SOLITUDE AND COMMUNITY: CAN WE HONOR BOTH?

By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.

MIRACLE — A Sense of Community

Dear Paul,

You know me… I’m an old hermit artist living deep in the woods, content to enjoy life communing with the wildflowers, trees, squirrels, bunnies, birds, fish and frogs. My chief failing as a human being must be that I don’t have a very high regard for my own species. I like the rest of the animal kingdom much better than Homo sapiens. In fact, I’d have to admit that I am brutally critical of my own kind. I find humanity so disappointing that I have largely withdrawn from social structures to commune with Nature. People can be so mean, selfish, brutal and stupid, engaging fully in denial and projection to rationalize their narrow-minded, self-centered goals and activities. And now the human race seems determined to so thoroughly spoil the miraculous gift of this planetary environment that it will no longer support life. It gives me no pleasure to admit my biases against society. I know the fault is more within me than in everyone else. I have a very long way to go to achieve even a modicum of social tolerance, let alone a first step toward Unconditional Love, which I am convinced is essential to self-realization.

 

Above: “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny!”      4 x 4 ft reverse painting on clear vinyl by Kevin, circa 1990 

So, it was with no small degree of misgiving that I approached this past weekend’s public First Friday and ArtWalk events in our art gallery downtown, featuring a gathering Saturday from 1 to 5 pm, called “Connect the Dots – Extreme Weather and Climate Change,” which was happening all over the world. For months I had been puzzling over how to talk about this subject in polite society, because it is so damn terminal and tragic that people run away screaming whenever the topic is raised. Very slowly it dawned on me that the impending apocalypse is not without humor – or at least it must be approached, in part, with humor, or nobody will survive it. You will remember that abstract painting I did so many years ago, entitled “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny!” You helped me analyze the raucously colorful, almost clownish painting, and we realized that there was a car crash, a child’s coffin, bureaucratic papers, and rigid dogmatism in the composition, but also a golden bridge crossing over into the Heart of the Universe. This is like that. I awoke Friday morning realizing that I would have to attend the next day’s event dressed as a clown and make a total fool of myself. I had transformed myself into the clown, Pretty Pretty Snowflake, several years ago to attend a Halloween party, and was surprised by the effect Snowflake had on the gathering. I realized that it was time to resurrect Pretty Pretty Snowflake and press him into service as “the climate change clown.” I was scared, but someone had to play the Fool at this funeral, and all signs pointed to me… obviously.

Yup… This is me as “Pretty Pretty Snowflake,” the climate change clown, standing in front of Robert’s paintings in our art gallery. Now… I’m fat… but I’m not THIS fat. Pretty Pretty Snowflake has expanded upon my natural amplitude with a strategically placed pillow in the front and in the back. One lady visiting our gallery kept saying “You have a BIG butt!” I thanked her profusely for the compliment and assured her that she did too.

Claudia, Susan, Pretty Pretty Snowflake, and Jerry, our great emcee and event organizer

For over a year now we have been inviting regional musicians, poets, dancers and performers into our art gallery every Third Friday for “Open Mic Music and Poetry Night.” A very high caliber of musicians and poets accepted our invitation and we have been getting to know them for a year. (It takes me a very long time to trust people.) At our “Connect the Dots – Extreme Weather and Climate Change” event on Saturday, all of these performers were so kind, accepting and tolerant of Pretty Pretty Snowflake, the annoying climate change clown. There was a wonderful half-hour dance workshop, and Zita, the leader, allowed me to muck things up for the first dance, perhaps to break the ice. Jerry, our fantastic emcee and organizer of the entire event, tolerated my heckling and even allowed me to play the slide whistle when his Streetbeets group performed. Their 85-year-old drummer, Paul, had the most touching response to my clowning. Every time he encountered me alone, he bowed and pranamed to me in an attitude of deep respect. On one such occasion he complimented me, “You are SO talented! You do so many things so well…” I cut him off with my clown voice, “And I’m PRETTY, too!” He bowed, pranamed, and walked away laughing. Other performers allowed me to dance and make irreverent comments as they attempted to underscore the urgency of the climate change emergency by entertaining the crowd in the gallery courtyard. I was increasingly moved by the message and the human tone of the event.

Streetbeets: (L-R) Paul, Jerry, & Marty. Jerry organized, and emceed the event while undergoing and recovering from double cataract surgery!

Above: Snowflake with folksinger/ guitarist Brian who opened the event.

Brian, a wonderful folk musician and guitarist, embraced me and could not stop laughing. Tim and Claudia and Susan laughed at me with wonder and appreciation in their eyes. Dave, a great flute-maker, guitarist and singer spent a long time talking to me after the event, even while I was transitioning slowly from Pretty Pretty Snowflake the annoying, but apparently lovable climate change clown, back to my normal grumpy, curmudgeonly personality as Kevin the misanthrope. While I was still speaking as a clown, I told him about how Robert and I had given a home to our new little doggy, Wardell, after someone threw him out of a car into a busy intersection. Dave had tears in his eyes as we talked about how doggies are actually “dog-people,” and how all animals have distinctly unique personalities when you get to know them. Dave showed me a photo of a huge painting his wife had made of her spirit guide, and it simply blew my red and white striped socks off! Gorgeous! He invited Robert and me to his talking group on his country property near us in a few weeks. We are going to go. He hosts sweat lodges and music events there and makes flutes, and studies the ways of the Native Americans.

 

Dave and Tim are such fine musicians and great guys. They closed the show. 

In the days leading up to the “Connect the Dots” event, I had made some 30 “dot” paintings on cardboard and canvas, to decorate the trees and grounds. These dots were between 18” and 30” in diameter. They were flowers, ferns or leaves, and all of them sported slogans, like “The Earth is Our Mother… And She’s Having Hot Flashes!” or “Carbon Emissions Are Death Farts! Stop Carbon Farts!” or “Are We Out of Our Frackin’ Minds? Stop Fracking Now!” I had been planning to just stack them up afterward and save them for another event some day, but the afternoon had changed me. I installed the entire set of dots in our art gallery as a display in the two main rooms. I was ready to engage – both with the cause and with these very fine people that I’d been holding off at an arm’s length for a year. Something about our “Connect the Dots” event connected me to them finally. Their love, kindness, intelligence, talent and tolerance burned a hole right through my armor, and they got into my heart. I trust them. I told Robert on the drive back home to the woods that I feel like we have found a community. After living for a very long time without a tribe, we have found our people. He agreed.

These are just some of the people who participated in “Connect the Dots — Extreme Weather and Climate Change” at our gallery, May 5th, 2012. The event was held in many locations around the world

Now, I don’t want you to worry… You will not see much of a change in me, if any. I’m not going to suddenly become a wild-eyed groupie or something. I am still the same grumpy old curmudgeonly hermit artist hiding in the woods. But now I know that there are some genuinely kind, reasonable, creative, intelligent souls living nearby, and that on some level we are a spiritual community of like-minded people. That’s a miracle… to me anyway. I never expected it. And there is another rather compelling development: There must be something to this “Connect the Dots” concept, because I feel a new sense of Hope. It’s not about connecting the dots of facts or information. It’s about connecting the people. Somehow, when a spiritual community of like-minded people achieves critical mass, mental miracles occur, and the result is a new feeling of Hope that we can make a difference. Today I am aware of a growing new belief that miracles can happen and we might be able to save the planet as a home for humanity and all life. I actually believe it might be possible. Anyway, we have to go for it – our house is on fire! What do we have to lose? Everybody grab a bucket and start dousing the flames! I was awake half of the night seeing paintings on the screen of my mind – big new rapid image paintings about Nature, Earth, and the Miracle of Spiritual Community. I have not been awakened by a show of new paintings going through my head for many months. This is very good. Miracles can happen. As your grandmother used to say, “See… God is good!”

Love, – Kevin