How should we then live?
It’s the question we answer everyday, and it’s one we should give great thought to. What type of life are you living? When you’re dead and gone, what narrative do you want at the center of your story?
My own religious upbringing influenced my thoughts on this matter. Being raised in a very histrionic Christian environment, one of the neuroses I was left with is the belief that one’s life is cosmically important, that the choices a person makes are all matters of life and death (yours or someone else’s). I am not saying that all religious people feel this way. Most probably don’t. The “Fisher of Man” mentality combined with my own burgeoning narcissism into a perfect storm, giving rise to a sort of super-narcissism.
I imagine there are people all over the world who believe nothing they do will ever have an effect on anybody else, let alone all of humanity. I am not one of those people.
We live in the Age of Narcissism, an era where Reality Television and obscenely talentless ‘artists’ have led members of the Facebook generation to believe that they too can, and should, be famous. Fame is a meaningless trophy, a blue ribbon for showing up, a bronze medal at the Special Olympics. The internet has made it possible for you, the talentless, kind of ugly, fairly stupid bozo that you are, to be well known by a bunch of people in Bangkok. Hell, this kid is famous. (For whatever good it’s done him; though, as far as I know, he’s got his own show on VH1 and a book deal).
What I am talking about is not fame. It’s purpose. And it’s rigorous intent in the way you live, with the belief that your life matters, that your sphere of influence may be larger than your family and your contingent of talentless, ugly, stupid bozo friends. (I insult you because I care.)
I’m talking about living as art. The artistic disposition exists in most of us, and I know a hefty majority of my circle of friends/family/acquaintances are artful to a certain degree. Despite the fact that I actually loathe writers, a great deal of my newest friends over the last few years have been of the literary bent (sadly, no one has found a cure for it). So I feel comfortable writing for those who consider themselves artists of some form or another. If you, dear reader, believe that you have not an inkling of artistic merit in you, feel free to stumble away.
All artistic expression is narcissistic. The artistic disposition is merely narcissism writ large, in cursive handwriting, a dolled up way of saying, “Look at me, listen to me, love me! I deserve it.” You can be ashamed of your narcissism, or embrace it, turn it into something worth looking at.
But why leave art on the page? Why reduce it to simple notes or mere images? Your entire existence is a series of refined flourishes and elaborate affectations. Your days are blank pages, and instead of filling them up with that shit you call poetry, why not make something truly original. You decide if your life is low art, or High.
My favorite authors are those who were at times as interesting in their personal lives as their writing, sometimes more so. Their lifestyles and psychological profiles are the greatest creative statements, the conflicting triumphs and failures inherent in the artist. A man like F. Scott Fitzgerald is as fascinating (and tragic) as any character he could have created, and perhaps that is why his creations, even at their worst, are so sympathetic. Fitzgerald was the central character of a story truly worth experiencing.
Jack Kerouac is another example of a man whose life was the purest expression of the artistic temperament. Since the end of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s reputation has risen and fallen like the stock market, and now he’s mostly dismissed by a certain crowd of people who associate him with those people who are often most affected by his writing: Teenagers who read “On The Road” and suddenly start talking like the world is too small for them. To be fair, Kerouac was not the greatest writer, but his writing certainly has a vibrancy and rhythm that few can match (if you’ve read Kerouac’s well known novels and haven’t made up your mind about him one way or the other, may I suggest you read The Subterraneans; a different side of him).
But forget Kerouac’s writing (and what percentage of it was fact rather than fiction), and focus on the life. Is there anybody in the past 100 years whose life has sprung such a profound artistic movement? If you read Kerouac’s writings, you’ll actually see that Kerouac himself wasn’t really all that crazy and out there, and if anything, he comes across as almost timid and reserved next to the other characters in his books, especially Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). Regardless, there is still an openness to living a life outside of the typewriter’s ribbon. Say what you will about Kerouac’s ability, but for all their talent, Henry James or Cormac McCarthy will never transform generations the way Kerouac did (this is not a criticism of those author’s writing or their lives, just an observation).
Did Kerouac think about his life as the living embodiment of art? Who knows. It’s doubtful that Fitzgerald ever did. But these men, for me, represent the perfect examples of artists whose lives were as expressive as their work.
Living life as art is a rare gift, something that can rightfully be considered a First World indulgence. Or, perhaps, American excess. The struggles of a Lost Boy in Sudan can make for heart-wrenching, beautiful literature, but you wouldn’t call that life artistic, per se. I know that what I am writing isn’t a universal message. I’m not trying to start a religion (that’ll come in a few years). But I also know that most of my friends, family and acquaintances are of the generally comfortable variety. You watch episodes of The Office and download the latest Ryan Adams album while eating Taco Bell or texting your friends about whether to see Hot Tub Time Machine or go play mini golf.
That is to say, you could afford to take a few risks in your life for the sake of art.
Great art is all about risks. If you’ve written the same poem a hundred times without ever attempting to change up your style, the glowing praise you received for “Autobiography of a Sad Lover” will probably have dwindled to faint interest by the time you post “Autobiography of a Sad Lover #12” on your blog. You need to constantly be pushing your own boundaries, attempting new feats, flailing for new expression, or your art will remain flaccid on the page, lifeless to the observer.
As an artist, you presumably know that. Why shouldn’t you live your life with that same sort of ambition? And, as with all art, your interpretation of your life will only be part of the story. It was not Kerouac’s intention to be the voice that launched a thousand hitchhikers. But, that’s the beauty of art, the unexpected and unpredictable effect it has on others.
As I’ve said in the About section, my 10 Cities in 10 Years project is a prompt. It is the greatest risk I could imagine taking, essentially throwing away a college degree, discarding relationships and draining all financial savings in pursuit of a goal I made up for myself that, when I’m finished with it, will likely offer me nothing. At the end of my 10 cities, I’ll be back at square one, sitting in the same boat as those 22 year-old, fresh-faced college graduates, the only difference being my years of unrelated experience and a decade closer to the grave.
I’ve decided to ignore the impulse to gather things to me. Every year, when the moving moment approaches, I find myself throwing out even more of my possessions, til all I own is a suitcase full of clothes and a smattering of boxes (most of them filled with books I can’t bring myself to part with). I realized at some point that I had a choice: Accumulate money, stuff and bigger and bigger dwellings, or forgo all that shit and accumulate what really matters to me, a lifetime of stories.
In doing so, I hope to inspire like I was inspired.
Again with the narcissism.
You know the saying, “You can’t take it with you.” Well, that’s true whether there’s an afterlife or not (for the record, there isn’t). But you do get to choose what you leave behind.
Think about the artists who you admire, the ones who you consciously or subconsciously emulate in your own work. For me, that influence colors far more than just my writing. I was one of those sheltered teenage kids who read Kerouac and took on the mantra, The Road is Life. In college, I had my road trip phase like pretty much everyone else I knew who wasn’t content to kill time playing video games. It just so happens, though, that I didn’t grow out of it. I didn’t become one of those adults who rolls his eyes at the naively optimistic. Yes, I’m a cynic, and yes, I’m even fairly pessimistic, but I do believe in one thing:
Life is worth a million failures if the end result is a work of art.