One of the supposed "tests" of the quality of one's life is how unafraid one is to die. Such freedom is palpable (if not graspable by too many of us) and resonates deep inside the core of our being. Its resonance is another hallmark, an indicator, a barometer of how authentic the experience of our life is.
One of the joys of my life is singing with my partner, wife, collaborator, assistant and best friend, Amy Cofield. Last week we had the privilege of performing one of the masterpieces of Western civilization, Bach's "Great" Passion of St Matthew. It was in Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society has been going strong under the direction of the same conductor since its founding over 45 years ago! I have immense admiration for Dr Doug Peterson's vision and perseverance.
Though he may not be a desert landscape-lover, I cannot help but think his mission--to share the riches of great music with everyone that wants to experience it--is enhanced by the beauty and energy of the Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert just beyond Sin City's limits (one of the perks of this gig was actually being housed near Red Rock and NOT on the infamous "strip").
Amy and I went rock-climbing in a wind-storm. Though it was not literally a near-death experience, it was an enriching one. Any kind of distance hiking over varied terrain reinforces the ever-shifting nature of perception itself. "We've hiked all this way, and that peak is STILL so far off!" Or, "How different the view is from up here." The philosopher Thomas Nagel has a book with a gorgeous Caspar David Friedrich landscape as a cover provocatively titled The View from Nowhere. I shall not be referring to it again. But I shall be referring to Montaigne's near-death experience which heralded a seismic shift in his worldview, the result of which is the origin of the genre in which I currently write, "the personal essay." Montaigne's seminal attempts at charting out "how to live" are the subject of an excellent new book on this unlikely Renaissance artist, How to Live-or-A Life of Montaigne (Sarah Bakewell, Other, 2010).
Montaigne's near-death experience caused him to reflect and change his life. An unusual combination of stoicism and questioning (sometimes labeled "doubt") contributed to his articulating a philosophy whose practical applications continue to speak. He found occasion to stop and reflect on everything.
Anything that gives us pause for reflection may become a source for good. That is one of the ways we turn painful experience into healthy fruit. The Tibetan Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of likening life to gardening. For the harvest to be plentiful, one must have good compost. The compost of our lives consists of our "stuff." How we deal with what comes our way determines the quality of the fertilizer we put into our efforts, it effects how we "water the seeds" of our lives.
The desert landscape, seemingly short on compost, is a fascinating one for the proximity of its metaphors to phrases about life. "In barren lands," "hanging by a thread," "stubborn & persistent" "endlessly fascinating" and "unpredictable" are just a few of those phrases that remind us how powerful metaphor can be in communication, in understanding, in forging meaning. Cultivating life itself into a colorful landscape alive with symbol & multi-layered resonance should be a more common pursuit.
Another creative writer who took Montaigne both to heart and head, Stefan Zweig summarized his Burgundian forbear's philosophy with an outline as indebted to Zen & the East as it is to Montaigne's Renaissance (Roman Catholic) humanism.
Zweig wrote an extended essay on Montaigne, without references, as he was isolated in exile from Hitler. "Zweig chose the ultimate form of internal emigration. He killed himself," is how Bakewell summarizes the great writer's tragic end. His closing Montaigne-ism is "Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will."
Proverbial food for thought, and one of the gifts left behind from another link in the chain of artistic saints that form another kind of "great cloud of witnesses" from whom we draw strength, continuity and inspiration. Zweig's list also includes:
"Be free from vanity and pride...Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed... Be free from fate; be master of your life."
Montaigne said "this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle."
Reading and rock-climbing are but two ways of learning to look from different perspectives so that we may glimpse our true selves from the "proper angle."
Montaigne was an inveterate traveler, with the requisite inquisitiveness necessary to stimulate intellectual & emotional openness, a hallmark of the polymath, "Renaissance" type he helped define.
I believe he would sanction the comparison of perspectives & landscape metaphors the Red Rock Canyon inspires. The wind may be bracing, the landscape parched, but the vistas are amazing. Emily Dickinson writes in "Wild Nights," upon glimpsing the horizon of new perspective, "Ah, the sea!"
Her ecstatic declaration enlivens the voice of everyone who has marveled at any one of nature's miraculous sights: "Just look at that!"