Monday, May 25, 2015

DYING FOR NON-BELIEVERS



When I am, death is not; when death is, I am not. ~ Epicurus

Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein


WOLF TRAIN

December, a shopping mall,
above the traffic snarl I saw
an empty trolley on the bridge,

its windows lit with moonlike glow —
reminding me how much I loved
taking a train in Warsaw at night —



how I would enter the train’s rhythm,
the knocking of the wheels against
the shifting and dividing tracks;

blind backs of buildings,
unknown streets –- an underworld
passing across my face

reflected in the dark, drizzled glass.
If I had known
what station would be next —

if I had known the doors of life
close quickly, and we watch the past
through time’s prison bars —

in the cramped Warsaw apartment,
at fifteen, when I made up my mind
to live in the West,

would I have danced as if
we never lose anything we love —
just keep adding beauty to beauty.

The trolley flying overhead
like a luminous ghost
brought back an unreal city,

in the same instant of stone and breath
arriving and departing,
falling and rising from its ruins.

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty.
“That is all,” the master said.
That is all but it is splendid.”


~ Oriana © 2015

I hear you, Impatient Reader: “This is not a poem about dying, and this blog post is supposed to be about dying.” But almost all poetry is about loss, and consequently about mortality. And about beauty — a poem without beauty is not really poetry.

Any significant loss prefigures the ultimate loss — and losing Warsaw was a great loss to me. It took me at least a decade to realize that I would never again have the kind of magical intellectual milieu I had in Warsaw, and two more decades to come to terms with that loss rather than live in perpetual mourning. Life teaches, but sometimes we learn very slowly. Suffering is a bad habit, and if not for the shortness of life suddenly revealing itself, I might still be sunk in it like a paralyzed swan. 


 
And what did I learn? That, after all, beauty is precisely that which we do not lose: thanks to memory and the unfailing cycles of nature, we keep adding beauty to beauty.

A time will come when this feasting on beauty will stop. But meanwhile, it is splendid. It is much better to live with gratitude for that splendor than to worry about dying.



Here is a poem that speaks more explicitly about dying:

LOVING THE SKY

This evening, far from here, 


a friend is entering his death, 

he knows it, he walks 

under bare trees alone, 

perhaps for the last time. So much love, 

so much struggle, spent and worn thin. 

But when he looks up, suddenly the sky

is arrayed in this same vertiginous clarity.

~ Jean Joubert, from “Brilliant Sky,” tr. Denise Levertov

This poem by Jean Joubert is a minor example of what I call the “comfort poem.” You may object that it’s not very comforting, since we are not promised a “better place” — but it’s about the best modern poets manage, and maybe it’s time to admit that better this comfort than none.

First, the magnitude of the loss is fully faced. The setting is desolate:

This evening, far from here, 


a friend is entering his death, 

he knows it, he walks 

under bare trees alone, 

perhaps for the last time.

The consolation of lush nature is absent: the trees are bare, so it’s late autumn or winter. The consolation of sunshine is absent: it’s evening. The speaker’s friend is alone, so the consolation of affectionate human company is absent. This is a minimalist landscape out of Kafka or Beckett. And the landscape seems to match the human element, and the approaching entry into no landscape at all.

Perhaps worst of all, the man knows he’s dying. Perhaps he’s not yet very old and “tired of life” after having lived a long time and done pretty much everything he’d wanted to do and richly enjoyed it, so he’s now filled with gratitude for having had this privilege. He’s certainly still able to take a walk — “perhaps for the last time.” It could be a middle-aged man with the diagnosis of terminal cancer (“thin” reminds me how emaciated cancer patients tend to be in the last phase). The poet is merciless in presenting the loss:

So much love, 

 

so much struggle, spent and worn thin. 


First, we must note that there is something unusual and significant about “So much love” being on the same line with “for the last time.” Love is immediately juxtaposed with the finality of the last walk. The man is dying, but there has been “so much love.” 



But what follows is “So much struggle, spent and worn thin.” Not victory, but the fatigue of being “spent.” In the end, no one wins — we simply exit, spent, worn-out. The reminder that much of life is struggle makes the man not fate’s darling, but essentially one of us: we struggle, we suffer, and it seems that the best we can say is, “There are the good days, and there are the bad days.” So much love, so much struggle, and soon it will all be gone, except for the fickle memories of those who knew him — hardly a “better place.”

Yet just as the poem reaches its darkest point, there is a “turning” (to use the term scholars apply to sonnets):

But when he looks up, suddenly the sky 


is arrayed in this same vertiginous clarity.

Already “but” announcing a turning point. Now there is the “vertiginous” (stunning, overwhelming, immense — note the suggestion of “vertical” in the word) sky, and the sky is beautiful. It’s beautiful simply by virtue of being the sky, just as it is beautiful to be able to take this walk, to feel the earth underneath one’s feet. The last comfort is having had the beauty of the world, continuing up to the last moment that we can still perceive it.

“Clarity” could be seen also in a negative sense here: it’s clear that this is all. Yet the words around it (especially “arrayed” — true, this is a translation, but “arrayed” is a wonderful choice) suggest a consolation: it is all, but it is splendid.

Imagine: it’s the last walk of your life. Tomorrow you check into the hospital, and you’re not expected to recover. What would that walk be like?

I can’t predict the thoughts I might have. I know only one thing: probably the first thing I’d do it look at the sky. I have always loved the sky.


**

Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything. ~ Saul Bellow
Why is so much poetry concerned with dying? Billy Collins said that poetry is “one long funeral.” It’s not because poets are morbid. Rather, perhaps they are the not in denial or mortality to the degree that the rest of us are. Poets more so than prose writers try to deal with the greatest sorrow of life: the knowledge of mortality and our ultimate helplessness in the face to it. How do we manage to carry on without howling in grief and protest against the non-human nature that says, “That’s it, you’ve had your time at the feast of life, and now you’re out of time.”

One common solution has been to imagine that consciousness goes on without the body. You remain Jimmy or Jane, Mark or Michelle, your memories and identity intact — just floating about for a quadrillion years — or else your permanent self enters a new body and reincarnates, going through the same tiresome process of being a colicky baby, then a toddler, a preschooler, etc. Neither scenario is likely or particularly consoling, aside from taking away the immediate terror of loss.

But the interesting thing is that even before religion started crumbling, a lot of poetry did not seem to “buy” the afterlife. Sooner “carpe diem” — or simply mourning the brevity of life. Starting with the Romantics, poets have paid increasing attention to Nature (the Romantics spelled it with a capital N) and to beauty. Modern poets have adopted it as the main answer of sorts: we can’t deny mortality, but we have the consolation of beauty. That beauty has a melancholy cast, but it is the best we can do.

Jack Gilbert states, “you must risk delight” without denying that bad things will happen and life will not last. He himself was counting on old age in which he’d feast on the memories of a rich life — no such luck, as he descended into dementia. We need to enjoy the moment, and the memories of moments, without any hope for joy “later.” Gilbert himself affirms this:

We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered caf├ęs and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

~ ending of “A Brief for the Defense,” from “Refusing Heaven”

“We must admit there will be music despite everything.” That is certainly true. Poetry was supposed to be impossible after Auschwitz, but many magnificent poems have been written since. In fact, the Golden Age of Polish poetry unfolded in the shadow of Auschwitz — you could say “within an easy commute.” Music goes on, beauty goes on — perhaps with more urgency than before, now that we know the fragility of human civilization, and also that which is most precious. 

 
But not everyone would agree with the assertion that concludes Gilbert’s poem:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Outrageous! some may say. Maybe most people are not so exquisitely attuned to the sounds of the world. You have to substitute our own special delight. Even the morning coffee may be reason enough to go on living.

More seriously, many people see primary value in relationship with others, especially one’s family. For them, it’s not beauty that makes life worth living, but family love.

Freud said that the two most important things in life are love and work. In my observation, for most people it’s “love” in the loose sense of connection with significant others.

*

Recently, another value has come to the fore: living to the fullest — richly, intensely. In another poem, Gilbert asks the gods (who tell him that they’ll grant one more wish):

Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present.

Until we are “frightened into the present,” we remain frozen in the future tense of youth, always fantasizing about the future, even though, like the horizon, it fails to get any closer — until all of a sudden it is much closer, and we can finally read the words out there: THE END. Yes, now we are “frightened into the present.” And as if by magic we “get it.” We don’t have to read vapid New Age books to understand that it’s only by dropping the constant “living for the future” and instead paying attention to the astonishingly vivid present that we can enjoy the richness of experience, which we can later re-live “in the mind’s eye.”

Hayden Carruth admits the difficulty of living with the knowledge of mortality, and then asks for the consolation of beauty (we can’t really expect a poet to ask for the consolation of family love):

Reality is an impasse. Tell me again
How the white heron rises from among the reeds and flies forever
    across the nacreous river at twilight
Toward the distant islands.

(last lines, “Of the Distress on Being Humiliated by the Chinese Poets”)


**

WORK AND BEAUTY

Again, Freud said that the two most important things in life are love are work. For the majority of people, that’s no doubt true. For creative people, however, I suspect that it’s simply work. Not that love is unimportant; it’s just that work is more important by far. This old saying that an artist is married to his or her work? It’s true. An artist is someone for whom his or her creative work is the most important thing in life. That’s the very definition of an artist.

Taslima Nasrin, a best-selling Bengali writer, said, “I do not believe in prayers. I believe in work.”

Rilke said, “To work is to live without dying.” There is simply to time to worry about dying. True, Rilke wrote a great deal on the subject of death, and has even been called the great poet of death, but his own life was about turning out a prodigious amount of writing.

For me, it’s work and beauty. Sometimes I wonder if beauty alone could be enough, in case I lost the ability to write (due to stroke, say). Maybe. I can never have enough of Pacific sunsets, though in memory I also cherish the blossom of Polish winter sunsets, roses in snow. 



Can beauty be enough? The sight of a heron rising into flight, the splash of dark water from an oar at night? Sometimes I am sure it would be enough. But I can state with greater certainty that I feel inspired by stories of how the great achievers worked until practically the last conscious breath — in spite of the pain. They might even refuse pain killers just so they could still finish their last project. Because “when you have the why of life, you can endure almost any how” — even terminal illness.

Recently, Christopher Hitchens died this kind of death: writing for as long as he could, fully engaged with the world and ideas. I wasn’t fond of Hitchens when he was alive; it was only the interviews he did while undergoing the toxic cancer treatments that made me understand his courage and dedication, his warning that any rumor of a “deathbed conversion” will be either false and due to dementia.

But then he was only “pursuing his bliss.” It can take great stoicism to do that.


Finally, here is a fascinating video about how we can (almost) overcome the fear of dying. Not surprisingly, it concludes that living a rich life is the only remedy.

“We are characters in a story. Long John Silver is not afraid that you will close the book. The only thing we should be concerned about is whether we are living a good story.” ~ Stephen Cave

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/23/312544032/should-we-be-afraid-of-death



Charles:

Love quotes by Epicurus and Wittgenstein. So refreshing to talk about death without religion. In fact the word God was not mentioned once in the entire blog.

You have come so far in understanding beauty as God as opposed to God as death and religion.

And the moral of the blog is to take in as much beauty as possible whenever we can.

PS. “Wolf Train” is an excellent title. Talk about the unexpected.

Oriana:

That gives me a shiver, God as beauty rather than God as death. And indeed, if I were to call anything divine, my first choice would be beauty.

The Christian god is basically a kind of Hades, the god of the dead, who are imagined as bodiless entities up there in the sky with him, and down inside the earth, in hell, aware they will never meet him (I'm not sure this bothers the Buddhists, but it might bother the Muslim).

But beauty, yes. One secular answer to religious is “graceful life philosophies,” which cultivate beauty. And work so absorbing that we lose the sense of self and of time is also magnificent. That’s why Rilke said that to work is to live without dying — possibly the wisest thing he ever said. He learned that from Rodin.

P.S. I also like your other definition of god: “God is baggage.” Yes, it’s become that: archaic baggage. A stone around the neck of the modern culture.

P.S. “Wolf Train” used to have a different ending:

The same moon moved between
darkness and light-wounded clouds,
winter’s hungry Wolf Moon,

adding phantom beauty to beauty —
the Wolf Train riding across the sky
with a silent aria of howl.

I am still attracted to this ending, its inaudible protest that perhaps isn’t exactly a protest — the howling of wolves has a pure-voiced beauty. If so, perhaps I could even preserve the uplifting final lines:

“That is all,” the master said.
That is all but it is splendid.”

But the purist in me rebels against it. The greatest positive message is the line “adding phantom beauty to beauty.” If I restore the former ending, the tacked on “master” needs to go. The poem would remain a celebration of life’s beauty amid the inevitable sorrows. 

Michael:

OH DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING,
And oh Grave, thy victory?

Pretty brave questioning from the Apostle Paul. Rhetorical questions to be sure — he wasn't inviting his readers to engage in a discussion. He was certain he had death figured out. He was covered. No need to fear. No worries. Die. Resurrect. Live forever.

Stephen Cave also reduces the issues and complexities of death too much. Surely the good story of life in "The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story" must include our circuitous bumbling toward death, our anticipation of it, and our eventual coming to terms with it (if we ever do). I find his parsing unhelpful.

Some years are for questions, some for answers. The answer I have found, after years of questions, is that it is very useful to have a philosophy of death, not just the years between birth and death. I can't go with Rilke who thought of death as some kind of fruit to be plucked, an accomplishment of sorts. In good yin-yang fashion death is foremost a pole against which to estimate and value life, a sort of "teach me to number my days" kind of thinking, as King David prayed.

Knowing the fact of death has pushed me into the present. Demanded of me that I live meaningfully. And I'm grateful. But there are yet things I fear about death and I see no reason to apologize for these fears. They are not knowing when, how, and where. And there are worries. Who will clean up my unfinished business? How much pain will my mourners feel (I mean I can hope, right?)?

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote:

               I had noticed that when I contemplated death the most, the world seemed most alive. Taunting, I supposed. Or calling. It wasn't that long ago I had driven into the foothills, the so-called Gold Country, with death on my mind. With a heavy heart and cloudy vision I found my way to Oak Flats Cemetery, a graveyard as old as the gold rush. Now neglected, nearly forgotten, the gate lay to one side in the grass, hanging by a single hinge. There was a sense that the second and third generations, the mourners, the buriers, the weeders, the mowers, the flower bringers, had also aged and died, buried in other cemeteries, families now eternally scattered. The weather beaten stone markers felt cold--mossy cold, lichen colored. I didn't know anyone buried there but it seemed like a good place to contemplate death. I imagined myself in the earth, cold and dark. Silent. Alone. Drawn to that rest of the most final sense, I could hear that first shovel of earth that signaled all is done. On a god perch, I looked down through the years. There would be time for my life to be edited, the final chapter written by my children, the book closed and shelved, and then for memories to fade. My children would think of me less and less often until I was not more than an unread footnote. To the next generation I would be that middle-aged man who took his life. There would be a sad, serious face in the telling, a little speculation as to why, then a moving on. That's it. Life comes, it goes. The world didn't slow its orbit for my arrival and certainly won't miss a turn at my exit. Why do I take it all so seriously?

I continue to take it seriously but in helpful ways. I do measure the probable years remaining. I make certain to treasure and nourish my loves. I work to rid me myself of burdens that are not worthy of taking this journey perched on my shoulders. I try to laugh more, to see more, to name my feelings. I slow to savor food. I pause for fragrances. I record a touch with a conscious thought that I am loved.

So I am making it a good story, but death is responsible for that.

Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Loving what you do.


Oriana:

I'm not sure that St. Paul was entirely free of death anxiety. He staked everything on the factuality of the resurrection. If Christ did not rise, then our faith is worthless, and we are doomed to never living again (apparently life — being sentient forever — was Paul’s greatest value). But the evidence for the resurrection was weak. It would not stand in court now, and probably not then either. There were no eye witnesses. Accounts were contradictory. Paul was smart and educated, and must have known he was not on firm ground.

Cognitive dissonance could have fueled an extra zeal in trying to spread the new religion. Paul didn’t do well among the Greek skeptics, but illiterate Roman slaves and others who suffered from hardship and oppression were open to the attractive promise of the meek inheriting the earth and the last becoming the first. Never mind the lack of evidence . . .

All this rested on whether or not the resurrection actually happened. The Roman custom was to leave the body on the cross to rot. That was an essential part of why crucifixion was regarded as the worst possible punishment. Bart Ehrman and many other scholars presents convincing other scenarios, even assuming an empty tomb, for which the evidence is also weak. Rising from the dead was certainly the least likely of these scenarios.

Only the Second Coming within a generation was even less likely, and indeed it did not happen, nor ever will. Friends have suggested that I go in business selling bumper stickers that say JESUS IS NEVER COMING BACK. NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER.

(A shameless digression: Alfred Loisy, a French theologian, remarked, “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, but it was the church that arrived.” 1902 was much too early to get away with such insights. Loisy was fired from his teaching posts and excommunicated. But then theologians don’t believe in god; they have defined him away in metaphors of metaphors.)

*

But back to your critique of Stephen Cave’s consolation. Life is a good story, an interesting story — until the years of pathetic decline. “Life is a play with a poorly written last act” — this saying has been ascribed to several writers. Already Shakespeare in As You Like It, in the notorious Seven Ages of Man soliloquy, presented a terrible picture of typical old age: “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Dentistry has made progress, and now we can have implants as well as preserve most of our own teeth — but otherwise things remain as the Bard described them.

But now the last phase of aging — that bumbling descent you mention — begins significantly later. And that IS progress. In the West, “old” doesn’t start at fifty, or even sixty. Those extra two decades or so, before the accelerated aging inevitably sets in, are priceless. And the pathetic stage  need not be the part of the story if we become enlightened enough to make research on aging a priority. The ideal is maturation without debilitating illness. People would stay mentally sharp and healthy almost until the end, and then die quickly.

What we have right now is the hospice movement, and that too is progress against dysfunctional medicine. Nor is there a stigma attached to suicide after a diagnosis of terminal illness, if the enjoyment of life is no longer possible. Serious thinking about the end of life issues remains to be done, and the hospice movement shows that such thinking has begun.

(For another look at this, please read my blog post http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2011/12/immortality-of-influence.html)


As for the existence of death being responsible for a much greater appreciation of life, I have commented on this many times. If I hadn’t been cornered by mortality and realized at long last how little time is left, I’d probably be still stuck in depression, bewailing my shattered dreams.

That why I see the vague promises of afterlife as destructive. If paradise awaits, why bother trying to make much of this life, a brief episode before trillions of years of bliss? Yet out of the corner of my eye I see that even those who claim to be religious don’t seem to bet too strongly on everlasting paradise (now downgraded to “a better place”). They too seem interested in drinking the sweetness of this life down to the last drops, even if it means no more than dozing in front of the TV. Dozing is also sweet, also a message of “I am loved.” 

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