Our Two Lives
All of us live two separate lives.
These lives inhabit two different worlds. So, we live simultaneously in two different dimensions!
In one life we write, or compose, or think, or create, or solve complicated problems, or philosophize. In the other we eat, shit, run errands, go shopping, pay the bills, clean the garage, appear at court, sit in the doctor’s waiting room. In the one life we do what we are meant to do – we “live properly,” so to speak. In the other life we are dragged and pulled by the necessary insignificancies of everyday commonality.
The writer has to stop writing for a while in order to give interviews, market his book, negotiate his cut with his publisher. The artist has to stop painting so that she may search for a gallery to represent her, find clients for her work, move to a new studio with a lower rent. The singer has to stop cultivating his voice so that he can deal with lawyers, promote his new song, respond to his critics. When the author writes, the artist paints, and the singer sings, they inhabit one world: we may call it the main highway of their life. When they are engaged in all the other “incidental sidetracks” of being alive, they inhabit the other world.
Yet we seem to be able to move effortlessly from one life in one world to the other life in the other world. Most times, we are not even aware of this switching between the two worlds. We are just passive witnesses to its occurrence. One minute the writer thinks or writes, the next minute the phone rings, or the doctor appointment is approaching and all work must come to a halt in what seems like a seamless transition from one world to the other. This effortless movement hides from our constant view the reality that we truly live two lives.
Enter Isaac Newton. This is the man who discovered and described the physical laws that govern the mechanics of the universe – one of the greatest minds in history. The poet Alexander Pope had written of him in his famous epitaph, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.” This is the Newton we all know. But Newton had another life too. Actually, he had three other lives, which he was “living” while engaged in his major discoveries.
In 1696, Newton moved to London to take up the post of warden at the Royal Mint, and three years later, upon the death of the Master of the Mint, he became the Master himself, a position he held for the last thirty years of his life. Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. Taking his job very seriously, he decided to go after the counterfeiters. Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered much of that evidence himself! After having arrested many suspects, he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects and finally successfully prosecuted twenty-eight coiners!
That’s only one of Newton’s parallel lives. There were more. He also invested all of his money in shares of the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England at the time. After cashing out early and making some good profit, the price of the stock continued to go up. Feeling he was being left out while others were still profiting, he reinvested everything in the stock again – when it finally crashed, he lost, like a novice, his entire fortune.
Newton also had a bitter feud with the French philosopher and mathematician Friedrich Leibniz. They both claimed they had invented the mathematical system of calculus and the case ended up in courts where both tried to accuse the other of plagiarism. Newton (and Leibniz) spent a big part of their later lives dealing with this issue.
Enter Ludwig van Beethoven. His brother Kaspar van Beethoven died in 1815. Kaspar’s son, Karl, was the only child of the three Beethoven brothers and thus the sole Beethoven of the next generation. Even before Kaspar’s death, Beethoven saw himself as the guardian of his nephew, determined to rescue him from the clutches of his (as he saw it) immoral mother, Johanna. Therefore, after Kaspar’s death, Beethoven waged a protracted legal action against his sister-in-law. For nearly two years, he wrote nothing. He became completely obsessed with becoming a “father” to his nephew. Karl himself naturally became emotionally confused – the legal actions took place while he was between the ages of ten and fourteen. After finally winning the custody case, Beethoven forbade Karl to see his mother, but the boy frequently disobeyed him, running away to be with her. On one occasion, Beethoven called the police to have him forcibly returned. In 1826, in a state of supreme emotional turmoil, Karl bought a pistol with the intention of committing suicide. His landlord found out and alerted Beethoven, but later that same year, Karl pawned his watch and bought another pistol. With both pistols and a supply of gunpowder, he climbed to the Rauhenstein ruins in Baden, loaded both guns, and put them to his head. He missed with one, and with the other he grazed his temple. When he was found, he asked to be taken to his mother’s house. The combination of the attempted suicide and Karl’s return to his mother devastated Beethoven.
But this is not all. Beethoven, over the course of his life, would suffer from deafness, colitis, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, typhus, skin disorders, abscesses, ophthalmia, inflammatory degeneration of the arteries, jaundice, chronic hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver. All the diseases of the universe descended upon him! Furthermore, he was forced to give piano lessons, which he hated doing, in order to maintain his standard of living. And while he was publishing his music, he spent time setting the tone of critiques of his work in the leading music journal of the day, AMZ, by actually demanding that the editor not publish negative comments if he wanted to receive copies of his work!
As he was composing his masterpieces, Beethoven’s second life was enmeshed in all these diverse activities, while he was also simultaneously chronically ill. Beethoven-the-great-composer was living parallel lives that had nothing or little to do with the main highway of his life.
None of these things about Newton or Beethoven are well-known, or if they are, they rarely come up in anything to do with their actual work. When we view Seeman’s noble portrait of Newton sitting in his armchair in front of his desk holding his Principia, we cannot imagine him with a big moustache disguised as a builder or clerk talking with locals at some pub with the aim of catching crooks! And when we imagine Beethoven composing his Fifth Symphony, we cannot think of him shouting in court or dealing with his colitis. Their “second real life” left no trace behind. It has become completely invisible to us, although it was very real to them. For we consider the substance of their lives to be identical with what they created and bequeathed to us. The details of their lives, the daily occurrences of their time on earth, do not seem to concern anybody, apart perhaps from a few specialist academics or biographers. The lives of these two greats, and how we view them, suggest that although we each live two (or sometimes more) lives, in the end it is the main one, the highway, that counts.
But why does only the one count? And if this is so, what are we to do with the other life? For we cannot wish it to vanish, nor can we forcefully expunge it from existence! Let us try to answer these questions.
In his influential book The Myth of the Eternal Return, the historian-philosopher Mercia Eliade explains how in archaic society the ordinary events of one’s everyday life were trimmed off and any act became “real” only insofar as it imitated or repeated an archetypal hero. Yet, we too somehow still do what our ancestors did: The lives of the exemplary figures in history whom we hold in high esteem, of our heroes – such as Newton or Beethoven – or the ones in the fairy tales we grew up with, are stripped of any mundane details. In fact, these archetypal, mythical, idealized lives we all admire are much more real to us than the actual lives these real people led. It is this ahistorical character of the lives of people whom we admire that carries a deep meaning for us, that moves our soul. Actually, even though we live at an age when the imitation of archetypal figures, Nature’s cycles, and the concept of the regeneration of time are not as central in our lives as they used to be in the life of our ancestors, there still remain nodal points in our lives that make us reconnect with the archaic man within us. For example, every year during Eastern Orthodox Easter, the Passion of Christ is reenacted during the Holy Week, and many devout Christians go through all the emotions and experiences of Jesus, reliving the moments of his last days – just as primitive man partook of the life of his heroes by imitating their actions at specific times of the year. Similarly, in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, such ceremonies or festivals repeat, in exactly the same manner, stories, myths, and heroic acts that have become archetypal and central to how people view their place in the cosmos.
But we do not only embellish and idealize the lives of our Newtons and Beethovens, or our Christs and Buddhas. Just as primitive man stripped his heroes and gods from everything ordinary and insignificant, we too do the same without realizing it to our own lives! In fact, our own lives, just like those of archaic man, obtain their substance and value through a covert comparison or rather measuring of our own aims, dreams, ambitions, acts, achievements vis-à-vis those whom we admire and/or try to emulate. We do not only remember other people as being tantamount to their important acts and the work they created, thereby not retaining or recalling the details of their day-to-day lives; we do exactly the same thing when it comes to the retelling of our own biography. When examined carefully, no human biography, either told or written, is a real exposition of the details of a person’s life. On the contrary, every biography is the distillation, out of the myriad of a person’s life-events, of those events that withstood historical time and stand out as the “meaning” inherent in the person’s life. Kazantzakis’s autobiography, Report to Greco, for example, has no mention of his first bitter divorce, nor of his financial difficulties, nor of his excommunication by the church. Similarly, the autobiography of the philosopher Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, does not concentrate on the ephemeral details of his life as a husband, a father, a member of parliament, or even as the TV star that he was for a while. Rather, it describes those nodal points during which the crucial transformations in his philosophical thinking occurred. His autobiography is none other than the evolution of his personal understanding of life and the world. It is not the biography of the person Magee, but of someone who becomes an archetypal philosopher through recounting his own life conceived as ahistorical, i.e., as lying outside history and time. In other words, his life, as he himself ended up seeing it, is not the collection of how many times he visited the dentist, washed the dishes, or repaired his car. It is not even how he raised his daughter, or how he ended up being a most-recognized TV personage. No. It is his philosophical seeking as it molded and guided his life’s-journey. This seeking is not very different from an Odyssey in the sea of philosophical ideas, and he himself no different from archetypal Odysseus inexhaustibly moving towards a final Ithaca of answers and meaning.
And herein lies the answer to the questions posed above: Why does only one of our two lives count in the end? Because it is the one that makes us who we are and who we are meant to be. It is the one that makes a Newton, Newton and a Beethoven, Beethoven. It is the one that makes you, the writer, a writer; you the artist, an artist; you the singer, a singer; and (lest we be accused of elitism) you the cook, the next master chef Escofier, and you, the shoeshiner, the honey-maker of the invisible! It is this first life that counts, because it is this one that transcends Time and, like the archetypal exemplary models of archaic man, gives value and meaning to our mortal existence.
But what are we to do with the other life? Here we have a few possible paths:
One way, the most radical of all, is to follow the example of many hermits and monks, who first escape from the mundane world and then firmly subdue the lesser life to the higher one. In Mt. Athos, for example, where this path is followed to its extreme, the monks are supposed to remain constantly within the main highway of their life of prayer, devotion, and mindful activity. For this reason, while they eat they are not even allowed to enjoy their food but must perforce concentrate on the words of the monk who reads from the scriptures during the meal. Furthermore, “free time” during the day is left at a minimum so that the monk may not sidetrack into any other activities that are unrelated to his communion with God and the community.
Another way, which also partly includes the philosophy of the monk, yet it is easier and more all encompassing, is to try to harmoniously incorporate the one life into the other. This is done by trying to express or see in the lesser life – in the ordinary occurrences of everyday life – the values and the substance of the main highway. One may witness this on the Indonesian Hindu island of Bali, where every “profane” activity is transformed into “sacred” by the unabated mindfulness through which everything they do obtains its larger meaning within their religious cosmology and ethics. It is not uncommon to see a Balinese kebab vendor consecrating his outdoor grill and charcoals before commencing his work by creating a beautiful offering and placing it inside the grill; or having various statues of gods and spirits scattered around a house or in the streets and fields to constantly remind the one who sets eyes upon them to incorporate whatever he does at the moment into the higher life he must lead. In a sense, this is none other than the ideal of the synthesis of all yogas, propounded by Sri Aurobindo, which aims at turning every single element and event of one’s life into something that furthers his path towards perfection. We could say that this is equivalent to bringing the monk’s attitude into everyday life, without having to escape from the world.
But one need not travel to the East to see an application of this principle. Western writers, poets, composers, artists, scientists, engineers, and more accomplish the same thing. The writer Marcel Proust managed to squeeze many memories, feelings, and ideas out of the most common and pedestrian activities. He expressed so eloquently in words this process of “mental mining” that he created a revolution in literature as monumental as that of Newton in physics and Beethoven in music. His famous masterful description of how the soaking of a cake in tea awoke in the deepest recesses of his soul his childhood memories at his aunt’s house, is a perfect example of the transmutation of an ordinary everyday instance into an extraordinary event that has become immortal. In Cavafy’s poetry, Marcel Duchamp’s art, and in the work of many others, we see that such transmutations of the commonplace and dull are possible in our Western world too. And all of us have the ability and talent to effectuate them if we put our mind and energies to it.
Finally, there’s another way, probably the simplest and easiest – albeit the least imaginative – to deal with the relationship of our two lives. This last method is suitable for modern man working in a big city with a hundred errands to run and to-do lists to cross out: We may introduce an inner alarm that would ring every so often to bring us back to the main highway of our life, by whispering in our ears, “What are you spending your time on? Go back to your important work. Stop being busy doing other things!” This simple method ensures that we minimize the time, preoccupation, and energy we give to the lesser life in order to concentrate on the higher life – the great highway.
For this to happen, one may start by first seeing one’s two lives for what they are.