This Mortal Coil

Christopher Henderson

A friend is dying in a city far away. It's not, or not always, true what people say: that the proximity of death makes you treasure life. At times this spring, I have felt jealous of my friend. I was driving on a two-lane highway and the idea struck me, "One turn of the steering wheel, and all this would be gone." With the thought, my body sagged in relief. Suicide is, as Mrs. Dalloway muses in the eponymous Virginia Woolf novel, "an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death."

This embrace, which Woolf eventually sought, has little to do with the warm clasp of a handsome heavenly being, as envisioned in City of Angels. To wade into the river with your coat weighted with stones is to attempt to immerse your emptiness into a larger emptiness. It is like those scenes in Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, when Tony Leung's character tries to lose his particular pain in the arms of other lonely men; he passes emptiness into empty mouths, seeking a kind of dissolution, a kind of fusion. His little deaths bring both, in spurts.

Maybe what I object to in City of Angels is that wishful notion of the individual surviving death's dissolution. As with Christianity itself, the movie wants post-earthly life both ways: the blinding white light of grace--the loss of the self in ecstatic oneness--and also continuing, idiosyncratic personhood. Yet the film's whole thrust stems from the need of Nicholas Cage's Seth, angelic and thus anonymous, to become human, to feel everything, to communicate, join, love. He wishes to exist. By definition, eternal union makes impossible the desire and loneliness of the individual self.

The religious, Christian and otherwise, might respond that the impossible is nothing before God. Perhaps. But I for one hope to God that this mind, this consciousness, this soul, will be done with when this body is done for. I write that sentence out of weariness, which will no doubt pass. But I also write it because living has taught me to love union--with people, the earth, art, energy--and to love the way those fleeting unions transform me. How could this lonely "I" strive to meet and know and be changed through all my hours, and then sidestep the final metamorphosis at day's end, pleading, "But can't I keep me intact?"

Near the end of the movie version of Mrs. Dalloway, Vanessa Redgrave's neurasthenic Clarissa wonders why one chooses to go on living. It's a good question for those who believe in neither sin nor salvation. Not a lot happens in Mrs. Dalloway: An unimportant old woman, preparing for a party, remembers deciding whom she would marry; an unimportant young man, haunted by war, kills himself. Clarissa's London is not saturated with color like Seth's Los Angeles. The light around her does not glow. Even the lovely party she strains to assemble is crossed with awkward meetings, willful misunderstandings, and close, too bright rooms. Mundane life continues, "wreathed in chatter," as Woolf describes it--a ruthless thing running on its own momentum, which will not miss one small individual stepping out of the frame.

Except Clarissa does feel the death of the insignificant young man. "She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away," writes Woolf. It was a comfort to know another had doubted the worth of life--and not some jewel-colored ideal of Life as imagined by Hollywood angels, but a particular gritty and compromised historical moment: a life formed by external circumstances, crowded and corrupt, and guided by an internal compass not always showing true north. Recognizing the man's despair, stirred by his defiance, Clarissa returns to her party and attempts again to create a space where her guests might walk in beauty, a place of love where she and they might right now be transformed. Sitting in the dark, watching the movie, I too felt cut to the heart--and known, greatly known.

The Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church has spread a large cloth labyrinth on the floor of its gallery. It is open to the public noon to 8 p.m. on Fridays. I try to walk it without attaching a whole lot of symbolism to the act: The complicated route to the center and back doesn't signify The Path, or My Path; only that I am walking and there is a beginning and an end to it. I can choose to leave the labyrinth at any time; the knowledge, curiously, makes me less concerned about beginnings and endings. For now, I wander the long fairways and tight corners, where others have walked and will, continuing, and I watch what rises up in me, step by shaky step.

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