Can these bones live?

This blog will be eleven years old soon. As I have continued my time out from online communication I have seriously considered abandoning it but have decided to continue. Not to belabor the point, I have decided it is enough to have a few readers—and not enough, merely, but fortunate for a man at my time of life. So, I’ll go on. This reflection began last December as what I originally conceived as the second of a series of Advent pieces. But things intervened, and since we are now approaching Lent, I am thinking through these paragraphs anew as an anticipation of Ash Wednesday, though my present mind is filled with memories as well.

It is an overcast Sunday afternoon in early December. I am perhaps fourteen. As I sit in in a choir rehearsal that is my first serious experience of Handel’s Messiah at First Baptist Church in my hometown, a lone, lovely tenor voice cries out “Comfort Ye My People.” I have written about this more than once before, how the beauty of that singing so imprinted those words in my memory that I cannot recall them without Handel’s music. But this year I recall them as the opening words of Isaiah 40 and as the initial text in the Advent II lectionary that opens a figure to be given provisional completion in the first Chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord strides over the hills dressed like a wild man to proclaim the timelessness of God and the ultimate victory of righteousness in history. These things I leave aside as Socrates did at the conclusion of the Apology, for at the moment I am thinking of the many times in my life when voices have seemed to cry out of the wilderness. The great open of nature is not without the ability to speak; and even if that speech is but the echo of my own voice or of the multitudinous voices of culture, I continue to find meaning in it and to resist attempts to reduce it to neurons or algorithms as a species of futurism most popularly represented by the books of Yuval Noah Harari attempts to do.

It seems to me that such echoes are not chimeras. Here’s another memory from around 1958. I am sitting on the stage floor with a few other choristers at the Dallas State Fair Music Hall listening to the renowned Greek Bass, Nicola Zacaria, rehearse, almost a religious experience. As that great black sound filled the hall I seemed to be at the center of an almost cosmic reverberance. The Music Hall is no acoustical marvel—it seats upwards of 3500. But empty that afternoon it seemed almost to be a great viol and the voice reverberating the speech of near divinity. My feelings and whatever algorithms may have been involved in producing them were responsible for only part of it. Other humans were involved as well, a Steinway, the hall with its reverberant space and its many surfaces, mostly not visible as the rehearsal space was lit by a couple of work lights and the rest was dark.

On a Sunday afternoon some years before I had traveled back to college in Dallas from Abilene reading King Lear, the coming week’s assignment in my Shakespeare class. It was a gray December day—West Texas, as usual, surrounding me on the train, flashing by my coach’s dirty windows with its hardscrabble images of scrub oak, yucca, sawgrass and mesquite. It was raining. As I followed the old, mad king and the Duke of Gloucester into the storm ridden heath the voices of Shakespeare’s characters began to surround me as well, and I was in that place where Edgar prevents his father’s suicide. Of my thousand thousand direct experiences of what we call art for want of a better holistic term, this one has always intrigued me most since it was compounded of a complex local habitation having many names, to paraphrase another of Shakespeare’s characters.

A magnitude of algorithms must indeed have been involved in my experience of culture that Sunday afternoon, but to claim that the experience was reducible to those algorithms entails at least two larger claims that I think are false. The first is that our complex holistic experiences of the world are illusory, and the second is that materiality itself is illusory. Neither claim is new, but the first mistakes the abstract for the essential, as I think Plato did. And though the second claim figures in the histories of Neoplatonism and Buddhism, it has a pretty poor record among the followers of Mary Baker Eddy. The fact that the world appears in different guises as we move from one scale of observation to another offers no means to discriminate between the relative realities of our various mediated perceptions. If one is illusory then perhaps all are illusory and we are enclosed in a prison of subjectivity—this isn’t a new idea either.

But I am inclined to think that all are real. Even out and out hallucinations carry casts of reality, as do fictions; though the last thing I want to do is to debunk real science, especially since research into the ramifications of the various genetic codes we are beginning to understand does perhaps have the potential to help us overcome famine (at least on the supply side) and is already finding new treatments that help with the management of various cancers and other auto-immune diseases. Still, to extrapolate the entire history of humanity and an entire cosmology from a trendy area of applied science seems unscientific to me, even if I put aside my Christian humanism for a bit as I think about it. And we can’t just bracket the physicality of our experiences. In the recent surgeries I have undergone it was important for me to be able to tell my surgeons when and where I experienced pain. Relieving my pain required the surgeons’ knowledge of my body’s mechanisms for producing pain, but my holistic experiences signified; and I’m very glad that my surgeons did not treat them as illusions produced by my mortal sense.

Of course we are only beginning to understand pain; and our technologies, sophisticated as they are becoming, do not yet enable us to relieve all forms and experiences of suffering. But I am unable to imagine any scenario for the continuation of pain research that does not involve some component of self-reporting. Moreover, when a physician asks me about pain she’s not asking me to get in touch with my feelings: she wants to know where and how much it hurts. And the need for that knowledge calls up the entire materiality of my body. Pace Isaiah, I think we humans are more like dirt than like grass. Genesis tells us the first human was fashioned out of dirt, as the liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us. Dirt is a mystery, like pain, like bodies. We can neither create nor replicate topsoil, as Wendell Berry has taught me. And at the other end of the spectrum even Harari admits that though we can now create artificial intelligences that perform some kinds of data processing projects better than humans can, we cannot give them consciousness.

Harari seems ambivalent about his projections. In a handful of paragraphs sprinkled throughout his books he seems to regard them as dystopian, but the weight of his text has the character of gee-whiz popular science. One of his curious predictions is that this current century will produce humans who have been rendered amortal by postmodern medicine. Such folk could die accidentally: they could be run over by trucks, for instance. But they will be immune to death by disease and ageing. If parts of their bodies fail, these can be replicated prosthetically or by stem cell technology. Any emotional problems they might encounter as a consequence of extreme longevity can be solved by drug therapies.

I agree with Harari that some humans may desire amortality but can’t imagine wanting it myself—even if the possibility were something more than than the plaything of a greedy, super-rich few, as Dara Horn has pointed out in a recent New York Times SundayReview essay. I’ve never tried to flesh out my thinking about this before, taking something like Wallace Stevens’ “Death is the mother of beauty” as a sufficient ground. I still love “Sunday Morning,” but I am as vaguely unsatisfied with its affirmations now as its protagonist is with conventional claims to transcendence. I will think about this as I think about returning to dust again this year, returning to the inert substratum of manifest life, as I will one day. The Lord’s question to Ezekiel,”Can these bones live,” and the prophet’s answer, “Lord, you alone know,” taken together might evoke something more than a world that is constantly coming to be out of that which is not, the one unimaginable without the other. We may, as Stevens puts it, “live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night” but I am attracted to the idea that we may live in an another kind of interim, which however we image it, as a handbreadth (Psalm 39) or a journey (Odysseys’ return) or a waiting (Julian of Norwich), or some other—in its very temporariness (or temporality) asks of us and of the life and time containing us, that we not forget the mortal in our desire for being lest we embrace an ideology of being that undermines being itself.

Moreover, “Can these bones live” may be a crucial question for us in the twenty-first century as well as for me as my time grows shorter, a question we might well ask ourselves as we contemplate the continued ruin of the planet by extractive technology. I’m tninking in a way I don’t entirely understand that the idea of amortality may be one possible terminus of extractive thinking and thus an embrace of nothingness as the human goal of postmodernity. The abandonment of mortality by a heroic few seems of a piece with the abandonment of the poor by the rich, the powerless by the powerful, the unlovely by the lovely.

Advent I: Wachet Auf

There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

First, about birthdays: as threatened, I survived my eightieth back in August. But as I didn’t anticipate, I felt the need of a long time out. For a while the need puzzled me. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I knew I was experiencing some life change, the kind of thing Gail Sheehy called a passage in her popular self-help book of the 1970s. Sheehy didn’t have anything to say about reaching my age back then, but she has more recently written another book in which she opines about the years between ages 45 and 85 as a “second adulthood.”

I’m resisting this second Sheehy book, but I have needed to think about what was changing in my life or perhaps what had already changed without my marking it. And my need for a time out is in itself a change. It’s been like being on a retreat, something I’ve not needed (or not felt I needed) in the past. I’ve been doing something like what Isaiah calls waiting upon the Lord, though I’ve mostly resisted church during my time out. I don’t want the formal closures of doctrine, scripture, or liturgy at present. I’m rather trying to attend to what a medieval author called a cloud of unknowing.

And here presently I’m writing mostly about the attending. I continue to wait, and the waiting is slow. I’m an intuitive person. Intuition isn’t always lightning fast: indeed the big intuitions almost always come slowly, piece by piece. But on the other hand I’m quite clear about what triggered my time out; though the clarity came after the fact and as often happens for me, from reading. Looking for something else, I came across this wonderful Homeric simile in one of Robinson Jeffers’ poems.

The future is a misted landscape,
no man sees clearly, but at cyclic turns
There is a change felt in the rhythm of events, as when
an exhausted horse
Falters and recovers, then the rhythm of the running
hoofbeats is changed: he will run miles yet,
But he must fall: we have felt it again in our own life
time, slip, shift, and speed-up
In the gallop of the world; . . . .

I’m shamelessly wrenching this figure out of its context in a political poem entitled “Prescription of Painful Ends.” And as I say, I became aware of the stumbling and recovery only after the fact; so that I can’t say just when these things occurred. I infer their occurrence from the fact that I am coming to think of the remainder of my life just so—as the remainder. And that is a new thing; though I now realize it has been a growing awareness in me for some years.

Dylan Thomas’s “Poem In October” is one of the first modern poems I seriously loved. But I can no longer feel much solidarity with the child evoked there. There was joy in my childhood to be sure, but there were also pain and grief and almost unbearable loss. Last summer my brother and I wandered about the neighborhood in Albuquerque where we lived as small boys just after World War II. When I left Albuquerque’s Monte Vista school in the middle of the fourth grade in 1946, my teacher embraced me and wept. I wept as well but not without some sense of ironic distance, knowing as I did that my teacher’s tears were for a boy who had lost his father.

I am no longer that boy, but I loved wandering the halls of my former school back in August with my beloved. Along the way we happened on a couple of rascally boys late for an outdoor class meeting. “We’re busted,” said one—“We’re so busted!” exclaimed the other as they ran past us. A few minutes later we observed them sneaking into the back of a class meeting outdoors on a fine day that happened to be the first day of school. This, among timeless things, resonates like the clock on my mantelpiece. But what vista opens for me now, at eighty? Both my brother and I recalled being sent to the principal’s office at Monte Vista school because we had been caught playing in a small grove of trees that were for some reason off limits, the very grove of trees indeed, in which we observed those boys settling at the back of their class.

Mutatis mutandis . . . surely a part of the point is that one’s love of the world, my love of the world, need not diminish, has not diminished, with age—other things being equal that is. But I am fortunate. Many of my friends and colleagues have not been so fortunate. My doctor, who I sometimes think is too young to be the excellent professor of medicine that she is, reminds me that my job at eighty is to work at retaining my health. Good advice to a fortunate man for whom the future perhaps remains an open question, the rhythm of the running out of life not yet slipped into terminal illness or dementia or misanthropy.

Thus, the gospel injunction to remain awake at first Advent arrives when I am already sleepless, and if not glad of it at least content. It isn’t what the Te Deum terms the sharpness of death, or its prospect, but the openness of life to that prospect that gives new meaning to me at eighty.

—more to come . . .