“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless.” – Oscar Wilde
“I have never done anything “useful”. No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world” – G.H. Hardy
I just turned thirty-four and a large portion of my life has been devoted to a misconception borrowed from a second-rate film adaptation of a great book with wonderful art by Francesco Clemente. The misconception was that people who are talented will somehow land in a place where everything comes together in life. All of the stars will align and money will be passed in an embossed envelope across a weathered hardwood table to the deserving. Then life gets interesting. You are attributed with uniqueness and importance by the deciders in this world and you are ushered into a place where you “matter”. Then you can do important things that change the history of the world.
I’m not so sure that I have entirely let go of that idea. I still attach a great deal of my value as a human being to the work that I do. However I am slightly more skeptical. I am skeptical of the deciders themselves and I am skeptical about what time does to work and the identity of the worker. It turns out that the discarded people of history can swap places with the powerful. The forgotten can be remembered and the important can be forgotten. So the American idea of living out a great story can be wrapped in these thick layers of self and public deception. We are not the deciders as it turns out. All of work is sifted by time and great work can completely disappear. This knowledge has resulted in a reading of Ecclesiastes that feels more like freedom than sorrow to me. It is the vicious existential lament that allows for life to make less sense.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2
Sometimes our efforts to apply reason to life are just efforts to control life and mitigate personal suffering. As it turns out pain will not be mitigated and disappointment cannot change the tides in our favor. I often mistake mattering in the world with being loved. I make an unmeasurable problem into a calculation game. If lots of people like my work I am loved. If only a few people love my work I am unlovable.
The hardest thing to do is to separate my lovability from my work, my self worth from a tactile and easily gauged meter. The ways in which I judge my life as useful are broken, the ways in which the culture that I live and have grown up with judge usefulness are broken. So everything in my perception is bent or broken and the ways in which I navigate that brokenness are bent towards some kind of self-preservation. You cannot beat a game that you don’t understand, but you can believe in something other than the game.
I remember watching a movie called In the Realms of the Unreal with my friend Ian one night during a December that was defined by iced-over convex roadways. It’s basically a story about how Henry Darger, a hospital custodian created this massive book of outsider art in a tiny apartment. There wasn’t a soul who could remember his name in the film. In fact nobody had any idea that he was creating art at all until he died. At the end of the night after the movie before I descended the stairs into the snow Ian said, “You are Levi.”
In a world where you cannot escape yourself or the views that you have been given it takes somebody outside of yourself with granted authority to ascribe value. It turns out the most beautiful thing about Jesus is that he remembers names in the same way that a good friend does. What I wanted when I desired prestige was only to be known deeply and loved. The former is a shadowy substitute for the real thing.
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” – John 20: 11-16