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.