Solitude and freedom is hard to come by in this day and age. I think most of us know that and know the negative effect it has on our lives, even as we still follow the news, check trends on Twitter, and watch photostreams on Instagram. Our daily lives are largely caught up in the spectacle of modern life, but for some reason we feel that paying attention to it gives us a measure of control over it. In reality, we have no control, because not only is the message fed to us beyond our control, but our ability to assert ourselves politically and economically is systematically frustrated and denied.
I contend that this is because we are in an age of empire. There is no Hadrian or Darius or Victoria, so many do not recognize it as one. What makes our contemporary polity an empire, though, is that the great majority of us must obey a master and there is no option to be ourselves. Want healthcare? You must join a faceless corporate army or depend upon the supposedly noble government to subsidize your costs. The former demands your labor for what it deems is a fair wage and the latter demands that you not make more money lest your subsidy disappear and you owe money back to the government. This economic control has a direct political effect: the corporate world will demand your support for an unchained market, lest your job be outsourced, and the government will demand you stand behind continued high levels of spending so your subsidy, as well as other public services, does not disappear. Blessed are the meek, for they have been bought and are putting it on their tab.
Some of us lash out and attempt to disconnect from the world in reaction to this, but that is largely as useless as attempting to get involved and take control of the situation. How will you find peace and satisfaction when all those forces greater than you are still there, growing, taking more and more from your one and only life? What then must you do?
I think that question must be answered with a second one: how may we regain some control over what is immediately ours, our own lives? How may we reassert independence when the security of free citizens is completely nominal? How may we create meaning when we are used to having meaning made for us?
There is precedent for this, for others have lived through imperial times before. The Stoic Epictetus once wrote, “You can be invincible if you do not enter any contest in which victory is not up to you. . . . For if the really good things are up to us, neither envy or jealously has a place, and you yourself will want neither to be a general or a magistrate or a consul, but to be free.”
Epictetus, a freed Roman slave who had seen the lives of the powerful first-hand, is saying that even to try to enter the corridors of power and profit is to make yourself a slave in spirit. No matter your rank or wealth, you are inevitably caught up in the machinations of something far mightier than your own influence and are inevitably bound by it. To be free, Epictetus says, we must only look to that which is within our own power. Today that pretty much rules out what we are accustomed to considering our birthright in the West: a political voice and an economic face.
What then remains within our own power? We have our opinions, reactions, and attitudes, as Epictetus notes, but I would say we also have art. We all have the capacity for art in one form or another. And by this I mean real art, art that is not subject to utility, obsolescence, or official approval. It is done for its own sake, and makes its own meaning.
Most of my life is filled up with the incessant frustration of scraping by paycheck to paycheck. But in the mornings and evenings, before and after work, when all is quiet, I am free. I sit down at my small desk and I go into my own world and I make my art. That world has rules to follow and demands strict discipline on my part – it will not tolerate carelessness or license. But within those parameters, so much broader than the physical reality that I inhabit, there is a new and greater reality that comes to life. It is like that physical world but without limits on potential. There is no one telling me what is realistic or proper. I become an individual again. My race, class, belief, or wealth do not matter any longer as my defining characteristics. And eventually, as one page turns into five, then a chapter, and finally a book, my autonomy returns. For what I create defines me, as I insist I am. Critics may evaluate my work, pick it apart, and try to pigeonhole it as simply a product of those old labels I have toiled so hard to escape. But they cannot erase the fact that my creation exists and they had to respond.
And yet even if no one reads it, even if it sits neglected, I still created it. It shows at least to me that I did not sit by and allow my life to be run completely by others. I have tangible proof that I was true to myself -- free -- in at least one thing.
We, collectively and individually, must have our own art in this sordid age. I am not saying that we all should strive to become best-selling authors or have our paintings hang in MOMA. But we must each create a tangible work in a way that is unique. We must put down, through any medium, only truth, that particular truth as we see it, however we see it. We must do so at least for ourselves, but perhaps also for the generations that follow, that they might understand our trials and see we were not all complicit in the unfortunate legacies our world is bequeathing to them.
And it must be art, and art above all else. Art is not like science, which is so vaunted today. Art is the only human practice that has no obsolescence and needs no utility; it is the only thing we do that speaks exactly to who and what we were, at that time, in that place. It is the lasting “I” and the lasting “we.” Don't you see?