The Beauty of Pain

I often wonder why the writing, films, and music I love best are often the darkest. I stumbled upon this quote from a 19th century essayist. For me, it’s an adequate explanation.

English: Despair

English: Despair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Works of genius have this in common, that even when they vividly capture the nothingness of things, when they clearly show and make us feel the inevitable unhappiness of life, and when they express the most terrible despair, nonetheless to a great soul – though he find himself in a state of extreme duress, disillusion, nothingness, noia, and despair of life, or in the bitterest and deadliest misfortunes (caused by deep feelings of whatever) – these works always console and rekindle enthusiasm; and though they treat or represent only death, they give back to him, at least temporarily, that life which he had lost.”

— Giacomo Liapardi (1798-1837) from his diary called Zibaldone 

Flowers of Evil

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne ...

Nederlands: Public domain: Portrait de Jeanne Duval par Charles Baudelaire, 1850 Jeanne Duval licence : Publiek domein author: Charles Baudelaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire

He was young and wealthy. Only 21, and the inheritor of large fortune, the young man lived in opulence on the Isle St. Louis in France. He was ready to find his place in the world, and become a proud member of the elite. And then he met a women.

Her name was Jeanne. He was also young, but not nearly so naive. She’d just arrived from Haiti, and had started work as a cabaret girl. In a smoke filled club at the seedy end of the Champs Elysees, she sang a song, risque in nature. In the audience sat young Charles. He was smitten with her.

She was nothing like the kind of woman he was supposed to fall in love with. She was not of a landed family, she did not care for equestrian sports. She possibly did not know the proper order of eating utensils on a table setting. But no matter, she was ravishing. The next day, Charles sat in his carriage and watched the delivery boy give her a bouquet of red roses. This was their beginning.

His friends were horrified. Many pleaded with him for reason, no doubt, but he could find nothing better to invest his fortune in than her happiness. He was prepared to give her anything she could ever want, as any love-stuck man would do. And so he began to frequent this dark part of the city, the brothels and opium dens that lines streets filled with scoundrels and harlots.

He stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – a well-dressed and well-heeled man cavorting with patrons of back street bars. Instead of trying to elevate his dear love’s state, he preferred to meet her down at her own.

His poetry, already sentimentally dark, began to turn like a decaying flower into something much more striking. And like that flower that withers and dies, his poetry kept its beauty, even magnified it. He found the beauty in sorry and death, He once said “I can barely conceive of a beauty in which there is no melancholy.” That melancholy, that realization that beauty has a darker nature, helped him to pen Les Fleurs du Mal, widely known as one of the greatest works of poetry ever written.

And of Jeanne? She was his constant companion, his ravenous, biting muse. Illiterate though she was, she would sit and listen as he read his poetry for her, then yawn and raise a foot for him to kiss. He would often position her in the sunlight, and draw every curve of her body, his pencil practicing in place of his hands. Below one of his most intricate sketchings of her, he wrote the following inscription, “Quaerens quem devouret.”  It translates as “Seeking whom to devour.”

Jeanne introduced him to opium. They tore their lives down together, each needing the other to pull their meaning apart. They fought. She spent his money with abandon. And yet, he needed her. When his money was gone, she sold every last thing he owned. She began having affairs with his friends, and even sold herself on the street. But Charles couldn’t get out of her spell.

At last she left him, a broken, drug afflicted man. He lived out his life in the shadow of her absence. He even paid her expenses as she was sick and dying. He never got that first taste of bitter, anguishing, delusional love out of his heart.

Some say she introduced Baudelaire to the animistic and pagan religions of her native Haiti. There are rumors that she was some kind of enchantress, casting a spell on the good looking man in the back row, damning him to a life in her hold. But in the end, whether enchanted by spells or by beauty, the addiction is the same, is it not?

”The man who, from the beginning of his life, has been bathed at length in the soft atmosphere of a woman, in the smell of her hands, of her bosom, of her knees, of her hair, of her supple and floating clothes, … has contracted from this contact a tender skin and a distinct accent, a kind of androgyny without which the harshest and most masculine genius remains, as far as perfection in art is concerned, an incomplete being.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), French poet, critic. Artificial Paradise, An Opium-eater, VII. Childhood Sorrows (1860). On men who have been raised by women.

Sarah Winchester

Once upon a time there lived a widow who consulted the spirits of murdered Indians…

Hand in the Dark

Yesterday, I took the extended family for a tour of the “Winchester Mystery House” in San Jose, California. The home began as an eight room farm-house in the late 1800’s, but today is a sprawling mansion of labyrinthine hallways and 160 rooms , many never finished. The story of this house gets much stranger, though. After the death of her husband (of Winchester Gun fame) and her infant daughter, a distraught Sarah Winchester began consulting a Spiritualist medium, where her dead husband warned her that the family was cursed, and that she would die if she didn’t obey what the spirits told her.

She moved from Connecticut to San Jose – just a rural farmland at the time – to “follow the setting sun.” There she purchased a small home, and began immediately it’s improvement. The spirits had told her to begin building a house, and never stop construction. And she…

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Something Extraordinary

fork in the path

“I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us.” – Khaled Hosseini, And The Mountains Echoed

Sometimes we aren’t aware of our own greatness. Perhaps someone told us long ago that it was no so, that we weren’t special. Maybe our belief in ourselves was lost somewhere on the long road of life, torn away by lovers as they left, by dreams as they disappeared. For many, as in my case, our belief in our abilities to be great were worried and withered away in illness.

Whatever the case, we often find ourselves at a place in life much different than the place we’d imagined we would arrive. This is what is nostalgically called “life,” as in “that’s life,” or “life sucks.” But does it really? Can we honestly say that life is bad? We see our circumstances, but we forgot how we got here. We don’t realize that the insurmountable odds we are waiting against for something extraordinary to happen… is ourself.

I’ve had many dreams in my life, and I’ve seen most of them relinquished for a moment of security, or a choice I thought was one well made. As I look back now, I often wonder how different my life would be had I made my choices based on a dream, on a moral ground, on what I knew was the right thing to do. While I’m grateful for the wonderful people in my life, I also realize that I chose them to be there. They are the victories I’ve had along the way. But so many people on that same journey were lost to me.

But mostly, I think I lost myself.

There are times in life when we are faced with setback, struggle or sickness. Of those three setback is the easiest to overcome. It means we’ve lost ground, but have not lost the prize. Perhaps with hard work, with a change of heart, or with a new direction, setback can become victory. Our choices guide us.

Then there is struggle. This is by far more challenging, because struggle is when the road disappears. We don’t know if we are going in the right direction, only that the way is incredibly hard. Struggle lasts, struggle steals hope and heart, and puts us in a shell where our thoughts turn from the good we can do, do the very least we must do. The only way through is perseverance. And we know that those who persevere finally reach their destination, scarred, but safe. But not everyone perseveres.

And then there is sickness. I’ve familiar with them all, but most familiar with this one. This is when the darkness comes. In an instant, we are transformed into mortal beings, and faced with the many days we wasted doing things that made no difference, and also faced with the few days that remain and the choices they hold.

But there is a gift there. There is a gift in knowing your days are fleeting. For you see something more valuable than money, more valuable than all the wealth in the world. The only thing this insight is not more valuable than is time.

The insight is this: we are the obstacles in our own lives. Every struggle, every setback, every challenge can and will pass. It only takes a choice. It takes no more energy to destroy than it does to build. It takes no more risk to do something safe as it does to do something brave. You can’t add days to your life either way. It takes no more thought to think you can’t than it does to think you can. Something extraordinary can happen to you. But you must choose it.

It would be so easy now, to go back in time and change the things I wished I’d done. It takes no more energy to live with regrets, than it does to live without regrets.

The Seattle Sound

Seattle Rain

Seattle Rain (Photo credit: ArtBrom)

‘Seattle’ was a man before it was a city. Chief Seattle, or Si’ahl, his mother Duwamish and his father of the Suquamish tribe, once gave a warning to settlers who had come to take his land. Many believe that his words were a curse to those who would live in the place that bore his name.

The “Seattle Sound” could mean many things. The city itself rests on the hills overlooking the Puget Sound. I spent some time there, a little less than a year, after I graduated high school. It was where I best learned the lesson that dreams don’t come just because you dream them. I wanted to be a star, but wasn’t willing to immolate myself to shine.

Anyone who has been to Seattle, Washington usually remembers two things about the city. First, it’s strikingly beautiful. Second, it’s almost always covered in clouds.

There are sunny days here and there, and when they come they are a wonderful relief to the gray skies and damp air. But for those who live there year round, they know that the sun is only a fleeting visitor. These wet and cloudy days give birth to a mood, an atmosphere among the people, imparting a flavor to life that is reflected in its artists. It is this atmosphere, this soul of the city, that expresses itself in the Seattle sound.

The sound is often music of death.

As I write this post, I’m listening to the newest release from the band “Alice In Chains.” They were role models for my early attempts at rock stardom. I decorated myself with cornrows and pierced myself to become the model they’d made a preferred vessel to fame. They, and a few other bands – most notably “Nirvana” – paved the way for a new type of music quickly labeled “grunge.” It was the Seattle sound, and soon young hipsters from Los Angeles to London were sporting flannel shirts and growing their hair over their eyes. The lyrics were often of the desperation of life, the pain of the very act of existing, and the temptation of challenging death by embracing it. It was a dangerous mixture, and one that led me down a path to depression. Under those same, dark Seattle skies I also felt the pull of this spirit, tempted to the savagery that disguised itself in hopeless indifference. It is a pull so strong that, you might have noticed, not everyone survives.

The original singer for “Alice In Chains,” Layne Staley, was found dead a few years after the band’s celebrity peaked. It was said that his body, locked away in his apartment for a few weeks because no one had come to check on the star, was unrecognizable. The main themes of his music were death, suicide and heroin. Of course, he was not the only one. Another Seattle musician, Kurt Cobain, perhaps the most prolific artist of his time, shot the back of his head out in the room above his garage. He once wrote a song titled “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” People clapped when he sang it.

The Seattle sound didn’t really start in the early ’90s, though. Maybe the most well-known Seattleite is Jimi Hendrix. Seattle stayed in him even as he travelled far from home. He was found dead at age of 27 in a London hotel with enough drugs and alcohol in his system to kill him a few times.

There are others such as Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone, Mike Starr – another member of Alice in Chains – and everyday there are more and more lesser-known musicians who succumb to something that comes disguised as depression, drugs, or whatever demon is available.

Some believe this is all the result of a warrior’s forgotten curse.

It was recorded that in 1854, Chief Seattle spoke to a gathering of men preparing to take the land from his tribe. He told them soon his people would vanish from the land, their memory gone with them. But it would not be the end.

“Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”

That is what he said. Was it a curse? Maybe not. But if it was, perhaps that’s why so many of those who’ve come to live on his land have watched their children die.