Thursday, March 29, 2012

Laundry and Mortality

As I finish my fifth load of laundry (there are only two of us living in this house!) I reflect on the following:

In face of death, we have three choices: To try to distract ourselves with idle entertainment, quotidian cares and petty concerns (which is what most people do); or to submit to the reality of death, to allow it to fixate and overwhelm us, and to fall into despair (which some do); or to try to discover that which does not die in ourselves - that which endures. Now the last is done most commonly by those who adhere to conventional religion, at least to the extent that they subscribe to one or another concept of God and of salvation. And while this pursuit undoubtedly offers some consolation, it does not, to my mind, represent the truth.

This religious track inevitably leads, as I have said, to contradiction and disillusionment for anyone who can think past its concepts to its conclusions. Ultimately, in my experience at least, the path of conceptual religion (which is itself a contradictory notion), leaves the believer bereft of any sense of will, any power of self-determination, and any hope for survival of death. The idea of a God who is little more than an extension of Santa Claus - an old man who lives "up there," who speaks our language, concerns himself with our daily affairs and oversees our lives, rewarding us for good behavior and withholding reward for bad, is a juvenile, hollow thing. Likewise, the concept of heaven, an ethereal chamber wherein we will live in a gauzy state of suspended youth, doting on ourselves and our good fortune and enjoying some form of eternal pleasantry, is a pointless answer to the question of the meaning of life and the possibility of survival.

And so we are left with three possible outcomes to the problem of mortality: Ignore it until the moment when, in panic and uncertainty, we succumb; collapse under its suffocating weight and admit the meaningless of our lives; or carve out for ourselves, each in his own time and fashion, some answer to the questions: Why do we live, What meaning does life possess, and What happens after we die?

I have attempted all three, and as I grow older, it seems to me that the third course is the only one that offers hope and dignity. But it also requires a great dedication of thought and a good amount of self-knowledge and courage. To stand alone against the inevitable extinction of one's life is, as the existentialists said, the greatest test of a human being. To overcome the fear of hopelessness, to withstand the weight of despair, and to find some source of solace and purposefulness is at once the greatest challenge and the most pressing demand an individual can confront.

Yet confront it we must if we are not to be destroyed by death. In his story 'The Death of Ivan Iliych,' Tolstoy's character comes to the terrifying reflection: 'Death is all that there is; and death ought not to exist.' It was this denuding insight that led Tolstoy to his own desperate self-realization. Out of the experience of confronting his own mortality, which he and all other mystical thinkers have undergone, he was reborn.

But as what, and to what? As a man freed from the fear of death? I do not think so. I think Tolstoy was involved in an unceasing race against mortality which provoked in him both enormous labor and enormous suspicion. Having lived with him and studied his life and work for forty years, I am convinced that he never truly solved the problem of death - his own death. And, as all of us will, ultimately he succumbed, though more in hope than in fear.

Tolstoy in death was, I think, no more enlightened than was Tolstoy in life. The difference between him and the rest of us was a monumental intellect coupled with a rare gift for self-expression. I say rare and not unique, since it was equaled by that of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Bach, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet no more in them than in Tolstoy do I find a resolution of the problem, and an answer which can satisfy humanity at large. In the end, each man, each artist, struggled with his own mortality; though of them all, only Beethoven, I think, came close to the truth about the perplex.

That truth, it seems to me more and more, lies in what Kazantzakis called the need to transform flesh into spirit. That process is, of course, the essence of Buddhism, and for my own part, I find myself drawn more and more to its spirit, not of nihilism but of self-negation. The first is surrender, the second, a struggle. We are born into flesh, which means into death, and our salvation lies, not in any church or doctrine, but in our individual ability to free ourselves from flesh and so from death - in our power to transform flesh into spirit.

Those who do not understand that life is essentially spiritual (not religious, but spiritual) are, I think, condemned to death by their own minds. But those who can at least glimpse the true nature of existence - that that nature transcends our own and possesses its own vitality and destiny - may escape the fate which awaits every person born of woman. Yet, what is the nature of this nature which consumes and surpasses us? What is this spiritual reality?

To this point in my thinking, I had made the distinction between flesh and an animating force which resides in everything that lives. (It is for this reason, for example, that I have tended to move away from the killing and consuming of any living creature.) The concatenation or intersection of the corporeal and the non-corporeal I have said gives rise in us to consciousness. Thus, I have seen consciousness as the product of organic life, its characteristic phenomenon, at least in sentient, that is, self-reflecting beings.

Now, however, my thinking is beginning to change. I am questioning whether my model has been misconstrued. It seems to me now that, rather than being the product of sentient life, consciousness may itself be the force which animates life. In other words, consciousness is the animating force which I had posited in my attempt to explain the peculiar nature of self-aware beings. What if consciousness is itself the animating force, and human consciousness merely a reflection of it, limited by corporeal existence? What if there are not three components to organic life: flesh, spirit, and consciousness? What if there are only two: the corporeal and consciousness? What if consciousness is the animating force; what if it is spirit? What if it is that reality which I have characterized as that which men speak of when they speak of God?

If that is so, the implications are far-reaching. Every individual person, then, is a reflection of pure consciousness, and is, theoretically, capable of purifying and rarefying his being to the point where he can attain nearly to consciousness itself. Does this not raise the possibility of survival of death? Understood in this way, would it not be possible for every human being to view death as a retrograde movement toward that which is his or her true nature? Would death then not become a form of liberation - a liberation of our true selves? And does not immortality consist in our embracing once again the pure consciousness which is our progenitor and our birthright?

What survives, then, is what we truly are - pure consciousness. We see now as through a glass darkly, but then, we face ourselves. It is not God that we seek beyond death, but our veritable nature, which we can glimpse even here and now in our moments of greatest exultation, as in the birth of our children, or the ecstasy of love, or moments of artistic transport, especially in music.

In those exalted experiences, perhaps, we can see what it is that survives, because it resides within ourselves. It is that consciousness which we call God or love or simply happiness. But ultimately and essentially, it is what we are, what we are made of, what we are destined to recover through the experience of death. Mortality, in this light, appears as rediscovery. Death is our destiny in the sense that it restores us to that which we truly are, whether we can see it through this veil of life or not.

I will continue to muse about these questions in future. But now I must confront the pressing question of the moment: fabric softener or not.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Maggie, Maggie, out!

Last night I finally went to see the film The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep. I had intended to avoid it, since I assumed it would be a typical media trashing of a conservative political figure, and I find such spectacles as predictable as they are tedious.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for my assumption, since the fact is that, in order for a woman to achieve the praise of the mainstream media, it is not sufficient that she be ambitious, accomplished, creative, original, or brilliant – she must also be a liberal. Indeed, a woman may be a world leader or an artistic genius, but if she is not left-leaning in her politics, she will be the object of remorseless mockery and vicious attacks by the left. And, needless to say, no matter how vile and personal their assaults are, they will get away with it.

And so, I went to the film solely to see Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance. I was not only surprised, I was astonished.

To the writer’s credit, he chose not to frame the story as that of Britain’s first female prime minister and its leading voice for conservatism, but rather, as that of an old woman struggling to exorcise the ghost of her husband from her life. Fully half the film takes place in Margaret Thatcher’s retirement, when she is ill and on the verge of dementia. Indeed, the flashbacks to her girlhood and her political career serve only to illustrate the character in the present-time story, as we witness her dealing with age, illness, regret, and her fear that she is losing her mind.

On the whole, I thought the rendering of the political aspect of the film was quite even-handed. And at some points, especially when she speaks of the need for people to return to self-reliance, to abandon their dependence on the government, to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good and their own characters, I kept thinking how relevant and how right her ideas are.

As for the performance: I have rarely seen anything to compare with it. I must admit that, while I have admired some of Meryl Streep’s work, I have never been a fan of hers. Yet, her Margaret Thatcher is the equal of Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth, or any of the work of Olivier or Orson Welles. It is, simply, a portrayal of breathtaking realism, delicacy, depth and truth. It is life itself. It is acting artistry.

She creates the character (with the help of marvelous make-up work) both macro-cosmically and micro-cosmically. She grasps and conveys the great sweep of the woman’s character and accomplishments. Yet I could not help admiring, even marveling, at her careful choice of gesture and vocal tonality, especially her use of her eyes, which dart left and right, rarely fixed on any one point, as though there is such a universe of thought and action inside her, she cannot be troubled by anything of passing interest before her. That her mind is constantly working, constantly searching for the strength and insight to make what she calls the hard choices is clear in every scene. As Meryl Streep portrays her, she is a woman for all seasons, as powerful as she is imperfect; as fated to public greatness as she is flawed in private life.

I was a recent college graduate living in London during the time Margaret Thatcher was in office, and I recall how all of my young friends hated her. Hated, loathed, despised and derided her mercilessly. In fact, they managed to persuade me to march in an anti-Thatcher demonstration, and I, a consummate leftie who never missed a chance to demonstrate, joined them. I remember they shouted, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out! At the time, I knew only that her government, as part of its austerity measures (which saved the British economy) had cut back on funding for milk in the schools. The slogan was, Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher! And some of the young people chanted: Maggie, withdraw, as your father should have done! All of which, as a twenty-one-year-old, I thought very clever and amusing.

But that was then and there, and this is here and now. And how I wish we had a leader with Margaret Thatcher's character and vision in this country today. Someone who will tell us the truth about who we have become and the crises we face, and the hard choices we will have to make to restore our nation's vitality. And who has the courage of the Iron Lady to make those choices.

Still Waiting After All These Years

Recently I attended a performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. I have never missed an opportunity to see Godot, and so have seen several productions. By far the best was one I attended while at film school in Paris. It took place in the hold of a barge on the Seine, in a small lake of mud. It remains for me the benchmark for productions of the play.

I first read "Waiting for Godot" in high-school when I was seventeen years old, and it changed my life. I had never thought that drama could take such a form. To me, to that point, plays were the silly, shallow spectacles of my childhood, usually involving animals or fantasies or popular songs. Godot changed all that. Its stark setting, bold barrenness of character and plot, and the beauty of its language opened my eyes to infinite possibilities of drama. I had been writing plays since I was thirteen, but from that day on, for many years, I immersed myself hungrily in Beckett's work and tried to write like him. In his austere, grim demeanor, he became a model to me as a writer; a hero of thin, pale light in darkness. That I write drama today is largely due to Godot.

The Taper production was beautifully laid on in the nearly circular theater, overawed by a towering backdrop of languidly gathering storm clouds from which a frail ribbon of road emerged, lolling across hillocks toward the stage. A few minutes before the play began, my nine-year-old pointed out urgently to me that a man was moving hypnotically across the road towards us, scarcely more than a silhouette of a stick figure. In all my years of reading, watching and thinking about the play (which I consider one of the two most important of the 20th century - Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" being the other) it had never occurred to me to wonder how the tramps reached the intersection where they were to wait. I think Beckett would have approved of the effect.

The play calls for "a country road, a tree," and that is what the production gave us. The playing area, a rough circle hemmed by rocks, was suitably spare and featureless, which I found a bit of a disappointment. In the French production, the set had three dimensions, which gave the play a visual depth to accompany its intellectual one. It is not necessary to perform Godot in two dimensions as most people do; in fact, I think it is a mistake. So little happens during its two hours, that some visual variety is a relief, and opens possibilities of blocking of which the actors can make use, especially for comedic purposes.

The production at the Taper is a very good one. Barry McGovern as Vladimir is excellent; Alan Mandell as Estragon, rather less so. McGovern's Irish accent serves the dialogue well, sounding as it must have in Beckett's mind. Mandell's repertoire of gestures, both physical and verbal, is limited; there are too many shrugs and outstretched open palms. Still, his gentleness is a good counterpoint to McGovern's relentless, pensive questioning. James Cromwell is impressive as Pozzo, a commanding, cruel dictator to Hugo Armstrong's hapless Lucky. His rendering of Lucky's frantic, semi-coherent speech is one of the best I have ever heard.

The director, Michael Arabian, understands the need for naturalness and nuance in the dialogue, and he did a wonderful job of bringing out the humor in the play. The pacing was good and the blocking effective. My one reservation was in the rendering of the great, dramatic "Let us not waste our time" soliloquy, which Vladimir delivers strolling arm-in-arm with Estragon as if it were meant as an ironic commentary on the helplessness of Lucky and Pozzo. This is a mistake, I think, since the speech, in my view, is one of the loftiest and most weighty calls to action in the face of existential despair in all of Beckett. The blocking of the speech and the tone undercut its power.

The production does not make the mistake of most directors and indeed some actors of portraying Beckett's characters as if they were little more than mouthpieces for the poetry of the dialogue. This is often the case in the complete set of Beckett on Film which I own, and which I watch periodically (the worst example is Julianne Moore's "Not I"). For all their minimal other-worldliness, Beckett's characters should be played as real people, caught in real, if odd or unnatural, situations. They are not burlesque mannequins or philosophical practitioners: They are human beings trapped in landscapes not of their making or choosing, unable either to leave or to understand why they have to remain. They are, in short, humanity at its rugged, sensitive core.

The tramps in Godot, like most of Beckett's men and women, exist only on the stage for the length of the production; unlike Hamlet or Lear they do not live forever, and their lives do not suggest great events before and beyond them. They can scarcely remember the past and have no idea what to expect of the future. As far as we know, they have never been anywhere but where we encounter them (and they encounter one another), and they seem incapable of leaving, despite their confusion, uncertainty and suffering. Once again: They are us, in our daily lives of quiet desperation, if only we had the insight and courage to see those lives for what they truly are. Since we cannot (like them we cannot bear the spectacle of ourselves at heart), then Beckett presents us with them for an hour or two, in the hope that we will recognize ourselves and take from the play at least a sense of perspective if not of shame.

I love the two great speeches in Godot, the hortatory "Let us not waste our time in idle discourse. Let us do something while we have the chance!", and the poignant, profound attempt at meaning and even triumph, "Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?" They are, I think, among the greatest soliloquies in Western literature, expressing man's anxious search for meaning in the midst of the confusion and chaos of life, as well as his thirst for some sense of dignity and self-affirmation. The latter, especially, is as close as Beckett ever comes to declaring that we are capable of imposing meaning on our lives, and of declaring victory, no matter how poor and passive. We may not be in control of our circumstances and we may be at the mercy of our fate, but at least we know that we are, and in that knowledge, we can take some sense of pride. "Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear: We are waiting for Godot to come."

I had brought my nine-year-old son half in the hope that he would appreciate the play, half in the expectation that he would be baffled and bored. Indeed, the man behind us in the snack bar line at intermission announced, "I don't think I get it." But my son did. He was riveted. He laughed at the burlesque humor, enjoyed the fart joke and the dropped drawers as only a nine-year-old can, and was moved to silence by the distraught condition and poetic eloquence of the characters. And he made a comment, which had never occurred to me and which I thought was insightful and profound, and totally in the spirit of the play. We arrived ten minutes before the performance began, and after a few minutes he asked, "Is this part of the play?" I didn't understand at first, and then it hit me: We were waiting; waiting for Godot to come. He was right: Waiting for the play to begin is very much a part of the experience. When I asked afterwards what he thought of the production, he gave it a child's highest marks: "I liked it. It was good."

I, too, after all these years, still like it and think it is very good. Indeed, it retains the power to stir my deepest suspicions and fears about the human condition, and to evoke my dearest hope - that they also serve who only stand and wait, as John Milton said; and in T.S. Eliot's prayer, Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still. Whether sitting or standing still in this naked landscape of life, which we neither created nor chose and which we cannot escape, awaiting the arrival of some savior who never comes, we may yet, by finding humor in our suffering, and dignity in what Hopkins called our poor potsherd selves, salvage some shred of meaning to mark our inexorable passage from existence to extinction, from time to timelessness.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thinking... can't sleep...

So much has happened these past few days. Is it just that I am getting older, or is it that things are happening so fast and so corrosively one cannot keep up...?

When I was a student at a Jesuit university in Philadelphia, the administration decided, after more than a hundred years, to admit women. They did this, of course, not from any sense of duty or rationality or justice, but because they needed the tuition money, having excluded half the human race from the pool of applicants.

With the prospect of women joining the student body, a few friends and I formed the first feminist club on campus. Let me be clear: A group of male students, led by me and a black friend of mine, formed a feminist club as a way of welcoming the university's first freshman class of women. When they arrived, not a single woman joined. Instead, the co-eds rushed to the booster club, to support the men's basketball team. That should have been a lesson to me.

Now, this past week, I have watched the pathetico-comic spectacle of a Georgetown University law school student, a bright, young, educated woman, go before a pseudo-Congressional committee and complain that her birth control needs were not being met by the federal government - that is by me, the taxpayer. "I am woman, hear me beg." That any self-respecting woman in the 21st century would go before, not only a committee chaired by a former Speaker of the House, but before the nation, to beg for contraceptive relief, and that the media would lionize her for it, and that the President of the United States would telephone and congratulate her for it, says everything one needs to know about the current state of American culture and American politics. It makes me ashamed to say that I am an American.

Yesterday I paid $4.50 for a gallon of gasoline. When gas prices spiked under George Bush, the media and the left, including a dear friend of mine, blamed him for it. Indeed, my friend asked rhetorically: Is this Bush paying off his buddies in the oil industry? Well, is this Obama paying off his friends in the environmental industry?

Yet President Obama now claims in stentorian terms that there is nothing a President of the United States can do to affect the price of oil, and the media suddenly understands that the problem is more complex than they had thought under a Republican administration. Despite Mr. Obama's manifest ineptitude, despite the miserable failure of his policies, despite the fact that he calls their owners and share holders villains and wishes to punish their success, the media apparently will do everything in its power to see to it that he is re-elected. The inane, self-defeating hypocrisy is suffocating.

Obama's Secretary of Energy, an incoherent babbler if ever I heard one, has said repeatedly that the administration wants the price of gasoline to rise... until, of course, that rise hurts the president's chances for re-election. In which case, that same incoherent babbler has now said that the administration no longer wants the price to rise. Yet he denies that the president has ordered him to reverse his position. Greater hypocrisy cannot be imagined. It makes me ashamed to call myself an American.

And then there is Afghanistan... By the president's campaign promises, we should have been out of that benighted country by now. But of course, judging by the mainstream media, no promise of this amiable incompetent must be kept. We are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Guatanamo. And now...

More than a dozen Afghan civilians, including nine CHILDREN, have been murdered by a deranged, marauding American soldier. It is, of course, a tragedy of ancient Greek proportions, of Biblical proportions, of Vietnamese proportions. And what does our titular president do? He attends, with the Prime Minister of England, a basketball game, grinning as he ever does for the camera. Grinning and gawking in the wake of the murder of children. To quote Hamlet: "God, a beast that wants reason would have mourned longer!" Has he no shame at all? Has he no sense of propriety? This same man who, after the killings in Tucson, made an unabashedly political speech and then glad-handed and grinned for the cameras? Is there no disgrace of which he is not capable? It makes me ashamed to call myself an American.

What has happened to this country? What have we, as a generation of Americans, allowed to happen? We have suffered sixty years of unremitting liberalism, of "progressive"-ism, of permissive-ism. We have allowed our values to erode, our sense of self to deteriorate, our pride, our self-respect, our very idea of decency, to go by the board. And for what? For a phony sense of fairness and self-righteousness. For a cheap narcissism. We have permitted our concept of who we are as a people and what our nation means as a beacon of hope to mankind to be sold out for cheap health care and cheap prescription drugs and cheap public education that does not teach our children to think for themselves, and a cheap sense of progress and a cheap, submissive conviction that the government knows best, and cheap food stamps and cheap birth control and cheap abortions and cheap consciences that allow us to do whatever we want and consequences-be-damned, and a cheap lifestyle and cheap deaths in which our lives have meant nothing and our deaths are merely an agglomeration of cheap fertilizer.

But where has gone our soul? Where is our national identity? Our collective pride? Where is our sense of uniqueness? We are becoming the laughingstock of the world, a second-rate power, a cheap joke at the expense of others who have embraced our ideals of innovation and hard work, of sacrifice and self-sufficiency, even as we barter them away for a modicum of government subsistence at the expense of excellence and risk and our national heritage.

Indeed, as I watch events unfold through the distorted prism of a media which I trust as I do adders fanged (again to quote Hamlet), I am increasingly ashamed to call myself an American. Indeed, I no longer know what that word means.