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.

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