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« Symmetry, Classicism and Eros Reredux | Main | Paul Johnson on Marx »

August 30, 2002

Big Picture, Derbyshire Style

Friedrich --

A wonderful passage in John Derbyshire's column in today's NRO, which can be read in full here. He's writing about being religious.

It has always seemed obvious to me that this is not the real world. This is a world of shadows; the real world is somewhere else. I can remember knowing this even as a very small child, and responding intensely, as soon as I could read, to any expressions of it in print. (For example, in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which are steeped in it.) I can even remember, around age seven or eight, I think, my surprise when I realized that there are people who don't know it. It is the fundamental religious insight, and so far as I can see it is temperamental and congenital: Some people know it, and some, including a lot of very honest and decent people, just don't. It might, of course, be an illusion; but then, as the Empiricist philosophers pointed out, so might anything.

Do you read this thinking, "Yes, indeed"? I differ with Derbyshire on some details -- my sense is more one of inhabiting parallel worlds, and on multiple planes, for instance. But I do know what he's talking about, and I'm grateful that he's spelled it out so directly and unapologetically.

Like him, I remember how apparent this seemed to me as a child -- these other dimensions were simply there, as freely available to me as my right hand. And, like him, I recall my amazement on discovering that some people had no sense of these other dimensions at all, or at least chose to ignore them.

You learn to be guarded, of course. You learn to take care, though over time you also learn to recognize people who might understand what it is you'd like to talk about -- and who might have their own secrets they'd like to tell you about, too. (There's a sense of a code shared; these are people who are able to look under the daily surfaces and recognize each other.) Puberty seemed to muddy the waters somehow. Was it the hormones? The anxieties? Being overwhelmed by that teenage feeling that dismal life was crashing down on you? But I always knew I wanted my clean, direct access back.

I've never been religious in the sense Derbyshire says he is, and the Presbyterianism of my youth never did much for me, even though there was a month or two when I gave being religious my (self-deluded) best shot. As a teen, I thought that studying science might give me back easy access to other dimensions. Then I hoped that languages and travel might. Then it was drugs, then sex, and finally art. As a younger adult, full of hormones and energy, I thought that connecting with "it" would be a matter of goosing myself up -- hauling myself up onto a superior, and super-energized, plane. (Along the way I've fallen for a lot of fads and fields -- environmentalism, hippie baloney, "creativity" -- that embarrass me now. But, darn it, I was trying.)

Now, in middle age, "it" seems once again to be right here, always with me. Credit for this is due, humblingly, to the cancer. Before the diagnosis, I had a dim sense that "it" was going to happen, "it" was out there, and maybe if I [fill in the blank], I could again have "it." I don't know what I meant or expected. Did I think "it" would come in the form of success? Of being discovered or recognized? Of being "given a chance"? Finding some art form or art technique that would finally release whatever it is I imagined I had to give? In any case, there would be some payoff, or some sense of relief.

Since the operation, I haven't been able to sustain that attitude of waiting, whining and expecting. Some that had weighed me down (arrogance? stupidity? excess energy and anger?) got taken out of me along with the prostate. For this, I'm very grateful. "It," I once again find, is no longer something that might happen or might be achieved (what had I been thinking?), but right here next to me, waiting to be fallen into anytime the moment seems right.

Now it's a normal part of my life. I don't take my version of "it" to be anything mystical or complicated, or at least no more so than a dandelion. And, as I was when I was a child, I'm once again perplexed that people don't talk about "it" more regularly and more openly. (Though I have gotten the sense from many conversations over the years that a lot of people have their own experiences of "it," and would enjoy the chance to discuss them. Perhaps, though, I'm projecting.)

But "it," for me, is once again just a phenomenon like any other, if perhaps a little harder to nail down. And unremarkable, if amazing, part of life, and simply a matter of fact. I relate my sense of "it" to athletes' discussions of "the Zone," to actors' talk about being "in the moment," to musicians going on about "finding the groove." There's something happening; "it" is happening.

From my own experience, I'd describe "it" as a sense of being both inside the moment and outside of time. Life unfolds before you -- you witness this and are part of it. The moment offers itself up to you, and you're part of the moment. The Wife and I, for instance, are often in the Zone together, and often without even trying -- bliss. In sex, I find that "it" seems almost instantly available. (You can laugh at such things as mumbo-jumbo that gets spoken about Tantric sex, but as a practical matter Tantra is effective finding-the-Zone training, and more useful as such than any art training I've ever had.)

How I'd love to be able to find a groove while making art. So far, no such luck, or little such luck. A few cookin' moments in acting class, valuable mainly for helping me understand why performers are willing to put up with years of waiting on tables in order to support their art habit -- it's such a high! A few eye-hand-mind moments in art classes. A few writing moments when the ideas and words merged and took on a little momentum of their own.

Not much, though. But even as a spectator and consumer, if I didn't find the element (and experience) of multiple planes given form occasionally, I'd hardly bother with the field. I wouldn't be more devoted than your average arts fan, going to occasional shows and movies and losing interest in middle age (just about now, come to think of it). Sex might even become a maybe-yes/maybe-no, sometime thing -- unless you're able to call on something like the Zone, sex is just a more-pleasurable-than-most bodily function, and one that requires considerably more sweaty trouble to enjoy than the others.

I find that I'm interested less and less these days in the typical arts discussions: about issues, about greatness, about whether something or someone is "good" or "bad." Who cares? Someone should, of course, and I'm glad that someone does. But I don't. My own judgments interest me less and less, too: why should they be of interest to anybody, really? (Though I'm grateful that a few people seem amused by them.) I'm more interested in how people react -- not what their judgment is so much as what seeing, hearing or watching the work was like for them. Why? Because if you sink far enough into these discussions, what you wind up discussing is "it."

If I'm being honest I find that my experience of "it" in the arts is often stronger in the presence of oddball little works (Joe Brainard, Christopher Isherwood) than in the presence of what most people have decided to call great ones. Not always, and I have no particular case to make as a consequence. But I'm trying these days to be more direct about my experience than I used to be. To do this I find I have to be open to surprises -- because "it" will happen where and when it pleases. "It" is not up to me, and what a great relief that is. (I suspect I used to imagine that it was up to me.) It turns out that all that's really up to me is to take note.

So I try to be open and take note, because "it" sustains me -- my interest in art, my interest in sex, my pleasure in life. For Derbyshire, his sense of this world not being the real one is what makes him religious. For me, my sense of inhabiting multiple dimensions makes me an arts devotee, for better or (often) worse.

In any case, hats off to John Derbyshire. What a fab piece of writing.

How do you explain your longterm interest in the arts? Does what I'm calling "it" play any role in your interest in the field?



posted by Michael at August 30, 2002


well said. i spent a wonderful 20 minutes here at lunch remembering those magic moments of "Itness", (all too infreqent arent they?) when i was both in the scene and of it, moments when the duality of being and knowing are in perfect balance and the Universe reveals itself all at once in its everythingness. and then the inevitable maddening need to grasp and capture and contain and define (all for the purposes of sharing and understanding and preserving for and with others) ends the scene and i watch flitter away, a beautiful fading memory, yet memories that can come back to recolor and enliven the moment of remembrance.

thanks for the bridge back into my self


Posted by: ken on September 4, 2002 02:46 PM

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