“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”
― Georges Bataille
I’ve always enjoyed the mythology of the Roman god Vulcan. There is something in being an artist that invites living comfortably with contradictions. An artist is ruthless in their choices, favoring above all that which has the greatest impact on the viewer. You make for yourself but always with this kernel of knowledge that you are inventing something to be spectated, and that eventual viewing is really a kind of judgment on you and on themselves.
Vulcan began life rejected from the prettiness of the gods, thrown into the sea, discarded. Revived and nurtured by Thetis, he grew up playing and inventing. His discovery of fire led him to a fascination with creating things. This creative enterprise was agnostic in its morality, and Vulcan forged both weapons and jewelry. It’s a power dynamic that every artist in history has lived with. The power to create is also the power to destroy. Artists are a living manifestation of entropy, and like Vulcan, we understand art isn’t really about beauty, but about a broader, unknowable truth. I have always felt that if more people explored that dynamic the better, the world would be.
In Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Vulcan is portrayed by the enigmatic Oliver Reed. It’s extraordinarily good casting because Reed himself was a very misunderstood person who could simultaneously display elegant repose and brutal raffishness. Reed was a member of a quartet of hard drinking Brits that included Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and George Best. Legendary in their antics and alcoholism which is summed up by footballer Best; “spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered.” Unlike the other actors in the pack, Reed struggled with pretending and the pretense of fame and filmmaking. He openly flaunted his misogynistic bent, drank on talk shows and often confronted hosts and guests alike. He saw acting as a vocation in the tradition of vaudeville, not something to be taken so seriously. In his mind, his job was always to entertain even if that meant at his own expense. He made unconventional films portraying characters and historical figures that, like him, were fraught with contradiction. His greatest role was his portrayal of Father Grandier, a 17th-century priest in Ken Russel’s masterpiece The Devils. The film was widely banned when it was released in 1971 due to its hallucinogenic blend of violence, sex, and Catholicism. It isolated Reed to the fringe world of B movies for decades until Gilliam cast him in Munchausen. Reed is what you would imagine of Vulcan, he’s volatile, unapologetic, sensitive yet fierce with a short temper and a long memory. Vulcan covets art and beauty but makes a living building nuclear weapons. He is married to the most beautiful woman in the world, Venus, but his insecurities force him to lock her away from the world and the prying eyes of other men. Reed died like he lived, falling off a barstool at the filming of Gladiator Valletta, Malta.
It’s this duality in us all that we must learn to embrace if we are going to enjoy our lives and navigate the tricky terrain of adulthood. We don’t need to emulate the bombastic expurgations of Oliver Reed to recognize we are often drawn to seeming contradictions within ourselves. It’s a great secret in life that people outwardly express themselves to reassert a story that represents who they are. It’s a personal ethos we cultivate from an early age, carefully crafted and reinforced even while we privately act against it. The religious conceal their doubt, the adventurers their fear, the caregivers their contempt. These inconsistencies betray the story we want people to believe about us, and that we even want to think about ourselves. It leads to shame and fear, whose symptoms are drug abuse, alcoholism, panic attacks, depression, and even physical ailment. We are terrified of being judged by others and not living up to some invisible standard we believe others uphold. I have often stated to friends when questioned about behavior or a statement that appears to contradict my own story that, “If I’m not contradicting myself I’m not awake.” It sounds funny but it’s true, and it’s true of all of us, not just me.
Embracing the inevitable contradictions inherent in being a human being in the 21st century is a healthy way of being your true self. Let go of the story you’re telling about yourself and listen to what others are saying about you instead. The truth of you is somewhere in the middle, and it’s always confusing and conflicting, and that’s ok. We are not robots and therefore do not follow some consistent programming language that never varies from the code that was written. As human beings, we are a bundle of emotions and intellect that can often work against one another. This why people talk about losing their minds when they fall in love. It was recently discovered that at the center of nearly every galaxy in the universe we have been able to view, there lies a black hole. Every single galaxy is dependent in some unknown way on a relationship with annihilation. It’s a beautiful metaphor for our own selves being bound together in a balance between birth and death, love and hate, emotion and intellect. Fighting that balance of contradictions is what leads us to a less fulfilled existence and even an unhealthy one. We should embrace the inevitability of our own mortality and the personal conflict bred from it, and live more freely.