And this too

When I was in high school, I had this great literature teacher who made us write a paper every week — no more than two pages each. The assignment alternated between two assignments. One week, we had to compare any two books from the long list of American and English literature; the other week, we had to write about a quote he'd give us. One week, the quote was, "This too shall pass." It's resonated with me ever since.

In some sense, it was my first conscious engagement with the thought, image, and concept of flux (I'd sure as hell lived it but thinking it was all together different). I have to admit I don't remember what I wrote for the paper (although I do remember what I wrote for others) but I do know that that quote sat with me, pervaded me, and got me through some rough times. No matter how awful some event is, no matter how stressful or painful, it too shall pass.

What glorious relief! What a lift to the great burden of existence! If something is really, really crappy, I can just wait it out!

Of course, this ignores the other side of the equation, if you will. If something really, really great is happening — love, happiness, pleasure — that too shall pass. Life is impermanence. Everything gives way in the end, or earlier, to something else (hints of Hegel, I suppose).

And yet there is a rhetorical perspective within those words. Yes, it points to the impermanence of everything but, somehow, it doesn't seem indifferent. It seems relieved, as if life were too difficult to bear, as if life were a problem in the first place, as if we needed relief.

Perhaps I'm reading it too negatively. After all, all it's saying is that everything passes, everything gives way — the good and the bad.

And yet it seems uttered with a little resentment, a little ressentiment, as if delivered from on high by some god who sits in an eternal throne watching the silly transience of human existence. Indeed, there is something beautifully and horribly religious working in this one four-word phrase.

After all, why tell me that this too shall pass? Either it's to offer relief from suffering or to check my hubris. In either case, there's a hint of resentment against life, against its transience, as if flux were a problem for which we needed reminding. And perhaps we do.

But what if we already know that life is flux and we love it all the more for it? I think of Andy Goldsworthy who toils for hours, weeks, months on a creating something that he knows will very quickly be swept away by the wind or waves. He doesn't need to be told that this too shall pass! He builds in the face of flux, with the windings of flux, letting the wind and waves and river and tides be his co-creator. In this passing, Goldsworthy finds creation, the emergence of life at the precise point of its disappearance.

It seems to me that the joyful, those who adhere to a gay science, to amor fati — to those who love life in all its shapes and forms, from vomiting phlegm for days (Nietzsche's example and own ailment) to getting jiggy in the bar — such joyful people don't ever utter, "this too shall pass," precisely because they already know this shall pass — and they love it! Such lovers of life utter something else, something that seems like the same thing but is in fact worlds away. They utter, "And this, too!"

I'm captivated by this phrase, this inflection on the one I learned 30 years ago. And is an incredible word, at once conjunctive and disjunctive. It brings things together without necessarily uniting them.  This and this and this and this...and and and to infinity (pace Deleuze). I actually learned the power of and from Whitman who is a voracious consumer of life in all its sundry forms. To read Leaves of Grass is to be swept up into the glorious wind, the absolute affirmation, of the infinite and.  He loves this and this and that and that, too, and then this and this and that and on and on and on. He doesn't unify it; there is no dialectic (Hegel fades into the background). He consumes whole heartedly.

This is part of what I love about this phrase, "And this too." It's voracious. It's consumptive — Yeah, gimme that and that — without being greedy or gluttonous. And loves to take in the world.

But the full phrase tempers that consumption with an exquisite indifference of life happening as it does, proffering its multifarious gifts — Yeah, that happened, too. And yeah, it will pass, duh. But what I dig is that it happened, that it's happening. So, yes, this too. There is an unabashed love of life.


Alexis said...

Some Nietzsche (Is that too obvious for this post? He says it beautifully...):

"I was the first to see the real opposition: the degenerating instinct that turns against life with subterranean vengefulness (Christianity, the philosophy of Schopenhauer, in a certain sense already the philosophy of Plato, and all of idealism as typical forms) versus a formula for the highest affirmation, born of fullness, of overfullness, a Yes-saying without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence."
(from Ecce Homo)

and then one step further than embracing and meeting your personal suffering with joy, i like this idea of Nietzsche’s that the man who can take into himself the entire history of mankind (including all the suffering) would access a full kind of happiness no man has known. like he thinks that, on top of saying “and this too” to all the elements of your personal experience whether painful or pleasureful, saying “and this too” to all human experience in all time would be even better:

“He who knows how to regard the history of man in its entirety as his own history, feels in the immense generalization all the grief of the invalid who thinks of health, of the old man who thinks of the dream of his youth, of the lover who is robbed of his beloved, of the martyr whose ideal is destroyed, of the hero on the evening of the indecisive battle which has brought him wounds and the loss of a friend. But to bear this immense sum of grief of all kinds, to be able to bear it, and yet still be the hero who at the commencement of a second day of battle greets the dawn and his happiness, as one who has an horizon of centuries before and behind him, as the heir of all nobility, of all past intellect, and the obligatory heir (as the noblest) of all the nobles; while at the same time the first of a new nobility, the equal of which has never been seen nor even dreamt of: to take all this upon his soul, the oldest, the newest, the losses, hopes, conquests, and victories of mankind: to have all this at last in one soul, and to comprise it in one feeling:—this would necessarily furnish a happiness which man has not hitherto known,—a God’s happiness, full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness which, like the sun in the evening, continually gives of its inexhaustible riches and empties into the sea,—and like the sun, too, feels itself richest when even the poorest fisherman rows with golden oars! This divine feeling might then be called humanity!”
(Gay Science 337)

Alexis said...

And one bit of Whitman in Leaves of Grass to go with it too:

O but it is not the years,—it is I,—it is You,
We touch all laws and tally all antecedents,
We are the skald, the oracle, the monk and the knight, we easily include them and more,
We stand amid time beginningless and endless, we stand amid evil and good,
All swings around us, there is as much darkness as light,
The very sun swings itself and its system of planets around us,
Its sun, and its again, all swing around us.

As for me, (torn, stormy, amid these vehement days,)
I have the idea of all, and am all and believe in all,
I believe materialism is true and spiritualism is true, I reject no part.

(Have I forgotten any part? any thing in the past?
Come to me whoever and whatever, till I give you recognition.)

I respect Assyria, China, Teutonia, and the Hebrews,
I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god,
I see that old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception,
I assert that all past days were what they must have been,
And that they could no-how have been better than they were,
And that to-day is what it must be, and that America is,
And that to-day and America could no-how be better than they are.

In the name of these States, and in your and my name, the Past,
And in the name of these States, and in your and my name—the Present time.

I know that the past was great and the future will be great,
And I know that both curiously conjoint in the present time,
(For the sake of him I typify, for the common average man’s sake, your sake if you are he,)
And that where I am or you are this present day, there is the centre of all days, all races,
And there is the meaning to us of all that has ever come of races and days, or ever will come.

Daniel Coffeen said...

These are great — and I don't know that second Nietzsche passage. Thanks for that. It's strange; I'm not quite sure what to make of it, yet. I need to digest it a bit.

It is funny to see Nietzsche and Whitman sounding so much alike. I always taught them back to back in my class on joy, as two modes of affirmation. On the one hand, you get Whitman's relentless Yes saying. Man, that guy says Yes to everything! He's so voracious. It's downright exhausting — in the best sense.

Nietzsche, meanwhile, loves to say no (not No) as a way of saying Yes — no coffee, thanks, it makes me sick; no more Wagner; no more sitting; etc. He's so much more discerning than Whitman.

They are really two very different sensibilities of joy. I remain more drawn to Nietzsche. But, as I get older, I understand Whitman better.

Alexis said...

I love that description of them.

Alexis said...

i just watched an episode of curb your enthusiasm and the last joke of this scene made me laugh so much and then immediately think of it in relation to this discussion so i had to add it as a last note on this post...

Daniel Coffeen said...

I've of course seen that before but, just watching it now, I punched myself in the face it was so funny. And spot on in a surprising way.