Paris Letters #72

The Cyclops (Odilon Redon)

I use different voices in writing. At times I wax poetic, other times I’m deadly earnest. Sometimes I write comedy or polemics, sometimes I combine the two. There are times when I write short staccato sentences to express urgency, or stream of consciousness without punctuation. I can be both dissonant or melodic, I can be constructive or tear everything down. Usually I write as man, but sometimes I feel like I write from a woman’s perspective. I haven’t tried a gay voice in writing yet, but why not? I might even try to write from the perspective of a snail … .

The point is: why not explored different or even contradictory voices and styles? The different parts of us are not always in accord, but it doesn’t matter: we are not ‘one thing’ but multiple beings. Let’s oppose that dictatorship of singularity and mono-personality. The notion that we are one solid entity is old hat: it is the work of the industrial age to make us appear uniform and mono-logical, cogs in a machine. But that’s really not who we are. Who we are is an always changing, morphing, mysterious entity. Personality is a convenient reference point, but often a deluding façade as well.

Take Shakespeare: he was polymorphous; he lived through multiple characters in his plays and poems. We don’t know who the ‘real’ Shakespeare is at all — in fact, the real Shakespeare exists more in the characters he invented than in any biography. Actually, personalities don’t exist either in any absolute sense: the ‘I’ we normally use is just a form of linguistic convenience to describe something wholly indefinable and mysterious. Our identity is much larger than we normally think; and, moreover, we have quite a few.

As a more contemporary example, Bob Dylan also understood the benefit of multiple personas. He built his career, not on ‘being himself’, but on always being somebody else. For instance, in the beginning he channeled Woody Guthrie to the point of possession. Dylan’s genius was to assimilate his heroes until he had transcended them, to absorb great artists and traditions until they were part of his bloodstream. An artist doesn’t have to stick to any one medium; he could have multiple forms of expression and identities, even if one is dominant. Dylan also, paints, sails, writes novels, and makes huge sculptures out of iron in his spare time.

We could all do this. If you are a gardener, why not play the tuba? If you are a doctor, why not write poetry? If you are an accountant, why not make documentary films? In my view, everybody should have multiple modes of being — nobody should be a professional in just one medium.

The question ’what do you do?’ has always felt awkward to me. Shouldn’t we have several different answers? Isn’t having a single occupation a terrible curse? Aren’t we really creatures of many? Couldn’t we say, ‘I’m a musician’ one day and ‘I’m an unemployed samurai’, or ‘I’m an insect lover’ on another? Why should we define ourselves based on our ‘jobs’ and what we do to survive, instead of our hearts passions? And do we really need to define ourselves at all?

That is not to say we might not have one dominant skill or gift that we can dedicate most of our creative time to. But doing other things will enrich that gift. For example, writing these little essays, often gives me ideas for songs. Practicing tai chi sharpens my body/mind for writing. Cooking nourishes these words as well. Everything we do could be for our betterment, even if our job is to clean toilets. Actually, the people who clean toilets or do the ‘dirty’ jobs that we look down on, so very often have fascinating stories to tell of their ‘other lives’.

As a personal example, when I was a struggling musician in Montreal, I washed dishes to pay the bills. In the little restaurant where I worked I met all kinds of people: poets, scientists, war veterans, novelists: all of whom were doing manual labor to support their other passions. I also met a homeless man, who I am certain was a mystic of the highest order, and who gave me better advice than I’m sure a top therapist could. The point is if we look at people just based on their job description, we miss everything.

There are a lot of things to criticize about post-modernity, but one good thing we are discovering is the possibility of being adaptable. Today we are not stuck to any fixed identity therefore we can explore many. Wasn’t ancient life actually more like that — in nomadic societies I’m certain people did all kinds of tasks but nobody had a single job? Similarly, in our inner lives, let us not be trapped in any one identity, but be nomadic explorers of the spiritual world in its multiple guises and depths.

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