The Self as a Work of Art

The nihilism of serenity or how to learn to stop worrying and love fate

The alcoholic who has hit rock bottom prays to a higher power, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” We feel powerless before an indifferent and hostile universe that doles out suffering and disappointment no matter what choices we make. No one asks for serenity in the face of good and wonderful things that they cannot change. No, it’s failure and rejection, disease, disaster, poverty, and the powerlessness we feel before these things that the petitioner needs serenity to accept lest they seek comfort and the forgetfulness of their powerlessness in excessive drink.

Eternal Return CLXXXIX {It’s All Just Matter and Energy Arranged in Various Ways}

There’s something incredibly sad about the serenity prayer. In the face of disappointing circumstances, the best one can do is hope that you can merely accept it with enough dignity to avoid drinking oneself into needing another AA meeting, and you need a higher power just to do that. Nevertheless, the serenity prayer does one thing right; it forces us to carefully contemplate the difference between the things that are under our volitional control, the things that are directly and predictably affected by choices and the things that are not subject to our choice or will. The more you consider this distinction, really think about it, you will begin to realize that the list of things under your control is far smaller than you naively and pre-reflectively thought, and the list of things that you cannot change, the things the alcoholic asks for serenity before, is innumerably large.

Each of us has images of the person we wish we were and the person we would like to become, fantasies of things we’d like to experience and accomplish, a picture of the person we’d like to be, a vision of our best selves. Short of the lack of awareness brought about by excessive wealth or a lack of self-reflection, each of us, in various ways, fails to live up to that person. As our lives fail to live up to the daydream, we imagine how it could have been if things were different. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the roll of the dice in a universe of indifferent chance or whether it’s unalterable fate written on the record of time; it’s all the same from the perspective of one who cannot alter the unfolding of events and doesn’t know how they will unfold ahead of time. Each of us stands powerless as we survey our own situation and consider what we have become. Even choices that were once up to us in the past, the things that we decided that led us to this point for good or bad, now that they are in the past, they too are no longer under our control or up to us. We stand in the present powerless to be anything other than what we are or in any situation other than the one we find ourselves in, as disappointing and empty as it might be with missed opportunities, cowardly inaction, hubris, and all the rest.

The question that the serenity prayer attempts to answer is what to do with that disappointment and pain that comes with experiencing the weight of fate and chance. The serenity prayer invokes a deity to intervene and illuminate a joint or a break in the experience of being a person, the duel nature of being both an agent who chooses and an object who is tossed by the tempest of time. With that new knowledge the petitioner hopes for calm passivity in the face of fate and dogged perseverance in the face of one’s own power of choice. But this neither does justice to the feeling of disappointment and disillusionment in the face of all the fate one has experienced, nor does it do justice to the weight of having the power of choice.

The calm acceptance of an unacceptable situation is giving up; it is rejecting the values, hopes, and aspirations that led you to being disappointed. It’s the resignation of a prisoner on death row whose life is already over. What looks like courageous perseverance going forward is really only a kind of bland capitulation that says, “Since I and my life has been such a disappointment to myself, the best thing I can do is keep moving forward in time with diminished expectations.” Serenity and courage become an implicit rejection of the values one held before and a hatred of the dissatisfied self.

So the serenity prayer is right about one thing, there is much about ourselves and our situation that is absolutely outside of our control and to think otherwise is hubris and self-delusion. But we need not choose between self-delusion and pathetic resignation that pleads before a higher power.

We stand on the knife-edge of the now. Every single thing in the past—all of it—is outside our control; the past is unalterable fate. The same with the future, none of it us up to us in the present, and so we look toward our future with powerlessness. Even at the now, the now’s very structure, the arrangement of matter and energy, the state of the self, the world, and others, all of that is also outside our control. But at that knife-edge of the present there is the tiniest sliver of what we can control, and with that infinitesimally brief and fleeting autonomy we need not wish for serenity, calm acceptance. We can instead embrace it and say yes to it. Why embrace it when it is full of pain and bitter disappointment? Because that moment, the moment where you ask the question, can I embrace this, is all there is. If ever you have felt joy, it was in that moment of the slightest of choices. If you ever felt accomplishment. If you ever said of yourself, I have overcome, it is because of fate and chance conspiring to make the universe that included a joyous and self-satisfied you, with all your hopes, dreams, desires, and values.

From the standpoint of a single individual, from YOUR standpoint, in each moment you have the culmination of all of history and the universe into this self. You, your experiences, your memories, your habits, tendencies, and proclivities, all of it has been brought about by an indifferent universe that you are faced with in the here and now. It isn’t serenity that is called for. Nor acceptance. But a yes or a no. Love the fate or hate it. Without the pain and disappointment it would all be different, not even recognizable. And you would be different, not even the same person.

So it seems in the face of the unrelenting march of time, we have four choices. 1. A great nihilistic “No” to life admitting its been a great disappointment and thus admitting that you’ve been a disappointment to yourself. 2. A grand delusion in which you deny pain and deny that expectations, hopes, and dreams were not realized. 3. A calm and resigned acceptance, a defeat you can live with, perhaps combined with the vague hope that things will turn out different next time. 4. A great yes to life. Falling in love with chance and fate. Saying to existence and the indifferent universe, “Amen thank you for precisely this!”

Which of these options any of us choose isn’t a moral choice. There’s no right or wrong here. Options two and three, delusion or resignation, are simply unacceptable to me. I cannot bring myself to be either of those people. Option one, nihilistic defeat is honest, but it it leads to living in ways that conflict with one’s own deepest values. If you believe that your best values cannot be realized because of a hostile universe and it isn’t up to your control whether those values are realized or not, there is no reason not to simply get drunk, forget, and head towards the rock bottom that the serenity prayer was designed to ward off. For the sake of argument, assume with me that the first three options are not palatable, but is option four, a yes to fate and life in the face of bitter disappointment possible? It may be possible to say yes to fate, chance, life, and existence when things are going well, when you’re happy and healthy and haven’t let yourself down in awhile. But what about the realistic embracing of life? Wouldn’t embracing life as it is mean embracing all the shitty stuff? Wouldn’t embracing things as they are mean glorifying a world of suffering and delegitimize the values you have that say, “This isn’t right; this isn’t’ good.”

The self that attempts to affirm all of existence must include in that affirmation the affirmation of the self, a self that is part of the whole. To love fate means to love what fate has made. And what fate has made in the now is the dissatisfied subject. Fate and chance have conspired to make you, oh discontented one. If you weren’t discontented then you’d be a different person, a person without hopes, dreams, desires, values that could be disappointed. The one who cannot be disappointed by fate cannot be pleased with it either. The one who cannot feel the sting of broken dreams is literally a different person, a person who, if you do have dreams that can be broken, literally doesn’t exist. The one who says the serenity prayer says, “God, make me a different person.” And since there is no god and there is no other person than the person you are, the path of resignation is the path of not wanting to be. It is nihilism by another name. You might as well just say you hate yourself and you hate life. To affirm life is hard. It includes saying yes to your own deep wells of dissatisfaction.

Is there any reason to love fate? If you’re looking for ultimate reasons, no. One choice is as good as any other, the universe don’t care. But when you survey the kinds of selves you could become: Do I want to be clueless and self-deluded? Do I want to calmly let my best values and biggest desires recede into oblivion and thus denying them and the self who had them? Do I want to become one bitter “no” to life without fucks left to give about anything? Or do I want to become equal to my disappointment and suffering?

The universe is infinitely variegated and beautiful, terrible and cruel, indifferent and mocking. The self is a part of all of that. A tiny part, but it’s not separate or different in nature. What would the story of the universe or of one’s life within it be without both the higher values that seek to mold and shape it and the unfolding of events that frustrate those values? Such a universe and such a self would be boring and banal, empty of the possibility of meaning and significance. The self is a perspective on that universe while being a part of it, and that perspective can tell any story it wants, any story YOU want. The unfolding succession of events isn’t up to you, but the interpretation of those events is. The trick is to make the narrative one you’d want to be and one you’d want to be a part of. Not an easy task or a task that one any of us is guaranteed to succeed at, but what other choice do we have but to attempt it?


Eternal Return Collage Series

Library card collage art Eternal Return Paradoxes of Omniscience beta fish vintage postage stamp
Eternal Return CXXII {Paradoxes of Omniscience}

During a year off of school while I was applying to grad programs, I took a job at the Purdue University Libraries to hold me over until my studies could resume. My desk there was thirty feet underground in the storage stacks where ancient periodicals and other books with low circulation were kept on movable shelving in a bomb shelter like basement of the undergraduate library. One of my duties there was replacing the old due date cards kept in manila pockets inside the covers of those old books and academic journals with bar codes. Instead of throwing out the cards with titles and Dewey Decimal numbers hand typed on the yellowing card stock, I kept them, and so the seeds of the Eternal Return collage series were planted.

Initially I had intended to keep the cards as bookmarks, having use for many as I embarked on a scholarly career. I saw the aesthetic value of a nostalgic reminder of a library system that was both iconic and now entirely obsolete. The cards with titles like American Labor Legislation Review, Water Supply Papers and Zoologische Jahrbücher conjure images of library clerks in reading glasses and knit cardigans bent over library desks stamping and recording circulation data before the integration of computer automation into the library process.

Eternal Return CXLIV {Regulative Ideal}

Grad school came and went, and I had used a small fraction of those due date cards as bookmarks as I devoured scholarly tomes on German philosophy. My interests moved from a desire to theoretically understand the creative process to actually engage in it, and the collection of due date cards felt like the perfect place to begin bringing my aesthetic influences together in a visual medium. Those library due date cards were not the only vintage paper collection I had from which to draw images and visual ideas; an old postage stamp collection handed down to me by both my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother shared with the library cards an ephemeral connection to an almost obsolete past (posting physical letters in the mail) and a similar sepia tinted pallet of yellowing paper and engraved printing.

Postage stamps and due date cards also happen to have the same scale, and so I began to play with stamps positioned on the card. Magazine cut outs, game pieces, and old identification guides for flora and fauna provided a wealth of imagery from which to draw. Experimentation would eventually add the watercolor curve across the card beneath the imagery in to make what would become hundreds in a series that I titled Eternal Return, a series that continues to expand to this day.

This collage medium provided a space to combine my aesthetic influences which include, in addition to postage stamps and mid-century institutional imagery, the sepia tinted golden hour light and surreal juxtaposition of imagery of Giorgio de Chirico paintings, old maps and botanical illustrations, Tarot, flags and heraldry, Mexican Lotería game pieces and Joseph Cornell shadow boxes, the last of which with their paper ephemera collage is perhaps my works’ strongest precursor in the art canon and to whom I owe an artistic debt of gratitude that borders on theft.

A typical Joseph Cornell shadow box
Giorgio de Chirico the conquest of the philosopher surreal imagery influence on eternal return justin marquis
Giorgio de Chirico’s The Conquest of the Philosopher

The title Eternal Return alludes to the fact that the basic format of the series is infinitely iterable, there being an unimaginably large combination of possible images that can be arranged on a due date card. With each image, each typed book title on the cards, and even the name of each collage alluding to a whole host of concepts, persons, places, and objects, the whole human relationship to images and ideas can be potentially contained in the Eternal Return series taken to its imagined infinity.

Given the infinite possible imagery and concepts that can be combined within the Eternal Return series, the collages are capable of functioning like an unending post-modern tarot deck, a tarot deck that does not offer predictive power but that rather functions like a kind of Rorschach test drawing out ideological and conceptual associations and affective responses in the viewer, meaning that the attentive viewer who becomes aware of the associations that they make between the images and ideas becomes a virtual part of the series themselves.