Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Good Week for Death

It has been a good week for death. But not in the way you might think.

True, there have been a number of prominent deaths: filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni; the pioneering TV late-night host Tom Snyder; and Bill Walsh, the celebrated coach of the professional football team from San Francisco. There are probably a number of others that I've overlooked.

But Death, as I think Bergman himself discovered later in his career, does not play chess. Or if it does, it certainly does not seek to checkmate us into oblivion.

This is the lesson of the book with which many of us began this week, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As I mentioned in my review, this 750 page conclusion to the Potteriad is, first and foremost, the completion to an insight teaching on death. Death in Nature is both consummation and transformation: it affords us the chance to see the poetry in a true life, and to contemplate the wondrous realities that await us all, beyond it.

In Rowling's story, Harry finds that the "deathly hallows" are useless--indeed, worse than useless, because they are the product of an illusion. The power and immortality of these objects are made of the same vapor as Voldemort's ambitions; their only strength is in deceit, their only substance is the corrupting corpse of belief. By leading Harry astray, the hallows steal his energy and persist, until the bubble of delusion is finally burst in the luminous scene at King's Cross Station, where a living truth shines into every corner, even the one where the squalling mutation of the baby Voldemort lies, helpless and ignored.

Death, Harry finds at last, is simply a movement between dimensions--"the last great adventure," as his mentor told him back in Harry's very first year at Hogwarts. Ghosts and tyrants fail to perceive this, and so they quail at the very gates of freedom, and retreat, either into a shadow-life or an obsession with power.

So even though Harry does not spend a day in class during his final Hogwarts year, his education is completed more fully than if he had spent the rest of his life at school. Dumbledore reveals to him the heart-knowledge that he will need to return to the earth and finish the work of killing ego, merely by facing it down and taking back the life that it steals from our misplaced fears. As in the graveyard of the fourth year, Harry does not need a killing curse to win; the disarming charm ('Expelliarmus') is all that is required to make Voldemort kill himself.

Perhaps what Harry learns in the end is that there are really no such things as wizards. There is only magic, and the humans through whom it is done. This is as every poet knows: we can never be the wind, but only the reed.

So it has been a good week for Death, because many of us have learned so much about its living reality. It is a beginning of a better understanding, which we will have to build upon from here. For has anything in all the world been given such bad press as Death?

It goes on, of course, to this day: in the same week as the deaths of those celebrated people mentioned above occurred, another story emerged in the news. You may have heard about Oscar the cat, a resident of a hospice center, who seems to have an unerring instinct for death. He visits those who are soon to die, and has proven himself so accurate in his "predictions" of death that the physician who works at the hospice wrote a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine about the kitty that one vapid news headline would call "The Grim Creeper".

The most likely truth is that Oscar knows what Harry Potter had to struggle to learn: that Death in the way of Nature is a movement between dimensions, a passage through a veil whose fluttering light conceals another dimension, into whose gentle realm the voyagers of Earth move with a reluctance swiftly followed by delight. Ghosts are made only by those violent and disastrous deaths that violate Nature, or by the inner suicides of tyrants. For these, Death is no more to be blamed than is Life.

This insight upon Death was expressed by a poet named Lao Tzu, in a teaching he delivered some two and a half millennia before Harry Potter first received, and survived, the mark of delusion that made him "the last horcrux":

To live in the Tao means abiding in the eternal—
Perceiving completely, with all one’s being:
Life is never exhausted;
It is only delusion that dies.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Into The Silence

How best to honor the memory of a man who gave the world so much? Watch one of his masterpieces again. Click the graphic to view The Seventh Seal.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Listening to the Quantum Song

Another weekend walk through Prospect Park, Brooklyn (music by Debussy, played by Peter Schmalfuss; Quicktime 5.2MB, 3:00, click to view)

I have very little of any value to teach, but here is something:

If I could be heard by the young as a sort of love advisor, my advice to them would be so plain: savor every caress, every night and day of ecstasy, every dance, every look, every touch.

Experience each of these, and each other, as if there were never to be another, even though there will be, and even though you may never have such a conscious thought (in fact, it's better if you don't).

After all, it is how you feel your way through life, not what you think about it, or how much, that matters.

Mind is always busy in the background; you don't need to force it. Focus instead on all your senses—those of your bodily organs and the others that whisper to the mind from within, the words and the images of the quantum song.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

One of the cool things about reading literature for meaning rather than form is that you get to review books like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows without giving away anything that would be considered a "spoiler." Herewith, then, a metaphorical review, if you will, of the last tome in the Potteriad, which I just finished this afternoon.

First, one background note: the reported online page scans from last week, along with the "news" of the prominent deaths in Book 7, turned out to be vapid falsehoods. Now this may have been simply a devious piece of hype-stirring on the part of the publishers and their advertising machinery: I put nothing past Madison Ave. and corporate America anymore. But I was certainly relieved to find that the "scans" were lies, because the outcomes they predicted made no literary or metaphorical sense. Once the ending is better known to all, we'll revisit this point.

This book helped me to confirm a loose formula that I have held about Rowling's work over the entire series, and it is this: the more the magic done in the stories is applied to ordinary living, the greater is its appeal and the more compelling the reading. But the more the magic strives toward the fantastical, the more tedious is the reader's experience.

Thus, the numerous and lengthy warfare scenes in this book are, like the slightly overwrought conclusion to the fifth book, somewhat turgid and dense, especially the Armageddon-like scene at the close of this 7th tome. I suspect this is what Kakutani of the Times was referring to in the complaint about "lumpy passages of exposition and a couple of clunky detours".

So it is no coincidence that the one place where Rowling's narrative fails to support her otherwise clarion message is in one of the warfare segments, where Harry—yes, Harry Potter—uses the "unforgivable curses" on another. In other words, he tortures a person, thus supporting that disgusting Bushspeak/Jack Bauer ideology that torture is OK as long as the good guys are doing it. The entire scene is a blot on an otherwise lovely conclusion to this epic series.

Yet that is as critical as I can be of Rowling's work, which in other respects glows with insight, intricately-ordered detail, and with the courage of an author willing to take on the most challenging human issues of truth and meaning.

One example prominent in this last story is death. By the end of Deathly Hallows, we have a broad view of Rowling's teaching on death. It is a movement between dimensions (according to the latest theories of quantum physics and nonlinear dynamics, there are somewhere between 12 and 26 dimensions, all but four of them outside the ordinary reach of human bodily consciousness). Since the characters of the Hogwarts universe are metaphorical creations, they are given the ability to move freely between and communicate across these dimensions.

This suggests a feature that the film versions of these novels have but poorly appreciated. The ghosts of Hogwarts, for example—presented as mere eye-candy in the Columbus films and generally ignored in the others except as plot-pushers and information-bearers—represent a crucial piece of these death-teachings in the novels. This seventh is no exception, with a ghost providing insight, and some delineation of the ordering of the formless realm in the closing scenes. The ghosts are a recurring and forlorn reminder—to Harry and to ourselves—of the grave consequences of a superficial understanding of death, such as those we find in the various institutional religions of the world. This feature of Rowling's work is perhaps worth the deepest attention and reflection from modern readers.

Another feature of the Rowling opus, again prominently explored in this last novel, is the destructive tendency of government to brainwash both grownups and children into the most insidious complacency, the most sheepish and slavish dependency, the most arrogant self-importance, the most violent and inevitably suicidal group mindsets. The best that can be said or expected of the State and of traditional, hierarchical group leadership is expressed near the end of the novel—which comes, appropriately, from a voice in one of those other dimensions:

...perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who...have leadership thrust upon them and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.

The last overall theme, to the Potteriad as a whole and this last novel in particular, concerns the nature and action of personal truth. Rowling teaches, above all, that truth is not a mysterious entity, either in its essence or its pursuit, except as we accept the Voldemort indoctrination of the individual's inadequacy before the group's supremacy; the weakness of the person beneath the rigid and engraved monuments of an institution. As we disperse or dis-spell (to borrow a magical expression) these points of dogma, then the mystery dissolves before us. When we penetrate the vapor of the Pensieve, light and clarity are revealed.

Another feature of truth that is beautifully revealed in this final story is that truth is never fixed in place or stuck in the ground of time: it is transforming rather than amorphous; expanding rather than evanescent; growing rather than dead or unyielding. In order for these features of truth to flow through our lives, we merely have to be receptive; open and sensitive to the change, flux, and growth of truth. Harry and his friends advance to the extent that their awareness of this remains clear and unobstructed by attachment or assumption.

A final comment to be made on Rowling's work as a whole concerns what is perhaps most topical about it. The Harry Potter novels comprise an alternative to the media-speak of our own government and its ideological parrots in television studios and newspapers. Today, we are still constantly hearing that "we must fight them over there so that we don't have to fight them here." The superficiality and destructive myopia of such phrases are revealed in the lessons and events of the Hogwarts stories, whose protagonists always seem to respond rather than assault; influence rather than occupy; defend rather than invade. The characters of Rowling's prose most often benefit from inner clarity in advance of outer action; their motto might well be "better to fight them in here (pointing within themselves) before we fight them out, or over, there."

Now that the readers of these stories understand (or soon will) the events and the outcomes for all their favorite characters, we may have reached the point where we may now seek some meaning from these tales. As I have mentioned before, it has been my experience, both in life and in the observation of government, legal affairs, and history, that real inquiry and true discovery only occur when everything is known. Thus, I would recommend to all readers who have experienced and loved these stories, that they work more deeply within themselves with the whole. Perhaps it is time, now that we know how it all "turned out", to turn within.

Saturday, July 21, 2007