Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Midnight Hour ...

The image accompanying this essay has been blocked by hackers. Google "Kierkegaard" and copy his portrait.

Consider this text by Thomas Merton:

This power of self-surrender is not gained except through the experience of that dread which afflicts us when we taste the awful dereliction of the soul closed in upon itself.

The full maturity of the spiritual life cannot be reached unless we first pass through the dread, [angst,] anguish, trouble and fear that necessarily accompany the inner crisis of 'spiritual death' in which we finally abandon our attachment to our exterior self ...

Enlightenment or maturity can only arrive when we pass through the flames of despair. We must see the utter nothingness of death as a looming possibility, so as to confront all of the falsehood or artificiality in our lives. In order really to live our lives -- while we still can -- we must say goodbye to all that is already dead inside of us. We have to let go of everything that weighs us down.

It is as though you were holding on to a life-line of some kind, suspended over a precipice and looking down. Suddenly, you lose your fear and no longer care about hitting the ground. So you let go. There is a delightful feeling of floating, falling through infinite space, like John Napper sailing through the universe. ("John Napper" is a character in a story by John Gardner.)

I close my eyes now and see someone who looks like me, sort of, except he is much heavier. There is a gold and silver Rolex on his wrist, and there are others, very much like him, in a plush conference room. All are white, male, in early middle age. Everyone is speaking in heavy, measured and grave tones; everyone is in suits from Brooks Brothers and silk ties; there are tickets to the Opera in my jacket pocket; my shoes are polished; I have a new "leased" (80% deductible, if used as part of my business) German car parked outside. The other participants in this "conference" have similar cars parked outside.

I wonder if one of those men gets to park inside? If so, everyone else will be envious and a hierarchy may be established. Some of those men are criminals; some are government officials. Some are government officials, who are (probably) also criminals. Everyone has an impressive title. Everyone is impressed with how impressive he is.

We are all important, especially in our own minds. We discuss cigars. We laugh a bit more loudly than is necessary. If there is no woman in the room, then someone will make an off-color joke, without fear of being "misunderstood." An attractive young woman enters periodically with coffee and asks whether there is "anything else that we would like." We smile.

This is the sort of setting I rarely visit. I made the most of it when I finally got there. Yet when I got there, all I could think about was getting out. It is, primarily, such men who run this society, mostly for their own benefit, from such offices. I do not desire their company. They don't want mine. I don't want their cars or offices. I don't want the fawning attention of women half my age. I have no interest in the wonderful things that they have. If the person that I am today were to wander into that room, then he would certainly be thrown out of it. This pleases me a great deal. If I were to meet and talk to that earlier self, I'm afraid that he wouldn't think very highly of me. I doubt that I'd think too highly of him. I am optimistic enough to believe that we would manage a polite conversation and walk away muttering "asshole."

The receptionist in this office is a woman who is a former model. She smiles at each "important" man who enters this "important" office. Her eyes are not smiling. She does not smile at the women who sometimes accompany the men. It is not necessary to smile at them. Everyone feels entitled to use her first name. I don't. She looks at me a little differently. I will always remember that look. It says thank you for saying "Ms."

One way that you know you are visting an important suburban law firm specializing in "billing," is that an exceptionally attractive woman is employed as a receptionist. It is rarely or never a man in that position. I have never seen a woman in that job who looked happy. No, such women are not engaged in a form of prostitution. Many have children to feed and the money is good. Many of the men who are partners in such firms are better thought of as prostitutes of a different sort.

By the way, that word would not have been out of place on some days as a description of me. I destroyed a witness on the stand. I did what I was supposed to do, but I wonder now: Was she telling the truth? Maybe that wasn't for me to decide.

It occurs to me that every person in that conference room was only a performance, something unreal, a shadow, and the performances were close to taking over what was still alive and genuine in those men. It is not simply that they were acting, but that they were acting badly. In some cases, they have been taken over; whatever was real in them is gone for good. In others, there are still signs of life. A homunculus peers out at the world from inside the eyes of a few participants in those chats.

This small portion of the self is kept alive, secretly, is permitted to walk outside and breathe fresh air only on the weekends, when no one is around. The part of the self that was a child once, that loves the law, that cares about people, floats around inside the psyche. I see him inside some of those men sometimes. I try to let him know that it's O.K., I won't tell anyone about him. I will pretend not to see him.

I see men like those all the time on subway trains or walking around downtown. Boy, do I feel sorry for them. If it comes to a choice between him -- the child inside -- and the important man in the suit, always go with the child inside. Fight to remain human.

I see many men who know this and want to do just that, to "choose themselves" (Kierkegaard), but they are afraid. All that they are missing is their real lives. Authenticity. (See my earlier comment "Norman Mailer and the Spooky Art.") Worst of all, they know this, but don't know what to do to escape their life-sentences. Go to any sports bar on a Friday night and look at the men in suits, talking sports, or just drinking ... silently. Notice the lawyers, especially, nursing wounds to the ego and repressed anger at the shit they've taken from judges or senior partners. If you ever need to define the word "resentment," visit a bar frequented by lawyers on a Friday night, you'll see it there.

At least 50% of lawyers are ready to explode with seething rage that gets expressed in patient, methodical destruction of other people's lives. I could not play that game today, even if I am more intelligent and better read than most of them. It's just not in me. My opinions and thoughts are not for sale. I'm not for sale. Sometimes women who achieve power in this society become like one of those men. I am sorry for them. They are mistaken about what constitutes "success." Eventually, maybe when it is too late, they will realize this. In 1836, Kierkegaard wrote in his journals ...

I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me -- but I went away -- and the dash that follows should be as long as the earth's orbit -- and wanted to shoot myself. ...

And ten years later, he asked:

Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it? ...

I once met a woman who tortured people. There is no other word for what she did -- and probably still does. She likes power over others. Maybe this is a way of convincing herself that she is still alive and human, that a vital part of herself was not been lost -- lost to the version of herself seen by the world, the part of herself that hurts other people, then steals from them or does worse. Diana became that frightening role, until there was nothing left of herself beyond the mask. Most persons with power, including all judges, wear masks. They forget Oscar Wilde's warning: "Those who wear a mask will come to resemble it." Leave the mask in your chambers when you go home. The actor who fails to leave the character on stage is in trouble.

The sight of Diana and the sound of her name are still repulsive to me. I wonder how many other men and women like her exist in this society, and are out there doing what she does, secretly. I wonder where she is now. Wherever she is, I hope it is far away from me. I only wish to speak to her once, face-to-face, then I will be happy to leave her to her fate.

The people she tortured and hurt were all herself, of course. She does not know that. She may never know it. She is in flight from herself. She is hoping not to be recognized by herself. But she has an appointment in Samara. One day she will see herself, really see herself in the mirror, and then the little house of cards that she has built for herself will crumble, and she will crumble too. She deserves and receives my pity.

How many people do you know who are in flight from themselves? Are you? Do you believe that the title on the door to your office will protect you from the truth about your life? How about the new apartment or the nice car? Or the black robes? The new portrait? Will you die for those things? Do they mean that much to you? Do you need people to humble themselves before you? Do you "wield" power? Or do you relish dominating others? Do you have status, money, power? Or do those things have you? How do you define "success"? What is it in yourself that you avoid facing every day? What are you choosing not to say about your life that you know is true? Do you believe that others do not see and say those things about your life?

"Philosophy," Kierkegaard insists, "is not about making things easier, but it is about making things difficult."

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