Saturday, June 09, 2007

"I Don't Want to Die!"

In an emotionally riveting scene from Danish director Susanne Biers' excellent film, "After the Wedding," wealthy capitalist Jørgen reveals to his wife Helene that he has terminal cancer. Jørgen, played by actor Rolf Lassgård, is a large man, in body and deed, and he is used to being in control, of his family as well as his business. But the secret gets out, and he collapses into his wife's arms, screaming "I don't want to die!" (the English subtitle for the Danish groan of despair), over and over. I've never seen acting like this; Lassgård is totally believable. He cries, he blubbers, he snuffles, snot runs out of his nose. And I identified totally.

I don't want to die either. And every day something reminds me that life is terminal, that the only constant in this temporary way station of a universe is change.
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
I've been reading T.S. Eliot's haunting spiritual epic, "Four Quartets," and trying to make sense of it with a group under the tutelage of Ken Kramer who, after thirty-something years, has just published his Ph.d. dissertation, Redeeming Time: T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (Cowley Publications, 207). Eliot, who renounced his hometown of St. Louis, MO, to become an Englishman, is considered by many to be the greatest American poet of the 20th century. He wrote the four movements of the Quartets during the early stages of World War II and the poem is saturated with hints and guesses of death and dying: death in the streets of London (he was a volunteer air raid warden during the Blitz) and death of the ego.

Paralleling the ancient classification of the elements by Heraclitus, Eliot points out three kinds of death in "Little Gidding," the fourth quartet: psychological, the "death of hope and despair, This is the death of air"; physical, "the death of the earth"; and spiritual, "the death of water and fire." This is followed by a dialogue with a "compound ghost" who speaks to the poet of the "gifts reserved for age":
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm…
These "gifts" are too much with me these days as the body crumbles and guilt returns again and again to whip me for remembered failings. I think I understand psychological and physical death enough to grapple with them intellectually, but spiritual death is an enigma, a tempting apple just out of reach. For spiritual death is the grail at the end of Eliot's journey where "the fire and the rose are one." But we "shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." The "compound ghost" describes enlightenment/salvation thusly:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
So death is the final frontier and my ship is fast approaching. Like the weeping Jørgen, I do not want to die. My spiritual search, so lately encountering an insurmountable blockade on the Catholic Christian path, looks now for the "refining fire" that might enable me to dance my way towards union with the abyss of God. In the meantime, I strive mightily to perfect my omelet without distributing uncooked egg all over the stove top. Today I tossed the frying pan fearlessly and the egg flipped over beautiful, a blanket for the cheese. Yes! (theme music from "Rocky").

In the midst of thoughts of death, life raises her beautiful head.

Ken interrupted his interpretation of Eliot's poem one day several weeks ago to tell us that his daughter had given him a CD of the soundtrack for a new film, "Once." While all new songs by unknown performers, it reminded him of the best days of folk music, a period that is dear to me (and memorialized liberally on my iPod). I bought the soundtrack on his recommendation and found the songs and voices of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to be all that he promised. The film opened yesterday and I was enthralled by seeing the musicians perform on screen in a lovely story about love (at at all what you would expect) and creativity. Glen is a street singer in Dublin who moonlights in his father's Hoover repair shop. Markéta is a classically trained pianist from the Czech Republic who cleans houses and sells magazines and flowers on the street to survive. The dialogue between them, in words and music, exemplifies Jewish philosopher Martin Buber's insight that God(love) is born in the moment of true connection between two thou's (rather than objective it's). And I have learned about this from Kramer who is also a Buber scholar as well as someone who understands Eliot's spirituality from the inside. Forget about "Dreamgirls" and "Walk the Line"; this is one of the better musicals of all time. Think "Hard Day's Night" or "Hustle and Flow" rather than "Sound of Music."

But don't take my word about "Once." The reviews it has received point to it as the "Little Miss Sunshine" of 2007, the indie film that wins the hearts of movie fans sick of the big screen summer action/horror/comedy retreds. I've learned that Glen Hansard has been singing in Ireland for twenty years, and even had a bit part in that classic bar band movie, "The Commitments." He formed a group called The Frames in 1990 and the most recent of their nine albums, "The Cost," is playing on my iPod. He met Markéta during a visit to Prague and they recorded a CD together, "The Swell Season," which contains many of the songs that show up in "Once," a film that was written and directed by John Carney who was at one time the bassist for The Frames. I cried through much of the movie and not because it was sad. When Glen and Markéta sit down at a borrowed piano in a Dublin music store and sing "Falling Slowly" together, we are all, audience and actors, restored by that "refining fire" that Eliot predicted would allow us to dance with God.

Eliot writes in the second of the four quartets, "The Dry Salvages," that only the saint can find "the point of intersection of the timeless with time" where the mystical center resides.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
I am satisfied with being here, while the music lasts.

1 comment:

ted carl said...

will
maybe the reason you don't get many comments is that my "comment" came back to me.
my comment was from the heart hours ago so no it is cooler i suppose.
i said something like how good this one was. how your words and connections really speak to me. yada,yada,yada.
and then i said thank you.joan