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Go gentle into that good night

1_Vincent_Van_Gogh_0010.jpgI know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I don't expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. "Ask someone how they feel about death," he said, "and they'll tell you everyone's gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that's not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you're really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don't really exist and I might be gone at any given second."

Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, this blog has led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. In the beginning I found myself drawn toward writing about my life. Everyone's life story is awaiting only the final page. Then I began writing on the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and was engulfed in an unforeseen discussion about God, the afterlife, and religion.

When I began this blog I thought if there was one thing I'd never write about, it would be religion. But you, my readers, have wanted to write about it. In thousands of messages. Half a million words. Life, science, belief, gods, evolution, intelligent design, the afterlife, reincarnation, the nature of reality, what came before the Big Bang, what waits after final entropy, the nature of intelligence, the reality of the self, death, death, death. This dialog still continues. The thread beneath the evolution entry, posted Dec. 3, has drawn nearly 1,900 comments, some of them longer than the entry, and it is still active. How did I find a group of readers with so many metaphysicians?

This has been an education for me. No one will read all the comments except me, but if you did, you could learn all a layman should be expected to understand about the quantum level. You would discover a defender of Intelligent Design so articulate that when he was away for a couple of days, the Darwinians began to fret and miss him. You would have the mathematical theory of infinity explained so that, while you will still be unable to conceive of infinity, you will understand the thinking involved.

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My opinions have been challenged. I had to defend what I believed. I did some more reading. I discovered fractals and Strange Attractors. I wrote an entry about the way I believe in God, which is to say that I do not. Not, at least, in the God that most people mean when they say God. I grant you that if the universe was Caused, there might have been a Causer. But that entity, or force, must by definition be outside space and time; beyond all categories of thought, or non-thought; transcending existence, or non-existence. What is the utility of arguing our "beliefs" about it? What about the awesome possibility that there was no Cause? What if everything...just happened?

I was told that I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or a deist. I refused all labels. It is too easy for others to pin one on me, and believe they understand me. I am still working on understanding myself.

To explain myself, I turn to Walt Whitman:

So do we all. How sad if our freedom to think about the immensity of time and space could be defined by what someone informs us that we believe.

But certainly, some readers have informed me, it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don't feel that way. "Faith" is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I relate it to the horror of the hero of Poe's The Premature Burial. To be in your grave and know it! Ah, but I am told, the afterlife does not involve time at all. In that case, how can it be eternal? Eternity is only thinkable in a universe that contains time. If I had but world enough, and time, I could spend time pondering a world without end.

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That whole discussion has been forging ahead on one hand. On the other hand, we have been puzzling over quantum mechanics, which suggests the possibility of instantaneous communication between two entangled particles, even if they are at opposite ends of the universe (not that the universe has ends). This happens independently of time and space. They've proven it in their labs! If the scientists are correct, everything everywhere is, in some sense, the same thing, in the same place--or it might as well be. That, too, is small consolation.

All I can do is think with my mind. All I can be is who I seem to myself. I can only be where it seems that I am. Time seems to move quickly or slowly, but it is time all the same; my wristwatch proves it. I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere. It is within these assumptions that I must live. Even if everything everywhere is the same, I must eat an orange or I will die of scurvy.

So within that reality, someday I will certainly die. I am 66, have had cancer, will die sooner than most of those reading this. That is in the nature of things. When I read about the nature of life from Camus, the odds were that he would die sooner than me. Thomas Wolfe, who wrote about a wind-grieved ghost, was already dead. Cormac McCarthy will probably live longer than me. And there is Shakespeare, who came as close as any man to immortality. In my plans for life after death, I say, again with Whitman:

And with Will, the brother in Saul Bellow's Herzog, I say: Look for me in the weather reports.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I wrote about that, too. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it not insist I believe in it. I know a priest, a lovely man, whose eyes twinkle when he says, "You go about God's work in your way, and I'll go about it in His."

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What I expect will most probably happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. Perhaps I have been infertile. If I discover that somewhere along the way I conceived a child, let that child step forward and he or she will behold a happy man. Through my wife, I have had stepchildren and grandchildren, and I love them unconditionally, which is the only kind of love worth bothering with.

I am comforted by Richard Dawkins' theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés, that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and happily torturing people with my jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all eventually die as well, but so it goes.

I drank for many years in a tavern that had a photograph of Brendan Behan on the wall, and under it this quotation, which I memorized:

"I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals.I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer."

For 57 words, that does a pretty good job of summing it up. "Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

8_van-gogh-shoes.jpgIn a moment or a few years, maybe several, I will encounter what Henry James called, on his deathbed, "the Distinguished Thing." I may not be conscious of the moment of passing. I have already been declared dead. It wasn't so bad. After a ruptured artery following my first cancer surgery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife Chaz said she sensed that I was still alive, and communicating to her that I wasn't finished yet. She said hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn't be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally--not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call, and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one I live in with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I'm not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I'm talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven't many of us experienced that? Come on, haven't you? I admire Skeptic magazine, but I'm not interested in their explanation or debunking of this event. What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It's a human kind of a thing.

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Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Still, as I wrote today to a woman I have known since she was six: "You'd better cry at my memorial service."

I have been corresponding with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 1988 he made a luminous documentary named "Vincent: The Life And Death Of Vincent Van Gogh." Today Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself "a simple worshiper of the external Buddha." Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:

Thank you, good Paul. I think that is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably not have to go on foot. Or, as the little dog Milou says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, pas à pied, j'espère!

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Footnote: At the urging of a reader, I took this quiz. It evaluated my replies and, from a list of 27 religions or belief systems, informed me that my top five categories were: 1. Secular Humanism (100%); 2. Unitarian Universalism (92%); 3. Liberal Quakers (80%); 4. Nontheist (73%); 5. Theravada Buddhism (71%). That was sort of what I expected.



Below: A poetry reading by the peerless Tom O'Bedlam.

somewhere I have never traveled, by e. e. cummings. [For Chaz]

Growing Old, by Matthew Arnold

When You Are Old, by W. B. Yeats

Elegy for Jane, by Theodore Roethke

The Ship of Death, by D. H. Lawrence

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot.

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