There’s this story about Allen Ginsberg. It happened during his time as an undergraduate. The young neurotic poet, future co-father of those wild compassionate bards the Beats, was standing in the University Bookstore watching all the bustling impatient students and professors and passersby as they shopped and waited in line to buy their books, and all of a sudden he had a moment of deep epiphany. He saw the harried looks in their eyes, the deep desires and fears hidden within them. He realized: Everybody knows everything all the time.
I don’t remember where or when I heard this story. It’s possible that it’s not even true, though the sentiment is evident in Ginsberg’s poetry. Consider the lines in Howl: “Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!” In the language of the two previous posts on this blog, I’d say that Ginsberg was presenting his notions of “the Oneness.” His vision: If only we could forget our fears, our self-consciousness, our pettinesses, our prejudices and insecurities, we would see the ways in which we are all connected, the ways in which we are all holy angels, pieces in the substance of eternity, spots poking out of the blanket. Somewhere within ourselves we all know.
It’s a beautiful concept. One that echoes from teachings at the heart of many mystical and religious traditions, which I’ll be going into in some detail as I travel over the next few months. And in many ways, I believe Ginsberg’s epiphany to be profoundly true.
Now, hold that thought.
A Quick Word on Irony vs. Absurdity, (in Order to better Understand Absurdity)
Lots of essays and books can, have been, and no doubt will be written on these concepts. This will not be a particularly long or detailed analysis. Here I’m going to make only a fine distinction for the purposes of moving forward in this blog.
Okay, so a little example.
Here’s the situation, a pretty familiar one from television and movies and especially real life: A senator or member of congress known for some type of crusading do-gooder work (trust-busting, ending corruption, fighting prostitution, ridding the streets of mangy rabies-infected cats, etc.) is discovered to have participated in the very activity he or she has built a reputation fighting against. So, after the video of this person dressed in drag and secretively releasing those mangy cats onto the city streets is released, and the public outcry is understandably shrill, we go on youtube and find an old speech made by this same person in which he or she states emphatically, “those who release mangy cats onto the streets of the cities in our great state ought to be punished to the fullest extent of the law!” What do we do? First we snort, and then we scoff in front of our computer screens, and say, “that’s hilarious. How ironic.” We take another minute to roll our eyes and nudge each other in the ribs. This is irony: the juxtaposed and opposing images of this old speech next to this new video of the transgression are so incongruous as to make us wryly take notice.
Now, absurdity. This is when this congressperson goes on television and explains, “I was not in fact releasing those mangy cats like the cameras caught. In fact, I was given those cages by a reputable coyote-dealing company who told me they were filled with human-friendly coyotes. I was in fact releasing the predators that would eat those mangy rabid cats infecting our city streets. But they lied to me! I was set up!” The premise of this explanation is so ridiculous, so unbelievably unreasonable that we would not be out of line to call it “absurd.”
So this is the distinction: Irony is a fleeting observationally-induced sensation that we get from an incongruous image. Absurdity is a fundamental premise that no reasonable person could believe is truthful. I bring it up because in the realm of thinking about questions of the universe, of God and spirituality, seeing irony all around can lead quickly to presuming a fundamentally absurdist premise to our world, and the jump from seeing absurdity at the root of all things to believing in nihilism, to ultimate meaninglessness, is pretty miniscule.
Okay, two more points on this little meditation:
1. In my previous post, I profiled a couple who used an absurdist religious premise to convince themselves of an actual belief in God. To respond to the unanswerable “whys” of existence, they invented a fake deity. I say they invented an absurdist religious premise, but really, Kent Candlewood began with the view of the world as fundamentally absurd. Without God, Kent says, “the world just fucking sucks.”
So Kent defiantly responded with his own absurdity. Why are we put through all this pain and nonsense of existence? Because Almig, the fake god of the world, works in mysterious ways. Eventually for the Candlewoods this became real faith. Absurdity crashed into absurdity and the result was a raised earth, a transcendence of the daily injustices of life: meaning. “Remember, there is meaning beyond absurdity,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel, and this is where God operates. This is not to say that humanity is absolved of responsibility for those daily injustices. In fact, it’s the opposite. Having meaning beyond absurdity means there is compelling reason to fight those injustices. Otherwise, there’s really no point.
I bring up the Candlewoods and Almig also to say this: I come at this project with deep respect for the people I’ll be interviewing and the places I’ll be visiting. I’m not doing this to expose the ironies of fringe spiritual life in order to contribute any more to a belief in the absurdity premise of existence. I suppose going forward in this adventure, my point is this: there is no religion or spiritual practice that I won’t take seriously, even the ones that don’t take themselves seriously.
All that said… 2. Let’s get back to Ginsberg’s epiphany.
The Incongruity at the Root of This Journey: Nobody Knows a Damn Thing
Sometimes when I think of Ginsberg’s epiphany I grow angry. We all know everything? Look around with open eyes and you’ll see the multitudes of things that Ginsberg believed inhibited the understanding of our deep connectedness. Government surveillance and drone strikes and chemical weapons used on civilians and the murders of young black men by the police. I believe in the meaning beyond absurdity, but I’m not so sure that Ginsberg’s premise isn’t itself absurd. To a person who knows within him or herself the simple desires to be happy and free and fed and safe, and can presume that this simple wish is shared by most if not all people, the broken state of the world now and as far back into history as we have text to recall, is simply ridiculous. Why the hell do we do this shit to ourselves? Or, more succinctly, why does this world exist if this is what we end up doing with it?
To that end, my epiphany is precisely the opposite of Ginsberg’s:
Absolutely nobody knows anything, and anybody who says they do is lying.
So way down there in the trenches of my belief is this incongruity, this inescapably absurd formulation of believing at once that, yes we are all holy, knowing, godly beings…but that we are also Hobbesian animals, too often fighting and killing each other like mindless unknowing brutes.
I’m not really sure what to do about it. I’m not quite sure that there is anything to do. But it seemed pertinent to share in this setting the internal conflict that’s pushing me into this journey. It is what I’d call the basic conflict between my rational mind and my spiritual belief. I’m pretty sure that A is A and Not A, whatever that means. Maybe some of the people and places I visit will have some insight.