December 22, 2007

Ahh, Go Ahead. . . Follow Your Heart

"Very few men, properly speaking, live at present, but are providing to live another time."
--Jonathon Swift

There are cliches that have only the shallow meaning they typically display, but these are actually quite rare. Far more frequently a cliche is a phrase or expression capable of deep meaning in proper context, but in the present instant being used as a cover for shallow thought. It's easy enough to prove a saying false if you ignore its depth and focus on the shallowest of its available meanings, but what does that net you? A cliche rebuttal of a cliche.

It's possible I suppose to understand "Live each day as if it were your last" in the stunted and empty sense Jonathon Kay (Nat Post, Dec 11 '07) is at pains to refute, but who that took the idea seriously ever did mean what he accuses us of meaning by it? What's almost invariably behind a life lived in hellbound excess, without plan or goal, is an increasingly desperate attempt to cling to the delusion that one is untouchable--indestructible--will live forever. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, weeks before his untimely death, was saying to people "Stick close to me if there's an atomic war. You'll be in a safe zone, no bomb's going to kill me." He was right--no bomb did.

There's no necessary contradiction, on the other hand, between living each day as if it were your last and making plans--even long distance plans--in case it turns out not to be. There might be if you were obliged to live by one maxim and one maxim only, but how stupid is that? I recently finished, in a thirty day spurt of activity, a play whose first partial and abandoned draft I started twenty years ago. My awareness waxed and waned, but I always carried somewhere in my mind the intelligence that one day would be my last, and that I had no guarantee it would be twenty years, or twenty months, or twenty days away. So fine, make plans, recognizing they're all contingent, but recognize as well that each day is a gift that will not be repeated in the same form ever again, and may not be repeated at all. Don't grow so engrossed by plans for the future that you ignore this precious jewel of time and space, yours to shape (within limits) as you choose. (Definitely lay off any plans that'll take more than a century to realize.)

Kay is more cautious in attacking the maxim "Follow your heart"--he makes it clear he's talking about a common understanding whereby following any superficial impulse is described as "following your heart". Why accept the misuse of language then? Why not say what people really mean is "follow your nose" or "follow the prickling of the hairs on your forearm", or whatever superficial guide you prefer, rather than one so firmly embedded at the core of existence as the heart?

If I understand him correctly, Kay believes it's reasonable in youth to pursue the dream the heart prompts you to, and acceptable to continue if you succeed; if not, wise at some point to come up with a plan B. Not the worst advice in the world, but how likely is it that anyone with a deep passion will follow it? If Louis Armstrong had spent twnety years in the wilderness instead of achieving considerable success early in his career, do you think he'd have looked for a plan B? William Blake with his incredibly wide-ranging gifts could have succeeded in any number of careers other than the one he stubbornly clung to all his life, at which he only succeeded posthumously.

He was as politically astute as any British Prime Minister. He had as much unforced eloquence as any three combined. Only one of them might be considered--not by me--his equal as a writer. None was close to his equal as a painter, but then that's not exactly a Prime Ministerial qualification. Very likely that gift would disappear into doodling impulses during idle moments at session, and his great power as a writer be chained to partisan political discourse. Blake as Prime Minister. What countries would he have forced war on, in what far-flung corners of the globe, to vent the bitterness of his frustration over unacted desires?

Are there follies and even crimes associated with following the heart? I suppose. But the ugliest crimes human beings are capable of, the ones it freezes the blood even to have described? All of them, without a single exception, follow from stifling impulses of the heart.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Chancelucky said...

Many years ago, I had this exact argument with of all people, Ray Bradbury. He was speaking at my college and had told us young people to follow our hearts and our passions. I fought the notion very hard.

Looking back, I tend to think that he was right.

Martin Heavisides said...

Overall, it's definitely the way I lean, though I'm aware there are coherent arguments for both positions. Somebody was arguing much the same thing at our Christmas party, and starting off from the idea that very few people are working at jobs they love; most hate or are indifferent to them. My feeling is that a great deal is accomplished that shouldn't be for precisely that reason, and a great deal not accomplished that perhaps should be.

GC SMITH said...

What Martin said.