In another online bubble I belong to a question arose regarding the late Justice Scalia’s status as a good or bad person, and whether it was appropriate or understandable that people might celebrate his passing. The question bothered me enough to attempt a reply. (Doing so made me realize I had more to share about the topic than I’d thought, which came as some relief. I’ve been wanting to write more, but have felt strangely mute; I would be delighted if words might continue feeling useful again.)
My response said in part that I had a hard time parsing the question, as I don’t really think of people in terms of good and bad. For me there are people who are obnoxious (ie. annoying / irritating / dull / uninspiring) and those who are compelling (ie. interesting / insightful / inspiring / enjoyable to pay attention to). The former I have a hard time focusing on; the latter I’ll tend to want to spend time with; I arrange my exposure to public or political figures using a similar rubric. I like spending time with myself, but outside that don’t really worry about what category I fall into, as what’s interesting to one person might be irritating or unpleasant to another; if who I am annoys someone there are other people in the world they can go play with.
To me life only makes sense through the frame of aesthetics, or of what is palatable and what appeals. I like being surrounded by beauty; I like pleasurable things; I get incredible enjoyment out of seeing people take something rough or ugly or accidental and translating it– through themselves– into something with intentional aesthetic weight, whether that weight comes in the form of a work of art or a non-profit or a new product. Perhaps this was why I loved the early days of blogging, as it seemed a world populated by those who felt happiest translating their experiences into something literary, or who enjoyed translating their life for an audience as much as sharing it with existing friends. Any expression of struggle or pain I encountered there was already at some level redeemed.
In the past it’s sometimes been paralyzing to harbor a perspective that values the beauty created by friction as well, as I’ve felt like I lacked the means to judge. Without the drag and tension of “bad” opponents- whether they be someone like Scalia or an internal adversary– the execution of any great work would lose something; because the witnessing of celebratory achievement is enjoyable, I couldn’t in good faith condemn that which made it necessary. (One of the lost gospels posits Judas as the chosen disciple and a tragic hero selected by Jesus to betray him; Judas’ betrayal of himself is what allowed Christ to be the martyr; Christ ended up revered while Judas’ name became synonymous with treason.) Instead of a moral compass of right or wrong and good and bad it’s always been my aesthetic inclinations that have guided me, which to me depend more on relationship and rhythm than they do absolutes. In general transparency is more pleasing to me than opaqueness; fluidity more appealing than stagnation; gentleness more appealing than roughness; coherence more appealing than inchoateness; playfulness more appealing than seriousness; etc, still, in the end it’s more about a pleasing arrangement or balance than the maximization of one quality to the exclusion of others.
There was a time when this made me worry I was somehow a bad or immoral person, as the categories of good and evil made no sense to me. These days I find both irrelevant, as I know the pole around which my compass swings, and I trust in that anchor more than any simple polarity. Being kept apart from Mark is an exquisite form of torture, but the emotion or feeling that best describes it is not pain or rage or frustration or sadness but simply an overwhelming love. It’s excruciating but beautiful, like life on this planet in general; it’s also the only thing I’m really capable of paying attention to. Anything else– including the framing of various dramas in terms of right and wrong or good and evil– is just a side-effect. Fortunately today there is more and more in the world being generated or driven from a palpable sense of love; the tangible sweetness of this is a big part of what makes me so blithely unconcerned for the future.
In writing all this I had a strange awareness about how much I’ve longed to live not so much a good life but a beautiful one, and how snarled this desire got in my earlier experience of myself as something ugly. It’s as though the more I’ve come to see the deeper logic of my own life trajectory– the sense and pattern and rhythm of what once felt random and chaotic– the more I experience myself as something beautiful, or at least as a convenient instrument of beauty. It’s a little like how I imagine a paintbrush would feel while being used to sketch out the underpainting of a scene it was blind to, feeling the whole time that it was making a mess all over the canvas and that nothing made sense, when instead it just didn’t get the whole picture.
I’m trusting this most recent brushstroke to become a part of that whole.