Sunday, May 18, 2003

learning to inhale

Once in a while, my critical eye is rewarded by something that adds something indescribable to life and existence in general - when something within me is affected to the degree that change is provoked. The change is a subtle shift in the degree of how I appreciate life. Sounds maudlin (gasp)? Read on. I'll try to explain.

We all live in an almost monotone world, trapped by the patterns of routine, practically unchanging day by day. Any change that comes is one of three kinds: the predictable "Blocked" changes, the Catastrophic/Sublime alterations, and the Epiphanies of Beauty. There is also the minor changes that, for the most part, are irrelevant to my point.

The "Blocked" Changes

The "Blocked" changes are scheduled by society. For example, going to elementary school, then high school, then university. These are massive blocks of time that, in their own context, are unchanging. You spend four or so years in "blocked" college time, serene in the knowledge that nothing will change (short of failure, which is of the catastrophic/sublime mode). There is only change from "Blocked" state to "Blocked" state, as if there were a plan to life that we need to follow towards fulfillment and meaning. Many people subscribe to this mode, whether consciously or unconsciously, living as pedestrians, finding transitory contextual happiness, from cradle to grave. That is their choice. But it isn't mine.

Catastrophe & Sublimity

The second mode of change actually has two facets: Catastrophe and Sublimity, two sides of the same coin. Catastrophe is somewhat predictable in that it will happen but you do not know when. For example, you know all your loved ones, all of them, will die. You don't just know when or how (the why is immaterial). Catastrophe also covers human experiences that seem to happen to "other people" but may also happen to you: e.g. someone's house burns down, someone's daughter gets pregnant, someone's brother is kidnapped.

It's Janus-twin, Sublimity, also functions in a similar fashion. "Good", fantastic, incredible things that most likely will happen (assuming you are of the mindset to let it happen, like marriage that works out or starting a loving family) but you don't know for a fact exactly when and how. The Sublime also seems to be experienced by people other than you, but you hope it will happen to you someday - winning the lottery, receiving honors or awards, meeting and being accepted by your real parents, finding God.

These two modes ("blocked" and cat/sub) govern much of our existence, along with smaller changes that are truly irrelevant in the greater scheme of things (like which cab you ride, which fork you pick in a cafeteria, which pair of underwear you wore yesterday) - though of course they can be meaningful (mostly in films and badly written fiction) but then they formally become part of the cat/sub routine.

Epiphany of Beauty

The change that I look forward to is the third type, Epiphany of Beauty, which I can control to a significant degree. The search for beauty. It is difficult to find among the dross the pervades our senses, but it is the grail that touches the deepest part of our humanity. It is found both in nature and construct. Beauty in nature should be obvious - it is what makes a sunrise, the stars at night, the devastation of a typhoon, the dance of falling petals, an unrehearsed embrace, the sound of rain, the scent of your lover all meaningful.

But the Epiphany of Beauty that I seek most is in the constructs of man. Everything that is created has the potential to move someone. It could be accidental - the beauty of the sheer scale of a ship. Or it can be deliberate - someone sculpts marble, writes a poem, composes music, creates a film, crafts a story. It also serves to educate someone who creates, as well as inspiring, challenging and setting standards.

Why I Am Harsh

Which, to a great degree, informs my critical eye. A film like the Matrix: Reloaded, for example, is bereft of value to me - especially since it purported to push the creative boundaries of stylized film-making. But a film like Gosford Park, with its nuanced observations and dialogue allows an epiphany, beauty that I can inhale (or if you feel the comparison unfair - kungfu for kunfu then - Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , heck, even the first Matrix film (well, a small part of it) provoke epiphanies. This is the same reason I'm horribly critical of many books, because many of them contribute nothing in terms of beauty - and obviously, I do not mean beautiful writing, beautiful plots, beautiful characters. I speak about the invisible quality that moves me, whether it is as simple as a precise vocabulary or even if it is an ugly topic, like man's inhumanity to other men in World War II (because Beauty is not always "beautiful" - the so-called negative aspects of life are rife with Beauty as well).

Beyond Entertainment

I do not believe in simple "entertainment", because if you consider the small amount of time we have to live, being entertained should be very low on the totem pole of Things To Do. I believe that the best "entertainment" should do more than simply entertain (more than just making you laugh, cry, get an erection, go "oooh, pretty" or "wow, cool!"). The best entertainment connects to what makes us human, to that part within all of us, underneath all the layers of sophistication or ignorance, agenda or innocence. It should exude an invisible something that our soul can breathe in - because that quintessential part of us is usually left gasping, in favor of things that are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Is this type of experiental change so rarified that it excludes others? Certainly not. A poem can move a so-called "simple" fisherman who never went to school. A painting can speak to someone who did not study art history and move her to tears.

The only people who are excluded are those who do so by choice, turning up their noses at the need for beauty as something insensate and foolish, instead happily gorging themselves on the candy buffets, addicted to the empty sugar rush, mistaking it for all that there is to life - by choice.

I advocate learning to breathe. To inhale.

It may mean not going with the popular opinion, not parroting the common consensus, listening to odd music and falling in love with a string of words that others stare at dully.

It may entail a degree of loneliness, raised eyebrows and accusations of elitism (people will ask you "can't you just enjoy the thing on its own terms?")

But it also means being on an amazing quest, yearning for more, being rewarded in unexpected places and perhaps even finding others who share the love for the nearly-elusive.

It is the way I have chosen to live.


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