This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I'm ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it
--from Paul Westerberg's Hold My Life
An essay I've recently published in Reality Sandwich, "An Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski," has been very well received. There are a few works out there, be they novels, movies or even pieces of music, that manage to make the esoteric, exoteric. Such works rarely surface, though, because the shallow machinery of the publishing, movie and music industry is mostly allergic to them. As I was re-reading Lin Yutang's masterwork, The Importance of Living, I found so many passages that seem custom-made for the Dude that I thought it might be fun to explore the points of departure and arrival of both works, in tandem. To do that, I need to start from the not-so-distant premises that prompted Lin Yutang himself, back in 1937, to write his book.
Even today, despite the West having gone through an unprecedented process of secularization, the numbers are staggering: there are 2.1 billion Christians worldwide; 1.6 billion Muslims; about 900 million Hinduists; and 350 million Buddhists. Therefore, almost 5 billion people follow the four largest religions, which have one common trait -- they are life-renouncing.
In a nutshell, the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- see life as a period of probation in which man, by acting virtuously according to the doctrine set out by each religion, will earn for himself a place in heaven. The focus, therefore, is on the afterlife. Life on earth is a series of tests that must be passed and temptations that must be resisted. Again in a nutshell, Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major Indian religions, are similar in that both hold that life is suffering and the only way out is freedom from the endless chain of reincarnations. The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha and nirvana respectively, consists of liberating oneself from samsara, thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Union with God can then be attained.
Recently an old friend of mine, for years a convert to Buddhism, suffered an aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the aorta that I am familiar with because my father died of it. When he began to feel sick a friend who was with him, a medical doctor, rushed him to a hospital, where he was operated on within minutes. For days his life hanged by a thread in the ICU. His anguished wife, back at home, organized reunions with fellow Buddhists who would pray and chant together for him to be spared and then recover. As I followed from a continent away, my heart went out to him and his family and friends, but in the back of mind I couldn't stop hearing a nagging voice. It asked: "What business do Buddhists have in asking to prolong one's life?" It was incongruous. The followers of the most life-renouncing religion known to mankind were fervently praying for this one man to cling to life. Mercifully, the surgery was successful and my friend pulled through, but I still wonder if his Buddhist wife and friends behaved consistently with Buddhism?
Of course they didn't, and this incident is meant to make a point: almost five billion people living on this drinkable, edible, and breathable planet of ours follow religions that, I fear, go against our nature. Normally, we want to live, not to let go of life. It is only natural, so natural, in fact, that it seems very strange that this would need to be stated in the first place.
Lin Yutang's world was less populous than ours, but in proportion more religious yet, especially in the West. Back in his day some pioneers were exploring the "occult", that more than vague definition that has been since subdivided into many fields: the Royal Art, Alchemy, parapsychology, extrasensory perception, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and near-death experiences, not to mention humanity's penchant for the most varied psychoactive substances in the hope that altered states will lead in the exploration of parallel or otherworldly realities. From all this and the four major life-renouncing religions I'm bound to infer that by and large we don't like our lot on earth. Lin Yutang started from the same premise.
Like early man, do we envy the birds for being able to fly? The fish for being able to breathe under water? Cats for seeing in semidarkness? The list goes on and on: from a physical standpoint, we're inferior to so many species. But not to worry, modern man has come up with a number of flying contraptions, scuba diving equipment, night vision goggles, and many other gadgets that mimic the abilities of more physically gifted species. And yet the premise stands: either our adherence to a life-renouncing religion, or, more recently on a large scale, our multifarious attempts at transcending our very nature and condition.
That we feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skin is not a supposition but a statement of fact. Do we feel so chokingly uncomfortable because the first time we realize that, sooner or later, we are doomed to die, our natural impulse is to cry? My wife and I have witnessed this reaction in two of our three boys. When, around five years of age, they understood that life doesn't last forever, they cried inconsolably, out of disbelief, then anger, finally fear. This tragic cognizance we carry inside ourselves for our whole life. It's our congenital memento mori, which kicks in the moment the concept of time ceases to be a present-tense continuum, as it is during early childhood, and becomes one of duration, with a precise beginning and end.
For the materialists, those not interested in religions or attempts at transcending human nature, there are the following bits of ancient wisdom: Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius's "Live each day as if it were your last;" the ancient Roman poet Horace's Carpe diem, seize the day, which was reprised during the Renaissance by Lorenzo De' Medici in his famous poem Canzona di Bacco, Bacchus Song, which begins: "Youth is sweet and well / But does speed away! / Let who will be gay, / Tomorrow, no one can tell;" even the ancient Chinese proverb: "Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think." Many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics have no better guideline than this to live by, and accordingly try to feast on life, which, they perceive, is "here today, gone tomorrow."
Lin Yutang offers an approach that goes beyond life-renouncing religions, daring transcendental explorations, and clichés such as enjoy yourself, it's later than you think. One thing was clear to him as it must be to so many of us: being alive, living, matters. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests why in the ninth of his Duino Elegies, written between 1912 and 1922, and excerpted here in the translation of A. Poulin, Jr. To the question, "Why, then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate, long for fate?" the poet replies: "Because being here means so much, and because all / that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us / and strangely concerns us." And a few lines down: "To have been on earth just once -- that's irrevocable."
How are we to celebrate, then, the plain yet miraculous reality of being alive? The poet surprises with "Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be talked about. / You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos / where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show / him some simple thing shaped for generation after generation / until it lives in our hands and in our eyes, and it's ours. Tell him about things. He'll stand amazed (...)"
So there it is, straight from the pen of one of the most mystical poets in western literature: an exhortation to speak to the angel not about grand emotions but about the world, about things. Some years after Rilke finished his elegies, Lin Yutang wrote in The Importance of Living: "As for philosophy, which is the exercise of the spirit par excellence, the danger is even greater that we lose the feeling of life itself. I can understand that such mental delights include the solution of a long mathematical equation, or the perception of a grand order in the universe. This perception of order is probably the purest of all our mental pleasures and yet I would exchange it for a well prepared meal." Years ago, when I first read this passage, I laughed out loud. It was liberating. But where is Lin Yutang coming from? In another book of his, The Wisdom of China, he remarks: "The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface again."
I'd tend to agree, but there probably is a linguistic reason for this. The Chinese never developed a proper alphabet, but rather ideograms, or Sinograms, or better yet, Han characters. The Kangxi Dictionary contains the astonishing number of 47,035 characters. Compared to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, the 23 of Classical Latin and the 30 of the German alphabet, it's evident that writing and reading in Mandarin is an effort in itself, which explains the emphasis placed by Chinese on calligraphy.
Ancient Greek, Latin and German have been used by most of the greatest philosophers of the western tradition, with Latin being the lingua franca of European scholars for centuries. Inevitably, intellectuals would be tempted to play around with words -- and they did! Western philosophy is immensely more voluminous than its Chinese counterpart, but its value should always have been considered from an historical perspective. No one in his right mind should have argued over, say, St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God -- but that went on for centuries. The history of Western (theoretical/discursive) philosophy ought to have been read like the history of architecture: philosopher so-and-so built that castle in the air, while his opponent built this other castle. Western philosophy should be appreciated aesthetically rather than intrinsically.
Again in The Wisdom of China, Lin Yutang writes: "The Chinese can ask . . ., ‘Does the West have a philosophy?' The answer is also clearly ‘No.' . . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German, English, and American professors, but still he hasn't got a philosophy when he wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but there are no philosophers."
So, what exactly does Lin Yutang prescribe as a philosophy of life? And how does the Dude, our hero (I haven't forgotten him), happen to behave in accordance with so many of the philosopher's ideas?
Read the rest of this article at Reality Sandwich.
Image by Sleeper Cell, licensed under Creative Commons.