Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Hell other people?

Sartre's "No Exit" judgment leaves me wondering. "Why the Dalai Lama Matters," today's treadmill reading for me, unexpectedly offers an alternative definition. "A hell-being is a fully alienated, self-isolated being, almost totally barricaded against all other life forms. In the effort to ward off contact with other beings due to fear and hatred of them, the being has imprisoned itself in a defensive iron shell that has become a prison, under the extreme pressure of trying to avoid the entire universe of others." (20)

Robert Thurman discusses Buddhist physics, psychology, and biology; these subjects seem so arcane to our rational Western ways that he uses well the analogy of Neo in "The Matrix" to help us understand how a liberated being can assist others in breaking free. I also wonder if Keanu Reeves, like Richard Gere often perhaps unfairly lambasted for his combination of winning looks and laid-back demeanor a follower of the philosophy of the Dalai Lama, may in fact prove ideal actors to portray such agents of change.

Anyhow, back to the hellish aspect, I realize we need to get off the mental treadmill. I've been feeling felled by the penalties imposed upon me by others lately, and I rail against injustice. As we all do, selfishly or righteously. However, ultimately we can't blame others as prisoners often do. Living within our own high-security protective custody, we begin daily to fortify our own hell. I've been reading-- and dreaming-- about prison lately, and this topic dovetails nicely, as a couple of my cyber-correspondents have noted, with long-term interests of mine.

These in turn help elucidate this revision of Sartre. Rather than as Wire sang, "Two People in a Room," he gave us three; that existentialist drama showed us a triangle without ends or limits, turning away from one corner, one person, to jab the other, and then down and back and over again geometrically and eternally. U2 mused about being "stuck in a moment you can't get out of." This fits Sartre, but also Thurman.

Despite my decade spent coming out of my own private hell in grad school, where my UCLA professor consigned us all as "neurotic egotists," with a doctoral dissertation 500 pages and 500 sources on the "idea of purgatory in Middle English Literature," I never defined hell as neatly as does Uma's father, one of the Dalai Lama's first American followers. We sentence ourselves to our own penalty; no god dumps us there and tosses the key. Read Alexander Theroux's frustrating "An Adultery" for a contemporary description of how we make our own impermeable psychic fortress, within which we shut ourselves away; his novels show how even the brainiest of us easily collude in our own smug isolation. Solitary, the "Special Housing Unit," the Box: it's California's supermax Pelican Bay Penitentiary as our mausoleum in perpetuity.

Around 1990, my wife and I saw "The Rapture," that like Keanu and Gere got savaged by film critics-- and the miniscule audience with whom we saw it-- but which to me despite cheesy special effects on a limited budget dared to show Armageddon and the Second Coming as totally harshing up a typically spaced-out slutty Angeleno's mellow. It had a very effective ending. The heroine (unfortunately Mimi Rogers hearkened to the gospel peddled by a certain former sci-fi hack whose money-making cult esteemed by her and ex-husband Tom C. will go unmentioned for fear of lawsuits and my hard drive being absconded) decided to be left alone in hell, all alone, for refusing to bow down to the demands of a cruel, jealous, vengeful God.

Her Promethean defiance fits better the secular humanist resistance to Nobodaddy. It also reminded me of what agnostic maverick Stephen Batchelor in his books "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The Awakening of the West" muses upon. This rejection of the solidity of religious imposition of sin, penalty, and damnation turns into a life-affirming "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" as Van Morrison sang, in Batchelor. He seeks to dismantle the conception for many earlier Europeans, for whom a Buddhist dismissal of the reality of gods and demons, endless hell or heaven frightened even unbelievers. Mistranslating yearning for "nirvana" and going beyond duality of being/not-being to "non-existence" beyond concept as a terrible plunge into nihilism, earlier Westerners often freaked out when exposed to Tibet. Lhasa seemed to repeat Rome's papal panoply while denying its temporal and eternal jurisdiction.

A Borges story parallels and reflects eerily these scholarly encounters, tenured rationalists lured to but then baffled by the Eastern exotically indescribable. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940). I cite near the start.
He had recalled: Copulation and mirrors are abominable. The text of the encyclopedia said: For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe.
It's so wonderful I must cite from the website's parallel text the intriguingly bilingual Spanish too:
Él había recordado: Copulation and mirrors are abominable. El texto de la Enciclopedia decía: Para uno de esos gnósticos, el visible universo era una ilusión o (más precisamente) un sofisma. Los espejos y la paternidad son abominables (mirrors and fatherhood are hateful) porque lo multiplican y lo divulgan.
In "Tlon," the narrator praises "Schopenhauer (el apasionado y lúcido Schopenhauer)" -- but he as Pankaj Mishra in "The End of Suffering" explores, warped Buddha's teaching for Nietzsche and legions of Sartre-worshipping black clad beats and hipsters and profs. I might revamp Mishra into a world-denying, No Fun proto-punk rant by café bohos a century before the Stooges or Johnny Rotten against Starbucks conformity or Crocs comfort.

Donald S. Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La" tends to dismiss Thurman's panegyrics for Buddhist science and the "inner revolution" represented by the spread of dharma by Tibetan "science of the mind." Yet, both agree with Batchelor: we can embrace the Void, knowing we must jump in one day if we wish to free ourselves. This terrifying prospect, as the Buddha might tell us, presents paradoxically our only hope. Mystics in medieval monasteries, Tibetan or Carthusian, as English anchorites walled up in cells or Lhasa adepts scaling the heights of psychic transformation, may concur.

If we want to get straight outta Compton or the Hamptons, we gotta get outta this place if it's the last thing we ever do. Song scraps go through the mind of me the (post-)modern. As prayers and scripture might have for my bogtrotting ancestors. I did find, moving out of my inculcated Catholicism into its Eastern practices during grad school, an affinity with the Orthodox Christian teaching of extrapolating divine emanations as perceived in our realm without ever getting to the essence of the Deity. Likewise, Jewish kabbalastic lore tells of the escaped shards seeking from darkness a return to their created original light. It's telling perhaps that Tibetan Buddhist cosmology centers around five elements, none of which are shown in black, one of which, the triangular representation for "magnetizing heat" in red, shows the power of fire.

This favored depiction for Christian hell, fire rather than Milton's truly chilling "darkness visible" for the demonic pandemonium's utter foundation, shows our attraction and fear of this cutting element able to cauterize us for healing after sharp pain, or to torture us in an afterlife with endless gnaw. I suppose Tibetans hearken towards the therapeutic application of fire to cleanse us from our purgatory, our bardo, to shake us out of our posthumous stupor into leaping, enlightened, from the power of our own pornographic projections of demons and angels.

Christians never got this far. Dante better than the English texts I scoured conceived a more literary, better polished, aesthetic vision, but for the didactic uses to which hell, was and continues to be put by earnest Christians who never read "The Divine Comedy"-- it's a death sentence without parole. Even purgatory got transformed early on into the temporary hell, for why ease up on its inventive jailers with manifold racks, pinions, and pains if you wish to terrify your congregants towards a "scared straight" reform?

I think of the Haunted House tradition among born-again evangelicals that's popular today as a counter-reformation to Catholic-tainted frivolity and godless consumerism on October 31st (and increasingly a month before, for grown-ups as well as small fry.) This pastoral outreach, which Chaucer's pilgrims might well have loved, inverts the Samhain Celtic Otherworld interpenetration of the trans-terrestrial with our mundane sublunary (thanks to my blog-pal linked by me on my blog, "Bo" on "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" and "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie" for reviving that adjective) level.

That's turned into both secular trick-or-treat and, in a clever backlash against the "pagan" marketing of Halloween in the US, into a Grand Guignol re-creation of abortionists, atheists, and probably Buddhists and Catholics among those consigned, with rich make-up and cool strobes and gothic get-ups from Hot Topic, into a Mystery Play medievally evocative enactment of the Hellfire Sermon of Joyce's Jesuits. Even Chaucer failed to include in his Canterbury Tales a preacher's tale so vivid; his Church had five centuries more to sharpen its scary stories for the young and old.

Chaucer may have been the first Englishman to read Italian and tentatively have been exposed to Dante, but as far as I could tell, this did not inform his few, rather pro-forma, mentions of purgatory. Purgatory, with its distant, reluctant admission of a doctrinal necessity for a happy ending lacking from "No Exit," "An Adultery," or "The Rapture" (I never bothered with the final installment of the Matrix trilogy: should I?), always lacked the frisson gained by the bogeyman of the slasher film equivalent of the eternally recurring demonic Lucifer, Freddy or Jason.

We all squirm to consign whomever we most despise to greedy, unquenchable Gehenna. Capital punishment's a cop-out for those ending their film's perfect script of a Clint Eastwood avenging angel turned devil. We stock hell with the satisfaction we lack in this life, where parolees, judges, and Democrats letting so-and-so get away with murder. Literarily or psychologically, we long to lash out and restore the balance that Manichean good-evil contention withholds from our weakened mortal grasp. We stock that prison deep down below our stamping feet with Manson, Hitler and Caesar, Stalin and Nixon, Saddam and your boss, Satan and his Lord of the Flies. I'll end my infernal excursus today with a snatch from the prologue to "The Summoner's Tale." The summoner gets his back at the friar. "Hold up thy tail, thou Satanas,' quoth he, 'Shew forth thine erse, and let the friar see/ Where is the nest of friars in this place.'"

Photo: Saen Sok Temple, Thailand: hell as a diorama at a monastic theme park. In "The Hells: 'Niraya' ('unhappy')" American Buddhist Journal: Wisdom Quarterly. 10/4/2008. A helpful compendium of entries on many topics at this blog, even if you somehow cannot comment on any of them! Sort of like talking to the Big Guy Upstairs? One-way communication, as far as we can articulate. The answers may come back as unspoken. Maybe this blog's authored by an unseen incarnation of a buddha after all.

P.S. Inevitable cross-references. I've reviewed Theroux's novels, Gere's audiotape reading of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs," Mishra & Lopez on Amazon US and this blog the past year. I will soon add "Awakening" and Thurman's book reviewed to both places; "Awakening"'s already up on Amazon.

1 comment:

Tony Bailie said...

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is my favourite Borges story... I reread it just a few weeks ago, in English although I loved the Spanish quote you ran.