How to remember the future

nation 26 october 2009Stuart Klawans reviews Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, in which the 87 year old master filmmaker returns once more to his great theme of memory and desire.  Resnais excels at depicting  characters who cannot quite tell the difference between the past and the future.  In this film, two middle-aged Parisians think about flirting with each other.  Confused as to which of their feelings are hopes for the future and which are regrets for the past, they struggle to see each other as they are and their relationship as it might be.  Successful lovemaking, apparently, requires us to find a way to distinguish between the future and the past.  

Many have said that the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die.  This line always reminds me of what John Silber said in 1990 when he was running for governor of Massachusetts and a voter asked him what the public schools should teach children: “Teach them that they are going to die.”  Silber was not elected, needless to say.  A review essay considers the idea of philosophy as a preparation for a good death.  There are some interesting quotes and paraphrases along the way.  For example, Freud contended that such teaching is pointless, because we cannot imagine our own death.  Thinking of Resnais’ films, we might add to Freud’s argument an appendix that although it may be certain that our future will end with death, there is nothing like it in our past.  We cannot envision death, because we cannot remember it.  Nor can we accept it as long as our hopes for the future pervade our minds.  To accept death, we would have to break from both the past and the future, and feel only the present instant as real.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross saw this, and at times preached a Buddhist-inspired doctrine urging us to emulate death in life by emptying ourselves of ego, and to see only the present, unaffected by memories or regrets, hopes or fears.  But she could not follow this through; as she neared death herself, Kubler-Ross clung to Hollywood-inspired fantasies of indefinitely long life.  Dying, like lovemaking, requires us to distinguish between the future and the past.        

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