A Stranger on the Earth

by Sam Buntz

“He only can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling, unforeseen, wing-footed wanderer. We could not find him if he were not in some sense of our being, and yet of our own being but as water with fire, a noise with silence. He is of all things not impossible the most difficult, for that which comes easily can never be a portion of our being; soon got, soon gone, as the proverb says. I shall find the dark luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen [marriage song] of the soul a passing bell.” — William Butler Yeats

I don’t believe that any writer, artist, or—to include everything that must be included, in one term—creator has ever felt at home on planet earth. This statement is likely to provoke immediate misunderstandings, so I should probably start off by explaining what I don’t mean.   I’m not talking about adopting a Bohemian pose and equating it with the feeling of being “a stranger on the earth” (as Van Gogh—who really wasn’t at home in the world—rightly called himself). This has nothing to do with merely posturing as an outcast—as another bad boy artiste, smoking opium in dimly lit Brooklyn basements, cruising off a trust-fund yet failing to bathe, before eventually overdosing or, having been somewhat cowed by the consequences of excess, dying a repentant Catholic (no offense to actual Catholics intended, of course).

That’s just another way of being at home in the world—though, of course, being “at home in the world” is the goal of so much psychology, so many self-help books, so much religion even: making sure that the soul remains safely ensconced in its acorn and never develops into a great-rooted Oak (to steal a metaphor from the philosopher Jacob Needleman). I propose that even the most outwardly respectable and publicly lauded geniuses—writers like Tennyson, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens—felt profoundly strange on planet earth (aside from the clear cases like Dickinson and Kafka). I’m not even talking about disliking or hating planet earth—simply about the sense of being a visitant, a soul who in Wordsworth’s phrase “has elsewhere its setting and cometh from afar.” A difference in Vision is what matters—and it’s the only thing that matters: whether one sees by “the light of common day” or by the unmitigated Blaze of an internal, Invisible Sun.

William Butler Yeats made some cutting observations on this topic. In the poetic dialogue, “Ego Dominus Tuus” (Latin for “I am Your Lord”), a pair of characters (Hic and Ille or “this man” and “that man”—though, “that man” is apparently Yeats himself) debates the nature of art and of artists. When Hic says that there must be men who are “lovers of life” and who don’t wage a “tragic war” and yet manage to sing great poetry, Ille contradicts him: “For those that love the world serve it in action / Grow rich, popular and full of influence / And should they paint or write still it is action: / The struggle of the fly in marmalade.” (He also adds, going perhaps a bit overboard, “What portion in the world can the artist have / Who has awakened from the common dream / But dissipation and despair?” I think this last bit has too often been true—but it is by no means universally true, and likely not true in the most important cases.)

“The struggle of the fly in marmalade” is a great way to describe the subject of most political, show biz, and rock n’ roll memoirs. And what is the “marmalade”—the sticky sweetness that the man of action finds to be his native element? Yes, it’s “the world”—but, more basically, it’s Time. The problem for the genuine artist isn’t, at root, estrangement from the world of myriad things in which we pass our days (though it’s that too)—it is estrangement from Time, which nurtures and gives birth to this world of multiplicity that we so awkwardly inhabit. In somewhat Buddhist terms, T.S. Eliot lamented that we live in a world of “Birth, copulation, and death / Birth, copulation, and death”—the ever unvarying three-fold rhythm of Time. For Time is characterized by impermanence—unbearable for an artist who seeks the permanent, the weird and wonderful clime of that which is past change.

Eliot, Yeats, and almost all of the other great poets, were questing for the moment where the Timeless intersects with Time—symbolized, for Yeats, by “The Rose on the Rood of Time”, the Rose being eternal “Intellectual Beauty” and the Rood or Cross being the temporal and mundane world. The minute, sharply observed epiphanies that characterize so much Japanese poetry clearly demonstrate the same principle—a small particle of Time suddenly blazes into full being as a manifestation of Eternity, with a single snail or moth or dewdrop suddenly, yet so gently and quietly, assuming cosmic proportions. Take Basho, for instance: “On the one ton temple bell / A moon-moth, folded into sleep, / Sits still.”

To provide a classic example from 20th Century Literature (also, there should be a mild spoiler alert here, if you somehow haven’t managed to read this book yet): in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield sees his sister, Phoebe, reaching for the golden ring while riding on the Central Park carousel, he suddenly sees the Vision that he had both longed for and evaded during his sojourn in New York (equivalent to seeing the ducks that had appeared to leave the park for the winter and which Holden wonders about frequently and even anxiously). He beholds the eternal human search for Joy—still worthwhile, still ultimately beautiful—taking place on the Wheel of Time, represented by the carousel. He applies this moment of epiphany to his earlier, seemingly seedy and somewhat sordid experiences (a misadventure with a pimp and prostitute, getting drunk and breaking the “Little Shirley Beans” record he’d bought for his sister, and so on) and sees the entire carnival of human souls, including his own, taking their right place in the search for eternal Joy on the Wheel of Time (or “Wheel of Births and Deaths”)—all reaching for the golden ring.

Obviously, a quest for the intersection of the Timeless moment with Time—whether undertaken in medieval Japan or modern New York—has profound consolations. In fact, in the end, the consolations perfectly match the frustrations and inevitably extreme difficulties that had previously attended the search. Final delight would be impossible without an initial estrangement from Time, and therefore a certain degree of unhappiness—but the quest’s end is in its beginning, the place where the soul first left behind its cloud of glory to make a circuit through materiality. Imagining such a “Return to the Source,” Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “It is discovered. / What? —Eternity / In the whirling light / Of sun become sea.”

By Sam Buntz

I like writing, and I do it frequently. It exercises the vital humors, helps fend off "dark inertia", and enlarges life.

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