By Emily Conklin, Staff Writer
An Aesthete’s Take on Against Everything: The Meaning of Life, Part I
Mark Greif was crazy to take on this collection of essays, but I could not be more grateful that he decided to begin.
While Greif, the cofounder of n+1 Magazine, explores many diverse yet interconnected themes that I will summarize as a recipe for a better life, I want to zoom in on a specific piece within the piece. Some profound paragraphs that analyze the disparate yet similar lives of Flaubert and Thoreau claim that they represent the ideologies of aestheticism and perfectionism.
Context: Aestheticism is to Flaubert as perfectionism is to Thoreau. Both writers sought to create methodologies that would act as a reprieve, a recipe to exist in their changing modern world. Humanity was revolving away from “for God” to “for happiness,” and new world orders of behavior dictation were emerging, hazy and immoral. He cites how even beginning almost a hundred years prior, the United States included “the pursuit of happiness” to rights to such ideas as life and liberty, even “In God we trust.”
Yet upon reading this introduction, I found myself automatically qualifying ‘perfectionism’ as less than and more sinister than ‘aestheticism,’ attempting to come to terms with this possibly bizarre bias.
Because I — a liberal humanities university student — agree almost wholeheartedly with the aesthete’s outlook and method for living life. I wanted to see how and why Greif believed such a handbook was needed. Visuals, creatives, poets, artists, introverts — this collection of ‘we’ gravitates and participates in this type of lifestyle often involuntarily. Without noticing small beauties, little moments, art and the written word, I don’t know what I would fill my head with. Yet, I find myself questioning, is this as subconscious as I believe it to be? Or have I, and this collective ‘we,’ been conditioned into this?
Many therapists, teachers and books seem to be inflating “mindfulness” as the newest psychological buzzword, vaulting the concept to be a the cure-all for everything from teen suicide to anxious young parents: The media can be pervasive.
We collect these cues through everything from state-mandated schooling to Instagram, as these ‘institutions’ allow us to curate, to an extent, how we see the world. We align ourselves with certain teams — “English people” vs. “math people” — beginning as early as middle school. But what unites us? What connects us, other than our residence in an outgrowth of a great 21st century city?
Greif offers his take on the Pursuit of Happiness.
The idea that we would analyze the world around us and seek beauty in the mundane, when contrasted with a literary figure like Thoreau or Flaubert, opens a new door that psychology may follow the trends and twists of modern art, or vice versa. While a medical student may see everyday life as mere stepping stones towards the larger goal of a residency, the novelist uses daily commutes as similar stepping stones of material for that ever-elusive book deal — no “group” of people consistently seizes the moments around them insofar as therapists and Flaubert recommend.
As the disasters and upheaval of the early 20th century took hold in the minds of artists, writing and art turned its back on the Romances and the Pastoral of past eras, and focused instead on Modernist tropes like stream of consciousness, cubism, dadaism, French New Wave… the list could go on.
Today, ‘we’ are striving to make sense of the material, technological, and starkly divided political world that envelops us. We are trying to make sense of how we can differ so much from our neighbors just seemingly a stone’s throw away.
I think many humanities students have longed, many a time, to follow Thoreau into the woods.
Yet with the rise of some social media platforms to an artistic elevation of endeavor, spaces like Instagram have become beacons of light amidst the memes and fake news commentaries, a space where artists and creatives can fully delve into the life of the aesthete, without the societal seclusion or hermitude of our predecessors. We can freely take crystal clear iPhone photographs of trash and graffiti on the streets of our cities, of weeds growing beneath park benches, or discarded shoes and glitter lining the streets of our favorite happy hour bars.
Because we are trying to take back our world from the ugliness and materialism that we know it is. We are translating it, but we don’t see it as ‘lost’. We are in the process of re-creation.
Maybe this is a jaded, happy-go-lucky idealistic collegiate viewpoint. But with each photograph of the mundane, of the ugly, of the underbelly of society, it is reclaimed. The elevation of the ugliness of everyday lived experience as city dwellers steeped in simultaneous solitude and overindulgence is a method for finding clarity, perspective, and maybe even purpose.
And that’s was aestheticism is: Elevating our experience so that every walk, every train ride, every coffeeshop is seen as A Moment, a Memory to be shared and discussed in conversations of increasing volume at cocktail parties. Because what really are our memories? Grief brilliantly states that modern man is a hoarder, an avid collector of memories not for the immediate experience — no, true lived experience does not leave lingering vivid memory, you are too busy experiencing — to put on a shelf, to display at our own cocktail parties, to finger as we ruminate on a life well lived or well wasted. How many objects do I have on last week’s shelf? Last month’s? Last year’s? We judge and measure our lived experience as we do our weight.
Yet, what is inherently wrong with the collector?
Life doesn’t tax us for this type of collection. No money is needed for the transaction.
The clothing of an aesthete may fit some more naturally than others. There are many closets to choose from in this life. But life well lived may be like carrying around a camera, or like a camera following you, documenting your life in its rich normalcy. You passed a smug neon sign today. You bought a coffee that came in a heavy, richly colored mug. You found a scrap of anonymous poetry between the pages of a library book.
You gained insight. You made a Moment count in itself, rather than shelving it in preparation or expectation of another, better, bigger moment.
You are in Pursuit: digesting all that life is, and then making something of it.