On Paths and Travelling by the Light of Your Madness
Today I want to think about paths, about aimlessness, direction, and setting out. I want to think about this need we seem to have to feel we are 'going places.' I want to think about the magic and mystery of a life that aims for hope, that aims for love, that travels inward, to the deep within.
This week I set out with our daughter, Chloe, who was kind enough to do some modelling for me; I think the photographs will be a good accompaniment to my rambling.
I have to begin my thinking with Marina Tsvetaeva, and lines from the book Marina Tsvetaeva: A Captive Spirit: Selected Prose. There's a story about this book. Ages ago I bought a used copy online from a secondhand bookshop. When it arrived, I could hardly stand the smell of it. I could only read it for small intervals. I put it on the furthest shelf from the reading chair in my study. I took it off the shelf and put it in the garage for a few weeks to air out. It seemed a strange sign that this book I felt I so needed to read, did not want me reading it. However, I persisted. And over the years the book lost most of its strange musty scent and merely smelled like an ordinary old, used book. Of course, it is also magic.
Most recently, I have given this book away for someone else to find.
In it she says,
"There are magical words, magical apart from their meanings, physically magical, with a magic inherent in the sound itself, words that before they deliver a message already have a meaning, words that are signs and meanings unto themselves, that do not require compensation, but only hearing, words of the animal's, the child's dream language.
It is possible that each person in his own life has his own magic words.
In my life the magic word was and remained - the Pathfinder."
She finds her magic word in Captain's Daughter by Pushkin.
She goes on:
"I had waited on the Pathfinder my whole life long, my whole huge seven-year-old life.
It was the thing that waits for us at every turn of the road and of the corridor, that comes out from behind every clump of the forest and every corner of the street: the miracle into which the child and the poet walk without thinking as if walking home, that one and only walk homeward that we have, for which we give up – all our family homes."
There is something powerful in this idea that there are magic words that we walk toward, words that lead us home. These words find us, but, we also choose them, we accept them. It is up to us alone, to follow them.
Speaking of magic, we might consider these words by Hermann Hesse:
“You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation...and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”
We too often think of paths as outward, when really, are they not mostly taking us inward? What is it that we follow, those things we know, deep within us?
Let's continue on this path and examine this passage from Jung's The Red Book:
“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life...If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature...Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.”
Ah, well, I certainly do recognize my madness. I admit it. We are on friendly terms, my Madness, and I.
"If you want to find paths..." says Jung, and "life itself has no rules." These are useful ruminations. We want our life to be orderly, understandable. But so often daily life is incomprehensible, a mystery, a beautiful madness. I'm not thinking of madness as a kind of dark illness but as that part of your spirit that embraces odd connections, creative chaos. It brings to mind Clarice Lispector's words, "I don't want to have the terrible limitation of the person who lives only by what can be made to make sense."
How, then, to travel by the light of your own madness?
From Thomas Merton's diaries: "Knowing what you do not need any more. Acting just enough. Saying enough. Stopping when there is enough."
He goes on:
"Yet stopping is "going on." To cling to something and want more of it, to use it more, to squeeze enjoyment out of it. This is to "stop" and not "go on." But to leave it alone at the right time, this is the right stopping, the right going on."
I suppose this is one of the secrets of life – to know when to say: enough. To know when to change course, even if it's only a slight course change. To know that stopping can be a kind of going on.
There is the kind of path that could be called the "sunflower path." Hélène Cixous quotes Clarice Lispector in her book Coming to Writing:
"Almost all lives are small. What enlarges a life is the inner life, are the thoughts, are the sensations, are the useless hopes...Hope is like a sunflower which turns aimlessly toward the sun. But it is not 'aimless.'
There is the kind of path that resembles more of a clearing. There is the path that resembles a space. I've kept these words with me from an older On Being interview with Ann Hamilton for some time:
“When you’re making something, you don’t know what it is for a really long time. So, you have to kind of cultivate the space around you, where you can trust the thing that you can’t name. And, if you feel a little bit insecure, or somebody questions you, or you need to know what it is, then what happens is you give that thing that you’re trying to listen to away. And so how do you kind of cultivate a space that allows you to dwell in that — not knowing?”
– Ann Hamilton
And sometimes the path is just your work. The artist Kiki Smith offers these wise words:
"Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn't, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I'm given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one's own vision."
– Kiki Smith
The path, then, is all mystery, some madness. We are called to it by magic words and though we may appear aimless, we are not. It may appear that we have stopped, but we have not. The path may not even be a path, but a clearing, an open space. The path may consist entirely of words like breadcrumbs.