The question that we are failing to answer was never a question in the first place
During the very late stages of his life, the now famous painter Paul Gauguin was living in almost complete destitution. Aged 54, he had been surviving in a tiny hut with very little money, pressing debts, no health coverage and almost no friends or community support. He had chosen this life, by settling by himself in the Marquesas islands — a place which, even by today’s globalised standards, is in the middle of nowhere: hidden away in the vastness of the Pacific, the Marquesas are a sprinkling of volcanic islands at the edge of French Polynesia. This is where Gauguin left his last breath in 1908, succumbing to an undiagnosed ailment which to this day remains a mystery. He was never seen by a doctor.
Yet even during the last harrowing moments of his life, his artistic flame burned higher and more vibrant than ever. Almost like a near-death epiphany, right before he died Gauguin dedicated himself to finishing what is now considered by many one of the masterpieces of his career, a pinnacle both in terms of technical ability and artistic substance. Although the painting would turn out to be his personal requiem, it carries with it a message that encompasses each and every human, and transcends time itself. It is the most enigmatic piece of work, consisting of a series of solitary figures, like himself, which seem to be separate from their surroundings, almost unaware of where they are standing, where they have been “placed”. They have been consumed by a deep contemplation of their own existence. With this painting, Gauguin had seemingly said his goodbye to the world not by providing any final wisdom, any answers, or even achieving some type of validation for his contributions to that point. He left us with a mysterious painting that asks a heavy, but important existential question. He gave this final work the most appropriate title: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
It is a question that couldn’t be any less relevant today, a time when humanity is facing an identity crisis and an existential threat all at the same time. On a planet where there are more humans than the planet can feed, the most obvious question for any human is to ask “what was my actual purpose here on Earth?” If the end result of our civilisation is for humans to become a burden, to deplete the planet of its resources, bring most of the species to extinction, and even take apart the very climate machine that sustains all of this life, then what are we? Are we just predators and destroyers? Is that all? And what criteria do we use to answer this question? Because once this civilisation is over, however bright our past achievements may shine they will always be overshadowed by the end result: the even brighter inferno that brought all of it to an end. We will be remembered, by whatever civilisation comes next, not for what we achieved within the past few thousands of years, but for what we destroyed. We will be remembered for failing to protect those hard-earned achievements, and carry them through into the depth of time. Just like Gauguin, we will leave this world with a big existential question that seems to almost answer itself: if we have managed to annihilate ourselves as well as the planet in the end, then what was our actual purpose on Earth to begin with? Was there a specific point where it all went horribly wrong?
The answer may actually lie with Gauguin after all. Because the question he poses in his painting did not arise out of despair. It was a rhetorical question. The figures in the painting may look lonely and isolated, but they are surrounded by what looks like the garden of Eden, the most abundant, beautiful natural environment that forms the background in all of Gauguin’s paintings. The question “Where do we come from” immediately answers itself. And Gauguin had chosen this Eden-like natural environment for his inspiration and real-life living space, despite the sacrifices that this choice had demanded: like many artists before him, he had began his life trying to conform to the norms and expectations of the system of his time: making the best of educational opportunities, having a family, becoming a naval officer, even a stockbroker at some point. Yes, we almost lost Gauguin, one of the greatest painters that has ever existed, to Capitalism. A system that paves over our personal identity and turns us into soul-less working machines that have forgotten “what they are”, which is question number 2.
Like many other artists, Gauguin felt closer to himself the closer he was to nature, and the closer he was to the native inhabitants of French Polynesia, the so called “ape-like savages” that French colonialism had literally savaged, exterminating their population down to 5% of what it previously was. What business, what commonality did a cultured, white European have with these people, who featured consistently in all of his paintings?
There are hardly any painters in the world that have never been inspired by nature. Because nature is the ultimate artist. Artists can never surpass nature. All they can do is mirror it, reflect it, interpret it in their own way. With their paintings, artists add to the complexity, the infinite abundance in colour and form that already exists in nature. Yet the central belief in our traumatising, oppressive civilisation, is that humans are “better” than nature. And at the same time, a deeper belief that they need to “become something”. In our desperate attempt to answer the second question in the painting, “what are we?”, we are arrogantly trying to “make something out of ourselves”, something that does not require help from mother nature — yet paradoxically it has depended all this time on its destruction and exploitation. The way that we live, build our cities and interact with our environment demonstrates nothing but contempt towards nature, hiding the deeper jealousy that we nurture towards the greatest artist that has ever existed.
Few humans reach the level of humility, clarity and freedom to realise that “what we are” is simply mirrors, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Our destiny is not to become something “more” than nature. Nature is already a treasure, and we are individual treasures within this treasure. Our destiny has always been to live in harmony with all the other jewels in this treasure chest. To shine bright and be mirrors of the rest of the treasure, just like an artist.
Gauguin did not die unhappy, and he certainly knew “where” he had come from and “what” he was. Because happiness is not about having positive experiences. Happiness is about having meaningful experiences, both positive and negative. Happiness is about being alive, about being a clear, reflective mirror that is in touch with the world around it, not engaged in conflict, resistance, jealousy and competition. Those who have succesfully answered the question “what are we” are humble enough to know that to be someone is to realise that you are no one and everyone at the same time. And that to live meaningfully means dying a little, with each experience.
The “what are we” question that we are failing to answer was never a question in the first place. The third question, “Where are we going?”, is yet to be answered
to be continued…(or not)