Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Scholars sometimes talk -- seriously, so far as I can tell -- about a fabulous beast they call The General Reader. The non-scholarly reader who reads the books put out by the university presses. When you're writing your book about the adoption of Dantean tropes into 13th Century Lithuanian liturgical exegesis, your editor may tell you, you want to bear in mind The General Reader, who may not know all the works of Philenius the Younger, and may need to be reminded of the exact wording of the riparian statutes of Basil IX.

This harmless fantasy of a mass readership is one of the more endearing foibles of academics, whom I find an appealing lot, for the most part. But I bring it up as an introduction to our own variant of The General Reader, The Non-Blogging Blog Reader. I have one. (I had two, at one point, but I convinced one of them to start blogging, so now I have only one.) My prize possession. He signs himself "Bill." (No, no link. Haven't you been listening? He doesn't have a blog!)

Bill commented, Annihilation is my sharpest craving. Certainty that the next moment will be just like the last is something I can't abide. "Coffee, deliver me!"

And this led me to think again about craving, and to wonder whether all craving is not a craving for annihilation. I don't remember Freud's late work on thanatos and eros very well (if I ever read it: maybe I just heard the cool kids talking about it.) But in a certain frame of mind the only convincing alternative to endless continuity is death, and the hunger for change becomes the hunger for death. That death. A large death that is very like the Little Death. A gathering of all frustration and desire into one flowering: and then -- unimaginable, but deeply desired, peace.

As one gets older, one of the terms alters, and a new fear creeps into the equation. What if your frustration and desire is not great enough to flower? What if you are unable to die that death? What if the only death available is the long, slow ebb, draining away into triviality, irritability, and whining?

I used to go to strip bars and get drunk. I thought of it then as running away from death. The whole point of the dancers was that they were young and fearless, and had no part of age or death. With the help of a few beers I too could become fearless. And there we all were, having escaped from death together. I could buy them drinks and we could build towers of tavern matchbooks and tell each other stories, and I would live forever. They were lovely and they didn't give a damn and they didn't plan a thing, and I loved that about them.

That was a long time ago. I still think of them fondly. But to return to craving and death: I didn't actually want them, not to have them. I wanted to desire them, that's all. I wanted to stir desire up to its highest pitch -- and then walk away from it. Why?

After I quit drinking, I went a few times to the bars and had a club soda, but I found that without the alcohol the transaction became just weird and pointless. What on earth was I doing there? These people didn't particularly like me; I didn't particularly like them, we had nothing to talk about. I wandered away, and have not really been tempted in that direction since. The alcohol, which I had thought of as incidental to the whole experience, was in fact central to it.

I think what the alcohol did was disable my awareness that I was not, in fact, going to die that night. That I could not actually escape continuity. That this experience itself was a continuation, more of the same, just another in a series of unsuccessful debauches. (Any debauch that you live to the other side of is unsuccessful, really.) Without drinking I could not escape my own history.

Now, as a Buddhist, I have to wonder: was I closer to a true perception drunk or sober? Buddhism holds that continuity is a delusion. The world actually is new every moment. We are actually, whether we see it or not, radically free, now and always: we only imagine ourselves at 8:20.20 AM to be the same person we were at 8:20:19 AM.

I wonder if the real intention of Buddhist meditation is not to get really, truly, roaring drunk, and stay that way.

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