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.