I was nearly sixty when I decided to write this. In February 1998, we flew to Los Angeles to visit C’s son for a few days. We slept on a mattress on the floor of his study and that first morning, still on East Coast time, I woke early to the sound of birdsong coming through the open window. The scent of lemon blossoms filled the air. It was as though we had flown from winter into spring. I was reading a book I’d begun on the plane when all at once, in the midst of reading, I suddenly decided to become a writer. It wasn’t a whim. I decided, irrevocably, to write a book. The decision was absurd since I’d never written anything. I’d spent most of my life as a visual artist; even writing letters was difficult for me.
The book I’d been reading was Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart and it troubled me. It seemed to me that Kierkegaard was offering more than an idea to his reader. He seemed to be saying that if I’d read him in the right way, it would change the way I live.
I took him at his word. I decided to engage with him, read as he asked, and see if I could learn what he meant by “willing one thing.” (That is the full title: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.) Could reading Kierkegaard cure me of what he calls “double-mindedness”? I decided to read his book as if it were an instruction manual, follow his promptings, and write a book about my experience. I would call it A Conversation with Kierkegaard. I thought I could complete it in about a year.
Back home in New York, it was winter. The streets were frozen, and my project seemed far more difficult than I had anticipated. Months passed before I managed to write my first valid sentences.
Now more than anything I want to tell you something. Now before it ends I urgently wish to speak. And I hope for words that are not empty, words whose fullness will be confirmed in the echo, in the answering conversation they evoke about each one’s fundamental enterprise—to beat the devil, to establish oneself in the service of true speech, to answer, “I am here,” when called.
I typed out these words in a passion. For weeks I had been destroying everything I wrote. Now, in frustration, I spelled out my dilemma, and tasted, for the first time, the urgency with which I wished to write. The idea of writing what I already knew made me heartsick. Rather than report what I had discovered, I wanted, as I wrote, to discover what I was reporting. The simultaneity of knowing and speaking has everything to do with what Kierkegaard means by “willing one thing.” A kind of violence is called for, one that can shatter the complacency of indifferent knowing and break through to the burning urgency of what needs to be said in the very instant of its saying. Years would go by before I began to understand what I’d discovered in that moment.
I stopped painting and began to write every day. I worked in the early morning dark before leaving the house and in planes and trains, hotel rooms, and vacation houses. I wrote one version of an opening chapter after another. Several months of hopeful work would result in a possible beginning, but when I sat down to read it later, my heart would sink. I knew it was bad. Nonetheless the following day would find me ready to start again.
Years went by in this way. I scribbled away furiously, filling notebooks while I searched in different ways for what it was I so urgently wished to say. I hadn’t realized how much I would need to develop before I could give voice to the inchoate experience I wanted to write about—the mysterious other side of consciousness that only appears in fissures and in flashes. I hadn’t yet seen that I didn’t know how to think or write about it. I hadn’t yet realized how shallow my understanding was. All I knew was that I had a blind need to give voice to something and that it wouldn’t leave me in peace. The pages piled up and, with rare exceptions, were never quite to the point.
Then cancer intervened. I took it as a warning, a gun pointed at my temple, as if throat cancer were a cancer of the voice and my instructions were precise: Speak, write, say what you have to say or lose voice and life both. The question about dying marked the opening of the late, second stage of my life: I began to live experimentally.
I continued to give myself assignments. I would learn to walk or listen more consciously. I practiced daily, kept notes, and then wrote up an account of my experiences. In this way my book became more like an account ledger or a kind of balance sheet that told me where I stood, how much I’d paid, and what I still owned. Unwittingly, I had given it the authority to teach, make demands, and point out where I fell short. It directed me back to the problem that Kierkegaard was speaking about in Purity of Heart. Purged of double-mindedness, what would it mean to will one thing?
It should be clear that Kierkegaard means something more radical than doing one thing at a time. For the pure at heart, consciousness, will, and action comprise a seamless whole. In willing one thing there can be no gap between myself and what I will—no ulterior motive, no fingers crossed behind my back, and nothing left over. It scarcely matters what I might do, because subject and object, the will and the deed, should now be one. If I were making a drawing, every touch of the pencil to the page would complete something; both the drawing and myself would be whole in every instant. Cézanne, for whom beginning and end were indistinguishable, worked that way. There are watercolors consisting of only a few strokes that are completely satisfying, while even his most finished works are still “in progress.”
Near the end of Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard questions his reader: “Do you now live so that you are conscious of yourself as an individual; that in each of your relations in which you come in touch with the outside world, you are conscious of yourself, and that at the same time you are related to yourself as an individual?”
No, the answer was certainly no. When I came in touch with the outside world I was not conscious of myself. I knew from many years of practice what it meant to be aware of myself, but that only came in flashes and was commonly lost when I entered into everyday relations with the world. I wanted to learn what it was that made me forget what I valued most.
Kierkegaard didn’t say, “You must become aware of yourself.” He questioned without commanding. His question invited me to question myself. When I asked myself if I was aware of myself, I became conscious of a hollow feeling, the absence in myself of something that should be there—the “I” was missing. I was a verb without a subject.
But the philosopher was subtle. His question made me aware that I was not aware—in other words, his question made me aware of myself. It was this initial exchange that put me on the path of writing. I wanted to write a book that would play Kierkegaard’s part, take the role of midwife by posing subtle questions. It was the only way I could think of to learn what I couldn’t or wouldn’t teach myself.
Meditative thinking is an oxymoron: I am supposed to keep still and keep moving at the same time; pay unbroken attention to my thoughts as they break up and reform; and wait without changing anything by so much as a hair’s breadth for a change that will alter my nature absolutely.
This morning everything is the same as yesterday—an airplane drones by overhead, the shrimp flash in the glassy surface of the creek, and the children sleep late. But today an inner world is opening in which these events find an echo of unfathomable depth.
Another mind is moving in me, a second nature that is as inseparable from me as my shadow, except that in relation to it I am the shadow and it the light. The dilemma I find myself in (if I find myself at all) is that this other is hidden from me in the same way that seeing is hidden from things that are seen. The work of meditative thinking is a collaboration between these two natures—the seer that remembers and the seen that always forgets. As in rowing, if you pull more on one oar than the other, you go round in circles, and, as in rowing, all I can see is what I have passed as I press forward toward a point that is hidden behind me.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Codhill Press
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