This Week in Heat- A Flicker of Being in the Midst of Nothingness- My Familial Life-Force- Geist, or Spirit/Mind- The Two-Holed Tube- Affirming Life Through the Denial of Guilt- Drugs are Spiritual, Albeit Unsustainable, But Really What Is?- I Seek a Non-Material Life-Force
This heat wave is misery. What’s a few degrees out of the infinite spectrum of degrees?- A lot, actually, if you’re an organ-ism like myself. For there exist certain conditions for life, and just a few degrees too much for too long and you become dis-organized to the point of oblivion. The conditions are stricter than they seem- we’re alive but consider those who didn’t make the cut- the stuff of cemeteries, premature babies, all those who didn’t-or won’t- make the bottleneck.
We the living are in the most precarious position of all. In a way, the dead have more life than us; their legacy is solidified- if they’re remembered. The German word for oblivion is Vergessenheit, which literally means forgotten-hood. Even Prometheus and Dylan are headed there- because the people who haven’t forgotten them are headed there, too, when the universe tears at the seams and all conditions for life vanish.
My memory goes back as far as my maternal great-grandfather, Sigfried. While I never met him in the flesh, his memory was strong in those who raised me, and his reality is vivid to me. He was a small man descended from the Austrian peasantry. The youngest son, he would inherit nothing and emigrate to the U.S. For what it’s worth, he was born nearly the same time and in nearly the same place as Hitler. Back then, Austria was not the neutral and modest country it is now- Vienna was the seat of a great empire. It was their Archduke who was assassinated, setting into motion machinery that would claim the lives of millions of men, and set the course of Sigfried’s path. He and I share the same grey-blue eyes.
Sigfried became a Stormtrooper. It was the duty of the Stoßtruppen to climb out of the trench first and lead an attack. Years later Sigfried’s son Karl would recount how there was a fence between their property and the Milwaukee seminary where Sigfried worked as a laborer and how Sigfried could vault himself up and over the tall fence in a flash- I think he might’ve still been using the technique learned in the first world war. Considering that conditions for life include: not being blasted by shrapnel, punctured with lead, snuffed by gas, penetrated by bayonet, it’s absurd that he wasn’t cast into Vergessenheit right then and there, precluding Karl’s (and my own) chance to even emerge from oblivion.
Instead, he was captured by the Italians. Conditions at the POW work camp were miserable. Basic conditions for life also include sufficient food, water, and rest. For Sigfried, these conditions almost went unmet- he nearly died of starvation. One day the prisoners were loaded into box cars and sent to an undisclosed destination. Along the way, Sigfried and his compatriots planned to murder their guards whenever and wherever they stopped- a suicide mission. Another condition for survival is not being swarmed by fellow humans and having your skull crushed by their boots. When the train finally did stop, they found themselves in Vienna- their captors gone.
Before beginning the long walk to his home in the Austrian hinterland, Sigfried stayed a night or two in Vienna. Possessing absolutely nothing, he slept under the last pew of Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral). I try to imagine the pew inches away from my eyes, the vast silence of the cathedral at night. It’s a trip for us descendants to sit on that same pew. Next time I’m in Vienna I will lie down beneath the pew, to draw his memory even more vivid, away from Vergessenheit.
I stare at a picture of Stephansdom, the engine of today’s train of thought. It hangs on the wall of Julius Meinl at the corner of Southport and Addison. I sip a three dollar espresso. All the basic conditions of life I have met. In no foreseeable future will I starve. After resting here, I will seek further refuge from the heat at the Music Box theater, and then at my sister’s air-conditioned apartment. Biologically I am young. My father is far up the corporate ladder. I can afford to avoid processed foods. If I get cancer while my parents are alive they will sacrifice everything for the best care possible. No hurricane will touch the Midwest. Furthermore- and these are the only conditions I take credit for- I don’t smoke or drink; I wear a helmet; I practice mindfulness to avoid sudden accidents. To wit: oblivion feels far away.
Relative to Sigfried, I am quite privileged. Even now, in response to my body’s first message that it’s hungry, I ask for a menu. In the background of this entire conversation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Whether Sigfried was climbing out of a trench or working his ass off in the new country, he devoted much of his time to the basic conditions for survival and security. I, on the other hand, devote most of my energy to fulfilling the pyramid’s apex: self-actualization. In English we call this the realm of mind or spirit. Both terms are captured by the German word Geist. I’m not suggesting that Sigfried lacked Geist– everyone (even plants) has it. It’s just that I am one of those- currently, at least- who works less to sustain consciousness and more to improve the quality of it.
Since the time of high school when I learned of my accidental privilege I’ve felt a fair amount of guilt. In the past six months, I’ve made serious progress against guilt, which most of the time is anti-life and fear-based. But guilt is not all bad. It is an attribute of Geist. For the most part, Geist has written this entire text- it’s the one capable of thinking historically, abstractly, etc. But to say it’s the only part writing right now would be false. There’s also that two-holed tube creeping behind every lofty statement.
You know it. Like a worm, it blindly moves forward, taking material in one end and expelling it out the other. It’s a bottomless well forever needing to be filled; it doesn’t care about starving children in Africa; it doesn’t care how the chickens were treated; it is infinite appetite limited only by its own inevitable dis-integration. Perhaps you’ve heard stories of a man in a concentration camp who stole food from his starving father. It wasn’t the man who did this- it was his tube, which, while a condition for Geist, is not Geist. Only Geist could care for a father or feel guilty for what the tube has done.
It’s a necessary step, I believe, to become aware of the structural violence involved in having your tube fed at the expense of others- the Mexican man who just refilled my glass of ice water is in some ways closer to who my great-grandfather was (is) than I am, even though he has brown eyes- but it’s a step you need to move past. I enjoy my goulash with a burp.
About a year ago, when I was immersed in drugs and alcohol, I felt like a complete waste. I didn’t think my life was worth sustaining. I thought not only was I part of an invasive species- I was part of the most destructive subset of that species. I compared myself to an elderly man with dementia in an old folk’s home being served sirloin steak night after night. So much destruction of life to sustain such a vacuous existence is unjustifiable. So I went on my bike trip- to find a reason to live. That’s another chapter, but suffice it to say that I’ve found a life worth living – but it’s not something I possess. Making a life worthwhile is an ongoing project.
Part of that is my sobriety. It’s helped a lot in dealing with guilt. Six months ago, when I started doing yoga and taking herbal supplements, I felt guilty that I was paying so much money for an experience forgone to others. But eventually I realized (not without help) fuck contrition. I’m attempting to make myself healthy; I’m healing psychic wounds of the past; I’m putting on my own oxygen mask, before I help others with theirs. Essentially, I’m surpassing the decadence that comes from my ancestors having achieved the American Dream. When the current generation of Mexican immigrants has grandchildren who have all their basic conditions for life met, they too will struggle with alcoholism and the need to create a worthwhile existence. I believe Sigfried would rather have me overcome the challenges of my situation then to revert back to his poverty out of guilt.
Anyways, I mentioned that I use much of my energy improving the quality of my consciousness. This did not begin with sobriety. In fact, anyone who’s dabbled with drugs or alcohol is in pursuit of an improved state of mind. Guilt is not the only attribute of Geist. Euphoria, ecstasy, a feeling of oneness, lightness, being high – are all in the realm of Geist. Yes, I am saying drugs are spiritual. At first. They give you access to an elevated shape of Being. Naturally, you don’t want that to stop, so you keep taking the drug. Eventually, you are dependent on the drug for the experience. Finally, you are simply dependent on the drug without even having access to anything spiritual. This is the most base. The tube wants to be fed something and it’s not even food.
The first 90 days of sobriety were misery on a physiological level. The tube is demanding substances. However, you’re kind of high on being sober, and get through it. The next stage is more difficult. I now experience spiritual hunger. I choose not to drink, but I want to lose myself dancing; I’m not going to take acid but I want to trip. Drugs were the means to terrific, life-changing experiences. I still want those experiences, but not by those means.
Apparently, there is a way to enlightenment, nirvana, and salvation- whatever you want to call it. It requires discipline, sacrifice, meditation, work, and a life-long process of cultivation. The opposite of instant gratification provided by drugs: the path of the ascetic, which sometimes is hard to distinguish from plain masochism.
It’s the undoing of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- it’s the anarchy of needs. Buddha gave up water and food, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified, Nietzsche took cold baths in the wintertime… each of these men had mastery over the two-holed tube. They were able to replace the most basic drive- desire- with something insubstantial, that’s to say, spiritual.
I’m not claiming to be a bona fide ascetic. Far from it- bourgeois comfort, security, and self-preservation are still dear to me. I’m still anxious about the conditions for life and terrified of Vergessenheit. I couldn’t imagine myself being in the condition of Sigfried when he finally reached the family homestead. My great-great grandfather aimed his rifle at the emaciated, wolfish-looking man running up to their front door. His wife pushed the barrel away, recognizing her son.