some people are born posthumously
I have been feeling profoundly alone. This feeling has increased steadily over the past year, and significantly over the last few months. I do not wish to create the impression that it is a negative feeling — I think it is possibly even a necessary feeling. For a long time when I would get riled up I would call people and try to talk to them — I have been cutting this back steadily and deliberately — the number of people decreased, and lately has fallen to zero. When the impulse to reach out comes over me, I think to myself “Am I looking to express something which will not be understood?” and if I feel that is the case, then I don’t make the call. This has led to a reduction in my perceived audience when I write — I used to write imagining who would read it. There were a handful of friends, and a couple of romantic interests who kind of traded off — I imagined barbs or insights that might strike one or more of them. Now I mostly imagine myself speaking to an empty room — I don’t see anyone nodding in agreement, or being offended, or finally understanding me.
I have tried several times over the course of the last year or two to explain a particular decision I made to my mother, and to explain the significance of that decision to her. It has become increasingly clear that I could not do this. We would exchange words, but the follow up questions would reveal that where I was coming from was not getting across — that the words were somehow similar but different. That understanding was not just not happening, but would never happen — that I would never be able to successfully explain myself and that this was something I just had to accept. As I have accepted that, I have accepted that this is the case with everyone else in my life as well. I am free to speak without having to explain myself, because I exist without explanation — my thoughts and experience are private.
I lived in a van for approximately 18 months — that was likely the beginning of this insight — because I realized for the first time how unfree people were — people could not imagine making the decision I had made. It must be either an example of poverty or mental instability. What I experienced it as was freedom — I did not have to consider the stress involved in maintaining an apartment — either the practical stress of having to go back home every night, or the financial stress of paying for it. Over and over when I have tried to express this to people, they pretend to get it (presumably because of the pretense that there is something spiritual in giving up on social pretences — and god knows anyone will lie before they will admit they are not following another person on a spiritual insight.) Oh yes, I used to think about that when I was young. We used to talk about that in college. Yes these things were interesting before I grew up. You would imagine, to hear people talk, that we were, only a very short time ago, a nation of philosophers.
But in truth it’s just that it is very easy to fake spiritual understanding.
So they nod sagely and then say “But where did you go to the bathroom?” Which is like asking someone who has been cured of cancer “But what did you do with your hospital gown?” Who knows — maybe that is the most relevant part of the conversation — maybe I am the one who isn’t getting it. Maybe the most important thing in making a lifestyle choice is that other people can make a consistent picture in their head of where you went to the bathroom. Suffice to say that I did it. I successfully voided both bladder and bowels for 18 months, and I maintained a job, and I didn’t freeze, and I wasn’t arrested.
But what I realized in the failure of this conversation, time and again, with everyone who I tried, was that conversation is not about the exchange of information. Like many other animal activities, it is nothing more than the playing out of irrational patterns. Who I am as a person does not come across in conversation — and if it did, it isn’t received. My thoughts are uniquely a writers thoughts, because I experience life as a writer, and through the lens of other writers who I have read. I do not actually even exist conversationally, and there is no way that my need to be understood — in the way that a human being can be understood by history, or by literature, can occur in a coffee shop, or over the phone. Which brings us back to the empty room. The steel walled empty room, almost like the inside of a spaceship. That is the thing, I think, that William Burroughs used to talk about when he used the metaphor of being a reporter on assignment from an alien civilization. It is possible that someone will one day read this and really get it, but I probably won’t know them, and if we met and tried to talk about it, it would probably be embarrassing.
I like to think that I could have sat and talked to Nietzsche and followed a lot of what he said — but the truth is that I didn’t understand a great deal of what he was saying until I read Goethe. Which doesn’t mean that he is necessarily so deep, or that I think I’m as deep as he is, or anything else a muckraker might make out of that sentence, but only that the type of understanding which a person who reads and thinks is likely to be interested in is different from what you talk about when you are sitting in a room. Nietzsche described this as being born posthumously — which has not so much to do with fame, as with the fact that your understanding of a complex thought will continue to change after you are finished reading it. You do not understand this essay right now, but if some part of it catches in your mind you may repeat it to yourself next week when you are reading something else, you will think of it differently, it’s understanding will become alive and significant in your mind, after you have put the essay itself down — in this way there will have been a conversation between my own incomplete understandings and your incomplete understandings — which is a kind of posthumous understanding both because I am dying into these words, and these words will die into your own living, and a new understanding may be born in your own artwork (if you are an artist.) And then someone can come along and look at Nietzsche, and me, and you in the same way that I looked at Goethe and Nietzsche – and they can think to themselves — oh yes, I didn’t see that before, now I understand.
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