Quarantine Diaries – Day 19
April 2nd, 2020
Well, the days keep on rolling—hopefully for not much longer. Sitting at home and contemplating life has broadened my perspective on what truly matters; however, not going to work, not talking to people (the general isolation from life) has at the same time built a long tunnel around my newly acquired insights. In other words, I was traveling in a tunnel and now I’m in another one; it seems like I see a tiny light at the end of it, but in the great wisdom of Metallica: “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel / Is just a freight train coming your way.” I certainly hope that’s not the case.
Frankly, I don’t really know what I’m talking about so let’s move on to something more concrete: Apparently, yesterday Italy recorded its lowest one-day death toll; this would be more encouraging if the article didn’t mention that it was “the lowest number since March 26th.” Ah, Italy … while I don’t have any words to describe my love for you, I do have some words to describe your willingness to shower praise on yourself too quickly and these words happen to be the following: March 26th? Are you fucking kidding me?
In more precise terms, the lowest one-day death total reported yesterday was “4,782 more coronavirus cases and 727 more deaths in the past 24 hours.” Congratulations, you’ve been conditionally accepted to Harvard; that’s all very good and well but now satisfy the other requirements to get in, fucking graduate, and then we’ll buy you a Maserati.
I don’t know why I’m so high-strung lately. When people are clinging to any shred of optimism that comes their way, I find every excuse to be pessimistic. I guess when you’re sitting in a self-imposed prison, there isn’t much use for hope; as I write this, I’m thinking of The Shawshank Redemption and Red’s response to Andy’s statement about the need to have hope in jail: “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” This paradox of seeing hope as something that causes more damage to the psyche than good has also been echoed by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Human, All too Human.
Unlike traditional Greek interpretations of Pandora’s box, which saw the only thing remaining in the box (hope) as a blessing for mankind, Nietzsche believed that hope itself was just another evil that didn’t manage to escape before Pandora closed it; thus, Zeus left this last “evil” inside to ensure that man could still exist in a tarnished world; in that sense, for Nietzsche, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” Well, it’s good to know that you can count on Germans to make good cellmates and roommates—for the former it would help if you’re serving a life sentence; for the latter, going through a quarantine is quite enough. By the way, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche telling people he’s not a misanthrope—he just likes to self-quarantine when there’s no pandemic.
Tedious though it may be, I’m not done with pessimism and Germans; my favorite in this regard is Arthur Schopenhauer. Although he didn’t use the word “pessimism” anywhere in his most famous work, The World as Will and Representation, “hope” does appear and there’s plenty of pessimism (which I thoroughly enjoy and agree with) to be found whenever that word is used to indicate a longing for something.
Unlike Kant (I’ve also talked about him), whose concept of transcendental idealism posited that humans can’t know the true essence of objects (das Ding an sich—no, this isn’t a heavy metal band) because space, time, and causality aren’t part of the outside world, Schopenhauer believed that that the thing-in-itself did exist, but that it resided within each person—the manifestation of which was the will; the inner will, thus, resembled or perhaps even symbolized the world’s essential nature. Thus, according to Schopenhauer, we can, to some extent (though not completely) experience the true essence of the world, not just “perceive” it, as Kant thought.
Sounds kind of positive, huh? Wait a minute—don’t go anywhere just yet; like anything German, I haven’t talked about the pessimistic aspect yet, which is guaranteed to be there in anything related to German excellence, especially when that excellence is Schopenhauer’s philosophy. I mean look at the guy: He’s just eaten twenty-five Thüringer Bratwürste in one sitting and he still doesn’t feel like following the quarantine.
As you can see by my idiotic happiness in the picture below, I’m a Weißwurst man myself, which is why I bought six packs of the best average quality white sausages.
Anyways, getting back to the more boring side of German excellence, Schopenhauer believed that the will was always striving for something—whether it’s for survival or in expectation of something, the will is always in a state of eternal hope and desire. He stated that even plants have a will—a desire for movement, to grow, to extend themselves, to move upwards; it’s precisely this force generated by the will which Schopenhauer believed to be the cause of torment for man; the only things which are excluded from this curse are inanimate objects.
Thus, hope, ambition, and desire are at the heart of what cause human suffering; the only way to alleviate this torment, according to Schopenhauer, was to embrace the Eastern philosophy of renunciation: “The concept of freedom is thus properly a negative concept, for its content is merely the denial of necessity.” A great piece of art can also mitigate the effects of desire by allowing the viewer to fully enter a contemplative state whereby the complete devotion of our consciousness to the artwork has the power to make the will disappear “so long as the pure aesthetic pleasure lasts.” There’s no permanent solution, however; in other words, unlike in Eastern philosophy, the “enlightenment” only lasts so long as the engagement with the artwork does.
Nevertheless, pure perception can be achieved through contemplation, which according to Schopenhauer is the mark of genius for those who can enter such an enlightened state, which is based on renunciation of the will: “Thus genius is the faculty of continuing in the state of pure perception, of losing oneself in perception, and of enlisting in this service the knowledge which originally existed only for the service of the will; that is to say, genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, thus of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain a pure knowing subject, with a clear vision of the world.” Truly, I’m fascinated, and this is all good and well; however, where do you find art in a quarantine? Well, there’s answer for that, too: Listen to music; according to Schopenhauer, that’s the purest form of art.
Are we about done with art and the Germans? No, we’re not, actually. After reading this article, I’m not sure anyone takes art more seriously than people do in Berlin. Many great cities (I won’t mention any names, or will I?) talk about their artistic legacies, claim to encourage art, and attempt to bring even more artists to their streets, but when times are tough, which one of those cities really takes care of their artists? Paris? New York? Rome? Barcelona? Of course, it’s Berlin.
What other city besides a German one would set aside 500 million Euro for artists in this tough time? Indeed, talk is cheap and unlike the other so-called cultural capitals, only Berlin has really proven their belief in art as something truly essential. It’s not difficult for Parisians—just as an example—to put a plaque in front of Les Deux Magots, stating that so-and-so famous artist was here; it’s in the benefit of the business to do that. What city, however, cares about art to such an extent that they’re not only willing to support their famous living artists, but also their living artists who aren’t famous?
I visited Berlin last summer to do a CELTA course, and, to be honest, besides the WWII history, I didn’t think much of the city at the time. Besides the touristy sights, I also visited the German-Russian Museum, where the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces occurred on May 8th, 1945.
Another interesting out-of-the-way sight is the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the SS met to discuss the so-called Final Solution. Touring the premises, I could not help but notice the extreme contrast—the peaceful setting in which the house was located (overlooking a beautiful lake) and what was discussed there.
Here I am in front of the Reichstag, which, at the time of the Soviet entry into Berlin, hadn’t been used for twelve years; the taking of it, however, represented a symbolic victory over the Germans.
Indeed, besides the amazing history, I wasn’t too impressed with the many young “artists” I saw, who weren’t so much concerned about art itself as they were about leading the artist’s lifestyle; in other words, an excuse to be wild and reckless—like a bunch of Rimbauds or Van Goghs who had never written or painted anything and weren’t interested in doing that either.
None of the people I met had actually accomplished much as artists and it didn’t seem like (at least to me) they were interested in their own creative development. Before I go any further—in no way am I trying to be arrogant by saying that I’ve accomplished a lot (I haven’t at all), but these so-called Berlin bohemians (who were really just hipsters) didn’t strike me as particularly interesting.
However, this recent news has made me realize how wrong I was about the city and about the artists who live there. I had forgotten the oldest truth in art: It’s easy to denounce and to dismiss an artist, but how many examples do we have of such people attaining fame later on? Indeed, it was precisely people like Rimbaud and Van Gogh—mocked and derided during their own time—about whom we speak today.
Although I myself won’t be on the receiving end of a five thousand euro check issued by the city of Berlin, I’m very happy to know that there are people in government who don’t just “talk” about the importance of art, but actually consider it important. Schopenhauer would indeed be proud of his people. In addition, measures like this are encouraging for all artists, even if they’re not directly benefitting from them. Someone has to care about art for people to make it; I hope I can continue doing that here.
All the way from quarantined Italy: I may seem crazy now, but in a month everyone here will be no different.
Until next time.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.