August 3, 2020

What We Don't Want to Think About

In order to delay my seemingly inevitable slide into terminal torpor, I have taken up a new form of exercise that I commend to you all: reading. Of course, you may have heard of this delightful avocation: I can't claim that it is an original discovery. But if my life has entered a stage where dullness is my daily bread, I can tell you that lately I have been feasting on some books that are anything but dull. They are the fuel for my mind that happily distracts me from the sorrows of my body and also keeps me from over-indulging in the unpalatable pap that the cable news networks feed us every day to induce gloom and despair.

Just last night, for instance, I finally finished another tome – this one ran to more than 700 pages – by one of my favorite authors, Mark Helprin, whose books I have extolled in previous blogs. This novel, which he called In Sunlight and in Shadow, is not one of his best – I would give it four stars – but it has plenty of excitement and, like all of his books, is beautifully written, as you would expect from such a master stylist as Helprin. Perhaps too beautifully written in some ways, but then this is not meant to be a book review. Nevertheless, I need to tell you a little about the story in order to lay the groundwork for what will follow. 

The novel is set in 1946 in New York – the book is in part a rapturous hymn to the city where the author was born – a year after the ending of World War II. The hero of the story, Harry Copeland, spent four years in the war, in Europe, as a paratrooper. The book has a complex plot, which I won't attempt to summarize, but the chapters that deal with Copeland's time in battle are incredibly gripping; the author makes you feel you are there with Copeland, surrounded not just by ever-present danger, but with death all around as he sees some of his buddies die. Helprin's writing about war (and he has been a soldier himself), especially in his greatest novel, A Soldier of the Great War, is, to my mind, supreme among contemporary American novelists. You don't just read Helprin's novels; you live them.

So, yes, reading and living in Helprin's world for so long did bring a great deal of excitement, however vicarious, into mine. And the effects linger. After you put his books down, they leave their mark on you.

Still, it is not Helprin I want to write about here. Instead, I want to introduce you to another writer who I suspect not many of you have ever heard of, much less read. His name is Gregor von Rezzori. (I do not hear many bells ringing.)   

Gregor, as I shall call him (though he was Gricha to his friends), was not just an outstanding novelist; he was a phenomenon. In addition to his work as a novelist, he was a memoirist, author of radio plays, screenwriter as well as a film actor (he appeared in films with such well known actors as Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Marcello Mastroianni and the French singer, Charles Aznavour), journalist, visual artist, art critic and art collector. He was fluent in many languages, too, including German, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, French and English. 

What a guy, eh? Apparently, the only art he didn't master was that of archery.

He was born in 1914 – the year World War I began – in a little town near the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Romania, but not far from Ukraine. (Before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he and his family thought of themselves as Austrians.) As you can tell by the "von" in his name, his family was reasonably well-to-do, though not wealthy. But they had servants, and little Gregor grew up with a nanny, a peasant named Cassandra, to whom he was very close.

I will not take the time to trace his career, which took him to Vienna, Bucharest, Berlin (where he was during World War II), Paris, and, ultimately, to Italy where he died, much beloved, in 1998. 

I first heard of him when reading about him in an essay by  a charming French writer, Emmanuel Carrère, of whom I am a fan. It was in that essay that I read about an article that had first brought him international fame when it was published as a story in The New Yorker in 1969. Subsequently published as a book entitled Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, I was intrigued by its title, so I immediately ordered it.

It's not what you think. Gregor is not an anti-Semite. His book consists of an interlocking series of five very powerful stories in which the main character (never the same person) has a fateful and often devastating encounter with a Jew. The book packs a wallop and is really designed to show how the kind of casual everyday anti-Semitism that was rife in Europe between the wars, and so quietly but fatally insidious, was the tinder that would soon be ignited and cause the Holocaust that was to follow. Knowing what was to come, as the characters in the book do not, one reads it with a shudder.

That book got me hooked on Gregor, so I ordered one of his autographical books, and it's really that book, or rather one incident in that book, that I want to focus on now. It's one that will also finally begin to put this essay into focus for you and give you your second clue as to what it's all about.  

When Gregor was about eight something happened to bring his childhood to a close. I will let him describe just what occurred to him at that time. It concerns his magpie.   
My magpie died. One afternoon she lay dead in her cage. That very morning she had been hopping around gaily as ever. I could not believe that this cold and rigid piece of rubbish that lay in the sandy gravel at the bottom of her cage was she. I trembled with sorrow. My sister was all eagerness to arrange a funeral, but Cassandra with bewildering roughness forbade any such un-Christian nonsense and saw to it that the little corpse was discarded with the garbage. In doing so, she was seconded by my mother, who thought the magpie died of tuberculosis and might possibly infect us; this only increased my grief. For the first time, Cassandra was not my ally. My lamentations were for naught. Cassandra remained peremptory, as if faced by the unavoidable fact of life and death, her unbroken peasant sense of reality revolted against citified fussing. "Dead is dead," she said gruffly. "One day you will be dead."
Had she said what surely I had heard before – "You too will have to die one day" – it would have remained abstract. When hearing such sentences, comprehension glanced off from the purely verbal, but "being dead" meant what was clearly manifest by the bird's corpse on the garbage heap. I understood.
Terror struck at me like a dead weight. I saw myself stretched out on my bed, rigid and cold, rubbishy in my cements, rotting underneath, something to be discarded as quickly as possible, like the dead magpie. Around me stood my sobbing family. I saw the hearse carrying me away and, behind, my sister in black veils, triumph in her eyes dutifully red from crying. I saw my grave and my dog refusing to leave it. All this was unavoidable, inescapable. It could happen tomorrow or many years on – but it had to happen, and against that no revocation or merciful exception was possible. I was overcome with great fear … Wherever I would go, this fear would go with me. This death fear would henceforth be with me, inextinguishably and forever, and would hollow out my whole being.  
In my utter despair I asked Cassandra whether this was truly so. Cassandra was incorruptible. "Everything has to die," she said. "Your father, too, and your mother and your sister, and I too, we all have to die one day!" And I knew she was telling the truth: Cassandra, the seeress.
And, of course, it's just that that we don't want to think about. Not just death in the abstract, but the ineluctable fact that that we – that you – are going to die. And with the doomsday cloud of COVID hanging over us, maybe sooner than you had ever thought. Sure, no one wants to think about death, especially dying as a result of contracting COVID, which, from all we have heard and seen, is an absolutely horrible and frightening way to die. Why think about such a terrifying specter? Things are bad enough without frightening ourselves – pardon the black pun – to death.

But, be honest, how can we avoid doing so when every day on MSNBC or CNN or the nightly national news we are bombarded with the latest number of people who have died in the U.S.? Every day now, another thousand or so, as the number of the dead climbs beyond 150,000, with no end in sight. As I wrote in my last blog, "Death is all around us and, literally, in the air."

Obviously, there is no way we can really avoid this subject, but there is another way to think about it. And in the rest of this essay, I would like to offer one for your consideration. In effect, it is my reply to little Gregor's anguished cry of despair after he learns that he, too, will die. 

Two Perspectives on Death

Consider the way most of us over the age of thirty were socialized, consciously or not, to think about death. Perhaps our first exposure to death was like Gregor's – the death of a beloved pet. Or to human death by overhearing a whispered conversation about the death of a family member. Or to take a more traumatic example, we might have been involved in an automobile accident in which one of our companions was killed. As a result, the searing memory of this person's shattered and bloodied body, lying partially covered by a blanket on the roadside, might thereafter be the origin of a powerfully charged image of death.

It is hardly necessary to resort to further such situations to appreciate how we are typically educated to understand death. Plainly, we learn to view death from the outside. We are always spectators to death; obviously, we think, we can never experience our own death – we can only imagine it. Thinking of death in this way, as our example from little Gregor shows, it is natural to fear it, even to be repulsed by it, and to avoid the subject as if it were still under some kind of dreaded cultural taboo.

Consider next, however, the understanding of death suggested by near-death research. This is an interior view of death. It is based on the direct experiences that many thousands of people have reported when they almost die, or when they do die clinically. The great unanimity of these testimonies means that there is now a consensus emerging concerning what it is like to die. And what these near-death experiencers are telling us is that the external view of death is only a part of the story, and hardly the whole picture. What death looks like to an external observer is not what it feels like when you go through the process of dying.

Let's pause to consider a couple of representative illustrative accounts of what it's like to experience death.
This INCREDIBLE feeling of peace [came] over me ... All of a sudden there was no pain, just peace. I suppose it's because it's so completely unlike anything else that I've ever experienced in my life that I've got nothing to compare it to. A perfectly beautiful, beautiful feeling ... to me, there's a definite feeling of sunlight and warmth associated with this beautiful feeling. But when this feeling of peace came over me, I was warm. I felt warm, safe, happy, relaxed, just every wonderful adjective you could use ... This was perfection, this is everything anyone could possibly want and everything I could possibly want.
... the thing I could never – absolutely never forget is that absolute feeling of peace, joy, or something ... I remember the feeling. I just remember this absolutely beautiful feeling. Of peace ... and happy! Oh! So happy! ... The peace ... the release. The fear was all gone. There was no pain. There was nothing. It was just absolutely beautiful! It was a feeling that I think everybody dreams of someday having. Reaching a point of ABSOLUTE peace.
The literature on NDEs is now replete with many accounts of the kind I have just quoted. You can find them in any number of books on the subject. Some of the best collections of NDE cases that I know are in books like David Sunfellow's The Purpose of Life or Jeff's Janssen's 10 Life-Changing Lessons from Heaven.

Again, it is not necessary to multiply such testimonies to understand how this interior view of death can become a potent anodyne to many people who are either facing death themselves or who have to cope with the death of a loved one. To know that there is indeed more to death than meets the eye and that what cannot be seen is a kind of perfection that must be understood is to have great peace of mind in the presence of death.

Of course, all this does not banish the undeniable fact that the process of dying itself – which we know in cases of COVID-caused death can be ghastly beyond words – can often be difficult to bear for the dying person. The interior view of death supplements – it does not supplant – the external perspective. But when death finally comes, if we can trust the accounts of NDErs, all the pain vanishes, and the person is then suffused with a feeling of peace, joy and homecoming that even the greatest poet would be unable to capture in the net of words, however sublime.   

What NDEs Teach Us About What Life Is

There is more, much more, we can learn from accounts of NDEs, and not just about death.  Consider the implications from one NDEr, Joe Geraci, whom I knew well when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut. During Joe's NDE he recounts that for him it was...
A total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security ... I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It's difficult to describe; as a matter of fact, it's impossible to describe. Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It's something which becomes you and you become it. I could say, "I was peace, I was love." I was the brightness, it was part of me ... You just know. You're all-knowing – and everything is a part of you – it's just so beautiful.

It was eternity. It's like I was always there and I will always be there, and my existence on earth was just a brief instant.
I have often reflected on these last words of Joe's. I have now lived well into my eighties – much longer than I had ever expected. I have had a long and very full life. And yet from the perspective of NDEs, I have just descended from an eternal realm to dip my toes into the sands of time for what seems to be all these years, only to return to that eternal realm, my true home, from which my life will seem just like a blip in time.  

Whoa! When I think about my life from this perspective – or when you think about yours – what is life, and what is death? It's not just that death is not what it seems, but  neither is life. From this point of view, death is an illusion and life is a kind of dream from which physical death awakens us. According to NDErs like Joe, we are living in a dream world.

Consider these testimonies from other NDErs. I know most of these people myself, or in the cases of all but one am very familiar with their writings. But I am indebted to David Sunfellow for extracting these excerpts for me.
When I recovered, I was very surprised and yet very awed about what had happened to me. At first all the memory of the trip that I have now was not there. I kept slipping out of this world and kept asking, "Am I alive?" This world seemed more like a dream than that one.

I knew that I'd been underwater too long to be alive, but I felt more alive than I've ever felt. It all felt more real than anything has felt on earth.

And yet the more I went over my medical records and my experiences with my doctors, the more I came to realize that there is no way that this brain, so devastated by bacterial meningitis, could have manufactured any of that. It should have been a state of nothingness, with the near-destruction of my neocortex. And yet it was much more like the blinders coming off and an awakening to a far richer, more vibrant and alive reality than the one in this world.

It is impossible to convey the beauty and intensity of emotion during those visions. They were the most tremendous things I have ever experienced. And what a contrast the day was: I was tormented and on edge; everything irritated me; everything was too material, too crude and clumsy, terribly limited both spatially and spiritually. It was all an imprisonment, for reasons impossible to divine, and yet it had a kind of hypnotic power, a cogency, as if it were reality itself, for all that I had clearly perceived its emptiness.

Suddenly, not knowing how or why, I returned to my broken body. But miraculously, I brought back the love and the joy. I was filled with an ecstasy beyond my wildest dreams. Here, in my body, the pain had all been removed. I was still enthralled by a boundless delight. For the next two months, I remained in this state, oblivious to any pain.

Although it's been 20 years since my heavenly voyage, I have never forgotten it. Nor have I, in the face of ridicule and disbelief, ever doubted its reality. Nothing that intense and life-changing could possibly have been a dream or hallucination. To the contrary, I consider the rest of my life to be a passing fantasy, a brief dream, that will end when I again awaken in the permanent presence of that giver of life and bliss.

In this short essay, we have traveled a long way from the writings of Mark Helprin and Gregor von Rezzori that treat death as something vividly and frighteningly real after which we came to the findings of NDE research from which death can be seen from still another perspective in which it has the face of the Beloved. Such a view can, I believe, be profoundly reassuring in these days of COVID because it makes it clear that however terrible death may appear, it is not what it seems, or, more accurately, not only that.

But, finally, when we arrive at testimonies like that of Joe Geraci and the other NDErs I have cited, we find that life is apparently not what it seems either. However "real" it appears to our senses, we are victims of a kind of delusion. In fact, we are living in a dream world and it is only when we die that we awaken from the dream into true life.

1 comment:

  1. Ken, thank you so much for all your hard work & pioneering research over the years ... and now for continuing to offer these encouraging & uplifting words. I so appreciate this blog - it is a blessing!