As a man and woman make a garden between them like a bed of stars, here they linger in the summer evening and the evening turns cold with their terror: it could all end, it is capable of devastation. All, all can be lost, through scented air the narrow columns uselessly rising, and beyond, a churning sea of poppies–
Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me how many summers I live to return: this one summer we have entered eternity. I felt your two hands bury me to release its splendor.
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation. He went flying down the river in his boat with his video camera to his eye, making a moving picture of the moving river upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly toward the end of his vacation. He showed his vacation to his camera, which pictured it, preserving it forever: the river, the trees, the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat behind which he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it. It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be. But he would not be in it. He would never be in it.
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth, or riffling through a magazine in bed, the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.
They’re moving off in all imaginable directions, each according to his own private belief, and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal: that everyone is right, as it turns out. you go to the place you always thought you would go, The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.
Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors into a zone of light, white as a January sun. Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.
Some have already joined the celestial choir and are singing as if they have been doing this forever, while the less inventive find themselves stuck in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.
Some are approaching the apartment of the female God, a woman in her forties with short wiry hair and glasses hanging from her neck by a string. With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.
There are those who are squeezing into the bodies of animals–eagles and leopards–and one trying on the skin of a monkey like a tight suit, ready to begin another life in a more simple key,
while others float off into some benign vagueness, little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.
There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves. He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.
The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins wishing they could return so they could learn Italian or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain. They wish they could wake in the morning like you and stand at a window examining the winter trees, every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here. Here is a selection of the answers.
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard: We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.
Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould: The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.
Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.
Frank Donofrio, a barber: I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.
Harlem summer day
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?
If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.
Literary icon John Updike: Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.
Poet Charles Bukowski: For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.
We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.
We are here to drink beer.
We are here to kill war.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.
Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage: No why. Just here.
Your inability to win the Tony Award has put a deep strain on our relationship. Please don’t try to get too familiar with us anymore. Your incompetence is shameful. Go suck on a popsicle.
JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS
November 7, 1978
I have been meaning to get a hold of you for days, but I’m very big on Broadway and I have very little time to give cogent advice to younger hopefuls.
However, the entire city of New York has informed me that by an incredible stroke of luck you will be attending this Thursday’s performance of “Tribute” (which will be brilliant), and I merely wanted to know if you would like to enjoy the added thrill of having dinner with the star afterwards?
I don’t want to rattle you, but if you say no it may fuck-up the entire performance.
I would also like you to know that this invitation is extended only because of the lady you are bringing, who is a hell of a lot more attractive than you are!
John Uhler Lemmon III
JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS
June 7, 1982
It has come to my attention that you sent a contribution of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center in the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that you couldn’t come up with a sizable contribution, but God knows after all these years I, as much as anyone, understand the ups and downs of this crazy business. Some years are good, some years are bad, and even though you’re obviously on the shit list, I certainly appreciate the fact that you made some kind of effort no matter how meager.
I do think it is important for me to clarify an area of possible confusion on your part. Burn Centre has nothing to do with critical reaction to your work. However, it’s too fucking late so we’re going to keep the money and help a hell of a lot of kids.
One of these days I’m going to work with you even if it kills me (and it probably will).
Many thanks, and love,
JACK LEMMON TO MICHAEL DOUGLAS
December 14, 1987
Let’s face it—I have been in the acting dodge for centuries and I think I know a little bit about talent and human behavior and I know that you’re one dandy fella’ personally and a joy to work with professionally, but I also now know that that’s a crock of shit because I don’t care how good an actor is, nobody could play that part [Gordon Gekko in Wall Street] the way you did without basically being a rotten stinking insensitive vicious prick and I am personally going to spread the word and I don’t ever want to speak to you again.
Congratulations, you were absolutely brilliant.
JACK LEMMON TO WALTER MATTHAU
December 23rd, 1988
I know you’re always interested in looking for opportunities for investment.
I don’t know if you would be interested in this, but I thought I would mention it to you because it could be a real “sleeper” in making a lot of money with very little investment.
A group of us are considering investing in a large cat ranch near Hermosillo, Mexico. It is our purpose to start rather small, with about one million cats. Each cat averages about twelve kittens a year: skins can be sold for about 20¢ for the white ones and up to 40¢ for the black. This will give us 12 million cat skins per year to sell at an average price of around 32¢, making our revenues about $3 million a year. This really averages out to £10 thousand a day – excluding Sundays and holidays.
A good Mexican cat man can skin about 50 cats per day at a wage of $3.15 a day. It will only take 663 men to operate the ranch so the net profit would be over $8,200 per day.
Now, the cats would be fed on rats exclusively. Rats multiply four times as fast as cats. We would start a ranch adjacent to our cat farm. If we start with a million rats, we will have four rats per cat each day. The rats will be fed on the carcasses of the cats that we skin. This will give each rat a quarter of a cat. You can see by this that this business is a clean operation – self-supporting and really automatic throughout. The cats will eat the rats and the rats will eat the cats and we will get the skins.
Let me know if you are interested. As you can imagine, I am rather particular who I want to get into this, and want the fewest investors possible.
Eventually, it is my hope to cross the cats with snakes, for they will skin themselves twice a year. This would save labor costs of skinning as well as give me two skins for one cat.
I really felt that giving you an opportunity like this would be the greatest Christmas present possible.
In 1981, when Paul Devlin was in high school applying for a university place, he received a rejection letter from Harvard which, to his great satisfaction, contained a grammatical error. Never one to miss an opportunity, Paul quickly decided that he must reject Harvard’s rejection letter for that very reason, by letter—a process so therapeutic that Paul then decided to respond to all subsequent rejections, of which there were a few, with the following form letter. It became so popular that in May of 1981 it was reprinted in the New York Times.
Office of Admissions
Having now reviewed the many rejection letters received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.
This year, I applied to a great number of fine colleges and universities and, of course, received many rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections that I can accept is very limited. It is for that reason that I was forced to reject the rejection letters of many qualified institutions.
This was not an easy task. Each rejection was reviewed carefully and on an individual basis. Many factors were taken into account, such as the size of the institution, student-faculty ratio, location, reputation, cost and social atmosphere.
I am certain that most of the colleges I applied to are more than qualified to reject me. I am also sure that some mistakes were made, but I hope they were few in number.
I am aware of the disappointment this decision may bring, for these were not easy judgements. Throughout my deliberations, I have kept in mind the importance to you of this decision. I wish it were possible to cite specific reasons for each of the determinations I have made but, frankly, it is not.
It was even necessary for me to reject some letters that were clearly qualified as rejections. This is surely my loss.
I appreciate your having enough interest in me to reject me, and, although it may seem inappropriate to you at this time, let me take the opportunity to wish you well in what I am sure will be a highly successful academic year.
Ocean, don’t be afraid. The end of the road is so far ahead it is already behind us. Don’t worry. Your father is only your father until one of you forgets. Like how the spine won’t remember its wings no matter how many times our knees kiss the pavement. Ocean, are you listening? The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother’s shadow falls. Here’s the house with childhood whittled down to a single red tripwire. Don’t worry. Just call it horizon & you’ll never reach it. Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not a lifeboat. Here’s the man whose arms are wide enough to gather your leaving. & here the moment, just after the lights go out, when you can still see the faint torch between his legs. How you use it again & again to find your own hands. You asked for a second chance & are given a mouth to empty into. Don’t be afraid, the gunfire is only the sound of people trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean, get up. The most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed. & remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world. Here’s the room with everyone in it. Your dead friends passing through you like wind through a wind chime. Here’s a desk with the gimp leg & a brick to make it last. Yes, here’s a room so warm & blood-close, I swear, you will wake— & mistake these walls for skin.
Caitlin darling darling, I caught lots of buses and went to sleep in them and ate wine gums in the train and got here awfully late in a sort of thunder storm. This morning I can’t do anything but sit with my headache and my liver in a higgledy piggledy room looking out on the rain, and now I’m trying to keep my hand steady to write a neat letter to you that isn’t all miserable because I’m not with you in Laugharne or in London or in Ringwood or whatever daft place you’re in without me. I dreamed all sorts of funny dreams in my big respectable feather bed – which is much much better than a battlement bed full of spiders – dreams with you in them all the time, and terrible ticking clocks, and vampires, and ladies with long arms putting out the light, and intimate black dogs just sitting on us.
I love you Caitlin. I love you more than anybody in the world. And yesterday – though it may be lots of yesterdays ago to you when this wobbly letter reaches you – was the best day in the world, in spite of dogs, and Augustus woofing, and being miserable because it had to stop. I love you for millions and millions of things, clocks and vampires and dirty nails and squiggly paintings and lovely hair and being dizzy and falling dreams. I want you to be with me; you can have all the spaces between the houses, and I can have a room with no windows; we’ll make a halfway house; you can teach me to walk in the air and I’ll teach you to make nice noises on the piano without any music; we’ll have a bed in a bar, as we said we would, and we shan’t have any money at all and we’ll live on other people’s, which they won’t like a bit.
The room’s full of they now, but I don’t care, I don’t care for anybody. I want to be with you because I love you. I don’t know what I love you means, except that I do. [words deleted] (I crossed that out. It was, ‘In 21 messy years’, but I don’t know what I was going to say). Write to me soon, very very soon, and tell me you really mean the things you said about you loving me too; if you don’t I shall cut my throat or go to the pictures.
I’m here in a nest of schoolmasters and vicars, majors, lawyers, doctors, maiden aunts; and you’re lord knows where, in the country, miles and miles from me, painting barmy ivy. Now I’m sad, I’m sad as hell, and I’ll have to go to a pub by myself & sit in the corner and mope. I’m going to mope about you and then I’m going to have a bath and I’m going to mope about you in the bath. Damn all this anyway; I only want to tell you all the time and over & over again that I love you and that I’m sad because you’ve gone away and that I’m not going to lose you and that I’m going to see you soon and that I want us to get married once we can and that you said yes you wanted to too. And write to me when you get this, or before you do, only write and tell me all there is to tell me. And I’ll write to tell you when I’ll be in London, and then we’ll meet, however much they try to stop us, and then I’ll be happy again and I’ll try to make you happy by not being a half wit. All my love for as long as forever & ever is Dylan
– Letter from Dylan Thomas to his future wife Caitlin Macnamara in 1936, a few months after meeting her in a pub in the heart of London.