Memory deceives with how it flattens experience. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than when we reminisce on a past relationship. When you were with your partner you were sometimes angry, often irritated, and while there were surely moments of ecstasy and fulfilment, there was, of course, a reason (or many) why you left them (or they left you). But, looking back, you can only remember the good times; the way she used to smile at you when you made an awful dad-joke, or how she would occasionally run up from behind and hug you, or how, when you were feeling really down, she would gently place her hand on your arm and tell you that it would all be okay. What was once ordinary becomes charming.
Nostalgia is just as much an expression of past truths as a result of present disillusionment. After all, it is not for nothing that we grab onto these moments, not when we are elated but when we are despondent, desperately trying to return to a point in our lives where we felt (or like to think we felt) truly happy.
Consider, for a moment, a parody of nostalgia for our exes. During industrial revolution Britain, when railway tracks and telegraph lines were being laid across the land, and people were thrust into enormous and anonymous cities, the artistic community was set on capturing a period in time where they felt things were better: the Middle Ages. They produced paintings capturing idyllic, frictionless communities and meaningful relationships in a time before industrialisation ruptured social bonds and despoiled landscapes.
But, of course, it was a ruse. The Middle Ages was a time of misery and cruelty, of famines and plagues. The artists were exhibiting what the psychologist Carl Jung termed ‘compensation’. The Romantics found the present so wretched that they invented a counter-balance in the form of an idyllic and blissful past.
But this type of imagination about the Middle Ages was not about knowledge (that is, how things actually were) but rather, a form of insight (how the artists saw the past). The nostalgic attitude to the past disregarded why things ever changed, just as we – when we look back on a recently ended relationship – overlook why we are no longer with that person. We become caught up in the emotional turbulence of the heart and lose our intellectual footing.
Industrialisation was a movement away from the many intolerable aspects of peasant existence. There was certainly reasons why it happened. Likewise, a breakup is a movement away from many other intolerable experiences of cancelled dates, misunderstood thoughts, and unreciprocated feelings.
Memory is an unreliable friend. We edit out and simplify memories, or completely forget others in unconscious attempts to create a ‘happy place’ in our mind that we can retreat to and escape our current misery. What we require is a type of brutal honesty that we might now be able to give ourselves. We may need someone else to remind us that there were reasons, good ones at that, for why things ended.
But, intellectualising the problem in this way will only get us so far. Healing does not come from realising how bad things might have been, and collating the reasons why you should have broken up. Rather, healing, or at least, the remedy for the current pain, comes from understanding that the feeling of nostalgia is not about the past but rather, about the present. It is about you, here, now, and that while you left something behind that has left a hole in your heart, the cure lies in finding something new to provide fulfilment, rather than seeking an idealised past that never existed.
‘To those human beings who are of any concern to me’ wrote Nietzsche in The Will to Power, ‘I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished’.
Speaking not out of hate but of love, he continued,
I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.
Nietzsche located the worth of human life in how one deals with and transcends the problems they face. Implied in his wish for suffering upon his friends is an understanding that we do not grow and better ourselves in a comfortable life. It is only through the struggle (with ourselves, with our demons, with the demands of the world) that we develop and mature.
It is precisely this ‘struggle’ that Jung captures in his discussion of the biblical story of Jacob in Genesis 32:22–32. Jacob, who pretends to be his brother to steal his father’s blessing, is walking along a riverside at night when he encounters a man. They ‘wrestle’ until day break whereupon Jacob is injured at the hip. As the sun rises, Jacob finds he wrestled not with a man but an angel. Jacob is allowed to leave, but is given a new name, and walks away with a limp.
Jung saw in the allegory of Jacob a tale of the human psyche. It is said they ‘wrestle’, but the passage is also translated as ‘struggle’ in other Bibles. Jung believed that as humans, we are constantly wrestling or ‘struggling’ with powerful forces within ourselves. We struggle with our fears, desires, repressed memories and all the rest that we have designated to ‘the shadow’. But, if we endure this struggle and refuse to run away from it, eventually the shadow will be illuminated and the struggle will be over. It is not for nothing that Jacob receives a new name. Because after the struggle, we become a new person.
Jung sees the limp, not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength. The limp testifies that Jacob has struggled, survived and has been humbled (later bowing 7 times to his brother) in his struggle with the angel. We carry the scars of past battles (mental and physical, as those who have self-harmed surely know). The scars are not defections but symbols testifying to our capacity to endure and keep growing.
As with Nietzsche, Jung saw in the struggle precisely the material that will furnish better people of us. Like Nietzsche’s hero, Jacob is victorious for one reason and one reason alone: he endures.
While we may want a comfortable and cosy life, it is precisely a life of ease and gratification that leaves us ill-equipped to live, for it is a fact that existence is irrevocably bound up with incredible suffering; and instead of turning away from this fact, if we can face it, look it in the eyes, and wrestle with it, we will become humbled and strengthened by the experience.
Unlike Nietz , I do not wish more suffering on those I love, for we all already suffer enough. All I wish is that they do not walk away from the struggle, because in the struggle we find ourselves, define ourselves, and transcend ourselves.
We think about life in terms of a subject who acts, and an object that is acted upon. So, if there is an artist in her studio, we think and speak with the artist as the active subject, and the paint, brushes and canvas as the still, inert objects being acted upon. We are inclined to say that the painter uses paint and canvas to express herself, but is that quite the case? It doesn’t seem like she actually expresses, meaning ‘push outwards’ onto a canvas something that was already fully formed inside of her mind. Rather, she would have started with an idea, and as she began painting, saw ways in which what was in front of her was similar to her idea and what was different and from this new point, rethinks what she wishes to paint and proceeds. Then, she yet again sees how what is in front of her is similar and different to what she has in her mind and paints proceeding from this point. There is a creative process of back and forth. There is not a subject acting upon an object but a creative process whereby she acts and reacts with the paint, brushes and canvas.
There is another point to be made that goes beyond similarities and differences. It is that as the painter creates her art, it must be in accordance with the materials. As she paints she has to work with the limits of her medium. She can only paint within a certain frame (the size of the canvas) and using certain colours (depending on what base she is using). She cannot paint whatever she wants, however she wants, but must paint within the limits of her tools and medium. The point is that she does not act upon the things around her, but with them.
A musician does not express themselves any more than the painter does. The instrument shapes the musician (who must learn to purse their lips in a particular way to hit the right note, or perform certain motions with their fingers to achieve the right combinations of sounds) as much as the musician shapes the sounds. There is a back and forth, a process, a reciprocation.
You cannot make a piano sound like a violin, or play piano simply by moving your fingers very fast. The musician must, to a certain extent, allow the instrument itself to determine how it should be played. A good musician does not play the instrument, but plays with it.
A gardener, if they wish to have any success, must work with their garden, rather than upon. For it is the case that one cannot yell at broccoli to grow, or beat lavender into submission and make it bloom. A good gardener understands they must work with the garden. You need to pay attention to what nutrients are needed, how much sun and water are required, and whether the time of year is right. The garden is a joint project between equals, the gardener who cultivates, and the garden which grows. A gardener who tries to force a plant to bloom is as ridiculous as a musician who thinks blowing harder into the trumpet will produce a melody.
The painter, musician and gardener (to which we may also add the parent, friend, doctor, scientist and chef) approach their craft masterfully when they understand the principle at the root of all relationship: it is not about you. It is about so much more than you. It is about the creative unfolding of life. When we step outside of ourselves, when we no longer reduce life to the matrix of the I and me, something magical happens; we create in concert with others and end up becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves. A parent is enlarged by their child, a painter by their painting, and a gardener by what they grow. The paradox is that by leaving ourselves behind, we end up becoming much more than we were.
One of the most emotionally crippling and psychologically damaging feelings we experience is shame. But what makes shame so cruel to those who fall under its curse, is that shame is a second-hand, vagabond emotion that has made its way into your mind where it does not belong.
Shame arises when we feel like we have failed to meet the real (but often imagined) expectations of others. It is, in this sense, quite different from our other emotions in two ways. Firstly, it does not arise from the heart but from the mind. After all, shame is a product of what think we should be. Secondly, shame is not a product of the self but of the other. Shame is inextricably bound and dependent upon what others think. Shame is tangible only when expressed through others.
When we are gripped by shame, something reveals itself that we should pay attention to: we are living according to the rules and standards others have set for us.
To loosen the vice like grip shame can have on our souls, we must make the essential but monumentally difficult task of deciding for ourselves what is right and who we want to be. It does not mean we will never feel guilt or disappointment (life is, after all, often a succession of these very moments), but that these feelings will cease to have the disabling effect on us they once did because we now know what we didn’t before: we can decide for ourselves what to do next, rather than succumbing to the imagined expectations of others.
Like laughter, tears (which often go together and are separated by the thinnest of membranes) are a testament to our humanity, of our capacity to feel. Contrary to popular belief, crying does not come from a position of weakness, but of strength. For it takes a particular sort of strength to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for something to touch you; whether it is a painting, a movie, a sunset, or a child dancing on crunchy autumn leaves. It is, paradoxically, the strength of fragility.
Not everything that needs to be said can be expressed with words. Like hugging, crying is the non-verbal language of feeling. Crying is intimidating because when we cry, we are no longer in control. We can no longer be hoarders of the soul, putting our feelings and memories in little boxes on a shelf to gather dust. It is also intimidating because crying makes us vulnerable. The body turns on us, the boxes open and fall off the shelves and a demand is made: the demand that these feelings be seen and acknowledged.
People seem to dislike it, but crying is the most wonderful thing! It says that you feel! That you are human! That something was able to move you. It is a signal that you are alive and sensitive.
We do not mind when we cry from laughter. We only have a problem when we cry from sadness. We have decided that some emotions are simply unacceptable and must be pushed away at all costs. But, at what cost? When we do not allow our psychic energy to release, it does not go away, it moves around and is released somewhere else. This is what Carl Jung meant by ‘transference’. Tears denied do not disappear but displace, and manifest in other ways instead.
We bend things to our will all the time. If a piece of wood does not fit, we cut it to size; if an employee does not do what the boss says, he can be threatened with dismissal; but you cannot threaten a flower to grow, nor can you demand yourself to stop feeling. You cannot bend yourself to your own will without inflicting immeasurable damage. The one who is bending is also the one being bent.
We associate maturity, especially in men, with pushing down feelings, with not being a ‘cry-baby’. But there is nothing more immature than locking up a part of you and denying yourself the capacity to feel freely, fully, and deeply. To fear crying, or to say it is weak, soft, pathetic, or unnecessary (which may again be symptoms of fear transferring as ridicule), indicates insecurity. Criticising others or yourself for crying indicates a sense of low self-worth, of a need to feel strong in order to compensate for feelings of being week.
Crying does not make you weak, it makes you human. It is a reminder that you are still able to be vulnerable and fragile, and there is an exquisite beauty in this, like a flower allowing itself to be swayed by the wind. We can make ourselves hard and not allow the breeze of feelings to move us, but then we will become more like rocks than humans. Crying does not make you weak, immature, or pathetic; it makes you human.
When we speak of beautiful faces, a generic set of assumptions and descriptions arise: proportionate features, geometrical perfection, and symmetrical smiles. Perhaps a residue of Renaissance art and its use of the golden ratio, we tend to find people whose faces are the most balanced, proportionate, symmetrical, that is to say, mathematical, the most beautiful.
But there is another kind of beauty, one that is certainly not skin deep. It is the beauty of a melancholy face. It is the beauty of eyes that betray an inner storm, a smile that reveals a life story that would fit a Dostoyevsky novel, facial lines that are traces of a history we want to discover. It as an altogether different, more penetrating and moving type of beauty.
One type of beauty may be found in mathematics, like the Pantheon of Athens. It is complete, ordered, and proportioned. It is a beauty of axioms resolved, virtues achieved, questions answered. But another type of beauty is found in complexity and mystery, like the beauty of a lightning storm. It is a beauty of unyielding force, of commotion and conflict, of rage and release. Order and chaos.
Consider this appropriately named painting, Melancholia. A human figure in the lower right hand corner, in the prime of its life contrasts against the observed skull. The wolf, symbolising the ravenous and ineluctable process of natural decay, looks down on the body. We can imagine the wolf saying ‘your time will come soon’. The man knows one day he too will be nothing but husk and bone. He is thinking about time and how much (or little) of it he has left. There is an almost morbid beauty in his face. He is entranced, deep in thought, inviting us to wonder what he could possibly be thinking. What is beautiful in the most melancholic way is not the perfectly sculpted torso, but the mournful brooding of a man contemplating his own demise.
This woman’s face is not proportioned according to mathematical logic. Her nose is crook, her brow furrowed. But there is an intensity and savage honesty in her gaze as she looks upwards to impending doom. She is feeling, viscerally with her whole self, her psyche consumed by the terminal event. Her beauty comes from her soul, not her physique. It is perversely beautiful in its melancholic way because it makes us feel something. It is not the pleasure of a symmetrical face, but of something deeper; of the human condition.
The beauty of a melancholic face lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it doesn’t. What was the man’s conclusion? What were the woman’s final thoughts? The melancholic face is beautiful because it is, at its most fundamental, relatable. It expresses something about ourselves; that we are all somewhat broken, frightened, and consumed by inner storms that those around us can only guess at. The beauty of melancholy is precisely in how it captures the conflict that besieges us throughout our lives’. This beauty says ‘I too suffer like you’ and perhaps that is what we find most beautiful, the possibility that we do not suffer alone.
‘The expectation’ for ‘help and protection’, writes Carl Jung in The Structures and Dynamics of the Psyche, while ‘normal for a child is improper in an adult’. In Psychology and the Occult he makes a similar point, remarking not being able to psychologically mature is just as absurd as not being able to outgrow child-size shoes. We must, in order to be healthy and well-adjusted individuals, learn to grow up. And this means, among many things, learning to take our life in our own hands.
But many of us still allow others to dictate to us what is right, what we must do, and how we should live. We exist in a state of existential childhood, where although our parents may have retreated as figures in our physical life, the fundamental relationship that characterised childhood (submission to authority, acquiescence, and obedience) still exists.
To be an individual, writes Thomas Mann in his work The Magic Mountain, ‘one had to recognise the difference between morality and blessedness’.
The moral man decides for himself what is right or wrong. He lives according to his own standards and monitors his conduct according to personal beliefs. The blessed man, however, is what Mann, echoing Jung, calls a ‘child of God’. He does not think about what is right, just, or worthy, but accepts these as givens by those around him. He does not think for himself but allows others to do his thinking for him. John Ralston Saul, in Voltaire’s Bastards writes,
A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and to enforce it. He is a child of God — a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility. The individual is more like a child who has grown up and left home. More dramatically put, man killed God in order to replace him. Either that or, having killed God, man was obliged to fill the resulting void. In either case he assumed the powers of moral judgment previously limited to divinities.
The voracious consumer who chases commodities because he is told these will make him happy, the obedient convert who believes unflinchingly in the 10 commandments because his priest has convinced him of hell, the pupil who behaves as the master instructs because he is lost and the master provides answers; they are all Mann’s ‘blessed’ children of God; having given up the task of deciding for themselves how to live, they have granted this responsibility to someone else.
Mann and Jung argue (in different ways) that by taking life into our own hands, we cease being reflections of others and grow into ourselves. We become individuals.
It is unlike the individualism understood by our society, which is often of a tawdry or superficial kind. Imagine a surgeon. He lives in a luxury city apartment. He drives an expensive car, likely a German import. On his skin are the finest fabrics, on his tongue talk of the finest wines, on his bed the finest linen. He studied and worked hard in order to have a life where he could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and spend the weekends at his country house with his wife and children. The surgeon has rank, title, power and prestige and these, he thinks, makes him who he is. But, he has never questioned whether wealth or power is the correct path. He has not asked whether rank and title are statements about him or simply titles conferred by society. Nor has he asked that after the houses and cars and holidays, ‘what the point of it all?’. Society has told him how he should live, what he should value, and he has accepted it. In this way, the surgeon is not an individual at all, but ‘‘blessed’.
Many of us have failed to assume responsibility for ourselves and instead, allow others to do it on our behalf. A ‘master’ will tell us how to live, a holy book will instruct us on what is right and wrong, social organisation will inform us on what work is valuable or not. In childhood we may unthinkingly accept the prescriptions of others, but being an adult means taking your life into your own hands and deciding for yourself questions like ‘is this right?’ and ‘is this what I want to do?’. The distinction between morality and blessedness is exactly what Nietzsche was trying to capture in his distinction between ‘master and slave morality’.
To the extent that we submit to the values, goals, and ethics of others, we become what Krishnamurti refers to as ‘second hand people’. What makes neurosis so dangerous and also so prevalent is how the authority of friends, family, authors and institutions becomes internalised and thus, invisible. Because we have not interrogated ourselves, we do not see how little of our thoughts, beliefs, values and morals are our own. To grow up, to become an individual, therefore, requires us, for perhaps the first time in our lives, to investigate ourselves and discover what we value, believe, and want. It can be an incredibly tumultuous experience, as well as lonely one. The road to personal truth is a path fit for one.
The sun is disappearing below the horizon. The sky is soaked in a whirl of pink and purple. It looks almost like a surrealist painter took his brush to the clouds. Arrows of light splinter through the leaves of the tree you are sitting under as a gentle breeze caresses your skin. It feels sublime, peaceful and serene. You are perfectly content. There is not another thing in the world you would rather have or another place you would rather be.
Then, your skin begins to crawl, your lower lip quivers, you start feeling distressed, upset, even a little bit sick. Only moments ago, you were supremely satisfied, now you just feel sad. You tell yourself that something is wrong with you, but the only thing that is wrong here is failing to identify your feelings and instead labelling yourself as flawed, wrong-headed, or even deranged.
You are not deformed; you are suffering from melancholy. As your attention was focused on the beautiful landscape in front of you, your unconscious had another thought: just how rare it is for you to experience beautiful moments such as these. You are not sad at being a part of this beautiful moment, rather, you are sad that so much of your life is bereft of moments like these.
You are melancholic because it was not until now that you realized how happy you could be, and inversely, how much happiness has been denied to you by the dull monotony of your everyday life. Thanks to the spears of light casting curious shadows on the undersides of the leaves on this tree, you are able to see just how little joy and how much agony fills your day-to-day life.
What you are looking at is not just a beautiful sunset. You are looking at peace, inspiration, equanimity, clarity, and sublimity. These virtues inspire. You are melancholic because these virtues fill your heart now, only to remind you that before that space was empty.
To sit under the tree (or be in a garden, looking at the window at the ocean, or sitting in your fancy hotel room on holiday) and cry in a melancholic state is a testament to the poverty in your hearts and your life, of how much happiness is denied to you. But it is likewise an opportunity to be grateful for the small slice of serenity in a chaotic life; and also a moment to reflect on the absence of joy in our lives and change it.
McDonald’s prides itself on the fact their hamburgers taste identical no matter where in the world you are; Bombay or Barcelona, Milan or Madrid, you are guaranteed an entirely replicable experience. Looked at from one angle, this is a wonderful example of uniformity and consistency. From another angle, it is the deletion of local flavour and uniqueness, extinction of difference between one place and another.
The principles behind McDonald’s business model can be found elsewhere. Once upon a time, architects had no option but to source materials that were natural and local. This is why the cedarwood homes of Swiss villages and the terracotta tiled roofs of Bologna are so distinctive. Building was dependent on a local time and place, and therefore had a local flavour. But, with the development and use of steel, glass, and concrete on grand scales, these local flavours disappear. One benefit of local materials is they help orient you to a particular place. But with steel, glass, and concrete, buildings in Frankfurt resemble those in Tokyo, Manhattan, and Melbourne. Once buildings look like they can be anywhere, they make you feel like you are nowhere.
This same issue applies to the ‘cookie-cutter’ Metricon homes and estates built on the urban fringe. Every single home looks the same. Without going inside, you know what to expect: white walls, built-in LED lights, a stone slate kitchen-island bench, and this deep, pervading sense of emptiness as you walk into a property that looks like it was designed for capital accumulation, not for people. The feeling that you could be in any building makes you feel like you are in no building. It feels like a template, not a home. It will be one home in an estate among many, are you in Epping or Cranbourne, Pakenham or Kalkallo? Differences become, as Herbert Marcus writes, ‘flattened out’ and the world begins feeling increasingly one-dimensional.
The commodities we buy suffer from a similar ‘flattening out’ or more pointedly, deletion of uniqueness. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin notes the mass-produced commodities, like McDonald’s burgers or Metricon homes lack the element of ‘time and space’. Just as Metricon homes and skyscrapers lack geography, our phones, laptops, clothes, and furniture lack history. They are just reproductions among reproductions, infinitely exchangeable with each other and therefore, lacking a transcendent value that might prompt us to possess them for longer than 6 months. In contrast, on my father’s workbench sits a pencil holder I produced as a small child. It is utterly unique, an original, and because of this, it is irreplaceable. It is filled with history. But most of what we own lacks history. They are just machine-made commodities, destined for the rubbish bin eventually. That is, they have no future because they have no past.
We are immersed in a society that operates without a tangible sense of time and place, of history and geography. The result is a feeling of not really being at home. After all, if everywhere is like anywhere, and everything is like anything; you do not feel like you are everywhere with everything, you feel like you are nowhere with nothing. This is merely to indicate that the places we live and the things we surround ourselves with determine to a significant extent the type of people we are.
The rootlessness that seems to be the cause of so much contemporary malaise and ennui could be rectified if, rather than focusing on brutal functionalism and mechanical reproduction, we instead cultivated a sense of time and place in our buildings, our art, our food, our clothes, and (within reason), the everyday items we use. The solution then, as Benjamin Barber notes in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, is living beyond the homogenous one-dimensional world of contemporary capitalism and instead, creating culture that makes things meaningful, rather than just cheap.