Steven Michalkow

Paradise in Conflict


One of the best party experiences I’ve had in my adult life started with a debate and ended with me being kicked out of the festivities. I had a bone to pick with a fellow guest about contemporary American films—he happened to be a local film critic my best friend and I had long disagreed with. Through a mixture of the normal contortions of conversation and my increasing desire to agitate this man, the discussion shifted into art theory, the question of taste, and then finally into my passionate argument that this man’s aesthetics were so abysmal that I couldn’t believe that even he could take his own career seriously. It ended with this individual storming off in a huff and the host gently implying to my friend and me that we should probably leave. My friend was mortified and wasn’t very subtle in telling me so. I was smiling throughout the departure.

“That was pretty damn awful,” my best friend told me.

Awful? No, it was invigorating! I’d rather it had never ended.

* * *

There is something ridiculously life-affirming in occupying a space where a fight—literal or intellectual—is readily available. I don’t mean to describe the buzz of adrenaline you feel in the heat of a fight, but rather something beyond the physical. On this metaphysical level, courting conflict can become the process whereby you continually test your spirit or your morals against their opposition. You are forced to put your argument or your idea of yourself “on the line” as it were, thus demanding you to become invested in your argument and yourself. In this sense, the point of resolution of is secondary or undesirable. Paradoxically, you can find conflict to be a more satisfying environment than you would its peaceful endgame. Taking this a step further, you can imagine a personal paradise where this jousting between different personalities, lifestyles, or ideologies is a source of profound fulfillment.

It’s odd to think that this attitude, in some ways like being a premature curmudgeon, can be a path to spiritual satisfaction. A curmudgeon is some easily agitated old man who refuses to have a cell phone in his house. If this be a spiritual exercise, surely it is only for the sake of a soul preparing himself for death? You can imagine this tired figure looking at the new world which now surrounds him and saying to himself “No, this is not what I remember, and what I remember is no longer this. It’s time for me to lock myself up and prepare to go.” This is quite alien to the conflict-courting attitude I'm talking about. In fact, the key difference between the two is the idea of participation.

* * *

Participation in this case is the process of engaging the world rather than retreating from it. This conflict-driven engagement is an existential enterprise, particularly for those who see themselves as outsiders. If you find yourself developing in an environment where you feel alienated from your fellow humans and cannot bring yourself into the fold, there are at least two options available. The easier and more obvious choice is to escape into isolation. You can lock yourself in a more becoming environment, like a hermit in a warm cave, and sustain yourself with comforting pursuits or like-minded individuals. We all do this on some level. It isn’t unexpected that we would give a great deal of time and attention to uncovering and relishing only that which we personally find agreeable and supportive. This is what I started to do when I was relatively young and wrestling with my own developing outsiderism. That being said, it is possible that you could lose yourself in such a comforting space at the cost of coming to terms with the rest of the world outside. This brings me to the second and more difficult option available to the outsider—engagement with the world you fundamentally oppose.

Sometimes it is better to construct your identity by looking outside and pressing yourself against that which annoys rather than retreating inward. I find this best articulated in Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, and in particular the passage which reads:

Every day the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse.

You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my life span.

The inward-looking individual ironically doesn’t have the means to really grasp his core values on a fundamental level. You need a certain dosage of irritation to reaffirm your foundational assumptions. Why do I know that the man opposite me, thinking the way he does, is a fool, a loon, a deluded soul? Because I test myself against him. I see him there, and I not only choose not to behave as he does, but do so right in front of his face. With luck he will challenge me, and in so doing I might feel a sense of urgency in my beliefs, and a need to reassert their dominant position, even if only for myself. Indeed, there is a sense that I might even lose the conflict. There is that element of the Heideggerian conceit that a life truly lived is constantly confronting the possibility of death. This isn’t the same as the old man whose isolation is a resignation to death. That is the story of the man who already realizes his time has passed. This confrontation with the end has more to do with the constant wagering of a mighty sum day in and day out.

There is a ritualistic element to this process. I am reminded of the Buddhist monks who chew every bite of their food for several minutes longer than is needed before proceeding on to the next bite. Superficially, the activity is something rather annoying, tedious, and time-consuming, but in substance the act reminds the participant where he is and what he is doing at that particular point in time. This is sometimes referred to as mindfulness. The participant is conscious of the fact that he is an individual who is eating food and becomes invested in the moment. What is he eating? Why is he eating? Is he even hungry? Are other people in the world hungry? Constructing the moment of eating as a ritual of contemplation and reflection is thus a source for intellectual or spiritual growth. Confrontational participation is also a kind of mindfulness. You are no longer lost in the anesthesia of peace.

This seems to me to have an innate truthfulness. If you spend significant amounts of your free time confronting what you hate or promoting what you love, you are at least forced to keep in mind what you believe in, more so than you ever would locking yourself in your home and resting in the comfortable solitude of your own design. Alone, you simply have no need to ever justify yourself. It's rather easy to not think about your passions very deeply once isolated in the comforts of home. Values mutate into the white noise of daily routine. The totems of a life worth living pass into the background like all the other surrounding knickknacks and furniture. I often think of the depiction of heaven in the comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: a collection of people, collapsed in a series of chairs, with blank smiles on their faces, drooling, content in the anesthetized bliss of perfect serenity. This is perhaps for me the most apt image of intellectual isolation and protection: namely, the end of mental existence or the terminus of the soul.

* * *

When you get to the heart of the matter, paradise is a very subjective realm. I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as an archetypal image of paradise. You need only think of Eden, or its tropical island proxies. But all the same, no one would suggest the desire to wander a land made of chocolate or a palace filled with room after room of willing sexual partners is improperly categorized as paradise for the individual who holds it. Paradise is not the same as utopia. Utopia is a social idealism, the spot on the map where the political human animal has reached his perfection. Paradise is the point at which the individual finds the perfection of consciousness.

In this subjective vein, the ritual of confrontational engagement can become a kind of paradise. If paradise occupies an idealized subjective state, then you would expect your own paradise to exude the possibility of personal gratification. Who is to say that this gratification cannot come from the satisfaction of continual antagonism? It is true that the goal of conflict is often some sort of resolution outside of itself. Indeed, you hope to win an argument or at least not lose it. However, in a certain sense there is more to be gained from the argument itself than its resolution per se. What is the resolution anyway but the return to the cloistered realm? Really, with your opponents defeated and slinking off into the night outside of your world, what is there left for you to do? Constantly engaging in self-actualizing combat reinforces your spiritual vitality.

Think of Satan’s narrative in Paradise Lost. In many respects, the rebellion against God and the war over the souls of man is part of Satan’s self-development process, establishing himself as a “self-begot” entity. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” It is not Satan who lost paradise in Milton’s epic. Indeed, this idea of self-design or self-ownership is so key to this character that it can only be truly embraced in hell. We all are like Satan trying to find the means to justify our own peculiar form of existence. Sometimes the only way to invoke that justification is to find your own pockets of hell from time to time. Sartre's hell of other people might just be the best means of ensuring happiness for yourself.

* * *

Returning to the aftermath of my little social faux pas, I got the sense that I struck a raw nerve with my close friend. This fellow can best be described as someone who actively avoids awkward moments. He enjoys his job, goes home to read the books he loves, watches only the television he loves, receives only his closest friends as guests, and rarely attends parties with those he doesn’t know. In many ways, he embodies the archetype of the reclusive hermit lifestyle I have long left behind.

Though I knew he was irritated with me, I didn’t want him to think the whole evening was for naught. “Come on,” I pressed him as we were on our way home, “you know you liked seeing that critic squirm.”

A pause, but then I could begin to see a bit of a smile. “…Yeah, at least you made his night a little more difficult.” Success!

As we made our way home, we continued to relish dissecting the man’s arguments and applauding the types of films and art we had long loved, laughing all the way. My reasons for enjoying that night had doubled. Indeed, despite my friend’s nature, I had the lovely experience of giving him a moment where he could embrace a paradise “whose skies,” as Nabokov might say, “were the color of hell-flames—but still a paradise.”

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