Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Savior

When Henry David Thoreau was a lad of seventeen, he walked down an empty road through a cow-dotted Massachusetts valley. The road forked. And as you might have expected, before each branch stood a woman.

The woman on the right was handsome, stern, dark-haired, and held a hoe in her hand. The other was just as beautiful, but with features mild as silk: her blue eyes and golden hair were crowned with a ring of roses. This one spoke first:

“My road,” she said, “leads downhill into a valley of eternal spring, where there’s a wood cabin for you staffed by nymphs and surrounded by winding gardens. You will never be hungry there, nor will you lack for music and literature. You might complain that there won’t be anything to your life once you’ve gone there. But go. You’ll be shocked at how quickly your superstitions against pleasure fade once you stop contorting your soul into righteousness. For my name is Vice, a name besmirched by narrow-minded Puritans who, unable to achieve real pleasure in their lives, enshrined renunciation and lived on its sickly-sweet exhaust fumes. Reject that narrowness, and live freely with me."

And now the second:

"My road is harsh and rocky and steep. You will forever toil in the ascent, nor can you expect any food and water except what you find buried in the dusty earth. Will you be rewarded? In one sense no: there is nothing here to delight the vulgar senses. But in another sense, there is nothing better for a soul than steady work, an abandoning of the trivial, and the sublimation of the desires to highest reason. Listen! That way is pleasure, but this way is Life."

Henry hesitated for a moment, looked both women in the eye, and then walked right off the road into the open meadow. He sang a tune to the cows as he went. When the road was far behind him, he laid down by a brook and fell asleep—still in his clothes—under a starry sky.

Moral. Ever since Hercules stood perplexed at the crossroads, his eyebrow-crinkling choice between virtue and vice has controlled our thinking for four thousand years. But there are more worlds than either Kant or Wilde could imagine; more meadows to explore than the ones carefully mown by the philosophers. More directly: be decent, and you can go wherever—and do whatever—you want. So have an adventure, but only if you wouldn't prefer sitting by the fire.

The original sin, which wasn't the choice, but the choosing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Lesson in the Lake: On Living and Not Living

The most frightening experience of my life, besides creeping through my bear-filled apartment at midnight to wake up my parents, was the first time I opened my eyes under a lake.

About six years ago, on a bright Maine morning in summer camp, I was swimming with a cohort of fellow fourteen-year-olds across the sunny lake, and having an excellent time. Ordinarily, my fear of open water keeps my eyes tightly shut whenever I duck my head under the surface. (I also keep to breaststroke, which involves plenty of exposure to the open air; plus it’s right-side up.)

This day, on the other hand, my impulsive curiosity got the better of me, and like Orpheus turning to see Eurydice, I stared directly downwards and forced my eyes open. Whereupon I, almost alone among mortals, was given a glimpse into the underworld.

There's nothing down there. Of course, a bass strolls by occasionally in the darkness, but the inhuman strangeness of fish only increases the feeling of isolation. And besides, overwhelmingly, the water is really empty. You can go down and down, and there’s just dark water all the way to the muddy bottom.

And what a lake really is is death—but not the grimly funny, hooded figure in the Seventh Seal. Nor is it the stern servant of God in Exodus. This is death as Solomon and Tolstoy saw it—not a thing, but the opposite of existence. When a person dies, the water insists, she descends into formless darkness, not into a land of happier human society. And the world of the living has its opposite, not in the fevered imaginings of mystics, but in the lakes and oceans that constantly lap our ankles. There are huge realms of emptiness that we can see by just looking down.

If you've never read this, by the way, read it right away.

Though it was harrowing, I'm glad I had my vision. That's because, as anyone who's ever outrun a charging hippo can attest, horror has a stimulating effect on our lives. If you spend your whole life living, it's easy to forget what it really means to live. Even a few seconds staring into Hades, on the other hand, is enough to make you realize what a strange and terrific thing it is to be alive. Too often we take the routines of our life for granted, and can be lulled into treating the patterns of human life that surround us as the real beams of the cosmos. Because we have breakfast at eight o'clock every day, breakfast starts seeming like something that just is in the world.

We fail to see the far more likely alternative to our life. The universe is filled with many worlds: above are billions of suns which, though they look like diamonds from afar, are really vast lakes of fire. Below are strange abysses filled with deep-sea anglerfish. Meanwhile, we grew out of darkness, and we're headed for the darkness of death.

In other words, it’s a wild stroke of luck that we can breathe and laugh and talk, and that comfort is within our grasp. Darkness should, after all, be the rule by all rights. A bus on a Sunday morning loaded with eighty year old women, Hungarian immigrants, and MP3’d teenagers is such a triumph of humanity, of lawful beauty, that it’s cause for tears of joy. It’s even an incredible fact that a concept as subtle and human as Sunday has real roots in the world.

So let’s live while we can, and not forget what not-living means.

There’s an old Jewish story that on the last day, God will drag the Leviathan from the deep and serve his flesh to the human race. It takes visiting the Leviathan’s kingdom to know what a delirious, happy vision this is. Life will triumph over the vastness of the sea, says the dream, and the world's end will be life and comfort, not bleak unhumanity. Look at that happiness, and try to tell yourself that you don't understand the impulse behind religion. Monotheism, for all their beauty, takes a stand against the seas.

Finally, take a look at this article on how deep-sea anglerfish mate. You'll never think of anglerfish the same way.