Dia de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos Celebrants at Cabot’s Museum in Desert Hot Springs

In the Catholic liturgy, today is All Souls’ Day, which the Mexican culture has enriched with its Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Mexican feast day is much healthier than our own Halloween: Families go to the cemeteries with a picnic lunch, which they eat by the grave of their loved ones. Years ago, I was on a bus between Mazatlán and Durango on November 2 with a number of villagers headed to celebrate. The bus was full, so I helped a young mother hold her baby from time to time as she tended to her other children.

We see death as an embarrassment, some kind of failure. Too bad, because we all die; and that death is part and parcel of our lives. We deny it at our own risk, because when we least expect it, to springs out like a jack-in-the-box and catches us all unawares. One of the strengths of Mexican culture—and I believe there are many—is that people do not try to sweep the inevitable under the rug.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, at Chichen Itza

The Aztecs and Maya used to fight wars among themselves and their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners who were sacrificed to the gods. At Chichen Itza, there was a large platform called the Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, to hold a pyramid of skulls of these sacrificial victims. There were a number of grisly rituals connected with these sacrifices, such as cutting out the heart of victims with an obsidian knife and kicking the body down the pyramid steps, skinning the victims and having the priests wear the skins. There was even some cannibalism. Eventually, with the Spanish invasion, these rituals were suppressed; but the celebration of life’s fragility became a part of the culture.

Maybe this is what Trumpf is afraid of by these “invasions” from Latin America. He’s afraid for his own head, perhaps. They can have it.

 

The Death of Boris Vian

CD Cover of Boris Vian Song Collection

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and A. E. Van Vogt).

I have just finished reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’Écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and jazz.

 

Serendipity: Raven Brings Death to the World

Tlingit Myth: Raven Swallowing the Sun

Now that I have resolved to explore the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, I have become interested in the many native peoples along the route. And also that means I have a renewed interest in Franz Boas, who spent so much of his career studying the Kwakiutl, the Tlingit, the Bella Coola, the Salish, and others. From Boas’s (edited) Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (1917) comes this tale, from the Nicola Valley, of how death came into this world:

Coyote was travelling, and came to Raven, a bad, selfish chief, who wanted to make everything difficult for other people, and easy for himself. He wanted the game for himself, wanted long winters, and he did not want man to be immortal. Coyote questioned him as to why he wanted people to die. He said, “If people were immortal, there would be too many. Let them become sick and die.” Coyote said, “Why should they die? Death will introduce sorrow into the world, and sorrow is very hard. If they die, what will become of them? Where will they go? Let them be sick, but not die.” Raven said, “No, they must die. I do not wish our enemies to live forever. If the people should become too numerous, there would be no food, and they would be hungry. It is better for them to die.” Raven’s people supported their chief, and clamored for the people to die. Raven, Crow, Fly, Maggot, and many others wanted people to die, so that they might feed on corpses. Coyote said, “Let people die for a while, and then come back to life again. Let death be like sleep.” Raven said, “No, if they die, let them die for good, and let their bodies rot.” At last Coyote agreed, and said, “Well, it is ordained that people shall die when their time has come. Their bodies shall be buried, and their souls shall go to spirit-land; but this will only be until the world changes again, when they will die no more.”

Shortly after that, Raven’s daughter became sick and died. She was the first to die. Raven tried to restore her to life, but failed. Then he wept because of his daughter. He went to Coyote, and said, “Let us change what we said before. Do not let people die and remain dead forever. Let us change it!” Coyote answered, “No, it is settled now, and cannot be altered.” Thus it happens that people die and are buried.

The Tropics We Cross

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Julian Barnes and His Late Wife, Pat Kavanagh

Little did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the grief of losing one’s wife. I can quote the paragraph where the book, quite suddenly, more than halfway through, changes gears:

Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven’t. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven’t. Later still—at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven’t. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.

The book began as a kind of essay on lighter-than-air ballooning, with an interesting sidelight on photography. Then, in he second section, we meet Captain Fred Burnaby, an avid balloonist, who falls in love with the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. But it is not to be, she rejects him by simply switching partners, and he goes on to marry a young woman who becomes ill and must spend the rest of her life in a sanatorium in the Alps for consumptives. He later fights with Gordon in Khartoum, and dies of a spear thrust at the Battle of Abu Klea.

Early in the third and last section, Barnes tells us what the book is really about: namely, what happens to his life when his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, dies of cancer, leaving her husband to realize that there is no simple and sure-fire way of dealing with protracted grief:

Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love’s opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.

I have often wondered what would happen to me if I should lose Martine. I see myself on a long journey, taking interminable bus rides in Patagonia perhaps, where the outer desolation would mirror my own insides. Or else, I would not. It is possible I would live the rest of my life as an unfinished conversation with my departed little French girl that continues despite strange looks from my friends. Who knows?

In the meantime, I will try to live while I can. It’s a mistake not to.

Confronting Demons

Confronting Your Fear When It Matters Most

Perhaps the Demons Are Not Real

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a detailed discussion of how a dying person should be guided past the “wrathful deities” that are images of his fear to the desired annihilation of the self in Nirvana. There is a state between death and either rebirth or liberation from the circle of endless rebirths.

Here is a description of one of these demons, named Heruda:

O, Child of Buddha Nature, listen without distraction. Although the intermediate state of the peaceful deities did previously arise within you, you did not recognize it. So now you have wandered, [through the succession of pathways,] to here. Now, on the eighth day, the assembly of wrathful blood-drinking deities will arise. Recognize them and do not be distracted! O, Child of Buddha Nature, he who is called the Great Glorious Buddha Heruka will [now] arise, vividly manifesting before you from within your own brain. His body, blazing in a mass of light, is dark brown in colour, having three heads, six arms and four legs, which are [firmly] set apart. His right face is white, the left red and the central face dark brown. His nine eyes are fixed in a fearsome wrathful gaze, his eyebrows are quivering like lightning, his fangs are bared and gleaming, and he is laughing loudly, uttering the sounds of Alala and Haha, and Shoo oo—like whistles, in loud piercing cries. The golden-auburn hair of his head blazes and rears upward, sun and moon-discs, black serpents, and dry skulls adorn each of his heads, and black snakes and fresh skulls form a garland around his body. In his six hands he holds, on the right in the first hand, a wheel, in the middle one, an axe, and in the last hand a sword and to the left, in his first hand, he holds a bell, in the middle one, a ploughshare and in the last a skull. The female consort Buddhakrodhesvari is embracing his body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cup filled with blood to his mouth. Amidst loud pounding palatal sounds of ‘Thuk-chom’, and an [echoing] roar like the reverberation of thunder, the fire of pristine cognition blazes from the fiery indestructible pores of their bodies, and thus they stand together, [with one leg] extended and [the other] drawn in on a throne supported by garudas.

Do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! And do not be awed! Recognize this to be the buddhabody of your own intrinsic awareness. These are your own meditational deities, so do not be terrified. This, in reality, is the transcendent lord Vairocana and his consort, so do not be afraid. Recognition and liberation will occur simultaneously!

It is difficult for us to recognize what appears to be a wrathful demon as a manifestation of ourselves. By exhibiting fear in this critical Bardo state (as the Tibetans call it) will tie you to this life and the inevitable defeat of rebirth. Perhaps in our culture, we do not see rebirth as a negative: Rather, we typically frighten ourselves with demons and exhibit fear.

Whereas in our culture it is death and the pathways to it that terrify us, the Tibetans see death as a teachable moment—the last chance for non-returning to a world characterized by misery.

As I write this, Martine and I have just returned from a nearby hospice in which a longtime friend is confronting pancreatic cancer and trying to prepare his mind for—what? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that fear on that last approach is an ever-present danger. May we all be spared from this fear as we make our way out of this world and into—what?

Frank Herbert in his book Dune included this Bene Gesserit mantra which I think of often when confronting my own demons:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

There is great wisdom in these lines.

Thumbs Up to You, Roger!

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

The following is taken from Roger Ebert’s autobiography, entitled Life Itself: A Memoir. As a bit of a film critic myself, I did not always agree with Roger’s views, but I thought he radiated a certain integrity that is largely missing among film critics, who tend to be notorious whores in the pay of the media conglomerates. I hope you will be impressed as much as I was by reading the following:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I don’t expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. “Ask someone how they feel about death,” he said, “and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you’re really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don’t really exist. I might be gone at any given second.”

Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, illness led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. That led me to the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and I became engulfed on my blog in unforeseen discussions about God, the afterlife, religion, theory of evolution, intelligent design, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the big bang, what waits after the end, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death.

Many readers have informed me that it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I am 69, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I say, “Look for me in the weather reports.”

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it. I know a priest whose eyes twinkle when he says, “You go about God’s work in your way, and I’ll go about it in His.”

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

O’Rourke’s had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:

I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

That does a pretty good job of summing it up. “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing.” I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.” I correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 2010 he came very close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a documentary named “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself “a simple worshiper of the external Buddha.” Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, “Not by foot, I hope!”

Cemetery Blues

Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City

Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City

Today, after doing a half day of tax work (on a Saturday!), Martine and I went to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Today is the first anniversary of the death of our apartment manager, Tony. Not that we liked him very much, but we liked his mother, who died twelve years ago; and believe that, although his son grossly mismanaged his own life, he deserves to be commemorated—not for what he was, but for what he could have been.

Once again, I thought to myself that, when it is my time to go, I do not want to be embalmed and buried—not anywhere. My wish is to have my remains cremated and dispersed, preferably in the ocean. If that’s not possible, on the surface of the earth will be almost as good.

Since we had a little extra time, we did a little Hollywood celebrity grave search. We found out where Bela Lugosi, Jimmy Durante, Rita Hayworth, Zasu Pitts, Bonita Granville, John Candy, and Fred MacMurray are interred.

Then we went to Dinah’s Family Restaurant at Centinela and Sepulveda, one of Martine’s favorite venues for fried chicken.