Monday, January 24, 2011


January 24, 2011:

Last night I tried to watch Shangri-La on TCM and the picture froze a third of the way through. The dialogue continued with a hysterical young woman ordering the leader of the Himalayan monastery in the film out of her room. She has a disease that's going to kill her in a few months, he offers to help her heal, but she wants none of it. It's all a fraud, she says, by which I think she means that the offer of healing powers, plus the religious background that presumably goes with it, is nothing but false promises designed to make you feel better. She, clearly, has done with religion and its powers. As I remember, the movie went on to picture a perfect little utopian community filled with spiritual grace and calm, and the question for Ronald Colman, playing the lead, is, should I leave and go back to the world, or stay here and live for a couple of hundred years amidst these enlightened people? And I think he decides to go back, to fulfill his responsibilities as a British foreign minister. Anyway, I had to bail out. I wanted to watch things moving on the screen, so I found a nature show. Nature, red in tooth and claw. More like real life, no?

But the movie reminded me of a debate I had in high school with another student in our senior English class about the nature of heaven. He--he died young, by the way--believed that heaven, when you reached it, would be more of the same, things to do, activities to keep you busy, sort of like a good retirement home, I suppose, where they take you on trips to museums and historic houses and neat little historic villages like Sag Harbor, where Lorraine and I live, or maybe even to bowling alleys. My own view was more complicated. I had read enough in religion by that time to doubt that eternity could be at all like life lived in time, which is essentially what he was arguing for, a life lived in time, only an extremely long time. Eternity, I said, could not in fact resemble the life we were familiar with at all. I did not believe that human consciousness could endure an eternity of familiar activities, or an eternity of singing in choirs in praise of God, or any sort of eternity you could describe. Eternity, I said, was beyond the ability of human consciousness to comprehend or to experience. We literally cannot imagine it, and if we cannot imagine it we cannot live it. If something of us survives death, I said, what it would experience in heaven most probably was a moment of bliss, an explosion into bliss, in fact, that would dissolve us into some larger whole, a drop of rain in the ocean.

This is not an argument, of course, you can win or lose. Nobody knows the answers except the dead, and they're not talking. He was arguing for a heaven very much like Shangri-La, which, in the last scene I was able to watch, had really good fruit on the table all the time; and I was arguing that a heaven resembling a physical paradise, a palace of pleasure, represented a failure of imagination, and, ultimately, an unwillingness to face the fact of death and get beyond the limitations of being human: being embodied. And in the years since I've never seen an image or description of heaven I could believe in. Even the Sistine Chapel, for all of Michelangelo's muscular spirituality, failed to persuade me of anything except the glory of art and the mass mindedness of tourism. The truth is, embodiment is the source of all meaning. It is our fate to have evolved into a consciousness of our own deaths, and therefore to live and die with that fundamental question: what then? Is that the end? The best thing we can do, the noblest thing, is to face up to it and to develop what John Keats called "negative capability"--the ability not to have to know. To live, calmly, without any kind of certainty. Because certainty is the real killer. This is especially true of certainty in religion, but it's also true of certainty in anti-religion, i.e. in atheism. They both lead to dogmatism, and dogmatism leads again and again to cold murderous rage.

I take my father as a model. We went home, we being my first wife and I and our two children, for Christmas in 1974 and my father called me into the basement to show me something, some chairs he was working on--he recaned old chairs in his retirement--but really to tell me that this would be his last Christmas. He was very calm about it, matter-of-fact, and he didn't elaborate. I remember looking at him non-plussed, not knowing what to say. He then went on to tell me that his wife, my mother, was developing Alzheimer's, but she would be very sweet, he said. It all came to pass. He died a month later, my mother did develop Alzheimer's and eventually spent seven and a half years in a nursing home, slowly and painfully becoming less and less herself until she disappeared entirely from the frail body that just went on living, no ghost, any more, in that machine. So here were two models of how to die, and then my brother, dying of brain tumors, and all the friends who have died, my old buddy Carter Jones worst of all, in a way, dying in a plane crash just as he was achieving real success as a photographer; or maybe it was the three children who died in a fire. Friends of my kids. I will never forget telling my daughter, who was eight, that one of her best friends had died when their house burnt to the ground. You never forget any of these things. But it was my father, so calm, so matter-of-fact, facing his death, that stays with me best. He was not a religious man, never went to church, never took an interest in it. Clearly he had decided a long time before that it was not for him. So he had no supports in any kind of belief at his end; he was left with only himself, staring uncertainty in the face, and he didn't flinch. That's courage. If there actually is some sort of life after death, he's the one I would most like to say something to. To honor. But who knows if we get such a chance?

Speaking of Keats, he died in Rome, at 25, of tuberculosis, thinking he had failed as a poet, and he asked his friend Severn to have this epitaph engraved on his tomb, with nothing else, not even the words John Keats: "Here lies one whose name was writt in Water." The headstone with its epitaph, and Keats's name, stands in the Protestant cemetary in Rome, just outside the city walls, and it is impossible to keep flowers on it to this day because the devotees come and pick them, wanting a piece of him. When the Italian doctors did an autopsy after his death they discovered that something like 80 percent of his lungs had been eaten up by tuberculosis, which he contracted by nursing first his mother and then his brother, both of whom died of the disease. Knowing how to live is also knowing how to die, and the best of us do it without having a clue, either way, what is to come; and thereby they display what is the best in us as human beings, courage, always courage. And that may be the whole point of living. If you have enough courage, and have it at the right time, it no longer matters what heaven is, or what it might be for.