Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Human Condition

To be alive is such a blessing that we rarely find ourselves able to grasp it. To feel this blessing in the moment is the most precious thing I know. Briefly I wondered if it makes grammatical sense to say “It’s a blessing to be alive,” for we are not in a position to compare life with any other state. But it does have a meaning, does communicate something, because we could have said “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” conveying the opposite meaning. For life is always beset with circumstance; its essential nature is to be fragile; things could always get worse; there is always reason to give thanks.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on Ernest Becker’s celebrated book, The Denial of Death; mocking and belittling it. Rather oddly, it’s the second most-viewed of my posts, usually from colleges in the States. His theme is the fear of death, and the human tendency to mask it with actions or pretensions which lend us the illusion of immortality. I won’t deny that the book has been meaningful to a lot of people, to whom I guess it explains the world and their own natures in a rather satisfying way. But we’re not all the same. If I were writing on the same theme, I’d start by distinguishing two things: a) the instinctive physical fear of death, which helps us cross the road safely, makes us go weak at the knees with vertigo when we gaze down from a height—even when we know intellectually there is no danger of falling; b) the existential fear of death. At first glance, I take this as a clinging and desperate sense that we’re not ready to go. Perhaps when we have truly lived the moments and fulfilled our lives, then we’ll let go with a smile and a wave.

Why can’t I wake up each morning, or reinvigorate myself whenever I feel low, with the thought, “Here I am, still alive, hooray”? On further examination, I see that it doesn’t work that way. As a rule, we’re not so vividly aware of death as to be grateful for being spared thus far. Except when prompted by extreme events, we don’t think of that actual moment when the book of life closes with a final snap—the end of history as we will ever know it. What gets under our skin, day to day, is a series of metaphorical deaths. “Cowards die many times before their deaths”, says Shakespeare’s Caesar. Fear is the the backdrop to this world’s stage on which we strut our stuff, the basis of the ad-hoc play whose lines we speak without rehearsal. Our strivings and ambitions take their urgency from the secret fear of penury, debt and ruin which may darken today’s sunniest prospect. Our pursuit of love & respect springs from a fear of abandonment and ignominy. Our quest for stimulation and clear focus arises from the fear of being engulfed in dull purposelessness.

Some take refuge in wealth, others in affection, faith or philosophy; perhaps in a cocktail of all four. As for me, I know not who “I” am, except as the empty centre of my own perspective, formed by a succession of random events, like everything in the universe. Sometimes I think I create myself moment to moment by thinking, doing, performing on life’s stage. Other times I seem passive and sponge-like, absorbing influence from the ambience in which I swim. Unconsciously I select which moments suit my need and provide nourishment to my soul. I am like a caterpillar, hatched on a specific kind of leaf, preparing myself for metamorphoses as yet unknown. At a given moment, I can’t tell if I’m larva, pupa or imago. Consciousness flickers, gives me no constant answer.

Something I recently lighted upon was an enigmatic quotation from Emerson, dropped out of the blue by Ellie. It was from his essay Nature, and led me to read the whole piece. You can download it from several sites, for example this one. It declares as fact a lot of things which I’ve glimpsed from different angles and stumbled upon over recent years, like the blind men bumping into the elephant, each feeling a different part and guessing what kind of a thing it was. Is it the proverbial Elephant in the Room? I’ve been each of those blind men, content with my own experience, avoiding the big question on purpose. Emerson seems to see the elephant clearly, approaches it like a philosophical big-game hunter. He has the verbal mastery, the world-class imagination, but mostly the vision of what his contemporaries fail to see: the blessedness of being alive. He makes his move, publishes his Theory of Everything, establishes Transcendentalism as a “major cultural movement”.

His essay got me wondering how he came to write it, what impelled him and from there on how he set about the task. I was struck by the way it sounds like a spontaneous outpouring, an overflow of heightened consciousness, fruit of a sustained elevation of spirit. It is of course one thing to have the feeling, and another to convey it eloquently. At the other extreme from Emerson would be the person who can only say “Wow! Nature”; to someone alongside feeling the same thing, that would be sharing enough. From my own experience I surmise that his rhapsody proceeds from a single flash of insight which opens from a tight-folded bud, expands like a full-blown rose to the number of words needed for its full expression. Where can we find that still-furled bud? I believe we can trace it to the very paragraph from which Ellie took her quotation, in the second paragraph of his Introduction. If I had to summarize it in less than fifty words I might come up with this: “Instead of accepting hand-me-down answers, ready-made ways to see the universe, we only have to look, and find the answers ourselves, for they are built into the world around us, and into our own natures.” It is truly a big idea. Its expansion to fifteen thousand words leads us to some astonishing places:

“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.
. . .
“Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding—its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility.
. . .
“The same good office [i.e. Nature being a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths] is performed by Property and its filial systems of debt and credit. Debt, grinding debt, whose iron face the widow, the orphan, and the sons of genius fear and hate;—debt, which consumes so much time, which so cripples and disheartens a great spirit with cares that seem so base, is a preceptor whose lessons cannot be forgone, and is needed most by those who suffer from it most.”

The last one appears to say, “Debt carries its own harsh lesson to those in need of learning it,” a sentiment that few politicians dare say publicly today, at least in England, where debtors have votes like everyone else and can’t be jailed as in Dickens’ day. In the 178 years since Nature was published, Transcendentalism has shrunk to a feeble ember, its flame most notably passed on to enthusiasts of Walt Whitman’s poetry. As for Henri Bergson, and his expansion of similar insights to even greater lengths, who reads him today?

Philosophy is the verbal expansion of a moment’s enlightenment. Religion is similar, but uses different means: faith, ritual, allegory, the communion of souls. Without heightened consciousness, or elevation of the spirit, which they may call the presence of God, I want to say that religion is hollow. Then I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who according to private correspondence lost her sense of the presence of God for many years. Meantime she carried on through doggedness, courage and faith. None of us can depend on a constant continuance of enlightened moments. Such is our human condition, that we are impelled to seek a formula for grasping Eternity.

I live in the midst of mean streets, I see my own progression toward decline and death, however long it may take. Life is fragile, nothing is to be taken for granted. If one should somehow lose the spark of joy, everything turns to ashes. God is the allegorical representation of all our yearning, the haven for all our insecurity—if this is the way we choose to express it. Me, I stand in the outfield, player or delighted spectator, I’m not sure which.

Over countless years a verse keeps playing in my head from a hymn by John Keble called “New Every Morning” (1822):

The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask:
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.

I don’t think about what it means, it’s simply a comfort blanket. It gives courage. Bunyan’s “To be a Pilgrim” is another. Millions have read the Book of Psalms for the same purpose.

Since starting this piece, I discovered an extraordinary book called Firmin, by Sam Savage. I was looking for a present for my grandson, who came to visit yesterday. Not finding it in the town’s only bookshop, I went to Eco Chic, which recycles books free, and thought it was a children’s book—which it certainly is not, though it has a rat as its narrator, and its front cover board is gnawed suggestively. He lives in a bookshop, and weaned himself on Finnegan’s Wake (chewing it), in the process miraculously learning to read and thereby obtain insight to human culture, to the point where he becomes erotically attracted to girls in burlesque shows instead of female rats. I haven’t yet finished it but almost every reviewer mentions how tragic it is, because his dreams can never be fulfilled, he has no vocal chords, his first love puts down rat poison for him, etc. They think it’s an allegory of alienation and loneliness. I beg to differ, for it recalls the beginning of my little piece, where I said:

“To be alive is such a blessing that it we rarely find ourselves able to grasp it. . . . for we are not in a position to compare life with any other state.”

Savage’s extended thought experiment helps us see how blessed we really are. Like Firmin, we can be eager spectators, but unlike him, we are players too. A message more palatable, methinks, than Finnegan’s Wake, & even Emerson’s Nature.

Ernest Becker

“What is Man?” W. Blake

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Elephant & blind men. Click to enlarge

Walt Whitman

Henri Bergson

Mother Teresa

John Keble

John Bunyan

books for free


Sam Savage