This summer I finally got to see the Damien Hirst piece, A Thousand Years. It’s a big glass box – a vitrine – in which lies a severed a cow’s head; big mournful eyes, blood gently seeping into a pool. And around the head are flies – it revolts – vast numbers of densely packed tiny winged insects, breeding away as the cow lies rotting. Then, above the head, suspended inside the vitrine’s is a fly killing machine, blue light radiating, every couple of seconds a flash as another fly wanders too close and dies. Actually not all the flies die in the insectorcutor. Some seem dead of natural causes, lying on the floor on the far side of the glass box, away from the bright blue light.
The piece feels as if it is about me. Here I am, inside this big ol’ vitrine, buzzing around and facing only a singular certainty. Like a withering leaf and a passing dream.
But the thing that struck me most, looking in at this stark ecosystem was its sealed quality. I expected the work to smell, but the smell is sealed in. You expect the zapping insectorcutor to make a noise, but you can’t hear anything. Nothing emerges from within. Nothing goes anywhere. It’s a closed system. And that was the thing that struck me as false, emotionally and spiritually. That’s the element that felt inaccurate. We buzz around and we die – for sure. But my question is this. Is there the possibility of transcending, is there something beyond or is everything forever to be locked inside a sealed box? My question doesn’t seem to interest Hirst much, either in this work or any of the others at the exhibition. But it nags at me. Are our lives lived in a closed-in ecosystem, sealed inside a glass box, or is there a permeability to existence? Can we touch something beyond, can that which is beyond touch us?
I admit I desire a permeable Universe. If our lives are truly lived inside a hermetically sealed box, what’s the point? If there really is nothing that emerges from all this strife, frankly, so what? Even humanity’s greatest achievements, from Ghandi to Einstein to Mozart amount to no more than a brief buzz inside a vitrine. This is the game Hirst plays with his choice of title – A Thousand Years – as if the flies last more than a measure of days – as if any length of time makes any ‘real’ difference if everything we are, everything we were and everything we will become exist only inside a glass box. On the other hand, if there is permeability, some point of connection from this mortal world to somewhere beyond, then even my most paltry of actions might count, might emerge in some unpredictable way in a parallel universe, an unknowable future an Olam Haba – a world to come. If we live in a world where the realities of life and death are, somehow, permeable then there is the possibility of a line of connection connecting with those I have loved and lost. It might still be possible to talk about a living relationship with the loved ones we remember on this day.
I’m no physicist, but I’m fascinated by astral physics and quantum mechanics – tales of parallel universes and strange subatomic existence which scramble my sense of what we know about our Universe. Black holes seeming to suck in matter which goes where, exactly? Electrons disdain normal laws of motion travelling from place A to place C not via B, but by every point in the known and unknown Universe. Off they go, escaping from their vitrines left right, centre and in directions and dimensions I don’t understand.
And what of memories, emotions, our sense of self? Will it, could it, be possible to download everything we are onto a circuit board, will it be possible to create a human purely inside a test-tube? Or will there always be something about being human that needs to be created in a in a world beyond measure? It’s a day for speaking about memories of those who have passed away leaving imprints on us. Is that all happening in a sealed ecosystem, or is there a place from which and into which memories and emotions emerge in ways that cannot be contained, replicated, measured or understood?
Certainly religion, my religion anyway, has an answer to these questions. My faith is predicated on just such a notion of permeability. Judaism teaches that our actions permeate beyond the realms of classical physics or any other force known to humanity. The Talmud teaches, Gedolah Teshuvah Shmigaat ad Kiseh Hacavod - how great is Teshuvah, for it reaches the Throne of Glory. Judaism is theurgic, we believe our actions can change God, change everything. That relationship between a person and God is called Ben Adam L’Makom – literally, between a person and The Place – God is That Place which lies beyond the vitrine, beyond our ability to reach, understand and order. But a Place no less real for its lack of a quantifiable location. Religion can be rational and there are all kinds of vital things rationality can teach us about our lives inside the vitrine. But religion is ultimately about that which is mysterious. It is about what lies beyond the observable and the measureable.
Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, Nothing to be Afraid Of, cites a passage from Madame Bovary in which Homais, who he calls ‘the bigoted materialist,’ declares the notion of Christian Resurrection to be not only ‘absurd’ but ‘contrary to the laws of physics.’ It’s a nonsensical argument suggests Barnes, predicated on things we can’t understand being ridiculous because we can’t understand them. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the drunkard who looks for his fallen keys only in the small pool of light emanating from a streetlamp. The drunkard rejects the notion that the keys could have fallen outside what he can see and so is doomed to never find them.
It’s easy to misunderstand religion by imagining God is somehow part of the world we are supposed to understand. It’s an error made by both atheists and fundamentalists. There is a certain kind of atheist who believes that if they can just manipulate a beam of electrons sufficiently quickly they will understand everything there is to know about the Universe and its creation. There is a certain kind of fundamentalist who is wont to believe that God can be manipulated by obeying certain prescriptions; if you keep kosher and light Shabbat candles you will be rewarded with good exam results and a new tricycle for Chanukah. But that is to misunderstand God as part of the measurable and manipulable Universe – existing inside a vitrine along with us flies. But that’s not how religion works. God is the space beyond measurement, permeating inside as our actions and inactions permeate beyond in ways we cannot understand.
Religion is often accused of tending towards authoritarianism, but the kind of religion I’m trying to describe doesn’t incline towards absolutism. The only things I absolutely believe about that which is beyond is that there is such a Place, I can’t understand it but my actions permeate to it as it permeates through me. More than that is mysterious.
Perhaps the two most honest and holy lines in the entire Yom Kippur liturgy are to be found in the Book of Jonah.
First is the speech of the captain of the ship, being tossed around in the sea, while Jonah sleeps, having fled to Tarshish.
What are you doing asleep, get up, call to your God and MAYBE that God will save us and we won’t perish. Ulai – maybe.
And then later - the King of the Ninevah having been told his whole city is to be destroyed seeks to repent. He calls on the city to turn away from their violent evil ways.
WHO KNOWS, maybe God will return and take pity and turn from God’s anger and we won’t be destroyed. Mi yodea – who knows.
Ulai – perhaps and Mi Yodea – who knows.
The point, I think, is this. Far from turning us into bigots or fundamentalists, living with belief should make us throw our lot in with those who are trying to create a more decent and kind world for us all. It should make us better. Living with belief is not a crutch to prop up a childish fantasy or a tool to ensure we all get given tricycles for Chanukah. Belief isn’t about certainty. Indeed there is less certainty in this kind of religion than in many brands of atheism. Belief is the attempt to engage with the permeable walls of the vitrine in which we buzz around. It is about the courage to engage with that which we cannot know with the sea captain’s sense of ‘Ulai’ – maybe this will work.
I had a strange experience at a funeral this year. One of the mourner’s, not a member of the family, accosted me as I was washing my hands on leaving the cemetery. ‘Will I see my father in heaven,’ they wanted to know. ‘I asked’ – and here they mentioned the name of a well known Rabbi – ‘and they told me I definitely would, what do you think?’ I told him I didn’t know. I wanted to offer the answer of the captain of Jonah’s ship - ulai. He was having none of it, ‘What use was I,’ he insisted, if I couldn’t even promise him this.
But there is use in this gentle form of faith, a belief in something beyond comprehension, but there – nonetheless and permeable. Not only does acting with such a belief improve us, it also trains us to listen out for the whispers of that which is beyond. It’s a kind of mindfulness in which we can experience that which we cannot understand. It’s a state of life which allows for moments of transcendence, permeability. On this day, when we stand and knock at the permeable walls of our mortal selves, it is the blessing I have for us all – that we should feel that sense of the transcendent, that sense of something beyond knowledge but nonetheless present. And for those of us here to touch a memory of a departed, loved one my blessing is that we can find a way to keep the impossible connections alive so the memories of those we have loved and lost can continue to be a blessing.
Yehey Zichronam L’varuch
May their memories always be a blessing.