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moralité.

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.

I had a hard time parsing the question, as I wasn’t sure how to measure ‘appropriateness,’ nor do I generally conceive  of people in terms of good and bad. For me there are people who are obnoxious (ie. unpleasant to pay attention to) and those who are compelling (ie. 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 very much enjoy spending time with myself, but outside that don’t really worry about what category I fall into, as it is obvious that what is 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 increasingly 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 such deep pleasure 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 business or a new product or perhaps simply a conceptual reframe.

Perhaps this was why I loved the early days of blogging, as it seemed a world populated by those who felt happiest journaling their experiences into something literary, or who enjoyed translating their life for an audience as much they did sharing it with existing friends. Any expression of struggle or pain I encountered in that sphere felt 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 have 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 could not 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. In the end does it only come down to story?)

Instead of a moral compass of right or wrong and good and bad it’s always been my aesthetic inclinations that have guided me. These 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 felt incoherent 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 uncouth 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 that of an overwhelming love. It is excruciating but beautiful, like life on this planet in general; it is also the only thing I’m really capable of paying full 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 is 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 am trusting this most recent brushstroke to become a part of that whole.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. You are an instrument of beauty, and I’m glad you are able to see it. Your post is clear and touches truth that I feel as well. How fascinating is Scalia’s life, while of course I disagree with several of his convictions. I do find that I can completely relate with his desire to publish his dissenting opinions. I can relate to his desire to stick to his own conviction of following textualism, even in those times when the result was not where his passions drove him. At least he was committed to authenticity, and I value that. So to your first point about whether a person warrants your time or not, I find that this man warrants my attention. I’m sorry that in the wake of his death it has compelled some of us to speak disparagingly and make him out to be only a product of his politics. Seeking beauty is a good way to live, and I’m guessing he was following a similar path, it just looks different than my path.

    February 20, 2016

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