I’ve not written on the blog in some time, waiting to see what would move me and I’ve been mulling over a few things – some may come later.
But for now, here it is … I’m currently reading, among other things, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005). How I came about to Solnit’s book is this: I was sitting in what’s left of what I can say was SoHo, once, Fanelli’s where, in my grad school days, you could be having a beer and a burger and chatting it up with, say, an unassuming Jim Jarmusch.
This world no longer exists in the mall-like SoHo – which is one of Solnit’s points: how can one get lost in the tightly constrained world we’ve manufactured?
Here I am trying to re-capture the lost, double Eagle Rare Single Barrel bourbon 10 YO Whiskey – and a Brooklyn Lager – and this large, well built young man in a t-shirt (about 30), bald, is sitting next to my wife, Nina, and she and I are excitedly discussing the film La Grande Belleza (Italian; The Great Beauty: ), which we’d just seen at the Angelika down the block from Fanelli’s. It must have been the during the second Eagle Rare and the guy – like in my old grad school days – jumps in. No. Let’s try this again: he smooths into the conversation, which quickly went from contemporary film (not movies) to art to design to technology to literature and so on.
The guy is J.P. Hollis – a very cool, bright self-made designer, writer, literary person, etc. Really a New Yorker, though not from New York, and a prototype of the hybrid individual of tomorrow, which got us talking about women – prompted by my wife, Nina (her favorite conversation) – and relationships. He’d recently broken up with a young woman who then headed for LA – another mecca of sorts. Which is how we got to “wandering” and “finding one’s way” and “careers” and “the future” and “what am I going to do with myself if I DON’T get the RIGHT INTERNSHIP – Holy shit!!” Which is when we were all laughing away and we decided to connect and continue chatting and so on, primarily because his technical background – his history – is almost identical to mine and I thought, “Hey, here’s this 30 year old that 30 or so years after me, he’s done almost the same thing. Why not chat and maybe we can do something cool?”
This is when he proposed I read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. So I’m reading and I’m only thru Chapter 1, the “Open Door,” and I can’t help but think of all might students, each and everyone that places such high significance, such importance on what’s really a manufactured reality and have bought lock, stock and barrel the notion that there are “correct” ways and “not so correct” ways of doing things (mostly about the attainment of material possessions and social capital) when, in reality, every step taken is (a) unknowable and fraught with error and (b) the goal is actually to reach towards those areas, those things that (a) scare a person and (b) the person feels scared about because s/he knows nothing, in the end (I know less now than when I was your age – which should scare all students that have sat in my classes).
To this end, Solnit quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, who says, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Solnit copied this down and carries it around. I’m doing the same thing and I’m going to start asking students this all the time. I’d simply add that each person must pursue that which is totally unknown with great passion.
In the end, well, it’s the end, no? Whose life is it anyway? Goldman Sachs? Whose?
We fear getting lost because, in our view of things, we’re not suppose to, not if we’re following. But the point, here, is not to follow, is it?
Later Solnit cites the great philosopher, Walter Benjamin, which really hit home when I think of my students – but primarily when I think of those students in New York City, Washington, D.C., Bombay, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan. “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” Ah ha! That’s it, really. Solnit adds to this: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”
How true and how wonderful – and requiring much discipline. A “voluptuous surrender.” Say it a few times. Let it slide off your tongue, slowly, effortlessly, seductively – and you’ll begin to ask the right questions. Focus on the surrender part first. None of us feels comfortable “surrendering,” but it’s essential. We never talk about surrendering. We talk about “warring”; we talk about “conquering”; we talk about “next steps,” as if somewhere – and somehow – they’re enumerated and all we have to do is “fit in.” We we talk about “efficiency” and “accountability” and “excellence.” We talk so much, and so jingoistically, that the individual’s desire for a self is immediately fogged in, trapped into believing that the jingles are somehow true, a reality.
“The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los,” says Solnit, “meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.”
Go home. Find a truce with yourselves and the world.
In the end, Solnit worries about my students’ generation, and says, “I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.” Which is to say, what will come of a generation that has been “housed” in program after program, system after system, each of which are designed to create a moral consciousness – a spirit – from the outside, not from the inside, which is the only way to create a meaningful identity.
The unknown – not about futures, not about “what am I good at?” – scares us the most; it is an unknown about who you are and the fear is in what you may find. The French call this l’avenir – that which is to come, the real future, not the plans, the programs, the penciled in events.
You can run, yes; you can join up; you can be a part of “it”, what Chris Hedges calls the “spectacle,” which in his hands is the grand illusion parading as reality. Or you can get lost, literally, metaphorically, and philosophically and spiritually. Then you might find some answers.