The Theatre of the Hollowed Heart
I read an essay about a year ago by someone I can’t remember, but I remember the title. It was called On the Marionette Theatre and it captured a feeling I am having now, and have had, for a long time. Since I cannot remember the author and I cannot remember anymore details about the essay, I will simply paraphrase a general summary about the essay as an introduction to this one.
In ancient Greece, there was a boy who went to the bathhouses with his father. His father spent the entire time talking to his friends about business and the boy would listen. This went on for years, until the boy started becoming a man and found himself going through the very unguided few years of puberty (for me, at least).
Anyway, one time at the bathhouse, the boy put his leg up on a chair and, as the men spoke, he rested his fist under his chin—for the first time in his life, the boy realized that he understood perfectly well all the business that most concerned his father’s friends. And so he listened intently. At that moment, the boy unconsciously achieved a look of youthful grace in his face and posture. At that very instance, one of his father’s friends interrupted the business talk, the kind of talk uncoated from classical rhetoric, and exclaimed, “You look exactly like the sculpture of Theseus as a boy!” He pointed at his friend’s son and all of the men agreed. The boy was proud of this. He had never been proud of anything before. The praise filled him with such enthusiasm for his own worth, imbued him with such a sense of nobility and youthful refinement, that the next day he tried to consciously achieve the pose again. He worked on it over the course of the many hours while at the bathhouse and no one paid him any attention. The men carried on in their business talk. After lifting themselves out of the hot water, the faint figures–stretching like phantoms in the humid fog–shook their heads as they passed him. Walking home, the boy’s father told him that he was ashamed of his display at the bathhouse that day. The boy felt his shame was a private one he bore and it confused him that his father felt it, too. Ever since that moment, the boy lost all sense of physical grace. He tried many times, in private before a mirror, to return to that fleeting grace. But he could never return. The boy became well known in the bath house for tripping and stumbling. In fact, he died young when he slipped in the bathhouse and cracked his skull on the stone edge of a pool.
This story was meant to illustrate the three different stages of an artist. There is the stage before his knowledge, a state of innocence, where the artist feels he possesses some natural talent that works itself out in eloquence and fluidity. He does not know what it is that is so good about his presentation or what he is doing right and he is praised for something that remains a mystery to him. As soon as he is praised, he loses the innocence that furnished him with natural talent. Where before the posture came easily, after the loss he tries even harder and cannot achieve grace: he does not know what grace is. He never has. The third, and final stage, is the stage of either tracing back the way of innocence or ebbing into the dark and endless grounds of knowledge that bear the dark fruits of exhaustion, pride, and death.
I feel that I am in this third stage and I am struggling my way back to some renewed innocence. I know that I can never return there completely—and that is the point of the story. But along the way, I know that with a lot of work I can experience small moments of innocence, which are moments of grace, tastes of forgetting. I long to forget. I would love to forget myself, but these days it is harder. Because it is harder to forget myself, it is harder to capture anything, whether inside or outside. Yet as I get older, there is only more to capture. This is one of the many afflictions I wanted to talk about in this essay, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get to that. I don’t know these days what I want to get at, but I know that I want to get at more and in conversation, in passing thoughts, in dreams, in moments before bed, I feel there is too much I have to get at. Then why am I less capable? Why am I only getting worse?
Getting worse at what, you ask? You want some kind of specification for this outburst. Well, let me tell you. I want to get better at grace and this is impossible.
When I was younger, five years ago, I felt blandly, but I felt strongly—and much to my despair now, I captured those internal feelings with such grace. It terrifies me. I look back at things I wrote five years ago, when I was younger than I am now, and I see how I captured all my misplaced feels. Now when I write, I feel like I am taking someone else’s thoughts, taking someone else’s words, and taking someone else’s desire. I feel like a conduit for all of humanity. As I sit down to write, I imagine all the audience of man waiting for me to speak, wrapped in attention, and all I can say is, “I am feeling very tired.”
I want to think that the reason it is more difficult to write these days is because I have gone through a particularly strong bout of contemplative melancholy. It’s quite different than what I have felt in the past. It is distinct from the melancholy of memory, where I used to remember things and became overwhelmed with the feeling that memory is a form of torture. That is nostalgia and I now know its place. It ranks among the other afflictions I have come across and wrestled to the ground, like death, fantasy, inspiration, and friends.
I have defined what I mean by affliction precisely: a recurring present feeling made deep (leading to a rational longing for the eternal, infinite, and felt physiologically in a falling sensation and occasional tingles) by the overlaying of an emotional texture (i.e. the distillation of a past moment over time) that fills you with a guilt for mankind’s condition, an awareness that the sensation has recurred not only in your lifetime, but in past ones belonging to others, and distinguished from all moods, because it happens quickly and is impossible to maintain and is lost as soon as it is received. All momentary afflictions are interconnected, so that nostalgia easily leads to an awareness of death, which most humanely leads to worries about universal suffering, which brings you back to the curiosity of artistic inspiration and that enigmatic process, which circles around and finally lands on fond feelings for those closest to you and a desire to be near them. This last one is usually exasperated by distance, because these days it is essential to move away from people you care about. It is the only rite of passage left to humans stuck in the world of airplanes and the world wide web. We are just one of the many flies stuck on it.
There is no need to wonder about who the spider is: exhaustion. This very instance, everything inside me is threatening to crumble before the eternal force of exhaustion. I am very tired, I say, I think, but something keeps me from leaving this place in my time right here, in this chair, because for the first time in months, I feel relatively close once again to overcoming myself, to forgetting, and thereby being made free to enter into that amphitheater of the human soul, some beating stone heart. Inside me, I possess a great theatre of You, Other, that retains every echo in the world. Every time some bit of consciousness flickers up somewhere, a cry is let out like the last moment of birth when You, Other are told to push! And you push! And inside my arteries, inside my veins, I feel the waves of that shriek.
I come home at the end of some fog-consciousness day, and am looking around the house desperately for some clarity or light to shine into the theatre of my breast, but all I find are scraps of words here and there, tired words, someone else’s words, and I say to the opportunity of Travel, “I need to eat. I need to go to bed. I need to take a shower.” Everything in me that longs for the angelic above the human falls, bowing at the feet of the animal inside me. And I look on the sticky trail left behind me over the course of a day slowly hiked. I labor and chisel at my skin to break through the wall of my ribs, but my hands fall weakly like my knees in a dream. Someone is chasing me, yelling at me (“I want to drown you!”), and over and over again in that dream, my useless legs fail me. Part of me is delighted. I give up the fear. I wake up.
I cannot find my own way. Who can find it for me?
I step into an unlit cave one moment, burdened with all the good reasons for turning back, but I walk into it anyway. I tell myself it’s good for me. When, finally, I turn back to see what I have left behind and I cannot see the sun outside anymore, part of me is delighted. I feel like going back now is impossible. The only way out is to go forward. I am happy and light. I feel like I am discovering new ground. My footing slips, my hands tremble across the cold, rough stones. I walk on carefully, somehow convinced that I will have to walk in between a crevice made by stalactites and stalagmites, though no one has ever told me this. “No one has ever been in here before” I whisper to myself, “maybe I will find treasure.” I feel I have taken deliberate steps for hours in the dark. I realize that at some point I closed my eyes. I am asleep, I am walking. Just as soon as I am aware of my eyes being shut, I open them. And far ahead of me, down a dark hallway, I see all of my friends laughing around a fire. I am hurt by seeing them. I don’t want them to see me.
Why didn’t they tell me this was happening? Why have I been left out? I creep across the hall, careful not to creak the floorboards underneath my clumsy feet (I don’t want them to know that I am watching them without me), and I feel like I felt when I first entered the cave. I gaze at the pictures hung on the wall, but I cannot see them, because the fire is reflected in the glass of each of them, and the image behind the glass is obscured. The fire bends slowly over the surfaces of the pictures, as if Time goes slower in a reflection than it does when it is sat around. I hear a voice.
“Who’s there?” my friend asks. He is afraid. I shut my eyes. My heart is pounding.
“It’s…it’s me,” I say.
“Who is You?” another asks.
“I can’t say,” I say.
I hear them getting up, unbinding themselves from their folded legs. I feel the warmth of them crowding around me, but a different warmth than the fire. Their bodies are blocking the warmth of the fire, but they have brought some of that warmth with them, glowing out from their clothes and baked faces.
“Open your eyes!”
“We’d say we were waiting for you, but you not being here made us all feel different. The oddities we felt made a hollow space where you weren’t. That space did all the waiting for us.”
I cry, stupidly, I hate myself for crying, but they put their hands on my shoulders and tell me to sit down, sit down like they had been sitting.
“I think the reason it took me so long to get here,” I say, “was because I forgot what you were all like. I wasn’t sure if any of you existed anymore.”
“Well, these past hundred years, we’ve been laughing and we’ve been laughing about the same things. We know everything that is worth bringing up to each other so well at this point, we wish we could forget what we’ve been together so we can find it again.
“There is pleasure in seeking,” one of my friends says, a well-placed prosaic phrase among my prosaic friends.
“I don’t agree,” I say. And all of my others friends affirm this with me. The one that spoke relents—he knows our pains too well.
Seeking hurts. Seeking hurts, because we don’t know what it looks like. All we are working with is some old, dim, worn-out hope. We seek because we have to move when we are not in its presence. When we are in its presence, we are content to sit around and laugh—that is enough. Seekers seek hard, because they fight exhaustion and the fear that comes with it. I have been a seeker too long. I have hurt. I have seen all the afflictions of the world and I have felt all that there is to feel. I have been a dog, I have been a woman dying of cancer, I have been a man hopelessly fighting against age, I have been sick with fear of being sick, I have been the worms in between the concrete pavement, I have been the air traffic control pilot hearing the first news of the downed plane, I have been a canary stolen from its branch, I have been a boy happy to join his dead mother, I have been my mother and my father, I have been my friends—but the one person I cannot figure out how to be is myself. All this time, I have sought myself and no one I have ever met has learned to play the part.
This is not an issue of identity, no. This is not an issue of insecurity, no. Those are the afflictions for the tempted. Who are we after we have sought the kingdom first? We are the exhausted, but the undying. We are the boys of grace and no one can tell us that it is wrong to seek and keep on seeking for innocence. But someday, we have to rest. Exhaustion catches up with us and we let him drown us. It delights us. And when at the bottom of the ocean we find ourselves in a cave lit by a bonfire, the echoes of our laughter reverberate in the hollowed out amphitheater of God’s heart.