September 13, 2015

A Wrinkle in Time

[Note to the reader: A Wrinkle in Time is the name of a novel published by Madeleine L’Engle in 1963. The following essay was just published in Spanish translation in a literary review based in Mexico City. I supply the original English version for those who might be interested in reading it.]

It happened unexpectedly, just a few days ago: I was digging through some old notebooks of mine, and came across an art journal I had started shortly after I moved to Mexico in 2006. It was a combination of painting and writing, and one of the things I had noted down was a line from the German poet Rilke: “The future must enter you long before it happens.” And I thought of my very first trip to Mexico in 1979—which was to Mexico City and Puerta Vallarta—and how I was struck by the colors of the country. Somehow, the United States for me was dull, mostly green and gray, whereas the houses in Mexico were pink, and the clay pots with plants that were lined up on the terrace of my hotel were brilliant, brightly colored. I think that's when my future—which is what Mexico became—entered me, entered my bloodstream. Ten years later, I came back, and spent about ten days in the City, going from museum to museum. At that time, Coyoacán was a village beyond the city limits—you had to take two buses to get there—and I wandered the streets, soaking it all in. I went to the Frida Kahlo Museum, never imagining that 25 years later I would be living five blocks away. But Coyo entered my bloodstream as well. Without realizing it, I was becoming a chilango.

I also thought of a conversation I had in the early nineties with a science fiction writer in Seattle, who told me that he was writing about imaginary worlds because, unconsciously, he was describing a state of mind to which he aspired, wanted to have. And I wondered: Am I doing that as well? It seemed to me that I was.

Where does inspiration come from? Certainly not from the conscious mind. If your work is motivated by a feeling of necessity—that this is something you must do—then somehow, it comes from the future (whatever that means). And the future can include not only a consciousness you aspire to, but also people you aspire to be like, or emulate. For me, Gandhi was such a person. I remember seeing a photo of what he left behind—his sandals and his glasses—over which was superimposed something he said toward the end of his life: “I have no message. My life is my message.” I am hardly someone most people would want to emulate, but when I saw that photo, I realized that if that quotation were to be true of me even to a very small extent, I would feel that my life had been worthwhile.

But what was my life? What was anybody's life, beyond the sum total of what they had done? Sartre believed that we make our lives through our choices, and of course that is true. But it is also too simple, because in the case of the major “choices” I made in my life, I have the impression that “I” wasn't doing the choosing. Somehow, my future was making the decision, and thus there really was such a thing as fate. It seems hard to imagine, but I couldn't come to any other conclusion.

And yet, I didn't really believe that our destiny was carved in stone, “written down” somewhere, waiting to be discovered. The whole science (well, art) of divination was based on this: Tarot cards, ouija boards, the I Ching, astrology, and so on. These things have been used to get a jump on the future, so to speak; to tell us what's going to happen, so we might know what we need to do.

Three quotations come to mind at this point:

-“Know thyself” (Solon, later Socrates) -“Character is destiny” (Heraclitus) -“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves” (Shakespeare)

All of these suggest that the future is within us, rather than outside of us, if only we were smart enough to figure out who we are. That is why everybody's future is unique. If you know who you are, know your essential character, you can make a reasonable guess as to where you need to go—what's “pulling” you, so to speak. So we are the captains of our souls, but not in the way that phrase is usually meant.

But we don't make our fate entirely on our own, of course; we are not living in a social vacuum. A good example of this is that brilliant film of some years back, Sex, Lies and Videotape, in which the college buddy of a successful lawyer suddenly shows up on the latter's doorstep, and through the force of circumstance inadvertently manages to turn his former friend's life, and that of his wife, upside down. The three of them make choices, but there is also a sense of inevitability about it all. By the end of the story, the marriage, which had largely been a sham, falls apart, and the wife is now paired off with the stranger who came to stay. All three of them do come to know themselves, in a dramatic way, and character does prove to be destiny. But character doesn't exist in a bubble; our character collides with other characters, and in this way the future becomes the present.

This kind of strange logic operates at the world-historical level as well, but that is a topic best left for another essay. My concern here is with individuals, and how they know (or don't know) what they are doing. The quote from Rilke is indeed interesting. He didn't say, “The future enters you long before it happens.” No, he said it must enter you, essentially telling us that this is something we are called upon to do. But how? It's doubtful that he was referring to divination. Another famous quote of his is, “You must change your life”—again, must. And how are we supposed to do that? Rilke believed that the answers will come if we are willing to “live in the question,” as he put it; just sit with the uncertainty, in other words. The idea being, I suppose, that by doing so, one allows the future to enter us, and thus change our lives.

Learning this lesson was very long in coming, for me, because it requires trust, and that was something I found very hard to do. The world, after all, is a pretty scary place; rationally speaking, trust may not make a lot of sense. Who, or what, am I placing my trust in? But Rilke, of course, was not talking about reason; he was talking about deliberately stepping into the unknown, as an act of will. Not even Gandhi was comfortable with that.

My point here is not that “Life is a mystery”; that would be an easy out. It seems more a question of letting life come and get us, as it were; of letting the universe seize us, shake us up, do what it wants to do with us. Then life is not so much a mystery as it is a miracle, a kind of Blakean adventure. This is of course an ideal: there is something very reassuring about routine, and I doubt any of us can walk around in a state of star-struck wonder 24/7. But it must also be said that a life completely devoid of unpredictability probably wouldn't be much of a life.

I recall seeing, a few years ago, a film called Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossoms) by the German filmmaker Doris Dörrie. It's about an older married couple, Rudi and Trudi, who live in a small Bavarian village. He has a boring job in a garbage-processing plant, and follows the same routine every day. He has no real interests or aspirations; his view of life is narrow, restricted. She, on the other hand, has always wanted to go to Japan and study Butoh, an iconoclastic type of dance technique designed to awaken the true nature of the self. When she unexpectedly dies, Rudi is bereft, but decides to visit Japan as an homage to his deceased wife. There, he “accidentally” meets a teenage Butoh dancer, a poor, homeless girl who lives in a tent, and they become friends. By the end, before he dies (he is terminally ill without knowing it), he begins to understand why his wife had been interested in Butoh, and to see life as a cherry blossom—fleeting and impermanent. He acquires new eyes, and grasps the notion of the eternal present that Yu, the homeless girl, was trying to show him through the dance. She is his future, at least for a short time, and he lets her teaching enter him, such that he manages to experience wonder before he dies.

It often takes a major event, such as the death of a loved one, to shake us up, and allow the future to enter us. Doris Dörrie's point is that miracles do not exist elsewhere, in some sort of supernatural heaven; it is, rather, a matter of allowing oneself to "go out of time"—i.e., out of linear, predictable time. An additional point is that if a stick-in-the-mud like Rudi can do it, then anyone can. Dum spiro, spero, wrote Cicero; so long as I breathe, I hope.

©Morris Berman, 2015