The Aesthetic of the ascetic.
September 25, 2018 § 7 Comments
The hatchet is very sharp. It slices through the wood with ease, carving off a thin piece about the length and width of a chopstick, which I then grab by the end with thumb and forefinger to deftly set it upon the tender fire. It is the second day of autumn. Night is falling and something in my bones demands a campfire. My daughter watches as I crouch beside the embers and blow into them, and she seeks an explanation. Then she wants to try. I return from the house with a hair tie and wrap her hair into a ponytail.
All summer I dream of this season, from a break in the heat and humidity. Our cabin home has no air conditioning, so August finds me always looking ahead to cooler days, to leaf litter, to the texture of flannel on my skin. When the cooler days finally come, I want to freeze them in place, to wallow in the season like a slow walk across a waist deep river, stopping periodically to feel the flow.
It is a bad habit, I believe, to yearn for a future time. Even if only to see yourself to the next weekend or even to the end of a day’s work. Of course I find myself engaging in this habit on the regular, and life within the capitalist structure makes it damn near unavoidable for everyone I would wager. Life is short though, and I would hate to wish myself quickly over the landscape of my life, always missing out on the minute details of now until all of a sudden I find myself lying on a deathbed, wanting it all back.
The autumn helps. It calms. It breathes. And in it, I can breathe too.
I have written before that civilization is a collective psychosis. It probably isn’t a very original notion. Even poor old Shakespeare said that the “world is but a stage,” and chances are, though the sentiment felt valid to him, it was antiquated even when he uttered it.
We are all play acting on the daily, but probably more than we recognize in the rare moments when we do deign to stop and recognize it. Civilization comes with a lot of set dressing; flags, uniforms, degrees with calligraphy, framed and hung with care behind a lawyer’s desk. All of our shouting at one and other and attempts to bend other humans to our will would be so stark and unjustified without a little pomp to add weight to the demands.
And so it is we go about our days pretending that the man in the robe is a judge, and the man in the collar a priest, and that the man with the shiny spat of metal pinned over his heart can commit a little bit of murder from time to time.
To question any of this is to call an audible in the middle of the show. It jeopardizes the whole damn script. So don’t.
How deep the performative nature of our existence is dawned on me recently, thanks to a video I watched online that was made by a woman named Natalie who creates content under the name ContraPoints on Youtube. She is a transwoman, apparently, an ex-philosophy student, and her videos cover a breadth of topics with humor, and absurd pageantry.
In her recent piece titled, “The Aesthetic,” she stages a mock debate between two trans characters who discuss the nature of gender; one who argues that gender is essential to us internally in some capacity, and the other who argues its mostly a performative role we play in society.
There is a fantastic line in which the character who argues that gender is performative declares that ours is a society of spectacle, and that though her opponent sees herself in a forum, in reality she is in a circus, and that “this isn’t ancient Athens, it’s Rome.”
Ultimately, I believe Natalie herself as a writer wasn’t entirely devoting herself to one side of the debate or the other, but the arguments she laid out regarding performance were interesting indeed, and I believe apply broadly to areas of our identities far beyond gender.
Wandering about my land in brown work boots and blue jeans, a knife sheathed in leather attached to my belt, I thought of my own appearance and how much of it was created for me. Culture crafted the archetype and I slipped into it like a cold hand into a warm mitten. Man. Homesteader. Father. Anarchist. Backwoods luddite.
From political opinions to musical tastes, from religious beliefs to brand allegiances, people set themselves within an identity and then make life choices that fall in line with the proper expression of that identity; a process which has been recognized and entirely captured by capitalists and their army of advertisers as well as politicians and their snake charmers in mass media.
The role demands the perfect costuming and makeup, all of which makes more real the role. A snake eating its own tail. Our belief deepens as the edges blur.
Why is this a bad thing? Is there any way to live outside of the spectacle? Is it possible for us to no longer be performing, but rather to just be being? Surely, even tribal humans had social roles and costume laden ceremony. At some point, man stepped out of the realm of psychological solitary wandering and into a shared space of articulated reality. There must be some advantages to sharing a map of existence with your kin.
When does this mental construction become toxic?
I think of feudal Japanese culture. There was a heavy emphasis on the craft of everything. Daily life was an art to be lived. The ephemeral nature of now was treasured, and such reverence for beauty and impermanence placed the highest of values on art forms like flower arranging, calligraphy, gardening, or the tea ceremony.
In the chanoyu, every detail mattered. The path stones leading to the purpose built tea house would be scrubbed clean. The layout of all of the necessary materials had to be just so. The positioning of the host and guest, the clothing worn, the gestures, the sparse words spoken, all of it the critical detail to construct the perfect experience. Every piece being just so made the act of living into a work of art, a sculpture of people existing in one fleeting moment of time.
Beauty. Or maybe complete absurdity. Or both. Or maybe the former because of the latter. Perspective I guess.
Perspective implies observation. Observation implies audience.
Who is the audience to our grand social spectacle? Who are we trying to impress when we turn the coffee cup just a bit to the left allowing its steam to catch the morning light just perfectly so we can take a photograph of it and upload it to Instagram, color corrected with our preferred preset filter? Who is the imagined audience for whom we perform when we take the eighth unnaturally candid, yet very precisely posed “selfie?”
Is it applause we seek, or merely acceptance from the other players? I am what you believe I am, and when your confidence is shaken, my identity fractures. Or something like that.
When a president isn’t “presidential,” or a man wears a dress, or someone awkwardly goes off script at a public gathering and starts talking about the ongoing sixth mass extinction, it all breaks form. Then the rest of the cast has to come back into the moment, no longer running on muscle memory, to interpret the circumstances of the now, and search desperately to reign in the chaos of non conformity.
But then even that becomes part of the show. A die is cast and a new role created. The maverick. The weirdo. The protestor. Complete with a look and catchphrases and a set of Google ads perfectly tailored to their online shopping preferences.
How do we reclaim ourselves? How do we pull back culture from the clutches of those whose only interest is to sell us merchandise? It is likely that we will always be reliant on forms, on constructed identities which we adopt and then only slightly modify, adding a this or removing a that, before laying down the role in our death so that the next generation can take its turn in wearing it.
Perhaps it is healthy when these forms are used to inform us, to assist us in navigating a complicated and sometimes confusing natural realm, binding a people in a unified survival. Perhaps then, they become destructive when pressure is applied to make us conform to a model, stifling the ability of an individual to blossom beyond the boundaries of yesterday’s perceptions and interpretations.
Finding the balance is the challenge. Not allowing ourselves to become the tools of our tool, as Mr. Thoreau may have phrased it.
Perhaps too, such forms can be used as a cultural hack to chip away at the status quo models drafted and pitched by ad men to keep us always wanting, and eagerly consuming. The aesthetic of the ascetic if you will. The culture of the content.
Orange lilies and deep red roses stand in their vase at the center of the kitchen table. Gray light meanders in through the window with no urgency, a steady rain falling through the forest sounds like a small river rolling in the distance. My daughter sits on her knees at the table as she practices writing simple words.
I often wonder in what ways I am helping or hindering her with the cultural values I inscribe in her wittingly and not. She cannot navigate this human world, after all, without a mastery of various forms of symbolic thought, such as math, reading, and writing. Beyond that, every day she witnesses the invented truths of man, and sees them as if they are as real as the stars and sky.
So I show her which plants she can eat. I stress the turning of the seasons with rituals and acts of beauty. And on cool nights, I make a fire, and as we stare into it, I say nothing.