Nature notices neither the unspeakable sorrows and sufferings humans inflict on one another, nor the destruction and pain resulting from natural processes of cause and effect. “Chance and necessity, chance and necessity” chants Jacque Monod, with a cadence like the slow drumbeat of a cosmic mantra. “Atoms and the void, atoms, and the void,” echoes Lucretius from two millennia ago. The flowers outside the gates of Auschwitz burst forth a panoply of colors and the grass grows green and thick with the spring rains as rabbits and mice come forth to welcome the sun. And that nature itself, “red in tooth and claw” drums slowly on in ever unfolding evolutionary patterns, each entity oblivious to the whole, but ever acting within it. The same is true after an earthquake or volcanic disruption or astroid impact or a pandemic. We who have the gift of self-awareness and wonder and analytical observation bear the burden, shed the tears, cry out to the cosmos, and wonder as we move through life how and where our sense of “meaning” and “purpose” fits…or Not. Are we anomalies and flukes in a process otherwise dead to and unaware of anything that goes on—or is that very capacity we have to ask, somehow reflective of something we have yet to understand? Yes, Mr. Zimmerman, we are going down the Valley one-by-one, as only your 70 year-old voice can sing it. But is there a choice? I put myself deep into this painting done by my departed son David, I can actually stare at it and merge into it–a strange feeling. I want to open my eyes and look around and see that is beyond the archway ahead.
Arthur Koestler once wrote that his attempt to write biography rose out of what he called the “Chronicler’s urge” and the Ecce Homo motive, both driven by a desire to transcend the self. I think the same can be said for my own lifelong desire–since high school living in boarding school in France outside Paris–to write contemporary fiction–which is inevitably a form of veiled or not-so-veiled (think Woody Allen!) bio-fiction. However, I would add the Hemingway sense of “getting it right,” somehow capturing our common human hours and days in a way that brings the reaction–yes, that’s the way it was! That’s the way it is!
Tell the tale tale, tell the tall tale,
The idiot sputtered to the table
Yes, indeed, tell the tale tale,
That tall tale of life…
The pure and ecstatic pleasure of freedom! Who could forget it, at age 8, or 9, or 10, roaming from morning until dark as the wind of every whiff of whim and device buoyed one along.
My Brilliant Friend, Season 1, Episode 2 (Click to Play)
I have been reading the wonderful biography of Arthur Koestler by Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey Of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (NY: random House, 2009). See the NYTimes Book Review here. Many years ago I remember reading Janus in one sitting, into the wee hours, and feeling a profound sense of mystical wonder as I finished. I wrote in the inside cover–rather naively I suppose–“This might prove to be the most influential book I have yet encountered.” I have posted previously on various bits and pieces of Koestler or Koestler related thoughts and meditations, here are a few links: Parts & Whole, Visiting the Messiah, On the Convert.
Here is a lovely quotation on Koestler’s restless quest for meaning:
If we can speak about the Central European intellectual at all it is because of the personality of Arthur Koestler. His Jewish-Hugaro-Czech origins are a sort of advance warning that explains all his researches and his ambiguity: from }udaism to the theory of assimilation, from Marxism to the absolute negation of communism, from the flirtation with eastern spiritualism to its demystification, from faith in science to doubt of all closed systems, and from the search for the absolute to serene resignation in the face of man’s critical aptitudes.
Nietzsche said the Christian decision to make the world ugly and evil has made the world ugly and evil. Of course the Christians were only mimickers and mirrors of the neo-Platonism and Gnostic perspectives that became so influential in late Antiquity. Quite a contrast to the Hebrew Bible. Demons, Satan the Devil, eternal Hellfire, and the idea of the “total depravity” of humankind. It is not so much there there was nothing “new under the sun,” but rather nothing good under the sun. As several ancient Greek funerary prayers written in thin gold sheets and rolled up to be put in graves record the “great confession ” of Late Antiquity: I am a child of earth and heaven but heaven alone is my home!” Salvation became an ascetic denial of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Nietzsche was not so much an atheist but a rejector of the “schlechte Luft” that fouled our European culture world and its quest to stamp out every “Heresy.” As Empedocles put it–long before Plato and the Gnostics: “I was once a bird, a fish, and now a man–I wept, I wept, when I saw this dreadful place.” Rather than the “good earth” as the place to be (i.e. Frost: “The earth’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”), as the ancient Creation Hymn of Genesis has things, this dark world was a hopeless prison into which we had fallen.
I began my academic biblical studies with New Testament Greek at the tender age of 17–my freshman year of college. And I have more or less shifted to a more “Hebraic” perspective, as I explain here in this article I want to share with my readers. For more see my article “Death as Life and Life as Death: Revising Rohde.”HebBible NT JRJ 1990
From some of my recent television viewing of various shows, both documentary and scripted:
I don’t really do that. Chat.
Amy Adams in the first episode of Sharp Objects HBO
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist, nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Come away with me my love, they will not see us for the dust!
Frank Lloyd Wright to Olgivanna
I am guilty only of the deadly sin of having ideas.
Frank Lloyd Wright regarding his love affairs and unconventional choices
I love the phrase, the title of C. S. Lewis’s complex book about his “raging” grief and anger, against God and the cosmos and anything and everything after the death of his late-in-life-discovered beloved soulmate, Joy Davidman, in 1960. He published it originally under a pseudonym, lest the millions who saw him as a man faith be disturbed. It is well worth reading and there is a wonderful film, Shadowlands (1993), with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger–well worth watching.
The inaugural 2020 issue of The New Yorker (January 6, 2020) has a wonderfully complex personal reflection by V. S. Naipaul about his own coping with grief–over the loss of family, friends, and even beloved pets. It is well worth reading. There are many quotable lines and paragraphs but one in particular stood out for me:
The many anxieties I lived with helped to push grief away. I felt I had been inoculated against grief. I had drunk that bitterness to the dregs, and since human beings have limited capacity I didn’t think I would be able to do so again…It was a poor way of thinking. We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.
This quotation was sent to me by someone who read about my son’s death. I found it to be true to my own experience and expectations. I know many take other approaches and views about death. This is basically mine, in thinking of those I have lost over the years–and especially this latest one.
There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it.
At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship.
Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.
“I know that in writing I have to blind myself artificially in order to focus all the light on one dark spot, renouncing cohesion, harmony, rhetoric and everything which you call symbolic, frightened as I am by the experience that any such claim or expectation involves the danger of distorting the matter under investigation, even though it may embellish it. Then you come along and add what is missing, build upon it, putting what has been isolated back into its proper context. I cannot always follow you, for my eyes, adapted as they are to the dark, probably can’t stand strong light or an extensive range of vision. But I haven’t become so much of a mole as to be incapable of enjoying the idea of a brighter light and more spacious horizon, or even to deny their existence.” (Sigmund Freud, Letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé, May 25, 1916)