Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bach, Straight Up

The other morning I was in a hurry to get somewhere (the fact that I cannot remember where shows just how vital it was). I shoved half a dozen CD's into the player in my car and drove off. Just by chance, I happened to put Gustave Leonhardt's recording of the Bach Italian Concerto next to that of Glenn Gould. It proved to be what has often been called "serendipity."

I had always thought that Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach represented the quintessential interpretation of his keyboard works performed "straight." That is, exactly as Bach intended them, without the interposition of the performer's ego. Yet, in listening to Leonarhardt's version immediately followed by Gould's, I was amazed at the difference.

To my mind, Gustave Leonhardt is the authoritative interpreter in our time of Bach's keyboard works, not least because he performs them on the harpsichord, for which instrument they were written. The piano had not yet been invented in Bach's time, and so only on the harpsichord, that exquisite instrument for which Bach wrote, can we hear his keyboard works as that great genius intended. And in that regard (in my view, at least) Leonhardt is unsurpassed. (I note in some puzzlement and alarm that Leonhardt actually played Bach in a French movie I once saw in film school. He was dreadful in the role, and it was one of the worst films I have ever seen.)

But I think that if you want to know what Bach truly intended, you must go to Leonhardt's performances. They are tasteful, balanced, ego-less, and beautifully executed. And so I listened to his Italian Concerto which, as I remarked to some callow youth recently, is as close to perfection on Earth as you will ever come. And then, immediately after, somewhere on the 210 Freeway between Pasadena and Studio City, I listened to Glenn Gould.

For the first time in my life, I heard his playing in contrast - in contrast to Leonhardt. And for the first time I realized just how stylized Gould's playing is. It is not "straight up," but, rather, very personal, even romanticized, though Gould derided the romantics as inane and self-indulgent. But the fact is, as I heard it, that Glenn Gould takes tremendous liberties with Bach, molding and shaping his keyboard works in a way that can only be described as romantic, as deeply personal. I then went on to listen to his iconic recordings of the Inventions and the English Suite with this in mind and, sure enough, there was the romantic in Gould impressing itself on Bach whether Bach wished it or not.

The difference lies, I have to assume, in the instrument. The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, more akin to the guitar than it is to the piano. When a key is struck, its action rises with a slender membrane of quill and plucks the string, then retires back around it (the origin, by the way, of the eccentric cam movement which made the film projector possible). There is no sostenuto in the harpsichord, no chance for shaping and sustaining a note. The note has sounded, and that is all. Whereas, in the piano, which is essentially a percussion instrument (as Stravinsky famously pointed out), more linked to the drum than to the guitar, the note can be sustained, shaded, colored and shaped. And so, the piano lends itself naturally to the expression of feeling, of self-indulgence, even of excess, whereas the harpsichord is an instrument of logic and precision. The harpsichord note, once struck, cannot be un-struck, cannot be shaped and shaded and made to express the performer's momentary passion. The harpsichord note is what it is - what the composer made it. While the piano note is a palette, that of the harpsichord is an assertion - a punctual statement in time and space which cannot be mitigated. In my hearing, Glenn Gould, great artist and analyst that he was, because he was a pianist, could not resist the temptation to reflect himself in his playing - Bach be damned.

As the music went on, I pointed out to my seven-year-old that, if you listen carefully, you can hear Glenn Gould humming as he plays. Sometimes he is humming the melody and sometimes the counterpoint. But whichever, he is singing along with Bach, and in that lies a clue. Glenn Gould was in love with Bach's keyboard works, and as with any poetic lover, he could not resist the temptation to comment on his love, to rhapsodize on it, to harmonize with it, and, finally, to change it. Gould was essentially a poet - a poet of the keyboard - and all poets seek to change that which they love, since they see reflected in it something of themselves. And they hope, by changing the beloved, to make themselves more complete and more beautiful - fatuous as that hope may be. For the poet, the reality of the beloved is not the ultimate experience - the poetic response to the beloved is.

It was an enlightening experience; not a distressing one. Gould injects himself into his performance of Bach as much as Ashkenazy does in Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein does in Chopin. He just does it more subtly and more clinically. He cannot help it - his instrument and his exquisitely bizarre poet's ego demand it. It is the fact that Gould is playing Bach on a piano that mandates the intrusion of his ego into Bach - and that is wonderful, since Glenn Gould's ego was unique, and it challenged all of us to think more deeply and more vividly about works that we thought we knew, because we have lived with them all of our lives.

Can the Pope Swim?

I watched two discussions of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church on television last night. In one, there was a lay spokesman for the Church, a horrible fellow named William Donohue, who actually defended the bishops and the pope in their handling of this criminal behavior. At one point, he even seemed to suggest that the sexual abuse was partly the fault of the children for being "post-pubescent." There was, too, a newly ordained priest, a young, fresh-faced man, who talked about how bright the future looked for the Church now that the scandals were forcing institutional reforms. The implication, of course, is that thousands and thousands of children had to be raped in order to compel the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to behave like decent human beings.

The import of these discussions was that the wagons are being circled around Pope Benedict, whose own record of collusion is slowly coming to the surface. It is now being claimed repeatedly that Ratzinger did not know anything about the sexual abuse of children when he was a priest, a bishop, and a cardinal. But given how widespread that abuse was, and that it was occurring in his own diocese, one can only conclude that, if he did not know, he was either a fool or an incompetent. How, then, did he achieve such high office within the Church?

The truth, of course, is that he did know, that he had to know, since priests under his authority were committing the crimes and being protected and transferred from parish to parish, and among those priests was the pope's own brother. If we are to believe that Cardinal Ratzinger was ignorant of the crimes, then we must believe that he did not know what the priests under his authority were doing - the crimes they were committing (including one priest's molestation of over 200 deaf children, of which Cardinal Ratzinger was aware) - nor even what his own brother had done. This is nonsense. It is much easier to believe that he did know, and in keeping with the practice of the hierarchy, he covered it up. This cover-up included transferring priests from parish to parish to prevent their prosecution, thereby not only concealing their crimes, but permitting the abuse to continue and to spread to more and more children. This Ratzinger almost certainly did as bishop and as cardinal, and his current behavior as pope continues the cover-up - this time of his own criminal collusion.

In a statement at the beginning of Holy Week, while the first suspicions were swirling around him, the pope said only that people should not listen to "the chatter of dominant opinion." Chatter? These are serious accusations based on the tragic experiences of little children - people who have suffered the effects all their lives, and whose stories are multiplying by the day. Opinion? The molestations are facts, and the facts, too, keep multiplying. Also facts are the confessions of pedophile priests, whose numbers are growing, and the admissions of bishops and cardinals that they aided these criminals by conspiring to shield them from exposure and prosecution. As I said in an earlier post: If the Archdiocese of Boston, for example, admits to 400 pedophile priests, then it knows of 400 more, and is not yet aware of 400 beyond that. The scandal is three or four times greater than the authorities know, or the Church is willing to admit.

And there is another point: In both of the discussions last night, it was suggested by Church spokesmen that the sexual abuse of children by clergy dates back only to the experience of the victims who have recently come forward; that is, that it dates back only about fifty years. Yet a moment's reflection will show that this is absurd. Priest sexual abuse did not suddenly spring up in the 1950s. It goes back much farther than that - indeed, it probably has been a fact of the life of the Church for hundreds of years.

What I am saying is that the abuse of children by priests (and nuns, too) has long been part of the institutional structure of the Catholic Church, reinforced by the fact that so many priests have been guilty of it or have colluded in it, and that some of these guilty priests became bishops and cardinals and even popes. In this way, the cover-up mentality spread upwards as the sexual abuse spread outwards, and pedophilia and its official sanction thus became woven into the institutional fabric of the Church.

That this is so is indicated by the recent discovery of a 1962 Vatican document, which was a set of instructions sent to every bishop in the world regarding sexual misconduct by priests. In it bishops are instructed to bind both priests and victims with a solemn pledge, in writing, of absolute secrecy, which enjoins them not to discuss the allegations of abuse outside of the Church under penalty of excommunication - that is, of being exiled from the Church. (Given that the Church holds - or held at that time - that salvation of one's soul was possible only through membership in the Church, this means that accusations of sexual abuse by priests were to be concealed from secular authorities under threat of eternal damnation - the Church's inevitable trump card.)

Instantly, of course, the Church responded as it has done to every revelation in the sex abuse scandal - it launched a public relations campaign. It claims, incredibly, that although the document was sent to every bishop on earth in 1962, the bishops were unaware of its contents until Vatican instructions on handling sex abuse allegations were revised in 1984. Yet how likely is it that a top secret document which provided instructions on the most sensitive subject in the Church remained unopened and unread by the bishops to whom it was sent? Of course, the Vatican is lying about this, just as it has consistently tried to cover up, rationalize, and minimize every aspect of the sex abuse scandal.

On one of the television discussions, the odious Church spokesman Donohue waved this document at the camera claiming that reports that it was an order for bishops to cover up abuse allegations was a lie. It applied, he insisted, only to solicitation of sex by priests in the confessional. But it was Donohue who was lying, since, as The Guardian reports, "the instructions also cover what it calls the 'worst crime', described as an obscene act perpetrated by a cleric with 'youths of either sex...'" This specific mention of pedophilia proves two things: 1) that the Vatican was aware of the abuse and, in sending the instructions to every bishop in the world, of how widespread it was, and 2) that it engaged in an international criminal conspiracy to aid and abet pedophiles in concealing their crimes and silencing their victims.

Now these facts are emerging onto the world stage, as the pope himself is being drawn into the filthy cauldron of the scandal of sexual abuse and its institutional sanction. Leaving aside the question of whether Pope Benedict himself abused children, it is almost certain that he knew of it, conspired to cover it up, and, in so doing, facilitated the further spread of the disease. He is what the law calls an accessory after the fact, through aiding and abetting some of the most heinous and vicious criminals known to humanity. And as such, he should be stripped of his white robes and consigned to a mendicant's sackcloth, if not a prisoner's denims.

That, at least, would be more lenient than the remedy suggested by Jesus, who said that anyone who "gave scandal" to children, should have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Return to the Sea of Spirit

In my last post, referring to Myer's book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, I said that I would devote some time to the question of how the spirit inhabits the body. It is an important question, I think, if we are to arrive at a meaningful understanding of the relation of body and soul, of the nature or life and that of death, and of what happens after death.

Let me begin by restating the conviction I have offered here previously that the human being is an amalgam of body and soul. Strict materialists would deny this, of course, but, not to put too fine a point on it, I think their position is foolish. The inability to see farther than the senses can reach or than science and mathematics can calculate simply shows a want of imagination and a corresponding lack of vision. The idea that only that which can be directly experienced by the senses, or that which can be counted or analyzed, is all that exists is shortsighted nonsense. Such a contention represents concrete thinking at its worst, not to mention that it simply denies or even derides the collective wisdom of humanity over the ages, which has held consistently from generation to generation and from culture to culture that man is more than the sum of his parts. And that this is true - that there are dimensions to life which transcend the merely physical, ought to be self-evident to anyone who has ever lived or loved or felt nobility or kindness or inspiration. To deny the spiritual dimension of life is to deny life itself.

Having said that, I return to the question: If man embodies a spirit or soul, how are the two related? In traditional terms: The soul inhabits the body, gives it life and expresses itself through it. But in what way does it so inhabit the body? How are the two "connected?"

Myers relates the testimony of several near-death experiences in which the person recalled that his soul "unzipped" itself from his body, as it were; that threads connecting the two were snapped or severed, and the spirit then drifted free, though remaining tenuously connected in such a way that it was able to return. For this reason, the witnesses seem to suggest, they did not die. This echoes the averment of others with which we are all familiar - those who state that in the near death experience they witnessed themselves floating free, connected frailly to their physical bodies.

Affecting as these assertions may be, I am afraid they do not impress me as being true. Rather, I think, they are like the statements of those who claim to have seen aliens from other planets: more the products of a collective memory of popular images of such creatures than of an encounter with the creatures themselves. All such stories have salient aspects in common, because, I think, all come from a common pool of a popular culture of books and films which implant in the minds of susceptible people a preconceived notion of the experience they will claim to have had.

Another problem with this view is, of course, the idea implicit within it that spirit is, in part at least, corporeal, in that it is linked by threads or tissues which, if they are to be severed, must be physical. And yet, in my view (as well as the conventional one), spirit is non-corporeal - it has no physical component. If it does, it is not spirit. If the idea of spirit is to have any meaning, then it must mean that it is distinct from the physical; something entirely different in nature and action. There can be no physical link to a non-physical entity, or that entity becomes some sort of hybrid substance, the nature of which as spiritual or transcendent is thus compromised.

And so the questions remains: If there is no such physical link - no thread or tenuous tissue connecting soul to body - then what does constitute the connection?

To the extent that I have thought about it, it has begun to seem to me that the question itself may be at fault. If we ask, How does the soul inhabit the body?, then we are assuming that the relation is essentially one of corporeal containment of spiritual essence. We imagine that the body is a vessel of some kind which holds the soul, or within which the soul dwells, for so long as life persists, and until death overtakes and debilitates the vessel until it can no longer retain the soul. It is as if a wineskin has worn out or an amphora has fractured and decayed. Weakened, disintegrating, the body can no longer support the indwelling of the soul, which then departs, resulting in death.

While I think there is some truth to the latter part of this argument, it does, in my view, depart from a false premise. The soul does not inhabit the body, I now think; rather, the body inhabits the soul.

I have said elsewhere that we live in a "sea of spirit." It seems to me now that that may be something more than a fanciful phrasing - more than just a metaphor. Tolstoy says, "That which gives life is the same in all things." With this I emphatically agree. The animating force, or spirit, or soul which gives life to me, to animals, to plants and fish must be the selfsame force in all living things. Life is variegated; spirit is not. Life is manifold in its forms; spirit is a single, undifferentiated entity. The search for the relation of the one to the many which was the preoccupation of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers was the same as our question of what constitutes the relation of body to spirit: How do many living forms emerge from a single, unified spirit? How do lives come from life itself?

It seems to me now that spirit, or what we in the context of corporeal existence call the soul, is universal; that it is an essential aspect of all that exists physically without itself being physical. It is the first principle - the implied but ineffable origin of Russell's paradox - that which enables all to exist but is itself not part of existence. It is the first necessary condition for life to exist in any and all its forms.

Without such generative force (which lies outside of existence) nothing that lives could have life; and once it is gone, all that lives dies. It does not "inhabit" us; rather, we as corporeal beings intersect it on the plane of existence, dwelling together for a time, generating life and raising consciousness, in somewhat the same fashion that television waves or radio waves give rise to coherent signals in appropriate apparatuses. We are not so much vessels of spirit as we are vessels immersed in spirit, which contains us and penetrates our being, and vivifies us for so long a time as our physical bodies are capable of surviving immersion within its life-sustaining environment. We are, in a sense, fish in the sea of spirit.

Precisely because spirit is so much a part of our existence - because it is the medium in which we move, and breathe, and express and experience ourselves - many very intelligent people do not recognize it, or they deny it altogether. It is not that spirit is too close to our senses - it is our senses; it is not that spirit is too much a part of us - it is us in the most essential way. We are spiritual beings; our spiritual essence is our very nature, enabling us not only to realize its presence in us, but also, ironically, to deny it. It is for this that I have said elsewhere that the very act of denying our spiritual nature is, in effect, an affirmation of it.

On this planet the preconditions for organic life occurred, and as life itself evolved, the measure and meaningfulness of spirit likewise evolved. Our consciousness of the presence of spirit developed as its ability to express itself through us enlarged and deepened. But does this mean that spirit had a plan for us, and possesses a will and desire for us? I do not think that this naturally follows. The question of the "intent" of spirit for sentient life is quite another matter, and one on which my thinking is still divided.

To suggest that the animating spirit which exists as an integral part of the physical universe is itself conscious and has will and desire for any living creature is farther than I am prepared to go at this point. And yet that it should possess such intent seems irresistible if we are to impute meaning and purpose to life. That would be the easy way of ascribing meaning - to locate it simply but exclusively in the realm of spirit, and to argue from that assertion to an operational meaningfulness of life, with its attendant moral codes and religious implications. And this I am not yet willing to do.

If life does have meaning, then I continue to think that such meaning arises from the fact that the experience of sentient life somehow moves forward the nature and destiny of man and of spirit. That their destinies are, in fact, linked by their very natures. That, as Kazantzakis said, man is, in an important sense, the savior of God, every bit as much as God is the creator of man. The two have neither meaning nor purpose without each other.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ghost of a Chance

In a recent post I referred to F.W.H Myers' book, "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death," which I had read in college (rather by accident), and the impression of which has never left me. My reading of it having been so long ago, I bought a copy and have begun reading it again. I am nearly finished, and it has, once more, prompted me to think, which is what any good book should do.

I had not recalled (or did not realize) that Myers was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, a defunct body of investigators of psychic phenomena some of whose reports I had read in my research for a screenplay about Houdini. That great debunker of all things spiritualist had often interacted with SPR representatives, most famously in the case of "Margery" the spirit medium. Their epic battle, carried out in the attic room of her home at Number 10 Lime Street in Boston, formed the basis of our script.

Re-reading Myers after all these years, I remain impressed by the serious nature of his scholarship and the elegance and probity of his prose. His many case histories, while seeming dated now, their narratives archaic in a quaint late-Victorian way, are nonetheless worth considering if we are at all interested in the question of what he calls "immortality." He makes the point that conceptions and accounts of survival after death are a constant in human experience, and ought not be dismissed out of hand as superstition or just so much nonsense. And I find myself forced to agree. After all, as a dramatist, I must take seriously the fact that the premise of my favorite piece of literature, "Hamlet," is that young Hamlet is given knowledge, which he could not otherwise have had, by his father's ghost (the sort of thing Myers calls a sensory automatism).

Myers makes the general point that consciousness can experience varying degrees of disintegration, or insanity; and, by extension, ought therefore to experience equivalent degrees of integration. His primary example of this integration is genius, which, as readers of this site will know, is a subject that interests me greatly. In the sort of syntactical flight of which we no longer in this country seem capable (because of the sorry state of public education) he defines genius as "...a power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought."

Now this is just a fancy way of saying that genius accesses the unconscious mind in ways that burst forth into the conscious mind, and of which the average person is incapable. Genius, then, in his thinking, is the ability of the conscious mind to tap the unconscious at will, whereas most of us can do that, if ever at all, only in the dream state. What is interesting in this is that Myers locates the source of artistic inspiration (and by genius he refers only to artistic inspiration) in the subconscious mind.

This squares with my own experience as a writer, humble as that may be. When I am working, and totally absorbed in a project, I am unaware consciously of the source of the ideas that come to me. When those ideas are flowing, I am often at pains to write them down as quickly as they come, my typing skills being preternaturally limited. But when that is happening, I feel truly alive - perhaps the only time, in the absence of my children, that I do feel truly alive. These ideas are coming from somewhere, and it is decidedly not from my conscious mind; or I would have to continually think about them, in which case deadlines would go past like express trains that do not stop at my station.

Myers also attributes great importance to the experience of dreams. When we are asleep, and our distracted consciousness is at rest, the spirit, or soul, is, in his view, much more active than in the conscious state. This has been true in my experience as well. It is when I am asleep that the characters of my writings have free reign over my attention, and many times I have experienced the annoying phenomenon that they speak to me in my sleep and even wake me up. Indeed, some of the most useful and profound expressions of my characters have come to me in sleep, and many is the time I have awakened with their "instructions" in my head. So specific have these instructions been that I have frequently gone into work and dictated to my writing partner whole scenes and dialog transmitted to me by the characters in the piece we were working on. Two cases stand out in my mind: Kleopatra, telling me that when she visited Rome at the urging of Julius Caesar she went to see her sister, who was then a captive working as a prostitute in the city; and Marilyn Monroe, who insisted to me that I was avoiding the fact that she had been abused by a boarder in the house of one of her many foster parents.

Now, these may have been mere subliminal concatenations of my conscious mind; but the fact remains, as Myers would argue, that the unconscious mind orchestrated their integration, and made it available to me in sleep. And this helps to answer a question I have had for many years: What the hell is the purpose of sleep, in which we spend fully a third of our lives? Myers would say that sleep, in addition to its recuperative power, represents the opportunity for the spiritual in us to express itself through its habitual access to the subconscious mind.

I find that I do not disagree with this idea. The residence of genius probably does exist in the subconscious mind, which, in turn, draws its strength from the spiritual nature of man. How else to explain Mozart or Mendelssohn or Bach or Beethoven, or any of the prodigies of art whose fruits we have enjoyed? Their unconscious minds must have been drawing upon a wellspring of inspiration which transcends the natural, and which is inaccessible to the rest of us. But what is the source of that spring? It must lie elsewhere than in the ordinary categories of conscious existence. It must lie in the spiritual nature of man.

I had an experience of this myself. Having declined to cooperate with the Selective Service during the Vietnam War, I was ordered to spend two years teaching brain-damaged and emotionally disturbed children. Among them was a twelve-year-old girl named Stacey. Stacey was a mess; one of the most disturbed of all the children I taught. Occasionally she would disappear into an epileptic fit - sometimes in the middle of as sentence - when she would become catatonic. Then, emerging from that fit, she would draw pictures of such beauty and exquisite organization as one would have thought her incapable in her "normal" state. For a few lyrical moments, Stacey was a sort of "genius." Clearly, I thought, she had been in touch with some force that inhabited her poor, crippled consciousness, and was suddenly capable of producing works of beauty, which, otherwise, would not only have been beyond her ability, but beyond her comprehension.

How to explain this extraordinary phenomenon except to say that in those fits she was in touch with a source of mental integration and artistic inspiration which lay outside her conscious mind? Though I knew Stacey thirty-five years ago, I have never forgotten the impact her behavior made on me. Myers would offer her as evidence for the assertion that genius or inspiration is rooted in the subconscious mind, which draws in turn upon the spiritual essence of man, freed to express itself in sleep or hypnosis or epileptic fit.

If such a source of inspiration exists, then it is also a source of cognition, or of consciousness. And if that form of consciousness exists, then it exists outside the realms of quotidian conscious life. Indeed, Myers would argue that conscious life suppresses the subliminal, in its obsession with what W.H. Auden called the "headaches and worry" in which "life vaguely leaks away." But on this other level of the subliminal-spiritual awareness of man, we are all, potentially, Mozarts.

As Myers says: "Within, beyond, the world of matter - as a still profounder, still more generalized aspect of the Cosmos - must lie the world of spiritual life... [T]he world of spiritual life does not depend upon the existence of the material world... What does not originate in matter originates there..."

He argues from this, citing many examples from case histories, that it is possible for this spiritual life to exist both within and outside of the body. This is what he calls, "Dissociation of personality, combined with activity in the spiritual environment..." The idea that we exist in both a corporeal and a spiritual environment is implicit in his argument, and, once again, I find that I do not disagree. From this Myers will, I expect, continue on to the conclusion that the human personality can exist after death, and express itself or make itself manifest in some way posthumously.

If you have been kind and attentive enough to follow this site, you will know that I have some problems with this idea. For as I persist in my reading of Myers, I find that he argues for the existence of ghosts in some form (though by no means the conventional ones), and for the idea that the spirit, insofar as it survives death, remains individuated. Here is a line which, thus far at least, I have not been willing to cross. That the individuated spirit, reflecting a specific personality, survives death is a proposition which I am not yet able to accept. But that in some un-individuated form the spirit which animated individuals survives is an idea which appeals to me with irresistible force. Survival of death which is relevant to, or an echo of, individual life experience must occur, if only to render that experience meaningful.

One of the questions which Myers forces me to pose is this: How, exactly, does what I have called the animating force inhabit the body? How is it manifest in individual life; what is the means by which it occupies a body and brings it to life and sustains it? And, by extension, by what means does it depart the body, resulting in bodily death? As those will know who have read in my essay on Religion and Spirituality my reflections on the death of the old woman in the Congo which I witnessed - I have, with my own eyes, seen the spirit leave a body. I have been present at the moment of death, and been powerfully impressed by the fact that "something" left the body, almost visibly being lifted out of it, and that that separation represented the fact of the woman's death.

I will try in future posts to systematize my thinking on this point. At the moment, I am struggling to find a metaphor to explain it - since making metaphors is my instinct, and what I do for a living. But in the meantime, I would like to invite my readers to share with me their experiences of death and of survival, so that I may benefit from them in my further thinking.

If you have experienced the death of a loved one, and have had any inkling of survival after death, I would appreciate it if you would post your recollections here. It would be of great help to me, and, perhaps, be of some comfort to others as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Benny the Rat

It is with absolutely no satisfaction that I find that I was right about the priest sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. I asserted in an earlier post that there were three reasons why the Church has reacted so severely against the allegations of sexual abuse of children: 1. Because of the financial cost, 2. Because of the fact that prominent members of the hierarchy were themselves involved either directly or indirectly in the abuse, and 3. For doctrinal reasons; namely, that it is impossible for any Catholic to accept the idea that the priest who performs the miracle of transubstantiation at Mass has, with the very same consecrated fingers, violated the innocence of a child. The child sexual abuse scandal therefore threatens the very heart of the liturgy itself.

Now it is beginning to appear that the abuse scandal reaches to the highest level of the Vatican. From early reports, Pope Benedict XVI may have covered up not only abuse by priests under his control in Germany, but that of his own brother. This man, a priest, was, evidently, director of a church boys choir in which there were cases of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, which were concealed by his brother, Cardinal Ratzinger, now the pope of Rome. The investigation has only just begun, and revelations continue to occur. For my own part, I have little doubt that the current pope did hide instances of sexual abuse of children by priests under his authority (and instructed others to do so), and thereby made further sexual predation possible, indeed, inevitable, given the pathology of the pedophile.

I believe that in the coming weeks and months (unless the investigators are bribed or cowed into relenting), we will discover that the current pope was, in fact, implicated in a history of priest sexual abuse, the discovery of which should render him unfit to hold that, or any other office of authority. Indeed, it ought by any civilized lights, to subject him to legal sanction. Thus, we may yet witness the spectacle of a pope forced to resign rather than face prosecution and imprisonment.

But another possibility occurred to me as I read of the investigation of the pope's brother's misconduct. It may just be possible that Cardinal Ratzinger orchestrated his own ascension to the throne of Saint Peter in order to avoid the very kinds of accusations that are now beginning to close around him.

Think about it: Ratzinger was the prefect of the College of Cardinals, the body charged with choosing the new pope. When the College gathered in Rome to select a successor to John-Paul II, it was Ratzinger who set the agenda for and presided over their secret conclaves. And what was the result? Ratzinger himself was chosen. This, it seemed to me at the time, was nothing less than a coup. Ratzinger, a very powerful and influential cardinal, carefully stage managed his own ascension to the papacy, and for what? For the power and glory, of course. But might it also not have been to insulate himself, in the midst of the sex scandals, from his own past?

If so, it is beginning to appear that he failed in this attempt. The pope who was once photographed in the uniform of the Hitler Youth, may have displayed no more moral insight or courage later when he covered up and facilitated the crimes of pedophiles under his own purview. If this proves true, then he was as complicit in their crimes as he was, de facto, in the crimes of the Nazis. As I said at the time of his elevation to the papacy, Ratzinger was, and apparently remained, a moral coward.

What the public must understand is that the sexual abuse of children by priests (and perhaps also by nuns) is far more pervasive in the history of the Church than even the recent scandals have indicated. I am prepared to offer the opinion that fully a third of all priests may have been guilty of such abuse, and that most of the children in Catholic schools during my time there (the Fifties and Sixties) were exposed to such abuse.

Pedophilia, alcoholism, hypocrisy, and mediocrity were the hallmarks of the Catholic clergy as I experienced it, and that legacy remains a part of the Church's ethos to this day. The hierarchy is now consumed with the struggle to contain and therefore control the scandal, but it will not succeed. Now that it is lapping at the very doors of the Vatican, there is hope that the whole filthy mess will one day come to light, and that those who suffered at the hands of this heinous and predatory religion may yet find justice, and the peace which that may entail.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Why Death Has Lost Its Charm for Me

To my surprise, I found myself explaining in a meeting the other day why I have such a "bubbly and effervescent" personality. I didn't mean to launch into the soliloquy; it just came out. Most of my life I have been asked why I do not smile, why I seem so angry and gloomy all the time, why I seem so sad. I have been asked these questions so often for so long that I only reply with jokes. But it is the truth, I know, and there does not seem to be anything I can do about it.

Yet in this meeting, which involved some seven or eight colleagues and was about a television series whose main character helps people escape from dangerous cults, I felt quite spontaneously and without intending to, the need to answer. The reason was, in part, I said, that I was an altar boy in Catholic school in Philadelphia in the Fifties and Sixties. I was the best of the altar boys, the most saintly and dutiful, and for this I was rewarded by the priests and nuns by being put on the funeral team. Odd as that may sound, there was a logic to it, for it was only at funerals that we altar boys were likely to be tipped. Serving wakes and funerals was our only way of making a little money for ice cream, or for the wonderful water ices that the Italian vendors sold in the summer in Cobbs Creek Park, near where I lived.

But what it meant, I went on, was that between the ages of nine and fifteen, I saw two dead bodies every week. Every Tuesday and Thursday night I stood over open caskets, grasping a golden candle stick, and gazed down at the waxen faces of the dead, stark still and silent as they, for hours at a time. And then every Saturday afternoon I served a funeral mass, with all its melancholy and morbid ritual, accompanied by a faltering soprano who sang the direful hymns.

I remember distinctly, one Saturday in sixth grade, when I was serving a funeral mass with Tommy Schwartzman, one of my classmates and friends. Not a particularly brilliant boy, he was a good, solid kid whom everybody liked. And then, during that mass, I saw him begin to cry. A tough, West Philly twelve-year-old who had attended almost as many wakes and funeral as I - he suddenly and without warning, burst into tears. Why? I wondered. Was the deceased a relative of his? And then I realized that if it were, he would be in the pews with the family and not on the altar with me. To this day I do not know the reason why Tommy Schwartzman cried, except that, perhaps like veteran soldiers after years of war, his spirit could not take any more abuse. His childhood could not absorb any more death.

I did absorb it, though of all of us I think I was the brightest and most sensitive, the boy with the deepest feelings and most active imagination. The priests and nuns must have known that, and yet they exposed me week after week to death, to more corpses than a medical student sees, immersed me in the rites and trappings of mortality, and thought... what? That it would have no effect on me?

Well, it did. I stopped smiling, stopped focusing on life and became obsessed with death. A child, in the wellspring of his innocence and youth, I became an acolyte of death. And that experience has remained with me ever since, etched in my expression. Just yesterday, when I was walking from the parking lot to the gym, a young woman called to me from her car, "Smile! It' won't hurt." Many times in my life I have had this experience - when strangers call to my attention the fact that my face is a mask of grimness, habitually, without my even realizing it. It is a specter that has haunted me my whole life.

I used to take a morbid pride in it. I was the one who understood the full meaning of mortality, while others pranced their ways through life, grinning and vapid. I alone felt the weight of death, carried it on my shoulders, embodied it in my very posture and demeanor. I thought this gave me what is now called gravitas - a seriousness and heaviness that implies ponderous thought. And that sense, wrongheaded as it was, gave me pleasure. Yes, thanks to the Catholic Church, the idea of death gave me pleasure as a child.

For that is what the Church taught us little children: That it is better to be dead than alive, that life is nothing but a prelude to death, that your purpose on earth is to prepare yourself for your leaving of it. I was thinking this morning that the Catholic Church is a dangerous cult - a cult of death, which does not spare even its most vulnerable members the crushing weight of impending mortality followed by the menace of eternal doom.

As I spoke in the meeting, I began to feel myself becoming more heated and more emotional. "Someone should have gotten me out of there," I heard myself say. "That kind of thing should never happen to a child. Someone should have cared enough to help me escape." But no one did. I nearly cried, but, of course, being a professional, I checked myself. Yet the experience of that outburst shook me. And though I tried to cover by saying that having freed myself, I understand the meaning of the show viscerally and very much want to write it, I was not convinced. I am still there, still on that funeral team, still frocking myself in a black cassock and white surplice embroidered with black crosses, and clutching up my gilded candlestick. I am still that funereal child, caught in that cult of death.

But lately I am finding that death is losing its charm for me. I would like to shake off its stench, I would like to smile and to enjoy my life or what is left of it. I would like to feel alive, without the barrel of instantaneous extinction pointed at my heart. I would like to laugh easily and happily, to relax the knotted muscles of my face, which bears a permanent frown, and talk casually and congenially with people, even with strangers whom I might encounter once and never see again.

But I cannot. When death has gripped your heart at the age of nine, and held it in its gelid grasp for six years unrelenting, through childhood and puberty and teenage turmoil, it remains there, its fingers curled around that most sensitive of organs (yes, the heart is the most sensitive), and you can never escape. All that you can hope is that someone, some day, will care enough, not to free you, but make that first and vital gesture toward your freeing of yourself - that someone will care enough to understand.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Consciousness and Death

(Endeavoring to reply to a comment under my Faith and Reason post, I found myself becoming a bit more discursive than I had intended. And so, since the length of a comment is limited, I will post my reply here.)

I am inclined to think that consciousness in some form survives death but I have not yet decided what that form might be - that is, I have not yet reached a conclusion that makes sense to me.

I was thinking yesterday that the confluence of the animating force and the corporeal is rather like that between heat and ice. When heat comes into contact with ice, water is produced. In much the same way, when the animating force becomes corporeal, consciousness is produced.

But this would imply that consciousness cannot exist in the absence of either the animating force or the corporeal. In that sense, consciousness is a phenomenon unique to corporeal life. Absent the corporeal substrate, and in what form might consciousness exist?

I have been disinclined to think that the animating force itself is conscious, but it is possible. Recently I have been musing about this possibility. It may be that the animating force is pure consciousness, which is reflected in a shadow form in organic life. That would answer a number of questions, not the least of which is the meaning of life. Life then becomes an ongoing attempt to understand the nature of this pure consciousness and to bring corporeal consciousness into harmony with it. This is, of course, what many religions teach (in a bowdlerized form), and it may well be true (which is why I do not reject organized religion out of hand).

If there is a "cosmic consciousness" (so to speak), then it is likely that its existence represents what we look for as meaning in life, and life then becomes a process of growing closer to an understanding of this consciousness. Yet, with death, what becomes of individual consciousness?

The problem as I see it is not mind = brain (I don't think any serious person accepts this purely materialistic concept), so much as the idea that consciousness = personality. It is very difficult for me to believe that personality survives death. Yet this is the concept behind most conventional notions of heaven, which I, for one, find comically absurd. The idea that we will all be floating around in our clothes in some eternal cathedral communing with our ancestors is nonsense. Yet this is, apparently, what most people believe. But that is simply because they have not examined the question, and because religion has encouraged them not to.

Some years ago I read with great interest Myers' book, "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death." His research makes a persuasive case for the idea that individual personality does survive death if it has become strong enough in life to do so. For Myers, death is a trauma like other traumas in life; some personalities survive and some do not, depending on their preparedness to meet the trauma. To me this means above all a practice of spiritual and mental exercise which strengthens the soul and integrates it more tightly with personality. Such a strengthened soul thus carries personality with it after the experience of death.

The idea has some merit, but I continue to believe that personality is more an artifact of existence than part of its essence. As I have said elsewhere, I am prepared to believe that individual personality, as a form of energy generated over decades of experience, may survive death briefly - perhaps a few hours or even days - but the idea of permanent survival makes no sense to me. I believe that personality is the flotsam and jetsam of life, and that it will be discarded shortly after death, if it survives at all.

Thus we have three levels of phenomena to consider: personality, consciousness, and spirit or soul. In my current thinking, personality is transient, spirit is eternal, and consciousness falls somewhere in between. I am inclined to believe that, in order to survive in some form, consciousness must undergo a change at death, drawing closer to the spirit which animated it, becoming more akin to it, melding with it, if you will. Yet where is the meaning in this? What meaning does life have if individual consciousness is simply absorbed by eternal consciousness after death?

The only conclusion I can come to is that this cosmic consciousness (for lack of a better term) is itself changed by the absorption of individual consciousness, and so, man's life has a cosmic destiny to the extent that it deepens or broadens or expands this cosmic consciousness. This is rather reminiscent of Kazantzakis' concept in his spiritual exercises that we humans are "the saviors of God." This is the idea that, instead of asserting that man could not exist without God, rather, we should understand that God could not exist without man. Without consciousness of God, the idea of God is empty. And so, man's consciousness "saves" or enables the existence of God.

Kazantzakis, of course, was a dramatist (and a wonderful one), and his concept is a bit melodramatic. But I am inclined to think he was on the right track. What would be the nature and purpose of a cosmic consciousness without individuated consciousnesses to reflect on it, give it presence, render it meaningful? And so, human life may give meaning to eternal consciousness, just as eternal consciousness enables human life to exist. There is, therefore, a symbiotic relationship between the corporeal and the eternal through which each enables and gives meaning to the other. Thus, we temporal beings are at one with the timeless just as the timeless is at one with the temporal. This very relationship would, in itself, represent a kind of meaning for life, which, in its nascent form would be passive, but which, as individual consciousness grows and deepens over time may become more active and self-affirming.

The goal of life, then, would be to develop individual consciousness to greater and greater strength and purity so that it becomes closer to and more reflective of eternal consciousness. And in doing so, I think at this point, may lie our hope for survival of death in some form.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ify vocabulary

Yesterday my seven-year-old asked me the difference between putrefy and petrify. I explained, and then started offering him more words that end in 'ify.' Off the top of my head, I thought of:

amplify, beautify, beatify, codify, certify, classify, clarify, crucify, calcify, disqualify, deify, daintify, diversify, demystify, emulsify, fortify, fructify, falsify, glorify, glassify, gentrify, gratify, humidify, horrify, indemnify, intensify, identify, jollify, justify, mollify, modify, mortify, nullify, notify, objectify, ossify, purify, pacify, personify, qualify, quantify, ratify, rectify, reify, ramify, rigidify, scarify, solidify, signify, typify, terrify, testify, transmogrify, vivify, vilify, and verify.

Being seven, he asked for more. If you can think of any others off the tops of your heads (no cheating; no looking them up) to extend his list, please send them to me. Since many of these words refer to 'making something into something,' he asked whether there is a word that means 'to turn into ice.' I suggested 'gelidify.' Is there one?