Mark C. Taylor is chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and the author of more than twenty books, most recently After God. In 2005, Taylor became critically ill and nearly died. In his newest book, Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living , recounts that experience, blending personal narrative with theological and philosophical reflection.
Wunderkammer: Fieldnotes from Elsewhere is unlike any memoir that I've read. The organization of the book seemed like something of a cross between a commonplace book and a book of devotions. How did you conceive of the book and its organization?
Mark Taylor: I'd been thinking about writing a book that combined philosophical and theological thinking for a long time. But it's a complicated kind of genre to do—and to do it in the right kind of way. After some of these experiences a few years ago, I figured I had done enough research. But I didn't want to write a straight narrative, because I don't think that life is a narrative. I had written a lot on Kierkegaard, and the Danish word for diary is dagbog, which is translated "daybook." For a while I thought about doing two books in one, a daybook and a “nightbook.” I wanted to organize it thematically; I wanted it to be accessible to the general reader and to use virtually no quotations—just my own reflections on a given subject. Trying to figure out how to organize the two, the daybook and nightbook, in one book was hard. So, then I hit upon the idea of doing fifty-two sections, like the number of weeks in a year, with an AM and PM for each section. So it is in one sense a diary. There is a sort of structure and organization to the entries. It begins with dawn and ends with the evening, and the different subjects and topics are clustered. But it's not tight. I mean, life is episodic.
I also wanted to make it sort of a photo album. I had used a lot of images in works that I'd done before. So there's about 120 images, and all of those are either scanned from old photo albums, or they are photographs that I took for the book. So I sort of combined a diary, a photo album, and the idea of a book of hours. I always imagined that people would not necessarily pick it up and read it straight through but, as you suggest, pick it up and read one or two and think about it. It becomes an occasion for refection for the reader. I mean the word reflection in the title means that it's my thoughts but it's also that the reader sees himself or herself in the writing. One's experience is unique, obviously, but the kinds of experiences one goes through, we all go through at one time or another.
WK: The book is marketed as a memoir about your near-death experience with cancer. Proportionally speaking, the book doesn't spend that much time dealing with the experience itself. Why?
MT: Well, there's different illnesses. There's the diabetes, which is chronic. There's the septic shock, which was acute. And there was cancer. Diabetes and cancer are obviously very serious, but the septic shock was what was most critical. The doctors had basically given me up for dead for two days. I thought after the first night that I was out of the woods, but I wasn't.
There are descriptions of that in the beginning. There are various entries that deal with it in terms of the experience of being in the hospital and the kind of late night conversations in the hospital. The point was not so much to go into the nitty-gritty of the different diseases. The figures that I read and write about are very demanding, and their works are often very abstract. Yet the reason why they are important is that those abstract ideas bear on very concrete human problems that we all encounter. So what I wanted to do was to bring to bear what I had learned from these thinkers on these experiences, but in a way that doesn't draw on them directly. In other words I appropriate them. When people go through these experiences on their own, this might give them a way to help think about what they're up against.
WK: Do you read those thinkers differently after having gone through this experience?
MT: Somewhat. The last book that I published was called After God, and I always think of that as my Hegelian book, and this book is very Kierkegaardian. The larger issue is the way experiences like this sort of tilt the axis of your world. Even though you've thought about it a lot—I mean, this is life after death for me. It's a weird kind of trip. I write about this in the sections on vulnerability and invulnerability. When you're in that intensive care unit, and they give you up for dead for two days, you are completely vulnerable. Absolutely vulnerable. Everything is out of your control. The peculiarity of that experience is that [in that] moment of vulnerability there's a certain invulnerability. There's nothing that anyone can do to you that life hasn't already done. That's an interesting kind of moment. I was never particularly patient with bullshit, but I'm a lot less so now. But in that kind of context, for all of it, whatever, there's something peculiarly liberating about having been there. I know I'll be there again, but I've been where you're going to be. Kierkegaard, for instance, will talk about a double movement of resignation and re-appropriation. And that's part of what I mean—that's why I say that you never come back from elsewhere because elsewhere always comes back with you. Once you've been in a place like that, it always shadows everything, but it doesn't shadow it in such a way that it's debilitating. On the contrary, it provides for certain kinds of liberation and freedom. I can read that experience through Kierkegaard or through a Buddhist notion of detachment, but it's very concrete and very real.
WK: In your reflection on "stigma," you write, "The delicate balance of confession is to find the line between flaunting and fleeing." Was this a difficult balance to find in a book that is by nature confessional?
MT: There are several levels. One—and this is one of the reasons that it took me so many years to write it—you don't want to write a work that is in any way self-indulgent, especially in today's world. And yet, you need to be honest with your reader if you're going to ask the reader to take the trip with you. In terms of what you show and what you hide, it's not only a question of what one shows and what one hides in one's own life, but what one shows and what one hides and what one says and doesn't say about others, whether it's family members, former students, friends, or colleagues. You can disguise that, not use the proper names, but it's still there, certainly. It's a constant negotiation between being honest and trying to grapple with these problems. You're not exposing things that will be difficult for the people about whom you’re writing to deal with.
WK: Were there conversations with your family about how candid you would be, especially when discussing your family history?
MT: Not really. I had done a book some years ago, a book of photographs of the graves of modern greats—writers, artists, philosophers—called Grave Matters, and some of that information I had already talked about in the book.
I didn't talk with anyone about what I was going to write about [in Field Notes from Elsewhere.] It was not the kind of thing that I was going to ask people's permission to do. There were two or three [stories] that the press persuaded me to pull because they were afraid of litigation. It was very painful for me not to be able to publish those because they are stories that people should know. I mean, people are getting away with things that they shouldn't be getting away with, and that was frustrating.
WK: There's a subjectivity involved in writing a memoir. Is there a sense of straddling the line between fiction and reality? You perceive these events one way, though other people might perceive them differently.
MT: Well, there's one answer that I call "faction"—a combination of fact and fiction. At one point I say there can be fiction without facts, but there's never facts without a certain degree of fiction. Any time one narrates—and that's the way we make sense of experience—there's a creative input, as it were. There's nothing in there that I made up in the sense of events or experiences. The way in which I narrate them and interpret them, obviously all of that could be done very differently.
The book, I think, has a strong pedagogical dimension to it. That is to say, part of what it tries to do is show the reader how I use what I've learned from the people I study to understand these experiences and thereby try to help them understand their experiences. In that sense, there's this kind of pedagogical element to it. All of the issues that I write about in my other books, whether they come from nature, Hegel, Kierkegaard, or Derrida—they're all there. I mean, my meditation on autoimmune disease could be read as an explanation of Derrida's deconstruction. The stuff on the inaccessible origin. Those ideas that are often presented as very abstract, philosophically or theologically, have value, at least as far as I am concerned, in the ways in which they illuminate the range of human experience.
WK: When you wrote the book, did you do so in a linear fashion or did you piece together and organize the reflections later?
MT: Once I had decided that this was not going to be a straight narrative and that it would consist of reflections—104 of them—I got note-cards and on each note-card I put one word per topic until I had exhausted the topics. I came up with about 300. And then I literally took the note-cards and spread them out on the floor and looked to see how they might cluster or be combined or relate to one another. At that point, I came up with about 120 or 130 topics. Then I started to think about what order I would write them in, but I didn't get anywhere with that. So I just started to write them down.
Now, I paired them. In other words, I did organize them in that way. As I had the 104, I paired them into fifty-two, but there was no order in which I then wrote the fifty-two. Again, I didn't want it to be a linear narrative, but I tried to organize a certain coherence. There's sections that are related to family, sections that are related to teaching, sections that are related to college, and sections that are related to disease. There is a certain kind of order to all that, and as I say, a certain kind of movement from dawn to dusk.
WK: Stylistically, the writing—and some of the reflections— sometimes remind me of the desert mystics, Simone Weil (her book Gravity and Grace), and the Gospel of John. I'm wondering if you looked to other writers when thinking about how to write this book.
MT: In fact I didn't. What I knew was that this was going to be a different kind of writing than I had done before. Heidegger says somewhere that there's a difference between scholarship and thinking. The academy approves and promotes scholarship and not thinking. And scholars write books about thinkers. This is not a scholarly book. It was very self-consciously sort of a “writerly” book; I did not want to write in a way the way that many of my other books are written. There wasn't anybody who had written in a vein similar to this of whom I was thinking at the time.
WK: You talk quite a bit about not being overly hopeful and about doubt, but you end the book on something of a hopeful note with reflections on community.
MT: There are several strands here. The community is a peculiar community because it's a community in a cancer ward, which is a community but it's an odd kind of community. The issue of hope is very complicated. I address it at several points in the book. Partly because, if you go from the personal to the global now, we are, as a human race, on an order of magnitude that we have not faced before. The difference between the scale and scope of the problems and the awareness and willingness to address them is so great that it's very disconcerting.
I just returned from China last week, and I was there for ten days and didn't see the sky. When you see the scale and the speed of development over there, and you see that there is 1.6 billion people and only a small number have begun to have anything like a standard of living like we have, and when you see what it's done to the environment, it's simply not sustainable.
Cultural despair is easy and cheap, but the problem is, that as a teacher and a grandparent, as I say at one point, hopelessness is a luxury we can't afford. I also write about this in the book—I mean, how far into the night do you take young people? One doesn't have a right to deprive them of hope, and yet one has to be honest. How does one be honest without depriving them of hope? It's a real conundrum.
A lot of the book has to do with acceptance. I don't know if you noticed the last three images: the ivy from Hegel's grave, the dirt from Kierkegaard's grave, and the grapes represent Nietszche's Dionysius. So, it's Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Nietzsche, and those are my main three ghosts. The last section is a rewriting of Wallace Steven's poem, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," rewritten as Williamstown. Having been through all this stuff, the last moment is that moment of acceptance.
I think this life is all there is; I don't think there's any afterlife. People will say, “doesn't there not being an afterlife mean this is all meaningless?” And on that point I'm a Nietzschean. Nietzsche says that belief in the afterlife is itself nihilistic because what it does is to suggest that this life is inadequate somehow. One of my favorite passages in all of philosophy comes from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, which goes something like this: "Have you ever said yes to one moment in life? If you've said yes to one moment, you've said yes to all. Everything is entwined, enmeshed, enamored. Midnight is also midday." At that's that moment. In the last two sections of my book, you go from the cancer ward to Williamstown. The ordinary and the extraordinary are flipped. What's ordinary is extraordinary and what's extraordinary is ordinary. It's that kind of acceptance of both the horror but also the glory. This stuff is not fun to go through, but again, there's that double movement of resignation and re-appropriation and the peculiarly liberating aspect of that kind of experience. And, because your mind always becomes double—that is, elsewhere comes back with you—you constantly see the folly in what others take seriously.