Joy, Such Joy, Such Unpardonable Joy
“Listen:” Kurt Vonnegut writes in Timequake, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
Okay, so I have done my share of farting around–more farting around than I’d care to admit–and still I wake most mornings with guts twisted in knots of despair. When I stop moving–that’s when the despair sets in. The point, then, is to keep moving. The reality, however, is that the day is full of moments of stillness and silence. During these moments I must confront the despair. Otherwise it will eat me alive.
Here’s a solid example of the truly unnerving: I understand how Dante felt about Beatrice. I hear a woman’s voice in my dreams. Her voice is an echo of the past. It’s been a while since I’ve actually heard her speak, so I can’t be certain that the dream voice sounds anything like the real voice, but that doesn’t matter. She tells me not to worry, that everything will be okay, and I wake up full of hope. Then the despair comes: I must pass through the Inferno before I can reach Paradise, where Beatrice is, but immediately I realize that the point of reaching Paradise is not to rejoin Beatrice. The point of reaching Paradise is simply that–to be in Paradise.
Paradise is its own reward.
When you long for Beatrice, however, the agonies of the Inferno are preferable. The point is to stop longing for Beatrice. She may be a source of hope, but she’s likewise a source of despair.
It’s a special thing to need nothing–nothing to lean on, that is, for happiness. I think that’s what Vonnegut means. He just says it the Vonnegut way. Kraut to kraut, I get it. But here’s the Volker way of putting it: there are two types of people in this world: those who need the sun to feel any warmth and those who carry a sun in their hearts. The former group is destroyed when the sun goes away, and they remain broken when it returns. The latter group may feel the sun set in their hearts, but they know it will rise again. They also know that each return will be more triumphant than the last.
The Volker way is long winded. So it goes.
I wrote that bit about a month ago. I sketched it on the margins of a flight sheet. I was thinking of Dante and Beatrice. Do I regret this? No.
After I wrote these words I found a place for them in a short story I may never finish. Now they are in this piece. They are good words. All the same, they leave me wanting more.
Here’s one of the most honest things I’ve said in a while: “Sometimes I don’t feel like an atheist.” I said it while drinking a Jack and Coke and smoking a cigar the brand of which I’ll never learn. I said it to a group of Christians in Austin Reed’s garage. That night was the first time any of us had met, and of course they wanted me to explain my position. It was a fair demand, I suppose, but how do you explain nothingness? Well, I did my best. I can read any book and find some truth to it, but I don’t want to be bound to any one book. That is, I don’t want to be in a position where I have to defend unworthy ideas. I think that belonging to a religion, if you are sincere about it, means doing just that: negating personal truths when they contradict your religion’s truths. I could never do that sincerely. That’s why I’m an atheist.
But you have to have some sort of foundation. You can have the brightest sun in your heart, but that means nothing unless you have solid earth beneath your feet.
In Timequake, Vonnegut says something genuine and endearing that will help further my point:
“Are we enemies of members of organized religions? No. My great war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, now dead, lost his faith as a Roman Catholic during World War Two. I didn’t like that. I thought it was too much to lose.
“I had never had faith like that, because I had been raised by interesting and moral people who, like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were nevertheless skeptics about what preachers said was going on. But I knew Bernie had lost something important and honorable.
“Again, I did not like that, did not like it because I liked him so much.”
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I don’t like talking about religion with people I don’t know. If there’s any chance that I might crush their faith, I’d rather avoid it.
These Christians told me about their convictions, and for once I understood why other non believers think that faith is a beautiful thing. With great sincerity I told my Christian comrades that I see that they have a happiness I don’t have, that I can never share. Because I have to be sincere about things! But sometimes I think: who needs sincerity? Sincerity, for me, has only led to feelings of joy, such joy, such unpardonable joy. That is, when something good happens to me, I feel I don’t deserve it. Then I get used to that goodness in my life, and after a while, I need that goodness in my life. I’m nothing without it, because it gives me hope, and as Emily Dickinson so rightly wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” It is a thing with feathers, and because it has feathers, it must fly and you must let it fly unhindered. But when you feel unpardonable joy, you want to hold that flying hope in your hand so it will never abandon you. When you do that, though, you crush it, and hope becomes despair, and the joy you felt seems all the more unpardonable: you should never have felt it, because now you are empty again.
I’m no prophet. I don’t have answers.
I’d like to be a philosopher, but I think philosophy has never really existed. Philosophers rehash what dead people have said. They reshuffle the same deck over and over again. They have been doing this throughout recorded history.
But that’s sincerity for you. Sincere people don’t play games. It is time to play the game, so fine: philosophy is a thing. Always has been. Always will be. And here’s something the great dead philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said in Human, All Too Human:
“…what do you know, what could you know about the amount of self-preserving cunning, of reason and higher protection that is contained in such self-deception–and how much falseness I still require so that I may keep permitting myself the luxury of my truthfulness? Enough, I am still alive; and life has not been devised by mortality; it wants deception, it lives on deception–but wouldn’t you know it?”
I think these are fine words. I think they are silly words. I think Nietzsche was silly to emphasize so many of them with italics. Bless him. It was his game, and he played it.
So here I am. I’m outside writing these words, drinking this coffee, smoking these cigarettes, listening to those Beatles. This is where I belong–because I am here.
I don’t know how to form a sun in my heart. Perhaps it’s there already, there in all of us, and the depressed heart, the heart in despair, bears clouds that want to rain. Why stop the rain? Rain makes the grass grow, the flowers bloom, and as Emerson says, “The earth laughs in flowers.” Rainfall is a fair price to pay for laughter and a clear heart.
So Dante’s saying this to Beatrice: “There are no maps in the sky. And if you look at the stars long enough, you’ll see that Orion’s belt doesn’t match his shoes.” Beatrice laughs, and meanwhile Vonnegut rides with the Tralfamadorians and they watch this beat in time over and over again.
What a game life is. Do whatever is clever. Fart around. And always pardon the joy. You deserve it.
Howdy. My name’s Justin Volker, and I’m a freelance writer from Kansas City, Missouri.
Those of you who have read Randy’s mission statement about this blog network will be aware that, in both ‘faith’ and ‘narrative’ posts, some writers will challenge or conflict with the theistic position.
I shall be one of those writers.
If you’re curious about my beliefs and desire clarification, well–I’m rather agnostic about a lot of things, but I do enjoy discussing religion and the place of religion in the life of the individual and in the spiderweb of society. Perhaps in the process of contributing to this site, I will come to an opinion more definite than that, but for now, this is all I can say.
I hope you enjoy reading what I write. Thanks.
About This Blog
This is a blog for challenging assumptions, building faith, and developing a stronger community. The two channels of this blog – Faith and Narrative – push us to know ourselves and the world around us more intimately. Want to learn more about us?