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.


Anonymous said...

The sound in the Cornelius clip drives me insane. In a good way.

αλήθεια said...

Kierkegaard calls this state (the state in which you are sad, lonely, or just bored by the banality of life) despair, which is the sickness unto death - the state in which you try to run away from your own relationship to yourself. I'm very excited about Kierkegaard these days, as you can probably tell, because I just read and tried to really understand his Fear and Trembling and Sickness unto Death. But often times, as I read his works, or even when I read Stoic philosophy (Epictetus for instance), I find myself perplexed or perhaps unpleased with the idea of embracing ones existence even if that existence is thrown into absolute misery. This state personally seems to me to be lazy because it expects that you come to terms with the idea that living a banal life is something that is ok or even good or joyful. What I would rather like myself to do is to change the banality of life by taking up some activity, for example, watching a good film, or smoking by the beach, or calling a friend, or taking up badminton etc. Rather than sitting by myself all alone in my room, I would rather like to convert that boredom into something exciting. Would that perhaps mean that I am distracting myself? Or would it mean that I am simply working towards making my life healthier? If I do take up painting, for instance, would Kierkegaard say that I have taken up painting because I am in despair over myself and that because of my despair I will to be rid of myself by handing myself over to painting or to a cute guy who just moved in next door?

αλήθεια said...

As for the Knight of Faith, I still don’t get how he manages to live in the finite and the infinite. It must be such a hard move to make; especially when that Knight of Faith has lost his/her lover. But apparently, the Knight of Faith manages to keep the memories of her beloved intact by making it eternal, yet she, at the same time, is open towards falling in love again. What confounds me immensely is the idea of the Knight of Faith keeping the memories of her first love intact yet falling in love again with a new beloved. Wouldn't the new lover replace the old and therefore lead to her forgetfulness of the old lover? I think this is why the Knight of Resignation doesn't really fall in love with anyone else again, because he wants to keep the memories of his old lover fresh and intact. But the Knight of Faith somehow holds onto both, the new and the old - which is such a brilliant move but it sadly escapes my understanding.

Jesse Furgurson said...

When I was in my teens most of my favorite art was despairing and grueling and nihilistic. I was big into horror movies, for instance. Maximum derangement was my favored setting. I liked being run over by art. It made me feel awake. Now a lot of of that stuff kind of bores me, but I still tend to get suspicious of things that are front-to-back pretty, that say Yeah! without qualification, that don't seem to have fully countenanced all they're saying Yeah! to. I like psychedelic music, but a part of me recoils whenever there doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement of at least the possibility of a bad trip. (My favorite Dead track might be "Feedback.") Lightness has to be in some kind of pas de deux with ugliness and/or chaos to fully register as such. I see that happening in the best music (especially the best jazz), and in Joyce and Faulkner and Pynchon, and in Cassavetes and Godard and Desplechin and Rivette, and so on. Now that I've started making my own stuff, it's occurring to me just how hard this balance is to pull off without going full ugly or devolving into randomness or prettiness or cuteness. The reservoir of will it takes to not only create something (to tell a story, say--who can't tell a story? there are stories on fuggin bubblegum wrappers), but to bring that something within a centimeter of complete collapse, dissolution, entropy, nothingness without succumbing, is pretty much superhuman. I shrink from it even as I aspire toward it.

Somewhere in there the above turned into a diary entry. Sorry for the self-indulgence.

Jesse Furgurson said...

(...or at least it turned into what I would write in a diary if I had one. What do other people write in diaries? I had tuna fish salad for lunch today while my coworker complained about the photocopier? I don't go down on the significant other enough and feel guilty about this? The taste of boysenberry has cast me into a terminal aesthetic crisis?)

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ok, so first, Kierkegaard. And forgive me as I'm typing on my phone as I am on the road and without computer. Yes, the sickness unto death is anxiety, despair, neuroses. I have always loved that; Kierkegaard has probably been the biggest, most consistent influence in my life.

I want to say that choosing a great film of painting or walking on the beach can be distraction or faith (affirmation). It depends on the will. I think of Nietzsche's distinction between affirmative and negative asceticism. From the outside, they look the same. But they are worlds apart: one denies the body, the other disciplines the body to make it stronger.

And, yes, all banality is despair. I was trying to use the word ironically, from the perspective of both despair and faith at the same time. My point, as I know you know, is how does one affirm the day to day tasks of life? It demands such strength, so much greater than facing tragedy. And the idea of that strength overwhelms me much as faith overwhelms Kierkegaard.

As for the knight of faith, I'm with you: very hard to understand. I've been wrestling that book, that idea, for 22 years.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Jesse! Isn't this all our diary entries?

It seems to me that that line you describe between ugly and beautiful is, as you say, between chaos and order and that can be ugly or beautiful or both. Just saying Yeah can be simple, design, Muzak. But yeah that affirms is complex and hence always risks chaos, ie, Sarah Sze.

To me, it comes down to what Deleuze says about Bacon: art is a fight against cliche. Against the already known, already dead. It might be ugly (whatever that is), nasty (my new favorite! Celine. Houellebecq), or lovely (Wes Anderson). But to battle cliche is the hard part. For me, at least.

Gavin Cusack said...

Loved this post, ive been feeling depressed and out of sorts lately, withdrawn from life, so I could definatly relate to this. thanks for the music recommendations i will listen to them later to boost my mood as i try tackle some house cleaning later