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The Philosopher’s Death
A short story by Stafford Betty. (Warning – not for those of a nervous disposition!)
Wendell had been nervous in the Madras airport. A Tamil terrorist’s bomb had blown up thirty people there a few years back, and the Tamil Tigers in neighboring Sri Lanka were still fighting for independence. Now, sitting comfortably in first class heading for Bombay, he couldn’t help feeling relieved at the thought that in three days he’d be back in his office working on his book. Then for some reason his memory lurched far back in time, and he found himself thinking of Sister Fidelia, the oracular Irish nun whose insight into life could be measured by the squint of her eyes. “In a hundred years half of you will be burning in hell!” she had said one day to her class of eighth graders. Wendell was thirteen at the time, and he barely knew what masturbation was; but by the time Sister had finished he knew what it would do to you for all eternity. He had believed her and did not do what the other boys did. As for adultery, the other sin she inveighed against –
“. . . not ready to leave this world. If I died now, I would want to come back.” An Indian’s voice speaking British English with a Tamil accent woke Wendell out of his reverie.
“But you are sure you come back?” said another voice in the unmistakable accent of an Eastern European struggling with English. They were seated directly behind Wendell.
“It is the teaching of the Gita, so I do not doubt it. And there are so many cases of little children who remember their past lives,” said the gentle voice by the window.
“I am – how you say? – an atheist,” said the other man (he pronounced it “ah-tee-ist”), “so I do not believe that.”
“You believe this is the only life, then?”
“Yes, yes,” the other man said. He chuckled as if he were a man kindly indulging a boy.
“I am a brahmin,” said the Indian.
Wendell couldn’t resist stealing a look at him through the crack between the seats. He had delicate features and golden-tanned skin – very light for a Tamil.
“I believe that we keep coming back until we are free of the Great Illusion. Then there is eternal life,” said the brahmin.
There was something about this point of view that triggered in Wendell a faint, nostalgic longing for the fruits of a living faith. He was hardly aware of it as he eavesdropped, but it was there nonetheless. Faith seemed more attractive, more respectable, coming from a Hindu rather than a Christian.
“And you want eternal life?” the other man asked.
The young brahmin was silent for a moment. Then he said, almost wistfully, “Yes and no. I want it, but not yet.”
“You should be born Russian like me!” laughed the other man. “Then you are not ashamed for your – your desire, heh heh heh!”
Wendell got up as if to relieve himself and scanned the passengers as he walked. Among them were a beautiful Tamil woman with a red dot on her forehead and a long-lashed baby boy in her lap; a bloated white man with weary, sagging features whom he took for an American; and a distinguished-looking Muslim traveling with a woman whose face was veiled except for her eyes. The Russian, he decided, looked like Khrushchev.
Back in his seat, Wendell couldn’t resist turning around and stealing another look at the beautiful red-dotted Tamil madonna. She absent-mindedly kissed her baby on the head, and Wendell found himself missing home, even Lisa his wife, whom he often hated. Now he pictured Lisa holding Sonya when she was a baby.
His thoughts gravitated back to the conversation between the brahmin and the Russian, and for the first time he realized clearly that he had been rooting for the brahmin. He wondered how this could be. Did he, Wendell Cromwell, the eminent Berkeley philosophy professor, really hanker after eternal life? Or did the wish arise like swamp gas out of some ancient, mouldering catacomb in his brain? ‘Interesting,’ he noted.
By now the plane was more than halfway to Bombay, and the bright orange ball of a sun was threatening to dive beneath the unbroken clouds below. Then it happened. There was a faint thud. It barely registered on Wendell’s consciousness. A minute later the door to the cockpit swung open and a crewman asked in English with peculiar urgency, “Is there a doctor here?”
“Yes, I am a doctor,” said an old man off to Wendell’s right. The man got up as everyone in the compartment stared in surprise. At that moment Wendell remembered the thud. Had anyone else felt it? He stood up and asked the crewman in an undertone, “What happened? I thought I felt – or heard something.”
“A minor accident,” the crewman said. But his face was puffy, and showed tiny pocks of blood like buckshot on the right side, and his eyes seemed dazed.
“What kind of accident?”
The crewman ignored Wendell and held his arms out toward the doctor while his foot held the door ajar. “Come! Come!” he urged.
Wendell took this opportunity to bend his body to the right and look through the passageway leading into the cockpit. A crewman with hands over his eyes and dripping blood was being propped up in the pilot’s seat. Another was frantically looking through a toolbox on the floor. Then Wendell saw twisted metal; some of the dials on the instrument panel were shattered.
“A bomb?” he whispered in shocked disbelief to the crewman as he led the doctor into the passageway.
“Nothing to worry about!” the crewman answered back in a shrill, chastising whisper.
Then Wendell heard from the cockpit, “Bombay approach, this is Indian Airlines Flight one seven four, come in, over.”
The door shut.
A bomb! Wendell felt a jab of terror. He must stay cool. “Nothing to worry about,” he remembered the man had said. And probably there wasn’t. But his next thoughts were very different. They were the thoughts of a realist who has made a successful career of seeing things precisely as they are. ‘The clever bastard! It had to be someone on the inside, a mechanic maybe,’ he thought. ‘Why didn’t he just blow the whole damned plane up? I can’t even smell smoke. The instrument panels, the controls – one lousy little plastic bomb. Nothing but a little glass in the face –’
Wendell stuck his head in front of the dozing date merchant on his left and looked through the window at the engines. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, and the engines’ steady purr told him they were running normally. ‘Nothing to fear, nothing to fear,’ he told himself.
“Fasten your safety belts and pull your trays into the upright position.” It was a man’s voice; first in English, then in Tamil, then in Hindi. The muscles around Wendell’s chest began to quiver. He told himself the instructions were just a precaution. But he wasn’t sure. The intercom was working, and that at least was a good sign. He reminded himself that for every crash there are a hundred, perhaps a thousand, close calls.
Meanwhile the passengers in first class were appealing to the two stewardesses hurrying up and down the aisle with towels in their hands. “What happened? What happened?” they kept asking.
“. . . Mayday, mayday. Bombay approach, this is Indian Airlines one seven four with an emergency, over.”
Whoosh went the door as it slammed shut.
‘A mayday! This can’t be happening!’ thought Wendell. But it was happening. As a very young man he had always prayed on takeoff that the plane would not crash. He felt the old urge again, but now there was no one to pray to.
Then his thoughts started tumbling one over the other: ‘Indians can fix anything. They’re geniuses at fixing things! My broken shoe... the cobbler on Mount Road in Madras, the hundred little thingumajigs spread out around him on the ground. Three minutes, one rupee, good as new! And that toolbox in the cockpit. Indians can fix anything...’ He thought of his son Clifford – he saw Clifford’s placid face lighting up a little as he got off the plane, and little Sonya’s shiny golden curls and her delighted greeting with the accent on the second syllable: “Dad-dee!” Son and daughter, so real, so alive. Surely they were a part of his future. They had to be. They had to be.
The prostitute and the rickshaw driver; the leper he gave twenty rupees to; the little dune of mud in Venni where cobras lived and were worshipped; the Christian fishermen of Tangasseri who took him out in their fishing boat; his office at the university with the pictures of his children neatly mounted on his desk; his long-dead father; Lisa; the, the – like Dracula in his black cape she loomed up batlike; the palm reader in Tanjore he had hired partly for fun and partly out of mercy! Her words, “You will die in India” dug into his brain, and he quietly screamed out a mighty “NO!” in his mind to any and all higher powers, real or unreal. It was impossible! Impossible that she could be right!
The door to the cockpit opened. Man in a uniform.
“Sir...!” Wendell said, fighting his panic. The man pretended not to hear and walked by.
Wendell almost unlatched his seatbelt to run after the man. He imagined himself grabbing the man’s arm, spinning him around and saying, “We have the right to know what’s happened! We have the right to know if we’re going to die!” He imagined the man falling back and then slithering away beyond the thick curtain into second class. But Wendell only sat paralyzed in his seat.
Then he stared at the door separating the cockpit from the passengers and imagined himself barging through and demanding an explanation: “Either you tell them what has happened or I tell them. I know there’s been an explosion, I know you’ve radioed a mayday. The people in second class don’t know anything. They have a right to know. I have a right to know. Either you tell them or I tell them!” But at that moment Wendell cared not even a little about the people in second class. He wanted to know if he, Wendell Cromwell, was going to die. That was all.
A voice over the intercom: “This is the co-pilot. There has been a small explosion in the cockpit and we are experiencing – technical difficulties – with the wing elevators.” Gasps and screams. “You must stay calm,” ordered the voice. “Keep your seatbelts fastened. Obey all instructions from the stewardesses. We are doing everything we can to regain control. We have time. Still – you should prepare yourselves...”
Now there were more screams. Or rather wails. The veiled Muslim woman took up the death knell – her own. Her cries provided an unbroken background to the spasmodic shrieks and oaths of panic. They were like a tambura, the Indian instrument which when strummed hums the sound of the eternal Om.
‘Could this be it?’ thought Wendell. ‘Could it really?’ He thought of little Sonya and wondered how she would take it when... No, it was too horrible a thought. She needed him. And Clifford. The thought of his children being raised by Lisa alone. No, it couldn’t happen! It mustn’t!
A new sound – ugly, ridiculous: “A million dollars to anyone who can bring us home. A million dollars U.S.!” It was a shrill, gravelly shellburst, belonging to someone stupefied with terror. “GODDAM IT! I WON’T DIE!” it exploded.
Wendell looked back in horror at the fat American. Who was he talking to, this man who sat chained to his seat, catatonic, rigid, shaking violently, screaming about his million dollars like someone in the electric chair? Who was he talking to as he stared into space? Meanwhile the plane had tilted downward toward the clouds, and the sun forced through its last rays before it disappeared beyond the gray curtain.
For a moment an eerie quiet filled the little cabin. Even the date merchant, who a moment ago had been whimpering as he huddled against the window, shivered silently, his closed eyes oozing a tear.
‘God forgive me,’ Wendell heard an alien voice inside him say. ‘Quiet you coward!’ another voice answered: ‘Die by your convictions! Die as you have lived!’ He repeated the words, “Die as you have lived” again and again like a mantra. ‘God forgive me,’ responded the ancient alien voice inside him.
For an instant Wendell despised himself, then he took the matter in hand. He exhumed the long, complicated train of thought that had killed God over twenty years ago. Piece by piece, argument by argument, plank by plank, he reviewed it, with unbelievable speed. He saw the inescapable conclusion – ‘Therefore God does not exist’ – blazing like a laser beam into an endless Void. He heard the voice of Lucretius: Nothing to fear. The actual moment all there is to fear, then it’s over, over. Just everlasting sleep, sleep of nothingness. Nothing to fear, nothing to fear. Then some other voice, some mean-spirited devil inside him said the whole argument was just a device, yes, just a device, a trick. He heard the voice of his old friend Benson, now a priest, recite the Psalm: “The fool has said in his heart that there is no God.”
Then he heard a voice not in his own head, but behind him. “Teach me your God,” said the Russian to the brahmin. “What I do at this moment?”
“You must think only of God at the moment of death.”
“But what is this God?”
“Infinite truth, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss,” the voice carefully intoned, like a bishop celebrating High Mass. ‘And infinite love,’ the ancient voice inside Wendell mocked.
“Think of God, desire to be with God, that is all you can do now,” the brahmin said with an air of uncanny calm. “Make this your supreme desire. Be absolutely sincere if you can.”
Wendell suddenly felt disgust for the Russian. ‘My God!’ he called out into the Void inside him, ‘If only you were real!’
He looked back down the aisle. There was the beautiful woman with her child wide-eyed in her lap. The child was sucking his thumb, unaware, content. The mother’s face was upraised, her lips moving, her eyes closed.
He looked at the seat behind her. There was the American, his arms rigidly grasping the arms of his seat. He looked like someone in a dentist’s chair when the drill has struck a nerve. He too had his eyes closed. A hundred wrinkles creased his flaccid, sweaty face. Had he too found a prayer, a means of deliverance? Would he be the good thief on the cross? Him? ‘Spare us!’ Wendell screamed indignantly into the Void.
The Muslim. He was droning some tract in Urdu. He was calm, as if he had long ago prepared himself for just this. All through the cabin the various names of God – Shiva, Ganesha, Krishna, Devi, Allah – could be heard; not in chant, but in fitful, fervent, frightened ejaculations. Only the date merchant next to Wendell seemed faithless.
The plane now pointed steeply downward toward a vast cloud bank, which lay like a thick pall between Wendell and extinction. Suddenly he hated the man who planted the bomb. He hated him because he didn’t blow the plane up into smithereens and save everyone all this agony and hypocrisy. And because the research he had done on contemporary Indian philosophy would never see the light of day. And because – it was unthinkable! – he would never see his children again.
Wendell looked wildly around one last time. All these Hindus and Muslims united in one simple idea: a stupendous superstition guaranteed to deliver them safely into the presence of God or a better next life. ‘The brahmin had spoken of the Great Illusion... But they’re the ones caught in illusion!’ Wendell screamed to himself, suddenly unsure. He thought of his life in California, the values and dreams of the fashionable set he ran with, and he asked himself what was real – this or that? He wasn’t sure. He really didn’t know. He wondered if he had made some – some preposterous miscalculation. But he was a philosopher: one of the best philosophers in the country. He was paid to know about such things. How could he be wrong all of a sudden?
He looked out the window. Two minutes? His brain lit up with preternatural energy. Layers of images broke out of their prison, and he saw them all simultaneously. He saw and heard bamboo stalks creaking in the wind, crashing into each other, scarring each other. He heard the haunting whoops of the Indian cuckoo set off against a cacophony of crows’ caws. He saw monsoon clouds racing each other to the northeast, the ones above him scudding faster than those more distant. He tasted the bitter leaf of the margosa tree and saw birds riding on the rumps of cattle. India rushed by in a hundred images, none excluded. Then events out of the more distant past began to vie for space. As before, nothing was excluded. He was an amazed but helpless spectator as he relived Clifford’s conversations with Benson, Sonya’s birth, his philosophy classes at Columbia, the ecstasy he felt listening to the Mahler Second beneath fourteen-foot-high ceilings back in his ancestral home, the putt he made to win a junior golf tournament, the little bony-nosed girl he gave his Crackerjack prize to in the first grade, his mother when he was a toddler –
“This is the pilot speaking!”
Wendell jumped in his seat.
“Prepare for a possible crash landing. Lower your head behind the seat in front of you. And good luck.” The pilot said these words in three languages. Crying and shrieking, two-hundred and fifty bodies crouched down.
Then Wendell saw himself from a new perspective. He had systematically pumped all spiritual convictions out of himself. His soul was like the vacuum inside a light bulb or a TV tube, and the materialism and worldliness that had ossified around him were like the shell, the glass of the tube. He realized he detested what he had become, even as he knew there was no turning back.
A crazy impulse seized him. He reached for his briefcase, opened it, ripped off a cover of a hardback book on Buddhist architecture, and wrote on the inside, “Dear Lisa, I am thinking of you and the children seconds before my death. I love you. I’m so sorry, so very sorry for everything. Forgive me. Wendell. P.S. A thousand kisses to the children. My will is in the third drawer on the left. Get Sonya baptized.” Then he closed the briefcase full of notes, books, and undeveloped film.
The plane hit the clouds and vibrated as if it would disintegrate even before it hit the ground. People whimpered, prayed, groaned. Suddenly as the plane lurched, Wendell glimpsed a gray landscape out the window. He reared up and leaned over the date merchant toward the glass. A perverse commitment to realism, a lifelong habit, compelled him to see what death looked like as it zoomed toward him. It looked like a millet field. He whipped himself back against his seat and tried to dissolve into it. He crouched deeper and deeper into his seat, as if he were digging into a foxhole, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He was waiting for that precise moment, that millisecond between consciousness and oblivion. The words, ‘God have mercy!’ rushed at him, pleading and begging and screaming, but he cut them off. In their place he substituted a memory of Clifford as a twelve-year-old Little Leaguer rounding third base after hitting a home run to win a big game. On Clifford’s face was a smile that lit up the universe. It was the happiest moment that they had ever known together. Now Wendell clung to that smile, clung to that smile... The American behind him was blubbering uncontrollably, but Wendell didn’t hear him. With a violent, flashing, pulverizing crash, the Void closed round.
© L. Stafford Betty 2007
Lewis Stafford Betty is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield.