Art, meaninglessness, and salvation by despair
Start the music playing and then read the excerpted texts that follow, which may or may not be connected to each other and/or the music.
(The music is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Fordlandia,” titled after Henry Ford’s epic, disastrous, and somehow mythically tragic folly of trying to create an artificial industrial worker’s utopia in the Amazon rainforest in 1928.)
The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world — strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something “out of space, out of time.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters II
* * *
I had gone to the Louvre that night to lay down my soul, to find some transcendent pleasure that would obliterate pain and make me utterly forget even myself. I’d been upheld in this. As I stood on the sidewalk before the doors of the hotel waiting for the carriage that would take me to meet Armand, I saw the people who walked there — the restless boulevard crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, the hawkers of papers, the carriers of luggage, the drivers of carriages — all these in a new light. Before, all art had held for me the promise of a deeper understanding of the human heart. Now the human heart meant nothing. I did not denigrate it. I simply forgot it. The magnificent paintings of the Louvre were not for me intimately connected with the hands that had painted them. They were cut loose and dead like children turned to stone.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire
* * *
I took up the theme again that music and acting were good because they drove back chaos. Chaos was the meaninglessness of day-to-day life, and if we were to die now, our lives would have been nothing but meaninglessness. In fact, it came to me that my mother dying soon was meaningless and I confided in Nicolas what she had said. “I’m perfectly horrified. I’m afraid.”
Well, if there had been a Golden Moment in the room it was gone now. And something different started to happen.
I could call it the Dark Moment, but it was still high-pitched and full of eerie light. We were talking rapidly, cursing this meaninglessness, and when Nicolas at last sat down and put his head in his hands, I took some glamorous and hearty swigs of wine and went to pacing and gesturing as I had done before.
I realized aloud in the midst of saying it that even when we die we probably don’t find out the answer as to why we were ever alive. Even the avowed atheist probably thinks that in death he’ll get some answer. I mean God will be there, or there won’t be anything at all.
“But that’s just it,” I said, “we don’t make any discovery at that moment! We merely stop! We pass into nonexistence without ever knowing a thing.” I saw the universe, a vision of the sun, the planets, the stars, black night going on forever. And I began to laugh.
“Do you realize that! We’ll never know why the hell any of it has happened, not even when it’s over!” I shouted at Nicolas, who was sitting back on the bed, nodding and drinking wine out of a flagon. “We’re going to die and not even know. We’ll never know, and all this meaninglessness will just go on and on and on. And we won’t any longer be witnesses to it. We won’t have even that little bit of power to give meaning to it in our minds. We’ll just be gone, dead, dead, dead, without ever knowing!”
But I had stopped laughing. I stood still and I understood perfectly what I was saying!
There was no judgment day, no final explanation, no luminous moment in which all terrible wrongs would be made right, all horrors redeemed.
The witches burnt at the stake would never be avenged.
No one was ever going to tell us anything!
No, I didn’t understand it at this moment. I saw it! And I began to make the single sound: “Oh!” I said it again “Oh!” and then I said it louder and louder and louder, and I dropped the wine bottle on the floor. I put my hands to my head and kept saying it, and I could see my mouth opened in that perfect circle I had described to my mother and I kept saying, “Oh, oh, oh!”
I said it like a great hiccuping that I couldn’t stop. And Nicolas took hold of me and started shaking me, saying:
I couldn’t stop. I ran to the window, unlatched it and swung out the heavy little glass, and stared at the stars. I couldn’t stand seeing them. I couldn’t stand seeing the pure emptiness, the silence, the absolute absence of any answer, and I started roaring as Nicolas pulled me back from the windowsill and pulled shut the glass.
. . . The second day it was no better.
And it wasn’t any better by the end of the week either.
I ate, drank, slept, but every waking moment was pure panic and pure pain. I went to the village priest and demanded did he really believe the Body of Christ was present on the altar at the Consecration. And after hearing his stammered answers, and seeing the fear in his eyes, I went away more desperate than before.
“But how do you live, how do you go on breathing and moving and doing things when you know there is no explanation?” I was raving finally. And then Nicolas said maybe the music would make me feel better. He would play the violin.
I was afraid of the intensity of it. But we went to the orchard and in the sunshine Nicolas played every song he knew. I sat there with my arms folded and my knees drawn up, my teeth chattering though we were right in the hot sun, and the sun was glaring off the little polished violin, and I watched Nicolas swaying into the music as he stood before me, the raw pure sounds swelling magically to fill the orchard and the valley, though it wasn’t magic, and Nicolas put his arms around me finally and we just sat there silent, and then he said very softly, “Lestat, believe me, this will pass.”
“Play again,” I said. “The music is innocent.”
Nicolas smiled and nodded. Pamper the madman.
And I knew it wasn’t going to pass, and nothing for the moment could make me forget, but what I felt was inexpressible gratitude for the music, that in this horror there could be something as beautiful as that.
You couldn’t understand anything; and you couldn’t change anything. But you could make music like that. And I felt the same gratitude when I saw the village children dancing, when I saw their arms raised and their knees bent, and their bodies turning to the rhythm of the songs they sang. I started to cry watching them.
I wandered into the church and on my knees I leaned against the wall and I looked at the ancient statues and I felt the same gratitude looking at the finely carved fingers and the noses and the ears and the expressions on their faces and the deep folds in their garments, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
At least we had these beautiful things, I said. Such goodness.
But nothing natural seemed beautiful to me now! The very sight of a great tree standing alone in a field could make me tremble and cry out. Fill the orchard with music.
And let me tell you a little secret. It never did pass, really.
What caused it? Was it the late night drinking and talking, or did it have to do with my mother and her saying she was going to die? Did the wolves have something to do with it? Was it a spell cast upon the imagination by the witches’ place?
I don’t know. It had come like something visited upon me from outside. One minute it was an idea, and the next it was real. I think you can invite that sort of thing, but you can’t make it come.
Of course it was to slacken. But the sky was never quite the same shade of blue again. I mean the world looked different forever after, and even in moments of exquisite happiness there was the darkness lurking, the sense of our frailty and our hopelessness.
— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat
* * *
Henry Ford didn’t just want to be a maker of cars — he wanted to be a maker of men. He thought he could perfect society by building model factories and pristine villages to go with them. And he was pretty successful at it in Michigan. But in the jungles of Brazil, he would ultimately be defeated.
It was 1927. Ford wanted his own supply of rubber — and he decided to get it by carving a plantation and a miniature Midwest factory town out of the Amazon jungle. It was called “Fordlandia.”
. . . Fordlandia isn’t just the story of a plantation; it’s a story about Ford’s ego. As disaster after disaster struck, Ford continued to pour money into the project. Not one drop of latex from Fordlandia ever made it into a Ford car.
But the more it failed, the more Ford justified the project in idealistic terms. “It increasingly was justified as a work of civilization, or as a sociological experiment,” Grandin says. One newspaper article even reported that Ford’s intent wasn’t just to cultivate rubber, but to cultivate workers and human beings.
In the end, Ford’s utopia failed. Fordlandia’s residents, ever in hope their patriarch would someday visit their Midwestern industrial town in the middle of the jungle, gave up and left.
These days, Fordlandia is quite beautiful, Grandin says. The “American” town where the managers and administrators lived is abandoned and overgrown. Weeds grow over the American-style bungalows, and bats roost in the rafters, and little red fire hydrants sit covered in vines.
* * *
As soon as a receptive mind discovers the works of someone such as Lovecraft, it discovers that there are other ways of looking at the world besides the one in which it has been conditioned. You may discover what kind of nightmarish jailhouse you are doomed to inhabit or you may simply find an echo of things that already depressed and terrified you about being alive. The horror and nothingness of human existence — the cozy facade behind which was only a spinning abyss. The absolute hopelessness and misery of everything. After publishing his first book in French, which in English appeared as A Short History of Decay (1949), Cioran learned from that volume’s enthusiastic reception that his manner of philosophical negation had a paradoxically vital and energizing quality. Lovecraft, along with other authors of his kind, may have the same effect and rather than encouraging people to give up he may instead give them a reason to carry on. Sometimes that reason is to follow his way — to communicate, in the form of horror stories, the outrage and panic at being alive in the world.
— Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race (from a pre-publication draft)
* * *
One of the most powerful spiritual practices is to meditate deeply on the mortality of physical forms, including your own. This is called: Die before you die. Go into it deeply. Your physical form is dissolving, is no more. Then a moment comes when all mind-forms or thoughts also die. Yet you are still there — the divine presence that you are. Radiant, fully awake. Nothing that was real ever died, only names, forms, and illusions.
The realization of this deathless dimension, your true nature, is the other side of compassion. On a deep-feeling level, you now realize not only your own immortality but through your own that of every other creature as well. On the level of form, you share mortality and the precariousness of existence. On the level of Being, you share eternal, radiant life. These are the two aspects of compassion. In compassion, the seemingly opposite feelings of sadness and joy merge into one and become transmuted into a deep inner peace. This is the peace of God. It is one of the most noble feelings that humans are capable of.
— Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now