On Not Knowing How to Live – Allen Wheelis

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Chapter I
The Stranger

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“I am now forced to admit,” writes Cyril Connolly, “that anxiety is my true condition, occasionally intruded upon by work, pleasure, melancholy or despair. ”
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Chapter III
Grail-Hunger
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Life becomes a strange mixture of the mean and the tender, of clandestine meetings, lying to wife, dissimulating before colleagues, fabricating excuses, furtive weekends. We are in each other’s offices almost constantly, sneaking in and out in the hope of avoiding notice. Occasionally we lie together on my office couch, fearful that someone may knock, and I feel a strange unease at the thought that presently I will be sitting behind this couch, considering with clinical detachment, presumably, just such prisons of passion as this. Sonya is an apostle of intimacy, her joy the breaching of barriers. We find in each other such intensity, such deepening fulfillment, that the relationship becomes the greatest possible good. I stop seeking how to live, I know. For the first time work becomes the ordinary activity of a happy man rather ? than a driven and tormented struggle. Guiltily we begin to consider divorce and remarriage.

After a few months things become difficult. Our colleagues begin to sense something. Rumor of our affair spreads among the patients. We begin to have fights. Sonya weeps and clings to me as if we were being torn apart, says we must end it because of my children. I decide to proceed with a divorce, she dissuades me. A sane decision is not possible in this setting, the strain is too great. We have to get away somehow, be with each other alone and in peace. I fabricate a research conference in New Orleans, and Sonya is reportedly called to Europe on busine. Leaving separately, we meet the following day New York and take a plane for Mexico.

We have then our time of being with each other alone. For a month we travel together without meeting anyone we know. Yet things go wrong from the start. Nothing sudden, nothing definite; we have no fights, but something is awry. We are puzzled and anxious.

I don’t know why it has happened but after a few days I know what has happened: the magic is gone. She had been the woman without whom I could not live; now she is only a woman very dear to me. We had for each other an affinity which flowered into love. This we have lost and do not find again. When I ask myself if I love her I feel sure I do, but I never had to ask before. It is a sensible love now, capable of being weighed in the same balance with contending claims.

I can tell she feels as I, but we are ashamed and do not talk about it. She says our trouble is that we are running away, which makes us feel like cowards. Another time she says she feels guilty toward her hm band and I, toward my wife and children. I agree, but it isn’t my wife toward whom I feel guilty, but Sonya. I am sad and bewildered by our loss but not deeply upset, nostalgic but not determined to have it back, and feel guilty because of not being more distressed.

We seem willing to let it be lost, make only token efforts to find it again.

In the afternoon we sit in the village square in Taxco before the crumbling cathedral. Children swarm around us offering fake antiquities. At dusk we walk up the narrow cobblestone path to the hotel at the top of the hill. The lonely Englishman, drinking gin as always in the damp lobby, looks up with a sickly smile in the hope we will stop to chat with him. In our room we close the door, and standing there by the cold bed embrace tenderly and are enveloped by such a stillness the world seems deserted. Our relationship has become sentimental; we treat each other with unusual gentleness. In Oaxaca we walk behind the loquacious guide through the ruined streets of Monte Alban and Mitla, holding hands, saying little, feeling a deep affection, knowing the madness is gone. Our exaltation had been the meaning of life; and the sad thing is that, having lost it, we are willing to deem it madness. We love each other but are no longer in love, are good for each other but no longer indispensable. It does not seem justified to break up two marriages in order to make a third which would be no more final than either of those we would be scrapping. We do not talk about it, the decision is implicit. When our month is up and we start back we know what has been decided.

We created for each other an illusion. We fell in love, not with each other, but each with the image of himself in the other’s eyes. These reflections, flashing back and forth, expanded a modest affection into an overwhelming passion. At the file cabinet I saw a tragic beauty in her face, and on that foundation built a fairy castle. For at that moment she saw my perception of her, found the image pleasing, and thought better of me for my discernment. My next perception discovered in her, therefore, not only the beauty already noticed, but her enhanced appraisal of me; whereupon I realized her to be a woman of unusual sensitivity. And when next she glanced at me she noticed this added element in my perception of her, which led her again to revise upward her image of me. So it progressed, with lightning rapidity. I came to believe that she had found in me something for which she would risk all she had, and I responded with thumping affirmation of that fineness in her which enabled her to discover this quality in me. But she had looked, not into my heart, but into the mirror of my eyes and had seen there an embellished image of herself. A single candle of affection, reflected back and forth between us, became a blaze of illumination and, finally, the meaning of life itself.

Such a passion feeds on its own hunger, consumes itself. We could not long live on reflected appraisals. There are other things to life, troubles and tasks and preoccupations, and one day, looking at Sonya, I see, not myself, but her concern with other persons, , other matters. Failing to find in her that retouched portrait of myself to which I have become so attached, I no longer feel that passionate approval of her which she had so merited. And when next she looks at me she fails to see herself, for I too have other concerns, or else finds an image of herself scaled down from that to which she has become accustomed, whereupon her feeling for me is correspondingly diminished.

It was a small thing that got this magic started, and a small thing that made it start to disappear. Of all those qualities which I perceived in her when I was so enraptured, only one is now missing. Everything else is still there-the soft hair, the receptive body, the generous heart, the impassioned spirit-but the blaze of love has diminished to the candlelight of affection and left us where we started. The affair has ended, but we remain friends. I think of her fondly; and sometimes, looking at her across the conference table, I feel her in my arms again, hear her whispering that she cannot live without me. She has developed the habit of chewing slightly at the inside of her cheek, which gives her face a ruminative cast. For a while after our return from Mexico she was remote and sad, but now her old intensity and enthusiasm have returned.

Apostate without alternative creed, I’m sick in search of something holy. Grail-hunger is making me mad.

To kneel in fear is despicable. In our stricken nights we struggle to hold honor above survival. Evil lurks and we stride forever the silent streets of fear.

Not to kneel at all is madness, is to look only down, to be alone in the universe, to have no place in any thing larger than one’s self.

To kneel in reverence, by choice, without fear, this is man’s glory.

Ah but where is God? Where might we find him?
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What is to follow? Getting up? dressing? parting? Could I tolerate a life of such encounters, of relationships so truncated? Would I not rather be appalled that the exalted and selfless relatedness of which man is capable can be reduced to this carnal straining at each other? Would I not be moved to elevate it, to transform it into love? And would not that loving, because of its more intimate connections with dependence and vulnerability, come quickly to place faithfulness above variety? And would not then the mind and character of one’s lover, her style, generosity, and above all her heart-qualities all more rare and special, and much harder to find, than physical contours-would not these things stand forth as what I sought, displacing the curves of undifferentiated flesh which plague me now? And would not this vision of what, in those circumstances, I would most desperately want, be, indeed, exactly what I already have?

Whence then this ache for which, even in principle, there is no relief? this hunger that can be fed but never satisfied?

Girl-hunger, grail-hunger-two views, perhaps, of the same striving. Lips and legs, smiles and breasts, drawing us on, ceaselessly-is this not spirit thrusting itself into the future, creating and extending itself into ever more knowing forms of life, rushing on profligately, endlessly, through wave after wave of unresisting and expendable flesh? It sweeps through us, uses us, discards us, whirls on into a future we shall not know. Yet we yearn terribly, not to be left behind. We want to be, not the medium through which the wave passes, but the wave itself which rushes on. So we go searching after God-and is this not spirit, becoming aware of itself, reaching for a vision of that toward which it moves? We want to see what it is this striving strives toward. Being used, we seek to know the purpose we serve, want then to give to the great design our holiest word, God.

On being asked “Do you love each other?” those who live only in the present become confused, do not understand the question, don’t know what to say. “We get along,” they say uneasily, or “We get a lot of kicks,” or “We get it together.”

Love is created anew by each generation from lust, and loneliness. For this to come about, primary needs may not be primarily spent, must be accumulated. But the promiscuous accumulate nothing. They wander about improvidently paying out the common need in a common and recurrent coupling, never bringing together enough of the elemental drives, never subjecting them to sufficient pressure, to ignite them into love.

What eventually becomes reality appears first as illusion. The hope attached to illusion sustains life when all else is lost.

All my life I have been in search of God. That’s why I’ve never been able to enjoy anything. One has to have found God-to have a place in something larger than one’s self, to which one belongs-to enjoy anything. Lacking it one is in anguished search, or else, despairing, becomes one’s self God and then is responsible for everything.

A woman of lively interests is my wife. She loves to travel, to walk about in strange cities, breathe a foreign air, hear another tongue. Swimming delights her; the presumptuous intimacy of the unresisting medium makes her laugh. She likes to talk with friends, always wants to know what they are doing, to hear about their children. She loves to walk, to feel the sun on her face, to browse in new stores, to visit museums and look reverently upon the past.

All these things, so desirable to her, I find tedious. She does not, however, like to do them alone; so I go along and, while apparently participating, actually am waiting for whatever it is we are doing to be done with. And as I go on like this, tolerating in benign martyrdom a way of life created from her initiative, it comes somehow to seem that, on my own, I could arrange things better, that I know how to live, but am constrained by her needs to banal diversions.

One day something goes wrong with my knee. I’m not so crippled as I portray, but enough to be excused from obligations. My wife is all sympathy. tells me it will get better. “What do you want to do?” she says. “Come! Get in the car. I’ll drive. It’s a marvelous day. We’ll go anywhere you want. do anything you like. It’s Sunday. it’s springtime. the sun is shining. You mustn’t be sad. Where do you want to go?”

I have no idea. Anywhere. Nowhere. My mind is not blank, but neutral. Places parade before imagination and all are equal. She drives us to the beach, thousands of people swimming, oiling themselves on bright towels, playing in the sand; along a golf course where we pause to watch a man take three practice swings, then hit a perfect drive, the ball sailing straight away, up, up, and out of sight; by a museum with a show of French Impressionists, throngs of people entering and leaving. In the park we drive by picnickers, teen-agers throwing Frisbees, barefoot girls playing volleyball, young couples pushing baby carriages, smells of cooking, of charcoal fires, sounds of baseball, of guitars, and of laughter. My wife, delighted with this panorama, drives slowly, glances at me eagerly, ready to stop wherever my inclination may suggest, do anything I want, go on to any place I wish, while I, looking out on this unhesitating life process, fall into a well.

Everyone of these people knows what to do, how to enjoy it. It looks terribly simple, yet I have not the knack. I can do these things, go through the motions, simulate the responses-to an observer it might seem that I, too, know how to enjoy a holiday-but in the manner of a brain-damaged patient who, thinking intently what each leg must do, can somehow get there, but not with a natural walk. I lack a kind of native knowing which is the legacy of everything that lives. Now, suddenly, without the obligation to do those many things which, as it seemed, I have not really wanted to do, I have nothing better to put in their place, indeed nothing whatever to put in their place. Free, I cannot improvise. Relieved of my burden, I am bereft.

How strange! I have worked hard all week, now along comes a day of utter leisure. Must there not be something I want? something that would give me pleasure? I must observe these people more closely. There must be a secret, some simple solution.

Always and forever the student and still I don’t know how. Are there no classes in living? Would someone take me as an apprentice?

Not knowing how to live is separateness, the division of the world into self and others. I sit inside my skull and look out as a frightened man from a moated castle. Me in here and the world out there. We negotiate, we make deals, exchanges, but we are not one. I am an entity, complete. Never do I lose sight of where I stop and the world begins. With sleepless vigilance I patrol the edges of selfhood, warn visitors away. I am independent within this domain, but am dying. It is my wholeness that destroys me. I long for partness in a greater whole.

Knowing how to live is oneness with the world. I die of the hunger of oneness. I find it never. I read about it, and the words are ghosts. Dharma is not for me, nor “the way” of Lao Tzu. I feel it in the patience of trees, the wind in their branches sighs about it. hear it in the rote of the surf and the song of the lark. I see it in animals and in children. I touch it but cannot make it mine. Mine! I’m trying to grab it, suppose, ravage it back into this moated castle, and that’s the trouble-this division of everything into self and others which I can’t escape because it’s not, something that limits me, it is me.
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Chapter IV
The Task
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Nothing endures but a futile yearning. There’s a natural grace to youth, age hovers on the grotesque.

I’ll try no more to force myself into acts of creation on a field of nihilism. I must find new ground. What I seek is a vision of life within which love and joy are possible. I cannot go back to discarded beliefs of the past, cannot go on in this desert, must seek something new.

Seek to find or seek to create?

We are plunging down a cataract, and what’s important is to call out. Not for help, there is no help. Not in despair-what can anyone do but shrug, look away? But to give a signal. A gesture of love and humor to acknowledge drowning so others who drown will know they are not alone. We are all drowning; deny it with blindness, transcend it with laughter. The laughter I seek is that which looks straight in the eye of despair and laughs. The proper subjects for comedy are fear, loneliness, and death.

I dream of escape, a change of view, a different life, a rebirth perhaps of the will to go on searching. One more surge, Lord, before I’m through.

Life as the acting out of illusion, life as the achievement of meaning. The distinction itself may be illusory. Maybe there is no meaning but only life; and in art, no meaning but only the illusion of life. Maybe that’s the whole thing-to observe life so closely, to search it out so carefully, with so much love, that it comes alive, that it is.
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I do not use myself up in living. A part of myself I save, like a miser, hoping to transmute it into something that will go on living for me in the future. With the quick I have little to do; the eminent dead are my models, the yet unborn my legatees. I am a time-binder, obsessed with mortality, spend my life creating an effigy to outlast me. In the graveyard, ceaselessly I carve at my epitaph, trying to make of it something so beautiful, so compact of meaning, that people will come from afar to read.

It need not be in vain, this elaboration of self-great treasures have been so fashioned. What gets served up to the future may be a tasty dish indeed, but what shall we say of the chef, oblivious of the hungry ones around him, garnishing himself for the gourmets of the future? Rather than miss a day of painting, Cezanne did not attend his mother’s funeral. Rilke could not spare from his poetry the time for his daughter’s wedding. The world cannot do without such people, but pity those whose lot it is to live with them.

I think rather more of those who use themselves up, die with nothing left over, disappear without a trace. My wife holds nothing back, spends her life on the living, gives herself to the hungry who feed on her, consume her substance. I see her getting smaller, becoming transparent, beginning to disappear. But look at her face! It grows finer, more beautiful! She has time. Come and be fed. She prepares no delicacies for the future, but soup today for everyone, even for those hungry chefs who think only of future banquets. Better get to know her now, for she will soon be gone, and you’ll not then recover her from the history of our time. But without the likes of her there would be no future for which the present could be a history.

I find myself wanting to fall in love again. With her of the volatile spirit, the open and generous heart. I have been holding myself aloof for years, invulnerable, to protect the search. But love can’t live on the shelf, must be fed with those confidences which create vulnerability. Without risk of hurt there is no love. Not, anyway, of the kind we used to have, she and I-the soaring, the despair, the exaltation. Now I have no search to protect, have lost direction, find nothing, create nothing, want back the deep, deep
joy. I must open myself to pain, must see it as minor beside the passion it makes possible.

I have defined and clarified the nihilistic position until it includes everything, and goodness itself becomes a random throw. Yet even so it is unthinkable not to try. Standing by the freeway and seeing there before me in the fast lane an injured child, would I not try?

But there is an injured child. In Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, Babi Yar-the list is endless. Always there is an injured child. Of what trying then am I capable, I who for so long have burrowed within, ever more deeply down and inward, who live now in an airless world of phantoms, who no longer know even where the fast lane is?

I must give up this lamentation. Life offers no task with transcendent authorization, no goal the accomplishment of which can be guaranteed to have lasting value. I must accept that whatever I undertake is as risky, of both achievement and value, as darting out on that freeway. Probably I shall be killed before reaching the child, or, if I succeed in snatching him up, he will die of injuries already received-or survive to become a murderer. There’s nothing sure to go on-only that it’s unthinkable not to try, that there isn’t anything else. If ultimate tasks are illusory I must have at the tasks near at hand, at the transient tasks, the cries for help in a confused and changing field.

I fall at times into such a brave, constructive mood. It doesn’t last. The possibility of doing useful work commands no energies of mine. What these energies will respond to, and to nothing else, is a task which is faithful to the crushing and exceptionless nihilism by which I am riven and yet shot through-like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony-with a vision of lyric beauty. The former without the latter is intolerable; the latter without the former is trivial. I must maintain the search for a task which will embody both. Were I to find it, energies would become available, would bend to this vision.

Chapter V
The Path of Spirit
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Man is the vessel of the Spirit,” writes Erich Heller; “. . . Spirit is the voyager who, passing through the land of man, bids the human soul to follow it to the Spirit’s purely spiritual destination.”

Viewed closely, the path of spirit is seen to meander, is a glisten of snail’s way in night forest; but from a height minor turnings merge into steadiness of course. Man has reached a ledge from which to look back. For thousands of years the view is clear, and beyond, though a haze, for thousands more, we still see quite a bit. The horizon is millions of years behind us. Beyond the vagrant turnings of our last march stretches a shining path across that vast expanse running straight. Man did not begin it nor will he end it, but makes it now, finds the passes, cuts the channels. Whose way is it we so further? Not man’s; for there’s our first footprint. Not life’s; for there’s still the path when life was not yet.

Spirit is the traveler, passes now through the realm of man. We did not create spirit, do not possess it, cannot define it, are but the bearers. We take it up from unmourned and forgotten forms, carry it through our span, will pass it on, enlarged or diminished, to those who follow. Spirit is the voyager, man is the vessel.

Spirit creates and spirit destroys. Creation without destruction is not possible; destruction without creation feeds on past creation, reduces form to matter, tends toward stillness. Spirit creates more than it destroys (though not in every season, nor even every age, hence those meanderings, those turnings back, wherein the longing of matter for stillness triumphs in destruction) and this preponderance of creation makes for that over-all steadiness of course.

From primal mist of matter to spiraled galaxies and clockwork solar systems, from molten rock to an earth of air and land and water, from heaviness to lightness to life, sensation to perception, memory to consciousness-man now holds a mirror, spirit sees itself. Within the river currents turn back, eddies whirl. The river itself falters, disappears, emerges, moves on. The general course is the growth of form, increasing awareness, matter to mind to consciousness. The harmony of man and nature is to be found in continuing this journey along its ancient course toward greater freedom and awareness.
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But could it be that man, recognizing spirit in others, exercising forbearance, creating morality, brotherhood-could it be that just here he ceases to be the advancing edge of spirit? Could it be that those rules whereby man determines that the continuing upward journey of spirit shall be infused with love halt the journey altogether? Could it be that the thrust of spirit leaps now from man to those aggregates of men, nations, which know not rules, which preserve in sovereignty the no-means-excluded struggle for power whereby spirit from the very beginning has advanced? Who is man, himself a latecomer, his civilization and morality later still, and still aborning, to make rules for universal spirit? Will spirit take heed? Or will we but legislate ourselves to some dark eddy, some back-looping current which spirit, unheeding, unhindered, will remorselessly rush by?
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Two hundred years have passed and the world is greatly changed. We have become, as Descartes promised, lords and possessors of the earth. It is unclear whether we shall destroy it or preserve it, but the enormity of our power is beyond doubt. We have not now the confidence of Hegel. We find but a faltering progression of spirit, a contingent universe in which anything may happen and all may be lost, in which historical figures mayor may not, and often do not, serve spirit. An opposing tendency is afoot: as spirit becomes conscious of itself the vessels of spirit lose moderation, grow arrogant as well as drunk with power.

No longer can we see man as a puppet jiggled by a beneficent God. Freedom is concentrated in man; God stands in awe of what we shall do. As the vessels of spirit become more conscious and more powerful, reaching in man an explosive acme of knowing and of power, spirit becomes more vulnerable to its carriers. It has lost divine protection without gaining safe conduct from us who carry it forward. Man chooses, may go this way or that, may worship spirit, move on in its ancient path, or may oppose it, deny it, perhaps destroy it utterly.

Spirit does not contend with freedom. We are as free as we are able to be, are dangerously free, and may in our arrogance destroy more than we can afford to lose. Nothing guarantees our progress or even our survival. Forms perish. Spirit does not require mankind. We now are the leading edge of spirit but nothing insures we shall so remain. The place of vision, the opportunity created by freedom, is so to live as to further the voyage of spirit, to remain its swiftest vessel.

The jungle, we say in our civilized arrogance, is lawless. Struggle is to the death; everything that grows and develops does so by killing something else which itself would want to grow and develop. Civilization invents morality, reduces this ruthlessness to a competition according to rules. Morality, that is to say, marks the advent of something radically new in the adventure of spirit: the attempt to continue according to law a journey which from the start has been lawless.

Spirit has come an enormous journey in darkness, blindly achieving ever-increasing form and awareness, leaping forward and upward with whatever force its leading vessel can command, ruthlessly discarding forms it has used and surpassed, catching a ride on whatever goes its way and goes the fastest, destroying anything that would stop or slow its going on. Living forms are transient vessels of something which passes through them and on, leaving them broken and forgotten, used-and used up-for a purpose not their own. The activities of these perished forms by which spirit so used them would seem to have served the individual purposes and the species purposes of these living things-to survive, to grow strong, to prevail-and so they did, so do they still, but behind these limited purposes, these ends in view, rides a larger purpose without end. The strong devour the weak, growth follows upon destruction, struggle is to death, and on the crest of this ceaseless wave of agony and triumph spirit is borne forward. Civilization, no more than thirty thousand years old, is but the latest moment in this long wash, and morality but the fledgling creation of that moment. With civilized man, for the first time ever, a living form decrees a change in the mode by which spirit shall advance. Morality is born of that moment in which spirit becomes aware of itself and aspires to direct its own future progress. It attempts to revoke the ruthlessness which heretofore has been the means of progress, and to continue that progress according to rules.

It is a grand view, but turns the truth around. Jungle and civilization are indeed opposed, but it is civilization that is lawless. Animals do not make rules, know not that they obey them, yet behave within the limits of what is permitted by norms inscribed in their nature. Only man denies the authority of such norms, declares that everything is permitted. Morality stands against this license but not, thus far, with great success.

Long did spirit live and move in the leaves of plants, in branches, in flowers. The movement of spirit is glacial. Animals seize for themselves a freedom unimaginable to plants, move about, roar, pounce, copulate. Their wanderings and their struggles conform to looser norms, but still conform; they wander within limits. Spirit rides their still lawful backs, and the movement of spirit is slow. During the span of man’s time this movement becomes faster, most dizzyingly fast in the latest moment which is civilization.

Now arises a dark question. Could it be man’s increasing lawlessness which yields this accelerating pace of upward-leaping spirit?

One by one and then in bunches, indiscriminately, have we challenged those traditional norms which limit what we may do. Ever faster do they fall, none now are left. Everything is permitted. Never has spirit been so free. Shall we get away with this arrogance? Do we overreach ourselves? Do we prepare in the atomic furnace of our Titans a great immolation? Perhaps spirit will be thrown back, will then once more move forward at a slower pace, borne by forms which know that some things are not permitted. And then? Will the whole tale be told again and again, endlessly?

The end of certainty chastens morality. For what justifies violence is the certainty of being right. Having lost this certainty we must accept that we struggle toward provisional goods, oppose provisional evils. Because of this provisionality we should undertake to resist evil rather than to destroy it, to support the good rather than to instate it by murder. The absolute must take refuge in absolute modesty.

Chapter VI
The Flail
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Valery speaking beyond the grave to Rilke, recalling their last meeting at Muzot: “. . . a terribly lonely, very small chateau in a vast sad mountain region; old-fashioned, serious rooms with dark furniture, narrow windows: it constricted my heart. My imagination could not restrain itself in your rooms from eavesdropping on the endless monologue of a completely isolated soul with nothing to distract it from itself and from the consciousness of its uniqueness. A life so withdrawn seemed hardly possible to me, eternal winters long in such excessive intimacy with silence, so much space for dreams, so much freedom for the quintessential, the all too concentrated spirits which inhabit books, for the writer’s Fluctuating powers, for the forces of memory. Dear Rilke, you seemed to me locked up in pure time, and I feared for you the transparence of the too monotonous life which through the line of eternally similar days gives a clear view of death.”

Friends die and the mystery envelops us. Something here calls for attention. With tenacious thought it might be grasped and understood. But from the nothingness toward which our lives are tending we are easily distracted. We lay it aside. Values are winnowed by bereavement and pain, by loneliness and guilt, but death is the ultimate Hail. It may revoke any prior position on value, and it precludes any subsequent revision.

To see death clearly one may wait till one is dying, but to see life in the momentarily brilliant illumination of death one may not wait so long. For then fear supervenes. One dares not look, or else looks through blurred eyes and sees not what is there, but a landscape of longing. He who would see life clearly in its final illumination must invoke death early. When only a murmur is audible he must conjure the panic roar. From the serenity of the placid stream he must transport himself in imagination to the lip of the cataract. How then, looking back, seems the course of the river?

Friends die more frequently as we get older, and each death brings back the mystery, reminds us there is something here to be contemplated, some wisdom to be sifted from fear. But the empty heavens are too much, we turn away. There is so much to be done. We rush back to our problems, for the existence of problems affirms our existence. Unfinished business means that we, too, are unfinished. We lose ourselves in the daily round.

Then one day it’s not someone else. The coronary occlusion is happening to the heart inside; the name on the report of malignancy is one’s own. Then it’s too late.
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Chapter VII
The Man of Reason

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Betrayed by transcendence, we return to the present. We look around, we touch, we taste, we feel. Presently we begin to say, “This is better than that.” We value it, we want to hold on to it, point it out to others, and almost at once there’s a trying to create, to contribute, a drive for transcendence which leads us to betray the present, commit our energies to the future. Love of the present leads us to betray the present; the effort to hold something forever leads us to lose even that moment of possession we might otherwise have.

It is not the disorder and confusion of the marketplace which drives me to the mountaintop; it’s my delight in the marketplace that impels me to desert it. Love of life leads me to betray life; love of the actual sends me searching after the ideal; love of the present leads to the sacrifice of the present to a future that never comes.
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2 responses to “On Not Knowing How to Live – Allen Wheelis

  1. james cunningham

    the insight that flows from the words writen above are astonishing.

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