Sunday, June 2, 2013

Journal of a Soul 20

Searchers for, or Makers of  Meaning?

It is wonderful to write one's thoughts, give them shape and pattern on a page, and even see them take a virtual form that can be summoned up at the touch of a button or as a random connection to some remotely connected search on Google, initiated by an unknown soul.  Then that those thoughts might be read, that they might even elicit a response only adds to the wonderment.  There are times when I wonder do my thoughts precede my words or do my words precede me thoughts - the hen-egg conundrum in another guise.  And yet, I believe instinctively that it is the interplay of both, that dynamism, or symbiosis even, where one supports the other that is more important.  

As I write these thoughts, I also fully realise that these thoughts write me, that they are, in fact, giving shape to "me", forming my selfhood.  We find our selves (and I deliberately disjoin this word) in doing, in action and in all things that we pursue to give our little lives meaning.  As I have said in these posts so many times before, we are meaning-making creatures, and the greatest meaning we can make is our very own SELF.  Again, we shape our selves in another important way to - by simply learning to be and become the person we were innately meant to be.  In that sense we make ourselves by metaphorically travelling in two directions as it were, by going without (going out and interacting with others and the world) and by going within (through meditation and contemplation, through entering the stillness of not alone one's own being, but discovering in that stillness the unity of all being of which the self is put a drop in the ocean.).

And yet, I don't want to make too much of "making meaning" here.  I wish, rather to comment on the human condition insofar as it relentlessly searches for meaning.  In a sense, this is almost a counter spiritual movement if it is a fraught and lonely search that reveals very little meaning, maybe even frustration and despair.  In this sense, I am writing here about the very heart of existentialism - that lonely search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world.  Searching for meaning can be both a spiritual and a disillusioned aspiritual (I'm not sure if this word exists, but unspiritual is certainly not what I mean, what I mean is a-spiritual in the way amoral relates to moral!) quest at one and the same time.  Let us not dwell too much on the sheer meaninglessness of life as Camus would have it in his version of the great myth of Sisyphus. 

Ah, dear reader, you are probably wondering where these thoughts are going to at all, at all.  In these posts, I often believe I am feeling my way in the dark, but hopefully with a little more direction than Mulla Nasruddin searching for his lost key under the light of the street lamp simply because there was more light there than in the dark house where he had lost it.  And so let me come to some point in this meandering post.  Last Thursday evening I had the pleasure to view the wonderful film The Great Gatsby.  Indeed, it was to my mind wonderfully loyal to the book, or at least to my memory of it from years ago - having read it for my Leaving Certificate many years ago when I was a young lad of 17 years. What comes across in the film is the sheer feeling of lostness, of being cut adrift on an ocean of multiple, though colourful and alluring experiences; of searching for something of value, almost irretrievably lost in that multiplicity; of tasting excess after excess and finding it all so hollow.  What is it, at all, that can make us humans really happy?  Why do things, which we once desired so much, eventually leave such a rotten taste in the mouth?  

In a sense, this book or film is quintessentially about F. Scott Fitzgerald himself.  After all, all writing is inevitably autobiographical  when pondered and reflected upon and cut back to the bone.  One quotation I placed on the flyleaf of a recent piece of work was a quotation from this wonderful Irish American writer.  That quotation runs:  “Five years have rolled away from me and I can’t decide exactly who I am, if anyone.  (Letter, 1932).  He had written The Great Gatsby in 1925 at the young age of 29, when he was obviously a searcher for meaning in a fraught and intense way.  One can see this search for meaning (let's call it meaning as revealed in love, in human love - yet very much in this case in the form of the classical love for the unobtainable beloved) in the following quotation about Gatsby which we find in the first chapter:

―He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock.
           (Scribner's paperback edition, p. 21)

That green light in the darkness marked where his beloved Daisy Buchanan lived with her millionaire husband Tom.  And, indeed, we instinctively know that this love is pretty much unobtainable, and the fog that is not quite as thick as that in Eugene O'Neill's wonderful play Long's Day's Journey into Night, is all too indicative of lostness: "―If it wasn‘t for the mist we could see your home across the bay…You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock." (Ibid., p.92)

And then, there is that very sad expression, which is the very antithesis of all spirituality, that suggests that the only way of steering our barque of self through the choppy waters of life is by living in the past or by the vain attempt to recapture that past in the now..  The quotation I have in mind is given almost verbatim in the movie:
"Can‘t repeat the past?‘ he cried incredulously. Why of course you can!" He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand...  I‘m going to fix everything just the way it was before," he said, nodding determinedly. "She‘ll see."
―He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.  (Ibid., p.110)

In this sense, then, as I have already stated, this could be said to be an aspiritual quest, an illusive and elusive quest.  Those of us who deeply accept the spiritual life believe fervently in living in the now.  Indeed, we could say that Gatsby was living in a spiritual or existential hell, well before Albert Camus gave it philosophical form.

One theme of this novel  or film could be stated as follows: Dwelling in the past can only result in obsession and misfortune. We cannot transplant ourselves into the past again as it is passed and gone forever. The future misfortune can only be prevented by learning from the pastGatsby simply had not learned this lesson.  Another theme would be: Some of us drink in and swallow whole the illusion that the rich person's life is perfect.  In other words, we confuse illusion with reality.  After all, is this not one of the main symptoms of mental illness - that the border lines between illusion and reality are very blurred indeed? Another theme, still, would be that when dreams become an obsession they fall out of our reach.  Finally, another theme would be that wealth is not all it's cracked up to be; that the American dream may be linked to wealth, but that it is much, much more, too.

In writing this novel of quest for meaning, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned a classic which has made his name immortal in human culture as he pointed out the sham which life can be.  Deep down as humans we know we want more.  The tragedy may be that this wonderfully gifted writer F. Scott Fitzgerald may not have truly realised how great a writer he was and that his finely crafted words would live on after he had passed into the mist or fog of the past as a person.

Reading the book and viewing the film can only affect us deeply if we are at all human.  Both will push us to want to live in the now with an eye to our future. We can never, for an instant really believe the words of the narrator as we finish the novel or film, because we know, that like Gatsby we, too, will be lost forever in the fog of our own illusion if we do:

―I thought of Gatsby‘s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy‘s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could barely fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night....
―Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that‘s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning...
―So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.(180, 182)

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