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.