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viewpoint

Self-reliance

| Monday, November 7, 2016

On the way down from Mount Le Conte, we stopped to hug a sun-warmed trunk, on the most beautiful day, climbing waterfalls and tiptoeing across fallen trees. This one still stood. With our cheeks against its bark soft as cotton, four arms stretched round its belly, we smelled its sap. “Can you feel that?” I asked. He smiled. A man of energy: the spiritual, not religious type. He could feel it — not what I felt, but something of his own.

“And then it dawned on him,” writes Camus, “that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.”

Because my tree isn’t his tree. Because her love isn’t his love, be it that they may love each other. And your sadness isn’t her sadness, because the other sees a different shade of purple than the purple you see. Nobody knows what you mean when you say it’s beautiful.

First, our experience is different: only I feel my feels; only you think your thoughts. Then our language is different: the same words we all speak don’t mean the same thing to two of us.

“The image he had tried to impart,” Camus continues, “had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret — this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.”

The one-of-a-kind universe in your mind is only yours: to paint your complex world into one they could see, you might try to learn their color language and the connotations of their shapes, then make two translations, both impossible: first, from your own mind to the canvas, then from canvas to their mind. Like a hopeless game of telephone.

And further, imagine painting for the crowd at large, according to each of their many individual languages and connotations. Beyond abstract: not any one color so vibrant, borders between shapes undefined — art cheapened.

Two nights ago, I walked in the rain. It was a crisp rain, not humid or cold. A low-hanging branch, bending from the wet. Under the hood of my raincoat, I thought to myself, “At least water droplets on oak leaves are only lost in translation once.”

Yet we long for solidarity, to unburden the weight of ourselves. So we fly to the crowd and learn to share and take turns. A few, the great artists and leaders, remain themselves, while the rest of us sum our uniqueness, speak our idiosyncrasies into average units of conversation and trade our oneness for market-place emotions.

But even together we are alone, hugging that tree with Bradford, still separated by ourselves. Lying there with her, wanting to tell her all my love — I can only smile. I would give in, telling Bradford my feeling is like his and telling her my love is mass-produced.

No, stammer, says Nietzsche: “When thou hast a virtue, and it is thine own virtue, thou hast it in common with no one … Thus speak and stammer: That is my good, that do I love, thus doth it please me entirely, thus only do I desire the good.”

Because this is the only way to do good art — with a view of reality wholly your own — and the only way to love — you must first know how to say the “I” in “I love you” and you can never say the “I” if you can only say “we.”

Emerson writes, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps, with perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude.”

They won’t understand — smile anyway, and stammer on.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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