Eat My Shorts 3 / "Near" "Death" "Experiences"
Death, advice, Kubrick, Wiman, shutting up.
Recently, after an unusually turbulent flight, we were on the final approach to San Francisco in an Airbus 319, about 2,000 feet up, when we violently yawed to the left and banked well over 30 degrees (to the left as well), as the engines spooled loudly and abruptly up. I watched the lights of the peninsula vanish from the left side windows as the bank angle increased, replaced first by ground and then by water. Then I heard Abby gasp and followed her gaze out of her right side window: there, seemingly very close, was another plane, flying parallel to us.
I assume that during an ILS approach, a TCAS-style system determined we’d come too close to the other plane and intervened; had it been the pilots who did so, I think we’d have gone around —there wasn’t much time to get back on a good approach path— but as it was we maneuvered to safety and then resumed a normal landing. It was fine, although seemed to shake a few passengers up a bit.
For about 2-3 seconds, I believed the plane was rolling over at a very low altitude: certain death. Although I’m typically afraid for the entire duration of flights —an irrational and annoying problem I developed in my 30s— in this moment I wasn’t exactly afraid. I mainly felt attentive: my mind was eager to observe and understand what was happening, to be “ready” for whatever was to follow. I thought briefly about smashing into the ground upside down, but it was a toneless thought: “That might be next, we’ll just see what happens.”
When I saw the plane and realized the situation and that we’d stabilized, I felt amazing, a feeling that didn’t leave for a little while; even the next day, recalling the intensity of the maneuver and those few seconds of sensory saturation, of braced focus, of inner-emptiness, I’d experience a surge of joy. It feels very good to be alive in context!
II. Heart (Part II)
Two nights later, while watching Kizzy jump on the sofa and sing a song of her own devising, I felt a physical rush of joy; in a conversation with David, I compared it to the sensation of shame or embarrassment in physical terms (although obviously not emotionally): it was “warm,” started in my chest, and then proceeded in waves to roll across my body, down into my legs. I thought: “There is nothing more beautiful than these moments with my daughter, this is what life is about.” It felt like bliss bursting inside of me; I don’t have this feeling often and was grateful to feel as I think I should about my family.
After a few moments, however, I noticed my heart absolutely pounding, pounding and racing; I felt dizzy and flushed, and my extremities started tingling. I wondered, thinking of my grandfather’s sudden death: “Is this a heart attack?” It didn’t abate; my watch told me my heart rate was just over 150 BPM. I didn’t want to disrupt Kizzy’s ebullience or interrupt Abby’s bath, so I subtly searched on my phone to try and suss out: was this marijuana-driven sinus tachycardia? Was this COVID- or Moderna-driven myocarditis? Was this my defective brain’s displaced panic or sublimated stress from a couple of weeks saturated in familial difficulties and aeronautical fears? Did I eat too much dessert, have too much caffeine? Was I facing “sudden cardiac death,” a side effect of one of my prescriptions?
It came and went a few more times over the next couple of hours. At one point, I stood outside the bathroom where Abby bathed; that way, if I collapsed, she’d hear it and could call 911. And it then happened every night for the next week. Each time, my primary thought was a new one: I do not want Kizzy and Abby to be alone. I’m no great shakes as a husband or father, but I suppose in these moments I felt acutely that my death would be hard for them, and I hated it; I’m much more afraid of dying-as-abandoning than I am of dying-in-itself. It’s a drag.
(I think I was drinking too much caffeine, but I still don’t know and my heart and chest still occasionally feel “weird.” I suspect there will be no answers).
III. Death and advice
I love Stanley Kubrick as much as dorks like me tend to, but I’ve been bothered for a long time by one of his most famous quotes:
The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism – and their assumption of immortality.
As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigour and liveliness).
Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
These are very fine remarks, and even true in various ways; I half adore them; but they are typically interpreted in a way that seems absurdly pat to me. The actual problem he’s addressing, after all, is that “our own light” is insufficient, feeble, and mortal, wholly inadequate for the vastness of the darkness of the pain, horror, and death we encounter, or for the scope of our hopes and longings! His language is vague, even if I can concede that it’s inspirational (and describes some of my own thinking anyway). How should someone whose child has just died “emerge from the twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan,” exactly? By “supply[ing] their own light”? What light does a creaturely and expiring human have to supply, anyway? It all reminds me of French existentialists trumpeting the heroism of “authentically” facing mortal meaningless; there’s nothing heroic about it; that’s what meaninglessness is: the impossibility of heroism.
It’s unfair to imagine Kubrick saying this to someone bleeding out or torn apart or riddled with tumors or mourning a loved one, but anything that cannot be said to them is questionably useful to the rest of us; death is death, and we’re all headed straight for it. It feels bad, man, much worse than remarks like his seem to suggest. Moreover, I suspect that even Kubrick would admit that whatever light humans can supply varies a lot by person. In other words: as with much existentialism, this advice may be pretty solid if you’re a world-class meaning-maker, a globally rare talent, a well-heeled collector of sublime experiences, an artist whose work gives form to the dreams and fears of the species, or whatever other kind of exceptional specimen may at least have a chance at illuminating the darkness.1 But many, most, nearly all of us are none of those things.
There are, in other words, billions of people who cannot “supply [their] own light,” if indeed anyone can in the face of suffering and death. Culture is almost always dominated by elites (of some form or another), and culture is the source for most of our moral philosophy; and I worry sometimes that the advice implied by this philosophizing is somewhere between “out of reach” and “actively harmful” for many. At other times, it merely seems ridiculous.
In My Bright Abyss, the poet Christian Wiman notes that he once loved the Wallace Stevens line: “Death is the mother of beauty.” After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, however, he felt differently.
“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.” In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.2
When death is closer to you, a very large percentage of moral philosophy and advice simply stops resonating; I think the observation that “there are no atheists in foxholes” is unfairly maligned. It’s less important as a commentary on humans and religious beliefs than as an observation that proximity to death produces very different mental states —and thus different intellectual and emotional outputs— than people imagine from safety. When we’re sitting in a comfortable chair, we might think: “Supply my own light!” When the darkness is closing in, I at least find that somewhat useless (though I don’t want to overstate the case; I still love the passage overall).
In any event: I have no idea whether Kubrick’s implied advice is good or bad, or for whom, or when, and I now realize that I should feel the same about much of my own advice.
IV. Don’t take me seriously
One example: if I’ve had a theme on this Substack in recent months, it’s been that less is known than we generally assume. By implication, I advise that about life’s great questions you really should “take no one’s word for it.” Above all, you shouldn’t take what you perceive to be “society’s” word, since
“Society” doesn’t know shit; it certainly doesn’t know you; and also
you don’t know “society”; you only know your projections, and nowhere are your projections more distant from reality than when painted onto abstractions like “society,” which —I am sorry to say— really doesn’t exist.3
I would argue that you should still of course make judicious, selective use of all sources of knowledge and wisdom available to you, but always with the awareness that no one knows anything. No one knows where the universe comes from. No one knows the real composition of large groups or large populations or what they think. Therapists are not authorities on philosophical / moral / values questions. Manichaeism is absurd (and Maggie Nelson knows it. And so on. Over the years, I’ve been interested in other issues of epistemology of this sort too: how, as Milan Kundera put it, “[r]emembering is not the negative of forgetting… [r]emembering is a form of forgetting,” or how Julian Barnes explores how inaccessible even our own history remains to us, and the like.
In other words: I advise people to “let facts create” them, rather than interpretations, theories, inherited beliefs, etc. But this advice may, like Kubrick’s, be variably appropriate. Perhaps many people —myself included!— should defer more to cultural norms, community beliefs, traditions, social values from their environment, and so on. How the hell would I know? Maybe the world is only improved when we —however foolishly or self-destructively— rely on it, depend on it, identify with it. And anyway: how can I say how I came to my relative psychosocial independence, or even whether I am in fact independent? Perhaps I was fortunate to inherit little from the world around me by virtue of being deranged or neglected as a child; perhaps I owe my good fortune to several “breakdowns” in which I shed many of the beliefs and values that I’d unintentionally incorporated into my being. I cannot say.
But it's hard for me to shake the sense that it is indeed “good” to be this way, or at least a solution to a common set of problems.4 In a recent post,wrote that
…in the cacophony of constant anger online, there’s a kind of person that plays an outsized role in the general tenor of ugliness and resentment that permeates online life… I’m talking about people, almost always college-educated, most gainfully employed, who have unrealized dreams in creative industries…. They have positions in the world that are, by international or historical comparison, quite comfortable. And yet they’re angry all the time, angry because of thwarted ambition and the sense that they were meant for more than comfort… They are… possessed of a deeply-ingrained cultural expectation that they’re supposed to desire more than middle-class stability and the fruits of contemporary first-world abundance.
I think deBoer is correct, but I get stuck on the upstream question: where the hell did these people get this “deeply-ingrained cultural expectation”? If the source is what I think it is —film, television, advertisements, social networks— it’s hard for me to muster the compassion these miserable folks surely deserve. I suppose I part ways from them in that I never expected jack shit from society; from an early age, it seemed clear to me that the world was straightforward about what its majorities and crowds valued, and that I could comply or not comply with its requirements for being esteemed or rewarded. Most importantly, if I chose not to comply, I shouldn’t be surprised not to be paid well, or not to be loved or adored or tolerated, or not to have a beautiful home (that someone else has to build), or not to travel widely (on planes operated by others, built by others), or not to have nice things (likewise: the work of others). That is: if I wanted the fruits of others’ labors, I’d have to do what they collectively wanted me to; if I wanted to go my own way, I couldn’t be dispirited that they weren’t going to underwrite my life pro bono Millsico.
But the bigger issue is: I never took “society” seriously at all, and I still don’t. I didn’t know anyone did when I was young, but many of my friends very much do now. The zeitgeist I grew up in valorized those who went their own way and went without: starving artists, off-the-beaten-path Bohemians, weirdos on the fringes. The costs were real, but to bear them was implicitly noble. The present mood seems to valorize those who acceptably go their own way, alienating an other no one respects, and are rewarded for it with material riches and social adulation. I can imagine scores of critiques of my own Gen X worldview, especially from the perspective of the ambitious and engaged who wish to reshape civilization and rely on the resentments of the people to do so; any mode of being that reduces entanglement with society is a threat to the politically aspirational even if a balm to the individual. Is it selfish to prioritize sanity or happiness over “struggle”? How could I trust myself to answer? (In my heart, I scream: no, it is not! The struggle emphatically isn’t real! But my heart is unreliable; I know I’m a kook).
All of which is to state the obvious: I have no idea how to be, or how to relate what works for me to general morality or psychology or philosophy, and I really need to work harder to avoid preachiness; it’s one of my worst qualities, and I have a lot of really bad qualities (as well as relating to The Man Without Qualities). Maybe deBoer’s enraged creatives are an important part of how our cultural ecosystem evolves; maybe my disengagement with society has always been “cope”; maybe I’m just a mentally ill mysticism-seeking weirdo who should get back to reviewing books and stop pretending I know the first fucking thing about life, society, humanity. I’ll do my best, as I guess we all basically do.
I am skeptical it’s much of a bulwark against despair even for the extraordinary, but at least someone like Kubrick did, indeed, seem to have much light to supply. Still: what does it amount to against death?! Please.
He adds: “Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination.”
I am sorry to say this because Margaret Thatcher most famously said it, and since Thatcher was a controversial politician this claim is often interpreted to be about e.g. social services. But wholly apart from 1980s conservative politics, it is a pedestrian philosophical point more or less beyond dispute, in my opinion. This article on the subject is quite good, and notes that one of my heroes —Karl Popper— made a similar assertion himself.
It’s crucial to remember, though, that all solutions to problems become problems of their own requiring additional solutions. It’s not hard to imagine what’s wrong with my epistemological / psychological posture, what bad ends it leads to individually or socially. I have no idea, for example, how to think about “beliefs.” They’re clearly “real” in consequential ways, yet seem wholly unreal in other ways, lagging indicators of psychology and vibes.