Dissolute Sweetness


There is a flood of light washing over everything in my home -- there are daffodils and forsythia and all varieties of yellow in the gardens. Green and delicately purple buds are popping out along the slender branches I've watched all winter. There are birds in the trees, but there are none in my heart.

I had a strange sense of loneliness last night when I left the class that I teach. I couldn’t quite figure out what had prompted it, though I think it was a combination of my trip to NY – visiting someone I miss far too much – and then discussing Aquinas and approaching topics that felt so impossible, so lofty that two hours of talk couldn’t possibly be satisfactory.

Then this morning I read two brief pieces of writing, Spurious’ latest entry and a brief piece in Energeia, SJC's creative student publication, by Howard Zeiderman. His essay was a description of the efforts he made in bringing the Touchstones program into the Maryland House of Corrections. Both pieces of writing somehow spoke to that strange sense of malaise that I felt last night.

Sometimes it all feels so futile – the process of learning, creating, reading, discussing. I feel like I’m constantly revisiting old ground, relearning my own thoughts, rediscovering someone else’s words. I know all of the things to say to myself to keep the encouragement up, and most of the time they work, but the essential problem is that I cannot escape the feeling that what we do and what we try to accomplish is a farce. I still feel like a sham when I speak. I’m embarrassed of my lack of education, the sparsity of my reading, my knowledge of only one language, my inability to move effortlessly through schools of thought and eras of ideas.

These incidental issues build up, they accumulate into a desire to do something drastic – to sweep my arms across the table and knock everything to the floor – books, pens, mugs, a vase of flowers – just like the woman David watched in the restaurant.

I often wonder what it was about Frau Chauchat that so mesmerized me. I know that at first it was her style – and of course the momentous importance she has for Hans. But the more I think about her the more I realize how envious I am of her liberation – her dissipation. She is free of the tyranny of opinion. Willing to experiment, to explore, to entertain – with no purpose, no reason for any of it. She says on Walpurgis Night:

'Morality? It interests you, does it? All right -- it seems to us that one ought not to search for morality in virtue, which is to say reason, in discipline, in good behavior, in respectability -- but in just the opposite, I would say: in sin, in abandoning oneself to danger, to whatever can harm us, destroy us. It seems to us that it is more moral to lose oneself and let oneself be ruined than to save oneself. The great moralists have never been especially virtuous, but rather adventurers in evil, in vice, great sinners who teach us as Christians how to stoop to misery.'

Hans often imagines this, though in his terms it seems less dangerous, more of an essay into a new way of living.

He tried putting himself in Herr Albin's shoes and imagining how it must be when one is finally free of all the pressures honor brings and one can endlessly enjoy the unbounded advantages of disgrace -- and the young man was terrified by the sense of dissolute sweetness that set his heart pounding even faster for a while.

Last night -- as I drove home in the mist and listened to songs too loudly to hear them -- I was experiencing all of these vague desires – wanting to be more connected with the people I work with … no, I’d rather be more free of them, free of the desire for connection at all – wanting to feel confidence in my mind and my thoughts … or not, for it’s in our awareness of weakness and ignorance, in our willingness to ask the obvious questions – to be obtuse -- that we actually learn. I often find myself childishly hating the world I live in – the sheer mass of writing, reading, and conversation that goes on. It’s sickening and bewildering and vastly incomprehensible. I respond to this with a non-response I think. I refuse to think of myself as doing anything more than diligently taking notes for a life of thought and writing that is some time in the future. My writing is more like a sketchbook, a cahier of sorts. No intention, no purpose, no responsibility. The little things I create are disposable, unimportant. I refuse to put anything out there into the vast stream of creation. And thus I find myself cowardly and common and boring.

A life beneath the surface and beyond the pale -- always steps behind, devoid of those golden glances from fortune. Not tragic, not comic, not even interesting. That's what I fear most.

So as I said, while reading this morning I was struck by the relevance that those two pieces of writing had for me. Spurious’ problems with reading – with the gulf which has formed between reading and life. And Mr. Zeiderman’s description of the work he did with prisoners – the difficulty of the texts they approached, the willingness of the men to actually explore the words they read – to ask the difficult questions of themselves and of each other, and to make reading and discussion something real, something necessary for survival. That, I think, is what struck me most. The idea of discussion, of free thought, as necessary to humanity, necessary for survival. After reading Epictetus, one of the prisoners says:

‘None of us are free. We’re all enslaved… And not just those like us in prison. Yeah, we’re held in place by bars and wire, but that’s not all. Our minds are themselves enslaved. And not just ours, Howard’s too and everyone out there. Our thoughts aren’t our own. They’re just the ones we grew up with. How can we be free when how we think is our prison?’

Not only how we think, but how we live and speak too. The choices we make, the words we speak, the people we influence. There are so many constraints and controls, so much guiding how things will be. And yet, among these men who were actually enslaved -- by their past, their actions, the system used to control them -- these men recognized the freedom of the mind as something far beyond a pleasure or a luxury -- it was a necessity, it was the one necessity that would allow them to maintain their humanity in the face of dehumanization and manipulation.

I wanted to end with Mr. Zeiderman's own conclusions:

As one of the men said -- the one who declared he was born a slave in Baltimore in 1975 -- it was in these discussions that for the first time he found his voice. The men had achieved more than anyone could give them, something which the act of bestowal would itself destroy. These men had to find their own voices -- they had to surrender the idioms of their age and class and race and gender and for the first time risk hearing themselves. They had to break free of the prison Eddie pointed out that they and I and all others inhabited. These prisoners thanked the discussions for making that possible. Perhaps that was correct, but they made the discussions. The discussions weren't there waiting for them. And in this moment I realized what it meant for me to surrender control. The utmost that I could do was merely to set the stage for acts of courage I could admire but which it might never be my privilege to display. I left the prison realizing that for a brief moment I had seen in men confined to cells for their lives an example of mutual respect and recognition, of freedom, that the rest of us rarely achieve.