Monday, May 28, 2007

Thou art that

In high school, I read Catch-22 and belly-laughed through the whole thing. The desperate situation of the World War 2 bomber pilots and their absurd responses to the impossibility of their predicament had the ring of truth, but seemed alien to the consensus understanding of reality. In college (admittedly during finals), I read Catch-22 again, and found the book utterly depressing. Whereas at age eighteen I had seen Catch-22 as a fun-house mirror, distorting underlying reality into grotesque and obscene shapes, at age twenty-one it seemed like a corrective lens, undoing the effect of the rose-colored glasses which we wear to make the otherwise untenable human condition bearable. Humor is sometimes used to gin up a dull evening, but it is also a coping mechanism of last resort when the world takes off its kid gloves.

When I first read the Chuang Tzu, it was the most insightful book I had ever seen. It seemed as if, by acknowledging the mundane position of humanity in the universe, we were freed from our self-imposed burdens and obligations. What I failed to see was that freedom can be a terrifying thing. The same chains that weigh us down and restrict our actions also serve to bind us to the structure of human society. By accepting the arbitrary obligations and expectations which comprise a culture, we gain a framework within which to understand our place in the world and the meaning of our lives. In loosing these fetters, we obtain absolute freedom, but lose the context which made that freedom so desirable. The question of "what shall I do today" sheds its cast of childlike wonder, and takes on menacing overtones. We are no longer selecting a single permitted treat from the almost overwhelming variety of the candy aisle. The entire grocery store is open to us and we have a fistful of cash, but after the third consecutive gallon of ice cream, we find its taste suffocating.

I think my ultimate frustration with Taoism (or at least my limited understanding of it) is that it is fundamentally rational, whereas humans are at their core emotional beings. Just because I have everything I want, or in the case of Taoism I have realized that I don't in fact want anything, doesn't mean that I am satisfied. My wandering may be free and easy, but I have no direction, so I might as well just sit down where I am. I think this sense of malaise is common, but generally misinterpreted. People assume that they can stuff the hole in the core of their being full of physical acquisitions or sexual conquests or workplace accomplishments, and achieve completeness. But absolute freedom from social structure dissolves these societal constructs, and they pass through our grasping fingers like so much air.

We are left at the mercy of ourselves. Some activities are still intrinsically more enjoyable than others, but each moment stands by itself and must find its own justification.

1 comment:

eric said...

The nazi tennis instructor in Infinite Jest had a term for the malaise / waste feeling left after you take away all constraints upon the individual -- I think it was "versegunheit". He seemed to feel that without structure an individual was left to simply go to watse. His solution was the imposition of structure upon one's-self: tennis became not a game played against the match-partner, but against your own self. I have read similar things by Go masters, that Go is a game in which you use your opponent to test yourself and overcome personal imperfection.