I have been plagued recently by a recurring dream: I am in a place, usually a city or town, where I am at first enjoying myself because it seems to be a kind of utopia filled with people who are more or less hip, living an environmentally friendly and socially enlightened life; but then I decide I want to leave so I can tell others only to find that every place I think I can exit turns out to be a cul-de-sac or no exit at all. I begin to panic, increase the speed of my walking and running and searching but all turns out to be in vain: I can never find my way back to the entrance where I entered, nor find another way out. It is about this time that I usually wake up in a sweat.
At first, I concluded that this dream was a metaphor for my current psychological state: unsure of my next move, unclear how or when or if I am going to publish my next book or whether I have any literary moves left. I know this is a common ailment among writers who always think that the last book will really prove to be the last, that all inspiration has finally left one bereft of ideas and exposed as a fraud. And so I have tolerated these dreams for the last few years, worrying about them some, but not really clear about what, if anything, to do. Then this morning I awoke from another one: same general tone and tenor, wandering through a seaside town, lovely, with nice hip shops of artisans making wonderfully inventive wares and restaurants that offer organically farm-raised or artisan fare. I ask someone the town’s name and I am told “Capistrano.” Nice name, too, I think. I want to meet up with my friends or relatives to show them my great find, so I begin to look for the way out and keep getting caught up in cul-de-sacs or going in circles and then find that I’m being followed by two rather threatening looking guys who begin to chase me as I break into a run, and I end up in a corner somewhere in a panic, grab a nearby bottle, of wine, maybe, and break it over the first guy’s head and am about to stab the second guy with the bottle shard when I wake up with my heart pounding. Again. No denouement. No exit.
Now I am aware of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, titled, in English, No Exit. And as I remember it, the play depicts three people in a kind of hell, which, in Sartre’s imagination, consists of “other people.” The three torment each other in various ways, and the whole idea is that hell is simply the place in which one re-enacts one’s characteristic sins or foibles or habits ad infinitum because there is no way out. No Exit from the tormented room of one’s psycho-physical drama. But my take on No exit is slightly different. After the latest dream, it occurred to me that the no exit signified therein may well refer to the inability of any of us, all of us, to escape the existential nullity of our time: death as a full stop, the end of all our striving, with nothing at all afterward. No reward. No punishment. No other people to torment us. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. With no way out of the nothing. And what that does is throw into question everything that we do, that we have done, that we can aspire to. It requires, at the least, a re-thinking of what we are here for, indeed, a contemplating of whether we are here for anything at all. Seriously contemplating it. Seriously feeling deeply, and without artificial lighting or solace, the dark night of the year, the dark night of the soul. Nothing. I am coming to nothing. All I am or think I am comes to nothing.
What also occurred to me, as I dwelt in this space, was that all religion, all human striving and construction, in fact, is little more than a desperate attempt to provide an exit from this dilemma; a way out. While we can tolerate the fact that all other animals simply die without anything of them surviving in another form, we cannot tolerate that same fact for ourselves. We are the special animal. We are the chosen animal. We are the animal that has been selected to think and to decree that we alone have, deserve the grace to continue. We alone contain some inner core that simply cannot die. It is immortal. It is far too precious to simply end, decay, change into dirt and mud and become a home for slimy crawly things. At least this is the way most religions portray those who choose to, or are born to affiliate with them. Special people with a special dispensation from the deity they have invented to provide them exactly this special dispensation, this exit, this way out.
But my recurrent dream seems to suggest the opposite. There really is no exit. We are all going to die, and we know it, and fear it, and retain the vain hope that somehow, we alone will get that special dispensation and be spared. Knowing all the while that the hope is vain. There is no special pez dispenser that gives out little pills to keep the inevitable from happening. There is none. There cannot be. Life cannot be without death. Others cannot be without our exit. And we know this. We all know it. We know there is no special part of us that will be allowed to continue. We know it. And yet, we keep hoping against hope. Hoping so desperately that we are willing, some of us, to kill, to kill others, to kill hundreds, thousands of others, in order to keep them from denying us, from pointing out what is obvious: there is no surviving. All changes. All dies. All ends in the same way. Trapped in circular streets, in Escher-like streets that go nowhere. That never provide an exit.
Perhaps this is freedom. Perhaps accepting this, realizing it, is what at some point frees us from the terror. Frees us from our desperation to find an exit. Frees us to simply live in the terrible knowledge that we are no different from all else: temporary appearances who live out our prescribed days as best we can, with no hope or need for reward, with the realization that the reward is simply this—our daily lives of irrational hopes and irrational fears and plans that we know are vain because what we are involved in is so impossibly huge as to be well beyond our ability to comprehend or control it. Which is the same thing as saying ok to it, ok to it even though our agreement, our acceptance is not required, it matters not to what is whether we accept it or not, but in some uncanny way it matters to us. To accept what is. To accept our entrapment in it. To accept that we have, really, no way out. No way out of our coming; no way out of our going. To accept that all we have, really, is this strange gift: the ability to be there while it happens.
Woody Allen famously said: “I don’t mind dying so much; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Though it’s one of the funniest things anyone has ever said about this, I think he was exactly wrong: being there while it happens, while everything happens, is really all we have.