Otherness and Longing

A lot of stuff has been going on with me lately. So instead of doing the usual (writing about it here or somewhere else) I’ll devote this post to an entirely different thing. Maybe later, when everything has settled down, I’ll put it down in writing.

And so, instead of boring y’all with my thoughts (or making you laugh, depending on how much you care about the idiotic rants coming from a young adult’s brain) I’d like to write a little bit about some ideas I’ve “discovered” last year. And by discovered I mean they’re new to me, but old to the world. The story of such finding is worthy of a post of its own, for it is tied with one of the happiest moments of my life, and another discovery, that of a beautiful soul. But allow me to postpone such a story for happier times and instead focus on the ideas themselves.

Many of them have actually been discussed already in the blog of my (unilateral) buddy Marc Barnes, which you should totally, absolutely, what-the-heck-are-you-waiting-for check right now. He’s an inspiration and a really clever guy, and his insightful posts remind everyone of another really awesome writer whom you should know (seriously, stop reading this and go and get yourself some of his books), only younger, slimmer and on twitter. Total man-crush here.

Marc Barnes

Marc. Gotta love that smile.

So, without further ado, let me start.

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Unless you live in a cave in the wild (with, somehow, internet access and enough free time to check ridiculous blogs such as this one) you’ve probably heard of museums and some of their artistic treasures. It is safe to assume you’ve also heard about bigotry and past or present crimes committed against this or that group of people. And you also might have someone in your life you care about. Someone you like, someone whose company you enjoy, maybe someone you love.

All of these seemingly unrelated things have something in common that is their raison d’être, and what ultimately lies at the bottom of the reactions they awake in the person who experiences them. They possess what some people (philosophers and other vermin (I’m joking)) like to call Otherness, that is, the quality of being different or alien to what an observer thinks of as the Self.

Indeed, human experience, as wonderful as it is, is cripplingly restricted by the characteristic of being absolutely personal, subjective. We experience the world and those who inhabit it as outside of ourselves. Our senses are but small windows to that Universe that surrounds us, an Universe that is unknowable in the strictest sense of the word. For, as your average skeptic friend can tell you, we can never be objectively sure that we’re not the only ones in this Universe. That everything we see, smell, touch, hear or taste is an illusion, a creation of our minds. Countless trees (or the illusion of trees, maybe?) have been slaughtered and gone into pages and pages describing the madness-inducing consequences of this ideology, which by the way is the only kind of skepticism thorough and fully committed to its spirit and thus the only one worth a damn.

I will not discuss this particular philosophy (or un-philosophy, for by its etymology philosophy is the love of wisdom, whereas this repulsive idea is nothing but a complete agnosticism on the objective existence of any wisdom or knowledge whatsoever); for that I’ll refer the reader to the first chapters of Chesterton’s magnificent book Orthodoxy. Spoiler alert: those that truly believe in this skepticism are no different than that insane fellow that believes himself the center of a world-wide conspiracy. He sees in the most innocent of his neighbors’ gestures yet another proof of his madness, be it cutting the grass of their front yard or saying “hello” with that diabolical, plot-making smile of theirs. I will rather use this extremist ideology to further press my point: all experience is subjective (which, I stress once again, doesn’t make it unreal or illusory).

But of course, we’re all aware of that. What I mean by this is that I expect that not a single one of my two bored readers will claim that he or she has been able to live another’s life. And I’m not talking about reincarnation, but about being able, here and now, to fully and completely live life as the person right next to him or her. Therefore, I claim, everything that surrounds us is fully Another, something or someone that is completely not-Ourselves.

And yet, most of us live our lives without the thought of it ever crossing our minds. We wake up, drink our coffee, take our morning trip to the potty (or the other way around, depending on your daily routine), go about our businesses and return home without worrying about the philosophical implications that the distinction between the Self and the Other means. And we’re not to blame, because most of the time the effects of such a distinction are barely felt. The laptop I’m writing this post on, the photons that are coming into my eyes and exciting my vision cells, the air I’m breathing, the bartender that sold me that tasty pint of trappist beer a couple of hours ago are all Others, and I didn’t bat an eye. None truly does.

Until they do.

Because in everyone’s life there comes a moment when the presence of Another, of something or someone utterly not-Us makes itself so clear, so painfully obvious that we cannot ignore the fact anymore. We’re trapped in It, puzzled by It, we want to know what It means. The Other makes itself present, and its weight is crushing, overwhelming, abrasive. It demands our most absolute attention. And it can produce in us one of two feelings, or maybe a strange mixture of both: Fear or Longing.

Indeed, we can define the Self in a broader way than that of the individual, as sociologists do. That’s how nations come into being. People distinguish between Us and Them, and borders are drawn, treaties are created, trading takes place, wars are declared. What do some american and european conservatives (or almost any nationalist group), with their immigrant-hating rhetoric; and terrorists groups such as ISIS have in common? A fear, recognized or not, of the Other. A sense of urgency before the threat, imagined or otherwise, that a group of people different from their own represents to their oh-so-wonderful societies. The nationalist considers anything that differs from their idea of a citizen (a member of their nation) as an inferior, in the best of cases, or as an enemy in the worst, deserving of being fought or expelled from their land. The ISIS terrorist wants to get rid of anything dissimilar to their own distorted idea of a perfect society. They regard everyone not pertaining to their homogeneous, monstrous ummah as enemies and therefore subject to death. Even muslims that do not subscribe to ISIS’ definition of Self are persecuted and killed on the spot, needless to say christians and yazidis that refuse to integrate to their blood-thirsty nation, within the boundaries they define on said integration. Fear of the Other is also behin all persecutions that we have ever engaged in: from slavery to xenophobia, from racism to the hating of homosexuals. Fear, then, is one of the reactions we can have when the overwhelming presence of the Other makes itself evident. But, thankfully, I am not concerned with such disgusting feelings in this post. Fear is of no interest to me today. Today, I care about something else.

The experience that the museum visitor has when admiring a powerful painting or an exquisite sculpture, or when someone is enraptured by the passion of a piece of music or dance performance; in other words that overwhelming captivation by the Beautiful, is nothing else but the recognition that there’s something outside of the Self, something Other than Us that deserves our fascination.

degas5

Those of you who have a favorite book, like an old friend that you like to visit from time to time, that either makes you laugh or cry or think or all of them at once; those, I said, will understand what I mean. We read and re-read this book, and each time we discover something new, something we missed, or a different way to think about this character or that event. We recreate a scene in our heads, and we enjoy exploring it again and again, never getting enough of it. When we’re passionate about a painting, we can spend hours studying it, analyzing this stroke of the brush, that combination of colors and forms, trying to absorb it, to embrace it all, to understand, without ever being able to fully achieve that goal. We can repeat the same dancing routine many times and we can discover new things about ourselves and the dance itself in each repetition, and yet we’ll never be able to fully finish it, to completely explore every single possibility, every angle of our hands, head or feet, every possible sensation. No one can honestly said he has gotten all there is to get from one of Shakespeare’s plays or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. People spend their entire lives studying them and they’re no closer to finding an ultimate answer to all the questions that can be asked about them than when they started. The same can be said of the scientist that truly loves her trade. Truth is her only purpose, and yet she never gets enough of it. Every new discovery only exacerbates her thirst for more of that same Truth. We are never satisfied. We want more of it, we yearn for these Others, we long for Them. In a new sense of the word, we want to be Them, to experience existence the way They do, for maybe then we’re gonna find an end to our burning desire to understand Them.

Of course, there are distortions of this feeling of Longing, depraved ways in which we can act when confronted with such powerful emotions. For example obsession, that disordered feeling in which he who longs desperately tries to own the object of his longing, performing unhealthy, creepy actions that might hint to a mental problem (I once met a guy that used to hoard his girlfriend’s trash, like potato chips’ bags and such). Or the social phenomenon known as cultural appropriation, that can reach extremes that, even though originally well-intended, can be rather insulting. But I am not interested in discussing such perversions. What I’m concerned with in this post is that powerful, all-consuming need of understanding the object of the longing, of getting more of it, of re-discovering its qualities.

Never is this more evident than in the ridiculous, powerful and always maddening adventure of being in love. Then it is painfully clear what this longing for the Other is. Bewitched by our beloved’s eyes, we stare at her for minutes without end; breath is taken away at the strange, fascinating touch of her hand; we gaze upon her lips or that beautiful curve of her body or that lock of hair, and study them over and over and over again, absorbing it all, feeling it all and yet not getting any closer to fully embracing her all. We try to memorize each particularity of her skin, of her smell or of the sounds her steps make and yet, every single time, that pretty mole we thought we knew presents itself under a different light, that perfume so well-known to us has an altogether new fragrance and those steps surprise us again with their musicality. We never get tired of her. We want to listen to her interests, her fears, her aspirations, her ideas, her feelings. We try to read her mind, to understand. We never get tired of exploring our beloved.

This romantic longing reaches its more intense form of expression in the act of making love. All that kissing and touching, that burning need to continually embrace and remain embraced by the other, they are but the physical embodiment of that hunger to be one, the only way in which a complete encompassing of the meaning of the beloved’s existence could possibly happen. The striking similarity between the facial expressions of pain and of pleasure, as well as the sounds involved (sighs, moans, groans) can, in a very literal sense, be understood under the premise that the body itself knows such a perfect union to be impossible. In other words, through the most intense pleasure our bodies become aware of the painful reality: complete union, absolute satisfaction of such a longing for the Other, is impossible.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini. The only way the Master could have represented the powerful, mystical rapture of the Divine was through something as powerful as humanely possible: orgasm.

“Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, by Bernini. The only way the Master could represent the powerful, painful, mystical rapture by the Divine that St. Teresa experienced was through something as powerful as humanely possible: pleasure; more concretely, sexual pleasure. By the way, this is inside a church.

And that’s what’s ultimately crazy and horrible and absurd about this world. That all the longing and desire appear to be completely pointless. For we and our loved ones are utterly different, Others to each other. We can never, ever understand them, feel them, know them, experience life as they do, be them. Our most desperate, powerful and heart-wrenching desires are doomed to pass unsatisfied while we live. And, to some of us, that idea is simply unbearable. The fact that, despite all of your efforts and all of your attempts you will never be closer to solving the mystery that the existence of a loved one represents, that you will never get to truly know her, is a horrible one, enough to put us in an asylum.

And so, people have come to develop different reactions before such an absurdity. The easiest, cleanest one is suicide. Killing Oneself is apparently the only way in which we can close our eyes to the reality of the Other and our hearts to the pain of Longing. But that is hardly a solution. It’s a cowardly way to react, a betrayal to Life, a slight to the whole Universe, an insult to the tiniest of flowers. Again, Chesterton is the true master in the matter; I refer to his previously mentioned book.

Another way to react (perhaps the most common) is shunning oneself from the external world. To avoid acknowledging the existence of the Other or, at least, its importance. If we can live a life without any meaningful relationships (to art, Beauty, Truth and other people), then we are safe… aren’t we?

Maybe. But then life becomes miserable if we cannot stop thinking about the conundrum Otherness imposes on us. And one good day (or bad day) Option #1 becomes very, very alluring.

The third way is the most difficult one. It’s the one that turns the question over.

Indeed, this world seems absurd, with all its unsatisfying experiences, all that Longing, that fire that keeps burning inside of us without consuming.

But maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe we’re meant to burn with Longing while in this world, and do something with this fire. Maybe this thirst, this horrible craving points towards Something else, or Someone else, Another that fully can satisfy us. We long for Truth, for Good, for Beauty. We long for Perfection. We seek it in art, in science, in a beloved. The mere existence of such an intense desire would be paradoxical and utterly absurd if that were the whole story.

But it isn’t. And in the meantime, that fire has a purpose. As Blessed Mother Teresa put it:

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

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That was a rather long post. So, if you’re still awake and because y’all are beautiful people, I leave you with the picture of one of my favorite artists. Have a wonderful night.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.

Naomie Harris, a.k.a. Moneypenny. Please, try not to kiss the screen.

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