Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Virtue In Our Gardens

“Tough times demand tough talk” ~ Rush (Neil Peart), 1987

Our most Catholic and reactionary Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, speaking publicly in support of capital punishment, once stated infamously that “for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.”  Most writers and poets I admire, spanning the past twenty-seven centuries of the western literary tradition, would humbly beg to differ.

The ancient Greeks were obsessed with death – probably because they were obsessed with life.  Come to think of it, what makes the Homeric epics (and in particular The Iliad) important and relevant more than 2,700 years after they were written down (from an even older oral tradition) is their profound grappling with that most universal of themes: our passionate desire to live in the teeth of our self-conscious awareness that we will die.

We assume that we alone among the higher animals possess this self-awareness but whether that is true or not is probably unknowable.  Thoreau wonders if a greater miracle is possible than to get inside another person’s consciousness even for an instant.  If another man’s subjective consciousness is that foreign to me, then surely the consciousness of animals is beyond my imagining.  Do they know they are going to die? Do they have that gift?  Or is a curse?

Whether it is a gift or a curse is a question I will set aside for the moment.  What seems certain is that our awareness of the tragic fate awaiting all of us is the root of all religion, philosophy and art.  How does the certainty of dying affect the way we confront death?  How should we confront it?

Homer had one answer.  Notwithstanding the ancient Greeks’ apparent belief in some kind of quasi-afterlife for certain humans, where their spirits roamed around pathetically and semi-consciously, neither suffering nor rejoicing, death really was understood to be the end – a “big deal” in Justice Scalia's terminology.  There was only one way to achieve a kind of immortality and that was to be remembered forever.  What Homer called kleos aphthiton (“imperishable glory”) was achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through killing and dying gloriously in battle.  Achilles wins his imperishable glory, of course, but the real resolution of the epic, in the judgment of many critics, is his mature and adult acceptance of death as an end.

Christian theology offers another, more comforting, answer.  Death is an illusion.  It is not the end at all but the beginning.  So too for Islam.  By believing that death is "no big deal," -- indeed, 72 virgins await them in paradise -- fanatically devout Muslims can be made to fly airplanes into buildings or strap bombs to their backs on crowded buses.  The Eastern religious traditions, with their belief in reincarnation, also see death as an illusion -- which may explain why stuff like this happens.  Needless to say, viewing death as illusory is not a terribly good way to value human life.  And by comparison with Homer and Achilles, it is not terribly mature, adult or accepting, either.

As far as any priest, rabbi or imam actually knows or can prove, death is oblivion.  It is annihilation.  You didn’t exist before you were born and you will not exist after you die.  The world will go on without you, of course, whether humanity lasts another day (before wiping itself out with nuclear weapons) or another 5 billion years (at which time the sun will explode into a planetary nebula and obliterate our planet).  But your day is coming, don't you know?

Now, then.  Are there alternatives to imperishable glory gained through butchery, on the one hand, and the consoling fable that death isn't real, on the other?  Many great thinkers have weighed in on this.  But I honestly never expected to see such big questions so beautifully explored in a major motion picture based on a young adult novel.

On Tuesday of this week, my 13 year old daughter and I walked from my spartan flat to the Kimball Peak Three Theatre in downtown Colorado Springs to see the The Fault In Our Stars.  Like just about every other teenage girl in America, she has been reading this book and was really looking forward to seeing the movie.  "Daddy," she touchingly warned me, "this story is really sad."

Well, the movie was certainly sad.  But it was also impressively beautiful and inspiring.

Teenage cancer.  Tough times, indeed.  The Fault In Our Stars, which is a profoundly atheistic movie to anyone paying the most casual attention, opens with some of that tough talk demanded by tough times.  Here is the main character's voice-over narration at the very beginning of the film:

"I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories.  On the one hand, you can sugar-coat it.  Nothing is too messed up that it can't be fixed with a Peter Gabriel song.  I like that version as much as the next girl does.  It's just not the truth."

A commendably adult attitude with which to begin a movie based on a novel that was supposedly written for children.  (Aside:  This lady is full of shit.)  And when you realize that "sad stories" is intended to refer not just to the sad fact of two beautiful teenagers doomed by terminal cancer but to the tragic fact of our certain oblivion, as individuals and as a species, you begin to see the complimentary levels on which the film operates.

We are all doomed and terminal, the movie is saying.  And now let us show you how love, joy, ecstasy, and yes, even hope, are possible in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe.  I believe this is the great theme of all great art.

We are all doomed and terminal.  It is important to hammer this point home because it is a big part of what really makes the movie work.  I once heard the great Christopher Hitchens put it this way (paraphrasing): "it's as if we are shot out of our mother's wombs -- like from a cannon -- and we are barreling towards a barn door studded with sharp, rusty nails."  I think he was trying to be funny.

Even more precisely, we are all doomed to lead extraordinarily short lives.  Whether we get 19 years or 90, when compared to the imponderable twin eternities of the past and the future, our lives are the flicker of a flicker of a flicker of an instant.  Impossibly short.  And the Cosmos and Time are utterly indifferent to us.  From my favorite Robert Frost poem:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time's lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

At the beginning of the film, Hazel Grace, who knows she is dying from cancer, is stuck in the stereotypical cynicism and hopelessness that all atheists supposedly share.  (Atheists hate this bogus and lazy stereotype propagated by people who don't know any better.)  Her mother lovingly browbeats her into attending a support group at a local church led by one of those insufferable guitar-strumming "up with people" Jesus-dudes.  He strums and sings empty piffle like  "Christ is our friend and he'll be there til the end." Yay!  I feel better already.  (Note: Whenever religion is shown in the movie it is either gently mocked, as in its treatment of this harmless goofball, or it is subtly protested, as in the final funeral scene.  But there is no god bashing.)  When it's her turn to speak, Hazel Grace stands up and gives the standard "what's the point" rant: the sun is going to explode someday, whatever or whoever comes after humanity won't care that we ever existed, there's no afterlife, I am going to die young, so why shouldn't I be cynical and depressed?

Then she meets her soul mate. Handsome, funny, and engaging, this Gus is a cancer teen, too.  But he tells us early on that he has been in remission for eighteen months.  As we get to know him, we realize that there is no logical reason why he would be at this same support group other than the demands of plot development.  Because Gus already gets it.  In the face of one missing leg below the knee and a possible relapse into full blown cancer, he is mature and cheerful beyond his years or his situation -- almost annoyingly so.  When it's his turn at the support group to say what he fears, he smiles, looks over at Hazel Grace, and with a twinkle brightly sparkling in his eye, answers: "Oblivion."

In classic Romeo & Juliet fashion, the star-crossed lovers immediately fall for each other. (The fault in their stars has a different origin than familial rivalry, of course.)  They bond over a fictional novel written by a fictional author they both briefly come to admire this side of idolatry.  I positively love the fact that they bond over literature -- although the raw physical attraction is fairly evident, too.  The novel, titled "An Imperial Affliction," ends with the sudden death of its main character.  When I say sudden, I mean sudden.  The book ends in the middle of a sentence.  Gus and Hazel Grace make it their mission to meet the author -- one Peter Van Houten -- so they can ask him, personally, what comes after the sudden end of the story.  (You can see where this is going, right?)  They make it all the way to Amsterdam to where he has expatriated.

Ah, Amsterdam! The great asylum for freethinkers and religious doubters of the late-Renaissance period, like Baruch Spinoza, who were being hounded and persecuted by the faithful.  The young lovers visit the house-museum where Anne Frank tried to hide from the Nazis -- more effective symbolism, there.  There is a charming dinner at an elegant restaurant at which Gus declares his love in words you would only expect by this point: "I am in love with you Hazel Grace.  And I know that love is just a shout into the void and that oblivion is inevitable, and I am in love with you!"  And there is a bedroom scene that will probably drive the prudish among us crazy.  They're just teenagers!  But the scene is very tastefully done and, c'mon already, these beautiful people are both dying.  Are you gonna begrudge them a little nookie before they check out?

So the trip to Amsterdam is mostly joyous (and gorgeously filmed).  But the meeting with Van Houten doesn't go very well.  It turns out that he is wasting away in drunken misery over the loss of his own 8 year old child to cancer.  He is gruff, rude, dismissive, and brutally cruel to them.  But he slips something of crucial metaphorical importance into the conversation: advanced mathematics, it turns out, has proven that not all infinities are the same.  Some are smaller (or is it shorter?) than others.  Hold that thought.

Then Gus dies.  Oh, sorry.  I should have said "spoiler alert," first.

I had not read the book.  For most of the movie, I expected the sad ending that my daughter warned me about to be the death of Hazel Grace.  But in a plot twist -- drama 101! -- it turns out that Gus' cancer comes back and he is fairly quickly dispatched to his inevitable and feared oblivion.

I shouldn't be so flip.  These last scenes are beautifully acted and very tough to watch.  There is just a touch of comic relief thrown in to make it bearable.  We don't want people slitting their wrists in the movie theater.  On the other hand, "pain demands to be felt," as the movie tells us more than once.

At Gus' grave-site, none other than Van Houten shows up to pay his respects.  (I'll skip over the plot device that gets him there.)  We get the feeling that, like Hazel Grace, he is moving slowly from cynicism to something resembling hope.  In another humorous poke at religion, when it comes time for the preacher man to offer the benediction, Van Houten bows his head and tells Hazel Grace that it's "time to fake pray." "We know better," his joke seems to say.  Then the preacher man announces it's time for Hazel Grace to give a eulogy.  He calls her Gus' "special friend."  In a subtle protest at his religious authority, she corrects him:  "I was his girlfriend."  The eulogy she gives at the grave-site is not the real eulogy.  She had already given that one directly to Gus, at his request, before he died in yet another heart-wrenching scene in an empty church.  Moments before another voice-over commenting that funerals "are for the living, not for the dead," Hazel Grace gives them exactly what is called for by the soothing myth that death is no big deal -- a bunch of vacuous pap and sentimentality.  Well, you certainly can't accuse her of the worst sin a speaker can commit -- not knowing one's audience. (Compare Pat Tillman's brother!)

So what does Hazel Grace learn from knowing and loving Gus -- if ever so briefly?

Here's what I think.  Recall the earlier points about the brevity of life -- even of a "long" life -- and how the present moment exists on a razor's edge between two incomprehensible infinities.  The ancient Greeks -- for some damn reason it always begins and ends with The Iliad -- called their gods the "deathless ones." By comparison, their word for "mortal" actually translated into something closer to already dead (or at least, nearly dead).  In other words, we all have terminal something.  We all have one foot in the grave.  Some of us, like Hazel Grace, are just dying a little faster.  But whether we get 17 years or our full Biblical allotment of three-score and ten, life is precious, love is achievable, and hope is possible to us.  And just as knowing the constituent elements of chocolate doesn't make us enjoy chocolate any less (shout out to Sam Harris), knowing that our loves, desires, passions, and joys were hard-wired into our brains by a cold and impersonal process of evolution by natural selection doesn't make them any less real.  It doesn't make life any less worth living.

But when it's over, I'm sorry to say, it's over.  How should we live in the meantime?  I don't recommend seeking glory in battle.  Nor do I recommend pretending that death is "no big deal" because, well you know, Jesus 'n stuff.

For myself, I tend to settle on the notion of "the garden" as put forth by that great infidel Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire).  "Let us cultivate our own garden," he writes in his bitingly satirical short novel Candide.  The general idea is to seek the productive, simple, and peaceful life of one who essentially minds his own business, loves his family and friends, and brings generosity and compassion to his dealings with others.  You might also call it The God of Small Things.  The garden is Jefferson as opposed to Hamilton.  A Republic as opposed to an Empire. The Toledo Mud Hens as opposed to the New York Yankees.

In a crucial scene in the Book IX of The Iliad -- Christ-Almighty, not The Iliad again! --  Achilles describes the "choice of fates" that he, unique among men, has been shown by his goddess mother Thetis.  He can win his imperishable glory at the certain cost of dying very young or he can go home to a simple life of domestic bliss with the guarantee that his name will be forgotten.  He can be like an immortal in the starry heavens or he can cultivate his garden.  We know what choice he made.  He orphaned his children in a quest for personal glory.  What a gigantic douche!

So maybe that's what it comes down to.  The majestic stars or a humble garden.  The fault in the stars, I would say, is that they are too damn impersonal, cold, distant, abstract and remote. A garden, by contrast, is down here on the Earth.  It is life-giving, fecund, profuse, and organic -- even if it sometimes smells bad and gets overgrown with meddlesome weeds.

Well, it's been a long post and I'm exhausted.  I will close this one out -- of course! -- with some lines from the Rush song "The Garden" (which is based, like the entire Clockwork Angels album, on Voltaire and Candide).  I believe these lines nicely summarize the movie I have been discussing:

The measure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn
So easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect

The treasure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
The way you live
The gifts that you give
In the fullness of time
It's the only return you can expect

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen

"Forever dwells in that moment."  It is forever and infinitely now.  It's just that some infinities are a little shorter than others.  Right, Hazel Grace?

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