” Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”
Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves – to the moment, to the world, to our own selves – is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.
“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory.
The inquiry itself carries undertones of acknowledging the self illusion, or at the very least brushing up against the question of how we know who “we” are if we’re perpetually changing.
That uncertainty is not an obstacle to living but a wellspring of life – of creative life, most of all. Bridging the essence of art with the notion that not-knowing is what drives science, in the act of embracing the unknown a gateway to self-transcendence:
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own.
Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.
But unlike the dark sea, which obscures the depths of what is, of what could be seen in the present moment, the unknown spills into the unforeseen.
Edgar Allan Poe, who argued that “in matters of philosophical discovery … it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely,” and considers the deliberate juxtaposition of the rational, methodical act of calculation with the ineffable, intangible nature of the unforeseen:
How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.
The poet John Keats captured this paradoxical operation elegantly in his notion of “negative capability,” and Walter Benjamin, who memorably considered the difference between not finding your way and losing yourself – something he called “the art of straying.”
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.
In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.
That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
Even the word itself endured an unforeseen transformation, its original meaning itself lost amidst our present cult of productivity and perilous goal-orientedness:
The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.
I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.
Taking back the meaning of lost seems almost a political act, a matter of existential agency that we ought to reclaim in order to feel at home in ourselves.
There’s another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn’t cause for panic or suffering, of being at home with being lost. . . .
Lost [is] mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry. The question then is how to get lost.
Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.