Today is the last day of this column on Beliefnet.com. After over 12 years of daily writings on Beliefnet, I’m moving on. I thank God for this wonderful experience. As far as I’ve been told, I’m the last original Beliefnet contributing editor and writer; everyone else is new. Now, however, I need to make some […]
Mark C. Taylor, noted philosopher, scholar, professor of religion and Chair of the Columbia University Department of Religion, has published a glowing, often super-real and sometimes surreal collection of essays on the human condition. “Field Notes From Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living” from Columbia University Press is a must read.
Writing in an alternating dyad of daylight and nighttime entries, Taylor gives us 365 short essays that take us on a roller coaster of imminent demise and cheated time. We’re hurled about, shifted, dropped from high ledges, scooped up resurrected, then tossed again into the abyss. What do we learn upon our return? What the hell do we do when the ride is over? Or is it ever really over?
The amount of detail, thought, and personal life story here is remarkable, and not something you’ve ever seen the likes of before. Fasten your seatbelt, the ride begins with Taylor at the top of his career falling ill, saying goodbye to his wife on an ordinary day. Ordinary, but not so well. Taylor had felt ill, dizzy, and not himself all weekend but that morning he had to go to work, some 150 miles away. His wife had already driven halfway back home when she got an alarming call – Taylor was on his way to an emergency room. Taken too ill to make his own entry that morning, she writes, “When we returned to the ICU, we were not prepared for what we saw: tubes, electrodes, and wires connected to Mark to monitors that registered a steady flow of numbers…In a few minutes the doctor who had accompanied us from the ER came in to talk with us, ‘May I speak with you alone? …Your husband is very, very sick. He is in septic shock, and his vital organs are in danger of shutting down…’ We asked some questions because we are all used to a world in which information gives power, comfort, and control. Finally I summoned the courage to ask the question I had been dreading, ‘but he is going to be OK, isn’t he?” No, he wasn’t simply going to be OK. His life would never again be the same.
Surviving that episode, but not ever fully recovered, the kinds of life threatening illnesses he’s gone through one never quite recovers from, as Taylor points out. To recover is to return to the same person that one was in the first place. Taylor finds himself in the category of survivor, yet reinvents the term into an entirely new reality. He fully lives the fragile existence between finitude and infinitude that is our predicament. We cannot escape death, yet we cannot fully live without embracing it; we cannot not live if we choose to live and that brings us to a mystery which is never fully solved. Taylor firmly, resolutely, chooses life.
He grows ideas. He plants gardens. He harvests concepts and post-modern, existential seeds of being and its first cousin, non-being. “What we most long for is elemental. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. The elemental is the original, the first principle, the ground of whatever is whatever is not. It is the underlying substance without which nothing can be. As such, the elemental is that from which everything emerges and to which all eventually returns.” He is, we are, that dirt he digs. That we dig.
Taylor writes about splitting his time between city and country. For 35 years he has lived in western Massachusetts, high on a hill, in the middle of forest and small-town intellectual life as a professor at Williams. Now, with his appointment at Columbia University, he divides his time between the wilds of nature and the chaos and culture of New York City. He finds the two both similar and starkly different. Always one to embrace technology, be it shovel, pick-ax or trowel – computer, cell phone or matrixed network, Taylor seems to be at home anywhere. He’s rooted in past; planted in present; futuristically comfortable.
“Though steel and glass remain, the arcades have become digital, and the commodities virtual. In the city, place is transformed into the space of anonymous flows. When technologies shift first from steel and steam to electricity and then to information networks, currents are redirected and the rate of change speeds up. Mobility, fluidity, and speed intersect to effect repeated displacements in which everything becomes ephemeral and nothing remains stable or solid. In this world, faster is always better and speed becomes an end in itself. For those circulating in these currents, there is never time to pause and ask, ‘Faster and faster but for the sake of what?'”
The tension between life and death, the speed and uncertainty of “last” times is ever-looming throughout Taylor’s essays. The last lesson, the last visit to a relative, the last moment of lovemaking, the last laugh, the last goodbye of a son or daughter is forever on the cusp, unbeknown to us until it’s happened. Then it’s the past. We scramble for meaning, and to learn something applicable to our own living and eventual demise. Taylor talks about his mother’s strokes and ultimate cerebral hemorrhage that ended her up in a hospital with life support. He gave her a kiss, feeling the warmth and perspiration on her forehead, thinking of what the neurologist had said shortly before this last good bye, “her brain just exploded.” By now that must be a family metaphor in the Taylor family of teachers, writers and professors.
Taylor reminisces: “Ever the teacher, in death my mother had a final lesson for me: every moment is the last moment or, in terms I would later read elsewhere, the last time returns eternally. This awareness need not weigh us down, rather, it can lift us up by helping us to realize the infinite value of what is always passing away.”
Recovering from, or rather surviving his struggle with septic shock and a constant life-threatening severe diabetes, while co-teaching “What is Life?” a course on philosophy and biology with a friend from the science department, Taylor received news of a biopsy. It was positive for cancer. “Nothing, absolutely nothing prepares you for the words, ‘I’m sorry, you have cancer.'” Taylor, the philosopher draws a distinction between recovery and survival, the latter moves you into a new sphere; a dance between what was old and never before possible, into a valuation of life’s fragility. “For survivors the acceptance of life’s fragility can actually be liberating. If the future everyone dreads has already arrived, there is no longer any reason for it to hold us in its grip. Once you realize that the end is near, even when it seems distant, time unexpectedly slows down. There is no longer any need to rush because whatever you think must be done quickly doesn’t really matter.” Not quite joy or happiness, for sure, and never anywhere near a painter of rosy scenarios, Taylor still manages to embrace the intimate relationships formed among cancer patients in waiting rooms and chemo suites.
Now in remission, Taylor makes the point that as a survivor, he is never fully “cured,” there is always some scar or remnant from the original trauma or repair. His serious case of incurable but now manageable diabetes is an example. Taylor’s pancreas does not manufacture insulin, so he is hooked up to a computerized insulin pump that has a tube embedded in his leg. Still partially manually operated, he dreams of the day that it will be fully automated, in effect transforming him into both human and cyber-being, monitored by a net connection. “The mechanical and digital devices that now function as my pancreas are, in other words, nodes in this worldwide web, and my body has become a prosthesis of a prosthesis… We become both metamind and metabody–cells in an intelligent global organism whose lifeblood is information. The networks that
sustain life are the current embodiment of what once was named the divine Logos. In today’s divine economy, to be is to be connected and to pull the plug is to die.” Here is an elegant example of Taylor’s stark and complex humanity: a mix of philosopher, metaphysician, and medical theologian.
A lot of this book I honestly find to be quite difficult yet satisfying in a strange and unexpected way. This is no lightweight read. Filled with haunting memories of those gone, chased with bitter pills of our limitations and eventual demise, there are glimmers of hope and happiness to be found. Taylor is aware of the challenges he’s placed in front of the reader. “Happy eras, we are told, are the blank pages of history, and so it would seem – of books. Perhaps it is because it takes more courage to write about happiness than unhappiness.” He points us to his favorite joyous writer, Nietzsche who is himself in a desperate mode. “Intense unhappiness becomes bearable by imagining that things might be otherwise elsewhere. The writer must write this elsewhere to get through the night and the darker the night, the better the writing.”
It is in this “elsewhere,” as the title leads, this vivid point of real and unreal playing together, where, or rather elsewhere, that Mark C. Taylor both uncomfortably and comfortably resides.