Monday, August 11, 2014

We Are In Exile, From We Know Not What

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, via Wikimedia Commons

What if you were plucked up out of your life and sent to another planet where things were similar but just worse all around? What if the people were sort of like people here, only they were really slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? What if the natural environment were really harsh, so that just getting food and water took a huge amount of time and effort?

What if your travel transmogrified you, so that when you arrived, you too became slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? Suddenly you're scarred and mottled and covered in acne - and so is everyone else.

Got the mental picture?

Confession: sometimes I feel like that person now. I mean, I feel like I came from somewhere else, where beings were beings -- where intelligence and beauty were everyone's birthright and peace and pleasure had a proper home. The home planet. A better place. Then I look around at the human condition and think to myself, "My god, how do people live like this?"

If you think of humans as essentially noble intelligent creatures, the conditions we're living in are appalling. We're easily brought down by any number of simple viruses. We're a weird assortment of misplaced orifices and skin you can damage with a fingernail, without even the dignity of fur or a tail. We can't get our basic needs met without either enslaving other people or coming up with ridiculous gadgets. You get even two of us together and get us on virtually any subject, and we'll find something to disagree about. And our poor little feelings are so easily bruised. The icing on the cake: less than a hundred or so years of muddling through, BAM! It's over. No do-overs. No second chances. No probation, and no court of appeals.

I feel like it's the kind of thing you're not supposed to talk about in polite company. The Party Line, at least these days, is gratitude and appreciation. The idea that you're dreaming of better world seems vaguely politically suspect, something like a First World Problem.

And, indeed, I used to think I was in a small minority feeling this way so often, missing the home planet, that maybe I was depressed or sick in the head in some other way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it as a pretty common feeling -- it just has other names. What is heaven, but a home planet that's in the future rather than the past? Same for post-humanism. Same thing for any number of yearnings for Something Else.

And then I remembered reading in Proust about art and the way a painting could be an indication of something from a better world. This article in the Independent about Dutch art in literature confirmed my memory and put it in context. It's in The Captive, and the character of Bergotte is dying, and he goes to revisit Vermeer's "View of Delft."

As the article says, there is a tiny patch of yellow wall, so perfectly painted as to represent beauty in itself. And the yellow patch -- and particularly the perfection with which it is painted -- "appears to the dying Bergotte like a coded signal from a better world, 'based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again.'"

My garden-variety Disappointedness With Life, the tech geek's post-humanist Dream, and Proust's hearing of the faintest call from a world, unlike our own, of sense and beauty where we can finally live in peace and happiness -- these might seem like different things but I think they all speak to the same feeling, widely shared if not widely discussed.

It's the feeling of Exile from Something Else, We Know Not What.

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