Sunday, November 09, 2003

Without Appeal

At the chronological and emotional bedrock of my intellectual life, still operative in their imperatives, are two passages from existentialist texts.

The first is Camus' brief project or wager of the "absurd man" in "Myth of Sisyphus" -- "to live without appeal."

The second is Sartre's famous passage in "Nausea" in which his hero, Roquentin, is faced with the sheer, category-and-intellect-violating isness/existence of the root of a chestnut tree -- an experience he finds overwhelming, obscene, and utterly disorienting. As unpleasant as nausea.

From early adolescence, less so as I've grown older, I have been subject to sudden, involuntary spells, often provoked by looking in a mirror, when my experience of myself and existence shifts as suddenly as if a switch has been thrown, and everything, including me, seems harrowingly odd and unfamiliar. When I discovered Sartre's hero's spells of existential "nausea," I instantly recognized my own. These quasi-neurological events seemed linked to the more cerebral experience of being struck to the core with the utter strangeness of being here at all, conscious, existing, the imperfect cognizant fulcrum of "all that is." The Magnum Mysterium.

I have often felt that, if I could sustain that feeling of mystery, if I could sit there with it, press beyond it, I could achieve some sort of breakthrough, some sort of understanding, some sort of odd Kensho from this self-created Mu. I have also felt that meditation might be a means of interrogating, approaching, addressing that strange spot. Honestly, I think a Buddhist could rewrite the Chestnut Tree passage as a spiritual breakthrough -- a radical deconstruction of illusory categories of object and self and society.

But then there's the nagging Camusian voice: sans appel. Live without appeal.

My attraction to Christianity is within the part of me that cannot live without appeal. Christianity seems to me to be one, long, beautiful, harrowingly poignant appeal at whose center is the suffering Christ crucified, forsaken, crying out. Hans Kung writes eloquently in "Why I Am A Christian" about Mark and Matthew's unembellished rendering of Christ's last moments, the ultimate Christian appeal -- "Why have you forsaken me," then a primal "cry," then a man-and-God forsaken death.

The same interrogation of the Mystery seems to inform the best religious music, Bach's masses, Mozart's requiem; Arvo Part's magnificent "De Profundis" never fails to move me, and it is literally the psalmist crying out from the depths.

Is Zen "without appeal" ?

In its abolishing of duality, perhaps.

Once, sitting, feeling bodily pain, experiencing the usual turbulence of the mind, hearing the ambient sounds of the world, experiencing the "I" that was experiencing itself experiencing, and feeling all these things as a field of equivalent phenomena, I had an sudden understanding of "incarnation." To be alive is to suffer and to appeal.

I need to climb back on the zafu. At least.

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