The Death of Romance

Over the last 100 years, the word has come to mean something it used not to.

In the vernacular, it refers to some fucking flowers and candlelight on Valentine’s Day.

To me, “romance” is a terrifying word – fraught with danger, consequence, and the inevitability of death.

It applies equally to the rebellion of Satan, the suicide of Wërther, and the murderous rampage of Frankenstein’s Monster, as well as the juvenile idiocy of Romeo and Juliet.

It refers to any noble loser who fights for their heart’s desire, in the full knowledge that the fight is pitched against them – not in any conspiratorial way, but just because that’s the way the universe is.

Or, in the words of William Blake:

It is not the power of true love, but the whole-hearted embracing of self-destruction for the sake of passion.

So if somebody tells you romance is dead, tell them it’s because calm and reason have prevailed. And more’s the pity for it; anyone who survives their passion, dies alone.

Heidegger and Neo: Things I Saw in the Matrix

Spoiler Alert: Anybody who still hasn’t seen The Matrix trilogy and plans to, better not read this yet. I mean… You’ve had 15 years already, but I know people have other things to do.

Before I burned out in college, I read some Heidegger. Who didn’t, right? In my case it was a bit like how I watched “The Matrix” the first time.

In the latter case I had seen no previews & gotten no spoilers. The only thing I knew was that Harris & Klebold had been huge fans, and many parents who hadn’t seen it were philistinically blaming the Wachowskis – alongside Marilyn Manson and Eminem – for the decline of America. Naturally I had to see it.

Morpheus – the charismatic spiritual zealot – scared the shit out of me (apparently also scared Laurence Fishburne on opening night). So did Trinity – the unquestioning, murderous angel at his side. About halfway through, Neo began to scare me even more as he began to embrace the more shadowy elements of Morpheus’ doctrine. Whoever the good guys were, they were being kept hidden from me.

The agents were bad, this we could be sure of; Hugo Weaving is the perfect villain if you need to get across the fact that something cartoonishly evil can still be a serious threat (Red Skull anyone?). And anyone who stands up against tyranny and oppression and stuff is a friend of mine.

But Morpheus was a holy warrior, and calm as a field of poppies; that combination should be terrifying, and it was (just as it was in any video I ever saw of a speech given by Osama Bin Laden). He explained with surgical detachment that killing innocents was permitted under the right circumstances. If you need to know where Morpheus is, just follow the screams.

Trinity was a devoted fury, killing anyone in her path with extreme prejudice. Hesitation meant death.

But even more terrifying were the increasing similarities between Neo (the everyman’s Messiah) and the Agents – movement, speed, environmental control. Most terrifying was that he did not appear to know who he was, despite all this power and good intention. Even as he and Trinity were clearly falling in love as they closed in on their target, I wondered deep down if Neo wasn’t the true villain in this story, whether he knew it or not.

I was of course shocked to learn – after reading “The Thing” twice – that Heidegger was a card-carrying, pin-wearing, flag-waving Nazi. Nothing in what he had written suggested anything but the exact opposite to me. Then I thought “Well, maybe he considered Jews and Gypsies to be Things, with no purpose other than to be emptied out for the good of humanity.” It’s fucked, I know. But what do you want? The guy was a Nazi. Nazis are fucked.

Maybe I’m just a bad judge of character. Neo turned out to be a pretty decent guy in the end, giving his life not only for his people, but for all intelligence – whether animal or digital. It was almost… Thingly.

Money Grows on a Very Specific Tree

Just for fun, I punched the words “money used for good” into a search engine. The results I got were all about capital gains and buying cars.

Money isn’t the root of all evil. It’s more like one of those situations where you thought it was a forest, but it all turns out to be one tree; the trunks turn out to be branches, all connected to one root.

Yes. Evil is a Pando tree. Not to say the Pando tree is evil. It’s a metaphor, so don’t freak out. The Pando could just as easily be a metaphor for how we humans all seem to be autonomous and different (which we are), but are actually one (which we also are).

Money is just another branch.

Our capacity to fool ourselves and others is the root.

Which Way is Up?

Depending on the person, panic can subside by varying degrees – especially when you’re in free-fall and the cold darkness of space.

I should explain.

I’m an atheist.

Easiest thing in the world to say.

Harder to understand. For me, anyway. I still haven’t fully grasped what it means to be finally alone, despite being fundamentally the same as the rest of the universe. Probably never will.

Dreaming About Flying

It’s worth bringing this up now, and explaining why later.

Just about everybody I know has had a dream at some point where they fly like Superman, and it seems like the most normal thing in the world. I had those dreams all the time as a kid. I remember once visiting at a prehistoric zoo with a friend, and a mastodon the size of a school broke loose from its enormous cage in a towering and terrifying fit of what was probably righteous anger. The natural thing for us to do was say “Fuck this,” leave the ground, fly around the monster’s head a couple times, and piss off.

Don’t remember exactly when, but somewhere in my early teens I stopped having dreams like that. Dreams became so mundane that I began to have trouble distinguishing them from reality. As a result, I have apologized for inappropriate behavior that never actually happened. That’s almost as embarrassing as it sounds. Waking and Dreaming became the same sort of bad comedy, with no flight.

Blame clinical depression for now. I think depression is symptomatic of a deeper problem, but whatever. That’s a topic for another time.

God is Like a Rope.

I never had that joyful moment of realizing there’s no God, even though I was dyed in the wool with the Baltimore Catechism (and all the infantile solemnity that goes with it – a properly dreadful book). It was more of a gradual thing, and sort of half-assed.

God’s existence and omnipotence were, after all, the basis of my system of ethics and morals, and the final consolation that my consciousness would be saved on the Big Hard Drive in the Sky when my hardware’s warrantee was up. Safe even from magnets.

I can tell you from experience that there’s a deep sense of relief in *knowing* the universe has an omnipotent Boss, and that the Boss is on your side. When it comes to a thing like that, you don’t just drop it without something else to grab onto.

When in Doubt, Flip Out.

And then one day, without warning, that grouchy old fart Lao Tse reached across the centuries and snatched out the tenuous thread of certainty that held me out of the bottomless pit of meaninglessness. It didn’t take much, just a few words and a bit of time. That fucking “Book of Tao” or whatever was just sitting there in the library, right where anybody could see it. Irresponsible to leave a thing like that around.

Good thing it only dawned on me gradually too. With the headspace I’d been in for the previous 24 years, it would have struck me as an insurmountable bummer that the bottomless pit is all there is.

I was too young to appreciate the irony at the time.

Another layer of irony was that my then-favorite writer (the late journalist, humorist, and Catholic apologist GK Chesterton) had a knack for flipping just about every imaginable concept upside-down. It should have been obvious; but again, I was young and stupid.

And panicky. Never underestimate the blinding power of panic. Especially when you’re in free-fall, and the cold darkness of space. And that’s all the time.

Flying Again

Interestingly enough, it was shortly after this that I started dreaming about leaving the ground again. The circumstances continued in the same down-to-earth way (as down-to-earth as I ever get anyway), and dreams were still indistinguishable from the waking world. So naturally it was a surprise to me the first time it happened. Here’s how:

I was in New Hampshire for some reason (a place I swore some years ago to avoid, over things I might eventually get into), and accidentally floated about two feet above the ground. As soon as I noticed it, I began to sink. The more I tried to levitate, the lower I sank. A metaphor for my time there, maybe.

I closed my eyes and took a deep, slow breath. I let go – first of flying, then of the ground. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. It was like letting part of who I am just fall away. Couldn’t do it all at once.

When I opened my eyes, I was about thirty feet up. Letting go became easier with altitude. I rose a little further, and could see I was above the turnpike a few miles out of Nashua. I went up a mile, and gradually lost the capacity to worry about what a rotten place New Hampshire had been.*

This still happens. I’ll be walking down the street somewhere, strides imperceptibly becoming longer. Then I’ll notice I haven’t touched the sidewalk in a while. I’ll test myself, see how far up the road I can just float, and how quickly. Really blows people’s minds when they notice what’s going on. And I can never tell I’m dreaming at the time.

I’m never disappointed when I wake up either. Sometimes in the waking world I’ll let go of the ground, just to see if I’m dreaming. I’ll only know for sure it if I stay put. And that’s the main difference between dreams and reality, right?

That isn’t necessarily a rhetorical question either.

Falling is a Kindness.

The panic is mostly gone now, though sometimes I forget which way I’m falling, and it starts again. In those moments I just have to take slow, deep breaths, and remember what I’ve learned over the past 15 years or so:

You aren’t falling. You’ve been ascending uncontrollably this whole time.

Or you would be, if you weren’t holding onto the ground so goddamn tight.

It was the realization that I was never held up by the ground I stood on, but tied to it.

Chesterton liked to say, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly, while the Devil fell by the force of gravity.” For years I agreed. Now I would submit that angels can let go and fall, while devils hold on like fucking badgers.

Puts that exchange between Woody and Buzz Lightyear in a funny frame too.

It’s just a matter of recognizing which way “up” and “down” really are. Which is nowhere. And that makes them everywhere.

*with sincere apologies to the good people of New Hampshire. I know they exist. My experience was narrow, however interminable.