Saturday, May 15, 2010

White Walls

The stoicism that we are taught when we are young often prohibits any kind of deep inquiry into the methods of anguish. By methods I mean the way in which the emotions related to suffering bring meaning into the moments of our experience. At every step, even as one is feeling anguish, the super-ego or overriding consciousness or voice of the other, the external, whatever you want to name it, is admonishing it, trying to hide it from consciousness. When we are young we are taught not only to avoid our own anguish but to seek out the anguish of others in order to make theirs disappear as well. And yet who really follows these dictates? Looking back, I think that most of my actions probably caused others distress instead of taking it away, and the few conscious actions that I did start of my own volition in order to lessen the anguish of others resulted either because I was trying to remove something that I myself had caused, or because I had been made to feel guilty and so was trying to remove that guilt. I can't remember exactly when I was taught the "meaning" of guilt. I'm sure it was very early. It was after I first felt it. I can seem to remember a time when the function/form of guilt within my mind was not that strong, and I could do things that only interested me purely out of curiosity and the wish to bring myself pleasure. I followed my own curiosity about people, events, behavior, morals, and meanings, and I wasn't really concerned about the actions or emotions of others. It was an interesting time because most people usually look back on these periods [and we all seem to have shared this period in our lives] as the ideal of "innocence", although when one thinks about it, it is rather the "innocence" of being completely outside the moral realm, not an innocence of positive "good", or a moral sense that avoids doing wrong. Nothing "wrong" was done because the idea of "wrong" did not exist, it had to be taught. This is the "pre-Fall" innocence referred to in the fable of Adam and Eve, a sort of "pre-history" that exists, in one sense, as a symbol of a childhood period before the inculcation of moral standards or ideas. I do not think of this period as being any great blessing. If there are people who look back on this time/period/form of consciousness as being "better" because they are hounded by their own guilt, or harassed by moral obligations, then they are placing a value on it that perhaps it can not bear. The pre-Fall period in children is only understood from the point of view of those who have transcended it, children are not aware that they are in possession of anything worthwhile. In fact most of them want to leave this period as quickly as they can and take upon themselves the form and ideas of the "adult" world. The "innocence" of children, in this respect, is just a sort of moral ignorance, a species of unawareness, an opacity or obtuseness. What human beings can not really understand or use they tend to ignore completely. If they can not sense it all of course they will not be able to "understand" it, even though they learn of it through dark intimations on the part of their parents. The threat of the moral world rumbles like thunder through the conversation of adults, it bleeds from almost every reproach and "warning" that falls from their mouths into the ears of children. Children have a vague fear of this period that they know they can not escape, they know [as they are told so often] that there will be a time when their own existence as children will cease to be. They will "grow up", even though this period, this sentence [Is it a penalty? For what transgression?] is not understood completely, it is something that descends upon them from without, it is something they can not control in any way. It must have been frightening for me, but I honestly can not remember it. I, like most children, looked forward to "growing up" because I was taught it meant a lessening of external authority. I was lied to.

I think I may have learned the real meaning of anguish in hospitals. I have been in many hospitals in my life, of all different sorts. Public hospitals, financed by the state or county or some government agency, private hospitals, funded by cities, private corporations, groups of doctors, arcane brotherhoods or societies, psychological hospitals, clinics, etc. The earliest memory I have is of a hospital in Southern California, possibly in Los Angeles or around there, where my parents and I went to visit my cousin, although I can not remember why he was there. The colors in that hospital were nauseating, a sort of pale aqua and light green or lime, as if the entire complex was placed just beneath the surface of the ocean and the light that entered it was filtered through waves of polluted water. Ever since then I have associated those colors both with the smells of disinfectant and the sounds of the sick and dying. Even today I can not look at those colors without feeling vaguely disturbed - such is the power of associations in the mind! That must have been back in the later 1970s or early 1980s, which is why colors like that were even used. Surely they have been replaced or placed beneath a new coat of institutional white, which is one of my favorite colors. In high school I went on a camping trip and ended up in a hospital in a very small rural town in Texas, and there I was placed in a double room with an old man who was dying of [I think] lung cancer. Beneath the haze of morphine I was submerged inside I was aware of his wracked and ragged breathing throughout the night, the sounds of his body choking itself. He fought his own body in order to live, or rather I should say…his body fought itself, fought another part of itself, a few systems of consciousness and life-support fighting his respiratory system. I don't think he was lucid, or he didn't appear to be. In the morning an elderly woman brought him food which he could not eat. He stared at a malfunctioning television that repeated old black and white movies from the 1950s while he waited to die. I was not saddened by his situation. I was not even curious about his identity. At that point he didn't have one, he only represented "a dying man" to me. He ignored me and I watched him as he was dying, like an insect struggling on the point of a pin. Perhaps if we had introduced ourselves I would have felt prompted to become emotionally attached to him in some way. Perhaps he did me a favor by not introducing himself. He probably didn't see the point, and neither did I. I watched as the elderly woman, maybe his wife or sister or some relation, brought him food that he must have enjoyed at some time. Perhaps he could smell it, it would remind him of other times, other places, in the same way the movies on the television set would. There are two channels that play nothing but old movies, or "classic" movies - at least there were at that time, and now I understand how those channels are used by the elderly, even if it is in ways that are outside the understanding of the people who program them. They are used in preparation for death in hospitals all across the country. There must be thousands upon thousands of people dying while they watch those two channels, as they lie in bed or sit in chairs and feel their bodies falling apart, their minds tearing loose, concentrating on the images on those screens - but what do they really see? The movie itself [all of those movies are basically the same film, a film that is fifty years long] or the images and memories that those movies bring back to them? Those movies exorcise life from struggling bodies. Joined hand-in-hand with morphine, they ease the elderly into the underworld.

It is a commonplace that the elderly and sick live in their memories, as the function of remembrance seems to take over the consciousness when the body can no longer involve itself in creating new memories. There are also, supposedly, systems in one's mind that become more and more active as one ages and bring back earlier and earlier memories. I have noticed this in my own father has he ages, as he approaches his seventies. He seems to be returning to earlier patterns of behavior, of speech, understanding, all kinds of ancient preferences, biases, ideas. These partialities completely overwhelm everything he has learned over the past fifty years, they are too powerful, too deeply ingrained. They seem "natural" to him because they were primal, first, they are the oldest ideas, they have been in his mind the longest and so they seem to form some kind of foundation or strong underpinning for his consciousness. This is of course an illusion, an irrational conservatism based on sentiment. In that hospital, as I watched the man beside me die, I believe I thought of my own father dying, in a similar situation. I thought about what I would be expected to feel, about the embarrassment that results when people have rehearsed something in their minds for a long time and when it comes to actually carrying it out, can not remember what they were supposed to say or feel. The awkwardness of the fully present when one is forced into situations where one has to react without thinking, to interpret and extemporize, to spontaneously "feel" and return offered emotions…that to me has always been the structure and blissful content of reality. That is a reality that one can not deny. It exists because one is in pain. There are those who are so rehearsed that every reaction is a social function, every response to stimuli on their part is like a piece of machinery, a social "grace", an act, an expression of a dramatic view of the world, a prepared ritual. When one talks to them it is like watching computer code compile and execute itself. I have never had this shell of ritual although I have tried to create it around myself at certain times, even as the entire process was mocked by another part of me. I am interested in watching these shells, these reservoirs and systems of rehearsed social rituals, tear themselves apart when faced with the awkwardness of overwhelming pain in the present: pain that obliterates all of the past and all of the future. Pain that exists in itself, for itself. It is sadistic of me, but I enjoy seeing the networks of behavior that enable social interaction and hierarchies of power fold in upon themselves as people realize their own mortality. That is: I enjoy seeing The Present create itself, outside of the potential for a future, and erasing the past. How awkward we all are when our civilizing behaviors have been removed! There is only the ego, the naked self, in direct contact with experience, and it writhes beneath the pressure of suffering like a white worm. It is constantly aware of its own insufficiency, and it positively glows with shame!

In the presence of those who are creating memories there is a certain internal stillness, an internal prescience, and one feels almost if they are recording, as if they have cameras behind their eyes that take over the function of consciousness. I admire the ones who can manipulate themselves and their own lives in order to create sweet memories to store up against the pain of growing old, even though the emotions that blanket such memories might be completely false, aligned towards a future-that-should-have-been instead of existing spontaneously in that present as natural reactions. There are people who are artists of memories. I don't mean merely that they have the ability to only remember what they want, and shape their current memories towards remembrances that they wish they had or which support present ideas - we all have that ability, and all use it. What I admire, rather, are the ones who dictate to themselves experiences only in order to create memories along a certain aesthetic line. Do people have "styles" of memory making? If I was able to see and feel another's memories would I recognize a distinct style of form and meaning within that person's reminiscing? Are some "styles" better than others? I believe that such styles might commonly confused with the aesthete's "style of living" [different that a "lifestyle"] even though one is a method of action and deals in externals, the other is a method of interpretation and is well-versed in the personal ways in which memory and consciousness co-exist and interpenetrate each other. I can interpret and form memories of my existence that would not be correctly construed by any external, objective observer of my life. Everyone can, and I believe everyone does. It is important to remember that events and experiences that transpire outside of one's consciousness are not the only items of experience-in-itself. Memories, dreams, thoughts, feelings, sensations, reflections, etc. are also experiences and take place in time, even though they may be abstracted "outside of time", outside of the events that gave rise to them and then be wielded as abstractions in order to apply them to other events, other experiences, other thoughts. Reflections are used to reflect on reflections, and so on. Mirrors inside of mirrors.

It is interesting that pain serves to create such strong memories, even though the memory of the sensation of pain is removed. Can one ever completely make conscious again the sensation of a past pain in the present? Or is pain, in itself, a function of the present? Is it pain that makes the present possible? Is it pain that allows consciousness?

The white walls of a hospital represent, to me, and others have said this before, a blank canvas on which numbers of people have tried to leave a representation or message, but which resists every single method of creating memories. The white walls can lend themselves to a symbol of death or sickness, perhaps, in a visitor's mind, or they can be the last symbol that a dying man sees of his own sickness, but they themselves resist all efforts at mutability. They are silent, eternal, unchanging, perfect, as impregnable as death itself. I admire them and their stoicism, as it is a stoicism of elemental perfection, not a moral code that serves to oppress contrary instincts and which is constantly being penetrated by consciousness. The white walls represent, to me, not only the perfection of death but the inability of humans to either pierce beyond its veil or understand it sympathetically in any way outside of their own immediate experience. We say that the only ones who can "understand" death are the ones who have experienced it, and yet they never speak, except when they are brought back to life and frame their experiences in clich├ęd religious symbolism which is instinctively discounted. My dreams of my own death represent it as a final sleep, an immense sense of peace and interpenetration within the realm of true matter, matter without consciousness. To finally become an object, an inanimate "entity" without sensation or awareness, and experience dissolution and decay back into formal elements, that to me is a form of peace. An absence of consciousness is of course always a method of achieving quiescence of the "soul", as it is a miniature death. I dreamed once of being impaled in a public place, and feeling my life slowly drip and drop away from me as the sleep of death filled my cooling body. Consciousness fled with the warmth of my blood. Bystanders stood around me and watched, commented, and yet I felt their envy as the peace I felt must have been shining forth like an unavoidable symbol over my features. Death dawned like a black sun in my eyes. Rising outside and above myself, I watched as I died, and yet my external consciousness, the consciousness of this spirit watching the body dying, was still tied to the internal consciousness within. I existed both outside and inside my own body, and felt death as it spread through me and ate away all experience of the present. It was like dreaming on the edge of sleep. I gave in to death as if it was a kind of seduction, the kind one wishes for and only avoids momentarily to heighten the pleasure of anticipation. As I died in the dream I woke up into this world.

When I see the white walls of hospitals I want to cover them in my own blood. The same with the institutional, abstract, always impassive white of hospital gowns, smocks, lab coats, badges, symbols of purity and eternity. I wished that my blood would change them to crimson, as if that would mean something to me, or something to others in the future or in the past. The instinct is strong, sure, undeniable. It is irrational and yet calming. I don't wish to leave a trace of my own life on those walls, I don't want to leave a message, for words are always misunderstood [they can never say something completely] and symbols are misinterpreted, I just want to make the outer world, for a moment, resemble the inner world, and create harmony therein. I want my blood to poison the walls and bring the walls inside of me, make them part of me and make me part of them. If my blood was acid I would open a vein and leak it out to eat away that symbol of eternity. I want to create a completely new memory on the edge of death…

U. Amtey
3 August 2003
2:12 EST