Monday, April 15, 2013
by Jack Reeves
Thou canst not see my face,
for there shall no man see me
and live. --Exodus 33:20
HOWARD LONG HAD AND EXCEPTIONAL CONDITION: HE WAS APPARENTLY obsessed--literally to death--by the conviction that he had seen God. It would seem that his demise was in keeping with the biblical view on the matter: that no one can live if he sees God.
It is not that God struck him dead. Howard committed suicide. To the more secular--or cynical--this might mean that Howard was more insane than seer.
A single man of 50, a high school literature teacher for 26 years, those who knew him considered him reserved and introspective--but certainly not hiding a life of "quiet desperation."
But claiming to see God is not--inherently--a mental aberration. The rank and file of the rationally religious profess to see God's hand in the world; saints and sinners speak to and are avowedly spoken to by the Absolute.
However, Howard’s incident with the intangible was individual. That’s what leaves the lingering suspicion among some that he, indeed, may have stumbled on something that others have missed, or for some reason do not recognize. So it seems.
Howard and I had been friends for almost 12 years. It was in the course of consoling and assisting his mother following his death that I had the opportunity to borrow and read his journals. He had kept them for more than 40 years.
In the last days of his life he described in the latest journal an insight he had while staring at a map. He mused how the continental land masses stood out in relation to the surrounding oceans. At first blush, not an earth-shaking insight. But from this he reasoned that our perception of anything--including the perception of God--may occur in a similar context: as a figure-ground relationship.
He correlated this conclusion with a figure--actually, a picture puzzle--that is initially perceived as nonsensical. But given a clue, the mind does an unconscious flip-flop. “It’s a cow head,” he was told, whereupon he immediately recognized a bovine face. Howard noted this rather common phenomenon in his journal.
"It's just like seeing the cow," he wrote. Odd. Practically silly. But the sentence should be taken seriously. Howard Long clearly did, for they were the last words he wrote before he tied a plastic bag over his head and, in the greatest imaginable act of will, suffocated himself to death.
Carrying the journals home, I wondered if they would offer any insight into his totally unexpected suicide. None of his friends suspected that he had a dark side. But, perhaps, that is the nature of some dark sides. Whatever demon dwelled in his being, it was a shadowy dementia.
I found a quiet occasion one evening to read them. As I opened the oldest journal, I felt as if I were a voyeur, a postmortem eavesdropper prying into the privacy of a soul. The first entry was dated January 1, 1962.
Upon the ground
I collapsed in despair.
Job's comforters appeared to me.
“Why are you in such anguish?” asked Eliphaz.
--“Because I taste the bitterness of death in each moment.”
Eliphaz relied, “You have sinned.”
--“Is it sin to dread death?”
Bildad answered, “Trust God.”
--“God knows not me nor I he.”
Zophar spoke: “God is love!”
--“Does God truly love?”
Suddenly from a whirlwind a voice thundered:
“Presumptuous faultfinder! Ask of me what you will!”
--I cried, “Help me to love my fate!”
January 4, 1962
The world in itself has no meaning. Thus we posit God: THAT to which we can relate both ourselves and the universe.
January 5, 1962
I was alone yesterday when I read Camus’ The Stranger. I slowly read the first chapter because I wanted to digest each word. Finishing it, I paced back and forth, mulling the story over in my mind. Many thoughts flooded my consciousness.
He just asks to live his life; to enjoy the simplicities--sunsets, smells.... I found myself struggling to write the last two words for I was suddenly overcome with such emotion that tears flooded my eyes, and I felt their warmness stream down my face.
In this moment, I cried for Meursault. I was also crying for myself. I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath to regain composure. Two phrases came to mind: “that dark wind blowing from my future”; “the benign indifference of the Universe.”
January 6, 1962
Today I thought more dispassionately about The Stranger. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I felt that I understood Camus. I recalled the affinity I felt with him when I read his words: “Man is born, struggles, and dies. He is innocent and yet he suffers. He is tormented; he is alone.” Man is, indeed, an “unhappy animal.”
January 8, 1962
Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
variable as the moon,
always dost thou wax and wane.
first dost thou mistreat us,
and then whimsically
thou heedest our desires.
As the sun melts the ice,
so dost thou dissolve
both poverty and power.
Thou dost withdraw my health and virtue,
thou dost threaten my emotion and weakness
At this hour,
therefore, let us pluck the strings
Let us mourn together,
for fate crushes the brave. --(Carl Orff: Carmina Burana)
January 9, 1962
Life: at birth we jump from a height with a rope around our neck. Sooner or later we must reach the end....
Death always triumphs.
Man is judged, condemned, and sentenced before he is born. But the tragedy for man lies in his consciousness of his existence and of his inevitable end. This is life--my life....I am always aware of my silent and invisible Companion.
January 14, 1962
Albert Schweitzer has written that existence offers us the disconcerting spectacle of life in contradiction with itself. Freud concluded the same when he spoke of the opposing life and death instincts.
Disregarding a few areas in which human intelligence has been able to forge some degree of mathematical and chemical predictability, life is an enigma, a mystery, a paradox. It is happiness and suffering, hope and despair, purpose and absurdity.
February 3, 1962 (22nd birthday)
I am feeling more and more as though I am a man who has experienced the limitations of life without its possibilities--the limitations which have increasingly forced me to seriously contemplate the possibility of life’s great alternative.
February 4, 1962
Each day I climb Peniel.
There God and I wrestle.
At day’s end I lie
broken and beaten.
Once an angel asked me:
“What child would affront his father?”
And I shouted:
“What father does not know his own child!”
March 21, 1962
Much of life is no more than each man’s struggle with his loneliness. Our alienation is a precipice upon which we stand and peer into the dreaded abyss of the Nothing.
On rare occasions in life the grip of despair is lessened, when our loneliness is assuaged by the blending of itself with another’s. For a time we find consolation in the bleak desert of human existence as we embrace in mutual pain.
Too often we annihilate our comfort and redemption. Like the drowning person whose panic drowns the rescuer we destroy our own salvation. Then there is the guilt and the loneliness. And once again we turn back to the abyss and purposelessly await the arrival of another stranger with whom we might merge our emptiness.
April 4, 1962
Tristan and Isolde: a Spiritual Orgasm
It is a lonely night.
I walked the streets communing with my solitude.
I could not sit alone while the floor above
creaked with the rhythm of love.
The lovers are not alone. Each has momentarily forgotten
individual loneliness in the loneliness of the other.
The mist silently bathes the chilly night air.
(Even the rain seems lonely.)
The streets are empty; the fog glows with a shekinah radiance,
opaquely passing the color spectrum.
I wonder what the lovers are doing.
Is their passion consummated? Is he holding her closely?
Perhaps she is caressing him in ecstasy and innocence.
They crossed the threshold into a physical and spiritual
paradise. Do they question the meaning of what they have share?
Like a holy communion, a man and woman sit naked
together, pondering the infusion of grace each has given and
received from the other.
At my door, I crush my cigarette on the wet step, taking a
last look at the misty canopy.
Inside, all is still and warm. I lie down and listen to the rain.
I think of the lovers and escape my pain in sleep.
May 19, 1962
I live imprisoned in the dungeon of self;
my existence grows more absurd each day.
While I struggle to conquer the Nothing with a fancied meaning, the marrow is being sucked from my bones and my soul from my breast.
I must live with the increasing awareness that life’s goal is death. Life is the greatest enigma, for without it death does not exist.
June 10, 1962 (daddy’s 50th birthday)
Death mocks all. It creeps in to destroy our bravest triumphs over self and existence. It mingles its reality with every joy: this shall pass away. I wake from a troubled sleep to the thought that someday I will not be alive; I must someday cease existing. Why did life become conscious of itself? Is creation’s end to contemplate its own extinction? This is absurd!
July 26, 1962
JUSTIFIED AND CONDEMNED
August 3, 1962
“He who would save his life shall lose it; he who would lose his life shall save it.”
Perhaps these words are the apex of wisdom, the paradox of life which shall ultimately triumph over its contradiction. No man can save his life, for we are born to die. This is the inevitable end of all that exists.
Only the individual, with full knowledge of both the preciousness and precariousness of life, can wrestle with fate and beat it. He who would take his life into his own hands robs creation of a total victory over life.
August 11, 1962
We do not know why the processes of creation gave rise to life nor why matter evolved to the conscious level. It is as though the goal of life has been to become aware of its own existence, and then to live in fear of extinction. This is the cynical ethical ground which permeates morality.
Yet, if there is no God who takes responsibility for his own acts, and if there is no cosmic savior to whom man can turn, then creation reaches its pinnacle whenever an individual, in full awareness of this dilemma, will stand up and assert before this amoral order: “I am responsible!” This person is the crown of life, for in spite of egocentrism which acknowledges only its own will to live, and death, which mocks life itself, there is redemption in the refusal to participate in creation’s absurdity.
September 1, 1962
Oh, only to not be aware of what one is!
We must never take ourselves so seriously as to be unable to laugh at our own profundities. To do so is to fail to comprehend the finitude of all wisdom.
September 4, 1962
I am a rather lonely person. My daily bread, my daily illusion, is that someday I shall find happiness in who I am--or that I shall be able to accept what I shall never be. My life is largely my reaction to the loneliness, anxiety, and boredom that together make up my conscious hours.
September 5, 1962
The spiritual must lead to the sensual, and the sensual to the spiritual. Both must exist in tension.
October 11, 1962
The Eternal in eternity
Creation exploded forth at his word.
The Creator saw his world,
And the cosmos reverberated his edict:
“It is good.”
But the One was still alone.
He though, “I will create man in my own image.”
Beside the waters he knelt,
In his hands he formed the clay;
He breathed upon it and man became
a living soul.
He said: “It is good.”
Then the Creator stepped back into eternity.
November 22, 1962
There once lived a saint
Whose life was a living sacrifice
To God and man.
Each day was an act of worship--
Thanksgiving and service.
Thus, the saint spent himself.
Having fought the good fight
And kept the faith,
Alas, old he lay dying.
“Father,” he whispered, “unto Thee
I have committed all my life.”
A mocking voice replied:
“Not yet, not yet....”
December 2, 1962
There was once a man.
Each year an angel
Reported on his life.
“Almighty, the boy is innocent,
happy; he loves his life.”
Ten years went by.
“Almighty, he is now perplexed
Still, he hopes and strives.”
On his 30th birthday the angel
Came before God and said:
“Last year he took his life;
He died bestial and bitter.”
After a pause
The Great One spoke:
“Had he no responsibility for life?”
Am I before an impenetrable veil covering the innermost secret of creation? Is the universe both unfathomable and a surd?
January 1, 1963
I despise the peddlers of deception
Who say “to die is gain”
And cloak tragedy with delusion.
They call death “Friend”--
“A festival on the road to freedom”--
Confounding truth with lies.
Understanding neither life nor death,
These squalid panderers compromise with
And seat death at life’s right hand.
At death let no one console me
With pious absurdities
About someone dying in my stead,
Or disregard my dread with the empty myth:
“The best of all, God is with us.”
Have I the strength,
With clutched fist
I will curse that one,
And his Friend, my enemy,
Who since inception has
Stalked my life.
My life’s deep pain
Is that each moment
Is born poisoned.
Each day I live
In my shroud;
At night, my bed a coffin.
I laugh at my own madness and
Hope that by embracing death
I shall bar its defeat in life.
“Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est!”
A powerful and surprising black portrait. The theme of death verily permeates everything, as an obsession. Written 40 years ago, he had borne these bleak visions all his life.
I peruse the rest of the journals. Each year seemed to repeat the same themes that he had recorded in 1962 and 1963. I was curious as to what he had been thinking in the last months of his life. I found the 2004 journal and began reading.
The entries of the first month were much like those of earlier years. One sentence, written on July 4, was particularly revealing: “I must avoid self-inflected death as the ultimate resolution of my life....”
July 5, 2004
BEHIND THE MASK
Diaphanous clouds across the moon
Gossamer ghosts, chased
As by invisible cosmic spirits
Through this bewitching black void.
A silhouetted pine thrusts
Upward its boughs to
Heaven’s inky vault,
And Orion rings its nettle crown
In reciprocating spender.
Jasmine and pine and
The assonant scents of summer hover
In this moon-bathed wood,
Shadowy images lit, singularly frozen in
In this still-life night
I muse of my being and all being
And why and how and when
It all did begin
And whither its end.
And in this silent sanctuary I believe
I can see,
In this epiphany,
The face of the One Great Face
Behind the mask.
What a contrast! I reread the poem. I was struck by its lack of cynicism; it was devoid of the anger that was so transparent in the older entries. Indeed, it had a ring of redemption, even revelation! Is this the poem of a mad man?
The July 6 entry recorded the figure-ground and cow’s head reflections.
July 7, 2004
I recall today another perceptual puzzle, where one sees either a lovely woman or a silhouetted hag, depending on which background mentally dominates: the black or the white. What does this indicate about reality?
July 9, 2004
The physical universe: does it exist only as figure against ground?
July 10, 2004
We ask the wrong question: “Who created the universe?” presumes that at one time it did not exist, that it was created ex hihilo. Ex nihilo nihil fit--from nothing, nothing is produced.
Does a billiard ball striking another cause the second to move? Is this a misperception of the laws of motion? Perhaps the second ball moves according to these laws ‘on its own’--only indirectly by the kinetic energy of the first ball’s impact. It’s as credible as the prevailing perceptual presumption!
July 17, 2004
The One Great Face behind the mask!!
July 19, 2004
Figure-ground, yin-yang, mind-matter. Do these constructs point to the indivisibility of God and creation? God is everything creation is not.
July 21, 2004
God, it would seem, is the background of existence, of the world. Concomitantly, God’s existence is contingent upon figure. Are the universe and God co-constituted and co-extensive? “Without the world God is not God.” --Hegel
July 22, 2004
I am awestruck by the probability that creation may not be the mask concealing the Great Face. Rather, the creation is the sine qua non of our perception of God. Everything that exists, even to quantum particles, is the REFLECTION of the Great Mirror ‘behind’ it all. Without the universal foreground we do not see, indeed we cannot see, the Mirror!
Can one see God and live?
Am I my own executioner?!!! (Donne)
IT’S JUST LIKE SEEING THE COW.
I lay the jounal down and walked outside. The sky was clear, the stars brilliant. The Milky Way unfurled a star-spangled tapestry across the heaven and Venus burns against the celestial canopy.
Was Howard Long insane? Had he struggled with his demon death until he took arms against his sea of troubles and ended them? So many questions unanswered.
Did he sense, even three four decades ago, that he had a “dark wind blowing from the future”? Was his tragic end inevitable?
Perhaps he was lucid--only he dared to climb Peniel too high and there, in sober sanity, saw from that never-before-mounted summit the reality toward which our faiths and philosophies only point.
For Howard Long, the painful pilgrimage of his life and spirit has ended. And, perhaps, along his personal Damascus Road he gained rather than lost his sight. Does he now see his Maker face to face?
Notwithstanding any avowed revelation of the divine, it begs the question of monotheism: is it thus that "Quos deus vult perdere prius dementat?" (Those whom God wishes to destroy He first makes mad.)
Arguably, so it seems.