The godling – [V1.5] – [fiction]

One humid Saturday evening in Northern California, the godling walked into a Costco Superstore off of Highway 99.

One humid Saturday evening in Northern California, the godling walked into a Costco Superstore off of Highway 99. He was hungry, and this place had chicken. He had never eaten chicken before, not in this form. Cooked meat would be pleasing. He thirsted for its fat, its essence, to shred it to bits.

The shopgoers hardly noticed a thing. Well, they did, and they didn’t. He stalked through a bog of wandering carts, upset faces, wild little children. Normal things. Mundane things. But the tiredness of commerce, you might notice something further – a shiver, a raised eyebrow, a fearful glance. 

No one raised a fuss. But without a single conscious thought, they all understood: the godling was here.

A gentle quiet slipped through the aisles, sinking into the linoleum. Had the lights dimmed? Or maybe it was a trick of the eye. A few shoppers might have felt a quiet ripple of nausea. It was the most regular day in the world, and like nothing they’d ever experienced before.

He knelt before the heated shelf at the back of the store and tore at his chicken like a wild man. Right there in the aisle, grease clotting his beard, the flesh of the beast dripping down his chin and spattering the floor.

Even this didn’t produce a commotion. There’s training none of us needs, and that’s training in how to be polite when a godling is taking his fill. It’s the kind of manners a wolf understands. Hind-brain etiquette.

The godling headed for the exit. On the way something caught his attention – a woman, yelling at her child in a cart. It was an ugly thing to behold. She did not want to be yelling; the child didn’t want to be yelled at. The woman’s feet hurt; the kid was covered in snot. What suffering! The godling marveled, a little horrified, a little mesmerized.

As he departed the scene, the child met his gaze. Though her vision was blurred by tears, she saw his divinity plainly. To the child, the whole world was divine, her mother was divine, the superstore was divine – all of it swirling, unprocessed and disordered, the chaos in which Spirits make their home.

The mother saw nothing. But as she chastised her child, the passing godling grazed her shoulder with the back of his arm. He did not linger, but stalked out into the night, having gotten what he came for.

By the time the mother understood, the godling was gone. She touched her shoulder – she closed her eyes. She realized what she had done. She wept.

Michelangelo’s shelter – [V2.4]

Michelangelo the man is tactile, mundane, relevant. Michelangelo the god is just an idea.

It is said that the David was carved from a shoddy piece of marble. The 25,000 pound chunk was oddly shaped and considered poorly chosen, and may have even cracked when it fell into a muddy ditch on its 80-mile journey from Carrara. When it got to Florence, it must have seemed dead on arrival, because the sculptor who chose it was fired, the project was scrapped, and the block was left lying on its side in the city for thirty years – uncarved, unattended, and exposed.

Until its redeemer arrived. When Michelangelo began his work, he hid himself and the marble block in a roofless wooden shelter. He labored for months in private before revealing the man he had found in the marble.

I’m no Michelangelo. Still, I want my work to be good. I want it to be beautiful. And while I’ve done and made some things I’m proud of, all of it pales next to what I’m hoping for. And so I find myself thinking of Michelangelo in his wood shelter. Twenty six years old, alone with his tools and the stone. The sounds of the city barely muffled, the open sky above his head, in limbo between the public and the private world. 

Did he feel confident? Excited? Afraid? And why work behind a curtain of wood, hidden from the rest of society? This is Michelangelo we’re talking about – the striding genius of the Renaissance, whose name is etched in history, literally carved in shining marble, for all time. The David was his followup to the Pietà. Surely he had little to be ashamed of!

I, of course, have plenty to be ashamed of. I, of course, feel entitled to hide my work. I’ve wrought no Pietà; my greatest works often strike me as dim and uninspired.

As anyone who tries to create things will know, the love of beauty can be an incredibly frustrating thing. The sweetest vision becomes a curse; the greatest love goes sour; the line of poetry becomes an ode to its creator’s mediocrity. The beauty you envision becomes a mirror in which you see only your own ugliness. It’s love entwined with suffering; indeed, in the words of Gaiman’s Morpheus: “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” [1]

But let us leave that tortured ecstasy behind. Let us come back to earth. There’s self-indulgence in this tale of unworkable mediocrity; self-servingness in the insistence on Michelangelo’s divinity and unreachable perfection.

However godly his work, Michelangelo was not a god; he was a man. Every Great Work was carved by mortals. We ought to recall how Socrates chastised his fellows at the Symposium: in offering praise, we should speak the truth about the thing we’re praising. [2]

And the truth is this: We don’t start off good at much. We start off 8 pounds and drooling. Posit what you want about genetics or inborn talent, some of our lamest excuses for not working until our fingers bleed. Neither Caesar nor Shakespeare sprang from the womb fully formed. 

In some ways this mundanity makes the Greats all the more titanic. The ideal, the divine, is safely out of reach, up in the clouds; the real is painstaking, shaped with callused and blistered hands. Michelangelo the man is tactile, mundane, relevant. Michelangelo the god is just an idea.

I’m not a scholar of Michelangelo, but I’d guess his story goes something like this: before he lifted beauty from the stone, he produced a lot of crap. He had insecurities. He fucked up. And at least before his skills and taste were fully formed, he probably hated his flaws even more than I hate my own. But he conquered that; he kept going. He saddled and tamed that tendency towards ugliness. And one day, Michelangelo woke up, and before sleep found him again, he was visited by the vision of the David

The creator grasps at beauty, but he labors in ugliness. On Earth, the land of the mundane. There’s no getting around this, only patiently trying to conquer it, until beauty finally comes naturally. 

The wooden shelter was always meant to be temporary. Don’t let it become your coffin! [3]


Footnotes

[1] Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes. Vertigo, 2010.

[2] “It was then I realised what a fool I had been in agreeing with you to take my turn and deliver a eulogy of Love, and in saying I was an expert on the subject of love, despite, as it turned out, knowing nothing about how to compose a eulogy of anything. For in my naivety I thought I had only to speak the truth about the subject of the eulogy.” (Symposium, 198c-d)

[3] For more on Michelangelo and the David, I recommend this incredible article, from which I learned about the wooden shelter [link] [mirror].

To speak the truth, get out of the way – [V1.8]

When the content is bad, the content-provider comes more clearly into view.

I recently read a lame tweet. Shocking, I know.

But despite my grief and confusion, I was able to learn something from this unwelcome experience. Perhaps my thoughts can be of use to others who are similarly afflicted.

For me, Reading Lame Shit has three phases:

  1. The person is telling me about something. 
  2. The person fails a check I’m running. 
  3. I start thinking about the speaker, instead of the thing they’re telling me about.

Let’s go deeper. In my specific case:

  1. The person is telling me about something. 
    The topic was ‘American corporate selfishness and the Chinese Communist Party.’ This got me thinking thoughts about America, corporations, selfishness, and Chinese communism. Great topics.
  2. The person fails a check I’m running. 
    The person started seeming compromised. They presented X as obvious, but then seemed like they were going to say X regardless of whether X was the case or not.
  3. I start thinking about the speaker, instead of the thing they’re telling me about.
    I stopped thinking about America, corporations, selfishness, and Chinese communism. I started thinking about my narrator – let’s call him Bob – Bob’s ideology, why Bob can’t see the flaw I’m seeing, what else Bob believes, whether Bob would be embarrassed to see himself as I see him, etcetera.

Step 3 seems odd and interesting to me. When the content is bad, the content-provider comes more clearly into view. Perhaps this is part of why we feel shame and embarrassment around public speaking – the fear that the flaws in our content will reveal our flaws as people.

But when I’m consuming your content, the way I think about it is this: I’m trying to understand the world. You might be able to help me do that. This is great. But if you show yourself an unreliable narrator, I can’t see reality in your reflection anymore. Maybe I can adjust for the distortion and glean something, but too often there’s barely a reflection at all, and all I can see is you. This doesn’t make you terrible, but it does mean I’m not doing that thing I’m trying to do. Or rather: I’m still here trying to understand the world, but I’m ending up studying the confusions of its narrators, not the things they’re trying to tell me about.

If the error is in mucking up the truth, perhaps the virtue which prevents it is getting out of the truth’s way

I’m reminded of a quote from The Over-Soul. Emerson describes a way in which the greatest artists show their limitations most clearly. The greater the work, the more it approximates Reality – next to which even masterpieces inevitably pale:

“The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done. Shakspeare carries us to such a lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own; and we then feel that the splendid works which he has created, and which in other hours we extol as a sort of self-existent poetry, take no stronger hold of real nature than the shadow of a passing traveller on the rock.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul

The great artist guides us towards “real nature”. The better he does his job, the more his works highlight their own flaws by comparison. Mediocre artists and truth tellers don’t know how to show us real nature – not yet. Success is a matter of both honesty and technique.

And so perhaps it would be better to think of creators of all types (artists, researchers, even technologists) as ‘revealers of natural forms’ much more often than we do. To bring in another voice on the topic, Keith Johnstone of Impro describes a worldview in which an artist is understood as a conduit, not a primary cause, of revealed truth:

“We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God’s. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn’t have to ‘think up’ an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there…”

Keith Johnstone, Impro

Emerson and Johnstone display the relevant truths just fine, and so perhaps I should say no more. Instead I reiterate: If you want to convey the truth, get out of the way!


Addendum: Some people, apprehending the idea of ‘getting out of the way,’ decide to become plain reporters of simple facts. They learn to make clean statements, like propositions in a technical document, parseable in a literal fashion. Whatever they say, it sounds like they’re explaining how to build a dishwasher. I’m chiding a bit, but the truth is that this is great thing to be able to do, crucial in some fields and when seeking certain kinds of knowledge.

But the cost may be that such a person, seeing how easily people lose track of the truth when they become involved and emotionally compromised, may start to strip away any hint of the personal and the emotional in their work. This way of seeking objectivity can be stifling. In some technical areas, this might be required – but those who only use this approach to communication may also find themselves limited in their persuasiveness, interestingness, and ability to shape others. This isn’t meant to recommend any skimping on accuracy – only that we must to learn to communicate productively, with a full appreciation of what communication requires. For better or worse, most of us are not mathematical theory-checkers, and those who are too taken with literalness might do well to reflect on the human race and why it has such a love for things like music, metaphor, touch, and implication.