Reckoning the Everyday
In my 20s, I became obsessed with a certain aesthetic in the music and art I enjoyed. I wanted multicolored exuberance, unabashed surging, a way of going that wound around and about and over and through itself — and did so with a broad, beaming smile. I called this aesthetic joyful complexity. This became my mantra and then my website and my email and today, the name of my business. Yes, my business card reads: Joyful Complexity, Inc. The .inc is not legally required but I think it's funny.
Oh man, I loved me some Cornelius. And the Flaming Lips, Cibo Matto, Ween, Stereolab. I didn't just want baroque, I wanted baroque that smiled, that threw its hands in the air and yelled, Yeah! as it folded the world like so much exquisite origami. I wanted all my art to be by Sarah Sze and Matthew Ritchie and all my movies to be by Wes Anderson.
Meanwhile, I found Cassavetes and Francis Bacon dark. And I therefore imagined they weren't joyful. They are foreboding, grotesque, scary, off-putting. I imagined that they didn't embrace life. Somehow, I told myself and everyone who'd listen that they were negative rather than affirmative, sapping life rather than proliferating it.
I molded my concept of joyful complexity from, among other things, Nietzsche's gay science, his joyful knowledge. Nietzsche, despite the popular depiction of him as dark, is the great philosopher of joy. His entire philosophy and ethics is premised on it. Rather than assessing the world by whether it's true or not, proper or not, he argued that we should assess it by whether it affirms life or not. The formula for greatness, he says, is amor fati: love fate. Love everything that has every happened and ever will happen to you. Don't wish it otherwise. Don't just accept it. Love it. If anything saps your vitality, turn away with indifference.
I taught a course entitled, "Joyful Complexity," several times. My opening lecture was always the same: Joy is not happiness. Happiness is contingent: you're happy because something happened. But joy is affirmation of whatever happens. It's not the smile despite what happened; it's the exuberance that it happened at all. For Nietzsche, there is no alternative life, nothing else to wish or hope for. All there is is this life. For Nietzsche, that's not depressing. On the contrary, it's joy itself.
And yet, despite my apparent grasp on this concept of joy, I still demanded my art come with a smile — that it be happy! Somehow, I'd skipped over the chapters in Nietzsche's Ecce Homo where he tells us that he vomited phlegm, had the runs and headaches for days, and that this was the source of his affirmation, his will to health. Not that he enjoyed his sickness or that he hoped to be healthy but that his relationship to sickness brought the issue of will to the fore.
It's seemingly easy to affirm life when life is grand, when you're happy because everything's coming up roses. It's another thing to affirm life when it fucks you up — when you're sick and sad and you can't get laid, when you're in the throws of tragedy with broken limbs and hearts and death.
And yet there's something about tragedy, about the acute event, that feels good even when it feels horrible. You know what to do. The world is all up in your face and you have no choice but to wrangle it. Oh, then you can rise to the occasion, drop platitudes, feel the earth surge beneath your feet. I will overcome! you declare to no one and everyone. Yes, tragedy breeds heroes like insects spawn.
The real trick, it seems to me, is to affirm life unabashedly when there's nothing of note happening — nothing particularly good, nothing particularly bad. When you're faced with the utter banality of everyday existence. The bathroom starts to stink, the dishes need doing, "Game of Thrones" is on. When you slouch down on the couch in old sweat pants and absentmindedly fondle your testicles to the drone of the announcers calling the play by play.
This is the great challenge and the great temptation of the everyday. It threatens with its hum of distraction — Facebook, porn, booze, Ambien, phone calls, TV, minor dramas between friends to feign the importance of mindless banter and unheeded feelings. I can go on in such a daze for weeks before the sour taste of death hurls me on my heels and has me either dip into a pit of depression or bang my way out into ecstatic cosmic reckoning, usually with the assistance of some herb-chemical concoction.
And so I go on swinging between mindless goof, stoned awareness, and miasmatic misery. What I have yet to learn is the even yet surging keel of joy: affirming the banality without distraction, depression, or ecstasy (the state, not the drug). In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard talks about the Knight of Faith who leads what seems to be a banal bourgeois life and yet, with every step he takes, he walks into the infinite and back to the finite. He is not just at peace; his relationship to life is vital, resonant, profound. There is no way to recognize him. He doesn't announce his faith. He is, in Kierkegaard's words, incognito.
And it's this that confounds me. I can urge urge and urge; I can grab life by its proverbial balls and scream into the sky. But quietly to affirm it all — this eludes me. I get annoyed with how dirty my kitchen gets. Every time I go shopping, I aim to buy so much I never need to go again. Which is absurd. The banality of it all irritates me. I aim for greatness or nothing and end up, more often than not, with a half-assed, limp life.
Walt Whitman's ecstatic rants make more sense to me. He embraces it all. His Leaves of Grass can read like a catalog of shit. And he's not incognito. Whitman exudes and speaks vim, vigor, and gumption, passion (and more, no doubt) oozing out his every orifice.
But then what is this other state, this even tempered joy? What does it feel like? How do I affirm the everyday, affirm the banality, without always reaching for the ecstatic or distracting myself with xHamster? I know it's ok to zone out once in a while, that to relax in front of the TV can be affirmative. But there's a difference between relaxing and distracting, even if from the outside they look the same.
Maybe it's just not in my neurotic hebrew blood. Perhaps my constitution demands extremes. Still, the image of a quiet joy beckons to me. I see a calm seething that embraces the banal with neither hesitation nor deranged vigor and I want it. I want the hum of life itself. Which, alas, often isn't smiling.