Monday, August 19, 2013

Matters of fact

When we were a young married couple living in England, my wife insisted on visiting the cottage of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") deep in rural Dorset, now in the care of the Natural Trust. Over the door, inscribed in Greek, is the phrase usually translated "Nothing matters." What the motto meant to Lawrence, I don't know, but certainly we can guess. Most of what I know about Lawrence I gleaned from David Lean's film, so he is inevitably mixed up with Peter O'Toole.

I'm reminded of this when reading excerpts from the diary of the young Susan Sontag (in the NYRB). She is expressing a raging lust for life: "I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!

Nothing matters. Everything matters. Which is it?

I suppose my own life has been a swinging back and forth. As a young Catholic, everything mattered. The tiniest good work or sin was recorded in some celestial ledger, to be rewarded or punished for eternity. Then, into a robust agnosticism, none of that mattered; the exhausting calculus of sin and salvation melted away. But a moral compass was still necessary. A reason for living. It was necessary to see again that something matters. My final testament, When God Is Gone, Everything is Holy, might as well have been titled When God is Gone, Everything Matters. The world teems with amazement.

Paradoxically, the two things might be the same. When nothing matters, everything matters. When everything matters, nothing matters.

Or does it matter?