Life vs. Death (or How I Keep Going)

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

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About Michael Davis

Writer. Reader. Appreciator of corgis. View all posts by Michael Davis

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