Friday, December 14, 2007

Paradise Lost

Everyone goes through a crisis in adolescence. For the average person this is the point when the demands of his own life come into the sharpest conflict with his environment, when the way forward has to be sought with the bitterest means at his command. Many people experience the dying and rebirth--which is our fate--only this once during their entire life. Their childhood becomes hollow and gradually collapses, everything they love abandons them and they suddenly feel surrounded by the loneliness and moral cold of the universe. Very many are caught forever in this impasse, and for the rest of their lives cling painfully to an irrevocable past, the dream of the lost paradise--which is the worst and most ruthless of dreams.

Life seemed rather daunting to me in adolescence. It seems so to me even now. Life seemed like too long a time to have to stick around, a huge span of years through which one would be required to settle on a career and forge a new path in the world. I was tired of life by the time I was sixteen. I was tired of being too much, too intense, too depressed.

The dissonance in the brain is extreme at this point. Some children have the capacity to bore through it. I didn't. The idea of my future simultaneously thrilled and terrified me, like standing at the lip of a very sheer cliff--I could fly, or fall. I didn't know how to fly, and I didn't want to fall. So I backed away from the cliff and went in search of something that had a clear, solid trajectory for me to follow, like the line from third base to home plate.

I projected my dream of the lost paradise of childhood onto history itself and I became obsessed with the seeming decline of Western Civilization. It appeared to me that with Richard Strauss (1864-1949) music reflecting the human world vanished and all that remained of music was dissonance and disarray. The novel found its last representative, so I thought, in Proust (1871-1922). Heidegger once again turned full face toward pure metaphysics. And I became convinced, and mournfully obsessed with the view, that Auguste Rodin was the last sculptor of human woes, passions and felicities. I remember visiting the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia at age sixteen, and, gazing at the artist's work, thinking that with the passing of Rodin European culture had entered an irrevocable decline. What now dominated music, art and literature, so I thought, was dehumanized abstractions, which are of crushing proportions when they are wielded by a towering mind. In college, after reading a book about Freud and his work, I was sure that psychoanalysis never recovered from the loss of its founder: were not discoveries in the fields of the dream and of sex nowadays made in dehumanized laboratories that conducted investigations?

Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise. At some point in more or less remote times things were better, almost golden. A deep concordance lay between man and the natural setting. The myth of the Fall runs stronger than any particular religion. There is hardly a civilization, perhaps hardly an individual consciousness, that does not carry inwardly an answer to intimations of a sense of distant catastrophe. Somewhere a wrong turn was taken in that "dark and sacred wood," after which man has had to labor, socially, psychologically, against the natural grain of being.

In adolescence I became obsessed with the idea of the decline of the West. Thus did my preoccupation with the squandered utopia of nineteenth-century romanticism reflect my psychological struggle, in symbolic form, in adolescence, with the dream of the lost paradise of my own childhood.

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