Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
From The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) by Stephen Crane
I was first introduced to this piece in an American Studies class I had at Smith College in the fall of 2004. The moment I read it I was completely captivated. I knew I had just read something that would stay with me until the day I died. This is neither a frequent or passing feeling. I have only ever had it with a handful of other pieces. "Harlem" by Langston Hughes had a similar effect on me my freshman year of high school, and now over a decade later is still imprinted on my mind and soul.
I suppose it had such a profound effect on me, because it spoke to me on both a personal and universal level, at least the universe as I comprehend and interact with it. I feel like the general internet public would find my personal reasons to be rather trivial or egotistical, so I won’t air them here. Instead, let me expound on the universal.
You may disagree with me and have good grounds for it too, but in my experience human beings have a masochistic penchant for wallowing in their own misery. Why would a species that constantly strives for greater understanding and success, simultaneously eat their own hearts out with relish? What a paradox of a phenomenon! As these lines suggest, maybe we immerse ourselves in our troubles and sorrows, because they are our own. We eat our own hearts out when it will only make a situation direr, because our heart comes from us and are ours alone - there is some comfort in that.
There are too many ramifications and implications of this to address all of them in one post; however, let me humbly touch on a few.
Is the situation described the birthing place of creative self expression? Is art in its many forms simply a captured moment of this condition? I have seen this moment in myself and friends, some who were aware of what they were doing, though most were not. There is a deconstructed, fierce beauty in these heart-eating actions, and I feel like perhaps it is a true reflection of their psyche. Moreover, such conditions have a significant potential to catalyze. The situation is a crucible, full of extreme primal forces strong enough to reduce the person to their purest elements or to transmute via a sort of alchemy into something golden. With all this upheaval of our innermost essences, latent creativity has a chance to emerge. If art, as it is made by humans, is an expression of humanity and human potential, than depicting or interpreting the moment of eating one’s own heart is the culmination of artistic endeavors. And, this would explain why many artists make their best art when they are considered the most unstable.
Why do we take comfort in the making of our own misery? Is it because it is inherent to our nature, which is so full of paradox? Or, is it because we have built a society that completely ignores a need that is essential to our individual survival? We have a need that currently seems to be best met by eating our own hearts out. If this need and means to meet it are inherent, then the evolution of humans is mysterious indeed. I can only begin to postulate on what the function of such a system would be. For now, I think I lean towards the second explanation. Some how or another society seems to have developed to be very good at addressing physical and psychological needs, but rather bad at meeting philosophical needs. I know of no one personally that is particularly conscientious and not had an existential crisis. If you are at all aware of post-modern society and your role in it, it is impossible not to wallow in your predicament just a little bit. Still, your predicament is wholly your own, and may be all you have, so you cherish it.