Sunday, February 26, 2012


     This month I discovered a terrific follow-up subject to my last five posts -- three on Zest for Living and two on Solace for Dying.  It's the new movie "The Grey," starring Liam Neeson as an oil-company marksman named John Ottway.  In it, a plane carrying him and several dozen fellow workers to Anchorage from an arctic drilling site crashes in the mid-winter Alaska wilderness.  Those who survive the crash succumb one-by-one to the elements and to a pack of wolves, leaving Ottway at the end to face the pack and its alpha male alone.
     Three of the primary themes I discussed in the five posts are central to the film.  Foremost is the non-humanness of nature and its essential alienness to human civilization.  Second is the tragic riddle of human mortality:  why must we live and die?  Finally, when and under what circumstances does the human instinct to live give way to an acceptance of death?  Though flawed in minor ways, the film as a whole masterfully weaves the three themes into its narrative of a catastrophe.
     It begins at night with Ottway entering a company rec center with a neon cross by the door advertising a chapel somewhere inside.  What actually greets him is a bar full of brawling drunks behaving as anything but civilized Christians.  Ignoring the bedlam, he silently drinks while describing in glum voiceover what a bunch of louts and losers he and they all are.
     This initial hint of a chasm between civilization and wildness in the men themselves is underscored by the frigid weather.  As they embark later that night on the disastrous flight, the workers shiver inside their arctic gear, beards flecked with ice.  An airline employee barks at them to hurry up so the de-icing will last through takeoff.  Hours later, after earlier hitting some turbulence, the plane suddenly starts disintegrating and plunging earthward.  Ottway manges to double-belt himself to his seat before trees rush by below him in the morning light.  With a boom the screen goes blank.
     He wakes up face-down in an empty field of wind-blown snow.  Staggering to his feet, hands and feet caked with snow, he peers around stupefied.  This early scene and the crash sequence leading to it dramatize with stunning force and realism the vulnerability of human beings to raw nature.  Though many hardships await Ottway, none is more random and inhuman than this.  The only civilization he has left are the clothes he's wearing.
     Stumbling to the top of a nearby drift, he sees the wreckage of the plane and runs towards someone inside it yelling for help.  Eight men somehow survive, one with a fatal chest wound.  As the others watch in stricken silence, Ottway calmly tells him he's going to die and should let it "slide over" and warm him.  He tells him to choose death and let those "you love take you away."  Almost immediately the man does die, and one of the other men cries out in horror, "Did he just fucking die!?"  Ottway says they'll all die if they don't work together fast.  His demand for teamwork is another sign of the no-nonsense compassion he's just shown the dying man.
     His fitness to lead them is proven that night.  He hears a noise beyond the light of their fire and finds a dead stewardess being eaten by a wolf, which attacks him and retreats after a vicious fight.  The other men are dressing Ottway's wounds when they hear a new noise.  They warily investigate, and a huge, grey-black wolf steps into the light of their torches.  The eyes of other wolves gleam from the dark.  Realizing it's the pack's alpha male, Ottway tell the men to hold their ground.  Eventually the alpha turns and leads the other wolves away.  Ottway's company job is to kill wolves at the work-site, and he explains their territoriality and their hostility to anything that invades their den area.
     For the rest of the film, the wolves are the main threat.  Next morning, the men discover the body of the man who was standing watch ripped to pieces.  Telling them they should leave the plane at once for the cover of woods some miles away, Ottway first has them collect wallets from the corpses for their families.  Then someone else suggests offering an impromptu prayer.  Only a cynical, anti-social ex-con, tongue-lashed by Ottway for stealing from a wallet, refuses to cooperate.  Parallelling the wolves' deference to their alpha male, all of the men but the ex-con defer to Ottway.
     They set out for the forest in a blizzard.  As they plod on, one man straggles a few yards behind and is instantly killed by stalking wolves.  These are driven away, but as the men approach the woods that afternoon they're attacked from behind by more stalkers trying to catch them in the open.  Piling pellmell into the trees, they frantically light a fire to keep the wolves, barking and snarling on every side, at bay.  Then Ottway has them fashion "bangsticks" from spears capped with shotgun shells he's scavenged from the wreck.
     The ex-con ridicules and rejects everything Ottway orders.  Finally Ottway stares at him and says, "I understand.  You're scared."  This the ex-con hotly denies, and Ottway says, "Really?  I'm terrified."  The ex-con says, "That's because you're a punk" and threatens him with a knife.  Overpowering him, Ottway commands him to stop his "bullshit."
     Suddenly the alpha wolf appears, glares at them, and withdraws.  The ex-con, shaken by Ottway and the alpha, recants, apologizes, and gets to work on a bangstick.  Soon another wolf appears.  Ottway identifies him as an omega-outcast, sent by the the alpha to test them, and leads a successful battle to kill him.  To demoralize the watching pack, the men cook and eat the carcass and throw its head back into the woods.  This triumph cheers them into discussing the mortal dangers they've survived and still face.  One says there must be a divine plan behind it all, but the now-sympathetic ex-con dismisses that idea as a "fairy tale" and says its all "luck" when you live and "nothing" when you die.  Ottway agrees, saying he believes only what's "real," like his frozen breath.  When someone challenges his lack of "faith," Ottway retorts, "I only believe what I can see and feel."
     Worried they're too exposed, Ottway leads the men at once to rocks where the wolves can attack from just one side.  Here they continue their cheerful talk.  The funniest comes from the ex-con, who says he's determined to stay alive for more fucking because his last was with a whore so ugly he refuses to die on such an awful note.  Another man says his daughter lets nobody but him cut her hair.  Ottway describes his hard-boiled yet poetical Irish-Catholic father, who wrote and framed a short poem with the opening and closing lines, "Once more into the fray,/ To live and die on this day."
     Suddenly the only black man among them starts hallucinating, and they bed him into the snow for the night.  Next morning they wake up to another blizzard.  Unable to rouse the black man, Ottway doesn't want to acknowledge he's dead, showing how determined he is to try to save everyone.  He gets encouragement from a nearby tree stump left by loggers.  The sound of rushing water in the distance stirs hopes of finding a logging camp downstream.
     The've gone a short way towards the sound when they reach the top of a sheer, hundred-foot cliff extending straight across their path as far as the eye can see.  The only way down is for someone to jump from the cliff into treetops twenty feet away with an improvised rope that the others can then cross on.  After that they'll climb down the trees to the ground.
     The episode struck me as the film's weakest.  Mimicking the superhero stunts that currently trivialize so many action movies, it comes off mostly as melodrama.  After the leaper makes it, one of the others breaks through snow at the top of the cliff and is barely caught by someone else who also almost falls.  This kind of triteness is worsened by the cheesiness of the computer-generated cliff, the only phony special effect of its kind in the film.
     This is not to say the episode isn't exciting or nerve-wracking, just that it needn't have been so hyperbolic and full of cliches.  When in a panic the last man to cross breaks the rope, swings helplessly into the trees, falls through branches, and hits the ground on his back with a sickening thud, the effect is shattering.  He's lying in shock, hallucinating that his daughter's with him, when he's killed and dragged away by wolves.
     Scrambling down to help, the ex-con falls and critically injures his knee.  Realizing the wolves can somehow navigate the cliff, they hurry toward the river, the ex-con hobbling behind.  At the river's edge the ex-con stops and refuses the others' pleas to keep going.  He says he;s just had the "clearest thought" of his life, which is that he's too tired to take another step and will die here.  He asks Ottway if death will slide over and warm him, and Ottway, himself exhausted, reluctantly answers, "Yes."
     I found this the film's most powerful scene emotionally.  The man who earlier mocked everyone for following Ottway and who denied fear, now seeks and gets Ottway's approval for choosing to die.  He asks the others why he'd ever want to return to his drunken, oil-rig life when he's had "this," motioning at mountains forested with snow-covered trees in the distance.  Ottway and the other remaining survivor, named Pete, try to dissuade him but can't.  As a final token of comradeship they shake hands and tell each other their first names.  They also accept his wallet.  When they've gone, the ec-con faces the mountains and whispers, "I'm afraid."
     This is similar to what Ottway's wife says in a recurring dream or flashback he has of one of their last moments together, facing each other in bed.  But she murmurs, "Don't be afraid."  Ottway first has the flashback in his barracks before the flight while tearfully writing her some kind of farewell letter that concludes, "I'm past doing any good to the world."  After he and Pete leave the ex-con and trudge downriver, Pete says that the look on the ex-con's face was like the one he'd seen on Ottway's just before Ottway left the bar the night of the flight.  What Pete doesn't know is that Ottway left the bar to kill himself.  We know, because we saw Ottway put a rifle in his mouth and reach for the trigger, stopping only when he heard wolves howling in the distance.  We also know he brought the letter to his wife on the flight, retrieved it from the wreckage, and still has it.  Pete asks him why he left the bar, suspecting he meant to commit suicide.  Ottway answers, "It really doesn't matter now, does it?"
     The conversation's interrupted by two wolves who start chasing them along the riverbank.  Pete falls into rapids and is swept away, Ottway running alongside and yelling at him to hang on.  Then Ottway jumps in too, and they both bob wildly down the torrent.  Suddenly Pete's foot wedges in a rock.  Ottway tries to save him, but Pete's too panicked.  He drowns.
     Ottway drags himself out of the water and sits down in the snow.  In the film's intellectual climax, he stares up into a blank, grey sky and cries, "If I ever needed you, I need you now!  Show me something real, do something real for me, and I'll believe in you for the rest of my life!"  Nothing happens.  After waiting a few more seconds, he mutters derisively, "I'd rather do it myself anyway," and gets up.
     He has, out of supreme need and misery, asked the universe to care about and help him the way he's been caring about and helping those who've died since the crash.  Getting no response, he concludes that his empirical materialism (he'd never use those words) is best after all.  He is, like the ex-con, finally ready for the death he's been trying so hard -- and vainly -- to save other from and that he himself rejected two nights earlier.
     He strips himself of his outer clothing and everything else but the bag of wallets, walks into the woods, and kneels down to kill himself, probably with his knife.  After looking at their photos of girlfriends, children, and wives, including his own, he tearfully stacks the wallets into a sort of shrine, laying his and the letter to his wife on top.  It's his final affirmation of a human lovingness alien to the immense wilderness around him.
     He also has a final flashback of his wife saying, "Don't be afraid," but this time we see her medical drip.  She's dying and either consoling him for that or else hallucinatorily consoling him in his present ordeal.  Either way, it helps explain his jadedness when the film opens, why he has such a strange job, and why he tries to kill himself: -- he's still mourning her so desperately that he writes her a suicide note beginning, "Dearest one, I've been meaning to write you for a long time."
     He suddenly becomes aware of wolves around him.  Standing up, he sees he's in the middle of their den.  This final twist annoyed me with its echoes of the heavy-handed determinism of novelists like Thomas Hardy and Jack London.  Their worldview, premised on Newtonian physics, has long since been superseded by quantum indeterminism.  To this point, the film dramatizes the modern, indeterminate worldview well, even in its title hinting at the ambiguity and "greyness" of the natural order.  But in trapping Ottway in the irony of reaching the very destination he most wants to avoid, it carelessly implies that nature's a Newtonian machine.
     That said, the final scene also deftly ties together the film's three main themes.  Confronted by the alpha and ringed by his pack, Ottway knows he's going to be killed by  ruthless wildness.  But he's also affirmed his doctrine of material proof as the right answer for him to the riddle of mortality, and he chooses to die, not passively like the ex-con, but by fighting for his life, as he has throughout, to the bitter end.
     He breaks three small bottles of liquor and grips them in the fingers of his left hand and his knife in his right hand.  Facing the alpha, he recites his father's poem about living and dying on this day.  With a flash of grey and a boom like that of the plane crash, the screen goes blank and the credits roll.  This time Ottway will not wake up.
     "The Grey" is a tragic and, despite some adolescent gimmicks, uncompromisingly intelligent and mature film.  Its  portrayal of human confusion, death, and vulnerability in face of an inhuman irrationality and violence is unusually grim.
     Yet beneath the grimness is an affirmation of human courage, dedication, and compassion that will touch all thoughtful and sensitive men and women, no matter what their worldview is.  Ottway is deeply skeptical, of course, but his is an agnosticism of the best kind.  He's open to every possibility, demanding only reasonably solid evidence for claims to truth.  And he clearly cares about other people and dearly loves his wife, perhaps too much.
     He even sympathizes with the wolves he kills.  This is reinforced at the end of the closing credits by a quick shot of the alpha male lying on his side mortally wounded, heaving final breaths like those of a dying wolf Ottway had earlier shot and laid a comforting hand on.  This time Ottway's dead too.  But if he could, he'd comfort this one too.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


     In my last post I stressed the human cost of dying.  I said that the abhorrence of it we human beings feel in every fiber of our being was engrained in us by billions of years of evolution.  Contradicting this instinctive abhorrence is our rational knowledge of death's certainty, leaving us trapped in a tragic riddle:  why are we born and why do we die?
     I argued that no humanly satisfying answer to the riddle exists, because the All that created us is non-human.  It consists finally of a material substance whose infinite potential, indeterminateness, and unpredictability somehow transforms itself into finite matter.  At least in this cosmos, and despite its basic irrationality, this finite matter has acquired the chaotic orderliness of our space, time, gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces.  Humanity emerged from the random interaction of such lawless laws.
     I said that none of this makes human sense.  The origins and ends of the cosmos are an impenetrable mystery.  Human life is often so bizarre and farcical that dying seems like its appropriately absurd punchline.  Sooner or later most people sense both this absurdity and how alien death is to them.  It negates everything they've hoped and lived for and forever extinguishes their zest for life.
     This was my last, downbeat post.  In contrast, today's upbeat post affirms the availability of solace for dying even to people like me, who believe that nothing survives human death but leftover chemicals.  It also affirms that such solace is sufficient compensation for our mortality.  Atheism's three bedrock principles -- realism, rationality, and moderation -- helped me arrive at these affirmations, but many other people, especially theists, probably won't find them useful.  That's cool.  We all have to find our own solace for dying, and whatever works for you is fine with me.
     Mine rests on the assumption that when I die I'll fall into a deeper sleep than I've ever had, like the oblivion I was in before my parents' genes shaped me.  I'll know nothing and feel nothing.  I'll be at perfect rest, as void of sentience as the pebbles of the neighborhood path where I walk.  I'll share their stony indifference to sunlight and moonlight, ice and fire, the smell of saltwater marsh or of mountaintop spruce.  I'll exist only as inorganic matter no more aware than those pebbles are of anything else in the All.
     In this state of oblivion, I'll obviously have no conscious afterlife.  Unlike Hamlet, who fears "the rub" of being able as a corpse "to dream," I take as proven fact (see for example Sebastian Seung's new book Connectome) that my brain is powered by electrochemical currents that will end as permanently at my death as those of a dead car battery.  Empirical evidence has convinced me I have no supernatural soul or spirit and that my personality, selfhood, imagination, feelings, and thoughts are material objects produced by my neuronal and synaptic brain circuitry.  I contain no supernatural or immaterial ingredients whatsoever -- no transcendental flours, ineffable sugars, or sacred salts.
     Nor will I have to endure any postdeath sensation, consciousness, or other psychic grotesquerie.  Since I regard all such claims of death-survival as human fictions, they don't attract, theaten, inspire, or interest me except as literary devices.  I like good sci-fi, ghost, and angel-demon yarns, not because I think they're real but because they amuse, entertain, even move me.  This willing suspension of disbelief is as useful to today's poets, novelists, playwrights, film-makers, and fellow artists as it was to Homer and Michelangelo.  Unfortunately, it's also useful to religious zealots and con-men bent on persuading people, who should know better from the available evidence, that their "souls" or "spirits" are immortal.  As W.C. Fields said, a sucker's born a minute -- and no religionist will ever give her a break.
     But if my belief that dying leads to a peace past all understanding helps compensate me for my death sentence, my luck in having been able to see, know, and to some extent comprehend the wilderness around me and to share it with other human beings compensates me even more.  I've elsewhere in this blog explained my use of the word "wilderness" as denoting everything that did, does, and will exist in our cosmos.  It refers to all the spacetime events and processes precipitated by the Big Bang, which in turn precipitated me.  It also connotes my sense of cosmic grandeur, beauty, and indifference.  I know I'm as much the offspring of the wilderness as I was of my parents.  But unlike my parents, it neither cares for me nor in any way reciprocates what I feel for it.
     Yet I sincerely love it and the bonus of living, thinking, and feeling that it's unwittingly given me.  On balance, I would much rather have lived the life I have lived and endured the death I will endure than not to have lived or died at all.  To those who question whether the pleasure of human existence is worth the pain of losing (or living) it, my answer is, It most certainly is.  To have experienced sunlit or snowy days, moonlit or rainy nights, the morning sounds of birds, the tastes of fresh fruit, and the smells of new-cut fields has been enough for me.
     Moreover, I've also had the chance to interact with other human beings.  Granted, many of these interactions have been disappointing.  But no one I've ever encountered has been truly vicious or life-threatening (I've been lucky), and though my wife and I were divorced after thirty years, our marriage gave us two children I prize as best friends.  My wife and I still keep in touch.
     My best friend is the life partner I met eight months after my wife and I separated.  We'd been high school sweethearts who hadn't seen each other in thirty years.  Then in the late 1980s, a couple of years after her husband died of a brain tumor in Baltimore, she read in our high school alumni magazine that I lived nearby and contacted me.  We've been together since.
     But many other boyhood, high school, college, graduate school, teaching-career, and retirement friends have brightened my life too.  And some of my most durable friendships have been with people like Gaius Lucretius, Philip Freneau, Herman Melville, and John Updike, who introduced themselves to me solely in print.  The web of sympathy, help, and knowledge these and countless other "strangers" have been weaving for me for thousands of years much consoles me for having to die.
     A final kind of solace I feels flows less from the fact that life is good than from the fact that dying's not so bad.  Personal experience with scores of terminal patients during the past fourteen months has taught me that, with good medical care, no one needs to fear major discomfort, much less agony, when they die.  Once a week I volunteer a six-hour shift with hospice patients at the extreme end of life.  Few of these so-called "actively dying" patients show much sign of pain, agitation, or restlessness, and if they do I summon help.  A nurse then gives them whatever pain-killer, anti-coagulant, relaxant, or other medicine they may need.  Sometimes the problem is positioning in the bed or reflex muscle motion.  Many of my patients sleep the whole time I'm there.
     In the past year, I've been alone with four who have died.  None of these showed any perturbation, alarm, or pain.  Two gradually stopped breathing, one slightly opening her eyelids after a final breath, the other breathing a few bubbles of saliva onto her lips.  The other two died so quietly I didn't even notice.  One must have died when she was being repositioned by two aides, because neither the aides nor I saw she was dead until they'd left and, looking at her closely, I saw she wasn't breathing.  The other died while I was reading to myself next to his bed.  Though as always I was glancing up every fifteen or twenty seconds to see, and keeping an ear cocked to hear, whether his breathing had changed, I never saw or heard it stop.  He died without a sound or movement.
     I consider this kind of death the best a person can have.  The worst is to die in an agony caused by physical violence or disease without medical help.  In between are of course many others, one of which is life's becoming the enemy and death the friend.  I have no idea whether Freud's death-wish theory is true, but I do know several people who want to die.  One's a 101-year-old who's been in hospice for years and who cheerfully tells me every time I see him that he's tired of life and wants it to end.  Another is a 93-year-old who worries she'll use up all her money and not have enough to support herself, much less leave her heirs, before she dies.
     I'm sure many other, younger people want to have done with it too.  I myself, at age seventy-five, feel my life's already been satisfying enough not to need anything more to make it worthwhile -- and I'm still fit (despite recent medical problems), clear-headed, and jolly enough to enjoy being alive.  On the other hand, people who suffer grinding pain, hopeless disappointment or failure, or abject poverty may find more solace for dying in death itself than in my kind of satisfaction with life.  To them, dying may be a welcome release from the torment of living.
     This leads to a final question:   Should we try to control death by timing it?  I think all reasonable people would like to know in advance, at least roughly, when they will die.  I for one hope to die well before I fall apart physically or metally.  I and many other people don't want to be profoundly debilitated in old age.  We'd rather, like the sufferers in the last paragraph, find our solace for dying in literally dying.  We feel our lives might become so diminished that dying would be the better alternative.  Unlike the voice-over narrator in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, who at one point says that "the dead know only one thing -- it's better to be alive,"  we say that the dead's utter obliviousness to such nonsense and their freedom from misery rightly makes them attractive role models to many people.
     The only way I know of to try to time death is either to refuse medical treatment for a mortal illness or injury or to commit suicide.  While I plan to ponder the first option carefully when and if the time comes,  I plan never to do the second, mainly because my own father's suicide would make mine seem like an Ernest Hemingway-like imitation.  I simply will not burden my own children with that.
     But in general, and with the standard caveats against rashness, immaturity, treatable depression, abandonment of dependents, botched attempts, killing yourself to kill others, and the like, I respect suicide as a last resort for anyone whose life has become intolerable.  I see it as a genuinely inalienable right, not because a higher power says it is but because it's available to almost anyone who needs it and is willing to pay the physical price it can cost.  Its availability and permanence (if successful) makes it, oddly enough, a sort of sure-fire solace for dying to anyone determined to control his own death by causing it.