Monday, May 18, 2015

Musings on my Purple Notebook and Mortality

Now that I've published all of my famous purple notebook, and that it seemed to get pretty good readership 'statistics'-- as well as some kind comments-- I find mysef feeling mingled satisfaction and regret. Satisfaction, that such an idiosyncratic and personal treasury should be of interest to anyone. Regret, that I did not expand upon more of the entries. I know many of them are cryptic in the extreme, even with explanations. I think many of them would have taken a whole essay to explain. And I think it might have been a good essay in many cases. Still, I might have taken a month or more elaborating on them all. (Or-- to use the hideous contemporary term-- 'unpacking' them.)

The whole thing is an interesting subject to me. I was very lonely and withdrawn growing up, so I spent a lot of time engaged in my internal dialogue. And one of the constant 'debates' in my internal dialogue was-- should writing be introspective, or more outward-looking? Writing about one's own preoccupations is in constant danger of becoming navel-gazing. On the other hand, always trying to guess what other people will find pleasing or interesting can lead to soullessness and dullness, because there is no spark. Of course, the ideal is to strike a balance, but what balance? The surprise to me, on this blog, is that sometimes, when I am most personal and eccentric-- when I push the boat out the most-- it seems to go down particularly well.

My suspicion is that those inspirations that are most personal and elusive and difficult to explain are often-- if you track them to their lairs-- the ones that will speak to other people the most.

My articles in The Catholic Voice (which are under the title "The View from the Pew: Diary of a Catholic Layman") are usually a little over two thousand words long and, for the most part, are similarly personal and rather introspective, though of course, on appropriate subjects, and not nearly as eccentric as my blog.

Professing Christianity adds another dimension to this question. Christianity certainly seems like a religion of self-renunciation. "And now I live, not I, but Christ in me". "He who seeks his life shall lose it." So at times I have thought, Enough of the chasing of personal will-o'-the-wisps-- proclaim the Word! And yet Christ also said, "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of Heaven brings out of his store-house things both old and new."

Attending my friend's memorial service yesterday had (inevitably) a big effect on me, and is fuelling my musing on these matters-- well, on everything, really. It was a humanist funeral and I posted this on Facebook:

Having been to a humanist funeral today makes me muse on the reason I find the secular, materialist or rationalistic account of reality unconvincing. There are lots of reasons, actually, and some are purely philosophical. But at a basic existential level it does not convince me. The mountaineer and Catholic apologist Arnold Lunn expresses it well:

"I still remember vividly the moment when I threw aside materialism for ever. I was nineteen at the time. I was just returning from a glorious day among the mountains. The rope had been discarded and we were smoking a quiet pipe on a little pass a few thousand feet above the valley plunged in the rich gloom of the Alpine twilight.

"The evening breeze served as a soft pedal to the music of a glacier stream which faded into piano when the wind rose. Sixty miles away the white bar of the Oberland snows saluted the setting sun. The golden glow of evening subdued the strong lines of the mountains, and confused the issue of separate and successive slopes. A white speck that was Chilon showed against the purple of the lake. The whole vast shadowed landscape seemed to be haunted by an all-pervading sense of something of which visible beauty was only the sacramental expression. I thought of Hackel’s dusty nonsense and laughed aloud. And from that moment I discarded materialism forever."

Lunn says later: "Such an experience has no apologetic value. The Alpine sunset was important, not as evidence of truth, but as a sign-post pointing to truth." I'm not sure it has NO apologetic value. I will say that the naturalistic account of existence seems TINNY to me-- like a small, cheap radio-- as compared to listening to a lush soundscape, like the dawn chorus. We have a sense of the sublime, transcendental, exalted, numinous, sacred etc. Where on earth did we get it? Why? How can the greater have come from the lesser? How can colour come from black and white? How can depth arise in a two-dimensional universe? I suppose this is a variant of C.S. Lewis's Argument from Desire.

I have been to two secular memorial services in a row now. (The first was my cousin's. There were no clerics present-- it was conducted by someone from the funeral home. My friend's was conducted by an officer of the Humanist Association of Ireland.) Both of them were tasteful and sober, but they leave one with a sense of emptiness. In both cases there were pop songs played instead of hymns. (I use the term 'pop songs' in its widest sense.) In that context-- especially in the Christian chapel where my friend's memorial service was held-- one can't hep but feel conscious of pop music's banality. Thinking about this made me want to never listen to pop music again, but that's a resolution I've made often in my life.

When I'm right up against it-- against mortality, and the fact that every day might be my last-- I just want to spend every moment living up to the high dignity of being human-- of being the only self-aware, rational, imaginative creature that we know about. While I am breathing, I am the "heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time"-- my mind can probe every mystery, survey the utmost extent of time and space, push the boundaries of thought and imagination as far as they can go, try to encapsulate the entire human heritage. It seems a kind of vandalism to spend any time, or least much time, watching game shows or doing cross words or-- listening to heavy metal music.

Maybe the worst thing about life is the way moment runs into moment so that you can't tell them apart. I've always been a champion of the routine and the everyday-- heck, Groundhog Day is my favourite film, and I rather envy its protagonist his predicament. But there's a difference between outward routine and inward routine. Surely every moment should be lived intensely as its own unique experience, even if it's something you've done thousands of times? But I don't achieve this ideal. My purple notebook is a record of memorable inner moments. I wish I had so many more. Maybe it's something that just happens and you can't bring it about. But I sometimes think that, if I was more cultured and more observant and more well-read, I would experience the world in a more nuanced way.

Of course, it's not your internal life but your external life that matters in the end. And of course, as with every memorial service, I left feeling intensely guilty about my own failures to love. But loving, too, seems to be as much a matter of the head than the heart, of judgement as opposed to pure will. It's not just self-conquest or self-renunciation or good intentions. It would be so easy if it was.

I often imagine that an experience of death (and, even though it was the death of a fairly close friend, I won't presume to say 'bereavement') puts life into perspective and gives you a new clarity. And it does, to an extent. But only to an extent. Even when the curtain falls on a life, there is an ambiguity about what exactly happened, what it meant, and what moral there might be for you.

To give an example-- the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008 and gave a famous radio interview where she discussed her decision not to be treated. I didn't hear the interview, but I've read about it. In that interview, or somewhere else, she mentioned her regret at the amount of time she had spent in pubs rather than actually living. That reminds me of an interview I read with the screenwriter and director Shane Black, who had resumed making movies after a long hiatus. He described a protracted period he had spent partying in night-clubs, and admitted that, when apparently living it up in such a way, "you're actually dead"-- and words to that effect.

And yet two of the speakers at my friend's memorial service mentioned the wild nights they had spent with her in a particular Dublin night-club, back in the day, where she had met many of her friends and around which their social lives had revolved for a long time. And it didn't sound like a waste of time or a waste of life at all. It seemed like one of the high-points of a whole life. It seemed like an idyll.

Coming face to face with mortality, proverbially, should motivate you to 'seize the day'-- but how? What do you seize? Do you drop out and become a street poet? Or work harder to provide for your family? Do you aim for the stars, or do you learn to be happy with what you have? Do you live for the moment, or set your sights higher and sacrifice ever more to reach that height? (In Dead Poets' Society, it never seems to occur to Mr. Keating that his students might best 'seize the day' by honouring the discipline and spirit of their school and concentrating on their careers.)

And even if your faith gives you the answer-- "serve Christ and proclaim his Kingdom"-- the question, How? doesn't answer itself. The only answer you come away with is, "Try to make every minute count, whatever you are aiming to do. You don't have any minutes to waste."


  1. I have been listening lately to a lot of the B.B.C.'s podcasts of the wonderful programme 'Composer of the Week' that they put out on Radio 3. I listen as much to hear the composers' biographies as much as the music (in which neither I - nor in fact the presenter, Donald Macleod - have any formal training!). Listening to the the podcast version especially, which is about a fifth of the normal length, gives the sensation of a composer's time running out as I listen, and at the end always feels as if they wrote hardly any music. And I always dread to hear sentences such as 'He began work on a piano concerto... wrote to a friend to say 'It is progressing admirably'... then a few months later 'My dull spirit cannot lift my pen'... the concerto fell by the wayside... the work was never completed'.

    On the other hand there are the words of Bl. Cardinal Newman's prayer - 'Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about.' It is hard to see how the frustrating of an artistic endeavour serves God... but that is where faith and discernment come in, and nobody said they were easy.

  2. Sometimes you read biographies about people who know their end has come and who feel they have done their life's work in time. Chesterton is like that. People who knew him at the end said he gave the impression of knowing his time had come.

    I always think the saddest thing about death is unfulfilled dreams.

  3. Very good article. I've been thinking about this myself a lot lately, but don't really know where to start.

    1. Where to start on what? The best direction for life?

    2. `Yes, how to make the most of it. If I thought about it, there are probably a few things I'd like to do. But usually when I have too many ideas and I think about them too much, I just get bored and stop thinking about them at all.

      Or maybe I have too many ideas, and then I know I won't be able to do them all, so I just give up.

    3. Well, I can't claim I'm any more consistent, or any more focused....