Let’s suppose the best way to get through life is drunk. Inebriated, high, jolly—whatever word you want to use and however you define it. The next best way is to dream. The best way after that is to see everything as a metaphor for something. Come to think, maybe the third is the best way; I’d be willing to bet there are artists who say it is. (Dreaming will still be in the middle—as it should be since dreams, arbiters of sanity, lie midway between taking life too seriously and not seriously enough.)
If you ask me, the worst way to get through life is by taking everything literally. How boring is that! The fourth best way (if it isnt the first) is by laughing at everything. The second worst way (and then I’ll stop) is also by laughing at everything, taking not a thing seriously because one cant distinguish between what one ought and ought not to take seriously.
Which, of course, will be different for everyone. One person’s best way to get through life might be another’s worst way and vice versa. Best and worst ways aside, drinking, dreaming, metaphor-making, literality, seriousness and laughter aside, the way we get through life is determined by our attitude toward life, which is a function of our philosophy of the damn thing. Everyone has a philosophy of life, whether they know (or admit) it or not.
The very words “get through life” imply that it’s often an ordeal . . . drudgery, needless challenge, pain in the ass. In fact it is, even for that jolly artist who touts adventure over predicament and whom I consider something of a mentor. James Broughton, I’m speaking of, seemingly one of the most joyful pixies who ever lived, perhaps second only to Henry Miller, another of my mentors. I say seemingly because even Broughton had his dark side, and in his early years it wasnt always fun.
Life is both predicament and adventure. Predicament because the very fact of existing poses the question of how I’m going to live, what my attitude—and hence my philosophy—toward life is going to be. And if one believed that one must always be drunken, as Baudelaire advised but did not practice, nor could any man worth taking seriously, worth taking in any way since, as darkness is meaningless without light, so drunkenness is negligible without a modicum of sobriety; even were it possible to always be drunken, which I doubt, I am sure the results would be either incomprehensible or inconsequential. And yet who could with assurance tell such a man that he is wrong?
The same goes for dreaming, living in a dream world, a world of pure poetry in which everything is not just seen but related to as metaphor. Not possible, never mind practical twenty-four seven. Anyway, the dream itself is a metaphor and the metaphor a dream. Not that by any means the noble or reasonable road is that of literality. It’s the admixture, the skillful playing of one way against (or with) another that counts, that makes for a life worth living, worth thinking about, worth commenting upon, worth laughing at and worth taking seriously—which means worth poetry.
And though we can laugh at everything it doesnt mean we should. Though a good case can be made for life’s meaninglessness, it doesnt mean that the healthiest, most fulfilled life ascribes to that philosophy. For instance, suicide ends everything—everything that we can talk about or consider. Does that mean that if in fact life is meaningless suicide is the answer? (Dostoevsky’s query, if I recall correctly.) Why should it? Does life need a meaning? Maybe the best we can say is it’s more fun if it has one.
Culture is about meaning, ergo, culture is about fun: the fun of inventing meaning. But we take our meanings seriously. Why, I dont know, we just do. Perhaps we have no reason to, but that seems to be the nature of the beast. Just as Dostoevsky (whom I greatly respect as a writer, though not always as a thinker) incomprehensibly said that without God anything is allowable for man, meaning there would be no basis for morality, so it would be just as absurd and false to say that without meaning life would not be worth living.
The truth is life is never without meaning, not even if meaninglessness is its meaning. (I know such reasoning smacks of word play, but the logic is irrefutable.) It is impossible for there not to be meaning, just as it’s impossible for existence not to exist. Still, I can easily imagine a man being more inspired by the meaninglessness and absurdity of existence than one who believes ardently yet without a shred of inspiration, much less irony, in this or that dogma that supposedly invests life with meaning.
I can imagine such a man because I am him. As a youth in high school the first thing that gave me a sense that art and culture could be exciting was the theatre of the absurd, which I subsequently took to like a duck to its feathers. Thanks to the inanities of childhood circumstances, the dogmatic beliefs wafting about in the air I breathed, the repressiveness of an insanely religious home life, the regimentation of society, I grew up absurd. (Remember Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd. He wasnt kidding, he had our number, many of us.) Sometimes a drunkard, always a dreamer, a seeker and spinner of metaphors (poetry would come, written and/or lived), and even at times, believe it or not, a realist, which is to say more or less a literalist.
Yes, a boy then a man of tears and laughter at things others would never cry or laugh about. And in time inspired by the existential duet of meaning and meaninglessness, the dance of ontological opposites, the truth that resides in all falsehoods and the falsehood that lies in all truth. The craziness of existence and poignancy of any single human life from birth to death, including but not limited to my own. Isnt that enough to drive one to drink, or at least to seek the heights attained by being high?
One wants teachers, good teachers in one’s youth. Teachers like James Broughton and Paul Goodman. Just as one’s life is all about oneself, one comes to learn it’s also all about others, even when you’re high. Maybe not all others, let’s just say others and leave it at that. But in what way is it about others? Those who’ve been there know that being high can teach you that just as it can teach how it’s all about yourself. I suppose in the end only the individual in his or her aloneness and the nuances of consciousness (especially when high) decides what the answer to that might be.