An artist’s odyssey

Liberty’s Turn

“It was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your laws.” (Ps 119:71)

Youth

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. On a street surrounded by hills and creeks, supportive parents and open space fed my imagination. Whether dashing down creek-beds or balancing across tree-limbs, I learned by way of pleasure and pain.

Revealingly, I remember evaluating the footing at the edge of a ravine and considering the consequences of a missed landing. I then ran as fast as I could, leapt, and found myself a step stronger than planned. And oh, the joy! as small successes culminated in a sense of wonder.

But alas, the demands of school and the draw of friends pulled me from this grove. Yet book-learning was odious; sitting still, torment. The sum of this education conspired against my fiery breast.

Admonitions that I restrain my passions seemed a bill of goods. Talk of virtue sounded like a hoax. Intuition pushed against proffered dogmas. The need for forgiveness was foreign. And a joyless education testified against the call to labor.

Intent on remedying this resistance, my old man sought to win my wayward mind. For years, our discussions rang with “no, that’s wrong” until I mastered the art of inquisitor-appeasement.

Such artifice recast my world. Value claims became variable; so I maintained appearances and hid away my passions. Yet what was hidden emerged later as an aggrandizing-instinct. If not for a timely book, I may have remained blithely hedonistic.

Gratefully, seekers find; I found Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov sounded the depths of my heart: “Why can’t I be great? What wouldn’t I pay?” When the axe fell, mutual guilt exposed my lust for power.

A new necessity emerged. I had to discover how Dostoyevsky turned my soul. Powerless against this attraction, I immersed myself in literature. In the realm of ideas, I ranged once again. Though the deeper I plunged, the more obvious became my limits. Writing in response to the masters revealed so much mediocrity. Nevertheless, I had to hazard this path.

Poring through pages, scribbling questions and stumbling upon veiled divinations, I was reaching for something that I couldn’t define. As such, limiting conventions had to be sacrificed for the sake of unvarnished reality.

With but a tentative hold on artistry, I couldn’t suffer high school to college and job. So as my friends went off to college, I set out after ‘the voice’.

 

The Wilds

The cost of living quickly constrained my striving. I got a job believing that “at least I’ll have my spare time for art”. Though the beginning felt blissful, stifling monotony ensued. My beautiful yearning soon became a longing for release. And, as pent-up energies surged, each of my voices declared itself equal in the conduct of my affairs.

Once the dogma became “away with these restraints,” my passions declared their undying allegiance. Joyous calls for consistency flooded in from soul-constituents. Henceforth no action was bad before all had voted accordingly. Now he who wielded the sharpest words was the smartest critic while she who was least limited became best-liked.

I raised my argument-in-waiting and railed against the prevailing order. “Why should we care about their fate?” I exclaimed with an air of innocence, asserting a bold future if the oligarchs were defanged. “We live in a democracy, don’t we?”

Yet, as my self-image swelled, so crumbled my foundation. The world duly contracted and passions pushed through the cracks. I tried to write my way free repeatedly. But all that came about were damning incantations against the man and his boss, our loss and their hypocrisy. Manically, I would declare “down with the fences!” as I tore and swore with macabre satisfaction. After the fit passed, I drove again to my dead-end job feeling hollow and fallow.

What was once a rousing possibility had become a curse on the course of my life. With anguished cries, I vowed to rebuild on higher ground. But after the last echo faded, my skin crawled and the tension became unbearable. Nothing but one more blaze would suffice. “I’m totally a tyrant.” Suffocating under an impossible weight, I wondered “what’s this appetite worth if it leaves me bitter, broke, and alone”? Nothing but endless power could satisfy; wasn’t nature-conquering prowess the promise of modernity?

Ultimately, the collapse of my soul-structure compelled a reckoning. I could avoid moral-causality for only so long. The more I tried, the more my heart felt unstrung. For all my literary efforts—pages upon pages of furious voice—disconnected pieces overwhelmed, and dissatisfaction reared its hydra-heads.

In time reason revolted. Without grandiose declarations, the will-to-move dissipated. Real limits beset my heaving chest. “What’s more important, the possibility of excellence or the supposed equality of goods?” Gratefully, my sorrows revealed the preserving mean amid chaotic extremes.

Through my suffering, I found a way to artistry and began separating specious from reasonable ideas. Surely divided houses fall and yes, adventurers must become navigators to reach their real port. “How do I learn true principles of science?” This much was clear: I could strive to know or die of self-loathing.

So I set off for a fixed point and, in turn, found my teacher.

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