Suffering genius must be like owning a pet. My daemon invokes me at 5:30 a.m.—I ask: if you want me to write these things down, why do you only visit me when I’m sleeping?
As a child, I wondered why adults seemed so closed-off. Since all adults were once children (I assumed), what caused them to lose their childlike mind, to become otherness? In a manner of speaking, the same life-breath animates a human from childhood through adulthood: so what makes adults forget, or deny, or close off, or wall themselves away from their early child-self?
Now that I have fallen into adulthood, I’m still perplexed about this; tho I can guess at a personal answer. In my case, bitterness forges the division: bitterness over a childhood that seems misspent. I want to distance myself from the losses of wasteful being, so I embrace a harder attitude—an “adultness” of action—as a way of turning over a new leaf (one might add: in desperation). So nowadays when I encounter children, I don’t quite see individuals but rather mirrors of my own earlier self; and this causes me to treat them with that same hint of disdain that I, when I was fresh, recognized in adults—that “closed-off” quality.
Living is like a song. Using the terms of what the present era calls “music albums,” to live from childhood into adulthood is like a song that continues until its duration becomes ridiculous: at a certain point, speaking as a listener, one notices that the soundscape’s elements have altered so thoroughly that one instinctively begins thinking of this unbroken stream of sound as two separate songs.
The mind is always involuntarily ordering its environment. Or, I should say, part of the mind is an orderer; for another part just as compulsively dis-orders what it perceives. That’s why, whenever I catch myself referring to the mind as a reflector, I revise my term to refractor; for the world does not simply bounce back straightly from the mind, no: the mind bends the world; it curves it, it distorts it. The mind changes the world.
So an album of music could be thought of as a thirty-minute-long soundscape, for instance, or it could be thought of as ten separate three-minute tunes. Even if there is a six-second gulf of silence fixed between each of what are called the album’s tracks, the “time-stamp” that one considers to denote each song’s starting and ending point is really a personal decision—and, in a sense, the choice is also arbitrary. It’s the same with life: childhood and adulthood; or we could add more categories of division: adolescence, extreme old age, infancy, etc. To separate continuousness like this is a mental act: it’s an act of focusing, an act of framing; and it is essentially artistic.
If we want to say that everything is art, that’s fine; but if we want to say that some things are art while others aren’t, then what would be the first, the simplest, the most basic notion that we could employ as a prerequisite for something to be labeled art? I say it’s the frame. Choose arbitrarily to place a frame, a boundary around any aspect of the world—that is art. When someone excerpts a detail from a larger painting, or when one quotes a verse out of the Bible, or when one plays just the third movement of a musical composition, one frames these notions anew and thus creates new artworks. In the same way, one mentally draws a frame around certain years of an ongoing life and titles the idea “my childhood.”
I used to think: When the song of life goes on too long, it’s called “adult.” But now I agree with Tennyson’s Ulysses, who says: “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.” The later strains may possess a deeper dignity, which is unavailable to the earlier. To say that “only spastic energies are beautiful” is to assert a value judgment; that is legal. It is also permitted to expand one’s horizon of thought.
Consider the endless journey of each individual atom of which one is comprised: one’s being itself may be a “childhood,” or “adulthood,” or some other arbitrary division in the symphony of those particles. (One calls them fragments only with respect to the artwork that is one’s self. Who’s to say they’re not complete and perfect on their own level? Perhaps each infinitesimal building block is a universe.) Something similar to what I’m trying to say here, albeit from the pessimistic angle, is explained in Shakespeare’s play (~5.1.200), after Hamlet asks “May not the imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole?” For:
Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
It’s at once humorous and downbeat to focus on the beer-barrel as an end. But this is an instance of framing. Couldn’t Hamlet just as well have continued his line of reasoning beyond the lowly beer-barrel? In other words: May not the imagination trace the ignoble dust of the bung-hole’s stopper till a find it living as God?
The sepulcher and the white linen have yielded me up
I am alive in New York and San Francisco…
That’s from an early notebook of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” This same author, in his poem called “Song of Myself” (§44) gives the enriching and optimistic version of Hamlet’s divine joke above—the obverse of that coin. Whitman says:
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
One more thought. It amazes me how everything is, in a certain sense, already contained by the mind. For instance, when I walk beneath a cliff, I feel fear, not because the size of the towering mass is so much greater than my own, but because my mind somehow knew, before my body experienced the sight, how to represent the cliff’s enormity. Everything seemingly pre-exists in the mind. It’s as if the mind has already been everywhere already, done everything already, and is now merely reviewing its adventures. (By “now” I mean “forever,” which I hope is in accord with William Blake’s proverb: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”) Also note that Whitman ends his Song by assuring the reader: “I stop somewhere waiting for you.”