21 Soul Activism, The Self, Writing Blog

Digging deeper into writing about one’s loves

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One of the exercises that I’ve practiced over the past few years is from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which is to write out a list of your obessions. They are, after all, the things one comes back to over and again, to write about, to obsess about. The obsessions are those, if one can give yourself to them, also the things that will bring you greatest joy. (The healthy ones, at least!). I’ve combined this with something taken from Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able to Paint: that is, to actually divide these into what one loves and what one hates. Hate is a hard, painful word and sensation. But I think there is no doubt that within us there are mixed senses of things we love, are drawn to, and those which we are also drawn to that cause immense pain, to us, or to others in the world, and things we perhaps do hate, and would like to see the end of. Both in the general (injustice, alcoholism, biodiversity loss, cruelty to animals) and also in the particular (Michael Gove’s attacks on educators, my father’s alcoholism, ash die back disease, bear bile farming).

I’ll leave the development of thoughts around love and that other word, hate, for another post (stuff around accepting one’s destructive urges). But for now what I wanted to do was dive deeper into the generalities I’ve put on my list of things I love. It is detail that makes the artist, the writer. Observation of detail, uniquely told or made. So I’ve practiced some free writing (another of Natalie Goldberg’s, or Julia Cameron’s, practices) on the topics from my list. So I’ve not tried to define or lead where the writing goes. Sometimes it feels creative, other times more essayist. I’ve just gone with the feeling.

First up: feeling healthy and full of energy.

One of my loves is feeling healthy and full of energy. This is perhaps the most banal and taken-as-read of all loves in the world. But does that mean it should be taken for granted? The human mind works, perhaps has been constructed around, the need to be more aware of difficulty, challenge, risk and suffering, than it needs to be alerted to healthiness, energy and joy. Both the philosopher Mark Rowlands and the psychiatrist and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison (video), in different books, make this point. But the feeling of being energetic and enthused, of being, as Jamison points to, exuberant, should not be overlooked. As Rowlands agrees, if we pay more attention to feelings of exuberance and joy, we begin to see what they are, and in fact disaggregate them from feelings of pleasure and even happiness; or at least the half of happiness that Rowlands says has nothing to do with pleasure. That is, being alive to what the US President Theodore Roosevelt called, in a speech to the Sorbonne in 1910, “the great enthusiasms” of life that one should know.

Know. Rowlands, in his philosophical book that dissects running, Running with the Pack, calls joy a kind of knowing, not feeling. Pleasure is a feeling, but it is one that is often, usually, instrumental: done for the sake of something else. In Rowlands’ view, the things we do for pleasure is often the instrumental outcome of avoiding the pain of work. A drink at the end of the week. Hobbies and outings. Turning on the TV, going to the cinema. All these things could be done for the sake of it, but often they are not, and in particular those that do not require attention, such as television, drinking. Pleasure is the greatest lie of our times, according to Rowlands.

Instead, joy is not actually a feeling (although it can be made up of many feelings in itself). Joy is a way of seeing. It is a knowledge: and the thing that it is a knowledge of is a recognition of intrinsic value. Joy is knowing what is important for its own sake. Which is why joy is concerned not with distracting one from work, providing pleasurable diversions, but of recognising and filling one’s lives with the things one really loves for their own sakes.

To love for any other reason would be to waste ones energy, and to lie to oneself. Love of things with instrumental value is not really love, because you don’t love the thing itself, you only love what it can give you. Which is often, in our utilitarian culture, simply an instrument for something else as well. We work to get paid. We get paid so we can buy things. We buy things to have a nice life. We want a nice life to divert ourselves from work. So to divert ourselves from work, we… keep working. There is no end point in this toil-pleasure cycle. And we have surrounded ourselves with things (ideas, people, objects) that we don’t really love.

In many ways, “this is also the fantasy of the good life” that Lauren Berlant talks about in her critical work, and to which we are deeply, painfully attached by a “cruel optimism” that means to detach ourselves from these fantasies of the good life would be more painful than simply sticking with them, even as they fail to provide us with the fantasies we expect them to. This is why, as Neil Gammon argues, neoliberalism came to be: not simply as an economic response to the faltering ideal of the “Fordist man” but also because it allured individuals towards an ideal of self-autonomy where the fantasy could be achieved – but, at the expense of others (namely the lower classes, and what Berlant calls nondominant groups, such as women, people of colour, the indigenous populations of colonized states, queers, the disabled.)

If you want to boil it down even further: when we “love” things for instrumental sakes, that’s western civilisation—and its going to shit because it supports a hyper-exploitative cycle of consumption with a fantasy of something eternally out of reach (play; the good life) and using up every resource we have while we try to get there.

When we love things for their own sakes—that is, when we truly love—there is no exploitative cycle, because, and I suppose this is the really important thing, there is no fantasy that we are chasing after. We are always already with the things we love. They are around us, and we are imbued with them. We don’t always want more. We don’t need to consume in excess. (As George Bataille has said, the problem with economies and with civilisation is not scarcity, but with excess, and in particular excess of energy and objects. War, violence, obesity, inequality are all diseases of excess. Adam Phillips has then taken this subject on in terms of the psychoanalytic roots of the problem.)

And this comes back to where I started from: with the idea of exuberance. Of feeling both healthy and energetic in oneself, and with the freedom to passionately engage with and enjoy (en-joy: become joyous in) the things one loves. And it isn’t our working commitments that keep us from the things we love. It is mistakenly attaching to instrumental acts our energetic “love” – that is, in Teresa Brennan’s term, our living attention – that keeps us affectively clamped to practices that simply reinforce the deadening cycle.

What is so painful about this, of course, is that this cycle of consumption benefits a small (and increasingly, smaller) section of the global powerful and rich. The shareholders, the business owners, the politicians, the oligarchs, who all have  a stake in maintaining illusions of classlessness, of a post-racial society, of gender equality and post-feminism, while in fact we live with no such things, and where the rates of inequality – the gap between rich and poor – in Britain and America, particularly, continue to increase, and at an increasing rate. The method by which this is controlled is through fantasy. And particularly fantasies of the good life. The normative belief that working hard will allow us to enjoy peace and security, even as job security itself becomes more precarious: zero-hour contracts anyone? The rapid rise in part-time employment?

There is a point I want to make here that is fleeting, as exuberantly difficult to pin down as the scherzo on the radio, as I sit and type listening to BBC Radio 3. It is about education. Or really, the opposite of education: training. Ed-ucare – to lead out. That is not what training does. Training scores a deep rut into one’s life story out of which one may never climb. But as Berlant says, if the choice is one between the rut and the widening cracks of precarious living, people will take the rut every time.

There is a letter in the Telegraph from yesterday signed by a hundred leading educators asking, pleading with the Education Secretary Michael Gove (who knows nothing of education, and everything about training) to allow children to continue playing until the age of six or seven, and not to begin formal classes of learning at four or five. What they are asking for, at heart, is to allow children as long as possible to keep hold of what they naturally and valuably already know: that it is things we do for their intrinsic value, the things we find joy in, our games, our play, and the adult equivalents, our art, our public services, that are the truly loveable and valuable things in life, and in education.

It is childhood play we first understand how to create a home for our exuberance – the marrying together of our passions with our health and energy to see them through to objective reality. When Carl Jung split with Freud, he spent the next three years in inner turmoil as to the purpose of his life, which he resolved through returning to childhood play. Literally, with wooden bricks and toys. As Rowlands points out in his book, we would say of people who do this that they’ve “never grown up”. We question their maturity. And yet for Jung it was the key to everything that came after, all his theories and “work”—although he never again saw ‘work’ as ‘work’ but rather as an extension of his playfulness, his ability to do things for the sake of doing them, not for any instrumental value to lead to something else.

It is this childhood sense of joy—of a deep and inner, autonomic knowing and recognition of value—that I am ‘toying’ with at the moment as I prepare my classes and lectures for the new academic year. But also as I consider my own artwork—my own writing. Each morning I have been sitting down to write, and to give myself the “frame” of attention, in Marion Milner’s wise words (in her essential book for all creatives, On Not Being Able to Paint) to be able to enter into this playful state. To write for the sake of writing, not to please a supervisor on the PhD, not to get published, not to change my life, not to become rich and famous. All of which came into consideration is some way as I completed the novel that is currently out with agents, and which, because of this instrumental value it carries with it, was in some way deadened. It is not the book I wanted to write; and that’s because I worked at it, rather than played at it.

Neil Gaiman, in his wisdom as a writer, has said as advice to novice writers: “finish things. It is by finishing things we learn something.”

I understand what he is saying now. I understand now that I have learnt things from finishing a novel (in fact, my second finished novel) that I did not know before. And one of these things is how to write. Not the technical side of things. That craft came through the hard work, the process. But I have learnt how to write. And that is to write for the sake of writing itself. As with Rowlands’ running, as with the walking of John Muir, as with the art of Picasso and Frieda Kahlo, as with the music of Philip Glass, in all of these one understands—hears, sees, experiences—the love and joy with which the ‘work’ was created.

I began by asking myself this morning: one of my ‘loves’ is being healthy and feeling full of energy. Why? Because it is in an exuberant state that I can most fully connect with the things which I love, the things I do for the sake of doing them, and not for any other. And it is, I would argue, doing the things one loves that will make one healthiest, will leave one with the most energy.

Image: Exuberance, (c) Caroline M. Sun

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