Monday, July 20, 2009
The words have meanings, Readers have writers It’s not the consequence they have It’s bigger than the monuments we have And yet you call yourself a heartbreaker --Idlewild, “Readers & Writers” Every once in a while Bono says something profound. Chuck Klosterman was there to record one of those profound statements. “The job of art,” Bono said in an interview, “Is to chase away ugliness.” I like this idea, mostly because I’m ugly, but I have some art to help chase that away. I don’t mean that I’m ugly in the sense that no one should ever want to look at my disgusting, misshapen features. I’m ugly in the way everyone is ugly. I’m ugly in that way that makes me human. We’re trapped in these bodies, forever imprisoned by the very thing that allows us to survive. We’re limited in what we can know by what we can see, smell, touch, feel, hear. And all those things we experience are filtered through an imperfect brain that’s always coloring our experiences according to that which we, as observers, bring with us in to the picture. And this is how I know that I am ugly. I allow my selfishness to overtake the needs of others. In my pettiness I’d rather see someone I don’t like suffer than do what I need to make myself better, since schadenfreude is so much easier than self-improvement. I’d rather find external factors to blame than figure out what I’ve done wrong in those recurring situations I wander in to that always end with a failure on my part. I’m ugly. I’m human. Sometimes that means the same exact thing. I’m also fascinated by ugliness. I have a copy of Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness sitting on my coffee table. His On Beauty held no particular appeal to me. I haven’t really read it. I think as much as anything I wanted to add it to my impressive collection of coffee table books. It sits alongside my hardcover edition of Lawrence Weschler’s Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences (which, to be fair, I have read. It started my love affair with all things Weschler), my Illustrated Anthology of Myth and Story, and a few interesting old books I’ve picked up that add a certain gravitas to the room due to their beat-up covers and yellowed pages. It’s a bit of pride. It’s an especially ironic bit of pride when you consider that very few people actually visit. And most of them aren’t going to be impressed by my books. They’ve known me for too long to notice. That, too, is a bit of ugliness. I like to think of myself as humble. I like to think of myself as modest. But if I’m honest I don’t think I am. I’m fully capable of arrogance, of a cruel disregard for the people around me. So in that, I’m ugly. But I have art. And art can chase away the ugliness. This may be my one saving grace. It’s also why I’m far more interested in On Ugliness than I’ll ever be in On Beauty. What better way to chase away the ugliness than to expose it for all to see, to bring it out of its hidden, dark places, display it, and say, “This is a part of life, too?” That, too, is why the more I look back on my days as a fundie I realize that I lived a pretty artless existence. Ugliness wasn’t allowed. It’s not that we had to cover it up. Although most of the time that was a good idea. It’s that we weren’t allowed to acknowledge ugliness for what it was: a part of life. That feeling of schadenfreude when you see someone you don’t like get knocked down a peg or two? That’s the Devil or the weak flesh taking over and a sign that you need more Jesus. Lose your job or a loved one? That’s a sign that god is working to make you a better person/give you great gifts through some unimaginable, Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism that will only become apparent after you’ve gone through it all and can look back on everything and make all the necessary connections guided by hindsight. It’s why the Christian sub-culture is so vapid, so devoid of artistic, well, anything. No one is allowed to talk about anything other than how friggin’ great god is. So we end up with vapid Christian pop and Thomas Kinkade and weird, creepy pictures of Jesus holding passed-out dudes in suggestive poses. Ugliness was something to be avoided, something to be ignored. We were supposed to deny our own ugliness, say it was something outside ourselves, something other, something inhuman. But ugliness isn’t inhuman. It may be the most human thing there is. Without ugliness how can we possibly admire beauty? Without ugliness why would we need art to chase it away? Without ugliness how can we grow, learn, find the beauty in ourselves or others? How can we chart the course of our lives without understanding that there’s good and bad and ugly and beautiful and it’s all okay because it’s all a part of who we are? In truth it’s the ugliness that makes the beauty worthwhile. So any planned world that was created without the base, the ugly, the gross, would have been planned incorrectly. We need loss to know what it’s like to win. We need to chance failure in order to win the greatest prizes. See, this is what I’ve gradually come to realize. Humans, I believe, are extraordinarily good at getting what they think they deserve. Back in my church days I thought that all I deserved was whatever god saw fit to give me. So I didn’t really do anything to make my life in to what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t a big fan of myself in the first place, so when it was constantly reinforced that I was worthless because I made the mistake of being born a human, I simply accepted my lot in life. It’s what I was. Why bother to try to make it more? I’ve moved forward since then, but something has been holding me back. It’s something I’m only now starting to understand. See, in the end there was Her. I used to think that there was nothing I could do in my life that would be better than getting, well, her. She was better than I’d ever expected to get. So when she said that she thought I was too good for her I assumed she was lying. I assumed she was setting me up for the Seinfeld moment, the, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I think, though, in the end I was wrong. After a fashion, at least. I don’t think she thought she was better than me. I think she grew disappointed with me. Disillusioned, even. She told me once that she didn’t believe people were capable of changing the world. It’s weird, she had a much more positive view of god than I did and was a much bigger misanthrope. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that isn’t weird. Maybe that’s normal. Maybe the god in whom we both believed and humanity are compared as a zero-sum calculation and for one to increase the other must decrease. She told me once that she didn’t believe people were capable of changing the world. But she then told me that I had changed her mind. She thought that I could. I didn’t know why she would believe that. I still couldn’t begin to tell you. And that, I think, is why she stopped believing in me, stopped loving me. She wanted me to re-make the world. All I wanted to do was help make hers. Somehow that wasn’t enough for her even if it was everything for me. Because I can’t change the world, at least not in any intentional way. There lies madness, misdirection, and control. All I have is what little art I can muster to chase the ugliness away. I love the Idlewild lyrics I put at the top of this post. Words have meaning. Readers have writers. It seems…possessive. It seems belittling. You, because you are reading these words, somehow possess me. It almost removes the writer from the equation. I’m just a prop, a go-between from the meaning of the words to the mind of the reader. And I’m perfectly okay with that. In fact, I love the idea. My goal as a writer and storyteller is to make the individual in to the universal. I write about me, but I know full well that the only reason I matter to anyone out there when I tell these stories is because everyone can see some part of themselves in what I have to say. That’s why I can’t change the world. I can’t tell you who to be. I can only try to tell you who you are. And with that tiny bit of art hopefully we’ll chase the ugliness away. Ultimately that’s why I left religion. I still want to change the world. I just have no urge to make it in my or anybody else’s image. What do I know from beauty, after all? I work with ugliness. The strange thing is that now, even though I haven’t actually spoken to her in a long time and don’t know that there’s anything I even want to say to her, some tiny little part of me still hopes that one day she sees, that one day she understands. Because of all the people I know who need that little bit of art to chase the ugliness away, she needs it the most. Anyone who says they hate people is really saying that they hate themselves. And no one should have to carry around that kind of ugliness.