Freedom & the Transformation of the Mask

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I’m pining to see the U.S. paperback recorded as shipped (a print book only appears within the U.S.-only Amazon sales rank chart until it ships) so that October can stand as my most successful sales month – six copies! – despite that crappy eBook refund in Germany. Meanwhile, it’s f*cking snowing, my god, the thought of winter is unbearable and here it’s the earliest snowfall I can remember.

I’ve done nothing with TC2 for I don’t know, at least a week or two. I’ve got to keep chugging and learn to abide the for-better-or-worse status of TC1, I know this. But I can’t help devoting my energies to pursuing and tracking what I see as the tenuous arrival status of the first book and me as a legitimate authorpreneur. Too many wannabes remain just that with a handful of pitiful sales as the only record of their effort, after which they either fold their wings and drop, to borrow a phrase from John Gardner (author of 1971’s Grendel), never to be seen again or they plunk along as forever independent outsiders, a sort of living death as a writer. And it’s the same for any artist-craftsman: you’re either making a living from your work or you’re not and if not, then, well, you’re a failure. It’s that simple. Success late in life, following decades of penniless or subsidized slogging (the sense of ceaselessly humiliating defeat is the same) qualifies in my book as worthy and sufficient to justify the whole otherwise miserable endeavor but to die never having made a significant mark is a tragedy. Van Gogh is probably the most famous example of the tragic nature of posthumous zero-to-hero art-craft arrival but it’s the legion of workaday practitioners whose talent, perhaps short of greatness and genius but nonetheless worthy and legitimate (I’m describing myself of course), is denied its place within the global oeuvre that makes life seem cruel. We require so very little, indeed – just a modest living – yet for most (statistically virtually everyone) even that remains so far out of reach as to be a shameful conceit.

Shameful conceit. Freedom is all I want but to long for it I feel ashamed. So writes Rabindranath Tagore. For me, success, which in my terms is the personal mythological freedom of vocational legitimacy, is all I want but to long for it I likewise feel ashamed. Why ashamed? It has to do with the intuition that longing itself is a weakness and a form of refusal of things as they are, which only leads to more longing, an ultimately decrepit, self-defeating, self-sabotaging condition. But within the poison, as is often the case with poisons, there exists a cure, a salvation and it is the power and sustaining force of legitimate dreams, the kind grounded in the expression of our talents, which are themselves bestowed by the same Cosmos that we seek so desperately to unite with. Such is individuation, the process, as described by Carl Jung at least, as achievement of self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious. When we realize, make real or otherwise express in conscious terms the driving energies of our unconscious, our sense is naturally that of wholeness by way of incomparable wholeheartedness: we express who we are so completely, in such a fundamental and truthful manner that a sense of integration or unity with all things within and without is experienced. It is, as Joseph Campbell described, not meaning that we seek – a commonly misguided interpretation of our predicament – but rather the experience of being properly alive. Individuation is commensurate with the experience of being properly alive; it is the immediate and unquestionable resonance of our life in the world versus our sense of life merely within our own imagination, within our waking dreams and visions.

It’s nothing to do with selfishness. Part of the sense of shame in wanting what we want of course arises from this idea, namely, that we don’t deserve it. Getting what we want only happens to other people because they are better, we tell ourselves; they are more giving, more saintly, more divine. Or, conversely, they are devilish, appropriating, criminal, despicable and corrupt. To want what you want, for some of us, means to want that which we ought not to have, that which is an undeserved luxury and a selfish conceit. The best version of ourselves, after all, does not want. Because wanting inevitably begets taking what is not ours.

Bullshit. I say “bullshit” to such self-sabotaging righteousness. Because that’s exactly what such unhealthy self-denial amounts to: righteousness, be it derived from one’s spiritual beliefs or an intuitive sense of ethics. Righteousness always seeks to deny somebody something. The righteous operate under the delusion that, well, they’re right and most of the rest of us are wrong. Right about what? Mostly, it seems to me, about everything that makes us intuitively happy and fulfilled – individuated and having the experience of being properly alive. To be who you are, after all, is not to be like me. But I would argue that in fact it is, more so than anything else, namely, being who you are is being more human, more a part of humanity in the general sense than anything that seeks to comply with that perniciously misunderstood third aspect of personal and cultural mythology: sociology. We seek to belong but we too often surrender to donning a mask so as to accomplish it.

Be who you are and you will be one with all the world. We all have experienced glimpses of this connectedness, of doing what you’re best at, at being wholeheartedly immersed in one’s proper work, of time flying when living within the realm of one’s talents. And time flying – the incomparable experience of being free of the consideration of time – which amounts to our sense of eternity is a key indicator, perhaps the indicator of having the experience of being properly alive. Eternity is not a long time, it is not the experience of vastness that we have in the presence, say, of some marvelous, moving, stirring open space or upon the ocean or before a mountain range. No. To be profoundly stirred is to be awed. A sense of awe being the first requirement of an authentic mythology. Yet awe retains a sense of time, even a heightened sense of it. Awe somehow begets all of time and our place within it as ineffably proper and inarguably legitimate. A sense of eternity, of timelessness amounts to no sense at all, really, for our senses arguably depend upon time for their cause-and-effect operation.

What am I talking about, then, when I declare that one’s proper work begets the experience of being properly alive? Perhaps that only then, immersed in our veritelically authentic vocation (paid or unpaid) can we both fully experience and break free of time. We are not awed when we express our individuated selves. Neither are we happy, at least in the contentedly cheerful pedestrian sense of the word. As Campbell was at pains to try to describe, we are not blissful in the sense of pedestrian pleasure. Bliss is not synonymous with pleasure nor leisure nor play nor what is typically understood as blissfulness. No, Campbell was rather referring to, as anyone who has read him deeply enough understands, exactly the experience of being properly alive that incorporates wholehearted immersion and devotion come what may.

It gets touchy. That is, it gets tricky to discern bliss from, in the case of the fictional yet authentically representative Ahab, for instance, compulsion and obsession. Tricky only until one remembers that the experience of being properly alive never requires appropriation. “Moby dick seeks thee not.” Starbuck understood the balance, he understood and represented in the narrative Melville’s understanding of vocational bliss. Which for a person like me who recognizes nothing else but vocation as the means to bliss, explains everything about our predicament. Following one’s bliss is following one’s blisters, as Campbell also described it: that is, one’s true work will be hard, difficult and consuming but in the end gladly so. One’s true work may be by definition the most challenging of your life but only by way of it does time drop away and one’s sins, so to say, also. We come into ourselves, we roll out of our own center, we experience a sense of direction and progress – of unquestionable orientation – so that we are without question, without self-consciousness or shame, ourselves in the world. Ahab circled this idea, he orbited his bliss but failed to attain it. Perhaps because it involved a form of surrender he was unwilling to concede.

One’s proper work lends itself to work for its own sake as sufficient. However, after many years of personal experiment I can admit that never is work for its own sake actually attainable. We work for results and outcomes in mild awareness at least that no result or outcome will be sufficient. Too often such results and outcomes hinder us, divert or otherwise inappropriately, ineffectively, ineffectually consume our energies. One loses one’s place, advises Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, within the principle of eternity when one becomes anxious for the outcome of one’s deeds. The context is ostensibly that of the Bhagavad Gita – it is Krishna’s lesson to Arjuna – but it is a universal truth expressed within all fully functional mythologies.

I just checked my sales report on Amazon and cringed when I did not see the paperback as shipped. Amazon claims the book to be available to ship within “1 to 2 days.” No shipment, no legitimate sale. So, I wait, anxious for outcomes. Hence, I suffer.

The solution to the suffering? One’s proper work. My work. Which is this journal entry/blog and, albeit with a greater sense of difficulty, my editing of TC2. So that then I will inevitably have the experience, however brief, of being properly alive. It’s paradoxical, then, that one’s true work takes one into and out of how things are and ought to be – our dreams and visions are pure and true but life is messy. But I refuse to believe that my work is to function as an escape. That’s not individuation as I understand it. Individuation is affirmation of life rather than refusal. Refusal has to do, again, with masks, with falsehood and inauthenticity, with righteousness. Merely look to electoral politics and religious fundamentalism in all its forms for reliable demonstrations of righteousness. I’ll say no more on the matter.

Except that I work a modest closing shift at the home improvement tonight – 5-10pm – and it’s not my true work at all because only when I’ve sold a book does it seem justified or in any way contributive to my experience of being properly alive. A job is not one’s work exactly in this way: the job, if that’s all there is, is not sufficient. I’m forced to don a mask so as to function within it. And when one writes, say, commensurate with one’s perceived veritelically authentic vocation and does not receive reward reasonably commensurate with one’s dream or vision a schism ensues in which the writing tends to transform into the job and not the vocation. Because while we artist-craftsmen indeed require so very little we nevertheless require something. So that Krishna, for example, would raise his eyebrow at us and we nod and say we know better and we’re ashamed, then, for freedom being all that we want. You have it, would be the response from the Divinity. Or the so-called block universe. Your work and your life has already happened and has its place in the world-of-action and it’s but up to you to surrender to that, to the work – your work – assigned to you by way of your legitimate place here. And around and around we go, struggling against the paradox, against the impenetrable mask that Ahab seeks to penetrate, to peel away so as to remove the maddening obfuscation and reveal all that is.

Masks. The header image happens to be a Haida mask in the open configuration. Closed, it appears thus:

According to the Canadian Museum of History https://www.historymuseum.ca/ it was “Collected on Haida Gwaii (probably at Skidegate) in 1879 by Israel W. Powell.” Furthermore:

This spectacular transformation mask, when closed, represents an Eagle or Thunderbird; open, it portrays the Moon. Human hair attachments add to the drama of the powerfully serene face of a supernatural being. The transformation of the mask is accomplished by pulling cords attached to the hinged panels that extend to form the corona.