Apr/May 2006 Salon

The Top

by Thomas J. Hubschman

I like living on the top floor. I like the view that height affords. When I was a child and my highest vantage was the rented second storey of a two-family house, I dreamed of living in a tree hut. I would reside near the leafy canopy, immune to the elements, free of the petty concerns of the earthbound, communing with the sky and stars. The long view was what I favored, altitude and perspective.

From where I live now I have a clear vantage over virtually every other object, natural or manmade. Only a line of tall plane trees obstructs my view to the south, and then only when they are fully leafed. To their right I see the oaks and maples of the Green-Wood Cemetery, a huge patch of vegetation seeming all the more remarkable for being sited in the middle of what would be the nation's fourth-largest city and within a slingshot's reach of Prospect Park. For wildlife the two--park and cemetery--must form a virtually unified stretch of woods and field, a thousand acres in which to roost, feed and reproduce.

In the winter I can see the lights of the Verrazano Bridge, a permanent display of holiday cheer joining the hundred-mile-long island on which I live to smaller Staten Island just off the Jersey mainland. In summer, though, there's nothing but leaf and branch dominating the small attached private homes and modest highrises in the middle distance. I might be living somewhere upstate or in an even more remote part of the country, the South or Midwest.

In my youth I could satisfy my yen for perspective on the Hudson Palisades. From there the view expanded dramatically. I stood hundreds of feet above a mile-wide river (for years I thought all rivers were that big). Beyond, depending on how far south or north I walked, I had a view of the Manhattan skyline, the greenery of the Bronx or further upriver the wilds of Westchester. This was as high as high got. Even the spires of New York City were dwarfed by the stanchions of the George Washington Bridge, an edifice uniquely worthy of the scale that nature had laid down. Up there on the windy cliff top, I felt both minuscule and mighty, a tiny object with a big, big view. It was an intoxicating and, apparently, addictive experience. The claustrophobic in me hankers for open space and a perch from which to appreciate its full sweep and depth.

Corresponding to this yen for physical perspective is an appetite for the long, philosophical view and an impatience with mere data that doesn't immediately afford some new insight or unexpected vista of the soul or the cosmos. Such prospects need not occur every day or even every month, but there must be enough fodder from the last revelation to keep me contentedly ruminating until the next one comes along. All my life, the happier years, I've had these sudden changes of perspective which permanently alter the way I see the world. Eventually they lose their novelty and become incorporated into my world-view on a less conscious level.

One of the most dramatic has also been among the most abiding and, while in retrospect seems so fundamental as to be self-evident, permanently changed how I saw everything, everything physical or metaphysical, thereafter.

It happened on a New York subway. The train had been stopping at each station to pick up and discharge passengers, a process I had been exposed to for at least two decades, ever since my mother started taking me to the Bronx to visit my grandmother or downtown to Macy's for new blue shirts and pants at the start of each new semester. But when the doors closed on this particular day on this particular platform—Second Avenue, I think—it suddenly struck me that each of the passengers getting on or off the train had come from or were going to someplace every bit as specific to the complexity of their own individual experience as was my own. Their reasons for being on that train at that precise time of day was fraught with a personal history of staggering detail, forming chains of causality worthy of a Summa.

Perhaps what I experienced is akin to the young infant's slow discovery that there is a distinction between his own consciousness and the reality that exists quite independent of it. Only, in my case the realization came all at once, in just a couple seconds. Think how dazed that infant would feel if s/he came to appreciate how s/he stood in relation to the rest of the universe in just the time it takes to draw and release a single breath. S/he might never get over the shock. I know I haven't. It was as if all those people, on or off the subway, previously had just been stage props, live ones to be sure, autonomous, but merely background to my own reality. Recognizing that each of them had lives as intricate and important to themselves as mine was to me—had lives at all, in fact—was not only humbling (a mere side effect at the time), it had the effect of setting free my imagination on a spree of speculation and invention, a source of more short stories and novels than I could write in a dozen lifetimes.

When it's going well, the act of writing opens up my perspective in a similar way and has the effect of elevating me above the press of everyday preoccupations. It's even a way of cheating death, the ultimate leveler—not the event itself but the premonitions and depressions that its certainty arouses. Stuck in mortality like Brer Rabbit to the Tar Baby, we have only our wits and imagination with which to outsmart the Hungry Fox. A mere twinge of indigestion can make me feel grounded to a fate I should, it seems, be superior to. At such moments my metaphysical insights and flights of imagination are useless and I become one with my debility, all four paws stuck hopelessly in the tar. But during those glorious moments when I can peer godlike over the terrain of life, even death holds no terrors for me.

Only chronic depressives are realists. They don't buy lottery tickets or answer ads in the personals section of the newspaper. The rest of us are condemned to an incurable case of delusional optimism. I feed my own on a steady diet of big ideas, my own and others'. They put distance between myself and the vicissitudes of flesh and spirit, the mind being no less a potential rack than are muscle and nerve.

Religions typically offer the same sort of elevation, promising an afterlife for our souls, our essential selves, immortalized like little Greek gods to face our fates for good or ill. Such faith sustains some people through even the most exquisite tortures man-made and natural. It keeps their heads above the waters of temporal suffering, their visions fixed on a distant but attainable shore of eternal release.

I have the same hope and need for a reasonable explanation why I who can conceive eternity and even feel an affinity for it yet seem doomed to oblivion. I yearn for salvation as much as any born-again Christian. My mind, in fact, seems to be working on the question full-time, though only occasionally does it offer up to my consciousness some hopeful possibility. The process is not as sustaining as a daily communicant's (I once was such), but it has more appeal for my adult intellect.

One of the characters in a Sophoclean play says, "The best thing is never to have been born." That's the cry of a civilization, though culturally at its peak, that was heading for a dead end. It had seen through the fairy-tale gods of Homer but had failed to come up with anything better to keep the darkness at bay. The Greeks were victims of their own success and had to work hard to produce a new belief system that could make sense of the absurdity of human existence. Eventually they would produce three: Christianity, Islam as well as a new form of Judaism.

With the reputed "death of God" we moderns are at a similar crisis. And we don't seem any better prepared to face it than people were two thousand years ago. We check the color of our stool instead of the entrails of birds to read what fate has in store for us. We count white blood cells instead of shooting stars. But it all comes down to the same thing: how to cheat our common destiny as long as possible. But our expertise at prolonging life merely makes us more frustrated with the certainty of death. We outlaw it, declare it un-American, refuse it. But it happens anyway, and we don't have any more of a clue why than we did when the Sophists were walking around. We turn, some of us, to the old-time religions, others to more recent adaptations. We hire people to communicate with the dearly departed with the same fervor that we look for intelligent life beyond our own fated star. Anything to get a leg-up.

When a thunderstorm hits I see lightning flashes clear to Coney Island. My cat, an otherwise reasonable creature, hides under the bed just as my ancestors used to do. I know the lightning is the cause of the loud claps of thunder that follow, just as I know that if I spit out the window my saliva will fall to the sidewalk because of gravity. But do I really know anything more about why things fall because I call it "gravity"? Because I'm reasonably sure the thunder is not caused by an angry deity, do I have a better idea of what God's job description actually is? Or my own?

When the storm has passed my cat reappears and demands his supper. After he eats he will take a long nap, then wake up and eat some more. He either has no idea this routine will end some day, or doesn't care.

This delight with the high and long perspective has been my undoing as much as it has been my salvation. The flesh has been all too much with me, and I seem less able than other people to come to some kind of truce with it. I was raised to regard the body as a necessary evil. To make matters worse, I was often sick and had more than my share of headaches, canker sores, even delirium. As curatives I endured enemas, mustard plasters and a variety of medical and dental tortures worthy of a medieval dungeon master. Is it any wonder that my body is not a place I feel at home in? Is it surprising that I so enjoy the long view, when so many of my days have been sunk in the quicksand of nausea and intestinal cramps, of claustrophobia and other anxieties?

I sometimes wonder whether the man or woman who first proclaimed the enmity of spirit and flesh didn't suffer the same sort of afflictions and concocted a notion of religious or philosophical salvation as an antidote, then foisted it off on future generations, an iatrogenic pathogen for which only the duly ordained have a cure.

Or did the fissure of matter and spirit occur because as a species our mental capacity simply outgrew our animal nature, making us feel like minds trapped inside a material shell? Did we become, as it were, too big for our intellectual britches?

Whatever the cause, I am stuck with the effects. But, as is usually the case, my human imagination responds to it with ingenuity. "Give me land, lots of land," my mother used to sing, "under starry skies above, don't fence me in." She feared heights, craved a horizontal sweep. I love heights as long as I am well fenced-in, secure in my seatbelt behind three inches of sealed window, happy in my recliner four flights up and one hundred fifty feet above sea level, the Statue of Liberty visible below in the harbor if I crane my neck out my living room window. I have found my tree house at last. If only I could keep it indefinitely.


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