On Earth We're Briefly Timeless

I listened to a podcast with Ocean Vuong last night. Vuong’s first novel, the beautifully titled On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is the story of a young, queer, Asian immigrant in America, based on his own formative experiences.

Vuong said something fascinating about permanence.

‘[I] interrogate the value and validity of timelessness. Is it really that great? Timeless things are really quite damaging. Nuclear generators are timeless, plastic is timeless, notions of forever are destroying our planet and our world’

Our ideas of ourselves are similarly destroyed by the idea of permanence - when we cling onto something too tightly, it can hurt us. When you come to depend on an idea, a self image, a doctrine or a job, when this other thing fails you or proves itself inadequate you are left bereft. In this way, notions of forever can destroy our own worlds, our very selves.

I’ve been preoccupied with sporting retirement, career transition and how people approach it. My friend Alex had something to say about transition, that the word itself

‘implies that you need to move from one thing to the next thing to replace it and redefine yourself as 'x', but I think this is just asking for trouble’

Decoupling yourself from these ideas of self image can actually give you freedom, to be and do what you want. Freedom can be, as Alex says, a scary concept to entertain in this regard.

Vuong later said the idea of everyone doing everything, of queer men embodying masculine archetypes, like John Wayne or being in the military, didn’t seem like progress to him. Rather than allow people to shoehorn themselves in to another stereotype the they can identify, the truer, freer, more progressive thing would be to create something new. To make a change through creation.

‘Rather than debate the status quo, criticism through creating. Show them what’s possible, let them taste it.’

- Isaac Morehouse

Strong opinions lightly held. Follow something that grabs you, follow it to the end, immerse yourself in it and when you’ve learned what you wanted, when it ceases to be useful, dive into something else. Make it a part of your story and not the whole.

The race to define yourself as one thing, to be ‘a thing’, is to hem yourself in and make yourself less than you are. Show yourself what’s possible.

Vuong’s novel apparently draws on his background as a poet, interspersing the narrative with flights of linguistic breakdown, making a whole out of disparate linguistic parts. Not a new idea, but something that will probably last, art tends to outlive the artist.

Permanence and legacy are damaging when pursued for their own sake. Materials that last forever, acts that reverberate through history, the statues and edifices created merely to satisfy the ego, can be incredibly damaging. 

Where Vuong’s argument falls apart though, is with art. If you create something truly brilliant, paradigm shifting or just beautiful, it can last forever. It will outlast you and those who see it when it emerges, even though how people experience it and what they get from it may change. It will still be there too, even as we recede into the past.

If anything, art is like Vuong’s language - its meaning and constituent parts will mean one thing, then merge, refract and eventually break apart and reform, becoming part of someone else’s artistic tapestry, like sampled music or filmic references. The ideas and principles that he’s playing with and adding to are not novel, but timeless. It’s our experience of them, what we add to them, that makes it new, keeps it relevant and makes it eternal.

Ben Mercer