Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn Again

I enjoyed reading Gary Kamiya's recent article published in Salon, entitled "I'm Younger Than That Now," in which he struggles with the questions that life poses to him through the aging process. It's certainly instructive to compare today's "mid-life crisis" with Dante's "dark wood" or the "dark night of the soul" of St. John of the Cross, and to see how far we have come since then. Kamiya recognizes that there's a deep spiritual disconnect in today's culture around issues of aging which comes across in our endless affairs of vanity and denial (the immortality industry, etc.) but he can't quite put his finger on what's behind it. Why does our modern society lack understanding about the most basic truths of life and death? What gives us the illusion that we could have complete control over our passage through life, including its end date? Kamiya seeks consolation in the imaginative spirit of literature and religion, but can't quite bring himself to take the risk of accepting it. Instead he hesitates over whether religion is a "fairy tale" and a "childish consolation" or something that "restores the tragic sense of life" before dismissing religion for personal reasons he prefers not to speak of: "For many of us, God isn't an option." Yet without faith of any kind, it is exceedingly difficult to execute the turn which Kamiya recognizes, to his credit, as absolutely necessary. And this is the turn towards freedom. There is a kind of exhilaration in aging as old preoccupations fall away, leaving behind only the sheer satisfaction of life itself, of experience brought to its deepest fulfillment. Kamiya reaches towards this when he writes about the comedic nature of aging, the hilarity that ensues when one realizes there is nothing left to lose. Such joyful moments can also lead to a place of serenity and acceptance, which is the subject of Eliot's Ash Wednesday. Kamiya's failure to understand this poem (he writes of the "terrible line" that opens the poem) is suggestive of his deeper unwillingness to engage with matters of faith. What Eliot discovered through this poem was the liturgical structure of time, its ceaseless ebb and flow, its strange exceeding of limits, concepts, best-laid plans, and above all, its eternal return to origins, its endless flowing forth from eternity in the form of the primal spirit of nature. If religion and the arts are a cultivation of this wildness, then they can also lead us back towards it, can open up the way into it which is also our way forward in the world. I have a feeling that what Kamiya really is seeking isn't the contradiction of a hopefulness without hope but rather a way beyond the bureaucracy and marketing which consumes every inch of our lives and promises false hope for our own deepest fears. The real problem with aging and death in our society is our insistence on thinking of ourselves as agents of consumption, and the answer is to realize once again that we are agents of creativity, of life, and of love.

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