Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memento Mori

On Memorial Days when I was a child, my mother would take me and my siblings to visit the grave of her older brother Adrian, who died in France in World War II. She had been a young teen at the time, the baby of a mostly fatherless family, and Adrian, in his 20s, had been the brother who had taken on the role of "man of the family." He had risen admirably to the task... until that dark day, the day of the unfathomable news.

After his death he became family legend, the golden boy, the perfect man. By telling me that I reminded her of him, my mother could keep me on the straight and narrow, a guilt cage. But that's another story.

When I visited that cemetery as a child, perhaps with my baby brother in tow, I never imagined that as a young adult I would be there again, visiting my little brother's grave. My brother Cal died at 21, as a result of his own drunk driving. My book The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is dedicated to him because so much of it was written as my own way of processing his death.

Memorial Day is about honoring those who died in wars defending our nation's liberty. Cal was a casualty of another kind of war: the war for personal freedom in an oppressive society. A wild-child rock-n-roller, he was doing his best to break out of the deadly prison of a fundamentalist Mormon upbringing, to let his creative spirit fly, to be his true self. But he had no tools to work with, his armor was defective, and, like every young soldier who dies in battle, he didn't see the bullet coming.

In my worldview, wars are manifestations of inner human states. In that light, the struggle for individual spiritual emancipation is even more important and heroic than the gory battles over invisible borders and political non-issues.

I'll never know why the role of the dead brother was Cal's to fill, not mine. I've had to fight the battle for personal liberty myself, and he has been an immense help. Cal is the advance scout, venturing into the ultimate unknown territory ahead of all of us. If the cemetery was not 2,000 miles away from my current home, I'd honor him by visiting his grave today.

I've recently been inspired reading past installments of Jason Stern's "Esteemed Reader" columns from Chronogram Magazine, several of which explore a truth that is crucial to healthy living, something that wisdom traditions from Sufi to Samurai urge: "Die before you die." Consider your own death, prepare for it, know that you are temporary, and then live to the fullest in the here and now.

Memories of my brother, this blog entry, the book it refers to, even Memorial Day itself -- each serves me best as a memento mori. Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you must die," or in another interpretation, "Be mindful of dying."

Let's let this Memorial Day and every other day remind us: Life is short; live it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Writing and the Mask (Again)

This is a re-post from last year, resurrected to coincide with the opening of my wife's new mask studio/gallery in Phoenicia, NY. It's an essay that I revised a bit from my introduction to an anthology about masks (get a free copy). It gives a taste of my thoughts about the art of writing fiction....

Writing and the Mask

I am wearing a mask. Right now, as I write this. It is not a physical thing covering my face; rather, it is in the "I" that begins this paragraph. Again, now: I write "I" followed by a verb, and you the reader perceive me, a writer, telling you his own "truth." But no matter what I write, "I" is a lie. And no matter what I write, "I" is also the truth.

This conundrum is explored in an anthology, The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, that I co-edited along with professional maskmaker Wendy Drolma (Klein). The book explores the meaning of the mask through poetry, art, "fiction" and "non-fiction" (I put those words in quotes because, in the end, their definitions are entirely elusive). What you are reading here is a revised version of the book's introduction.

If I were writing here in a mode called "fiction," you would gladly accept the mask and maybe even think, "how creative." In the anthology, when Robert Louis Stevenson wears the face of his invention Dr. Jekyll and says, "I was born in the year 18-- to a large fortune...," we enter into a kind of theater and suspend our disbelief. Our pleasure is in believing the obvious lie. When Barry Yourgrau starts the final story, "I come into the kitchen...," we're not so sure that this is an invented persona speaking, but we go along happily as his darkish whimsy unfolds. Mark Sherman's "I" may make us squirm a bit because, while his story has the trappings of fiction, the narrator, we think, just might be Mr. Sherman himself, pretending otherwise. The mask grows thinner.

But there are "non-fiction" works in the volume as well. For instance, this introduction. Since it is not fiction, it must be true, right? The mask of "I" is not acknowledged; it is a sly disguise that looks similar enough to my real face (is there such a thing?) that you don't suspect I wear a mask at all. In the anthology, Michael Perkins, Sparrow, and Gabriel Q all write an "I" that also makes no suggestion of a mask. Does that mean their works are "true"?

Samuel Avital, Sophie Rogers-Gessert, Vincent Lloyd, and George Ulrich don't need an "I" at all; in their essays, they wear the masks of authority, of objectivity, of educated reason. But simply to set pen to paper, one must adopt the persona of "writer." Carl Jung said, "The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual."

I write fiction. I believe in the power of imagination, and I have often "hired" someone not myself -- a persona -- to narrate my stories. When Oscar Wilde said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth," he was right: behind that mask, my conscious agendas, my censors, my carefully constructed "self," all disappear, and without "me" in control, I tell the truth. The real truth. It slips in through the unguarded back door. It can't be otherwise, because I am I.

Except, of course, for the Buddhist truth that "I" is just an illusion anyway. As Alan Watts said, "I" is just the Universe "eyeing." Each of us is both the center and not the center: double in nature. Dr. Jekyll can't face himself as he writes about Hyde: "He, I say -- I cannot say, I." He denies his own double nature even as he admits it. In a similar self-deconstruction, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man turns his unhappy being into apparent nothingness and then, hiding in a costumier's shop, must put on a mask and false whiskers to make himself again perceptible in the world. The masked man always dons another mask, and so it goes.

Pablo Picasso said: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." The anthology The Other Face, our little work of art, is full of masks, but it is also full of truth. I hope readers approach it with an open heart, and receive wisdom. And as for whether these warm wishes come from "me" or from some persona in my employ, I feel as Jorge Luis Borges does, when he closes the story "Borges and I"...
"I do not know which of us has written this page."


The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, published by Bliss Plot Press, is available from Wendy Drolma Masks.