Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Decay and rebirth

I've been reading the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran's A Short History of Decay. He who also wrote On the Heights of Despair and The Trouble With Being Born. A bracing read, to be sure, and especially useful, I would imagine, for ideologues of every stripe, those purveyors of Absolute Truth whom Cioran excoriates mercilessly. True belief is deep in our human nature, he says, and the only remedy is indifference. Disengagement. Ultimately, the oblivion of death. Although Cioran did not take his own life (he died in 1995 at age 84), we would not be surprised had he done so.

Then why did he write? There would be no need to write if we could weep at will, he says. So, no, you do not want to read Cioran unless you are looking for a reason for despair or you need to stiffen your skeptical spine.

Cioran asks the ultimate existential question: Without God, without the anticipation of personal immortality, without political absolutes of right or left, why not indifference? Why not despair? I was pondering my answer when I came upon this quartet of overripe Halloween spooks along my path.

Who set them up there on a stone wall at the back of the community gardens I do not know. But I smiled at their toothless threat, their swollen, liquidy eyes, their squirrel-eaten, punched-in, late-November grins. Here was a little history of decay on the garden wall and I could only laugh. Onto the compost heap with them! A new harvest next year. What goes around comes around. What were those lines of Hopkins I quoted last week? "...for all this, nature is never spent;/ There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."

This is the one absolute: the creation. In all of its multiplicity. In all of its complicity. In all of its simplicity. "There is only life in the inattention to life," moans Cioran. I'd turn his sour adage on its head. There is only life in attention to life. In plugging ourselves into the never spent. In paying attention.

Science is the best way forward we have yet devised for extracting collective, reliable knowledge from nature that is not tinctured with our personal yearning for immortality. And it is here that I part company with Cioran. Personal oblivion is not an inducement to despair, but an invitation to love, to action, to playing a role -- a bit part to be sure -- in a drama that enfolds the light-years and the galaxies.

There is only life in the attention to life -- to the dearest freshness deep down things. That, at least, is what I read in the lopsided grins of the jack-o'-lanterns.