To start, a hard-earned bit of daily wisdom, this time from W.C. Fields: “Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.”
With this as my opening salvo: onward to today’s topic. Or, to be more precise – topics. I want to conversate on the subjects of atheism and aesthetics.
But not both at once. Not on purpose, anyway.
These two somewhat nebulous concepts have been weaving themselves into the admittedly threadbare fabric of my daily life at regular interval over the past week.
Let’s begin with the easier and less loaded of the two: atheism.
I’ve been sort of obsessed as of late with the idea of developing a more sound, more consistent moral framework for decision-making. It feels way too often like I’m fumbling in the dark when I make important decisions, or running on the fumes of emotion and instinct, which is certainly no way to decide much of anything.
When I was a teenager/young adult, I adored Buddhism, but as I’ve made my way through adult life, that stylized brand of American Buddhism has amassed a long and rather querulous comet’s tail of atheistic tendencies.
Before you commence with the eye rolls. I’m not trying to be controversial. The two worldviews actually share quite a bit in common, chiefly: a fundamental rejection of the concept of the “soul,” or some essential part of oneself that is carried forward after death. Buddhism does recognize the ceaseless regeneration of some basic essence that is the sum-total of all one’s earthly actions, yes, but a soul it is not. Sorry, friends. There is no enduring “I” to speak of. In short: when you die, you are not coming with you.
The major difference, from where I’m sat, is Atheism insists that nothing happens after death, whereas Buddhism insists that everything happens, again and again, after death, and before it, and during it, etc., etc. In a way, nothing and everything share more in common that either nothing and something or everything and something, if you stop and really consider it. But we’re going down the rabbit hole already.
At any rate, I’ve felt compelled lately to be more upfront about the one aspect of my moral framework that remains consistent: I do not believe in God. I hate telling people this sometimes because they get that sad, pouty, heartbreaky look on their faces and then subject me to boring, spittle-laced harangues peppered with completely irrelevant and decontextualized Bible verses and I tense up and get a headache and the whole exercise is rather exhausting and demoralizing for all involved.
Lately, though, it feels important for me not only to be honest and unapologetic about what I don’t believe in, but, also to spend some time getting clear on what I do believe in its stead. I’ve been studying and thinking hard about the basics of ethics and moral philosophy and I think I’m making real, honest-to-God (!) progress.
Quick overview. The two major Western frameworks for locating the morality of a decision are …
Consequentialist reasoning: Which locates morality within the consequences of an action, and the state of world that will result from this action.
Categorical reasoning: Which locates morality in certain absolute moral requirements and oughts, with no truck whatsoever given to consequences.
I’ve thought about it long and hard and I am definitely a categoricalist. It’s probably got a lot to do with me being born here in the United States. It’s probably also why I am so fascinated with Communism but cannot get past my skepticism of its fundamental premises.
Individuals – taken one at a time and not as part of an undifferentiated mass whose needs argue more loudly for primacy – are what I value. I don’t care what X does for the herd. I am fundamentally opposed to killing one person to save five, or even killing one person to save 500.
Of course, I come daily face to face with a variety of real and imaginary premises that flip my categoricalism on its ear. It is infuriating and incredibly interesting. And I feel as if I my consistent flummoxment is a signal that I am finally, finally making some progress on this whole moral framework business.
Onward to Aesthetics.
I’ve thought a lot the past year about my own personal aesthetic and how I’d describe it. The same themes and colors and visuals and metaphors pop up in all of my writings and photos quite predictably, but I’ve only just started to pay attention to them in the past 12 months or so.
So: how would I describe my “aesthetic”?
[Aside: When I see this question posed to random interviewees on inane fashion blogs, I want to scoop out my eyeballs with a grapefruit spoon, because the answer is invariably, equally inane. But this isn’t a blog about fashion, so I think I can be excused.]
I have been thinking a bit lately about the words I’d used to describe my own general, stylized aesthetic. Here they are:
Palm trees. Chinatowns. The sound of xylophones. Rainbows. Sand and seashells. Hard guitar riffs. Biblical metaphors. Deciduous plants. Crumpled maps. Bottle caps. Fat stripes. Gold-enameled things. Flags. Crows. Ugly sunglasses. Green shoes. Jazz piano. Watermelon. Power lines and train tracks. The sound of freight trains. Tin and cast iron. Mexican-Catholic and/or Cuban iconography. Fortunes from fortune cookies. Banana flavored things. Silhouettes. Pastiche and collage. Wabi Sabi. Hand-sewn anything. Old floral prints, but not the ugly kind. Safety pins. Home-job haircuts. Lego Men.
That’s my aesthetic. It is comforting, somehow, to put it to paper. Even though this actually isn’t paper.
[On a side note, in case anyone cares, which I’m confident they don’t: If anyone ever asked me to describe my aesthetic taste in fashion: I’d venture … apocalypse casual, perhaps? Old, scrounged, invariably handed down. Torn and worn and then remended. Once, I sewed up a long rip in a too-tight favorite green shirt with white, waxen dental floss. A friend (Lisa!) admired my handiwork and said, “It looks like your shirt had stitches.” I took that as a definite compliment.]