Art Against Ennui

“And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco…”

― Ralph Ellison

On a recent walk with my brother, we were discussing his interest in escaping America. Fleeing the tragicomedy our Republic has become and heading off to a foreign land with greater stability and appreciation for culture, and civility. In his mind, America is paralleling the events between 1933 and 1935 Germany, and he sees this as a great warning to us all. Trump and his supporters haven’t rounded up minorities or Jews yet, but he thinks that is inevitable.

My brother may be right. Things are bleak in the US right now and every day adds a new layer of anxiety and ennui into our lives due to the actions of a few ignorant, reactionary individuals who currently control our government and the craven, hypocritical, people who refuse to call them out on their destructive behavior. You may choose to look away, or parse the Twitter stream of the president, or downplay many of the actions being taken since January of 2017, but the reality is unavoidable. Dispassionate observation demonstrates a president who is ignorant of our government’s structure and purpose; is racist and xenophobic; and profoundly narcissistic. Trump makes gut decisions that have global impacts with either little or no understanding of the subtleties of the issue and having read virtually nothing about it, like his recent choice to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. He and his cronies make decisions based on personal gratification in all forms, but especially in the form of money. They count their money while quite literally destabilizing our country and the world.

So how is it, in these seeming end times that we can hold the center and avoid depression, anxiety, and the various forms of unhealthy remediation that often goes along with them—drinking, drugs, and overeating? Artists may have an answer. Ralph Ellison managed in a single sentence to convert 400 years of African American suffering into poetic expression. He manifested the overwhelming sense of disillusionment and segregation that people of color in the US have felt since slavery started into elegy. It’s poetics that holds the key to managing the impossibility of a single individual holding the pain and suffering of millions from history and reconciling it against current realities, without going mad. Artistic expression is the broker between consciousness and experience. We either create or digest other’s creative production to navigate the impossible and the intolerable. Artistic expression doesn’t just mediate our experiences, it synthesizes them into the material we can digest and go on living.

The metaphor in Ellison’s Invisible Man is, of course, a Black man’s isolation in a world controlled by White privilege. The metaphor for artful living is learning to use creative expression as a tool for navigating the end of the world. There is beauty even in suffering and finding ways in which we can recognize the horror and pain before us and simultaneously see that it poetically lives within the insignificance of human existence provides a perspective that can allow us to avoid succumbing to the conditions of our current reality.

Well all the people have got their problems
That ain’t nothing new
With the help of the good Lord
We can all pull on through
We can all pull on through
Get there in the end
Sometimes it’ll take you right up and sometimes down again

It ain’t easy, it ain’t easy
It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down

David Bowie

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