Art, Literature, Philosophy

The Thing Itself

img_8649…it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” Virginia Woolf

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living.  The converse, of course, is that the examined life is worth living.   Sometimes, though, something triggers a deep examination and life can go full HD to an uncomfortable degree, and we see the thing itself like never before.  In a world ready to medicate and therapute  itself out of every sadness and every brittle thought,  a world full of platitudinous feel good memes,  painted in the broad brushstrokes of ridiculous certainty – right and wrong, good and bad, left and right, beautiful and ugly – the sudden clarity of the deeply examined life can be startling, upsetting and even frightening.

But if we resist the urge to mute every occasion of despair and sadness, and instead embrace it in consideration of ourselves as the words and the music and the Thing Itself,  then everything we discover about ourselves is part and parcel of this work of art we call life.   Discovering what lies beneath when we scrape away decades of the hard lacquer finish we might have used to get through the things we needed to get through, can uncover the original canvass of ourselves,  just as great works of art have been found beneath lesser works of art.

In a thought provoking look at the work of Virginia Woolf, in Brain Pickings , Maria Popova references a wonderful line from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway :  “The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.”

Holding our experiences, good and and perhaps not so good, up to the light, instead of trying to lessen or dismiss them,  empowers us to cope with them,  strengthens us, and more importantly, adds them to our personal toolkit of acquired wisdom and insight.   By putting our experiences into words, suggested Woolf, we can make them whole, and “this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.”

If one is inclined toward what May Sarton referred to as a tendency to “boil fast ( soupe au lait, the French call this trait, like a milk soup that boils over)” that “fierce tension” – what Humphrey Trevelyan called the “Divine Discontent” – properly channeled can become yet another tool.  We often talk about “anger management” in terms of prevention and control.  But perhaps the best anger management is anger utilization.

Sarton, in remembering her mother’s anger, observed “… the very thing that made her an angry person also gave her amazing strength with which to meet every kind of ordeal. The anger was buried fire; the flame sustained my father and me through the hard years when we were refugees from Belgium and slowly finding our place in American life. The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive. How to isolate that good tension is my problem these days. Or, put in another way, how to turn the heat down fast enough so the soup won’t boil over!”

Denying ourselves these experiences,  chemically or otherwise,  is to deny ourselves the full concerto of living.   If we are, in fact, the Thing Itself , then the wide range of human experiences we have – the dark periods and the light, the joys and the sorrows, the soaring highs and despairing lows , the moments that bring us to our knees in reverence or to our feet in fury –  are the palette from which we create the masterpiece of our lives.

See also: Shift Happens – because it does.


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