Loving the Mystery

There’s a lyric that’s been trapped in my head for nearly a decade. It’s from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyric is this: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s the last line in the song.

The reason it’s stuck in my head didn’t have a lot to do with the song, really. The first fifty times I heard the song I didn’t pay much attention to its specifics, just that line. The line resonated with me because it so clearly states a deep truth: it’s really “strange to be anything at all.”

We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the central unanswerable question of our existence. We exist, we know that. So clearly we’re a thing. A thing with the capability to think of itself as a thing.

But we can’t, as people, all agree on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re going.

Some of us — me included — think we came from a process which spans billions of years and a universe so vast we hardly have the ability to understand its size. Some of us think that the story of the Bible: it all started six thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden when God created the first people, Adam and Eve. Many doubtless know or believe in creation stories I’ve never been exposed to, never mind have the ability to summarize in a sentence.

Some of us think we die and get buried in the ground, where we decay and live no more. Some think that we separate from that body that’s buried and ascend to a place to be judged and separated. Some think that we return to this planet, to become a person, or whale, or dear, or fly.

All of these are attempts to answer this unmistakable feeling: it’s so strange to find ourselves here. As anything. At all. For some people the feeling of that strangeness — I’d describe it as having a vibrating warmth — is called “God’s love.” For others, it’s called “the mystery.” For others still it goes unnamed. Some call it “Allah.” Some think it can not be named. And some people have never experienced it at all.

However it works for you, you’ve got to think about it from time to time. I find it’s energy-giving, and an inspiration to try harder to be better. To be kinder. To be smarter. To be more me. To get all I can out of this strange existence. It is indeed “strange to be anything at all.” It is also fantastic.


Art as Art

I was a alerted to a new facet of my reality after taking a breather while reading my old review or the documentary Born into Brothels. And it’s essentially this: I have little or no interest in a piece of art as a piece of art. I think this gets to the very core of my dislike of fiction, my apathy toward almost all visual art,  my lukewarm response to poetry, and my antipathy toward the mockumentary genre. (Kenny, if you’re curious, is the one exception that proves the rule on that last one. That one worked its way into my heart.)

I have a deep and abiding interest in real factual human stories. If there’s one thing that’ll dependably make me weep or shaky with ecstaty, it’s a well-done presentation of a real person encountering real things. What I noticed in reading my Born into Brothels review was that I said almost nothing about how the documentary works as piece of art. The mechanics of its making, the composition of the photography, the pacing of the narrative, none of those were relevant to me. What I concerned myself with was the twin moral imperatives of a documentarian to document and of a person who can help to do so.

It’s possible to read my inability to appreciate art as art as a moral failing. Similar to my conversation aversion, it’s doubtless led to consternation among those who know me and don’t understand my problem. And I’m sure that there’s something to be said for the ability to appreciate art as art.

Since I keep saying it, I should probably be clear about what I mean by “art as art.” Seeing art as art is staring up at the Sistine Chapel and being interested only in the brushstrokes that made it, the picture it presents, and how that strikes you on an emotional level. When I look up at the Sistine Chapel I’ll likely experience some sense of awe (I got one using this approximate), but my mind quickly races to grapple with issues like the reason it came to exist, what its existence means, and what it means that we hold it in such reverence. The technique doesn’t interest me, the intricacies of its creation strike me as mere oddities, and the realities of the visuals strike me as rather banal. In short, I can’t appreciate it for merely what it is.

Life interests me. Fascinates even. But the creations of people who aren’t so fascinated by it to be held in such awe that they want only to document it have always struck me as odd. I just feel like I’m watching deluded people try to entertain other deluded people.

Deluded may be too strong. Sleeping or blind are more accurately what I mean. People driven to create art are usually those who feel the need to make something beautiful or pure or simple. They aim mostly to distill, simplify, and make understandable. I see the irony of doing this, but it feels appropriate to communicate this better with some lyrics from Connor Oberst. The Bright Eyes song Bowl of Oranges ends:

…if the world could remain within a frame
Like a painting on a wall
Then I think we’d see the beauty then
We’d stand staring in awe
At our still lives posed
Like a bowl of oranges
Like a story told
By the fault lines and the soil

It’s not that I don’t think people creating things with the goal of helping others to see the beauty, majesty, hurt, tenderness, etc that underly the weave and weft of the cloth of life is useless or silly. It’s certainly not. If I write for any reason it’s to learn how to convey knowledge of those things better than I currently can.

But what is true is that what they produce is much less interesting to me than what they meant by it. I’d rather consider the artist than the work as it sits before me. Perhaps this is actually how most people respond to art, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it, so I did.