Friday, September 9, 2022

Sewer Grate in Italy


Sewer Grate in Italy, 2022, Watercolor on Paper, 40" x 60"

And the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, we will be obstinate in this smallest of matters: Let them embrace everything, but not with any help from me.

The above quote is by Alexander Solzhenitsyn from an essay titled “Live Not by Lies” or at least one version I found of it. He released it in the Soviet Union in 1974 before being exiled to the west. I just finished reading his book, Gulag Archipelago. There’s a lot of interesting and pertinent stuff he had to say. Stuff that’s eerily relevant to today’s world. One message from Gulag Archipelago, whose sentiment is embodied in the above quote, is that the power of the Soviet regime was built on lies. And that the people gave them that power by not contradicting those lies, by being too afraid of the consequences to speak against the perceived majority. The majority who are either too ignorant, too na├»ve, or too complacent to speak up themselves.

Studying abroad sounded interesting. I wanted to do one in college before and didn’t get the chance. None of the options fit my schedule or major. But at SAIC, there was a chance to go to Italy for three weeks to paint. I like the idea of travelling to some place for a long period of time. That way I can really immerse in the place and get to know it. Instead of just going to the more touristy things, I’d wander around and see the city. What the city looks like to the locals or even beyond what they see as well. Just wander around and get a taste for all the idiosyncrasies that make each city unique. But three weeks works too, I guess.

The study abroad was hosted by some local art school/organization in Monte Castello di Vibio, a 15th century village in central Italy. We’d stay most of the trip there with a few side trips on the weekends. For the most part, the plan was to just paint. The host school put us in a convent and fed us. The rest of the time we would go around the village or the nearby surrounding area and find something to paint. Two professors from SAIC came with to chaperon us and they would give critiques and host workshops.

Or something like that. This trip was back in summer of 2018. So, I don’t quite remember it all. Or remember what order events happened in. And I’m not sure I have any interesting narrative to throw together for this short story. For the most part, I just painted. I made a few oil paintings and then a bunch of watercolors. About thirty, I think. I should go back and look at those paintings and see if I can improve on them in any way. That’ll be hard though since they’re watercolor. I don’t plan on changing the oil paintings, though I suppose I could try pulling out my supplies for that and see if I can still do oil. I think I might repaint some of the watercolors- I’m not sure. I like to just to keep moving on to the next painting and take what I learned from the last one to improve the next. Well, in theory, I learn from each painting.

The bus ride out to Monte Castello was nice. Probably about an hour away from the airport or so. We went through a lot of farmland. A lot of them were growing sunflowers. There were vast fields of yellow flowers. Some of the fields were empty and had haystacks in them like you see in paintings. I’m pretty sure during the bus ride I was mostly just listening to my music and looking out the window. Back then, I think I was probably listening to Pat the Bunny, Mischief Brew, or Days n Daze. Then there was some Jefferson Airplane, Jimmy Hendrix, or Manuka Piglet. Something just bizarrely awesome about listening to Rambler’s Ghost or From Here to Utopia or Mr. Kelp while impressionist-looking landscapes fly by.

But then this wasn’t what my therapist and I talked about. In preparation for this trip, we talked about trying to be more social and talking to the classmates. This was a different environment and being together in a foreign country where most people won’t speak the same language is an opportunity to bond with the classmates. Or at least challenge the social anxiety. Need to make some effort to talk to these people, get to know them or whatever. Ugh… the anxiety, my stomach is hurting, heart rate racing. Just take the headphones out, turn the music off, at least listen to them.

And what are they talking about. I don’t really remember what they said. I do remember thinking something along the lines of ugh, I can’t relate to these people. I don’t care about the same things. Is this what normal people think or talk about? Was probably some musician that actually gets play on the late night tv shows or celebrities or whatever. No, no, they probably were talking about other stuff, I just wasn’t really paying attention. I don’t know. And I don’t really care. And I have nothing to add to this conversation.

Until… I remember someone brought up nihilism for some reason and then they started arguing about that. That was kinda interesting. Surprisingly, most people shot down the nihilism. The nihilist was all- nothing means anything and I didn’t ask to be born and stuff. I’m not sure what exactly the rest said in response to that. Probably something along the lines of the universe is meaningful if you look for it or something, I don’t remember. Did I say something? I think I chimed in. Or was that later, one of the other times nihilism came up? Or maybe both.

Anyways, I think I said something to the effect of it only means nothing because you make it mean nothing. At this point, I was starting to grow out of my own nihilism. The other people involved in this conversation seemed really annoyed at the idea of a meaningless universe and genuinely concerned that this classmate thought that way. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own concern for the potential connection between nihilism and my self-sabotaging behaviors. They didn’t seem to notice however, that my position was that you can make the universe mean anything you want- a happier kind of cynicism that was not too far away from nihilism.

Nihilist or not, we all still managed to drink a bit too much. The lunch and dinner they provided us came with wine. Until about a week and a half into the trip and they told us that we drank all of it already. Though that may have been just what they told us to stop all the drinking. The last week and a half seemed more productive, but I still painted at about the same rate. Maybe if I knew which paintings were made when, I’d see a difference.

Taking the wine away didn’t completely stop the drinking. If I remember correctly though, I did slow down significantly or even stopped some days so I could focus on the painting. I didn’t like the way I had behaved and that needed to stop. I even carried this attitude on, somewhat, to the next semester at school. Or at least, I wasn’t drinking a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka a week like the previous semester. But back to Italy- like I said, that didn’t completely stop the drinking. There was a bar down the hill from Monte Castello that people seemed to go to a lot. Happily, I managed not to go too often, at least from the perspective of drinking too much. And from the perspective of trying to be social and challenge the anxiety, I guess happily I did go a few times.

Though the times I did go I usually drank and then wouldn’t get much night painting done. There was a night I remember throwing up in the bar’s bathroom. There was another night, or at least I think this was a different night, when one of the student workers at the host school walked me back to the convent. I have a memory of yelling something while walking, but I’m not sure if that really happened or not. I’m pretty sure the day after getting helped back home was the morning, I woke up covered in my own vomit. Wait, that must’ve happened later in the trip because I think that’s when I decided I was drinking too much, and I really needed to stop- later in the trip but still before they cut us off from the wine. Well, I never promised to tell this story in order.

What else, what else. Not sure where to go with this story. There was a lot of drama on the trip. The group that went seemed to be a nice little microcosm of the art school world. And all that comes with that. I remember pronouns came up a few times. One of the people on the trip made a comment about never going to get the pronouns and transgenderism. The other person argued something about how it’s easy to learn and respectful to use the proper pronouns. I remember thinking though, the older you are the more stuff you have to work through, the more memories you have to reevaluate, to make a change like that. Or at least, that was a potential problem I saw with saying that changing was easy- it’s not when you have that much more to work through, that much more solidified habits, that much more of an already established worldview. To say the least…

Then someone else had a run-in with the transgender issue as well. They had asked something along the lines of why do the trans people, specifically the trans women, when acting like the preferred gender, perform the stereotypical behaviors or wear the stereotypical costumes of that gender. Those stereotypes and fitting into them were what they had fought against way back when. Well, the other person said something about that’s just what they know of that gender, and thus the only way they know how to project that gender identity. So, they embody those stereotypes to make themselves feel comfortable. I think this is when I thought, and I know I didn’t say this, but you’re also the nihilist, what difference does gender or pronouns make either way? Whatever, don’t touch this topic, I don’t want to deliberately piss people off and push them away.

And he who is not sufficiently courageous to defend his soul — don’t let him be proud of his ‘progressive’ views, and don’t let him boast that he is an academician or a people’s artist, a distinguished figure or a general. Let him say to himself: I am a part of the herd and a coward. It’s all the same to me as long as I’m fed and kept warm.

But why not stick up for my beliefs, even if people get mad? This person was otherwise pretty cool to hang out with- well at that time when I was a degenerate alcoholic, at least. Still, even if we disagreed about values or philosophy, that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect them as a person or their beliefs. Besides disagreements make conversations more interesting. I didn’t want to end a potential friendship with them. But then, is it really a friendship if I’m too afraid to speak up about my opinions or beliefs? Or if they at least seem to view any disagreement as being disdainful. And that goes with anyone else there on the study abroad or at SAIC in general or anyone really. I’ve been hesitant to talk about things because of how others might take it. Or rather, how I fear they might take it. …How much of this is just what I project onto other people. Either way… Oh, how disgustingly cowardly I have become.

There were some instances when I did talk about politics a bit with classmates, but usually when drunk. Yet, I like following politics and thinking about that sort of stuff so without that, there seems to be a huge part of me that’s hidden away. No, don’t discuss values or philosophy, that could also lead to people inferring things about me. But everything in some way is related to one’s own worldview so what is left to talk about?

One night, I remember going to the bar and drinking with the professor that was in charge of the host school. There was one of the assistants with too. I don’t remember how the conversation turned this way, but it got political. I was fairly drunk so there’s that. I don’t really remember that much. I said something about Clinton’s foreign policy being endorsed by Kissinger and that alone was reason enough to vote against her. Trump promised in one of his rallies to end the policy of regime change. The professor retorted that shouldn’t America spread its values and said something about Machiavelli. Well yes, maybe, I mean, I do think those values are worth spreading. But is spreading those values at the threat of war or sanctions really the most effective way? And if self-governance is one of those values, shouldn’t we practice what we preach in order to be taken seriously? Meaning we should respect the sovereignty of other countries and cultures. But then again, should we look the other way and let people take advantage of American isolationism? I guess there should be some balance between those two positions.

Then there were some gotcha questions like who’s Dick Durbin. I didn’t know at the time. I should’ve turned around and asked which district does Maxine Waters represent? But of course, I didn’t know the point was to ask about the senator of the state I was living in at the time. I know Maxine Waters is the 43rd district representative because I try to vote her out every two years. Yeah, yeah, but Dick Durbin is the democrat whip, and I should’ve probably known that too.

One of the points of interest at Monte Castello is the smallest theater in the world. The host professor gave an artist talk at this theater. I was curious what the inside of the theater looked like. So, I went to the talk. And yeah, I was also curious to hear what the professor had to say about art as well. None of my classmates showed up. Just the student workers from the school and I think one of the chaperon professors from our school. The talk was good. I have forgotten most of it, unfortunately. But the paintings were kinda cool, weird but cool. Well, cool because they were weird. One detail that really stood out was the part about doing plein air paintings at night by candlelight. I remember thinking that must be hard to do, especially if it’s windy.

I think it was the next day after this artist talk that one of our professors talked to me. They said something about how they’re glad I’m not with the rest of the classmates and getting involved in the drama and treating the professors poorly. I was mostly confused by this, what was going on? Apparently, there was some group chat the rest of the classmates were on, and stuff was going around and whatever. I didn’t really want to know. That just sounded so childish.

One of the classmates told me later that no one went to the host professor’s artist talk because they organized a boycott. What, why? Well, the classmates all got a message on their Instagram about some lawsuit against that professor. My first thought was, that’s curious, how did the sender know you were all going on this Italy trip? Back then, I didn’t have an Instagram. The lawsuit was something about this professor being accused of sexual harassment and some other things. So, everyone shunned him, and apparently also blamed our professors too for somehow condoning the host professor and so the classmates were giving everyone crap. But it was a pending lawsuit and a civil one, too, not even criminal. No one here knows anything and the professors were all nice to us. Never gave me a reason to be outright disrespectful to them.

That seemed to be a huge dark cloud over the whole trip. People were pissed about it. Whatever. It all seemed so childish. Better yet, after doing some digging into that whole mess recently, it appears that the lawsuit was dropped and settled out of court. And the professor seems to be suing the accuser and other parties for defamation. At least according to some twitter account that seems to be reliably informed.

So much for innocent till proven guilty. Yeah, sure that maxim is intended for how the government treats the accused. But that doesn’t somehow mean that the public upholding that principle isn’t important as well. If the public condemns people without proper evidence or a court verdict, that is just as detrimental to a culture of liberty as if the government condemned those people without cause or verdict. There would be no freedom to live without fear of false accusation, which is to say, there would be no freedom to live in any way that puts one at risk of false accusation. Which ultimately amounts to not being free, living at the whim of the mob. In a similar way, the public’s failure to uphold the principle of free speech destroys the possibility of a culture that speaks freely.

But surely things aren’t really that bad, that’s just hyperbole and slippery slope thinking. Right? Just me that’s too scared to speak up in class or with classmates and to some extent that’s just my social anxiety and self-doubt. Anyways, one of the side trips on the weekend, we went to an art museum. The night before, we were getting ready to go. Looking up the cost, where it was, what was on exhibition, stuff like that. Turned out that the museum offered student pricing, but only to students with passports from countries other than the United States. Because of the recent election… two years prior. The professor was talking about this to one of the classmates and I just happened to be nearby. The classmate made some comment about how yeah, even among college students there were a lot of Trump voters, looking at me as they said this. I’m pretty sure this happened before I got drunk and talked politics with that host professor.

Whatever. The whole thing is kinda funny, actually. Yeah, as a NATO member, the United States effectively covers your military costs, and you guys get to spend that money on your slowly collapsing social security system. So, of course you’re pissed. But to take it out on the college students visiting an art museum? The majority of them are probably progressive. Yeah, make them pay for it. See if any Trump voters notice or care. Like that’s going to pull you out of austerity.

Oh yeah, I forgot about this. Not to mention that at the time, Italy only just elected a party founded by a comedian and an anti-immigrant party with ties to Viktor Orban in a coalition government to parliament. So, does Italy have any ground to stand on when complaining about Trump, and for what exactly? Being anti-immigrant or a loudmouth celebrity? Says the country that just refused a boat carrying supplies to refugees stranded at sea. (Back in 2018, a few months before our trip.) Ah, politics is fun.

Anyways, on one of the last nights of the trip, we all gather at the bar. I drank some but not too much this time. Still don’t really remember much. This was four years ago. Everybody’s talking, acting all nice to each other, saying their goodbyes. We may or may not see each other back at school. Well, a couple of them I might see. But even then, school doesn’t start for another month or so. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but somehow nihilism came up again.

Then they all went dancing. I don’t dance. I don’t like my body. That’s just icky. I wouldn’t want to subject anyone, including myself, to that. So I stayed behind. I think this was the time I got to talking about the holy fool with one of the classmates that also stayed behind. The holy fool is my favorite archetype and is tangentially relevant to the conversation about nihilism. Holy fools are important figures in Eastern Orthodox and Russian culture generally. I like the idea of a character that rejects social norms and worldly ideas of success while performing outrageous acts. However, the acts are not just random trolling to shock people. The acts of the holy fool are used to get people to laugh at themselves and the world in a sad kind of way. That sad kind of way that comes with the realization of what a horrible person you really are.

In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand-fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.

Holy fools live according to higher values. Of course the universe has meaning then. Holy fools wouldn’t care about social niceties or keeping up to date with whatever’s politically correct. Like Diogenes walking away from a group of philosophers arguing about the existence of motion. Likewise, the holy fools would do something both funny, absurd, and darkly sad to show the ridiculousness of an empty meaningless universe. And if the universe has meaning, then the truth has meaning, then values and principles have meaning, then national debt has meaning, then money has meaning… And so does everything else have meaning. And with that meaning …well, I don’t know. Do I really want to go there? Do I have the courage to say it?

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