Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Christmas Day, 2012

When I worked in San Francisco's financial district, I used to run into a homeless guy named Tony who stood at the corner of Montgomery and Sutter Streets. When I first encountered him, Tony was fairly young. He wasn't all there, but he was always pleasant. These encounters were episodic and their frequency stretched out when I moved to an office along the harbor. So it was a shock to see Tony go blind and end up in a wheelchair, looking like an old man, much before his time. He may now be dead - I haven't seen him in a while.

The photo below is of a homeless man, apparently an East Bay fixture, who was murdered a few months ago. They found his body a week or two ago, and are now looking for his killer. He and I were about the same age, so the photo spoke to me of the relative difference in wear and tear. 

Walking down Spear Street earlier this month, I saw a young guy who'd been panhandling in the first block for several days. I gave him a $20, and during that transaction, I got the sense that it wasn't his fate to be standing there. I didn't say this. A few days later, he'd moved on. I hope that what I saw was true. When the Occupy movement was at its height, one thing I liked about it was its embrace of the homeless. They were in the thick of it, suddenly brought to life. It was pretty obvious that some of them were crazed as loons, but their lives were briefly better as a result of finding themselves in the midst of something bigger, buoyed up by people who took them seriously.

We live amid different strands of time. A younger friend in England posts photos of her dog, a deerhound that I admire, too. He's in the prime of his dog life, but a dog's life is shorter than ours. I look at him and feel a certain sadness that his days in the sun will end so quickly. I had a dog like this, too, and his death was a big blow. It's odd to say it - it's like we care more for our dogs than for the homeless among us, but this reflects our attachment and the love that dogs show us, affectionate creatures that they mostly are. Understandably, the homeless tend to shower us with need. Tony, mentioned above, was an exception - he was cheerful and interacted with people on that basis. He never asked for money, although he had a small sign pinned to his jacket that read, "Help Tony." I always did, but my episodic help was not much use, in the end.

On the New York subway earlier in December, I read signs that urged people to give to charities rather than give to the homeless. I wish there were a safety net that could save people like Tony. Despite all the money that splashes around, there's never enough for the homeless, so they live in our midst, trapped in a different time that sucks the life out of them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Photo by Elizabeth Snowden
22 November 2012

A few days ago, in a conversation with my daughter, I realized that time is the topic I want to explore next. The phrase “sense of time” refers both to our immediate awareness of “the time” and to our broader awareness of time’s dimensionality. The latter sense of time is what interests me. That they are separate phenomena is borne out, I believe, by people I know who are famously oblivious to time in the immediate sense, but retain a sharp awareness of time in the larger sense and how they fit within it.

The experience of time, in both senses, is arguably a personal trait that reveals itself haphazardly, even to ourselves. That there are people who run habitually late or, conversely, are habitually punctual is something we learn through our encounters with them.Their awareness of time’s dimensionality is much harder to grasp, but one way we encounter it is when our respective views of a sequence of events are at odds. (I won’t say “the same sequence of events,” because no one views anything in quite the same way.)

It may be helpful to set down my own awareness of time. I have a good sense of immediate time and am fairly punctual. My awareness of time’s dimensionality reflects my associative memory, which means that I experience time as a series of threads. Perhaps “paths” is the better word: time past for me is like paths in a wood that, even if they overlap to some degree, have their own coherence when I’m on them again. There is a kind of collapsing of time when this happens, yet I’m aware of the “weight” of the time involved, so any given event along the way is put in perspective or given a sense of proportion against the whole. Even a path which seems to have run its course remains open-ended for me: if the person I shared it with were to surface, we would pick up where we left off. In consequence, absence doesn’t register for me with the same urgency it seem to for others. 

Why is this? In his account of Heaven, Swedenborg explained that angels move differently than we do, using time rather than space as their medium. What he described corresponds in a way to how I experience time’s dimensionality. In dreams, too, events that are nominally divided by spans of time are in fact connected, allowing us to move seamlessly from one event to another, aware of real time passing within each event, but working the transitions by association, without any intervening passage of time. (Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty includes several examples of what I've called "dream logic" elsewhere. In that film, objects like an umbrella provide the means of transition.) 

Absence doesn’t register for me so strongly, therefore, because time’s distance doesn’t feel so distant, doesn’t actually diminish the feelings that attach to people and events over time. This is not a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” but rather a palpable sense of others when they come to mind, since they come to mind in totality: the totality of my experiences of them. This reflects a memory that is holographic as well as associative. (Let me stress that this depends on an unclouded temperament, which is not always what life has on order.)

Emerging from a personal crisis some years ago, I understood that what I had suffered from was a sort of “time disease” in which the past actively arose in the present, uninvited, to the point that I was sometimes "seeing" in two times at once. It was like being a ghost, living partly in a world that was at a remove from the real one, unable to participate fully in it, and grieving for it like the dead for the living. Viewed in retrospect, healing required that I part ways with my grief-stricken facsimile

Let's call him the ego, a kind of phantom or daemon that we concoct early on to reassure ourselves. We do so, I believe, to ward off death, which we experience initially as a frightening separation from others whom we imagined to be part of ourselves. Love, A.H. Almaas argues, enables us to dispense with this "protector" and be "alone with others," in Stephen Batchelor's phrase. As when we were toddlers, this sense of innate connectedness is unconscious, a byproduct of love itself. When we’re left stranded by love’s collapse, we find that our old and false companion is still there, tying us to the very moment when love parted us. Stuck there together: this was my "time disease." To emerge from it, we have to embrace life as it is, embracing time's dimensionality, the integrity of every path, and the fact that as life unfolds—as time unfolds—we unfold with it, regardless of what we may have had planned on the side.

What the Buddhists call “mind” is, I read, the whole world of our experience, which we encompass as a created universe, a reflection of reality that is uniquely our own. This is our "time past, present, and imagined future." We can choose to be with time (in both senses, past and present), in the Buddhist sense of “sitting with it,” or we can take a more possessive view of it, privileging parts of it over others, wanting it to unfold in certain ways and feeling anger or sadness when it doesn’t. These are human responses—the Buddha wasn’t condemning our humanity when he pointed out that being with it can save us from suffering from it.

The longer I live, the more clearly I see how these individual paths through time have their individual reasons. (Sometimes another's path crosses ours so quickly that it seems singular, more like an event.) I’m always surprised by life, which is much more wondrous than we usually credit. We make plans, a necessity in real time to make things happen, but life’s unfolding, the milieu through which time moves, is a much vaster phenomenon, rich and unknowable, even in its particulars. We even surprise ourselves.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


11 November 2012

The election came and went. In the run up, at least one colleague and numerous right-leaning pundits predicted (and appeared to believe, judging from their subsequent disbelief) that Romney's apparent surge would turn into a rout. Looking at the post-election analyses, it's clear that this would have required every on-the-fence voter to opt for Romney. Didn't happen. 

My sense was that Romney got some traction in the debates that was blunted by Hurricane Sandy, an event that displayed Obama to his advantage and suggested, in the person of Chris Christie, that reconciliation with the right (albeit the moderate version thereof) was possible.

Some have asked what Romney will do next. My suggestion is that he help rebuild his party along more moderate and sensible lines. The key word here is "help," because a lot of the baggage he acquired in the primaries is still with him. If he looks at the election honestly, he can only conclude that it did him in. Moreover, a comparable process will do in subsequent Republican candidates. They're in the quandary that California Republicans have been in for some time, unable to nominate a candidate that can win in the general election. (Schwarzenegger only won because he secured the nomination in an open primary, proving in the process that a moderate, socially progressive Republican in the Clinton mode can win in a nominally liberal, progressive state.)

Early on, I felt that the Republicans would lose because they were in essence two, three, perhaps even four parties. However, Romney was able to hang on to the far right while moving to the middle. What he couldn't do is move to the middle in a way that convinced most voters - it was too quick, and of course the attack launched by rivals like Gingrich, picked up by the Democrats as soon as he emerged as the frontrunner, stuck, never effectively parried until the first debate. For this, Romney can only blame himself - he ran an inept campaign, alienating a lot of possible supporters: women, Hispanics, the middle class. It's a case study in how not to build a broad coalition of support, but it reflects the distractions of trying to get nominated by the Republican Party as it now exists.

I was skeptical of Obama, but I have some optimism for his second term, given that his legacy is at stake and he seems to have learned something from the campaign about his own shortcomings. Ideology isn't really politics - this is the big takeaway of the election. "Hard positions" boil down to deadlock, which leads to crises, a sense of "no adults in the room." Obama has to lead. He has to be engaged and prepared to cut deals. He should bring Bill Clinton in as a key political advisor, especially after everything Clinton did to help him. He should jettison most of his inner circle, clear the air. Claiming a mandate is premature and, in any case, mandates aren't a substitute for politics.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


 9 September 2012

In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni indulged in a drive-by slur on Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, noting that he was seen talking with Karl Rove in Tampa. Bruni speculated that if Brown beats Elizabeth Warren in November, he will follow the Romney roadmap to Presidential nomination in 2016, moving to the right to attract the votes he would need to win the primaries. Warren’s own national ambitions make Bruni’s guilt-by-association slam disingenuous: she’s the more obviously hungry for it, which may explain why Obama derailed her earlier play for visibility. Why promote a challenger?
Brown is an instinctive centrist. If the Republicans continue to cleave to the right, he would be better off running as a Democrat in 2016, particularly if the other candidates are left of center. Warren’s Senatorial run appears to be a stepping stone to a Presidential run in 2016. She is considerably to the left of Obama, so her victory in 2012 and visibility in the Senate would give her good exposure. A Brown victory, on the other hand, would make him a likely Republican ally of Obama—assuming Obama’s reelection—in the Senate. This would burnish his centrist credentials. Brown paired with Romney is harder to parse. If the British betting shops are right, a Romney victory will be accompanied by a leftward swing in Congress, which could mean Warren, not Brown, whereas an Obama victory will swing Congress toward the Republicans. 
If Obama wins, which is my guess at this point, Paul Ryan will be set back and Brown, if he wins, too, will be ascendant. The Republicans, despite their congressional victories, would still have to do the Presidential math. All those haters don’t add up to a Presidential plurality. Brown, who isn’t identified with any of the party's numerous hater factions, could be the man of the hour. 

Parenthetically, it doesn’t look to me like Ryan will really help Romney, although it may be too soon to say this. Why he made stuff up in his convention address is a real mystery, but it makes the argument that his budget proposal is also made up seem more plausible. That proposal is pretty thin, but Ryan deserves some credit for saying that Medicare and Social Security need to be part of any long-term fix. By leaving the military untouched, though, he's omitting the other obvious budgetary elephant in the room. Including it would have shown more courage.
Which brings me back to Simpson Bowles: even now, people are saying that Obama should revive it as the starting point for a national debate, if that’s possible, about how we go forward. The weekend Financial Times dinged Obama for saying nothing of substance in his big speech. On the job front, this probably makes sense—it’s why Romney didn’t say anything, either. Obama would have to introduce “socialist” measures like the WPA, whereas Romney could only go on repeating that a faster recovery will generate more jobs “at some point.” But pointing to Simpson Bowles, which after all was done on his watch, would give Obama a belated opportunity to “add substance.” He could still argue that the primaries and the current election have brought the budget into high relief and that he intends to lead the debate and hammer out a resolution that balances the nation’s human and fiduciaries responsibilities.  
If we have any luck at all, the 2012 election will leave voters with a sour taste for right-left polarization. The mudslinging that’s now going on seems to be falling on increasingly deaf ears as voters turn off, leaving the partisans talking to themselves. With the outcome coming down to a handful of states, the turnout elsewhere could be thinner than usual, and the winner’s mandate correspondingly watered down. In the vacuum that follows, either the extremes will grow bolder—four years of inaction—or the center will emerge as a pragmatic force, with people like Scott Brown building power the old bipartisan way.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Labor Day, 3 September 2012

Facebook is filled with the hyperbole of the political season. Each one strives for a more complete dismissal of the Republican nominees, while the incumbent is embraced without qualification, as if this were 2008 again and the intervening post-Bush years had never happened. These remarks are directed at true believers, and I find I'm not one of them.

The promise of 2008 was recalibration. The world had changed, the “new world order” foreseen by the elder Bush was squandered by his son, turned into mindless, prohibitively expensive adventures that failed even to secure the oil rights that the left believed was the real motive. Afghanistan, Obama’s optional war, continues. That it is not quite the same quagmire as Iraq does not excuse it. Even something as fundamental as closing Guantanamo and shifting the trials of terrorists into real courts stands undone, never seriously pursued. The neoconservative program, despite its thorough repudiation in practice, is still inexplicably alive in this nominally left-of-center administration. Obama is sharper than Bush, but he has let himself be led by events. 

Because American politics are now polarized like California’s, Romney had to move right in order to win the primaries. The sincerity of this move is open to question—certainly most of his opponents questioned it—but it saddles him with an unpalatable program socially and militarily, sort of the worst of all worlds. It makes me long for Bill Clinton, who managed to combine fiduciary conservatism with social liberalism—and avoid the big moves, militarily, that Bush junior fell into so readily. Clinton is the template for a middle-of-the-road presidency, but then Clinton is also a true politician, which isn’t true of any of his successors. Reagan, highly attuned to public opinion, was a master at paying lip service to the hidebound without ever attempting to enable their broadly unpopular ideas.

Even now, Romney could move a ways back to the middle simply by pointing to the states as the right venue to hash out vexing social issues. And the states might argue in turn that counties and cities should have something to say about them. Arizona, which is perennially tarred with the retrograde brush by the left, is split north and south—Phoenix and Tucson—on these issues. It would be a reasonable move, given the short distance between him and Obama in the polls, to imply that a Romney-Ryan administration would leave any socially conservative program to the states. The Democrats could argue that it’s less than Obama’s guarantee, which is true, but it might be enough to close the gap. What it would really signal to the electorate is that Romney gives other issues, like the economy, a higher priority. (This won't solve his Supreme Court appointment problem, a genuinely compelling reason to vote for Obama.)

Romney is a technocrat. Described as a problem solver, he is likely to be a decent strategist, capable of running the numbers and taking a longer view when required. He appears to understand that making a success of things takes work and commitment, which is a key difference between him and Bush junior. Obama also has a longer view and gets the commitment part, but he avoids doing the sums. I don’t think he’s lazy, as his detractors claim, but he isn’t good at projecting a personal sense of urgent purpose. His bid for reelection accentuates this, making it seem like it’s all he really cares about. It’s another difference between him and Bill Clinton, who really worked at being “Presidential”—in charge and in the know.

The military—what it costs and what it’s for—should be a bigger topic than it is. To his credit, Obama has proposed cutting its gargantuan budget by $250 billion. Ryan’s “Budget for America” leaves the military untouched, opening him up to the valid charge of sacrificing social programs to military ones. This may be one area where Romney differs from Ryan, but isn’t talking about it. Global business values stability. It may press for advantage or at least a level playing field, but nation-building is rarely on its agenda.

Writing in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen wondered if a reelected Obama would get us into a war with Iran. At this writing, Obama seems to be trying to stay Israel’s hand, although it’s hard to believe Israel would act without our explicit backing. When I read the LRB essay, I thought back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater as the peace candidate. In retrospect, it was exactly the reverse. Romney is no Goldwater, but my distrust of Obama on this point surprised me. His partisans argue that he got us out of Iraq and held back from taking a direct role in Libya. That’s true, but his actions to the contrary, like Afghanistan, muddy the waters.

Recalibration takes courage. One of its requirements is to examine the past and call to account those responsible for its excesses, from the financial crisis to torture, murder, and wanton disregard of the Constitution and due process. I don't think Romney is in any sense the man to do it, but Obama, coming into office with a substantial mandate for change, left crucial things undone. Were they impossible? He never really said. Were they unimportant, devices for getting elected? It's hard to know.

Friday, June 22, 2012

On Bill Weatherby

Marilyn Monroe. (Photo by Magnum.)

When I read this letter from Richard Gott, London W11, to the London Review of Books, I thought of my friend Kenneth Caldwell, founder and writer of the blog, Queersage. What Gott has to say about his friend Bill Weatherby, confidant of Marilyn Monroe, is the sort of story that Caldwell documents. Gott writes:

Jacqueline Rose shares Bill Weatherby's apparent surprise that he found himself Marilyn Monroe's confidant (LRB, 26 April 2012). Perhaps she would have understood more quickly if she had known that Bill was gay. Weatherby was an immensely shy and private reporter who had escaped from the Guardian's Manchester newsroom at the end of the 1950s to establish himself in New York as a showbiz correspondent and feature writer; he was also an acute observer of the gathering civil rights struggle in the South. He was part of the gay underworld of the civil rights movement, becoming close friends with James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin (he was proud of the fact that he was the only white pall-bearer at Baldwin's funeral).

Christine, Bill's lover, was a black man whom he met in New Orleans and then traveled with through Georgia and Louisiana. His fictionalized account of their remarkable journey in his book, Love in the Shadows, published in 1956, pretends that they were a heterosexual inter-racial couple. This was extraordinary enough at the time; a book detailing a black and white male partnership would not have found a publisher.

I got to know Bill in the 1980s when I was his remote employer at the Guardian in London, and I can vouch for the fact mentioned by Jacqueline Rose that he shared a fellow feeling with Marilyn for the down and out, and for the excluded, whether black or gay. I went with him to visit tenements in Harlem where he was funding unemployed members of his extended family, and I last saw him in a tiny apartment in Poughkeepsie, up the Hudson River, where he ended up, lame from a stroke and virtually destitute, looked after by James Monroe Parker, his faithful partner. Like many journalists of his generation, he was thoughtless with money and had no pension, vaguely assuming that he would always be able to write. He died in 1992, aged 62.

(The letter appeared in the London Review of Books, 10 May 2012, page 4.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Occupy's Critique of MoMA

The painter and muralist Diego Rivera
(Until I read this letter by Benjamin Young,  printed in the 23 February 2012 London Review of Books (pg. 4), I was unaware of this Occupy event and critique of MoMA, also described by Noah Fischer on his blog.) Young writes:

Hal Foster concludes his review of the Diego Rivera exhibition at MoMA by drawing a parallel between the figures in Rivera’s Manhattan cityscape Frozen Assets and the bodies that thronged the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The link can be made even more concrete: on 13 January, a Friday and the one evening a week when the $25 admission fee for MoMA is waived, participants from the OWS working groups Arts and Labor, Labor Outreach, Occupy Museums and Occupy Sotheby’s, along with others from the artist-run space 16 Beaver, converged in the Rivera galleries for a large group discussion that drew in other museum-goers. The galleries were soon filled to capacity. The conversation touched on Rivera’s personal and artistic commitments to Communism and to social change, the censorship of his mural by Rockefeller and the latter’s ties to MoMA, and especially the risk that, in remounting the show at MoMA today, this history might be lost or, worse, recalled only to be locked away in the aesthetic past. Perhaps most important, the spirited exchange performed a kind of ‘collective viewership’, which Foster links to Rivera’s aspirations for the fresco and mural form, and which runs counter to the decorous consumption of individual masterpieces often encouraged by the museum environment.

The gathering then moved to the central, second-floor atrium of the museum for a general assembly, amplified by the people’s mike and drawing in other visitors. Speakers reminded patrons that ‘Target Free Fridays’ did not originate in corporate beneficence, but from the agitation of the Art Workers’ Coalition (active from 1969 to 1971), whose actions on behalf of free public access to the arts have since been plastered over with corporate branding. Others declared their solidarity with the unionised art handlers who since August 2011 have been locked out of their jobs at Sotheby’s after they refused a contract proposal that included cuts to pay and healthcare, but also the requirement that new hires be temporary and non-union.

Not only does MoMA do business with Sotheby’s – an auction house that reaps huge profits from financial speculation on our cultural commons – but at least three figures from MoMA play roles in the company as well: James Niven (MoMA trustee and Sotheby’s US chairman), Richard Oldenburg (MoMA director emeritus and honorary trustee, former chairman and now consultant at Sotheby’s US), and restaurateur Danny Meyer (who runs MoMA’s three restaurants and sits on the board of directors at Sotheby’s). As the meeting progressed, a two-storey-tall banner was dropped from the top-floor balcony overlooking the atrium; it demanded, among other things, that MoMA and Sotheby’s end the lock-out and ‘hang art not workers.’ The assembly further debated the corporatisation of the museum and other nominally public institutions, the place of art in the neoliberal austerity economy, the structural dependence even of non-profit spaces on capital, and what artists and cultural workers might do to contest the cultural and financial power coursing through places like MoMA.

Although the assembly did not present an updated image of the class iconography found in Rivera’s picture – a kind of picturing of which Foster wonders whether public art is still capable – this did not prevent it from identifying the winners and losers in the present economy and calling for change. And simply by gathering, OWS again demonstrated that ‘the politics of appearance by actual people in real space still counts.’ This suggests that rather than relying on a definition of public art posed in terms of style, content or medium, it may be more productive to ask how a public might assemble to reclaim all art as part of the commons instead of a fetish of capital, and thereby open up artworks, and the museum itself, to public dispute and reappropriation.

Foster points to the persistence of the police in Rivera’s picture and in the OWS demonstrations. But we also need to retrace the connection Rivera drew between those fingering the jewels in the vaults of culture and that vast, grey room of warehoused labour. To that end, OWS offered to donate their protest banner to the museum’s collection under certain conditions, including public acknowledgment of the AWC’s role in securing days of free museum admission and a public letter from the museum denouncing the Sotheby’s lock-out. MoMA declined.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life & Death: Finishing School

Emanuel Swedenborg suggested, based on his visits to Heaven, Hell, and their vestibule, that we arrive intact into the spirit world. Being intact, he continued, it's quite natural that angels (and devils, too, I assume) have sex. Their offspring are souls, he explained, thus clearing up another mystery. If we accept his account, then what passes for reincarnation in other traditions becomes, plausibly, a kind of finishing school for the souls that arise in the spirit world. And although neither time nor space exist there, he also assured us, we can imagine that the souls incarnate here form a sort of cohort. This could explain the uncanny sense of familiarity we sometimes have on meeting someone new.

Swedenborg wrote that God loves every creature equally. God condemns no one to Hell, but people find their way there anyway, despite the best efforts of angels to dissuade them, attracted to a hellish existence by their love for it. Heaven is the same story. Just as the saved save themselves, the damned damn themselves, and God's love comes to appear to them as an intolerable light.

Part of Swedenborg's persistence as a thinker, despite the questionable nature of his tale, is the soundness of the underlying human psychology that he laid out. We may reject his account, but if Heaven and Hell exist, it's entirely likely that this is its dynamic. And while Emerson chided him for publishing a farfetched account of the souls on other planets, there is something inherently believable in his reports, which are set down in a deadpan style that reflects his long background as a government adviser and mining engineer.

If we take his account seriously, then our lives on earth provide the kind of leavening we get from travel or from a stint at a university or in prison. Perhaps they also reflect the hierarchies of Heaven and Hell - they're definitely there, Swedenborg reported, with each group of spirits finding its particular place in the pantheon or the hellish domains.

This suggests that the offspring of the downtrodden and oppressed among Hell's denizens may arrive here unsupported, succumbing prematurely or, less frequently, clawing their way into life, for better or for worse. Perhaps it's God's mercy to grant every new soul the opportunity to start anew, but not without the karma of parental transgressions. As in Heaven and Hell, so on earth, as the saying goes. 

Correspondence is Swedenborg's great theme. Whatever exists on earth has its spiritual cognate in Heaven or in Hell, he wrote. I think of this sometimes when I dip into George Gurdjieff's All and Everything, with its account of Beelzebub, an envoy of His Endlessness, as Gurdjieff styles God, exiled at one point in his career and sent to minister to our benighted planet, an adventure that he recounts later to his young grandson. Gurdjieff puts our planet in perspective by describing it as a backwater, subject to Heavenly interventions that, while well-intentioned, go seriously wrong, condemning its unfortunate three-brained creatures - that's us - to lives of neurosis and worse.

Like Swedenborg, Gurdjieff has his man visit the moon and other populated stopping points as he crosses the universe. The distinction between flesh and spirit is glossed over - when Beelzebub descends to earth, he does so as a man. For Gurdjieff as for Swedenborg, man is the measure of all things - Swedenborg even depicts Heaven as forming the body of the Lord, in whose image we are made.

Reading Swedenborg, who painted Hell as a very hellish place, I sometimes wonder if God's grace ever extends to this or that miscreant who sees the light sufficiently to climb out the darkness. Part of the Christian mystery is an insistence that life on earth is a one-way journey. In the spirit world, Swedenborg wrote, Hellish spirits appear ugly and misshapen to angels, although not to themselves - another instance of God's mercy. No one can dissemble there, he goes on to say, yet the demons can apparently dissemble to each other. Or at least can try to do so, and perhaps tolerate each other in this. Yet even they may eventually tire of the game. Is it really no exit, then? This has always struck me as a contradiction.

This gap year, this grand tour, this stint on earth is where we acquire the loves that carry us to Heaven or to Hell. Swedenborg made it clear that there's no escaping them, once acquired, even if the angels instruct us. We spend a certain time in the vestibule of Heaven and Hell, and then make our way, following our hearts. Just like here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Life & Death: Reincarnation

Rudolf Steiner argued that life seems a cheat unless we are literally passing through, accumulating wisdom, working out karma, whatever, and taking it with us from life to life. The Buddha, whose teachings arose within a culture that took reincarnation for granted, told his followers, "it may be, it may not be, but at any rate it's not important compared to the tribulations of this life." (I paraphrase.*) The karmic aspect of popular Buddhism delivers a kind of rough justice, but the places to which it points, like the realm of hungry ghosts, could also be seen as a hell of the present - a hell of one's own making, here and now.

My first sense of having fallen through time, as I put it to myself, coincided with meeting a significant person for the first time and intuiting a substantial prior history. Some time later, a psychic I consulted affirmed this.** This person and I are linked over a long succession of lives, she said. And this is not the only person of whom this could be said, she added.

So I wondered if, in between these incarnations, we have any hand in creating the scenario in which we'll find ourselves? Moreover, is the cohort that seems to matter to us one that falls with us, everything changing in the interim, so we can take things up again? There is so much that's uncanny about my own life, which these theories would help explain. (Volition seems to violate the idea of an unfolding and ephemeral universe, however satisfying it is to our teleological sense. Perhaps, though, it's not so much a scenario as a problem that we give ourselves - or this may be how karma works, presenting that problem as the logical outcome of what went before.)

Once, standing in front of a Japanese scroll, I dreamt up a story about the poet and his dog-eared assistant it depicted. They're turned away, giving their attention to a crane that's flying toward them. The gist of the story is that the crane is a messenger from the future and only the dog-eared boy - he's shorter than the poet - can speak with him. Two partial drafts of this story exist, fragments of what I saw: a trajectory of time travel, which - if you add cranes that can fly "up river" against time's flow - can involve a certain trading of knowledge. The cranes, of course, are very wise.

My sense of time travel posits that we take on and shed the elements of personal identity from life to life, making our way across different spectra, like gender. We may even be attracted to those who bring out the identity we've left behind, so momentarily we are no longer our real selves, but who we were - an act, yes, but so convincing because we knew the part so well. And we may bring expectations of others that no longer apply to them, causing disappointment until we finally understand them anew.

Nirvana, which is supposed to halt the process of reincarnation, could be as temporary as enlightenment.*** Perhaps it's a resting place or way station from which we contemplate the terrain before we plunge.

*: Stephen Batchelor notes this in Buddhism Without Beliefs.

**: In saying this, I'm not arguing that what a psychic says is necessarily proof, but rather that her comments about our extensive connection affirmed and elaborated on what I'd intuited.

***: In the view of Dogen Eihei, who declined to privilege enlightenment over other states, seeing it as transient.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Life & Death: Materiality

I was 14 when the fact of my extinction first came home to me in its full terror. The foreknowledge of one's mortality is said to be a prod to action, reminding us to seize the time, but to my 14-year-old self it was simply terrifying. Inevitably, it was accompanied by doubt in the central project of Christianity: to convince us that we are saved.

I was reminded of this recently at a Roman Catholic service for the dead that I attended. Immortality was the theme, but to me the truer heart of Catholicism is fecundity, guarded and celebrated by a religion for whom the earth's fertility is a real concern, but whose methods of ensuring a good harvest are curiously indirect. Immortality is the least of it, in this schema: agricultural religions are really about the eternal return, not personal resurrection.

The eternal return I could accept, although there's the intruding fact of our sun's demise, the earth succumbing to its eventually explosive hunger for an energy it can no longer produce sufficiently on its own. That day, we're assured, is countless millennia away, but there it is: even the success of the crops is a temporal fix. The Buddha was right.

Materiality thus always struck me as a thin plank on which to try to bridge the abyss. The earth has outlived its formative turmoil, but species time shouldn't blind us to the other forces in play. Everything is maya. That this is somewhat less terrifying than the fact of our eventual death is mainly a tribute to the provinciality of our perspective. Cosmopolitans that we claim to be, we should place ourselves accurately in the universe we momentarily inhabit, recognizing the sheer brevity of our existence compared to longer-lived phenomena. Yet we pay more attention to things that speak to our relative longevity: fast-decaying particles, moths, warm nights in San Francisco.

Materiality led Diderot to write his Encyclopedia. Men and women of his type were liberated by the casting off of faith in anything but reason, the promptings of man as man and of the universe as perceptible stuff, if we could just find the instruments. That the universal arose in this period as the capstone of a long political consolidation that would ultimately seek to subsume the local and the different is the shadow side of this liberation. Yet the local and the different also have their shadow sides, suggesting that the universal and the local are necessary complements and that their balance is crucial.

Implicit in this view is the positioning of the self as the one who measures, the observer and explorer. The centenary interest in Amundsen and Scott has understandably given the tragic, self-reflecting Robert Falcon Scott more attention. Fatally hapless, Scott is nonetheless emblematic of a willingness to risk death in order to know, by which we mean not just expanding knowledge, but viscerally, personally experiencing reality. When we speak of overcoming or subduing nature today, we think of its exploitation, but Scott's knowing was direct and intimate, and his defeat resulted in a kind of apotheosis. So while Amundsen reached the South Pole and returned alive, Scott achieved immortality.

To be the one who measures is to place oneself somewhat outside of the universe thus surveyed. I believe it was V.S. Pritchett who observed that a writer is served by another self that goes out and lives life for him, to some degree. Or a writer may, like General Grant or Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, find herself at the tether end of a life ostensibly lived for another purpose, like invading Mexico or reversing an army's fortunes, finally ready to write it down. Much is made of Lampedusa's failure to find a publisher for his masterpiece in his lifetime, but the story of Walter Benjamin's lost suitcase is sadder.

Materiality demands that we save ourselves through our works. The genetic impulse to reproduce is the most basic expression of this requirement. Working our way up the chain, we see a clear dividing line between those who crave instant gratification and others, like Stendhal, who intuit a deeper resonance in the future. Gratification depends on fashion and worldly power, while its deferral or dismissal frees one to choose one's means and terms. Materiality's immortality, unlike say that of Christianity, involves the hubris of imagining it is even possible. To opt for immediate gratification is, in this sense, a kind of lack of faith in oneself, for hubris is a cardinal virtue in a material world.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Life & Death: Immortality

The plane from Kuala Lumpur spinning in the air, the horrendous English Channel crossing, cobras in the yard, the spot of tuberculosis on my lung: I took these facts of life in with equanimity, believing myself immune from death. I was afraid of the witch in Disney's Snow White, of Singapore's absurdly big and vicious insects, and of friends' betrayals and cutting remarks, always unexpected. The world passed by, often at the pace of a ship: out of the fog, Gibraltar or the Thames docks with their coal smell. The idea that any of this would go away did not occur to me.

I've read that children with fatal ailments are aware that death stalks them. It must age them to be sick, and death may look like deliverance. This is human, too, our desire for a doorway that leads us out of some sticky situation. We dislike being cornered. The villain who might confront us, who haunts our dreams, can be eluded.

This form of immortality goes hand in hand with being, the other prerogative of childhood. Without thinking about it, we live fully in the moment while the adults around us do their best to tame and socialize us, acquainting us with plans and deferrals and the need to work. We trade our pleasures in for the dubious line they hand us. Soon, we're collecting badges and other trinkets that speak to our merit and maturation.

The evidence piles up: if not mortal, we are at the very least subject to degradation. Girls prove fickle. Plants make us itch. Puberty makes us hairy and alienated. The school of hard knocks makes it harder and harder to believe in our omnipotence. With each succeeding blow, we lower by a notch or two our self-belief. And this is what it really is: a belief in the immortality of the self: against the odds, we'll keep on living.

Only we didn't really know the odds. Someone's mother died and my oldest son asked who would take her place. Surely some agency will send another? My sister's friend died after my sister's birthday party. My mother was upset, and I assumed it was because it was a breach of manners, to die like that. When the orderly came to wheel me to the operating room when I was five, I told him I had to put my shoes on, my mother having taught me not to go out without them. He let me put them on. (They expected me to be knocked out, but whatever they gave me didn't work.) "He needs to have his tonsils taken out," the doctor told my mother and me, leaning out of his Triumph convertible. It never occurred to me to wonder how they'd do it.

Still, I remember being fascinated by doctors, whose many inoculations were a source of pain. They knew something my parents did not, and were held in awe by them. What was it that they knew? In the midst of this, my friend Robin's father drove us to see a Chinese funeral - I think it was for King George VI, so a memorial. There was a big cart, elaborately decorated, and the din of music like Cantonese opera: wailing music. I knew the King from his image on stamps. He looked just fine on them.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Life & Death: Prologue

A death on New Year's Day and the remarks of a Franciscan father, prompted by it, brought to mind our mortal existences. We exist, as Nabokov noted, between two voids. Quickening in the womb, we enter roughly into the rest of life. Our passing out of it is comparable, leaving the lifeless body that, from the standpoint of bystanders, we lately quit. The sight of a body in its 99th year brings home just how used up a body can be.

I say "between two voids," because this is how Nabokov wrote of it, but that depiction is just one theory. There are others, also to be noted here.

At the service for the recently departed, the priest stressed the promise of immortality at the heart of his religion. The Franciscan also mentioned this, but in more personal terms, connecting baptism with the final rites as a journey in which birth and death are stages. He mentioned, appropriately, how this woman fell in love and took joy in being pregnant with her three daughters. From those three arose eight, I thought: both men and women. This is the chain of being, which often seems to be the real purpose of a religion that's mainly intended to ensure a good harvest. That this is an aspect of life cannot be doubted, although I disagree with several of the asserted implications.

This essay is not about religion per se, however, but about the theories of life and death that I have personally considered. These theories arise from life and shed light on it. As small children, we believe ourselves to be immortal. That belief dies hard, I would say. Even as we measure our deterioration, the idea that life is more or less infinite sticks with us and its staying power, however self-serving, makes it a kind of leitmotif, the cello part against which the other theories sometimes struggle for our attention.

To give this essay a bit of structure, let me note the theories I will describe. The first two are opposites: the childhood belief in immortality and the "adult" belief in mortality, pure and simple - a material universe in which everything is transient. The third and fourth theories are really theories of life and death. Let's call the one "cohort reincarnation" and the other "cohort education." The word cohort figures in both, because it's been my sense that we end up amid people who are significant beyond their earthly presence in our lives. So my theories are intended to explain this in two ways, one marked by a process that I think of as "falling through time" and the other analogous to being sent out into life by one's parents. The third theory has many, many antecedents, while the fourth draws on Emanuel Swedenborg's view of heaven and hell.

These theories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one of the characteristics of theories of life and death is that, like the Japanese embrace of native and imported beliefs, each assigned a different social role, one can hold to all of them at different points.