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

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bart Blevins’ Frantic Search For Meaning–He Was Simply Looking In All The Wrong Places

“What is the meaning of life?”, Bart Blevins asked his old college roommate, surprised that after all these years his friend had neither found the answer nor realized that the question was meaningless.  Yes, they had shared philosophical intimacies over coffee in the Trumbull dining room, hashed over the arguments of every important philosopher from Socrates to Heidegger, theologians from Athanasius and Origen to Barth and Sartre, and Yale’s own Paul Weiss; but still, wandering down blind alleys was a waste of time. No one really cares about the meaning of life.  Only how to get through it – not even to get through it as innocently as possible (Do No Harm), but simply to keep on an even keel, away from reefs and shoals, and in and out of harbor without shipping too much water.

Image result for image socrates

Bart thought his roommate overly cynical; surprisingly so since he had led a charmed life – success at work and with women, money in the bank, a trim figure and all his hair, and a dutiful wife.  Life might indeed be meaningless, but there was no reason to be dismissive.  Henry Towne had become an intellectual poseur – cynicism was part of the fey persona he affected.  The otherworldly gentleman of means, summering at St. Martin’s, wintering at Gstaad, without either a mundane or existential care in the world. 

“Couldn’t be”, thought Bart.  There had to something more substantial under that philosophical greasepaint.  Something worthy, hopeful.

Bart Blevins not only sought meaning for himself but wished that everyone realized the importance of plumbing the depths of existence.  “Too soon old, too late schmart”, said Abe Marx, a friend fond of Yiddish-isms, “but in your case, it’s hopeless”.  Bart didn’t have what it takes to sort out this from that let alone being from nothingness.  He was better off not thinking so much, playing golf on Sundays, and paying more attention to what his roommate meant rather than what he said.  Yes, Henry Towne was a hopeless poseur, but who could say that anything, let alone life itself, had meaning?  The man wasn’t as stupid as he seemed.

Despite all this, Bart continued his search.  Tolstoy read history, religion philosophy, science, art, and literature to try to figure out what’s what before it was too late. By the time he was fifty, however, he gave up, capitulated, and gave in.  Not so much because he had found the answers he was looking for or realized they were not to be found.  He simply wore himself out.  Konstantin Levin, one of his heroes in Anna Karenina, was his alter ego, a man after the truth.  How ironic, thought Levin as a young man, that God created man as an intelligent, perceptive, humorous, insightful, and passionate being only to let him live for a few scant decades and then consign him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  As an older man, he had softened, and like Tolstoy, had given in, not just rested from an unproductive search, but found the most treacly, warm-and-fuzzy retreat – goodness.

Image result for images tolstoy
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
Epiphany comes in all sizes, and another of Tolstoy’s heroes, Count Andrei in War and Peace, has two, the last before his death not unlike Levin’s; and is as comforting.
As he fell asleep he had still been thinking of the subject that now always occupied his mind - about life and death, and chiefly about death. He felt himself nearer to it.
“Love? What is love?” he thought.
“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting.
Bart wanted none of this.  He would never back into or back out of the truth.  He was much more like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich than either Levin or Andrei.
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours.
Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. "Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Perhaps he had missed the boat and been an Epicurean.  Life has no meaning except for its enjoyment – no light at the end of the tunnel.  In fact no dark tunnel at all, no epiphany, no aha! experience; only light and pleasure.  Wine, women, and song.  Life was never nasty, brutish, and short as Hobbes had suggested.  Just the opposite.  Short though it might be, life was la dolce vita, lived without principle morality, or purpose. “I didn’t ask to be born”, said Bart.

Image result for image epictetus

Poor Bart.  As hard as he tried he could never be entirely rid of the niggling, bothersome thoughts about what it was all worth.  It kept him up at night, and it was the first thing he thought of when he got up in the morning.  “Too bad I was born a Presbyterian”, he said, brought up to believe that parsimony, temperance, righteousness, and godliness were all that mattered.  That Papists were kidding themselves with all their idolatry and holy water.  The whole cult of consecration was an abomination.  Imagine, all those obscene statues of a nude Christ on the cross, some gay priest’s idea of suffering, emblematic of the whole physicality of the Catholic Church.

Image result for images latin america christ on the cross

Perhaps, Bart thought, not without some reason; but it would be good to give oneself over to body and not entirely to soul.  That might be the compromise he sought – belief in the suffering, physical Jesus as an acceptance of life as it is, but also belief in his glorious resurrection.  No wonder the Catholic Church flourished for so long! What a great story and so fulfilling!

But he could no more set foot in a Catholic church than he could any longer in a Presbyterian one.  Catholicism might be sensuous and physically appealing, but it shut the door on pleasurable excess and taking life easy.

There of course was sex.  Many a man far more desperate than he had fallen for a younger woman, suddenly regaining his youth, his optimism, and his satisfaction that this indeed was the best of all possible worlds.  But when his affair with Lisa had gone bad, and she had left him for a younger man, he felt worse than when he had begun.  The comedown, the abject fall from the Christmas gift fantasy of sex with a thirty-something, made him realize how old he actually was, how no love is the answer, and that December-May relationships always end up on the curb unless big money is involved.

As he got older Bart kept waiting for the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich.  “It is finished”, he hoped that his mind would tell him at 5:30 in the morning as he pulled off his pajamas. No such luck.  Nothing had worked and was unlikely to work whether embracing meaningless, continuing a fruitless search for meaning; satiation, sexual adventure, or affecting a fey persona.  A ‘given’, his roommate had said a while ago.  Bart’s fruitless search was as much a part of him as were his eye teeth or his hammer toe.  There would be no respite, so get over it, Henry Towne had said.

“Just like him”, Bart thought, dismissive and unconcerned to the end.  But then again, Bart had a beautiful wife, a seductive mistress, and homes in Palm Beach, Rimini, and St. Moritz.  Why shouldn’t he?

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