Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/19/2010

The Bald Soprano, the Lutheran Church, and Fast-Food Dinners

This morning I played some old hymns on the organ. At a Lutheran church.

Whenever I am hired as substitute organist for a church, I am confounded by the hymns. I am mystified by references to the Incarnation (Jesus as God in human form) and to eternal life. This is not atheism—or agnosticism—not even apostasy.

I wonder if all sixty-five-year-old overweight men who live alone wonder how soon they are going to die, knowing that they would probably postpone that day if they got up from the couch and either walked a mile around the neighborhood or went downstairs and walked on the treadmill for half an hour. But my question is not one of prolonging life or even of living more healthfully.

I ponder the question, “Is one alive at all?” My question is not as offhand as this seems. I wish I could write so it seems less as if I’m asking a question for interesting small talk a cocktail party. The question can be philosophical. Kant and Kierkegaard asked, “What is human life?” In some form. It can be a moral question. Aristotle, Arendt, and Adorno asked the question, “How do we live in society?” In some form. It can be religious. “What is the eternal, and how do we know it?” That’s what the Bible and the Quran and other holy texts are all about. There, see? I’m not one of THOSE thinkers. The best I can do is play word games.

I’ve read stuff all of those people wrote and the Bible and bits and pieces of the Quran. None of their questions are really what I’m thinking about at the moment.

Yesterday I was sitting in my car eating my dinner—some very (I’m told) unhealthful fast food—listening to a summer rerun of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and I was struck once again, as I am so often, by the ideas that, first, none of what I was experiencing at that moment was really happening, and, two, if it was happening, it (everything for me) would very soon be over and healthy food doesn’t matter.  And then I got to thinking about food, and how much I hate preparing food for myself because there’s always too much; besides, we’ve been taught that eating together is supremely important as a human event, satisfying our need to nourish our bodies and our need for human companionship at the same time. But I was alone eating food that may not nourish my body.

When my late ex-wife was working on her Masters degree in theater (directing) in the ‘70s, she directed a couple of (for that time) somewhat new and controversial plays. One was The Bald Soprano, by Eugène Ionesco. The play is etched in my memory because the summer after her production, we met Ionesco by accident at a hotel in Lenox, MA, where we—and he—were staying for a weekend at Tanglewood.

One line I’ve quoted for thirty years from The Bald Soprano is, “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there” (1). Mrs. Smith says this after hearing the doorbell ring, going to answer it, and finding no one there. An argument ensues whether someone is always at the door when the doorbell rings or no one is ever there when the doorbell rings.

I’ve always wondered why a certain body of plays is called “Theater of the Absurd.” Ionesco’s work, along with many of my favorite playwrights—Becket , Stoppard, Pinter, Albee, to name a few. Nothing in the plays of these writers is any more absurd than the rest of life as I see it. I don’t think Mrs. Smith’s statement is absurd. When we hear the doorbell, there is never anyone there. I have no idea if Ionesco wrote the line simply to be absurd, or if he meant it as a statement about reality. If the doorbell rings and we perceive a person is or is not there, is the person really there or do we simply imagine the person is there?

The other day I needed to understand something about the philosopher Hegel (for something else I was reading), and the library data base found an article by Philip Kain. In the article, Kain contextualizes Hegel’s writing by explaining influences on his thought, among them the work of David Hume (I’m not name dropping—I hardly understand any of this). However, he says (probably taken out of context),

For Hume, there was no fixed, stable, unified self that could be experienced. When we turn to inner sense, we experience nothing but a flux of shifting and changing ideas, images, impressions, and feelings. (2)

“A flux of shifting and changing ideas, images, impressions, and feelings,” or, “Experience teaches us that when one hears the doorbell ring it is because there is never anyone there.”

I’m never sure where I am headed when I begin to write about my sense of non-existence. This particular train of thought began at the fast-food joint. The flux of shifting and changing ideas in my mind was overwhelming. Fast food. “Prairie Home Companion.” I was on my way home from auditions where I was helping cast a play with music that is absurd. I had been reading a Google Book on Kierkegaard that seemed as if it might be helpful in some way—or at least interesting. My car is not reliable these days, and my mechanic has no voice mail.  I listened earlier in the day to George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can never Say on TV” to figure out why I played if for my summer class. It doesn’t seem to fit this semester. I’ve been reading articles on the movie Mulholland Drive (hence Hegel) because that’s the next project for my classes. You’d think that experiencing and remembering all of that would give me a deep sense of reality. Not so.

Last night I was as depressed as I ever hope to be. It is—read my descriptions of myself—a dangerous place for me. Depression is not the cause of my sense of non-existence. If anything, it is the result. But, for the most part, the two are not related. I have slipped into some kind of late-middle-aged agnosticism, not about the existence of God, but about the existence of existence.

One of those hymns I played this morning begins

Son of God, eternal savior, source of life and truth and grace,
Word made flesh, whose birth among us hallows all our human race. . .

Somerset C. Lowry, 1855-1932

Without discussing meanings in this context, I’m baffled in general by such words as: eternal, life, flesh, birth, human.

A reasonable question of me would be by now, “What is your point, and why are you putting this on the internet—even if it is your blog?” The answer to both parts of the question is, “I don’t know.” But my guess is that most human beings have these doubts about the ways we construct “reality” for ourselves. We, like Rosenkrantz in another theater of the absurd play tell each other, “I wouldn’t think about it, if I were you. You’d only get depressed” (3).

Perhaps you can go with Rosenkrantz. I can’t. I have to think about it.

The character of the aesthete in Either/Or exemplifies the nihilistic attitude: he is unable to commit to any particular thing because nothing seems more worthwhile than anything else, and his life appears empty and meaningless. (4)

Unlike Kierkegaard’s character, my life does not appear empty and meaningless. It is simply very, very mysterious. Most of the time it seems to me that “there is never anyone there.” Yet I know you are there.
_______________
(1) I found a script of the play online to check my memory. I am happy to note that I had the line perfect in my mind. It is not clear from the website who is responsible for it. Ionesco, Eugène. The Bald Soprano. act.vtheater.net. http://afronord.tripod.com/plays/ionesco.html Web. 18 Sept. 2010.
(2) Kain, Philip J. “The Structure and Method of Hegel’s Phenomenology.” CLIO 27.4 (1998): 593, referencing David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967, 251-63.
(3) Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. London: Grove Press, 1994.
(4) Carlisle, Claire. Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum International Publish Group, 2006 (22-23).

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Responses

  1. I strongly believe in the eternal and our existence throughout. It is my inability to fully perceive it that is sometimes frustrating.

    I guess for me, when the doorbell rings, there is always someone there, but I may not always be able to see who it is or understand why they rang. And maybe s/he is wondering why no one ever answers the door.

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  2. Harold,
    you should read more Buddhist writings. While they may do little to make you feel better, they do address in some very profound ways some of your concerns. I have found the teachings about impermanence and suffering to be, if not comforting, at least grounded in the reality of my experience. I’d have more to say, but I’m tired of writing. All u can say is that, whenever I go looking for myself, I’m never at home.

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