Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the
universe, or is mankind alone in the vastness he thinks he has discovered? Last
week American scientists successfully launched another rocket in their quest for
an answer to that question, and the radio talk shows have been busy discussing
it: a welcome relief, no doubt, from the endless discussion of the latest
world-wide economic catastrophe that our "intelligent life" has produced here on
There was an oddity in the talk-show
conversations that has made me want to write about them. Everyone seemed to
agree that intelligent life was desirable. That's obvious, isn't it? Surely it
is better to know than not to know something. Or is it only intelligence itself
trying to think well of itself? What would the non-thinkers think if they could
think? Think of the laborious evolution of life on earth, of which our
intelligence has informed us. Think of the untold millennia of that life; then
think of the few quick little centuries of intelligence and the chaos and
disaster which now threaten life on earth as a result.
Here I have to confess my conviction about
mankind's intelligent life: I think it is doomed. I give it a century or two at
most. It isn't just the ongoing destruction of the environment. It's the absurd,
half-hearted inadequacy of our attempts to do something about it. And even if by
some miracle we got the greenhouse gasses under control, what are we going to do
about the overpopulation? Maybe what the human species most needs now are
campaigns of mass extermination that are quicker, less painful, and more
efficient than the horrors that have begun. They are here. They are underway. If
you don't like reading writing that acknowledges their existence, Reader, read
If intelligence is so destructive to the
species that acquires it, how can it have been developed in Darwin's Survival of the Fittest? What benefit
did it confer? The only sensible answer to that question that I have heard puts
it down to a kind of evolutionary misunderstanding. Men on their way to becoming
men did not first learn to think, as men first thought: they gave up swinging
around in trees and learned first to walk barefoot and upright (which later gave
them the naughty-sounding name, "Homo Erectus"). You can tell that from their
fossil feet like those of men nowadays when their brains were still only
chimpanzee-size. They were responding Darwin-style to the shrinking of forests
and jungles which were being replaced by sparse-treed savannahs, populated by
herds of four-legged animals which were developing a grazing life in the new
The herd animals with their four legs could
run much faster than the new men. But going on two legs gave those first men a
wonderful endurance. They could wear out any four-legged animal whose tracks
they could follow.
There was only one problem. Wearing himself
out, running, trotting, stumbling, often for days and nights on end
for the juicy bodies he was after, his own body, including his brain, got
overheated and, as a result, that poor little brain of his kept going witless.
He needed a bigger brain, not to think, but to supply spare parts. There had to
be whole sections that stayed cool and quiet, not functioning until they were
needed and that in later ages enabled Shakespeare to write his plays and Haydn
to compose his string quartets. But despite all its charms and intricacies, that
out-sized brain is proving to be the end of human beings, maybe of all life, on
Intelligence is not necessary for life, even
extremely complex life. Ant colonies achieve an enormous complexity, some even
practicing an intricate form of agriculture, but individual ants are almost
So there we have it. The marvelous and finally
catastrophic unfolding of intelligent life on earth is the result of an absurd
little accident. Maybe it was bound to happen one way or another once a certain
stage was reached. Chimpanzees, after all, had come most of the way already. All
that was needed was that last little swerve to get the auto of mankind over the
Maybe that's the way it always happens on
rocky little planets like the earth. First there are the millions of years of
evolution before intelligence becomes possible. Then the necessary ripeness is
reached and suddenly the intelligence happens. Then the inevitable consequence
follows: the intelligent life destroys itself, probably right down to the dirty
Isn't it marvelous, Reader? We have just
stumbled on a beautiful explanation of why we human beings have been able to
hear nothing, no messages, only silence from the Cosmos. Wherever there is life
that we might see or stub our toe on, there are only two possibilities: either
it is still in the billions of years before it has become intelligent or in the
billions of years that followed the discovery almost immediately after it was
made and promptly destroyed.
So the answer is clear. We don't need that
rocket I have mentioned in my opening sentence. There is no detectable
intelligent life besides ours to be found in the Cosmos, either because it isn't
there yet or because it has already gone.
But I have not considered human beings
adequately as they are here nowadays: talk-show human beings for whom all
problems have to be solvable. We deny the insolubility of problems as we deny
death, secretly believing that we can and must live forever. The early
Christians had little trouble, dealing with the earlier pagan writers with one
conspicuous exception: Lucretius, whose great poem, De Rerum Natura,
undertakes the proof that there is no life after death. All the other pagan
writers are at least a little vague on the subject, but Lucretius is clear about
it on every page and there is no getting around him. And worse still, he thought
it was good news that he was bringing. Death will bring the end of each
life at last. There will be nothing, nothing to fear, no damn eternity to deal
with and puzzle over.
We descendants of Christianity, we creations
of that book, The Bible, can't endure Lucretius' lush relish and appreciation of
the sensuous life here on earth. Everything in our abstract, celluloid-charmed,
computer-driven, and, above all, money-maddened lifestyle separates us from that
life on earth.
One time I thought, and usually still think,
that there was a time in man's prehistory when he had his big brain but was at
peace with himself and his senses. I've written poems, even a book, about it.
When the image of something came into his mind, he supposed it was the thing
itself coming there, not his own mind putting it there. That gave a life to
things and made a life of dignity and truth possible for a hundred thousand
years or so. But it couldn't survive the discovery of agriculture; for not long
after we planted seeds, populations exploded and we planted cities.
So what can a human being do now? I am an old
man waiting for death. My poems have been written. Maybe this will be my last
essay. (One can always hope.) If there is more, I can put up with more—even
more poems. But I really have gotten tired of life. What really interests me now
is eating, cooking my two meals a day and eating them and the two cold showers a
day that go before the two meals. And for many years there used to be yoga.
That's almost over, though. I can no longer stand on my head and get into the
lotus position, but simpler exercises, deep breathing, walking around the block
(instead of around the pond), and scratching myself are still with me.
And my house is still with me—or rather, I
am still with it—after more than forty years. First built before the Civil
War, fourteen rooms for a wife and three daughters, all gone to the four winds,
while I cling to its chipping paint, collapsing gutters and chimneys, and
crumbling rooms, fixing everything myself stupidly, carelessly, as I fix myself
more-or-less in the same way, having renounced medicine when the doctors wanted
to hospitalize me to fix my heart. How could I put up with something like that?
What would happen to my two cold showers a day which are vital to my perception
of the world? Besides, the second greatest cause of death in the United States
is from infections contracted in hospitals. "The third greatest cause,"
corrected my doctor when I told him. He hasn't realized yet that he is no longer
my doctor and that I am finished with medicine. My death is on its way. I want
to welcome it. I want to die naturally, relishing the experience to the full,
even the pain. Saying goodbye to doctors goes nicely with giving up my
automobile last year and my TV set years ago.
The earliest life that I remember, when I was
a dyslexic little boy who liked to keep worms in his pocket, has been reopening
me to forgotten pleasures. Forgetting the worth and worthlessness of things
allows me to commune with them. Eggshells, for instance, though they lack
economic value, are a useful ingredient of fertilizer if you let them get dry
and pound them into a powder. I love lavishing my time on them because my time
is worthless. It's marvelous, I find, having one's time worthless.
Before I learned to read, I learned to invent
and make things with tools out of wood, and through all my life thereafter,
those tools have comforted me. But I have always longed for a deeper freedom.
Even as I was becoming a pilot in the Air Force, I sensed that it was wrong,
wrong, wrong to be doing things like that, pretending I was in control of this
or that, as though control over anything were something worth having. The poet
in me has learned, as the poet, Keats, learned and described, that the only way
to write something wonderful is to find a way to have it write itself. If you
want to live profoundly, you have to let life take you over and learn from it
what to do. If the time has come to die, then the time has come to accept it.
But I mustn't have it happen because I decided to do it. It must come on its own
as a poem comes on its own. My mother died in her sleep, and here's a little
poem that ends with the most beautiful member of my family taking her ancient
There is an emptiness that drives
us through our lives
like the black funnel that came down,
tore through the town,
and put a value on our gambles,
left them a shambles.
O Lord, must we not let them sound us.
whirling around us?
The day my Tanta Minna died
she put aside
her coffee cup, in her heart holding
forgot what everything was for,
and was no more.
So my aim, the last aim in my life, is to
welcome my death. I wish I could find my copy of the Roman historian, Tacitus,
that I read in college. It's here somewhere, lost in the mess and chaos that has
been collecting around me for forty years. As I remember, when a wise, wealthy
old Roman decided that he had had enough of life, he gave a party, whose joyous
conclusion was letting the blood out of his veins. They weren't shy or
squeamish, those old Romans.
Maybe that's the way I want my life to end.
Not quite, though. If I have to do it myself for some reason, I'll do it alone
because it will be a discovery. Perhaps it will be like my discovery, after my
freshman year in boarding school, of three-dimensional analytical geometry. I
began mathematics detesting the arithmetic in grade school, where my dyslexia
told me what to think of those endless columns of figures to be added. But with
algebra the numbers changed to letters, and there were thrilling bold thrusts of
logic and, later in the term, those marvels, equations in two unknowns whose
solutions could be drawn on a two-dimensional graph as geometric figures:
circles, ellipses, parabolas...straight lines if the equations were linear.
Everything in algebra had a geometric explanation.
I was enchanted, but still not captured
completely. What captured me completely was a thought: what if there were three
unknowns? Would equations in three unknowns be represented by three-dimensional
geometric figures—spheres, ellipsoids...? That thought was the end of my
freedom—no, the creation of my freedom—for the summer that followed. In
mathematics I was still a child. I didn't even know what a proof was. Those
figures that I drew corresponding to the equations I tested, like the things I
made out of wood, were real. At summer's end, going into my sophomore
year in the boarding school, I discovered the equation (in three unknowns raised
to the fourth power) whose graph would be a doughnut. (The question had occurred
to me when I was having lunch with my mother, who would have been infuriated if
she had known what I was thinking.)
"Who'd swallow a doughnut like that?" quipped
my Irish friend in school, who doubted my sanity.
What I was really discovering in my life's
early mathematical years was the proper way to die. My coming death is like the
equation for a sphere or a doughnut that came upon me and transformed me. Those
equations taught me, not just mathematics, but poetry, thought, discovery, deeds
that will die and be forgotten in mankind's death soon after mine. For any
artist, the doing of the thing is its own fulfillment. After that, recognition
So let me welcome the mystery.
MYSTERIES WON'T GO AWAY
A Footnote to "A Life"
I have just finished writing—let's call it the memoir
of a poet. But if one is going to be a poet, one also has to have a life, as
other people who aren't poets also have lives. It is a terrible limitation on
poets, just to write about poets. How are other people going to be interested in
In the memoir just finished (if it is possible to finish one's memoir before
one's life is finished), I mentioned my three daughters. The youngest, aged 42
and unmarried, has just visited me for three days with her ten-year-old son,
having flown from their home in California. I've described my mess of an ancient
house near Boston, where my daughter grew up, but the mess has grown worse and
my infirmities have deepened over the years, so she rented a room for the four
nights that she and her son were here and rented a car for the first and last of
their three full days. On the middle day they used public transportation for
visits to the science museum and other sights.
When she announced plans for her trip, I had just begun the memoir and didn't
want her and her son to come. She said that was OK, but she already had the
tickets, and if I didn't have time for them, she and her son could do other
things. That was the first of my surprises at her casualness, which seemed new
to me. As it turned out, my memoir was finished before they arrived, but the
surprises weren't. My daughter had been coping with America's hard times by
making herself indispensible in the law firm for which she did secretarial and
organizational work, and she seemed to have acquired a new authority and
confidence of manner. Her duties as a mother, accepted with apparent relish,
also seemed to be playing a part in this transformation of her character. She
knew about renting rooms and cars, buying airplane tickets, and maintaining
control and understanding of a growing son.
But there was something deeper than that. In the depths of herself she had
discovered, without seeming even to realize it, a confidence, a generosity of
spirit, and a sympathy for others that I had never known her to possess. She
seemed quietly but constantly aware that I no longer owned a car or license to
operate one and really meant it when she said that she wanted to use her car to
take me on errands, wanted to use the vacuum cleaner on my rugs, was delighted
when I suggested a trip to the local Laundromat for my semi-annual wash, where
she had an extraordinary knowledge of the machines: knew how the mammoth washers
worked better than I did, who had been using them for years, and when the dryer
stopped, pronounced, "the quarter is nicked." And sure enough, it was, and an
unnicked one cured the problem.
No, there was something deeper still. We had been a family of five: my wife, I,
and our three daughters. I was never on very good terms with the family of my
birth: my father, mother, and considerably older brother and sister; and my
wife, though her temperament differed from mine, had been similarly situated in
her childhood family. I think my wife and I unconsciously supposed that our
youngest daughter would play a role in her family similar to the role we had
played in ours. But our youngest daughter knew nothing about these old
relationships and had different life problems which found different solutions as
soon as she was on her own.
And what a welcome discovery this new daughter, aged 42, was for me! She had
such freedom, such knowledge, such amazing generosity of spirit. A marvelous new
daughter had suddenly come to me out of nowhere. She actually seemed glad that I
was her father.
How could I adequately respond to this glorious gift? Ah, Richard, forget that
silly, that grumpy old memoir. Accept this new life that has been granted to
Let it lead you.