essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Have you ever had a moment’s inspiration, an insight that jangled the synapses between brain and mind, a patch of clarity in the fog of life, a eureka! that propelled you from your bath of normality? Only to discover that someone else has had it earlier?
It’s disappointing to discover you’ve only been copying someone else, and sometimes at least we wish we didn’t know we had. I think we must all seem geniuses inside our own universe, and childhood, when we build our world through our own discoveries, is an exciting time. We need to recover that state.
Time, education, the media, competition and mistakes of judgment can take that excitement from us. We grow up, and learn to learn for a purpose, usually for an economic purpose. Adults, all the ones I’ve come across (and I use the term loosely) seem divided into two types. Those who go on doggedly adding new information to their world view, but finding less and less to add because they never discard earlier discoveries. And those who try to develop themselves too much too soon, and create a sophisticated facade they spend too much time defending to have any time at all for discovering, no matter how enriching.
The inspiration you can call your own is worth more than that of others, even though your own inspiration might actually be that of others.
Let me illustrate this by quoting from some notebooks I kept a few years ago, in the 1990s in fact, in a time of trouble, in which I wrote down what I saw, like Leonardo.
“I was thinking about the death of someone I knew, someone who died unexpectedly. I was shocked by the news, but not grieved, it was someone I’d drifted apart from over the years. Perhaps that was why my thoughts took a philosophical turn and I considered the deaths I experience every day. I paused to consider the insects – the spiders, moths and beetles who recklessly squander their lives all around me, victims of immensity. A spider, incredibly tiny, squashed beneath the rim of a cup; moths mired in spilt olive oil or drowned in drinking water, beetles lost and finally desiccated in the midst of the carpet pile. Surely each life is precious to its possessor? Although I can never perceive life as another perceives it yet I believe, for some reason, that life, all lives, possess a common identity. The struggle of the moth in the oil is related to my dread of decline physical and mental, my sadness on hearing of the death of someone I knew.
“In my kitchen several lives are lost each week. The barrier to their significance for me is the one of scale. There is a range of size that affects me: too big (the death of suns) or too small (the moth on the bench top) and I am not affected. But see how fine this tiny moth is, with a kind of powder on its wings which sheens in the light through the window of a morning. How difficult it is to lift it without destroying it, leaving but a smudge where it had been on its mysterious business. The insects breed and die on an enormous scale. Humans are approaching the breeding habits of insects, our species, numbered in billions, may soon rival them in numbers. Perhaps we could look a bit more closely at their lives, and deaths.”
In 1942 Leonard Woolf published a book of essays written by his late wife, which included a famous one, The Death of the Moth. 50 years before I had written my meditation, Virginia Woolf had had a similar thought, and of course expressed it far more beautifully than I. Her essay is sublime, one of the many wonderful things she left behind after her own death.
“…It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.”
Originality is over rated. As King Solomon put it, there is nothing new under the sun, and that had probably been said before too. But we have been taught that originality is a value in itself; it more than represents the value of being genuine. To copy something is to be dishonest, we’re told, and in many spheres the copyright police are vigilantly watching us. This is true, though not in a very significant way. What the law cannot understand is that it’s the way we copy that’s important.
What this whole attitude overlooks is the dual nature of what I could call, for lack of a precise term, reality. There is absolute reality, all that which is, and we can’t endure to come into contact with this for long if at all; and there is relative reality, the stuff of our lives, our selection from the big picture that makes us us. In both types of reality things happen for the first time, and things are repeated. There are things that are original, and there are copies. And the job of living involves, not in being original, but in the integration of what happens to us into a meaningful whole. Our job is to gain integrity. It’s how we do this that makes us individuals. It’s the way we copy that makes us creative, that makes us original.
In my particular universe it happened that my moth died in 1995, and Virginia Woolf’s moth died in 2006, even though in other people’s universe Woolf’s essay had been around since 1942. I was not original, but still my moth taught me something I hadn’t known. And as a result of that meditation I absorbed the lesson of Virginia’s moth more movingly and more precisely that I would have done otherwise. My universe was enriched by not one, but two, moths. I did the job of integration.
If you’re walking somewhere you’ve never been before, just make sure you’re not following anyone else, even if somebody else has been that way before you. Then Columbus ain’t got nothing on you at all.
This job of integration is made harder by the pervasive influence of communication media. Communication media is not necessarily information media and it often inhibits rather than liberates. It gives us models of what reality is, could be, should be, and we struggle to act on its barrage of suggestions. We are educated, not in school and college, but by images so real we take them for reality, images in advertisements, on TV, in movies. And to our confusion we are told that being influenced by this unending barrage of pseudo reality all around us is wrong. The censors and the thought police are watching us. Men with guns fuel the movie industry, shops sell us guns as our democratic right so we can live like cowboys, but if someone steps into the street and fires a gun the scandal is enough to sell a million newspapers.
In other words, before we can integrate new experience into our very own original reality, we now have the unprecedented job of distinguishing the actual reality of that reality. But it’s not impossible.
It’s worthwhile remembering that the impossible is just something that has not been done before. At least by you. It’s like a new pair of shoes.
You can change reality, as Tom Robbins said, by the way you perceive it. “One has not only an ability to perceive the world, but an ability to alter one’s perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.” – Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
It happens in the blink of an eye. Blink. Disaster. Blink. Funny disaster. Blink. Absurd. Blink. Look, the iris in the back garden is in bloom.
Let’s not try to be original in what we think or do, but in the way we copy or integrate experiences and insights into the fabric of our lives so as to change us. The self we create should be as comprehensive as possible, contain as many contradictions as we can bear. That way we’ll live longer. And death, when it comes, will find us right side up.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.