I experience a tremendous amount of existential anxiety when I imagine how I might fit into the world. I fear that the decisions I make are too reckless, and that the situations they put me in decide more about my future than I do. These feelings are especially difficult to tolerate now that I am in college, and for a thousand reasons must be focused on my future in a world I suspect I know only through stories and images. I cope with common methods; things like friendships, private obsessions, romantic bonds, and religious truths provide spaces for me to exist and investigate myself. These things occur in the warm space where all domestic things occur, and have always been my reasons for living.
Your breath is sweet / Your eyes are like two jewels in the sky / Your back is straight your hair is smooth / On the pillow where you lie
But alas, the business of living occurs in a realm that seems completely different from the space where my domestic pleasures flourish. It requires me to monitor myself from the outside in, and to open myself up to the dangers of self-consciousness, which threaten to corrupt my fragile character. Despite this sacrifice (and to my deep frustration) I have tried and failed to design a perfectly meaningful future from the outside in.
It wasn't long after leaving my private high school in Charlotte that I realized that I had been living under the influence of a powerful success narrative that I resented as the root of my deepest anxieties. It was normal to think of people as "winners" or "losers"; it was normal to see the lives of the poor as motivation to do better for yourself. And I wanted to get as far away from that kind of thinking as possible. Of course, some of these ideas had become part of who I was, so walking away from a handful of values felt like a painful and wonderful birth into a new life that more closely resembled my previously guarded inner life.
Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.
Texts like Heart of Darkness, The Sound And The Fury, and The Waste Land primed me for this sort of experience. It seemed like Conrad, Faulkner, and Eliot were all speaking, in one way or another, about encountering "the fallen world" at the edges of their worldview. These texts also seemed to offer different glimpses at the same cultural baggage: an inflated sense of self, built from the outside-in, that offers egoistic comforts at the price of a living soul. Below is a clip from Caitriona O'Reilly's poem "The Airship Era", which beautifully describes dreamlike scientific humanism, a European cultural narrative powerful enough to conquer the world.
But for them — the gilded aerialists in their giant dirigibles — the world remained a storybook unfolding endlessly in signs and wonders, over which they drifted in stylish accidie; leviathan hunters, relaxed as Victorian naturalists. And up there everything looked different: the borders absurd, the people in their witch-fearing villages as out-of-date as peasants in a medieval breviary. The mountains, too, seemed surpassable, offering an alternative angle on the sublime.
The worldview described above reminds me of the hot ambition that was prioritized in my high school. With enough distance, I saw the rampant desire to "be someone" as coming from a deep insecurity of self, and I suspected that the security which ambition promises is so enticing, that people would willingly languish, trying to live up to a model of discipline and agency, on a wild goose chase. Conceptualizing this narrative as something that had control over me suddenly made people who were still living that narrative seem straight out of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, or the real-world equivalent, the age of McCarthy inquisition. Bob Dylan songs that I had loved for years came into focus, and I dug my newfound paranoia as a sign that I was doing something right.
My so-called friends have fallen under a spell. / They look me squarely in the eyes and they say "well, all is well". / Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on High / when men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die?
The above clip from "Precious Angel", a born-again Dylan song, really tickled me. I was reading a ton of Christian literature in my English major, and I began to understand ways of incorporating the vocabulary into the way I saw the world. I felt encouraged to explore apocalyptic literature, and that stuff liberated me.
What surprised me was how the process of shedding one narrative for another was mostly a practice in non-existence. When I embraced different ways of thinking, I felt its force work on how I understood myself. And when I wasn't secure in my new world-narrative, I felt, like Ellison's Invisible Man, that I occupied a space in between different dreams, where my form was wild and mysterious. I was living an existential reality that I could not fully express, and that others could not read.
I am a bit more existentially stable than I have been in the past. Perhaps this is because I have come to accept that some quotient of liminality will always define a personhood based on stories and images; there will always be part of me that feels void of form, and I should realize that it is from this unconscious space where new ways of feeling emerge. My story of stories, which for the moment helps me accept this, concerns my hero, the Man With No Name, an existential hero who embraces, and flourishes in, the liminal state that everyone must wrestle with but not everyone has the tools to face. Another O'Reilly poem "The Man With No Name As Vital Principle: A Ghazal" says everything I mean to say about this character.
Something looks through the Stranger’s eyes, looking. It is a secret. It is life in this town of death. The Stranger does not speak it. Things solidify from their names. Where the empty sky was, there is smoke, and from this comes the figure of the Stranger whose name is smoke... He is a hat, a cheroot, a serape with strange signs. He is the Son of Man, bowler-hatted, an apple where his face should be... Still he comes. Under the drunken parabola of the sun he watches himself turn, reflected in the eye of his enemy, from a speck of dust into a man.
This is Ellison's Invisible Man, except adequately armed to defend his integrity with symbols, weapons, and other extensions of his being. He is a hero for the practical world, who can diffuse a situation with the perfect line, or the perfect look. He travels so light, that he fits through the eye of needle. I aspire to the qualities of this character who can embrace the odyssey of modern life, and survive its forces. He lives in the confused and paranoid world of the Wild West, where on every street there is a wash of pedestrians whose appearance and behavior speak to private worlds and unconscious identities, schemes and plots and fates.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
Ain't talking, just walking / Through the world mysterious and vague / Heart burning, still yearning / Walking through the cities of the plague.