I saw more of those distortions, like I'd seen in the living room. But there seemed to be several, swimming in the air above my bed almost like translucent eels. I turned my head away and told myself it was a trick of the light, just the deception of a sleepless mind. And then there seemed to be a sound which then started filtering into my ears, as though it were coming from inside of my head and emanating outwards.
It was a very similar effect to what had happened to me in the shower with the actual drug in my system. The sound itself was like a discordant flurry of trumpets and horns, but the sound cascaded in a strange way as though it were funneling down from a context of greater complexity. The image that came to mind at the time, pretty clearly inside of my head, was like a tesseract folding itself up itself inside of a basic two-dimensional cube. And it was almost like the sound was growing, getting louder from a quiet whisper. This is what caused me to shake my head and jump out of bed with a start. I went into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. And after I laid back down it was quiet again and the room was still. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was my girlfriend standing at the open door, the light from the kitchen filtering dimly in, silhouetting her. And as I lost consciousness, she closed the door and everything went to black.
This was the last thing that ever happened, the last flashback episode of any kind. Though it was strange, because I thought they had pretty much stopped by that point, but I guess there was one last gasp of madness to be had at that pivotal moment when she left and life changed. Of course the truly disturbing thing, is that two comic book writers whom I've always admired, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, you may have heard of them, actually consider themselves to be practicing magicians or occultists. And in an radio interview with Alan Moore later, I would discover that what I had seen above my bed was an almost identical description that he gave of an encounter with a demon. Except of course mine was more mild, he did of course engage in a calculated ritual whereas I just emulated one on accident in front of a computer screen. And the distortion in the air that I had seen above the futon was also pretty much exact to Grant Morrison's description of invoked demons.
This would probably frighten me more if I believed in demons. I suppose I do on some level, but if they do exist I imagine they wouldn't be terribly different from negative thoughts, from feelings of anxiety or depression. Or the fear, hatred, and rage that takes root in the people in our world, which is much more dangerous than any of the things that I experienced in that old apartment—which in themselves could've been direct results of the drug flashbacks anyway. The only way to deal with a negative thought is by transcending it with positive ones, by transfiguring it into something constructive and illuminating.
I imagine, whether it's psychological or real spiritual phenomena, that's why you see more widespread cases of demonic possession in cultures where people adamantly believe in and fear the Devil. Worship is always the same, energy flows where you focus it. Just put yours into the right things; yourself, your relationships with others, bliss. If you're obsessed with a problem rather than a solution, you're likely just to get shallow solutions and further problems. I'm not talking about being naive, I'm not talking about a program of concentrated positive-thinking, in which a religious devolution to happy thoughts builds your repressed fears and anxieties into monsters. I'm just talking about easy, balanced common sense.
After the flashbacks wore off, we'll call it a spell of bewilderment, and my girlfriend left, I spent a lot of time just wandering, through the desert of my own mind. When things are taken from you, your illusions inevitably fall away and eventually all you're left with is what you are, stripped of defenses, of the needless crutches you've hobbled on for months and years. Things came and went, I had a blog, I felt pretty ambitious about it for awhile but it eventually just faded away. I met a girl pretty quickly after my girlfriend left, but after a smattering of dates, where I was really just in a desperate scramble for a sense of emotional security, it fizzled out.
There were few grinding halts in this time, few violent collapses. Things just faded in and out of my life, like loose structures on shifting sand. Though my car was destroyed by a monsoon a few weeks after she left, that was something. I flew to Texas and bought a new one, the moment I was pulling out of the lot with it, with my father in the passenger seat next to me, there was a solar eclipse. "Wow!" one of the saleswomen said, with a big, bright smile on her face, checking off items on her clipboard as she led me to the vehicle, "A solar eclipse on the day you get a new car, must be good luck!" I remember sitting in a restaurant with my family afterwards, watching out the window as a swarm of birds flew and squawked in a chaotic, fluttering circle over the parking lot. I suppose after such a long period of manic anxiety, ups and downs, visions and paranoia, a period of flat depression was almost welcome.
I don't want to give you the impression that in that time, with the flashbacks, with the bad relationship, I was a slobbering maniac or anything. I really wasn't, I was functional and competent—aside from the really extreme events described, it was mostly just a hiccup here and there, a spike of anxiety out of the blue. I was just a confused kid who'd lost any concrete sense of narrative, I was a perfect product of my generation. During this time of a year and a half or so, when it was all in full-swing, I saw evidence of things I'd long suspected. I saw the stitching show in the capitalist system, I came to understand the gross inequalities in modern American society. I lost Christ too in many ways, after a long, troubled relationship with the Church that existed ever since I was a child—sitting there in Sunday school, squirming at Old Testament stories of vengeance and punishment, visions of fiery apocalypse dancing in my head.
Losing a belief of any kind in God was deeply troubling, as my experiences over the previous year, while discrediting for me organized religion, didn't make stringent materialism or atheism any more convincing an answer—as I got the striking notion, that flashbacks or none, consciousness did not seem to be entirely localized to the human body. I didn't lose it permanently though; I'd also read about Hinduism, I'd read about Taoism, Buddhism, and the original Gnostic scriptures, and something was brewing which would save my life ultimately. Because after all, why not have Christ, Buddha, and Krishna too? One could even find room for Kant, Schopenhauer, and Foucault. Think for myself? Don't mind if I do. It was these things and, I think, the ultimately transcendental powers of art.
There was a movie Brandon and I tried to get made the following summer, this was where things picked up a bit as far as big, loud disasters are concerned. There were a lot of moving parts involved, that being said we made quite a bit of headway for two kids, only 21 each at the time we started in January of 2015. We had entire cast, we had a musician doing the soundtrack, we had storyboard and concept art, production management, design—all really gifted people. I'd written a script with some help from Brandon, Brandon had put together a shot list and composed all of the visual elements with some help from me. We got a Kickstarter going and things really moved for awhile, we even forged some beneficial relationships with a few local businesses. But, not after long, particularly as things progressed into the summer months and pre-production ramped up, everything started to get on top of us. As far as I was concerned, all of my unresolved issues from the previous four years began bubbling up, in this the pivotal moment of my life where we were about to make it happen—the big it, the dream.
Even though it was getting very hot outside, I started literally wandering through the desert, going on hikes almost daily, at this time in my jeans and a t-shirt. I remember as production continued on, and got more hectic and more troubled, I started having these pretty intense dreams in which I was being crucified. I became sort of obsessed with the theme in the journaling and the writing I did on the side actually, a sort of martyrdom for nothing in particular. I remember after this one event, where we gave a presentation to a large group of people, mostly consisting of cast and crew, with some supporters, I practically started having a panic attack. And a few nights later I'd had a dream that we were putting on a big premier at a theater, and after walking into the venue I discovered that they were planning to crucify me in front of a live audience in order to raise money for the production.
I kept going out in the desert, walking myself close to exhaustion under the hot sun, as if to purge myself somehow from the shame of my own incompetence and defeat. Like somehow my suffering was going to make sense out of or improve an already stressful situation. It was also around this time that I got involved in a pretty disastrous affair, with two different women at the same time. After the production came to an indefinite halt, and I was scrambling in the aftershocks of that failure to find something of meaning in my life, I sort of bounced between the two of them. Whoever offered me the most immediate kind of emotional or physical gratification at any one time pretty much won out over the other. The one really lasting benefit I'd derived from the whole thing, was that one of them had lent me a book on Zen Buddhism by Alan Watts, more or less introducing me to him. And the other girl in many ways, I guess ironically, taught me about the nature of attachment, sort of indirectly. I learned that maybe I wasn't going to fall deeply in love with every girl I dated, or have a relationship, and that it was probably for the better that I didn't. Finally, around September or October, just as Phoenix chilled under the veil of autumn, the whole thing unraveled in my hands. And much as I deserved, I alienated both of them.
And then began a long, empty period of personal isolation. Brandon and me were both roommates, we were also both single, with only a few friends, and our friendship was severely damaged for the time being. This was the result of something one of the girls I was seeing did, but ultimately it was mine because I let it happen. She sort of prided in taking possession over me psychologically, the other did too but in a more expressly physical sense, and she instigated a bad fight between Brandon and me. One night, at a bar, when we were both thoroughly drunk. After the damage was done the two of us, me and her, walked down to the corner of Roosevelt and 5th, and made out underneath the street light. It was pretty ugly, I was so drunk I was crouched down on my knees at one point in front of Lost Leaf trying to beckon stray cats.
I sort of just drifted through life for awhile, I honestly don't remember what I put my energy into. I did a lot of writing that was sort of stop-go, there would be really productive periods, in minor spurts, then long phases of complete idleness. I imagined all the time what it would be like to meet a girl I really liked, but on the other hand I recognized how much damage I'd done to myself, and the people I care about, over the years in the pursuit of sex and love. It really wasn't worth it, I had to figure myself out, I had to focus on something constructive or I was going to fall apart. Rather than dealing with anything in any meaningful way over the past four years, I'd sort of just jumped from one bad situation to another. Each one was arguably some kind of improvement over the last; if I hadn't had my ex-girlfriend for instance, I probably wouldn't have left Texas to begin with, at least not so wholeheartedly, with any kind of conviction. As bad as things got, it was always a little bit of an improvement. I had changed too, my perspective grew over time, transformed. I'd completely overdone it on negativity, my values had to change, there was no other option left. I'd exhausted every escape from myself that tempted me in any way, shape, or form, and landed square on my ass each time.
I started listening to lectures by Alan Watts as I fell asleep at night, he explained Buddhism and Hinduism in extremely understandable and accessible ways. From one westerner to another. He even discussed certain Christian verses in light of Zen philosophy. And these were subjects I was already interested in, and had read about. But when I heard him speak, those old crackly recordings from the 1960's, his good-natured yet knowledgeable speaking voice in its southeast London accent, something finally clicked. He explained the moment to me, the ongoing present which is all we have, that which is also infinite and eternal. And then I started listening to Thich Nhat Hanh some nights, and I was given a renewed understanding of mindfulness and patience—his voice very calming, very soothing, punctuated at points by the soft ringing strikes of a meditation bell. I became preoccupied with meditation, with how my actions affected others, with Hindu gods who had blue skin, the heads of animals, and many arms. But who were self-aware, post-modern almost, symbols of things rather than the thing itself. I'm reminded of Robert Anton Wilson, "The map is not the territory.", and the surrealist painter Magritte, his simple image of a pipe, with a plain beige backdrop, and the words "This is not a pipe." underneath in French.
And I'm reminded of many of my heroes, from over the course of my life, the filmmakers David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky to name a few, in that I had developed an intense desire to know myself as fully as possible. Like Lynch, I tried to accomplish this on one hand by meditating, and like Jodorowsky, I began exploring these themes actively in my writing and art. The circle was finally closing, like in the single, fluid stroke of a calligraphy brush in a Zen exercise. Of course I was only discovering a method now, the journey was far from over, but even though I felt totally alone, totally lost, a silver-lining was appearing. Finally, in my almost total solitude.
Despite our issues, Brandon and I repaired our friendship over time. We remained roommates, slowly working towards our goals—his company building, my voice sharpening. It's been two years since I was left to my devices in that small apartment, we've moved several times since. Brandon has a new girlfriend now, I don't. With her came a new circle of friends, which eventually I came around to and entered. I changed jobs a few times, slowly building up to bigger and better things. I work at a bookstore now, surrounded by things that I love as I write more and more regularly, with more confidence. I remember during that time of total isolation I was working in the meat department of a grocery store, coming home every night freezing cold from being in the cooler all day and dripping wet from cleaning it every night. My clothes stained and crusted with juices from the meat and bleach.
I guess it was a test of my resolve that I was closely studying Eastern Philosophy at a time where my day-to-day labor was extremely physical and uncomfortable. And that almost all of my coworkers were ex-cons and barely recovered drug addicts, some of which verbally abused me on a daily basis. The one I was closest to had issues with rage that he dealt with through bodybuilding. He had been in prison in Detroit for beating another guy nearly to death in a bar fight. I feel like he had a good heart deep down, he was always trying to help me stay out of trouble with the department manager—who was an ex-methamphetamine addict and was deliberately trying to push me so hard that I would quit. I outlasted him by a few weeks, before I went to work at my first bookstore job.
The thing that really caused everything to click for me though was when I really rediscovered a value for my art. It was in this time, basically from late 2015 to the present, where I really got myself back on track with my writing and stopped pressuring myself so much. That's a really good way to choke yourself out of any ideas or inspiration, you're also unlikely to believe in yourself if you're beating yourself up all the time. It was in summer 2016 I started submitting to magazines again, and I even won an award in Art Ascent magazine for one of the pieces I sent. And slowly but surely I worked with my ideas, and let them work on me, quietly as I stocked shelves at the bookstore and read, until I started a new blog in early 2017. Just following the election, which galvanized me in many ways. Not just because Trump won, but because the conditions had come to exist in which his campaign was even possible. A growing instability in our culture I've been watching closely with apprehension, pretty much since the towers fell when I was 8 years old. And the response, not just overseas but at home, that hung over my childhood like a dark shadow.
I came to rediscover, something I hadn't really felt in a powerful way since before college, the real transcendental potentialities of art. Much like Saint Anthony, who would become one with this world, unknowingly, stumbling from his desert right into oil paints and copper engraving, I found my way back to it with no real plan. Just the basic desire to feel something pure and meaningful in life. I'd started out, way back in High School, wanting desperately to be a writer, to be a real artist who really knew himself and could express it in his work. And then, as soon as that process was supposed to begin, I was stripped of all of my preconceived notions and taken down, not to the lowest levels, but certainly low. And from there I rebuilt myself into that original desire, now intimately understanding why each and every piece of me is configured as it is and how it is.
And more than that the configuration is eve more sound now. More versatile, of stronger material. The alchemists used to call this process solve et coagula—to take something apart, piece by piece, see how it works, and put it back together with renewed understanding. A machine whose operations are no longer a mystery, so when it runs into a problem, a snag, a glitch, you'll know how to fix it. You won't have to go digging crudely through an enigma, for a little bug. And things don't have to fall apart for you to be able to put them back together again.
III. The Realization of the Infinite Self Through Artistic Expression
I should probably make it very clear, that I do not consider myself to be a Christian, some sort of bastardized western Hindu, Hare Krishna, Gnostic, or even a Buddhist. And I certainly don't see myself as New Age by any stretch. At least I'm not exclusively any of those things. I'm simply a human being with an active spiritual existence, as well as an active intellectual and physical one. However it would be fair to say, that my religion, if I do have one, is art. And the continued devotion to it. David Lynch has a term that really resonates with me, and that is the "Art Life". Which simply refers to a mode of existence in which all of your efforts and energies are focused ultimately around the expression of your art or craft. I'd say that if I do have any overarching belief of any kind it is simply that.
Saint Anthony started praying and mediating in the desert. I do very much the same thing, but with text, narrative, and a computer or a piece of paper and a pen. It's the marriage of the two worlds, the very physical and psychological one Saint Anthony literally experienced in the desert and the infinite, spiritual one on the page and in the canvas that he wandered figuratively into. To master both and see the relationship is to become artists, not only of our craft, but of our lives as well.
This is the true connection with the divine, the mainline to that which is beauty and love in the cosmos. And once you find that, the entire universe lives and breathes in tune with you, and that deepest part of you is in harmony with everything else. I'm not saying it's enlightenment, I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm just saying that it's something. The type of thing people spend their lives searching for, and then, if they find it, spend the rest of their lives doing. It is a meaning to this cyclical action and reaction, a purpose to be found in the back and fourth, ebb and flow, of what was called, in Sanskrit, Samsara. The cycle of death and birth, the wheel of karma, the laws of action and reaction that we're all shackled to in this vast, uncanny dream.
Because whatever the reality beyond the illusion is—the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal Atman, Nirvana—I believe it is tied to that which is inside us all. The spark which binds us; the spirit, consciousness, the soul. As all of these old religions say. That which is inside and is yearning to be expressed, as ideas; in images, writing, sounds. Art is that which is inside expressed outwards, externalized, and shown for what it is: the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. If such a thing is possible, I'm sure I've seen it in galleries, heard it in concert halls, and read it in books.
Art has undeniable power, an extremely resonate power. Sometimes it reveals itself in striking beauty, other times in odd coincidences. Such as the fact that I began work on this blog post on June 13th, more or less being stricken with the idea out of a clear blue sky, without having any idea of the significance of that date. In fact I wasn't even aware much of the story of Saint Anthony before that date, outside of the paintings I'd seen over the years. Well, on a whim, after I was about a week deep into this blog, I decided to look up the date of Saint Anthony's commemoration. Every saint has one; a celebration day, a feast day. It turns out that his is June 13th. What a funny, strange world we live in.
I'd really like to acknowledge this article on The Eclectic Light Company for providing a lot of background and information concerning the artistic history of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. It proved to be an invaluable resource, particularly in assembling the paintings for the blog: https://eclecticlight.co/2016/07/26/the-story-in-paintings-the-temptation-of-saint-anthony-after-1570/