Stories of Self and Suffering

/ October 2022

Why do we choose to suffer? When traveling, for instance, I choose of my own volition to ride long and uncomfortable buses, to get food poisoning due to my diet, to forgo sleep, to exert myself to the point of exhaustion, and more. Above all, perhaps, is the almost unbelievable decision to relinquish that great power given by the divine and revoked as Babel’s punishment: the ability to speak, to use language to wield agency in the world. I move mute and helpless through alien lands enduring pain and hardship while I could be contentedly relaxed in a harmless and hedonistic environment supported by a high-earning job in the empire.

Of course, these self-inflicted sufferings do not compare to the daily brutality inflicted upon so many, those who must toil, those to whom violence both physical and structural is performed, those who suffer despite making no decision that caused it. My purpose is not to lament or boast but to understand why the abstract human narrative demands suffering in order to have a complete plot.

As always, this analysis of my sense of self is wrapped together with a mirrored political project: to discover a way of forming radical new imaginaries by liberating our inherent skill of narrativization from its iron-bound cultural shackles. I find that the hegemonic discourse of capital carries with it a hegemonic mold of story-telling. The way we construct explanations and causalities inherits the baggage of our culture. We so rarely find stories coming out of the culture industry comfortable with the following elements: interpersonal conceptual fluidity; ontologies which affirm as real structures larger than atomized individuals; motivations more noble than greed; nonlinear or nonteleological processes; personal logics operating outside of the rationality of material accumulation; acceptance of ignorance, impermanence, or other inherent bounds of mortality. There exists a hegemonic epistemology which constraints our ability to tell stories, and I want to destroy it.

Somewhere within the construction of our fickle self lies the indispensable tool of suffering, and I believe that this tool offers us some kind of way out. It provides a lens through which we can understand how we tell stories, how we form the narratives which constitute our malleable and ever-shifting sense of identity. Through this excavation of my fluid me, I hope to develop a sort of counter-epistemology, a framework of counter-narrativization against the hegemonic discourses of self and collective.

To this end, I will begin with a reading of Tennyson’s excellent poem “The Lotos-eaters,” (I myself will use the standard transliteration of “lotus”) before drawing on other writings to deconstruct the framing of suffering presented in the poem and move towards a coherent concept of counter-narrative, concluding with a brief reading of the twinned Tennyson poem “Ulysses.”

Let us begin by tracing the appeal of idleness before turning to the natural yet illuminating critiques of inaction. From the first stanza of “The Lotos-eaters”,

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

The first characteristic we are exposed to of the land of the lotus-eaters is its timelessness: it seems always afternoon, languid, adrift and external to the relentless, crushing flow of temporality. It exists in a dream-like non-time, the image of the “weary dream” invoking a liminal state between wake and sleep, being and non-being. These characteristics of the setting continue to be developed as we read,

A land where all things always seem'd the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came

Again, the island is one of stasis, of indeterminacy. It is a place where opposing forces mediate into intermediate nothingness, faces both “pale” and “dark” producing visages “mild-eyed.” Even the form of the text reproduces this feeling of timelessness, with constant repetition (of “afternoon” in the preceding passage and “faces” here, and many more examples in subsequent quotations). As the narration drifts from objective story-telling into the subjectivity of the lotus-eating sailors, we hear the initial transformation brought upon by the sacred plant of idleness:

And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

The mediating contradictions in this stanza-concluding couplet give way to a beautiful reality, one in which passive, thoughtless cardiac operation expands into an aesthetic experience. Thus from the idling drug emerges the beauty of intentional appreciation, the sailor free from toil able to appreciate, unencumbered, the natural joy of being alive.

Thus our fair sailors make the dramatic decision to remain on the island, forgoing their journey home to Ithaca:

Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then some one said, "We will return no more";

Weary indeed seems labor against the ever-present option of idleness – why would our brave sailors, having already gone through so many trials, want to leave an island of:

sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass…
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.

Music, the music of life, the fundamental aesthetic experience of the self observing its environment, binds the sailors to their newfound island. Yet wrapped within this soaring language in praise of idle lotus-eating is the seed of discontent. The music does not excite, but subdue; does not energize, but brings “sweet sleep.” It is not a boon won from idleness so much as a mystical reinforcement, an intensification of the idleness which produces it.

This brings us to the lotus-eaters’ critique of suffering, the second section of the Choric Song, my favorite passage and one which I will quote in full:

Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
"There is no joy but calm!"
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

The Job-like critique of suffering mixes with a Buddhist praise of non-doing (“There is no joy but calm!”), rejecting the injustice of the human experience but, crucially, failing to posit a constructive alternative. And indeed here again is the fatal flaw of our lotus-eating friends: their flight from suffering is not into resistance but into resignation, into a desperate reliance on “slumber’s holy balm” to shield them from pain. They display the same issue which I have with postmodernism as an intellectual force, that is, a precise and accurate critique of an oppressive situation coupled with an incoherent and ultimately defeatist solution.

Of course, this critique ignores the Zen-like contentment and appreciation for life displayed frequently by the poem’s incredible language. Consider the passage:

The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
All its allotted length of days
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

I can only admire the wisdom of this passage, the peace made with impermanence, the use of non-sentient natural forces as inspiration for the path of the wise. The flower is not peaceful due to a drugged bliss as with the sailors, but rather due to an acceptance of “its place,” of “its allotted length,” a connection to its underlying “fruitful soil.” This could be taken straight from a Zen or Taoist text, and one triumph of this poem is the sympathy which its wonderful language forces upon us for the wayward sailors.

In the fourth section of the Choric Song, we reach the phenomenal lines:

Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?...
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

Again, this critique motions in the direction of an advanced Zen critique before slinking back to the reliance on “dreamful ease,” a solution to suffering based on hedonistic sloth. More than just hedonism, it is a solution of negation, of denial, of unreality, the tragic non-participation implied by the poem’s focal dream-world. Indeed, the non-participation becomes self-fulfilling as the sailors imagine their return to their Ithacan homes:

And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

Having spectralized themselves, the sailors are content to abdicate their responsibilities to Odysseus’s voyage as well as to their abandoned households. Their goal is to reach towards divinity, to regain the Edenic paradise lost:

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar…

The mythical state of sustenance without labor, the domain of gods (and pre-fall Adam and Eve), becomes the higher aspiration justifying relinquishment of mortal lives.

While I could comment on the splendor of every line of this poem, I will for the sake of space reference one final passage, the concluding three lines of the poem:

Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

The sailor-narrators need to reassure themselves that their choice of indolence is valid, that “surely, surely” the bliss of emptiness is worth more than ultimately-meaningless mortal exertion. What interests me in this final passage is the framing of choosing between two forms of exile: exile upon the idyllic shores of the lotus island, or exile in the “deep mid-ocean,” wandering far from any stable home. The ultimate goal of their voyage, to return to Ithaca, has been dispensed with; to resume voyaging is to accept an indefinite naval perdition, a limbo of suffering rather than one of bliss, an equivalent timeless void defined by labor instead of sloth. With this framing, how could anyone choose to return to “wind and wave and oar,” to the brutality of endless wandering, rather than the self-aware annihilation brought upon by the dreamy lotus? If all is exile, if all is equivalently just passing time until our mortal ends, why not enjoy the beauty that surrounds us rather than struggle against some infinite environmental foe in pursuit of a real but mortal gain?

Of course, Odysseus is unconvinced, dragging by force his lotus-addled crew and setting sail, “lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way.” The reader is likewise not intended to be sympathetic to the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, and the countering subjective justification of lotus-sloth offered by “The Lotos-eaters” is why I so love the poem. This brings me to the central question of the essay: why not eat the lotus? Why not accept a timeless and hazy bliss over the known brutality of daily life? Why choose to suffer rather than “live and lie reclined” until we are inevitably claimed by mortality?

Perhaps we can start with the great origin story of Genesis, in which our brave gardeners chose to pay a price of suffering to gain wisdom. Adam and Eve sacrificed the lotus-esque idleness of Eden for a brutal reality, the punishment of labor described in Genesis 3:

cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life… Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee… In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.

Of course, the legendary trade was made so that their “eyes shall be opened… knowing good and evil.” This is one of the fundamental narrative roles of suffering, that it is often simply the requirement to gain wisdom. Indeed, we can think of the phenomenal surrealist film Simón del desierto (1965) by Buñuel, in which the titular protagonist chooses to live out his life on a stone pillar in the desert, physically suffering and resisting constant temptations from the Devil to abandon his solitary post. This film is made so much more incredible by the fact that it follows the historical truth of the Gnostic church leaders (including the direct inspiration of Simeon Stylites), who chose to live this brutal life of elemental exposure in order to degrade their physical forms and allow their spirits to ascend towards divinity.

This extremist Gnostic suffering is fascinating because of its lack of material reward. It is easy to justify suffering in pursuit of visible goals, be they political or personal (in our current cultural force field, goals of wealth and status being particularly easy to justify). The beauty of the Gnostic path is that its adherents relinquish any hope for material gain or for an improved social standing (or at least, an improved social standing which translates to a physically better quality of life). The only boon of this bizarre pillar-life is the conquest of wisdom, the ascetic acquisition of truth and knowledge through an abandonment of materiality. This is a common approach throughout monastic traditions, but it is hard to find purer examples than those of the Gnostic pillar-dwellers.

In this way, suffering offers a tool to discipline and gain control over the self. Our senses of self emerge through dialectic with our stimuli, be they internal or external. The construction of self is the narrativization of this uncountable collection of data, the violent rendering of the infinite into the finite, the collapsing of raw information into communicable stories. But this destructive simplification produces the immense beauty of our consciousness. It gives us tales to tell and stories to speak, and coheres together a usable notion of personal identity.

The sense of suffering emergent from this spiritual tradition is one of a chisel, a tool of purification to attack the aspects of self we find unnecessary and strengthen those which we find admirable. I recall the wonderful Link Wray song “Fallin’ Rain,” with the lyric: “There’s no place on this planet where peace can be found.” Beyond the political commentary on global chaos, I find within this line a commandment of introspection: peace cannot be found externally, but must be cultivated within. Suffering is a crucial tool in the quest to do so. Suffering forces us to reflect on what we value sufficiently to suffer for, what we find so beautiful about life that we are willing to endure such pain in pursuit of continuity. It demands relinquishment while reenergizing us to strive towards that which we are not willing to relinquish.

And yet I find the view of suffering presented above insufficient. This story of suffering as a paring-down of self, as a purifying refinement, is totally inadequate to explain its power. It offers a narrative of minimalism. It supposes the existence of some inherent underlying self which must be accessed by cutting through the opaque fog of illusory personalities. I will illustrate my point by discussing some beautiful lines from Baudelaire’s poem “Bénédiction” (with a translation by William Aggeler), in which the abstract character of the Poet addresses God on the topic of suffering:

Soyez béni, mon Dieu, qui donnez la souffrance
Comme un divin remède à nos impuretés
Et comme la meilleure et la plus pure essence
Qui prépare les forts aux saintes voluptés!

Je sais que vous gardez une place au Poète
Dans les rangs bienheureux des saintes Légions,
Et que vous l'invitez à l'éternelle fête
Des Trônes, des Vertus, des Dominations.

Je sais que la douleur est la noblesse unique
Où ne mordront jamais la terre et les enfers,
Et qu'il faut pour tresser ma couronne mystique
Imposer tous les temps et tous les univers.

Praise be to You, O God, who sends us suffering
As a divine remedy for our impurities
And as the best and the purest essence
To prepare the strong for holy ecstasies!

I know that you reserve a place for the Poet
Within the blessed ranks of the holy Legions,
And that you invite him to the eternal feast
Of the Thrones, the Virtues, and the Dominations.

I know that suffering is the sole nobility
Which earth and hell shall never mar,
And that to weave my mystic crown,
You must tax every age and every universe.

I find that this adoration of suffering, in the same tradition as the aforementioned monastic analysis, carries with it the fatal flaw of teleology. For Baudelaire’s Poet, his tribulations are a necessary step of cleansing to prepare him for his inevitable exalted position alongside the divine. Suffering has an inherent purity impossible to corrupt or draw astray, and so the experience of suffering bestows the same god-like qualities upon the bearer of burdens.

This religiously-inspired teleological narrative of suffering does succeed in offering a counter-epistemology. It opposes material rewards, excess, greed, and permanence. It accepts fate and luck, and is comfortable ceding control of mortal life to unknowable forces. In this way, I find it useful as a tool to oppose the hegemonic narratives of gain and conquest which I find so oppressive.

But the counter-epistemology provided by this perspective is ultimately one of minimalism. It is one of reduction, destruction, and elimination of senses of self and multiplicities of experience. It is one of narrowing and simplifying, of abandonment and relinquishment in pursuit of an unobtainable aspiration of divinity. Unfortunately, this brings the implied counter-epistemology into the same discourse as the idleness-worship of the lotus-eaters. There, too, our fair sailors believe in an aspirational divine purity. They believe that they are ascending to the realm of gods by relinquishing mortal obligations in favor of a reflective idleness, a glorification of drug-fueled experientiality which the reader ultimately finds hollow but which the narrators find liberating.

Indeed, the connection between the minimalist counter-epistemology of divine suffering and the counter-epistemology of idleness (which does indeed oppose the productive pressures of capitalist culture) is inherent in the narrative of the former. Baudelaire’s Poet endures suffering in order to gain his seat next to God and live in blissful eternity; the Gnostics denigrated their physical bodies to liberate their spirits for the same end; Adam and Eve ate the fruit to gain knowledge to “be as gods.” The goal is a purifying suffering in order to end all suffering, a temporary sacrifice in order to achieve an eventual everlasting peace.

Alas, this attempt at opposition falls into line with the narrative machinery of capital. We brave workers are promised too that the mythologized suffering of labor is a necessary price to pay for the eventual relaxation of conquest. Once we can sit atop our pile of gold (and its dividend-returning investments), we shall be freed of pain, liberated from fear, knowing an end to suffering. All of these stories, of divinity, idleness, and capital, fundamentally oppose suffering and permit it only as far as it is self-destructive, operating always on the assumption that a sufficient quantity of well-utilized suffering shall put an end to the experience of suffering once and for all. Thus these three narratives collapse into a unified epistemology of permanence, of eventual stasis in formless bliss, of the abandonment of progress and the glorification of a stagnant escape from mortal pain.

This brings me to the second motion of this essay, in which I will attempt to elaborate my emerging idea of a maximalist counter-epistemology, which in many ways can be viewed as a personalized elaboration on and expansion of my previous essay, “MAXIMALISM, Enemy of Death.” The core idea with which I will begin is that the threat posed by idleness is not its sacrilegious enabling of moral impurity, but rather a simple absence of experience. Let me quote from the first act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in which Mark Antony, having just learned of the death of his wife Fluvia, is crushed to realize how much he is missing in Rome by spending his time in idle revel with Cleopatra:

I must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch.

Indeed, Antony is compelled by a sense of duty to his all-but-relinquished post of Triumvir to return to address the emerging civil war, as he justifies his departure to Cleopatra:

The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile.

Idleness does not antagonize God, but rather non-personified fate; to lie idle in the face of developing plot is to surrender one’s sense of self as an agent in the world, to concede one’s role in interacting with a changing and unpredictable world in order to perpetuate a hedonism attempting to deny chronology.

Antony’s determined escape from Egypt brings with it the anguish of abandoning his life of indulgence (“he fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel”). Perhaps this is the form of self-imposed suffering which most fascinates me: relinquishment. How brutal it is to choose to abandon known comforts, joys, and relations in pursuit of uncertain futures – and yet we do so constantly, the “strong necessity of time” compelling us to renounce what we have in pursuit of what we might gain amidst our winding arcs. Relinquishment denies the allure of anti-temporal joyful stasis, of perpetuating a happy stability with illusions of permanence. It is a decision which accepts impermanence and seeks to regain control over it. It is a narrative motion which reassures the actor that inevitable endings can happen on one’s own terms, if they be so bold as to perform a premature termination.

The concept for this essay emerged as I was incapacitated by food poisoning in Latin America, wondering why exactly I had abandoned the meaningful job and relationships which I had spent so much time and energy cultivating. I have always wielded relinquishment as a tool to regain agency over the fated course of my life. In some ways, I am threatened by stability because of its implied stagnation. Is living a life of comfort and functionality, of stable friends and work, of routine and predictability, akin to eating the lotus?

The confluence of the directions of my life and the world have led me to believe so. We live in a time in which all existing frameworks of knowledge and agency-expression have failed to avert apocalypse, and thus we are called by the strong necessity of time to develop something entirely new. I cannot remain in one place doing one thing, because we must attempt feebly to grasp the knowledge of all places, of all things, to live every life and know every path, in order to cohere together something novel.

Let me quote now from the other Shakespearean Roman drama, Julius Caesar, specifically Brutus’s speech justifying his betrayal of Caesar:

If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: --Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition.

How apt for my motivations for relinquishment – I abandon the beautiful lives I create not because I love them less, but because I love the infinite more. I rejoice at all the wonderful lessons and memories each period gives me, but for their ambition to ossify into my permanent trajectory, I am compelled to relinquish each life and strike out anew.

This desperate process of endless reinvention aspires towards the aforementioned maximalist counter-epistemology which I have come to construct as a tool against the narrative hegemony of capital. Our culturally-dominant methods of narrative formation are constrictive to the point of annihilating imaginaries of change: each of us resigned to our career, we toil towards hierarchical advancement to afford the necessities of life without having the opportunity to create life stories of radical break, of total reimagination.

Above all, the great narrative oppression of capitalist culture is the absorption of any narrative into its grand scheme of rationality. All decisions, all stories, can be retroactively assigned motivations of self-interest in accordance with our universalizing storytelling of greed. Greed merges with rationality to occlude narratives in which the two diverge. So many noble-minded aspirants to change the world effortlessly slip into neutered professional-class positions by telling themselves that, of course, they must maximize their earnings and status as reasonable participants in society, relegating hopes of new futures to spare-time hobbies.

The hegemony of capitalist narrative-formation is so extreme that its posited replacement must not be just a re-interpretation of rational decision-making, but rather a destruction of any attempt at rationalization. Hence the maximalist counter-epistemology: to live a life of such overwhelming stimuli, harvesting such an overwhelming volume of stories and perspectives, that it is impossible to bound one’s lived experience together into a coherent story. It is the coherence of incoherence, the subjugation of narrative to a totalizing torrent of data which refuses any attempted simplification. It is to deny the hegemony not by directly attacking it with a pre-thought-out replacement but by denying the entire concept of forming all-encompassing narratives.

As wacky and crazy as this idea may seem, I am not the first to wield it as a rhetorical strategy. Its precedent comes from none other than the great God of Abraham himself. In the Book of Job, the titular protagonist laments his inexplicable torment at the hands of the God whom he was worshiped with devotion all his life. After a lengthy philosophical dialogue with various interlocutors, Job remains unsatisfied, finding no rational explanation for why he is being punished despite a pure and righteous life. Finally, the Lord himself materializes to justify his inscrutable ways to haggard Job. Incredibly, he does not do so with any grand philosophical argument or direct rebuttal, but by invoking his own maximalist counter-epistemology:

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.

God also boasts his specific mastery of all aspects of the world in his maximalist rebuttal, for instance:

Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
Canst thou number the months that they fulfil? or knowest thou the time when they bring forth?

No rationalization is needed, no logic displayed by the divine power. He justifies the suffering inflicted upon Job by the totality of His experiences, the completeness of His knowledge of earthly and heavenly affairs. He rejects Job’s attempt to hold a trial of divine justice, choosing instead to overwhelm His mortal subject with the infinitude of the vast unknown.

My idea of the maximalist counter-epistemology has been in some ways anticipated in contemporary popular discourse with the promotion of “lived experiences.” There is an understanding that hegemonic storytelling tells people tales in superficial accordance with the idolized rationality, but which in fact are totally nonsensical in light of real experiences which people have had. The rebuttal thus occurs through retellings of personal experience, “lived experiences” being a tool to undermine totalizing narratives through raw experiential sense-data.

My critique of this current usage of “lived experience” is that it is politically directionless and has no self-identity as a coherent counter-narrative. These types of stories emerge as reactions to specific oppressive narratives without forming together into a broader anti-capitalist epistemology. The specificity of these responses also condemn them to participating in the same game of rational story-telling as the narrative hegemony, “lived experiences” becoming evidential fodder for oppositional stories rather than an outright denial of capitalism’s insistence on rationalized story-telling as a whole.

So where does this leave us with respect to the great arbiter of experience, suffering? The narrative role of suffering I would like to advance is that it is not a tool of purifying reduction, but of maximalist expansion. Living a life of maximal stimulus-harvesting, of total narrative exploration, simply demands suffering. We must suffer both to enable other experiences and as an experience unto itself. An epistemology which denies suffering, be it through the indolence of the lotus-eaters or through the conquest-narrative of capital, ultimately acts in dream-like opposition to the relentless flow of time. It denies the impermanent reality of the human experience, disregarding mortality and discarding a vast range of meaningful experiences enabled by the willingness to endure suffering.

I accept suffering because I accept fate and chance. I acknowledge that the give and take of a maximalist life will bring with it sorrow along with joy. I attack illusions of agency by allowing the natural course of an experiential life.

But perhaps it is exactly this question of agency which most motivated this wildly digressive essay. It is easy to tell a framing-story of my current anti-linear trajectory using the language of a surrendering of agency: that I just let fate take its course, I allow to happen what naturally will happen, I accept with attempted grace the unpredictability of life. This is a story in which I make a single, definitive decision of relinquishment, and then with my agency set aside, I accept the role of a spectator.

This narrative, ultimately, is reductive and inaccurate. The pretense of relinquishing agency gives way to the realization that I make constant meaningful decisions to live the life I do. When every path begins as an equally valid option, the decision to take any single one is a radical act of decision-making, excluding the infinite possibilities of the others. The deconstruction of prejudice against life trajectories is an act which demands a total comfort in and reliance on my ability to make decisions, since I intentionally undermine the cultural pressures which traditionally limit the scope of our decisions before they are made. Thus my itinerant path is not one of relinquishing agency, but of intensifying the demands on my decision-making.

A closely-related inversion of my thinking relates to the construction of the self. I had thought that living a maximalist lifestyle was a mechanism to attack my concept of self, to undermine vestigial facets of identity and, akin to the religious perspective on suffering, to purify my sense of self into an increasingly minimal function. The goal, then, was to move towards the Buddhist ego-death, to discard as unnecessary and restrictive any fixed concept of self and allow myself to immerse into the world around me unencumbered by ego. I now realize that the life I have been living has not at all weakened my sense of self, but strengthened it – that the maximalist approach offers immersion in the world not through the annihilation of self, but through its experiential expansion. If I gain enough experiences to understand everyone I meet, to have a repertoire of human narratives to draw on in my interpretations of stimuli, then my self grows into a concept with the dexterity and narrative equipment needed to approach any situation. This is the ego-death of maximalism: a strategy of total expansion rather than reduction of identity, to merge with the world around us constructively rather than destructively.

In this scheme, suffering is not a noble purifier, but just a necessary component of a complete life. It is unavoidably ubiquitous for those who live maximal lives, and so the only option is to be at peace with suffering. This is not to lose sight of the political struggle to reduce suffering and achieve liberation for all people, but rather as a more abstract philosophical resignation to the course of human life. Indeed, an easy critique to throw at the religious mode of suffering (Ecclesiastes 7:3: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.”) is its valorization of the suffering of the oppressed and implied justification for inequality. I would like to dethrone suffering from being a wisdom-tool justifying inequality and reduce it to simply another aspect in the multifaceted maximalist life trajectory, a necessary price to be paid for living but not one deserving of divine valor.

Indeed, the entire language of this essay has operated in a concessionary framework. I undermine my own point that we must respond to suffering by accepting it by recurrently using the baggage-laden term “suffering.” Really, the perspective I would like to offer is that suffering is just acknowledging and experiencing the physicality of life, accepting our mortal limitations and allowing ourselves to experience life as it is. It is a perspective which undermines the consumerist obsession with relentless comfort, a hegemonic narrative which tells us that it is irrational to choose to be uncomfortable if we could afford to expend resources to be comfortable. Accepting that we live real, physical lives allows us to discard this gluttonous obsession with convenience, the lotus-eater-esque promise of capitalism which begs us to enter a dream-like unreality in which desperate spending creates an illusion of immortality by eliminating inconvenience. Perhaps what I am really after is an attempt to defang the threat of suffering by normalizing it, acknowledging it as an inherent and inevitable experiential component in order to live free of fear and free of over-consumption.

But we must acknowledge the qualitative gap between suffering and other forms of stimuli. What else is so immediate, so unignorable, so universally sympathetic? So while I would like to castigate the arrogance of suffering to rise above other stimuli as a vehicle of purification, something must be said for its unique status. Suffering is stimulus of particular strength, demanding response and reflection with particular intensity. I recall the refrain lyrics of the band America’s “A Horse with No Name”:

In the desert you can't remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain.

The relevant implication from this couplet is that one’s sense of self fades into irrelevance in the absence of suffering, that is, that the self emerges and defines itself as a reaction against suffering. There is no doubt that suffering has a distinct potency, acting as the implicit antagonist in many human narratives. But the Zen-inspired perspective which I would like to apply is the recognition that despite this unique power, suffering remains just another stimulus. As with all other stimuli, we can integrate suffering into our narratives as we see fit rather than as dictated by predetermined notions of its story-telling centrality.

Let me put here a brief discussion of the magnificent Tennyson poem “Ulysses,” companion to “The Lotos-eaters,” narrating Odysseus’s dissatisfaction with his docile Ithacan life after having returned from his legendary voyage. The eternal voyager recounts,

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly.

To enjoy greatly and to suffer greatly, inextricably linked aspects of the maximalist lifestyle, of drinking “life to the lees.” This is soon followed by the phenomenal passage,

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!

All experience reveals to us the vastness which remains, the finite steps of the voyager a mortal attempt to maximize the scope of our travell’d world. The only solution to the temptation of “that untravell’d world” is to “shine in use,” to live forcefully, to use your body as long as you can with the goal:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Knowledge beyond the bounds of known thought, the discovery of entirely new concepts through raw experience– that is the quest of the maximalist.

Let me include one more passage, which has become over many rereadings one of my favorite in all of poetry:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

There is nothing I can add to this beautiful language. Suffice to say that I crave the belief that it is not too late to seek a newer world, to go beyond the limits of our vanished imagination. It is this desperate hope which has animated me, as the apocalypse dawns, to venture to the ends of the earth in search of lost imagination. If only I could have the certainty of Tennyson’s Odysseus, rather than know that this mythical quest is doomed to crash against the realities of our self-immolating world.

To return to the main content, a maximalist life affords us constant opportunities for the highest expression of agency: the way we narrativize our experience. We hominid machines render stimuli into stories, and the more stimuli we can harvest, the more stories we can tell. A life of maximalism is one of constant training in narrative-formation, and it is exactly this barrage of storytelling which allows us to gain control over our identities and our political futures. Our self is defined by how we narrativize it, and constant stimuli allows for constant reinvention. The ultimate goal is to be able to choose the narrative we form, to tell our stories on our own terms to construct the self-image we find most liberating. This is the true meaning of maximalism being a coherent counter-epistemology. It is an entire strategy of experience-acquisition and narrative-formation which rejects as many culturally-conditioned bounds and restrictions as possible, which gives us the maximal potential to rewrite any stories we encounter of self and society. It allows us to discard oppressive narratives freely, since we have sufficient volume of experiential input to replace them with our own more beautiful, more freeing, more true tales.

And so we are left with a strategy defined by conflict: the harvested stimuli attempting to overwhelm the critical models I use to interpret the world, my critiques attempting to discipline the stimuli into recognizable patterns. This antagonistic dialectic shapes and develops my critiques, which in turn inform which stimuli to pursue amongst the infinite options. The goal of this mad game is to prevent the critiques from ossifying, to maintain a conflict with stability out of fear of stagnation. I must challenge my own narratives with the same intensity that I challenge those of the hegemony. Thus emerge the parallel engines driven by the motor of maximalism: my external actions in the world in dialectic with harvested stimuli just as my internal analyses are.

One further note on maximalism is that the diversity it provides helps us reach towards a coherent universality. To experience all things is to more deeply understand the constant, baseline human experience invariant across circumstances. The patterns of experience emerge from the multitude, and we understand the purest elements of being and sense-making underlying our lives. Perhaps this is a thread of minimalist ego-death hiding within my maximalist dreams, one which is not achieved by purging impurities, but rather by gaining enough stimuli to finally discern a fundamental unity in our cognition.

I crave such a universality in order to achieve non-desire. If I can experience everything, perhaps I can be afraid of nothing, at peace with any outcome, accepting any twist of fate. If I can gather together a coherent sense of baseline conscious experience irrespective of the supposed quality of my current activity, then I can rise above the need to desire one path over any other. Maximalism attempts to overwhelm our fanatical modes of rationality. How can we form hierarchies, make patterns of decision-making and desire, if we live a life in which we undermine every generalization by hunting counter-examples? Maximalism is the antidote to over-rationality, for it attacks the pattern-making required for coherent mental models through its endless newness. And thus it is the antidote to desire, those cruelly programmatic mental models which imply a sufficient confidence in a fixed sense of self to formulate futures that the self wants to achieve. How can we convince ourselves to want any single specific goal when we are constantly exposed to the endless critiques and endless beauties of a maximalist life?

Finally, let me try to pull together the disparate threads of this essay to answer its motivating question, that is, why I am so willing to relinquish so much to live the life I want to live. More so than any bus rides or infirmities, the suffering of relinquishment is that upon which I ruminate most. But I have said what I needed to say to justify this self-destructive tendency: I accept the inherent impermanence of our situation; I accept the need to suffer to live a complete life; I crave maximalism to free me from my conceptual limitations; I believe in my power to define my personal narrative. And so I build and abandon lives, recognizing that at least my abandonment ends what I have made on my own terms rather than allow an inevitable disintegration to occur.

And so my constellation of doubts and internal criticisms are revealed to be failures of storytelling ability. Was I forced to flee my previous lives due to giving in to the oppressive alienation of late capitalist culture, or did I relinquish them voluntarily to embark on a beautiful wisdom-quest? Do I destroy my lives out of fear of losing momentum or control, or because I am exercising my agency to constantly build towards better things? Is this entire maximalist philosophy simply an attempt to prove to myself that I can adapt to new situations, or is it a genuine strategy arising from my thoughtful critiques? These dichotomies are illusory, for the story I choose to tell contains elements of each side. The great power which I strive to gain is to synthesize from this web of narrative threads exactly the story which I find most liberating.

I remember the scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in which the viewer watches, along with protagonist Kris, the video by Kris’s friend Gibarian justifying his suicide. Knowing the impossibility of communicating his experiences, of meaningfully speaking his incomprehensible story, Gibarian falls back on the all-encompassing line: “I am my own judge.” So are we all, for we tell our own stories.

Postscript. How fascinating that I have spent so many words discussing relinquishment and ignored what threatens to be an even more important matter: that which cannot be relinquished, that with which we are burdened without reprieve. The Biblical progenitors ate the fruit of knowledge and cursed humanity with one such burden, the eternal weight of wisdom and its accompanying stain of sin. Of course, this is the great archetype of the broader problem of our inability to relinquish knowledge, to return to innocence. And so as I harvest my endless stimuli, I too shall bear their burdens – the indelible memories of abandoned joys, the knowledge that I have made irreversible decisions of destruction.

Alas, there is nothing to be done. The permanence of memory weighs against the impermanence of experience, happy moments producing sorrowful loss. But such is our condition. Let the indestructible weight of the past be further logs on the fire, the phantasmal reincarnations of the mind ever more experiences to learn from.