I’ve been occupied recently with the question of the soul—is there more to the human being than raw materials? Do we live in a strictly materialist universe? Is there a soul hiding out in your body, or is it just blood and guts, all particles bouncing around?
I’ve come to believe that there must be a soul inhabiting the body, a spirit that animates, a current which electrifies, and that the satisfaction or expression of this soul is what makes it all worthwhile. I would have a hard time explaining why I believe this, if you asked me; and all of the spiritual questions like reincarnation or a higher design inherent in the universe are things I have not thought about. What I can say with certainty is that the notion of a materialistic universe, with nothing but entropy as its guiding principle, strikes me as morbidly depressing. To me, the best beliefs are those which serve you the best—the most “functional” in the sense that they align with and validate your experience, empowering you and spurring you towards action. (And just so I don’t seem like a jihadist, that doesn’t mean “believe whatever you want,” or whatever’s easiest for you. I believe in a universal good, and I have never felt empowered by hurting someone.)
The idea of “atoms and the void” is only ever used as justification. If there’s no order in the universe, then why should I even bother?
What, have you given up?
This idea has never spoken to me nor served me, and whenever someone mentions it I feel them coming from a place of weakness—explaining away a loss, or justifying an addiction, or rationalizing laziness. Their eyes glaze over, and they become resigned. I have never seen someone surrender their agency and individualism to the laws of physics and then become promptly inspired, watched their eyes alight after recognizing the ultimate futility of any mortal effort.
I reject that.
No, there must be something more. And that is the soul: that thing which, when it is satisfied, makes it all worthwhile.
But what is the soul? Where does it exist, and what is it made out of? I can’t say for sure. Maybe it is the interface, the collected neurons and interconnections within the body, and only this gestalt is the soul. It is a process, an operation, an emergent behavior.
The soul is that higher function whose fulfilling results in the highest quality of life. And what, then, satisfies the soul? Naturally, it differs for everybody, and everybody must find out their own answer to this question. Individualism excavates the soul. This process starts from within, and knowledge of the self is won only through introspection and honesty. Moreover, the fuel is for the soul is ever-changing; it may be different one day to the next. And this makes sense: satisfaction is progress; love, progress—intangible and out of time, these things are the instantaneous direction of change, rather than trophies or items on a checklist.
So what do you like to do, and why do you like to do it? One needs no justification for his actions, only that he likes to do something, that it is fulfilling. Why do people create? Why does art exist in the world? Simply because it must. In whatever form it takes—painting, music, dance, writing—it pleases the artist, and provides the nourishment for their soul.
This is also where I draw the distinction between true and false satisfaction, and why murder is not permissible under the grounds that it satisfies you. (Even if you “feel like it,” even though this whole thing is different for everybody.) Art, alone, is the food for the soul.
Art is the food for the soul.
And I’ve learned that you must claim this art for yourself, often at other people’s expense. But this is not to blame, because claiming your own life is a necessary act, and maybe the most worthy and hardest act of all.
This is our weapon, our respite and comfort against the extant chaos of the universe: the ability to please ourselves, to go our own way, to fulfill the deepest longings imaginable to our soul, and then to go out and dream up some more for the next thing, which was impossible to foresee before arriving there. This is our purpose and our paradise, indivisible from us as long as we draw breath: to look deeply within and fulfill the longings of the soul.
And now we’ve come full circle, and starting way up from the top worked our way back down to the bottom. I originally set out to write this one early Saturday morning bus ride, after finding inspiration in the tendrils of mountain clouds curling themselves around sunbeams, and also finding inspiration in being exhausted, because I had to. “Think Pretty Thoughts” came to me, the title of this loose collection of ideas, after I realized the most satisfying thing to me was reading heavy literature like Steppenwolf—trying to read it in German and failing, because that shit is hard, but finishing the rest of it in English and finding my way through the dark crazy pathways of Hesse and seeing the light of eternity bouncing around on the mirrors of my own subconscious funhouse too, and trying to get out some rage and cope with some self-denial sitting at a Starbucks at 7:30 in the morning, one hour before work, where my job is essentially to laugh with children.
“Humor is always gallows-humor,” says Hesse, and the point of life is to laugh your fullest and loudest in the face of these gallows, and let your laughter become pure and ethereal as you detach from and allow yourself to become entertained by the struggle, by the big contradiction. Just as a radio “strips this music of its sensuous beauty, spoils and scratches and beslimes it and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it.”
“All life is so, my child,” he says, “and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it.”
I realized that I love the struggle in my life, and that the minuscule gains become enormous and the constant frustrations just make me want to try harder, and in the meantime I turn to art because it is self-validating and perfect. The pursuits of literature, of German, of athleticism and aestheticism and asceticism are perfect whenever I chase them, because they help me laugh in the face of chaos and despair, and allow me to think these pretty thoughts.