Saturday, June 19, 2004

Transcendental Etude IX

She'd found herself, of late, counterpoising the time before her birth with the time after her death. It was a strange exercise in parsing eternity that, for some odd reason, she found comforting. A mind game that she didn't dare deconstruct, for fear of unearthing its utter bad faith.

There was no doubt that, deny it as she might, she was looking for consolation. That she still harbored after all these hard boiled years a teeny tiny flame of theological optimism that, at the very last moment, a deus ex machina would arrive and solve, or better still, abolish the problem of mortality. She pictured Jesus descending in a Power and Light bucket truck, smiling in his hard hat, revealing that all that Heaven stuff was true after all. Or at least some temporal guru -- roshi, sensei, teacher, lama, priest -- would materialize and give her the one teaching or practice that would do the same: abolish death.

The funerary phrase echoed in her mind:

I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.

Now how exactly does that work ? Her husband, dismissive and sardonic, claimed that this was the prize nugget of literal, personal immortality that drew people into the Christian fold. Eternal life. No death. You get to stay you forever. With all your friends and family. In Heaven, the proverbial far, far better place . The place of one's reward . She suspected that, at the bottom of her quest for transcendence, lay a primitive wish to continue as herself in perpetuity. The whole gnarly package -- lank hair, bundled neuroses, crinky neck, bad bones, stifled and raging appetites, propensity for melancholia, everything. How could it be otherwise ?

Self-love. Who would have thought it ? The word cried out for a German translation. Selbstliebe. Like some Freudian affliction. The French amour propre was too genteel. She thought of Erik Erikson, that old Eight Ages Of Man psychoanalytic nemesis of hers, each of whose developmental stages from basic trust vs. basic mistruct to ego integrity vs. despair she'd flunked, spectacularly. She'd been thinking, lately, of the last stage. The one she was approaching. If she ever, that is, got herself out of the muck of stagnation vs. generativity or where ever she'd been floundering these past few years.

Ego Integrity. The phrase pissed her off. It seemed so smug, so complacent, so self-satisfied. Like a room of carefully arranged trophies. Fetschrifts. Diplomas. Honoraria. The last piece of the jigsaw clicks into place. All one's oral rages and anal shamefulness successfully overcome. Inhibiting guilts and inferiority replaced by entrepreneurial and optimistic industry and competence. A proud and firm sense of identity flourishes in place of role confusion. Intimacy ("mutuality of orgasm with a loved partner of the other sex with whom one is able and willing to share a mutual trust and with whom one is able and willing to regulate the cycles of work, procreation and recreation so as to secure to the offspring, too, all the stages of a satisfactory development") is ascendent over bitter isolation. One is generative, productive, forward-moving not stagnant and fallow.

Then, finally, full of enough Ego Integrity (and blissfully unafflicted by its negative counterpart, despair) so as "not to fear death," one, well, dies.

Not to fear death ??? Did it really say that ?

The whole project struck her as some booster clubby extrovert's manifesto.

She arranged her failures on Dr Erikson's epigenetic staircase. Issues with food. Shame of her body. Shyness, withdrawal. Sexual conflict and ambiguity. Divorce. And, of all things, motherhood. Herself, a mother ? Unbelievable. Then medicine. What was she thinking when she signed onto that ? And poetry ? A failed dilletante. Religion ? Was there ever a bigger misfit ? Oddly enough, as she went though the familiar litany of self-grievance, it seemed more like gazing at old wallpaper than wrestling with despair. She thought of the early journals she'd written, full of discussions of these very things, yet full of anguish. Where was that anguish now ? Furthermore, she reflected, weren't some of the character traits that she had found useful in helping her understand and exist in the world -- ambivalence, restraint, modesty, even inhibition -- products of Eriksonian epigenetic failures ?

What was that Thomas Merton had written ?

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.

Was that not another way of putting the first two noble truths ? That life is suffering, and that suffering arises from clinging ?


But still, there it was. That nagging little selbstliebe that kept her stealing sidelong glances at the hard-hatted hunk in the bucket truck, wondering what in Heaven's name he meant by that wink.

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