Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mortal soul 7 -- The avid pursuer

In his autobiography, Speak Memory, the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov writes of the joys of butterfly collecting: "The highest enjoyment of timelessness...is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..." The possibility of learning more and more about butterflies -- those tiny truths -- drew Nabokov, the avid pursuer, ever deeper into the world of the senses, through layer upon layer of concrete details, receding into inexhaustible mystery. This, it has always seemed to me, is the proper trajectory of a life: from the concrete to the ineffable, from the particular to the universal. The opposite trajectory is fraught with idolatry and self-deception. Begin with answers, as many of us do, and the commonplace becomes shallow, shabby, and uninteresting. But begin with a mourning cloak butterfly resurrected from its winter sleep, flagging its magnificent wings of purple velvet trimmed with gold, and maybe -- just maybe -- one might catch an intimation of the Mystery that shines in the face of creation.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," wrote Thoreau famously in Walden. The trick, of course, is knowing what is essential. What was essential for Thoreau -- the pond, the bean patch, the sounds of night -- might not be essential for, say, the ballerina, or the contemplative monk, or the doctor in Darfur. It is what Thoreau said next that unites us all, the medieval mystic and the hermit of Walden: "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."

To live deliberately. The word has at its root the Latin libra, a balance or scales, as in the zodiacal sign. A scientific instrument. To weigh, to measure, to trust only what can be reliably, reproducibly, quantitatively discerned by the senses. To shave close. To cut away the phantasmagoria of superstition that has accumulated culturally over millennia, and to find those things that have a universal empirical basis, the things that bind me in a respectful unity with those who have been born into different cultures and traditions. Drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, said Thoreau. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches. Food, clothing, shelter. Sex. The need to give and receive love. Altruism. Curiosity. Awareness of mystery. Awareness of how little we really know and understand.

The avid pursuit, the universal human pursuit, the pursuit that impassioned the medieval mystics and that impassions the scientific skeptic too, is the quest for what critic Edmund Gosse called "all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul."