“The Ideas of the Shipwrecked” – Jose Ortega y Gasset
Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.
The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.
These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.
“Dragon-Princesses” – Rilke, August 12, 1904, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden (from “Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 8; this is my combination and paraphrasing of separate translations by Stephen Mitchell and M. D. Herter Norton)
To speak of solitude again, it becomes clear that at bottom this is not something that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. But that is all.
Yet how much better would it be to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes are used to resting on would be taken away from us, there would no longer be anything near us, and everything far away would be infinitely far. It would be as if a person were taken from his room, without any preparation or transition, and placed on the heights of a great mountain range; he would feel something of the sort: an unparalleled insecurity, an abandonment to something inexpressible that would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces. And what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses!
This is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly, and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, extraordinary imaginings and strange new sensations arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.
But it is necessary for us to experience that too.
We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can. Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.
That human beings have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.
To say nothing of God.
But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we don’t think we can cope. For it is only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude anything, even the most incomprehensible and enigmatical, who will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.
For if we think of the existence of an individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.
We, however, are not prisoners. And we have little reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is likely not against us. If it has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses in all likelihood belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien may become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps many of the dragons in our lives are actually secretly princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
So try not to be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. So why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions might be doing inside of you?
And this is my slight paraphrasing of something else Rilke wrote in “Letters to a Young Poet” (in letter no. 4, I think )–
I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. And try not to be too overwhelmed in your search for answers, many of which probably could not be given to you yet at this point, because you would not be able to really live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.