Monday, July 02, 2012

Mortality, and Pleasure

I have found this parable repeated in many Eastern spiritual traditions, and my erstwhile Guru was also fond of telling this to nirvana-seekers.  People used to nod in understanding, but this is a complex parable.  While it is easy to be self-righteous and condemn the desperate hedonist in this tale, perhaps a more nuanced response is called for.

Here's the parable, as told by Leo Tolstoy in his A Confession:

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all. 
The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
The awareness of finitude and mortality is the starting point of many a philosopher.  Knowing that death is the inevitable conclusion of life, how is one to approach pleasure, suffering and meaning?  If it all has to end, and it is all meaningless, then it is very possible that the trials of life can feel excruciatingly intolerable, and the pleasures puny and laughable.

It is easy for Eastern spirituality to deride seeking what is pleasant ("preya") and exhort living for that which is Higher ("shreya").  Inescapably, the Higher gets defined as transcendence and as freedom from the temporal realm.

But rejecting any notion of non-temporal realms or of transcendence or of Nirvana, how should man approach the fact of death and mortality?  Should he become a child, live in the present, and enjoy the occasional sensuality?  Should he be a distraction-chaser and seek to get wound up and then indulge in "unwinding"?  Should he just give up on fulfillment, and live bitterly?  Should he kill himself?  Should he seek to create a better state of affairs for humanity, knowing that death awaits even those oppressed beings, no matter how liberated they might get in the world?

Should one clean a hotel room and keep it tidy, knowing that one is only spending a night there?  Should one care for the future generations, knowing that it is all a game of propagation and competition among some patterns on a small blue planet in a vast universe?

What is an aware human's response to mortality?  And I would echo many philosophers in saying that this awareness of our mortality and our response to it is what makes us human in the first place.  We have the awareness of time, we see others die, we know we will also die (remember the ancient deductive syllogism: Man is mortal; Socrates is a man, ...).

How can one commit to a harsh life, and not simply idle away, if one realizes oneself to be a mortal individual who will, sooner or later, not remain to reap the rewards of that commitment?  For his children, perhaps?  No, that escape hatch too eludes the philosopher.  One of the curses of the too-aware man is his rejection of the genetic imperative.  He does not respect the dictate of his essential nature to just propagate himself at all costs.  In a way, an intellectual has already transcended his nature.

So, realizing or concluding that there is no "Higher" realm, and being aware enough to throttle the reproductive itch, what now?  There is still hope for the man who wants to serve others, to lessen their pain and drudgery, while not being too concerned about the eventual fate of the Sun.  There is also hope for the man who seeks to create something that will outlast his own body, either through art and literature, or through the creation of some idea or some discovery, or even through a crime.

Someone not possessing special gifts, and someone disinclined towards social work, and someone not inclined to create a monument to himself, though, is in a difficult spot.  That seeker of pleasure, who is also self-aware, will not have it easy.  When the peaks of pleasure pass, and they will pass, for that is the very nature of our brains, he is left in a pit of depression and ennui.

Moreover, in the modern world of cities and technology and industry, the free pleasures are dwindling, and increasingly one needs to be rich to to be carefree and enjoy life.  But to achieve riches takes a hell of a lot of care and stress, and who knows if that stressful journey saps one of the very capacity to enjoy leisure and carefree-ness?  The pleasure seeker can no longer expect to live an easy life.

So what should be one's response when one sees an aware man licking those drops of honey?  And those drops of honey need not be, as alcohol and drugs are, crude addictions to forget oneself.  They can very well be the enjoyment of literature and philosophy, of music and arts, of food and sex, of sights and smells, of conversations and argument, of humor and gossip.

One needs to observe that man's strained, trembling arms holding the twig, his muscles stretched in pain.  One needs to see the effort he makes at reaching for those drops which feel less and less sweet as he gets used to their taste.  One needs to imagine what he must be thinking, for he knows that he can't hang on forever, and the honey too will not last.

For too long, stones have been thrown at that man from the Eastern side of the pit.  He has been spit on.

I believe that that man deserves applause.  Not self-righteous pity, nor jeering ridicule, nor envious condemnation.  But applause.  "What a brave man!  Knowing that only a few moments are left, he still finds it within him to experience joy in the ephemeral!"

For he, like Sisyphus, inwardly laughs at his fate.


Anonymous said...

Unlike Western thought, in the Eastern thought Truth is not perceived as linear but spherical. So it is not as if there is death at one end and life at the other or God at one end and the Devil at the other,Good at one end and Bad at the other end of a pole or line.
So nothing in existence(including) the honey is good or bad in itself. It is how the honey helps the man in remaining in balance with his surroundings that make sit good or bad for the man. For example if he were diabetic then the honey would harm or help him depending on whether his sugar levels were high or low. Man is blessed with a power of dicretion or Free Will. It is how he uses that to determine whether his state of balance is maintained or not which makes something Good or Bad.
So it not the seeking of Pleasure that is condemned in Eastern thought - what is condemned is the the act of pursuing that "Feel good " state based purely on the senses, to such an extent that one loses the state of balance.

Sanjay Srivastava said...

If you further reflect on this story you will reach the inevitable conclusion that there really is no fundamental difference between those who are jeering at the man and those who are applauding his feat. Both groups have a worldview that they want to defend - one secular, the other transcendental. Is one of them more valid others? Hardly. Since your analysis of hero system seems to be influenced by Becker's thoughts I would let him speak on this:

"Since there is no secular way to resolve the primal mystery of life
and death, all secular societies are lies. And since there is no
sure human answer to such a mystery, all religious
integrations are mystifications. This is the sober conclusion
to which we seem to be led. Each society is a hero system
which promises victory over evil and death...For secular
societies the thing is ridiculous: what can victory mean secularly?
And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting
belief in another dimension of reality."

Harmanjit Singh said...

@sanjay, that is a very insightful comment!

Pritpal said...

Good to revisit these age old questions.
Humans with too much intelligence , time, courage have always railed against basic facts of mortality and meaninglessness (at least in the personal sense).
I don’t think there is anything Eastern or Western in it.
Solutions too have been similar.
Deny mortality (rebirth, perpetual heaven after birth, these days the secular version – your work will live after you).
Deny meaninglessness (get busy in a created meaning).
West these days have hedonism/distraction as a viable alternative. In India where more than half don’t have enough to eat; hedonism is either insensitive or not doable.

I don’t see why we have to applaud the person hanging on holding the twig. He has just found himself in this position, without doing anything. We can applaud only his response. Is merely living 40, 50 80 years worth applauding. I guess you could make a case for it.
Since this is my favorite topic I can go on and on ( I may not have the intelligence to tackle it or the courage to accept the outcome. But I do have time ).
I will end with an old Zen story.
Chela: Master what happens when we die.
Master: We die
Chela : So what should we do now.
Master : Live.

Herman , since you so much like to create something. Let me write a coda to it.
Chela : But living is so meaningless.
Master : So?

Master could have said isn’t it wonderful? . But that will go against the Zen rule of using the fewest words to confuse/amuse/enthuse.

Pritpal Shergill