Drawing by Lee van Laer, 2016
Created in Procreate, with iPad pro and apple pencil
Over the last month, I've read When Breath Becomes Air, a book written by a neurosurgeon who died of terminal lung cancer; and I am now reading Marion Coutts' The Iceberg, another meditation on mortality. I can recommend the first book because the author, Paul Kalanithi, comes to some significant (if not, for students of the Gurdjieff method, surprising) realizations about the nature of relationship and humanity, essential ones. The book also manages to clear an emotional bar and give us a worthy picture of how we struggle with ourselves and our mortality.
Marion Coutt's book is an altogether different cup of tea. (Should you buy this book and read it? Absolutely.) The writing is extraordinary and, quite frankly, at the level of genius; that being said, I ought to point out that it is, I think (I have not finished it yet) a very intellectually-centered book. The level of intellect at work here is, however, so well above average — perhaps it's even well above average genius — that it's a marvel to behold. Every page seems to unveil intimate observations that will be, for centuries, the envy of other authors who wish to help us see what we are.
In any event, enough of the accolades, which the book has received from many reviewers far more important than myself. I'm just going to pass on a particular quote from page 28.
Everything living bears the fact of its own dissolution. This is a given. But for us it has become tangible. The universe as experienced is not universal. The universe as experienced is personal. It turns its face towards the individual. It presents an individual form. This individual form is ours. All that adheres will be lost.
The author has encapsulated an esoteric truth in the first three sentences. The organic sensation of being is, in its own way, all about understanding the fact of our own dissolution. If we come into relationship with a higher energy, and we absorb it into the marrow of our bones — the valances of our electrons, the molecular crystals of our DNA — we come into relationship with our own death. Now, our death is, as Coutts points out, a given; but it is this tangible experience of it, this physical experience, that matters. We should know at all times that we will die. The organic sensation of being brings us into a loving and intelligent relationship with that. We need to establish this relationship, because we cannot treat death as an enemy. To do so is, indeed, to "die like a dog," the one hope Gurdjieff offered us if we followed his method. So we need to find a positive and intelligent, and obedient, way to live in parallel with the fact of our own death.
I think her second point, that the universe as experienced as personal, brings us back to many of the points I have made about the nature of personhood and the fact that the universe is personal and God is personal. The act of depersonalization of religious impulse, which has unfortunately encoded itself as a dogma in some practices — notably some flavors of Buddhism, but it's also present in other degrees in other practices — is a dehumanizing action, and there is a correlation between humanity and the personal. The expression of humanity is, irrevocably, personal — and no amount of attempting to philosophize or rationalize one's way out of that fact can ever remove the personal from the expression of humanity.
In confronting our death, we enter a deeply personal piece of territory. Perhaps it is the most deep and the most personal. Certainly, at my age — 60 years — mortality presents a clearer and more definite picture, and demands a place of privilege in the art of contemplation. This is one of the gifts of age: we grow in depth.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.