On any given night in the life of a man, there may come the hour of trial when his fate nears revelation. Note: I do not say the fate of a man is close to being decided. That is because fate seems most striking for how one lives in the time before fate arrives, not for the fate that arrives. It is in the time before fate comes knocking, when perhaps a man is hunting for sport in the towers of wealth and opportunity, or seeking out rocks of bliss in the despair of the streets, or salting the wounds of loneliness with a rendezvous of love in the brothels of Eden, and he feels the acute sensations of anticipation, or maybe has no premonition of what is to come and carries on with some perfunctory routine or enjoys some merry bawd or burlesque, oblivious to the inexorable march of events, that he may be inclined in the passing of a sigh, the sip of a drink, the drag of a cigarette, or the grisly, fathomless sight of a pigeon being picked apart by a seagull, to dwell ever so briefly on the question of how things have come to be in the life he has lived. And such a moment is remarkable not for the coming of an answer, but for the nettlesome rehash of a riddle as old as our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors: what is it all for?
This question is the great scourge of humanity, driving men to the precipice of great hopes or to the brink of great despair.
It has guided men to the church and temple; it has guided men to sleepless nights in the tavern. It gave birth to philosophy; it can give birth to depression. It has made millionaires of charlatans; it has made paupers of poets. It has translated words that mean nothing into words that mean everything; it has translated words that mean everything into words that mean nothing. It has turned the Bible and Deepak Chopra and Scientology into best-selling clinics of spiritual methadone; it has tortured Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and certain 19th-century Russian novelists so mercilessly they have become icons of spiritual despair. In short, the search for an answer to a riddle that has plagued the mind of man since its beginning has too often driven men to the edge of madness. And it is perhaps for no other reason than that the indisputably rational mind of incorrigibly irrational men seeks answers in the myths of clarity rather the myths of ambiguity, the myths of reason rather than the myths of randomness, the myths of inevitability rather than the myths of probability, the myth of design rather than the myth of an agnostic order in the universe, the myth that something is always being decided rather than the myth that something is always being revealed. Behind the idea of Fate is the idea of Meaning.
But the confrontation with Fate seems more like exiting the past and entering into a state of ambivalence, not so much a destiny, but a destination, not so much a conclusion, but an odd discovery that endlessly churns out questions rather than answers. It is not a throne in the kingdom of ends, but a chair or couch in a psychiatrist’s office; not the safe harbor of a shining metropolis, but a rocky shoreline on the island Robinson Crusoe trekked; not a homecoming, but some fuzzy surreal dream of a high school reunion where familiar but forgotten personalities trapped in wrinkled bodies with yellowed sunspot-dappled slabs of meaty flesh hanging from inner skeletons keep asking you what you did with your life and you try to tell them all about it but you keep going on desultory tangents and they are not really paying attention anyway and, besides, their merry laugh-wrinkled eyes keep interrupting you by directing your attention to more former classmates appearing out of thin air, as if they were arriving by an apparition spell like in the Harry Potter novels, to join the weird cacophonous chatter of fate in this fuzzy surreal dream in which former classmates wonder what became of high school yearbook superlatives and then recall their glory days and then share embellished stories about the highs and lows of their adult lives that have as their ulterior motive a sheepish subtle attempt to see if everyone agrees on Bob Dylan’s claim about life that there’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.
Fate is not a heaven or hell, but a purgatory.
It is a place not fit for God but for man, a place of uncertain rest and retrospection when we turn into personal historians looking back in time for a sense of order and meaning amid the shifting currents and storms on the sea of life, wondering how it all came to be as it is now, the present like a center of gravity toward which the past has been crawling in some confused confluence or convergence of lives that have been…swimming, paddling, drifting…on the sea of life toward the future. And we want it all to seem like a there’s been a plan, like we have been living in our own novel or epic or movie. God’s plan. Master plan. Grand voyage on the sea with a captain and compass. Whatever.
It can certainly seem like there was a plan. Boy met a girl, fell in love, got married, raised a family. A man went to college, got a job, found a career, retired. These are simple examples, but they make the point. I venture to say, though, that fate is not so much the outcome of a plan but more like the solution to an algebraic equation. In theory, algebra can give us an infinite variety of formulas…linear, quadratic, exponential…polynomials of infinite order…but the basic idea is you plug in values and get a solution. This might seem like the same thing – logic, reason…a plan! But math needs no plan; it needs only formulas and random draws of numbers to plug in and yield solutions. The mathematical equation needs no intelligence for its creation, only for its discovery, just as the fates of our lives are discovered by navigating the labyrinth of emotion and sentiment constructed from the raw foundations of experience. Fate is like algebra: our lives like formulas that bridge the values of experience to the solutions of fate, with different solutions depending on the random draw of values we plug into independent variables. There is nothing that is decided, only resolved, or rather, revealed.
I already feel the impatience of those who may want to ask: well, can equations come from nothing?
How can things made of logic not be constructed from design? Who or what decides which formulas represent my life? How can it be a mere random draw of values that determines the specific solutions of my fate? Surely, there must be a higher power deciding whether my life is linear or quadratic, additive or multiplicative, polynomial of order 2 or polynomial of order 8…and whether to plug in 2 or 25 or 1011 into certain variables in my equation. Yes, yes, I understand, I’m not picking a fight about religion and nihilism, about God, Plan, and Design. There are no quibbles from me about the origins of equations, the laws of nature, or whatever you want to call the sense that time is a conscious force making connections between events and consequences.
I only wish to say that life and fate, like algebra, seem most striking for how extraordinarily ordinary it ultimately seems when it all comes to pass. Indifferent, you might say, like when Don Draper in Mad Men says there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent. This is true even in the most climactic of culminations, as in death or disgrace, birth or glory. No doubt we feel all the extremities of emotion that accompany the extremities of experience…the glow of happiness or the pallor of sadness. Somehow though it feels like we should feel more, that life is more than just another algebraic equation, as if things should change irretrievably, with all the fanfare of music and benediction and demarcations in the line of time to mark our trespasses and make us feel the significance of our passing into happiness and our passing into suffering.
Then we look around and see that more equations continue to be solved, that life continues apace, and that the hour of trial for one man is an hour of recess for another.
The world does not stop. It carries on as part of one big confused heap of experiences of men struggling toward their own revelations of fate when they too must confront the consciousness of how the future is no different from the past because all we can do is live in the present…alone and not alone…alone in the trials of our own existence, and yet not alone if we contemplate the collective suffering of the world and how such a perspective can dilute the significance of any one individual’s fate.
Henry James once implored a correspondent to remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own. If ever there are moments, therefore, when we do live outside the present, when we ponder the significance of our own fate before the climactic moments of fate arrive, it may be in that precious hour on any given night when nerves are allowed to unwind and the mind wishes to relax, to shrug off the burdens of the day and take a deep breath, have a drink, have a few laughs…to ease into the serenity of fatigue in which one feels deserving of a glass of wine, a bite of chocolate, a fine cigar, or whatever small vice one has earned by enduring yet another day of sameness which many regard resentfully or indifferently as resignation to the daily grind.
For some, this is a moment that might serve as a precursor, even a provocateur: a time of liquor and spice to jazz up for jazzier things to come on a Friday night; a time of low music that stirs the first flush of foreplay when the giggles of romance seductively remove belt and garter fettering the id of lovers and guide their mutual surrender to the ravenous lioness of lovemaking; or a time during cocktail hour when one steps away from the crowd to stand by a window and gaze at the moon emitting its subdued noctilucent glow, pondering the open space like a night owl temporarily tamed by bespectacled ruminations in that shadowed solitude which juices the spirits of men with the sweet sins of desire and ambition.
That is when fate becomes worthy of its promise, when we partake not in a plan, but a looking forward to, John Lennon’s life is what happens when you’re making other plans, the consuming of life that is prelude to forgiveness of men and their sins.
And so it is that another night passes in the universe when the stars burn like flames in the sky, as if they were the sins of dreamers darting across the charcoal canvas of the night like arsonists of fate, finding brief refuge in the sky’s forest of darkness, while eyes of mirth and malice launch from earth a shooting star that curls into the future until it falls out of sight. Everywhere in the universe matter is being transformed, riddles of nature are being solved by laws known and unknown to science, and as Time never ceases to move, so fester men’s sins tucked among the stars like, in the words of Shakespeare (Henry IV), gentlemen of the shade who are men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon.
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