Friday, July 25, 2008

Ars Moriendi

Lately I find myself adrift in a liminal state. Overworked, drained, and needing what my wife annoying but accurately calls "a rebirth of wonder." It's that feeling of waiting for a momentous moment. I stumbled upon Francesca Fremantle's "Luminous Emptiness" commentary on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" somehow on Amazon, I have no recollection how. Its slow study took me half this month to complete, matching the twelve-day bardo! Suitably, perhaps, as this awakened my dozen-years dormant interest in posthumous conceptions. Understandably slumbering, wearied as I was by my dissertation on "The Idea of Purgatory in Middle English Literature."

That's the attenuated, weary "afterlife" with scholarship on such a massively mandated level. If you don't grasp a tenure-track post or don't garner a leisurely life as an independent (and/or independently wealthy) scholar who can then delve into the depths of one's doctoral expertise, well-- for cohorts disdained by au courant search committees for Ph.D's in English Lit-- you must survive teaching remedial and frosh comp, intro to lit surveys, and speech or study skills classes. The wandering scholar of the Middle Ages; today's freeway flyer. We still talk about rhetoric, logic, grammar-- our version apparently comes disguised as "critical thinking, reading, and writing"-- but callow youth still regards this triple threat to their majors and their first-year experience, now as then, as often undergraduate trivia!

These intensive types of hands-on, meticulously assessed courses for students far outside of the liberal arts present a culture shock as one moves from the ivory tower to the inner city. They resist Scantrons, cannot be compressed into a one-month course with effective results, and they endure even in the most career-beholden institutions. Despite all the lip service to inclusion and diversity on elite campuses, I never met a professor who traded an endowment to teach where I do. These classes for the truly disadvantaged and those trying to make their way up from the underclass consume mental energy and physical stamina. The essays pile up. Grading never eases. Rarified reflection in a year-round, accelerated curriculum such as I've persisted in ever since my doctorate does elude me for weeks on end.

I wonder if monks, Catholic or Zen, had to deal with similar cognitive leaps, moving from manuscript copying in scriptorium or the calm-abiding of "samatha" to beg for alms or bandage lepers. Friars must have stepped out of the Sorbonne to kneel down to clean gutters. At least the first few years, flush with their saintly Founder's charism. Their zeal faded quickly; they retreated into calmer cloisters. No wonder Francis inveighed against Frenchified learning; Dominic's hounds of God appeared to surrender more quickly. No longer lean mendicants but the caricatures from Chaucer or Langland-- or Dante let alone Rabelaisian-- lusty plump monastics. Still, some persisted, as they always do, with the ideal. Buddhists are enjoined to combine compassion with wisdom; Christians lay or vowed to join contemplation with action. How do you keep your intellectual and prayerful composure, interrupted so often, and how do you sustain "samatha"?

I remember in the documentary "Into Great Silence" about Chartreuse's charterhouse how the routine deliberately changes no more than every two-and-a-half hours, so as to keep the mind and body alert. It's difficult to move from considerations of Carthusian mysticism at Sheen or Mount Grace to walking into a barrio elementary school's art supply room to coach a small circle of adult ESL-level one students. Or, descending from a desk where I drill myself on irregular futures of Irish verbs to command the attention in a corporate office park of two-dozen post-teens on conforming to English punctuation, regularly spelled.

As I get older, I've taken to seeking out a chance for quiet, amidst the city. At UCLA, I used to go to the Botanical Garden and more than once sat under the Bo Tree. Until construction encircled our home, I'd trot up the hillside to a vista. Now, I employ music as a miniature method to conjure up another world for me to rest within. On a bus or train, my iPod does for me what a mantra or rosary might-- it keeps me separated by a chant. It's translated into an underlying sound and varied rhythm to align my thoughts and moods.

Friars chose municipal residences to care for the poor filling the new cities. Monks sought the countryside. I can see why the Order of Preachers and Friars Minor both wearied of their noisy establishments and began retreating to the forests as the Benedictines and Cistercians had preceded them. It's like Benedict leaving Rome, Bruno resigning Cologne, Bernard turning away from Paris. It's hard to be a saint in the city, a later troubadour during my own adolescence warbled.

After nearly half a century in one of the fastest growing places on earth, I long increasingly for the woods. Wherever I am, I'm reflecting again on my interest in death and its terrors. It's less academic and more personal, this decade around. Reading aloud to a sullen Niall and a somnolent Layne "War & Peace" in Anthony Briggs' (more spirited than Constance Garnett's but not drastically less British and elegant) translation, I noticed twice in a few pages characters nattering on about how they were getting ready to kick the bucket. Why? They had passed the age of fifty.

I mused to doubtlessly bewildered engineers and accountants-to-be (although I just got an e-mail from one of them asking my advice on poetry that he'd like!) yesterday about the Tolstoy passages. These I contrasted with Ray Kurzweil's futurist utopia of "near-immortal" (who'd be happy with that? Tiresias wasn't.) life expectancies by "reverse-engineering" our brains to fool our metabolism. A century ago, in Garnett's time, 48 was the average span; it may have been less in Tolstoy's 1860s and probably around 35 during the reign of Napoleon, I surmise.

Now, the age of forty-five, half-a-decade past what's the usual moment of truth already, really had hit me hard. Perhaps because my father was nearly ninety, and I'd passed that halfway mark, this seemed to bring all the contemplation of memento mori that supposedly others gained at forty. That year dragged by, and I was filled with discontent, winter and summer. Sleep often came only grudgingly after I'd pondered my fate in the midnight silence. I've tried two years since then to seek a more positive mental condition, brought about not by pills but by mindfulness (as my friend Bob put it), not by nostrums but by nachas (as my wife would put it). I have not succeeded totally nor will I ever.

Yet, my soul's gravitation towards enlightenment and my mind's tilt towards skepticism contend in a psychomachia to rival medieval Everyman's. (I played a bespectacled and schoolboy-capped "Knowledge" in my high school production of this drama, one of the last consolers of the protagonist to leave him as he succumbs.) However, I have tried to look within for my potential power to overcome a deeply and perhaps largely genetically imprinted pessimism. They say Irish suffer greatly from this malady-- despite or in spite of drink-- and Catholicism no doubt enhanced the impact of this ancestral predilection. My upbringing with a family of dour, insular, and stoic misfits undoubtably did not assist my natural bent.

So, my rather divergent reading on "the art of dying" lately tells me that I still seek my path through my own middle-aged dark forest. It's perhaps a dozen years after Dante's journey-- adjusted for my longer lifespan?
"Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ ché la dirrita via era smaritta." (I:1-3).
"In the middle of the journey of our life,/ I found myself in a dark wood/ for the straight way was lost."

Note that Dante first speaks for us all, with the biblical, non-Mosaic, estimate of three score and ten for a good run in the old days. You live long enough, you begin to understand what you were assigned in college or grad school to trudge through. My erudition may be as arcane as Alighieri's, my verse far poorer, my heart much less certain of redemption's hope. Yet, I hear songs and see sights he never had despite all his imaginary skill and political experience. But, I myself, as perhaps some of you who read this, share his sense of exile. Perhaps we must never quite fit into the secular realm, as we fumble towards the shadow, the glow, and the grey state of in-between, searching for the way out. The awakened state, paradise with angels or nirvana with buddhas, we still long to behold.

Gustave Doré's engraving from a fine collection of Dante's Images of the Inferno, Jennifer Emick, Alternative Religions. The Dark Forest

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For the life of me I can't find an email address for you . . .
Aon seans go sheolfá do sheoladh chugam? Manchán