Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dominique on Freedom

I've been reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which is a lot more absorbing than I expected. It goes by much faster than Crime and Punishment, anyway, perhaps because Crime and Punishment doesn't really offer you anyone to sympathize with, only a horrified fascination with the main character's sickened mind... The Fountainhead, on the other hand, has Howard Roark, "the ideal man," if I interpret the author's introduction correctly, with whom it is hard to empathize but easy to sympathize--or easy to admire, at least. He is an architect who lives with absolute conviction and uncompromising ideals. Those ideals deal primarily with architecture and aesthetics, though, and I can't easily connect them with my own thoughts.

But I heard my own musings echoed in the voice of Dominique. Her father, a rich man, breathes and soaks in society's ideas as a fish gulps down the water that surrounds it and fills its gills. But Dominique herself lives cut off from society. Her isolation is not physical or social, but emotional. Every man falls in love with her impervious beauty, but no touch can penetrate her cold command of herself. She refuses to be affected by anything, because she values her freedom above everything else. To love anything, even to want anything, is to become vulnerable. Dependent. So she cuts her heart out of the world. She explains to her uncomprehending friend Alvah,
If I found a job, a project, an idea or a person I wanted--I'd have to depend on the whole world. Everything has strings leading to everything else. We're all tied together. We're all in a net, the net is waiting, and we're pushed into it by one single desire. You want a thing and it's precious to you. Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands? You can't know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready and you're afraid of them all. And you cringe and you crawl and you beg and you accept them--just so they'll let you keep it. (143-144)
Cynical? Sure. I disagree completely with Dominique's choice of how to deal with the dilemma, but I agree with her analysis of how humans tend to work. She has caught the central insight that we hate: everything affects everything else. If you care about anything, you can't be perfectly free. The only way to approximate independence is to eliminate desire, to seek the nirvana of a desolate emptiness. With these priorities, as Dominique sees, the only option is to demand either perfection,
--or nothing. So, you see, I take the nothing. [...] I take the only desire one can really permit oneself. Freedom, Alvah, freedom. (144)
Alvah, naturally, questions the nature of such a freedom. But Dominique knows and admits, it is a freedom "To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing."

It is a miserable freedom. A miserly freedom. You guard your heart and soul. You never give anyone the power to hurt you. But the way you render your heart invulnerable is to kill it yourself. You never expect joy, so you can never be disappointed when it never comes to you. You keep every pain and pleasure locked up inside. You keep yourself to yourself.

Actual freedom comes from giving yourself away. The freedom that sets your heart free is acceptance of the fact that you'll get hurt, and trust that things will still be all right.

It's easier to ignore all the causal links and pretend you're independent without actually imprisoning yourself in a quest for freedom from pain, than to admit that you're actually vulnerable, not in control of your fate. It's easier to care for nothing, than to allow yourself to care, knowing you'll get hurt. It's easier to live in impermeable despair than in fragile hope.

I am trying not to take an easier route.

[p.s. No idea how Ayn Rand is going to judge Dominique, in the end. 500 pages can hold a lot of plot.]


"Consciousness is reflected in a word as the sun is reflected in a drop of water. A word relates to consciousness as a living cell relates to a whole organism, as an atom relates to the universe. A word is a microcosm of human consciousness." --Vygotsky, Thought and Word, 1932

(Rather an elevated notion of words... Perhaps I should take more care with my diction.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

In Berkeley

I walked uphill through the dusk. The leaves overhead were silhouettes, and the windows in inhabited houses glowed yellow. At one corner, a small gray cat turned and looked at me, plaintively. At another, a girl's voice floated out onto the street. "But then what?" rang out, three isolated words. Mostly the street was silent, though. I startled when a cricket shrilled.

As the sky darkened, I arrived back at the house without any wrong turns. Through the shadows, through the unknown streets, between the sleeping houses, under the silent trees--I am learning to find my way.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ecuador &c.

I'm back from Ecuador!

I've been home for 8 days, actually, but I have been avoiding the computer. It feels unwholesome. And a few blog posts absolutely cannot capture 6 weeks worth of trees and Spanish and people and mountains and almuerzos and waterfalls and rain and mud and solitude and bus rides, so I have been putting off my I-am-back post, because there is so much to write about and yet I already wrote about all of it in my travel journal. I bought this notebook right before I left, and it's full now. 120 sheets of paper, all covered in my handwriting. Loops and lines of blue ink, swirling and tangling all over the pages. I also took 590-something photos, so I don't feel compelled to describe the layers of leaves in the cloud forest, or the rush of the river below the bridges I jumped off of (with a harness and rope), or the barrage of color and texture at the market at Otavalo. Having written it all down once, I am reluctant to write about it again.

Instead I shall post 4000 words worth of pictures:

I had a lot of adventures, learned a bit of Spanish, had many lovely mornings waking up slowly and writing down dreams, got good at hoeing around coffee plants, and lived in the present for the vast majority of those 6 weeks. Life is good when you're not fretting about the future and wondering how else you could be spending your time now, or what you're going to do next. I want to live like that more often. Be less distracted. Not worry about finishing my sentences properly. Or doing things quite right. Or seeing all the people I "should" see. It's okay if I spend a week lying on the grass in the backyard reading and drinking tea. It's okay if I wait another 8 days to update my blog, and it's okay if I never type up my adventures for the world to read. The world doesn't really need to know. Even if I don't write about the experience, it is still real. More importantly, even if no one but me reads my writing, I still wrote it.

My life was simple when I was in Ecuador (not to say it wasn't exciting or eventful, though), and I don't want to lose the peace that simple-mindedness brought me. I don't want to be in a hurry, and I don't want to be eaten up by a to-do list. I don't want to budget my every minute. I want not to catalog every sensation, but to feel it. I don't want to ponder the past but to drink in the present.

All that to say: if you want to know more about my trip, you'll have to ask. :)