The sun reaches a spot of burnished leafing above me and flowers into petals of golden light. Walls of ashen marble rise on all sides, straining for the sky, ending in spires like fingers aimed at their goal. Occasional statues step out from alcoves into the light, angels and saints in constant but silent praise of the votaries whose peace is their vigil’s hope. Cobblestones are spread out, pages from a book of stone scattered by the wind; their border in steps of granite, like an immense dais upon which this great house of prayer is laid, itself a statue, a body in stone with ribs of pews, vocal chords of brass pipe, and eyes of colored glass that gaze out in wonder at the lessening streams of the devout. The life and fate of the Duomo.
With a few brief steps to south and west, I am standing on the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the river Arno. It reaches in a long curve, a cat of stone caught in mid-stretch, its paws like arched columns, clawing and flexing beneath the grassy banks twenty feet below.
Still further south and west, the Palazzo Pitti announces itself to all passers in declarations of stone and brick towering in the sky. It knows no curves, understands no subtlety of language but the clear and definite line, the cutting angle, the surety of function over form. While it may seem an awkward guest at a city-wide ball of churches and bell towers, yet the clarity of its geometry, its unwillingness to dawdle around the point in circles and arcs, is refreshing enough to lend grace to the elegant, and charm to the well-mannered – and so their foil and counterpoint, a welcome addition to such a party.
Pitti stands, planted on square feet, at the entrance of the Boboli garden, of emerald leaves and grasses dipped in jade. There is a host of feline attendants, tiny butlers too attached to their fur coats to remove them, and to the langorous breeze and sunlight to respond to any guests.
In the back, at the top of curving stairs, awaits the rose garden. From there you can see all the countryside south of Florence: a painting of the Masters in colors that shift and move in sign of life. Rafael’s clouds are not trapped by canvas here, but graze in the blue sky like herds of heaven’s sheep; the trees, fields, and olive groves, stretch out for miles around, tugging your soul into a vast shape that might embrace the whole, or an endless, green palm that holds you suspended in a scene of beauty, until the moment when its fingers close, and send you back to the city.
Another beautiful invention, in whose praise I smile at the beginning of each night: a device that plugs into the wall with a blue tab that keeps out mosquitos until morning. I’m glad for this, because otherwise I was nearing the rank of Mosquito Guru, when I would have been capable of locking eyes with a mosquito and staring him down by virtue of knowing him better than he knew his own self.
For up to this time I have left husbands without wives, widows weeping in the night, sons pining for their fathers, and every father a Jacob without hope of Egypt to deliver his son. I have caught them dallying on walls, turning corners on a lazy breeze, and mocking my fist by a quick leap into the air, thus dodging – but not succeeding to escape – the intentness of my lust for my own blood back. I have caught society mosquitos sipping at their sanguine cocktail, notably me, and left them only a bloody spot on my palm to show the merits of their epicurean habit. I’ve even heard it told, in the smallest, buzzing voices, that the great Mosquito King himself, surrounded by his consorts, has placed a price on my head, promising to all his bereaved children an equal share of the efforts of my heart. I’ve caught his scouts endlessly hovering near, perhaps waiting to divine my next resting place, to report back to the king’s armies. Alas, the lonely scout is now too flat to fly back, falling with the wind like a black leaf whose flesh is all but torn off by a bored child.
The gates of this great, blood-sucking kingdom of my adversary, where my name must now be legend and war chants specifically deride the name of Wiegley, is either at the pit of the murkiest swamp, or some damp dungeon, or some other place too loathsome and foul to hunt for at the time time when they are hunting me – when I would have had a chance to steal into the king’s chambers, and see what he makes of the DDT species of hemlock. So far I have not made the journey, nor intend to, but must confess in my heart a strange longing, as if a future Sherlock Holmes were musing on the whereabouts of his unseen, yet deduced, mortal enemy.
Perhaps the king has even appeared to me some nights, posing as a henchman – though quicker of wing and wittier with his sword, as one would expect from royalty. Maybe a whole legion of mosquito aristocrats has, at times, dined on what they report as a delicacy beyond forgetting – all the rage at court – a feast for the daring, the young, and the inveterate risk-takers who long for a chance to try their fate. Maybe, were I to confiscate somehow an issue of their Bloody Herald, I would see my own face staring back at me, bemused – though as seen through the eyes of a mosquito, and that being only the tiny patch of skin below my left ear they seem so fond of.
How long has it been, I wonder, with the tide of battle rolling black and forth like a storm n a crimson sea; ten thousand puny draculas, taking on the form of minute bats, flapping their wings eagerly under the moonlight in hopes of chancing on my unprotected flesh. If so, then after so many bites I wonder if this explains a certain renewed interest in tomatoes – that scarlet fruit – or a gasp at hearing a diner order a Bloody Mary, or my recent tendency to ask for steaks nearly raw, a little extra blood dripping on the side, please.
Does this mean the onset of tiny, gossamer wings, a promise of flight at dusk, a certain hungry look in the eyes when I see a spot of neck as a tasty snack? Surely the king does not hope to win me by conversion!? I would rather do honest battle as a heathen, then join the ranks of his black-clothed faithful, always humming in prayer – the voice a bit too shrill – and taking home, at my expense, drops of blood to pool together for their evening communion. Egads! Do they intone, in wicked unison, “The body of John”, as they sup on the labors of my own heart? Or expect some salvation from what, at best, is a salty substitute for the whole man? A legion of these black-robed Jesuit scholars of venal anatomy, expecting from me some hope of a future beyond the death imparted by my own hand, and seeking it in the very flesh of that hand itself?
I must write to the king and demand a stop to all of this. When his emissary arrives tonight, I will have a tiny scroll ready, etched on flakes of skin, that will tear the wings – err, lift the veil from this awful heresy, and permit us to resume our daily antagonism without the unnecessary fanaticism which has perhaps been the reason for so many bites lately. I’m sure he will understand. If there’s one thing a man can expect from a great enemy – who is not a man – is that his savior and final goal in life should follow his own form, and regard me only as a target with the disturbing capacity to strike back much harder than he is struck. There! I hear him now, trumpeting on his tiny bugle that the games must commence. I leave now for the trying task of writing down these words in my own blood… – No! I will not use you for a pen! Get back, scoundrel! SMACK.
“Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative.” – Any Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I believe man was intended to admire himself. His admiration is not for the part in exclusion to the whole, but for whichever part honors the best of the whole. The difference between men is not that of dirt to gold, but of a beautiful racecar either sitting unused in a garage, or out winning races.
A man admires himself according to his standard, by which he distinguishes better from worse, and this honest assessment is his surest guide and incentive to progress. Our modern culture, however, with its ambivalence toward the individual, both demands that men do what is admirable, and denies him the moral right to admire that result in himself.
Because we still desire the moral confirmation that admiration represents, we try to provoke admiration from others, as though looking at ourselves through their eyes – as if this were more accurate and true, being free of the stigma of “ego”. Yet we cannot know the standards of others, or what they are admiring, or even if it is an honest admiration. And when we do feel something, we must avoid it, like feeling the pressure of an advancing wave while running to keep from getting wet.
With such an ambiguous, indirect basis for self-esteem, it is easy to reach the conclusion that it is not worth the effort that virtue demands. Since many are willing to fake admiration for much less, it is even possible to skirt virtue entirely and yet preserve some hollow sense of value, which mixed with alcohol or amusement or overwork, is enough to avoid a moral outrage.
It results in an intricate, immensely complicated game in which we seek “points” without wanting to be seen doing so, or even to see ourselves doing it! And when we earn these nebulous points – for they only appear as admiration, we do not know for sure what prompts them – they must occur either in such profusion that we cannot dodge all of them, or they must reach us in moments of “weakness” when we are willing to accept them, only to renounce them later.
In this situation, in which we long for an experience of genuine admiration, but condemn it on “moral” grounds – even though admiration is the proper response to a correct moral choice – in this atmosphere of fundamental contradiction, it is no wonder that young girls, of breathtaking beauty, ruin their health in the belief that they are not beautiful. By their own standard they would know their beauty, and this should be enough – enough to honor their bodies and themselves, in admiration of the fact that Beauty has become so manifest in their person, according to their qualities and the pains they take. But since they cannot both admire themselves and feel moral, they rely upon the admiration of others – while instinctively understanding that they can never know the standards of others, and so it is an admiration they cannot honestly accept.
This phenomenon happens to us all; for most it is not physical, but mental or emotional. Like the kind-hearted person who believes they are always hurting others; or the generous person who cannot give enough; or the creative person who hates everything they do, calling it dull and trite; or the musician who will not play for anyone because it is never “good enough yet”. This conflict is a moral dilemma, in which the motive of reward – admiration – has been denied the individual, and the counter-incentive of punishment – self-loathing – is all that remains. The best a person can do is reach the zero, always knowing how easy it is to slip back into loathing.
Thus we are not taught to admire ourselves, but rather praised for criticizing ourselves. We can say all we like that what we’ve done is of poor quality, but God forbid someone stand up in a crowd and say, “What I’ve done is excellent, because I know that it is.”
This admiration is the foundation of happiness, for a happy being is one that lives his life well and knows it. What else can bring happiness? Is it not the final reward of justice, the peace of the just? And if it is just, one must be able to judge it according to the good, and for this one must know what is good, which implies a full awareness of the state of one’s being: good or bad, fulfilling one’s moral standard or not.
A happiness divorced from consciousness would never be sure of itself, it would always remain an untrustworthy feeling, likely to vanish at the first hint of opprobrium; and the bearer himself would never know whether he had earned it or not: he might be a faqir masquerading under a delusion. This false happiness cannot last, because man is at heart a rational being who holds himself to exacting standards. Only those worn out from the charade, who have given up on the inability of a moving standard to grant them what they seek, turn to whatever form of immediate pleasure presents itself.
The answer to this is to remember who we are: Who made us, what we’re capable of, what we’ve achieved: and know in our heart that a just man is the most beautiful expression of our Creator’s intent for this world, and that the just man is the man who is capable of judging his own worth and finding it good.
Our body, our brain, may be accidents of nature, unremarkable in themselves, but what the active will – the soul – chooses to do with that body is worth observing. The soul is a reality revealed in what it does; there is no way to talk about what it is. The ego wants you to praise the brain, the soul is shown in the thoughts of that brain; the ego wants you to praise the individual, the soul is all the beauties common to humanity that it causes to shine in that individual; the ego would have you honor Beethoven the composer, his soul would refer you to his music.
This spirit that is the life of all conscious action, the human spirit, thrives by approaching and achieving what is good. How it knows the good depends on its standard of values, and it is just insofar at it fulfills these values. Its virtues are the expression of those values in its choices – which requires that it know the good from the bad in its own actions. And thus it must despise and change the bad it finds in itself, and admire and encourage the good. Its sorrow and happiness depend on this fair assessment of itself. How else can it learn and grow? What external, or delayed, reward can compare with this? When society denies a man the right to admire his own good, it secretly wishes for him not to exist: to become a nameless, anonymous entity without extraordinary qualities, moving in docile acquiescence to whatever whim captures the fancy of the whole.
In these terms I would say that spirituality is the joy one discovers when he learns that the path to God – toward the perfection of the moral ideal, the Quality that gives life to Quality, the Most Glorious of all Glory seen in creation – lies in himself, is found in his values, is approached by his justice, is proven in his virtue, and whose reward is his happiness in knowing that he accepts and honors, and is accepted and honored, by the Good. This formula is expressed in the verse, “O thou soul who art well-assured, return unto thy Lord, well-pleased and pleasing unto Him.”
It one denies the capacity for self-admiration to the mind, he denies this process, because it dooms one’s pursuit of the Straight Path to being haphazard, random, depending on chance inspirations at unexpected moments to push him by grace, not virtue, in the direction of his soul’s longing. He condemns himself to the torment of knowing that his Lord is everything good, and that he was created to manifest that good, but his eyes are blind so he can never look at himself and know which of his actions are helping, and which hindering, his progress along that Path – which is the perfect morality, the ideal most to be admired.
If you read this and understand what it points to, admire yourself. Admire yourself for having a brain, knowing a language, understanding abstract concepts, caring about virtue and justice, and being aware of the good and how worthwhile it is to seek it. As I admire myself for being able to write about these things, and caring about them, and being willing to do whatever I can to fulfill them. These statements should never cause shame, or cause us to shrink from our own goodness; rather they are our badge of courage, our worthiness to stand and be counted among the human race.