"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 27, 2015

In Search Of The Contemplative Life–Idle Chatter, Gossip, And Social Glue

I was always advised to keep my own counsel; or, in my mother’s words, “Keep your big mouth shut unless you have something to say”. A bit harsh I thought, but the years have added luster to her advice. There are far too many prolix gabbers around, and they disturb the peace.

Television is a bad place to start because talk show hosts and their guests are paid to shoot their mouths off; and televangelists purses would be empty if they behaved like Franciscan monks.

There is still one channel which broadcasts the Catholic Mass; and for all the elaborate statuary, gold and silver, flamboyant robes and chasubles, it is a silent, contemplative event. It is meant for shut-ins, but I watch it when it is broadcast in the evening.  Whether its producers intended this time slot or whether its due to ‘low ebb’ programming, the timing is perfect.  There is nothing but prescribed, familiar, silence at the end of a long day. It puts the tiresome, office meetings; the tireless ‘sharing’; and the endless repetition in perspective. 


The old priest on Our Catholic Mass mutters his way through the Offertory, Nicene Creed, Kyrie, and Gloria.  His hands shake as he raises the chalice at the moment of consecration; and he dodders his way back and forth to the altar.  However, he is devotional, pious, serious, and nearly silent. I can hardly hear his mutterings let alone follow the prayers.  It doesn’t matter. He and the Mass are calming.

The movie Into Great Silence chronicles the lifes of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery high in the French Alps. The monks pray, attend Mass, work in the garden, read sacred texts, and contemplate God.  Theirs is a silent order, and no one speaks. Only the shuffling of sandals, the rustle of parchment, the closing of shutters, and the sound of wooden spoons in metal bowls are heard.  There is no sign of boredom or restlessness in the demeanor of the monks.  They move slowly and deliberately and it seems that every movement while necessary and practical is devotional.

Into Great Silence

Recent research has shown that over 65 percent of people’s ordinary speech is gossip.  Not necessarily the snide and cruel kind; but catty nonetheless. Without thinking people share rumor and innuendo. Cancer? What else could explain a colleague’s depressive demeanor and wan look? Pregnant? Let’s hope not with all the children she already has. On the chopping block? Persona non grata? Soon to be left on the curb?

These researchers claim that such idle gossip is the social glue for a dismembered society, especially so in a socially-mediated age. It isn’t so much what we say, but the fact that we take time to say it, to bond however superficially with family and co-workers.

More cynical observers say that well over sixty-five percent of the American population has anything more to say than gossip.  Kant, Tolstoy, even Biblical exegesis are unknown. Not only do we stick to golf, casseroles, and grandchildren; we do it all the time. There seems to be no end to purposeless conversation.

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Now inanity can be worth something.  Henny Youngman, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx and the Borscht Belt comedians of the 40s knew how to make people laugh out of nothing. “Take my wife”, begins Youngman; and the audience knows exactly the shtick that follows, the ineptness of his wife and his loving tolerance of her. Beetle Bailey and Blondie were comic strips published daily for decades, all around the same, simple, familiar characters and episodes. Humor and inanity go together.

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If the 65 percent chatter had some irony, sarcasm, or wit behind it, the bar would be raised considerably; but as it is, it is permanent, low-frequency, static. Glue perhaps, but surely there must be a better way to bond.

Formal dinners where hostesses play by British and proper Anglo-American rules are the most agonizing. Religion and politics are off the table, but sexual innuendo encouraged.  At their best these parties are like Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers 30s musical comedies filled with  Cole Porter wit and charm. At their worst they are painful reminders of how little we really have to say but insist on saying it anyway.

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Most older people have less patience for both formal dinners and chit-chatty get-togethers than they did when they were young and when affability and charm were means to an end, a happy pastime when life held promise and social camaraderie was a way to share optimism. When promise and opportunity are long behind in the rearview mirror and the realization that there are far fewer years left than years past, older people begin to dump their baggage, empty their closets and clear the decks for running.

A good friend of mine and his wife were out of synch when it came to social divestment of assets.  He wanted no more than to complete his exegesis of John and Galatians, to return to Shakespeare’s Sonnets and re-read Tolstoy’s short stories while his wife still wanted to step out, travel, do things. They had been together long enough for this disconnect not to disrupt their marriage, but he knew that he still had to tend to her riggings.

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The problem with all this chatter and aimless remarks is that it takes up space. By the time the moment is right to enter a more contemplative life, the mind has no moorings or better yet no compass. There is no way to suddenly change course and navigate in deep, uncharted waters if all your sailing has been done on sunny seas with only a light chop. Imagine years of playful chatter, dinners out at Serafina, La Tomate, and L’Agneau  Enchaîné, summers on the Vineyard, golf in the Hamptons, skiing at Gstaad all accompanied by bonhomie, ribbing, and gossip; and then suddenly realizing that not only haven’t you figured anything out, it is already too late to wise up. You fall asleep over Hamlet, doze after five pages of Rousseau, and can make neither heads nor tails out of Huis Clos. A socially mediated life takes its toll.

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A monastic life is not so much a calling as an intellectual choice.  Any novitiate must have incredible insight to understand the illusory nature of the world, its impermanence and unreliability. In Hinduism the contemplative life is taken for granted, one of the four stages of life.  After the long period of education and family responsibilities, one is expected to wander and finally become an ascetic. All of a Hindu’s life is preparation for the final stage of contemplation and enlightenment.

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Not so in the West where there are no preparatory teachings of the Vedas. We haven’t been taught that life is maya, free will is meaningless in an illusory world, attachment to material things senseless and ignorant.  So we chatter, gossip, and joke, fulfilling venal and ultimately empty promises; and suddenly, bang, there it is.  The flickering light at the end of the tunnel and we have no clue what to do.

Man is an economic and a social animal, so no criticism is intended of our natural and predictable bonding and competitive behavior. Idle chatter is a very good way of sussing out the intentions of friends and potential enemies, finding prospective mates and avoiding predators. Like hooded eyelids which have no particular evolutionary advantage, shooting the shit with the guys is simply fun, a way to unwind, forget one’s troubles.

I have never seriously considered a monastic life; although the older I get the more I think I have wasted an opportunity.  What do I have now to account for it all but a lot of postcards and a few love letters from Haiti, Romania, and Islamabad? Surely jumping the spiritual queue and retreating to the La Chartreuse is possible here but certainly not in Hindu India. No one cuts in line there.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Memory–The Only Validation Of A Life Lived

There is nothing romantic about tripe soup, but one cannot choose one’s memories; and dinner at the Munteanu Restaurant in Bucharest featuring the Romanian specialty, a spicy soup of offal in broth with Usha Ismail have been forever twinned.

Tripe soup

Funny thing about memories. One can never choose which ones will stay and which ones will go, and why soup and Usha Ismail – one tasty but ordinary; and the other beautiful and permanent – should be fixed in my memory will always be a mystery.

It is unfortunate that tripe soup is popular only in Romania.  I cannot order it in Washington and have my memories kick-started; so the lovely Usha can only be recalled through photographs, postcards (of the old Soviet-era spa hotel in the Carpathians), and teary letters.

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I used to try Nabokov’s mnemonic method – deliberate retention of immediate events and frequent, repetitive recall to fix the memory as part of the personal archive – and I ran the reels of dinners, lovemaking, trips to the Carpathians over and over so that I would never forget them; but the memories either faded or were crowded out and all I was left with was tripe soup.

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I loved Usha very much. There was enough in common – education, professional experience and interest – to overcome the dramatic differences in breeding and background.  She was a Karachi Parsi whose family, along with the Tatas, Birlas, and Aluwalas, had built Bombay; but who moved to Pakistan not long after Partition to repeat the success and build the country’s major city into a regional maritime and trade center.  I had always wondered at what point culture trumps personal affect if not love; that is, when are cultural differences so pronounced that they get in the way of intimacy; but Usha and I apparently had enough psycho-social resonance that nationality and religion were unimportant.

The ease of memory recall is a function of the degree of emotional involvement and the depth of love or disappointment of the relationship.  In Usha’s case, I needed little more than the tripe soup and the trips to Sibiu, the Carpathians, and the Black Sea to keep the memories alive.  Not so for Berthe.  I had played the reels of tape of our long midsummer nights in Copenhagen and, ironically, in Islamabad, so often that there was no way that they could ever lose salience or permanence.  Or so I thought.  When the relationship ended, it was more a question of how quickly and completely I could erase the tape of our affair than how to retain and curate it.

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The voodoo drums in the mountains above Kenscoff are rhythmic memories of my time with Louise, a French Canadian doctor with whom I spent four years, off and on in Port-au-Prince.  We could never sleep once the drums started and spent hours on the balcony of the Splendide listening to them.  I remember our excursions to Carrefour and the dancehalls on the water, to Macaya Beach on the South coast, or dinners at Côté Cour Côté Jardin, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Petionville; but for some reason memories of them are too vague to call up the substance of our relationship. Recollections of the toilettes and the Haitian ironwork marlins on the walls intrude, and break up the integrity of our relationship.  No matter how I try to rewind the reel and go back to our table on the terrace, the wine list, and the pleasant maître d’, I cannot.

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Why is memory so capricious and incomplete? As Nabokov said, the present is instantaneous, immaterial, and useless; and the future only imagined possibility.  It is the past that most defines us.  The more we remember, the more whole we are.  The more we forget, the more diminished. Yet we dwell more on the future and the inconsequential features of the present than the past; and before long it has become as inaccessible as an old 8mm film uncared for in a basement.

As most people age, they regret missed opportunities, love lost, and unhappiness unavoided. The good old days might have a general appeal; but individual lives are judged far more harshly. The true memorist – or rather, those who understand the unique, one-time-only life of the individual and fight to retain its memories – is one in a thousand.

The irony is that even as one comes to appreciate the defining value of the past, it fades and diminishes in importance.  A life remembered is nothing compared to the eternal life to come, say the religious or spiritual. Fragments of romantic memories are not worth keeping let alone recalling when put in the context of infinite life after death or eternal extinction.

Tolstoy spent decades trying to decipher the meaning of life.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a chilling story of a dying man who cannot believe the mistakes and miscalculations he has made in his short life.  How could he have so misunderstood the nature of life, let alone friendship, society, and family? Had he known how conclusive and abrupt the ending of life could be, he would have husbanded his life and curated its memories. Caught between a meaningless life and the prospect of eternity, he panicked. There was no way back and no way forward.  Happily in the minutes before death he had an epiphany which explained all.

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Memory plays tricks.  What we remember may have little bearing on what actually was. Psychological researchers suggest that perhaps only ten percent of what recall is real, and the rest filled in by friends and family. The tape I play of my midsummer evenings with Berthe in Copenhagen may be corrupted and inaccurate. The integrity of may past, no matter how much I may value it as essential to my being, may be only a pastiche, fragments of events randomly put together.

Memory, however faulty, is all we have. It is worth something. The cynical say that memory is a cruel trick.  A suggestion of meaning in a meaningless world.  The spiritual say that the past like the present is illusory, bits, scraps, and pieces of physical dross which hold us back from spiritual evolution.

It is neither. It is the composite reality which defines us; and those of us who remember most when we are on the edge of life are the most complete and fulfilled.