Sunday, December 19, 2010

"There Is Grandeur in this View of Life," Part 1

Just in time for Christmas: meditations on In Memoriam...

I beg your leave, Squires and Squiresses in Readerdom, whilst I 'umbly quote two nineteenth-century writers at some length, to help spin out some thoughts on life, death, and evolution... not old hat about new atheists, but ground-level stuff about the "problem of evil" and why life sometimes seems to suck so much. I don't think there is a problem of evil... but we'll get to that.

I've mentioned the class I taught earlier this year on American Spiritual Literature, and one of the good things that came out of that class was, I turned a student on to Augustine (not American, I know, but I had occasion to talk about him more than once), to the point that the young man has now not only read Confessions but has sculpted a likeness of the saint (!). Another blessing was: a passage from Walden about death and violence really rocked my world this time reading it... I couldn't help contrasting Thoreau's thoughts with Tennyson's much better-known remarks on "nature red in tooth and claw" and the tragedy of the pain and suffering that surrounds us in what David Tibet, perfectly describing the Vision of Sorrow, called the "endless wheel of suffering... the final crystalline structure of misery... the great, bloody and bruised veil of this world."

Tennyson knew that veil, and famously uses the word in his grand elegy In Memoriam (1850), his exploration of doubt, death, and cosmic order written in the shadow of the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's bosom friend, classmate, compadre in poesy, and the fiancé of Tennyson's sister. Hallam died unexpectedly at 22, having inspired Tennyson and many others with his brilliance and his grace that made him seem "to tread the earth as a spirit from some better world." Quite understandably, not only was Tennyson devastated by the death of his friend, but he struggled to find meaning, any meaning, in such a disastrous, random event.

I'm going to diss Tennyson in a minute, so I want to now disclaim that In Memoriam is one of the greatest works of literature I know, and even if it weren't a masterwork I would hesitate to argue too much with a guy who's mourning his best friend. I'm totally down with Tennyson's asking the hard questions, and have a lot of respect for someone who is that tenacious about asking what it all means, not to mention asking about it in a style so eloquent that it dizzies me every time I read it.

But I've got to argue, if not with Tennyson's style, then with the very seriousness that style imparts to what is at root a self-centered and small-minded view of the world. Its spiritual guise, flirted with by Tennyson, though he's not buying it 100 percent, insists that even though stuff is not the way you want it to be, a wondrously awesome god made it that way in service of some bloody scheme of "redemption" that, in most tellings, still manages to leave out 99 percent of the human species--but might let you in if you're good. Its secular guise insists that even though stuff is not the way you want it to be, you can find other like-minded sufferers and band together and make it all the way you want it to be or, failing that, you can sort it all out for yourself and whatever you come up with will be the right answer, as long as it makes you feel bad. (Feeling good is a sign of shallowness.)

Tennyson ends up somewhere between these two opinions: not a brain-dead believer, not an existentialist, either. He states "the problem of evil" about as well as anyone has, or ever could, state it. Musing upon the pre-Darwinian model of evolution in Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), he presents a picture of Nature as the relentless supplanting of one species by another, from the mindless predation of dinosaurs "in their slime" to the "fruitless" quests of Homo sapiens. What I like about In Memoriam, in addition to Tennyson's sublime style, is that in this poem he seriously and at great length entertains the idea that, in the face of the limitless death and pain of the biological parade, Christianity and all other moral systems might really be wishful thinking, might really be sad, makeshift whistling in the cosmic graveyard.

At a certain point in the poem the narrator enters into a dialogue with a personified Nature. He's been lamenting that she seems to favor preserving the species ("type") with no thought for individual death and suffering. She tells him he's half right: she doesn't care about preserving individuals or species:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
[Nature] cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more" And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed,
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster, then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

By this point, Tennyson has mourned his friend and has widened his angle to ask the big questions: do our lives matter? Is there any truth beyond atoms and the void? Why must we love, if time is but an arrow pointing to death? Is religion, is every search for meaning, just a death-denying illusion? Fossils of bygone species, some of whom ruled the earth as humans now do, seem to proclaim a ciphered law of chaos and death, the poem says, and we'll join them before long. We chant epics of struggle, redemption, and salvation to soothe ourselves, but the very landscape before us, the very ground on which we stand, stained with the blood of countless generations, gives lie to our proud fantasies: life is too violent, too random, too cheap to admit of justice or ultimate purpose. So, in the end, "The spirit does but mean the breath": once we die, as individuals or as a species, that's it. No meaning, no continuance, no do-over.

For all our brilliance, all our heart-storms, all our visions--all our poetry-- aren't we just another speck of foam in the seas of space, another doomed arrangement of carbon and oxygen? Sounds like it, from these beautiful lines. Ultimately, of course, In Memoriam holds out the promise of redemption, of ultimate meaning: it means something when someone dies, and lives; it means something when an entire species lives, then dies, even if all it means is that its myriad members' bones form the ladder on which some newer, more sophisticated species can climb up to gaze at the stars. But of course for Tennyson it's more than that: hope lies in the perfect world of spirit, in which we escape death, escape our lower, animal nature, having evolved from "broken lights" of the Divine into... the Divine itself?

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer'd, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod
This planet, was a noble type
Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

Really not much to complain about here. Tennyson's tastefully post-Christian, he's resolved the evolution/ creation conflict, and he's even got a little Hegelian/Kabbalah thing going where God's creation evolves into some kind of cosmic singularity. That's true, if you ask me, and I have to applaud the man's doubt, too. I'm with him: hope does reside in the world of spirit. But that whole death thing... mourning is fine, I mean, we've all been there. Years of it? Sure. The rest of your life if you need it. The death of someone you love changes you the same as losing a limb, in the sense that part of your way of being yourself is gone, unrecoverable, you have to learn a new and inescapably worse way of living, living without. And so we mourn, and so some of us write epic poems or build Taj Mahals of other sorts. The mourning for Hallam or any other lost loved one isn't the point; rather I take issue with Tennyson's attitude towards death itself, his assumption that death is some kind of monster, some kind of interruption, anomaly, affront to the order of things.

Death is the order of things.

If saying that sounds odd, it's because nearly all our models of reality are spawned by religions, philosophies, and political systems that arise from and feed on the individual organism's fear of death, which they externalize, eternalize, and super-size into narratives of redemption, salvation, end-of-the-worldism, heavenism, houri-ism, reformism, revolutionism, etc.-ism, mirroring off into infinities of alienation nearly as vast as death itself. How few have thought to turn their backs on these fables, face the Fact, and embrace death! To do that, of course, they had to, like Inanna, cast off everything that made them who they were; they had to abandon themselves and all their desires.

The thing is, and I apologize for sounding a bit like Pascal, you're going to lose everything anyway. That midnight hour is going to come and the masks are going to come off. You may as well, my Teachers tell me, renounce now, and maybe by midnight you'll have the hang of it. Thoreau spoke of lives of quiet desperation, and said the desperation comes from clinging, from wanting, from denying life to its face, refusing to recognize it for what it is: a tornadic whirl of matter, energy, and sensation that, like all tornadoes, one day whirls itself into nothing. Your life and the universe's life are like this. God's life is like this: She withdraws into Herself in mahapralaya--call it "maximum entropy" if it makes you feel better--to sleep for a time, to wake again in blazing cosmic morning, and who knows what beautiful and winged life will evolve then, what atoms, elements, constellations, consciousnesses? But to preoccupy oneself with eternity is to will oneself to forget how big eternity is, to close one's eyes to the eternity that saturates us in every instant.

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