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To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom

“The exaggeration of the importance of choice in consumer societies is a weak [substitute] when compared to the old idea of a vocation that truly calls to the indwelling spirit in one’s soul. In the long run, the point is more to be chosen than to simply learn to choose from a menu of options.” – Michael Meade, Fate and Destiny, Two Agreements of the Soul

“[the quality that] went to form a Man of Achievement… [is] Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” -John Keats, Letters

“…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions – but they are not Souls until they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself…How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I…wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation that the Chrystean religion, or rather it is a system of Spirit Creation. “ – Ibid.

“With the farming of a verse/ Make a vineyard of the curse,/Sign of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress; In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start,/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise.” – W. H. Auden

I am quite sure everything I have to say about Fate was covered earlier and better by the Greeks of the Classical era. It is my fate not to have had a classical education, and equally my fate to know that I need it for the kind of intellectual work I attempt. It is my fate that, though I live in an ostensibly “free country” and am free to, right now, apply for an online degree program or at least retain the services of a classics tutor locally, while I still have a shred of a language-learning brain left, I will not become a scholar of Greek; to do that, I would have to interrupt my involvements in my current life, which is to say, “my life.”

Now, people are supposed to precisely leave their life when called by carpe diem inspiration. I myself have been known to preach the gospel of bliss-following, and surely Nietsche was not the only one who saw the forgoing of joy as the greatest sin of our civilization. A great deal of discernment may be called for to distinguish between carpe diem and the implacable non-negotiability of fate – more on that later.

For purposes of clarity: What I mean by “fate,” is every circumstance, limiting condition, or consequence of “poor choice” that I reach “irritably” against, that is outside of my control and therefore “should not be so,” and that my egoic self feels entirely entitled to expunge or to break free of. It is what drives one to drink, probably in some cases to murder, to bury one’s self esteem (i.e., one’s natural desire for nobility of purpose), and to, following Oedipus, deny. The world we inhabit today is one in which the denial of fate and the illusion of free will (or at least of consumer choice) is triumphant, and, at the same time, in which we apprehend a collective future so dark and frightening – in the form of migrant hordes, climate devastation, destroyed commons (air, earth, water, food, etc), nuclear annihilation – that we appear resigned to a kind of irrevocable collective fate that’s“too big to do anything about.”

Instead of working with our fate, which is a creative task entirely within the capability of every human being with an alive imagination, we retreat into fatalism. The other day a customer told us he did not consider Trump’s wall a moral issue. Though, he stated firmly, it should not be built, or even talked about because it can’t possibly work, he maintained the wall is not a moral concern. Orin demurred, asking how is it not a moral problem when these people are fleeing here because of the devastation caused by U.S. and international free market policies in their native lands? Orin proposed instead – too radically for our friend – that we return to a condition of no borders. The customer nodded, adding fatalistically, “but I won’t see that in my lifetime.” Serious Fate, translated to fit into banal bourgeois totality, becomes fatalism.

But what a colossal mistake that is! Fate being what is not banal, may make it the key weapon against the evil of complacent obedience. Since the awakening of my deep imagination in early mid-life, I have wrestled with my fate as a writer. I was back then thoroughly entangled in family life and in relative impoverishment, working as an adjunct instructor at local colleges when, through undergoing a psycho-spiritual crisis of major proportions, I found existing within myself a magnificent and very real alternate world. Ever since, my struggle has been to reconcile this immense capacity to imagine reality differently, that makes sense to my heart and is coherent, with my very limited circumstances living in dismal Utica and essentially chained to the small coffeeshop business we launched 16 years ago. The business was and remains the one tangible result of the aforementioned awakening; in my eyes, it embodies the dream of universal brotherhood which is also the anarchist dream, and for that I love it without reserve. Although it defies pragmatic business orthodoxy and is not “successful,” and thus cannot be explained to our business-savvy friends, its basis in the dream of beauty is why we cannot forsake it. It is our creation, our work, and our fate.

This wrestling with fate in which I engage runs completely counter to the thinking styles of most people I know, who consider themselves free in ways that no longer are so for me. For instance, when I was young, travel seemed like a very big deal, and when undertaken, was expected to change one somehow. Now, in our increasingly shrinking globe, people – i.e., students, retired people, college professors, business people, everybody! – travel here and there seemingly without constraint. Moreover, they are always eager to kindly encourage each other to “take that trip,” “sounds like fun,” etc. My necessary efforts to adjust to fate, i.e., to stay out of woe is me and instead restore the inner vineyard by my own creative efforts, has made me mistrustful and even uncomprehending of these signs of “no limits,” whatever, just “do it!” On the other hand, knowing few other people who have adjusted themselves to living consciously with fate, I am constantly tempted to be hard on myself for my too-low expectations, for putting up with a level of misery – so optional in this world! – others sanely shun. The question is, how does one discern a carpe diem moment from one in which one rather needs to let go of the “irritable reaching,” let it be “one’s lot” and put imagination to work on it?

Our friend film maker Lech, who lives in Paris, writes that he took his family to the Sahara for a month to, as he, says, escape all the bullshit of Christmas and be instead surrounded by awesome nature. An underground artist who has managed to stay financially supported for many decades because he’s talented, works very hard and had the good sense to move his career to Europe, he can afford to take these retreats in what are to me incredibly exotic and fascinating places. This is not unusual for artists, an artist’s prerogative I guess. My father, a painter, spent many summers in coastal Maine which made it possible for me and my brothers to spend several long childhood vacations in that paradise of rocks, seaweed, salt air fragrance and the soothing lullaby of lapping waves. That I have not done the same in my adult life has been another wrestle with fate; that is, I cannot honestly say it was impossible– for what, in today’s everything-for-a-price world, is impossible? On what basis do I refuse to return to the only paradise I ever knew?

My life as an artist has been to a great extent the work of figuring out what art-making means when one cannot, due to one’s fate, claim the prerogatives of an artist’s life. The number of geniuses who early in life surrendered to their daimon – like D.H. Lawrence, Keats, Auden, and our friend Lech – being relatively few, and the number like myself who either never, or “too late” realize their calling to art and the creative life, being many, I have long thought that what I manage to learn may help others who desire to follow the imaginative enterprise called their ‘bliss” within the serious constraints that the majority of us face whose fate it is, not possessing that rare gift of daimon-inspired self-confidence, that we are not supposed to be artists at all. Rather, we are to be obedient workers, addictive consumers, and swallow passively all the lies foisted upon us by the powerful in Congress and their plutocrat bosses, meant to keep the horrendous destructive works-for-a-few-at-the-expense-of -the-many system going.

My hope is that, in so doing, those who dare boldly to be artists, to be their original selves, against the entire establishment and conventions of the art world, the overwhelming obedience-conditioning of capitalist society, and against the real financial constraints more people will face, will form the needed resistance to the ongoing and relentless system of dehumanization that is devouring souls as we speak. The key feature of my “method,” it having been my fate not to have received the Muse’s call in my youth, is that one’s art cannot be undertaken as a detour from “fate,” but as a kind of dance, with fate as one’s grim partner. This partner is one you may not love, as one loves a charmer, but the dance with her will induce the kind of deep learning that makes souls, (and anarchists) in the” rapture of distress.”

If Keats, in calling this earthly life, of which his portion was so brief, “the vale of soul-making,” was right, and I believe he was, that might mean that taking up this approach of working with fate may provide benefits beyond the personal. It may be the way, as individuals, to thwart the out-of-control freight train of late-stage capitalism that renders human life (i.e., that supposedly can do without the imaginative soul) disposable, as well as rendering the earthly commons, our one and only human home, uninhabitable; a way to avoid the banality and passivity of fatalism.

Imagine the possibilities were we to learn again “amor fati,” instead of continuing to insist on personal freedom, open-ended outcomes, anything’s possible, all resolutely in denial of fate? Love of fate is not, after all a strange idea. It is taught in religion (i.e.,“the cross”) as the means of subduing the insatiable ego, of maintaining human life and community in balance with nature. Not coincidentally, in refusing to deny fate, we come up against the modern liberal secular antipathy for religion. Because religious imagination, at this moment in history, is exactly what is needed, complacent bourgeois religiophobia may be the single biggest guarantor that the egoic self, so compatible with capitalism, will triumph and we will not escape collective doom.

Art and independent thought, drawing as they do upon the soul’s power, make it possible neither to deny fate nor be crushed by it. The wholeness existent in our souls tells us an alternative story, the heartening one, in which each one is called to a particular purpose (is chosen) so that one’s being makes the difference; it provides the basis of joy that frees us to act. At some point, we must tear ourselves away from our fatalism and act upon a dream as human beings are meant to do. Only in this way can the oppressive, destructive neoliberal reality be resisted. We then join the tiny trickle of dreamers, quixotes, utopians, poets, prophets & and followers after lost causes, people who suffer fated life on the ground, refusing the temptation to fly over, and in adding our lives to the trickle, expand it to a stream if not to a mighty river.

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Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.

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