It is late in the semester for me to be revisiting this text, but it is not the first time I have done so. “In some remote corner of the universe, flickering in the light of the countless solar systems into which it had been poured, there was once a planet on which clever animals invented cognition.” This is me. Clever animal. This morning, my Earth, Art, and Culture professor unrolled a timeline of the Earth’s lifespan made out of paper towel on the auditorium floor. It reached from the podium to the doors of a class that probably seats one hundred and fifty students. On this paper towel, humans occupied about five millimeters.
Nietzsche gets into this fairly quickly and very bluntly in his essay, and I have found it oddly comforting. It removes responsibility. But more recently I am realizing that this is another truth we have defined in language and in our consensual understanding of reality that only matters if we decide it does. When it comes to framing our lives, we are indeed “deeply immersed in illusions and dream-images.’” In her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Dr. Azar Nafisi says that “in all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way.” In the surreal fiction of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Nafisi finds a path to emotionally break from a system that she feels renders her complicit in her own oppression. The existence of these worlds in our hands, conceived by one mind and overlaid onto our existence like Noakes’ landscapes in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, defy everything – but most especially the singular narratives of our lives.
Literature has often reinforced my understanding of life as narrative, or planned, or heroic in some way; fiction is the ultimate controllable universe. But it does not exist on its own. It is created. Between reader and author there is a shift in the malleability of the story. Repositioning myself as complicit in the conception of my own reality has made me rethink the idea that I have a true calling, or that I can “speak my truth,” as many in the spoken word community say. I feel we often treat our goals and accomplishments as something that we find within ourselves, but I am discovering over and over again that there is nothing to find; we can only create. I have to stop hiding indecisiveness behind the idea that I am just lost. This restores emotional agency, but also responsibility. This is both terrifying and freeing. We must make something of ourselves, to ourselves, or we are nothing.