I’m in a classy Orlando hotel, vacationing with a woman friend. What set off my present train of thought was my trip to the fourteenth floor lounge this morning. I managed to read The New York Times in a room with about thirty little eight-year-old girls who were having stage make-up applied before their dance competition. The sight irritated me so much that I had to search my own motivations. Why should I feel disdain for children who wear lipstick, tights, and chignons atop their perky little heads? I had to conclude that my own narrow judgmentalism is the problem, not the little girls, or even their parents, who were promoting their activity.
If they had noticed me at all (and no one did) I might have seemed a dour old witch, sitting in the corner and glowering at them.
It is about materialism, I decided. Not consumption, per se. Not productivity, per se. Just the exclusive orientation toward this physical world as the only realm in which discussable human action takes place. Dance has no meaning, nor do sports, nor many of the other innocent ways in which people pass their time.
Later in the day my friend and I went to a spa for massages. I went first and submitted gladly to the pounding and prodding of my spine by elbows and oily hands. It did me good, I think. Then I sat in the waiting area while my friend took her turn. I was surrounded by vapid reading material. No political or controversial issues were addressed in any of the glossy magazines, but only photos of opulent houses and fashionable hair styles. One friendly hair stylist displayed seven large tattoos all up and down her arms. Her hair was cherry-red. Why do I disapprove of this woman? Something is wrong with me. She is normal. Probably I am not. She seemed to offer competent advice to the client about how to redesign her haircut. I should respect her, I know. I know. Really I should.
But instead I started thinking about an article I’d read on the train in the current New York Review of Books. It was a review of David Rieff’s new book about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag. Two or three years ago I spent a couple of days in the company of David Rieff, who had come to lecture at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre about his war experiences. His talk was not well received. He had decided that peacekeepers or NGOs can provide no assistance of any value in a war situation. The best that humanitarians can do is merely to offer the combatants “a bed for the night” – the title of the book he had most recently written. But he could imagine no real solutions to conflict except by having the war fought and decisively won or lost.
I invited him for a drink in the bar afterward to pursue a conversation about nonviolent struggle that had arisen between us during the Q and A session. Clearly he has no interest in the nonviolent waging of conflict. However, instead of discussing it further, he simply got up and wandered away without excusing himself or offering any explanation. Though flabbergasted by his rudeness, I concluded that he was probably just burned out. He had been in every war that he could find, and that had apparently damaged him. In the group discussions, he hadn’t denied that fact. He said that he had seen many people killed but that he had never killed anyone. An odd and unnecessary statement from a journalist, I should have thought. But later I wondered whether he, like another war correspondent named Chris Hedges, had been addicted to war, finding it a source of meaning in his life.
Now I realize that he probably had been in the midst of tending to his dying mother. I discovered that fact sometime after her death, when he published an article in the New York Times Magazine, describing his uncertainty about how he should have responded to her emotional requirements. Then he wrote a book about it, and it is the review of that book that I recently read on the train.
The reviewers, Diane Johnson and John F. Murray, never mentioned any of the issues that troubled me. Instead, they confined their comments to the medical framework that Rieff had already explored. And in my opinion, Rieff had confined his own comments about his mother’s fatal illness to the medical topics that she had explored. The whole discussion seemed remarkably empty to me — an emptiness that certainly must reflect a certain void in Sontag’s own view of life and death. I have read little of her work, so I may be mistaken, but her commitment to the brute fact of physical survival was evidently part of a worldview that avoided metaphysical or religious concerns in a studied, deliberate way. As Johnson and Murray write,
“Sontag had declared when she was a sixteen-year-old student at the University of Chicago that death was not going to cut her own life short, an interestinglyprecocious preoccupation at an age when people normally sense themselves immortal. She wrote then of ‘not being able to even imagine that one day I will no longer be alive.’ It was the start of her commitment to do whatever it took to live; dying was not an option…”
She had three different types of cancer at different periods of her life, including the first one that was supposedly an incurable ‘stage four.’ Yet she undertook radical treatments that everyone regarded as long-shots, and survived the first two of the diseases. In the case of the final illness, she spent a fortune and underwent exceedingly painful treatments that had almost no chance of success. She would not discuss the possibility of dying and apparently continued to believe until the end that she would survive.
Rieff asks himself whther he should have been truthful, in the face of her denial. At other times he asks himself whether he should have been more adept at helping her deny reality. Yet he never asks himself, apparently, what spiritual work his mother needed to accomplish in order to face her own mortality.
After reading his New York Times article a few months ago I had coffee with a dear friend who has undergone three operations for a brain tumor. He copes with anxiety about his own mortality every day. He and I agreed that Sontag had continued searching for medical answers far longer than he or I would have done. No one can be immortal. How can any seventy-year-old woman deny that fact?
At a certain point, my friend and I agreed that we each would surrender. Indeed, in preparation for that, we already spend a lot of time considering the lasting meaning of our lives. Sontag’s fierce clinging to life must have shown her lack of faith, a denial that anything significant about her would last beyond her final breath.
Did Sontag ever write about the meaning of her life? Did she discuss it with her loved ones? I hope so. It is impossible to decide whether one’s life is fulfilled without first deciding what one is supposed to do with it. And what one is supposed to do is the meaning of one’s life.
People can find meaning in countless ways. Even atheists must discover meaning, I understand, but for most people, the search for meaning is a spiritual quest. Some people find crazy meaning for their lives – such as a nationalistic ideology that may require the ultimate sacrifice in warfare. Today’s suicide bombers go to meet their maker with joy, certain that they are fulfilling their assigned duties. Fortunately, there are other forms of meaning, including the cultivation of nonviolent modes of conflict, though David Rieff could not consider that approach meaningful when I discussed it with him. Had his mother contemplated the meaning of her own life? If so, the conversation was not a topic about which either of them wrote much.
Possibly a conversation about the meaning of life would offer answers to the other question Sontag avoided: the meaning of death.
I, myself, don’t know what to believe about life after death. I don’t really have any belief. But I do have faith, which is quite a different matter. I can never know what is true about reality beyond the physical (or indeed, even about physics) but I have faith. That is, I am convinced that whatever the truth is, I would be satisfied if I could know it. Therefore I can trust that my life, and your life, are part of a reality larger than we can understand, but which is benign. At a certain point in my final illness, I expect that my conversations with loved ones will deal more with that faith than with the prospect of medical procedures that might extend my life span a while. I wish Sontag had discussed that topic with her son. And I hope that he finds a way to consider it now for himself, since she has gone.
I wish, in fact, that the glossy magazines in the spa had alluded to that issue. And that the eight-year-old dancers under all that lipstick think about it sometimes too. The meaning of life is larger than material events. And the meaning of life confers meaning on death.