Triptych: On Light and Shadows
“The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.”
-Jun'ichro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
I'm a rigid piece of work. I've been scared of basically everything for as long as I can remember and I'm way too sensitive. I think too much, about everything, and anyone else who is like this will know that analysis for its own sake won't bring any peace of mind. Like that classic image of a snake eating its own tail.
Miguel de Unamuno, in his novel Abel Sanchez: The History of a Passion, a retelling of the Cain and Abel myth—Cain cast as Joaquin a deeply narcissistic and envious doctor, and Abel, obviously, as the titular Sanchez, a painter who is guided only by his passions—said that the curse of mankind, the burden of original sin if you will, is the self-awareness of our own limitations and the knowledge of death. That our attempts to make sense of the universe, which is the defining trait of our species on earth, will only put us further and further away from ultimate understanding.
In short, I'm feeling that, de Unamuno.
I feel like my whole life has been a series of calculated attempts to decode the world around me, to try and uncover whatever cipher it is that will decrypt the mystery of human interaction and creative expression, the thing that will ultimately diffuse fear. And in doing so fear becomes more complex, it adapts to stimulus as I grow, kind of like a virus that mutates in response to a vaccine.
That's one part of my life.
The other is when I let the unknown be the unknown and appreciate it on its own terms. My best conversations with people have been the ones where I haven't cared whether or not they liked me or about making an impression. My best pieces of writing are the ones where I don't let the feelings of inadequacy get to me, and try and dress the piece in frills, stuff the edges with fluff, and I just do what I want. In all areas of life, when I'm guided more by the freely expressive attitude of Abel Sanchez than his rigidly analytical brother, Joaquin, who is constantly comparing himself against Abel's successes and desperately studying his own flaws, I'm much more comfortable with the things that I do.
This comes from being able to accept the dark on its own terms and live with it.
So don't you worry, a cushy self-help seminar this is not. Nor is it your run-of-the-mill online self-love affirmation. That so pains to soothe the aches of the heart and smooth the rough edges of the psyche, with blinding Narcissistic rays of sunshine and positivity, that nothing is actually learned to better one's own life. The kind of content that refuses to face the thorny complications that might actually help someone, instead opting to present a heavily curated image of perfection.
Because, no matter how you try and ignore it, there is the dark night of the soul you're required cross in order to reach the daylight on its opposite end.
You wouldn't eat candy for a toothache, would you?
However this brand of online self-help is actually a kind of analysis in itself, even if it seems much more palatable and blissed-out by contrast. This is because it’s a reductive form of analysis. A fundamentalist urge to reduce the inherent complexities of life, whether they be the things about one's self that are too worrisome to confront and try and fix or problems in the immediate environment, and blanket the world in a comfortable wave of religious simplification. It’s analysis in broad strokes, rather than finer, more delicate ones.
To feel present in the moment, but to be hopelessly detached from it.
And I agree that we need to be more mindful, more loving, but neither of those things excuse a lack of courage, just the opposite in my experience. That's the problem of adopting eastern philosophies, and often simplifying them as a result, into an intensely capitalist society like the west, where everything's value is determined ultimately by its marketability. Things need to be bought and sold, so they are presented in a reduced way, usually in a fashion that shies away from the problem of personal accountability. So that they can be liked by everyone, and of course this bleeds over into social media.
Satisfy everyone, all the time, and make tons of money doing it—or likes, which are another kind of currency.
Whereas traditionally, in a country like Japan—I'll use it as an example, because, if the opening epigraph wasn't any indication, I've been super into Japanese literature the past month or so—these things are approached very differently. And this isn't to put the east on a pedestal, as is often done in our culture—the grass is greener and all that. The Japanese have a word, for example, Shouganai, which has no English equivalent but basically translates to "It can't be helped." It's derived from the country's tradition of Zen Buddhism, and it'll be uttered in any situation, from a traffic jam to the aftermath of the Fukushima reactor leak, as a mantra of acceptance.
Some might even say to a fault, in that it's long been apart of Japanese culture to accept things as they are, to carry this burden of responsibility so not to unduly disrupt the status quo in what is a fatalistic universe anyway. Not reaching the extra few inches for something new and better. Whereas in the west we're so about self-actualization and controlling our environment that we completely reduce ourselves, getting ground down to a powder, and give our environment complete over control over us. Our brains are like a programmed array of pop cultural touchstones and our hearts beating only for the cash money necessary to cultivate an identity through material possessions.
I wouldn't describe myself as a Buddhist or a communist or any of the other -ists that may have been implied in the last few sentences. I tend to subscribe to a mid-ground rule in most things, not all, but most, in that a solution can generally be found in the reasonable middle distance between two extremes. Between light and dark for example, maybe give or take a few degrees on either side.
The irony for example, in say capitalism and communism, though they appear to be diametric opposites, is that they begin to resemble each other almost identically when pushed too far in either direction. In capitalism, over time, corporations will merge seamlessly with the state, so much so that interests of policy are swayed by a homogenized mega-corporation with a monopoly over its industry. And everyone not in the top one-percentile bracket suffers. In communism the exact same thing happens, and has been observed in the Soviet Union, in Red China, in that an appointed Ministry in government will have total control over a particular industry and aspect of national infrastructure. And, as a result, once again, everyone not in the top one-percentile bracket suffers.
So once you put yourself in an ideological box like that, refusing to pivot or adapt, in my eyes, that's it, the end of growth. Which is the mind's ultimate goal by the way, a pure crystalline state where everything is defined and catalogued. The mind's endgame is to stop thinking, it is in effect the end of the mind. But it can't accomplish this goal in and of itself, so it fixes itself in place and screams into the dark.
Tanizaki wrote that without shadows, there would be no beauty. He appreciated the west in many ways, but said that our tendency is to illuminate and examine everything, to leave nothing to the imagination. Whereas in Japan there is a certain beauty to the dark, Japanese literature, and I can very definitely attest to this, finds its beauty in concealment. Not everything is given away, but it is there, so it sinks underneath the skin and lives in you. A pure mood.
This quality carries over into even 21st century fiction, though there has been some attempt to experiment and evolve. One of my very favorite Japanese novelists for example, Yukio Mishima, has a tendency to be extremely descriptive and sensual in his detail, but this is not accomplished by inundating the reader with detail, but by giving just the right specific details. We are then left to connect the dots like a trail of breadcrumbs lain by Mishima, beginning where the reader's eyes fall onto the page and leading to his greater vision. And the effect is nothing short of miraculous, seriously if you've never read one of his books, do yourself a favor and check one of them out. He was a very complex, and clearly somewhat unhinged, figure in life and trying to draw comparisons between him and any other novelist never really does him full justice. His life certainly factors into this but the strength of his fiction is the most striking thing, and the way its details, specific and suggested, creep under the skin.
I feel like this discipline is practically where Zen Buddhism lives, defined by Alan Watts as literally being the sound of the rain. It comes from an intuitive place, which is what I meant when I said the mind cannot reach its ends by itself, with sheer analysis that is. And if you have a disciplined enough mind, I'm not even sure that's something that you should want. The idea of totally dissolving the ego has been one of the biggest ego trips of mankind for ages, paraphrasing Watts again. Without suffering there is no contrast, there is no life and nothing is learned or gained.
It seems to be a very American slant on mindfulness to try and totally eradicate suffering, to live in a virtual reality under the guise of transcending Karma. However to accept suffering and to take it and transform it, that's where the money is, but it requires acknowledgement.
This is what Buddhists call Samsara, the wheel of Karma. It's the world in the jaws of a devil, structured by time and decay.
The universe is after all mostly darkness, try to avoid it and I promise you'll fail. But the darkness is there as a template, for brilliant stars, which over time gravitate other celestial materials into their orbit, gases and rock, and compress them into full spherical bodies. Some of these, the lucky ones—or the unlucky, depending upon your viewpoint; I tend err on the side of optimism for sanity's sake—begin to propagate life across their surfaces, self-driving, self-replicating, and self-aware creatures.
When this happens it seems miraculous, because of the contrast of the wide spaces that are dark and void.
And yet the darkness's ultimate substance seems to be in those rare pearls dotting across its cosmic immensity. Wherever life can exist it seems to thrive on whatever terms are available to it—look at extremophile bacteria living in ice or the vents of volcanoes. The dark is frightening and represents the epitome of the unknown, and yet it resolves itself into light and matter.
I remember one time, as an adult, which is very telling, I had to drive from Cortez, Colorado, all the way across the Navajo reservation spanning from there to Kayenta and Tuba City up to Flagstaff and then from there down to Phoenix, in the dark. I was up in Montrose and I ended up leaving to drive home, just the dog and me, at around 3 in the afternoon. This left me with about 3 and a half hours of daylight to work with in a 9 hour drive. It made me extremely nervous, not only nervous but there was an intense feeling of dread, like a knot in my stomach. I felt completely isolated in this wide expanse of pure night, the poorly paved reservation roads without lines almost disappearing into the dark, if it hadn't been for my headlights.
I was very tired, I don't think I was at risk of falling asleep at the wheel but I was worried enough about it to down a coffee, a 5-Hour Energy, two Extra Strength Monsters, and a Rockstar energy drink. The next day, after I got home, my upper eyelid on the right side was sore. And then the day after that, I woke up and noticed I only had half of my vision on that side. I looked in the bathroom mirror and the eye was swollen nearly shut, I had to take a few Benedryll over the course of the day to return it to its normal shape, leaving me in a haze. This had been some kind of allergic reaction to all of the garbage I put in my system two nights prior, out of fear of falling asleep.
The landscape was totally hidden in the dark, there were no markers for the mind to recognize and grasp onto. It was just a slow eventual trudge through relative sameness for hours and hours. And yet when I reached the outskirts of Phoenix, near Anthem, my fears began to subside, and I relaxed. As if the danger had magically dissipated, calling into question whether or not it ever existed in the first place.
In direct contrast to that experience, the night has always really enchanted me. Particularly when I was young, living in my hometown. I used to love walking around at night, through the neighborhoods, and just basking in the silence. Especially as a teenager in a suburb, there was a thrill in knowing that I was the only one awake and the world was totally still.
I did a lot of writing in those late hours, beginning at 10 and 11 PM, as everyone settled down for the night and went to sleep. I would work sometimes until 3 and 4 in the morning, other times I'd be in my bedroom with just my desk light on and a copy of Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami or Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
It was just me, alone, playing these games with my imagination in the night. And the connection you make with a book is extremely personal, the way you crawl inside of it and live in it for the period of time it takes you to finish it. It's a much more intimate version of the same experience with a piece of writing.
I remember I'd steal away at night with a novel and then bring it with me into the day, to school, where I'd sit in a classroom I didn't want to be in, with people who, let's be honest, I felt almost totally alienated from, and I had the option to leave, into the pages of the book. I had this parallel world in my head, running along side by side with my physical experience. And that’s where I remember most of my experience during school hours taking place, when I’d be sitting in first period, having rushed through my school work, my tests, so I could crack open Pynchon, “A screaming comes across the sky…”
Burroughs, “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons…”
DeLillo, “The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through west campus.”
Garcia Marquez, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover the ice.”
And of course there was the Camus, the Murakami, the Palahniuk, Easton Ellis, the Irvine Welsh, and Sartre. All the stuff you would come to expect from a growing teenage boy, whose sinking his teeth into post-modern and transgressive literature, seeking out the stuff he shouldn’t be reading, subverting the school’s standards and practices by getting away with it right under their noses, ironically, supported by his former art student father. I got into all the films you'd expect too; David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Gus Van Sant, Fellini, Cronenberg, Paul Thomas Anderson.
I was interested in everything and at night, I would sit alone in my space and investigate. And in the night I would reach that intuitive place in myself that I talked about earlier, usually when I was writing. The best way to describe it is that you stop operating off of sheer calculation and analysis and just start flowing with the work. It’s a flow state, which is common in most fields, particularly in creative ones and sports. I would assume this is why so many critics can’t cut it in creative fields, not all obviously, but the general trend seems to be that art and criticism come from two different places.
The actual creative endeavor is more intuitive, with analytical sculpting from draft to draft, and criticism is more analytical with an intuitive connective tissue. For example, the critic says: “I didn’t like this, it didn’t sit right with me.” or “I love this, it really resonated with me.” And then: “Why?” or “Why not?” And that’s the real power of the dark, I think, is simply accepting the unknown variables and allowing the unconscious mind, or even nature, to act accordingly. Things draw power from half-concealment, from the mystery. Because in the dark we’re forced to interact with something more fundamental, more essential, about ourselves and our goals.
But, of course, the night’s appeal is that it is pure chaotic potential. Nothing is happening, everyone is asleep, and things are dark and still. So anything is possible, just as soon as the sun rises. But it hasn’t yet, so the plan itself is more comfortable and exciting, there’s no pressure. It’s a great space to imagine, but things need to be put into action in the sun.
This is what Mishima believed. Obviously he went way too far with it, attempting to inspire the Japanese Self-Defense Force into a coup from the rooftop of their headquarters in 1970. This was after having taken a commandant hostage, demanding the garrison be assembled below for his speech. After being laughed off of the roof, he went back inside, to the members of his militia and the commandant bound in his chair, and committed ritual seppuku.
For those who don’t know the specifics of it, this involved kneeling down and disemboweling oneself across the stomach with a ritual dagger. And traditionally a sort of spotter, called a second, is then charged with decapitating you with a samurai sword. Mishima’s second was inexperienced, and probably more than a bit nervous, as he was likely also Mishima’s lover, so he kept missing his neck and whacking Mishima in the shoulders. Eventually one of the other militants had to take the sword from him and do the beheading himself, then also beheading the second, as he wanted to die with Mishima and committed seppuku as well.
While I do think this was pretty extreme, to put it lightly, and I wouldn’t say I agree with Mishima’s politics at all, you really can’t knock the guy’s determination. He didn’t kill anyone after all, his dedication to his beliefs was completely exerted onto his own body, like a self-immolating Buddhist monk. The sheer willpower he possessed, to be as great a novelist as he was, to train his body to its absolute physical peak, to speak at least 3 different languages, and then, at the end of it all, to have the resolve to stick a dagger into his stomach and cut himself open, definitely leaves one at a pause.
While being a bit insane, it has a way of showing you that maybe your goals aren’t so impossible. And rather than just writing him off as a nut-job, perhaps his example can be transformed into something positive.
If you want to learn multiple languages, give it a shot. I know I’m going to. If you want to work out and eat better, don’t make any excuses, just decide the best way to accomplish it and do it. I do my best to be at the gym six days a week now. And if you want to create something, if you want to be a great artist, put the work in, dedicate yourself to it. To that end I’ve been trying to write no less than 1,000 words every day and I write with a pen in a physical journal every night. All it takes is a simple plan, no one’s telling you to make a grandiose political statement and disembowel yourself—nor should you for that matter. But imagine if you took that same work ethic and force of will, then applied it to constructive and positive goals, something life affirming rather than self-destructive.
Human beings are capable of some extremely impressive feats, we were hundreds and thousands of years ago, and we are now. Just because our lifestyles and technologies have made us more sedentary physically and mentally less focused, we haven’t evolved to be this way. We’re still capable of just as much as we ever were physically, mentally, and, yes, I’ll say it, even spiritually. Why would you be content to just accept things as they are? So many people are miserable and they fall back on their fears, their insecurities, as a default, as if it’s more comfortable. Why not fight it? Fight yourself.
The mind exists in homeostasis as well as the body, so any positive change is going to require stepping outside of your comfort zone. Different people have different circumstances and problems, some are harder to surpass than others. But in every case you can try. How bleak and depressing would it be, to accept that you will never for the rest of your life surpass your own limitations? And, in the process, do yourself another favor, and don’t judge anyone too harshly who aren't pushing themselves like you might be. Your efforts have nothing to do with theirs, it needs to be completely about you. If you need to justify yourself like that in order to accomplish anything, maybe you need to reassess more than just your lifestyle. Most of the problems we have as people with others are generally going to be things that we hate about yourselves, so take my advice and just save it.
The thing about the light, about the sunshine, is that the truth will always come forward in it. This is where all of your plans and hard work are applied and made real. And the moment to do so is now.