A Few Important Emails Between Max Ritvo and Sarah Ruhl
SARAH RUHL, 5/2/15, “A LETTER”
A letter. And fair warning—this is a letter about the afterlife, so read on only if you wish to contemplate such things.
You told me yesterday that you are scared of death, that sometimes you leave the house and forget your wallet, and you think that death might be like that sensation: I left the house but forgot my body, my house, my New York City, my fiancé, my mother. The metaphor seemed apt. Walking out of the house, and forgetting, but not being sure quite what you’ve forgotten.
I think I may have told you once about a dream I had that comforted me about death. I had been having a biopsy of some breast tissue that looked questionable (it was normal) but as a result I was dreaming and thinking of death. In my dream I was going to a Buddhist temple in India. The steps up were very high and gave me vertigo. When I got to the top I was going to make an offering, and I saw that monks were meditating and the odd thing was that they were able to meditate with their heads severed from the bodies. Their heads were lying peacefully on the ground next to their cross-legged bodies. I found this horrifying (the image of the severed head) but also comforting. The monks could still meditate without their bodies. In other words, their consciousness persisted. After I saw these monks, I saw golden Buddhas racing, racing, all in gold. I was going to leave this tower, walk back down on lapis steps, all arranged like Legos, not glued in. As I walked down, the lapis legos shifted under me and I faltered, falling. I was holding onto my daughter’s hand. When I reached the bottom, the stairway was gone, crumbled, and I apologized to a monk, and he said: it’s all right, they get arranged newly every day.
I’m not sure why, but I found this dream a talisman that made me less afraid of death.
Once in my twenties I was in a car accident once on Hope Street and we were blindsided and I hit my head and conked out and thought: this is how death comes, quickly. It was not frightening. Or even unsettling. It just was. It was dark at first. I saw a glimpse of how I would say good-bye to my body, and it seemed like quite a simple matter. Then I woke back up. Sometimes I think my whole life has been a dream since then.
Here is a question: if you had a choice, would you rather be orbited off into enlightenment after death, or would you rather be born a bodhisattva to come back and help others who are suffering? I know you are not a Buddhist per se, and you know me, I’m this strange syncretic wandering Catholic former atheist Thomas Merton admirer who just took Refuge. I think you might already be a bodhisattva who has come back to help others. When I took a teaching from this wonderful Englishwoman, now a Tibetan nun, someone her asked a question about bodhisattvas, and she answered very plainly and anti-metaphysically: There are good people in this world. There are people who help. Look around you. There are many good people.
You, Max, are good. You don’t know how many you’ve helped already.
The more I have looked into this reincarnation business the more I am convinced that we have had numberless lifetimes and will have numberless more. It does not necessarily make death less scary because we still lose everything we love, all this contingent matter, our identity in this lifetime, this person, this feeling of being situated, knowing, this web of love that we are cocooned in. But I do believe consciousness persists. I believe we get on a train, and the train is God-knows-what, the opposite of a train, going God-knows-where, but I do believe something travels and arrives somewhere. When I met you, you walked into my classroom, this wise luminous person, and I thought—it is not possible this young man is 20, or however old you were. You talked about lyric complicity, and you had a wisdom that can only be accumulated from many lifetimes of suffering. Forgive my sermonizing. I am not a sermonizer by nature (I hope) but when you told me that you were afraid to die I thought, not many people like to discuss death, so maybe I would make an opening if you wanted to talk. I know I am not qualified.
The other dream that comforted me about death was about my father. I dreamed I saw him after he died, and in silver letters in the heavens it spelled out There is no God. I turned to my father in the dream and asked: but who wrote that in the heavens? And he said exactly. At the time I was in Prague (of course) and reading The Brothers Karamazov, my father’s favorite book. The dream seemed to be an answer to the questions the book was asking. That in the asking, the ability of consciousness to frame the phrase There is no God—there was an answer, an ability of the thinker to contemplate God was enough of a proof of God’s existence, or of an abiding, persisting consciousness.
I will pray to whatever God that your body gets better. And if your body doesn’t get better in this lifetime, I will pray that we will meet up and recognize each other in the next lifetime, where probably you will be my teacher, as you once were previously.
I am waiting for Anna to finish her violin lesson now. In the middle of writing this letter she emerged from her lesson and needed help blowing her nose. You can contemplate existence all you want, at the end of the day someone needs to blow their nose and hand you a dirty tissue.
I love you dear Max,
MAX RITVO, 2/11/2016, “RE: A LETTER”
It’s taken me just over six months to reply to this letter. I’ve told you often how much it means to me, and how I intend to reply—but it’s difficult to try and communicate back to something that loves you so much it burns you. I have a natural tendency to cut people off mid-sentence—to barely hear what they say before trying to touch it with my own mouth. I think my silence over this letter tells you how deep it goes. Thank you. This letter is silver, in the sky. And in the end, that’s probably all that will matter.
But also, I’ve been afraid to respond in part because you are deep in me. You are beneath belief—you are voice itself. When I write, I often feel the language coming out to be yours. (Of course, the language is demented and dizzied by the hedge maze (my brain) that stands between inspiration and the page.)
You, in fact, are me. Yet above voice, there is belief—perhaps teetering on a pile of priceless blue legos—and I find myself unable to believe in a committed way in the afterlife that you have torn from your dreams, your near-deaths, your tears, and your Inspiration. And that you have given to me as a glowing gift. Your letter feels like a bone that has grown out of my body, around which I am unable to form flesh. It’s terrifying.
The problem is with consciousness persisting, and what is meant by that.
For me, consciousness emerges bit by bit. An ant is a bit conscious. A dog, a bit more. Really all that’s needed for consciousness is for information to be stored and then exercised. The system of information, if it gets complicated enough, will eventually become self-referential, and at that point it’s thinking. I’m a Turing boy, in my heart, and a Hume boy.
I think a trillion planets in different galaxies, moving with a degree of regularity and inter-relatedness could have a mind. I think the act of speaking, in which information travels from brain to brain, if it were spread across enough brains, could form its own consciousness. This last idea I came to after I saw your Oldest Boy and wept and wept, thinking that the monk and Tenzin, sharing the same set of ideas in the same language over and over again through multiple lifetimes and reincarnations, could be a crucially stable line of code in the computational conversation that is God. I wrote a poem for you about this, where my shrink and me are like Tenzin and the monk. (I’d have picked you, but it was too sappy a target—shrinks always make for funny love poems)
But the limitless scope of consciousness means another thing: it’s really sloppy. The consciousness in our brain is not a coherent Force, not something perfected and organized—but a phenomenon of trapping in as much of the world as we can as it comes to us through a welter of chaotic channels. Because our brain is made up of many tiny scraps of code, many little machines, many little ants, and is not one perfectly engineered program. As human beings evolved, we picked up useful little things for our brain to do, and over time they crashed together into what we are.
We actually have, in our brain, two different visual processing systems—one that provides us with color and light and shape and the world as we know it. And another one that evolved much earlier, when we were shrews, that can only tell whether something is horizontal or vertical, and whether it is approaching from the left or right side of us. We have no qualitative reality emerge from that shrew brain as healthy humans, but when people are blinded by a stroke, they can, with far better than average accuracy, take a cartridge and stick it in a slot that’s either vertical or horizontal, and positioned to their left or right. It seems miraculous to the blind people—they say they aren’t seeing anything but can feel jaggedness through their eyes.
The brain is full of first and second drafts of ways to think and see. The parts of the brain that are in use exist for their own sake, and on their own terms. And sometimes, they conflict with one another. Sometimes we just outright ignore parts of our consciousness. Every time you aren’t tuning into the sound of a clock ticking in your room, it’s not because you aren’t hearing it. The part of your brain hearing it is just being damped and overpowered by other parts. Consciousness is almost an ecosystem of sensations, with predators, prey, weather patterns, and natural resources. Consciousness as a sensation, as a system, all comes together kind of by accident, and we make sense of it all because we have to.
So with that in mind, what can I say about consciousness persisting? Broken down, the storm of codes that happen to coexist in my brain seem to me perfectly willing to part from one another. Preserving them would be a much more difficult task for God than were my consciousness a whole Thing. My Soul isn’t a fish, it’s an Ocean with waves breaking in a particular moment in time. And that’s another thing: I think I am time. But not Time. Rather, I am my time.
And funnily enough, Buddhism has gotten me to feel this way more than anything else. Since you last wrote, as you know, I’ve started meditating and reading Buddhist texts. Meditation has been stripping me back, and when you strip me back, you find paradox. When Buddha talks about Being and Not Being, Cause and Effect being both something to liberate yourself from, and also something that’s essential—I think he’s expressing the illusion of a unified consciousness slowly unbraiding. Buddha got to a place where he qualitatively experienced, to a degree, what cognitive science theorizes is true of the mind. My “I” as I meditate seems to be very much essentailized in my experiences. Without seeing a bunch of crap happen over and over again very dependably, I don’t even know if I’d have an intuition of cause and effect. Which is where Hume and Buddha start to boogie together. And I can’t help but feel that the particular crap I dependably saw as a child is part of who I am. And it can never be recreated.
Does this seem foolish to you? Am I missing the point? Arguing sideways? Is my soul something Deeper than my I?
I think my mind is a set of lapis lazuli steps falling apart, and all I want is to be told “it’s alright, we rebuild it every day” But what is the it? What is it? And if I was vaporized by a ray gun but was then replaced instantly by an identical person with an identical filigree of nerves shot through with identical sparks cased in an identical skull—would it still be me? I don’t think so. I don’t know if even a perfect Reincarnation would be a Reincarnation to me, in my heart. I’m starting to feel like Theseus and I just want my fucking ship out of the dry-dock and back on the water.
Your love and Vision—these seem to me to be the forces of life. They have the fingerprints of life all over them. They palpate with your experience, with your blood. You are a great sense-making force. And I don’t mean sense making in the crotchety, bookish, neat way. I mean you make stuff for my mind and nose and ears and mouth. I worry that the sense making faculties fundamentally differ from those that would undo the senses. Dreams show the life beyond life, but death is not the life beyond life. We’re making heaven every moment, and death means punching the clock out. No more working at heaven.
Maybe I’m a Zoroastrian. I feel like my love and eyes and imagination, and your love and eyes and imagination are Fires locked in eternal combat with the Dark, the mute. Maybe my panic and your inspired calm are part of a greater consciousness. Maybe I have just written There is no God in silver letters across the sky. That I could believe. But I don’t know if I get to carry the torch of my fear into the night I am heading into.
With More Love Than There Is,
SARAH RUHL, 2/12/16, “RE: A LETTER”
Dearest Good Max,
I love your letter and should probably take some time to digest it before writing you back, but I at least wanted to send you some little word. And I have limited time because Hope is watching Super Why in the hotel with me while Anna, Tony, and William are on Day Two of Harry Potter world in Orlando, Florida. An odd context from which to write about the afterlife.
But nevertheless…one incident at Harry Potter world seemed instructive to me. Yesterday, the three kids, all in wizarding costume, were in a kind of heaven, drinking warm butter beer. Then William spilled his butter beer on his wizard robes and cried and cried—was inconsolable. He had been fully immersed, had been IN the book, and suddenly was just a five-year-old kid with wet pants and fake butter beer on his robe. Tony and I both tried, individually, to cheer him up but there was no doing it. We tried adult persuasion, and distraction—nothing. Then the girls and I went to the Leaky Cauldron and finally William joined, sullen. The girls gave him some vomit flavored Bernie’s every flavored beans and he was back IN. Back to the world of imagination— and only other children and vomit flavored jellybeans could bring him back. Adults were no use.
I mention this because I suppose I think of the afterlife as a place where metaphors are real. Or where there is a play (I use that word deliberately) between metaphors and reality that we can only dimly perceive in our world but becomes Platonic when we’re without our bodies. And perhaps all the Catholic stuff that I can’t abide about come suffer the little children and pretend to be a child and not be reasonable (I wanted to marry a Rabbi and convert when I was little—because you could ask reasonable questions in Judaism)…perhaps when I dig back into my early Catholic mysteries and see what there is left for me to hold, there is something about faith and childhood and a slippage through reason and a play between ideas that is all play. It is so hard for children to stop playing and so hard for adults to begin playing, and what if the afterlife is all play, and a place where love is not in the least disappointing?
But I mean, truly, Max, what do I know? I am trying to be wise for you but I too am behind a glass darkly.
What about those two black holes colliding in space and the sound that they made that we measured yesterday?
Hume always left me cold.
Only the ancients comfort me when it comes to these questions.
Freud I’d like to send down a laundry shoot sometimes, and Hume I only pretend to understand.
I do think it’s all to do with love somehow.
I do think there is something bigger than the “I”, and I do believe when we glimpse it there is a great deal of beauty. Where the consciousness of the ant meets the consciousness of the shrew and our own grasping little brains.
I understand what you say about Theseus and your little boat. But I do not believe you are only carrying a torch of fear into the night with you. You might think you are carrying a torch of fear, Max, but what I see you holding is a torch of incredible luminosity, bravery, generosity to all of those around you, and metaphysical HEART. Big, big, big! Good, good, good! Bright, bright, bright! Illuminating the way in front of you and imparting light to the people you love.
Super Why is now over. Solving some super big mysteries. Can the super readers save the day? is wafting from the adjoining room to me. It means—I must feed Hope lunch.
I will write more soon. Thank you for your dear letter, and for your dear enormous heart.
SARAH RUHL, 2/12/16, “P.S.”
Now my three kids are asleep and my quasi Rabbinical husband is reading the New York Times. So I have a moment to write an addendum. My anecdote about Harry Potter land was perhaps a bad analogy for the afterlife because it implies that what’s necessary to cheer the children is the participation in an illusion. And that we are all frightened or upset children in need of an illusion to protect us from our wet pants. And I suppose what I’m suggesting is that what might seem illusory on this side is irrelevant on the other side. That reason is a wormhole and illusion is itself an illusion through which we wriggle through a hole. Wittgenstein’s ladder…Pascal’s wager…that we are protected in this life from any knowledge of the other side in order to have the utmost freedom to invent our own faith. This is all sounding terribly Catholic and not very Buddhist at all—the world as it is, testing theories with reason—that is what the rational Buddhist does. Maybe that is why I’m interested in Tibetan Buddhism, because it’s the closest I can get to my childhood faith—it too has people who disappear inside caves after a week, leaving only traces like fingernails and hair—only they purport to have done such things many times, and in this century too. Probably I am making no sense.
Your question about identity—is there a deeper substratum of identity than the I with which we identify? In Buddhism it is the subtle body, in Catholicism it is the soul. But the concept of soul involves more personality perhaps than this little seed or germ in Buddhism that gets to be passed on. Neither, I think, is greatly affected by the shaping of the personae or personality in the psychoanalytic sense. They are immutable and eternal and distinct from ego. I suppose I have always insisted on believing in the soul—even when that belief is at variance with any other of my philosophical or metaphysical beliefs. It just seems right. Look at that soul of yours, after all! Positively radiant!
And enough of the eschatology…it is all so abstract, and again, what do I know anyway? The main thing is that I’m thinking of you a great deal, and wondering how you are feeling and what you are doing. I had a dream that you stopped chemotherapy. Are you still on it and is it making you tired? Are you still sitting in your remarkable chair? Is Victoria there and what is she doing?
I wish I had some entertaining anecdotes for you. In Louisville they are rehearing the Peter Pan play—learning to duel and fly while I buy more Harry Potter merchandise.
I am coming to LA April 7th and would love to see you then.
lots of love, Sarah
MAX RITVO, 2/15/16, “You can be a real Wormhole, you know that?”
April would be wonderful. And it will be if I am in LA, which is likely. The only other place I could be is (can you believe it) Israel, for a clinical trial. The drug on trial blasts mice free of Ewing’s tumors even if they’re in the bone. Bone tumors are usually the most difficult to wipe out, because the bones don’t drink much of whatever poison you put into your blood.
Wouldn’t it be great if my cure was in Israel? I think it would be a hilarious counterpoint to Hitler’s life—for the descendant of Holocaust survivors to use Rothschild-esque connections to fly to an ultra-nationalist Jewish state in the Middle East to receive exclusive cancer treatment. I’m really the anti-Holocaust—far too many resources being wasted to save one little Jew…
I love that Peter Pan play so much—I can’t wait to see Hook killed on stage and then brought back to life. And all just because the kids are impulsive. Impulsive mercy. Maybe that’s what’s at the heart of play.
But impulsive mercy is for William and me and you, and not for worms. Don’t worry—I got the Harry Potter sermon immediately. I know William is much more a wizard than he is a butter-beer besotted boy. I get that that’s realer. I get that play is everywhere, and everything. It’s just not nothing. It’s never nothing. And I worry death is nothing.
As for our I—when I worried that experiences are part of the I, I meant experiences in the most primitive of ways (just this one time, it was you and not me who brought Freud into this!) I meant experiences as basic as light hitting the eye. Like how kitty cats need light to hit their eyes in the first few days or they are blind for life. That changes their I, I think. If you don’t have triangles, or the color green, it changes what Visions you have—it changes the dreams, metaphors—the portals to the afterlife. If you go Full Plato, I suppose there are Forms of Triangles and Green and all that stuff the kitten doesn’t get through her eyes. But I can’t buy it.
But maybe to atomize like this is to miss the point you’re making. Of course there are souls. There’s no denying the soul—it’s too fiercely a useful thing, a bafflingly useful thing. You can look at mine. I can look at yours. We feel love, which is all we’ve ever wanted. Knowing your soul lets me miraculously predict what food you’d like to eat, and which chair you’ll sit in, in what weather. That’s really insane given how many foods and chairs there are—it’d take an impossibly fancy computer to figure that out on a case-by-case basis, without having your soul software installed. Every person, whether they like it or not, has unshakeable faith in souls, or they’d never be able to interact with anyone else. The fluency in the world and in one another that the soul endows us with…there’s some Plato magic in that I can buy. (Or perhaps some Wittgenstein magic—since the soul’s meaning and truth and apparency, as I see it, comes from unignorable usefulness. Which is just how W. thought language worked. Which is unlike Plato, who thought language and souls were True on their Own Terms.)
Perhaps, Sarah, souls are in the eye of the beholder. What if the soul is no more than the success with which we envision one another? What if you make me and I make you, and we need each other to make each other? Couldn’t that be beautiful? Maybe our impermanence makes our love all the fiercer—since we are each other’s Gods or artists. And we only get to be for as long as we—in particular—love one another? Again, I find myself bringing the afterlife and divinity back into contact with our blood and guts, with this particular moment in time.
Today, Dad and Victoria and I went to a burger joint. Everyone there wanted to talk. I innocently asked a man if my fallen onion ring, close to his hungry Boxer, could be fed to the dog. After a sharp No! he started into the narrative of his dog’s hard-won weight-loss. I said his dog looked very athletic, and he lit up with a huge smile, right from his soul. This was the stuff of this man, and nothing could substitute for it.
I’m not gonna go quite Freud here, but I feel myself maybe taking a closer tack—maybe you read right through me, as you’re wont to do. This man and his dog and their connection—there are people who are just as inextricably knotted into their houseplants. Their shoes. Trivial material things. If neurons don’t seem like the staples of the soul, if it’s love, then how can love be anything other than the things we’re loving?
And some of the things we love here in life are Gods. What about Idols? The little plaster Blue Buddha you mailed me, that is my Buddha, and my prayers go to it. If I prayed to another Buddha, I would not be worshipping the same God. It is it—nothing else—so very easy to see in plaster, so very hard to see in people. There can’t be my soul without that Buddha. It has instructed my soul—a vine on any other trellis bears different fruit. And with the exception of some very lucky llamas who get handed their Articles of Reincarnation every time they hit age four, the rest of us—were we to go back into life—would do so never, ever to reunite with the plaster gods who we love, who we are.
I know I seem to be all Reason and no Faith. But to me, I am all Faith in it is it—and it is is it requires massive leaps. (Perhaps causing me to ask What is it?! so faithlessly and perplexedly in my first letter to you.) There is no empiricism without the imagination. No faith without logic—even fantasies have a logic, even play. Reason just helps me develop my Faith in it is it. I don’t see why the two were ever put against one another. They seem, so automatically, to want to bring out the best in one another.
Victoria is working on a charcoal next to me. It’s a large landscape with a couple figures in it—and her foliage has gotten too dense, and from a distance, it’s all a gray smear. Perhaps she’s an omen for our metaphysical quibbles. I am suggesting she wipe out the gray sky and much of the leaves and replace it with a geometric rug-like pattern full of stark white. She thinks if she does this it’ll look amateurish. She wants to start anew, with a zoom-in on the figures. What do you think she should do? Perhaps her solution will point to a metaphysical answer. Or at least, it will replace our two imaginations, fruitfully colliding, with a co-imagination. And, all the better, a co-imagination with her. It takes two to tango, but you step all over one another’s feet when you tango. Three, on the other hand— three’s a charm. Which is just what our faith needs. Three’s also a very stable tricycle, which is much more rational than a bike. In any case, I’ll keep you updated on her charcoal.
I love you. Scans tomorrow. You will know within minutes. I will try to be a brave carriage for the wormhole inside me, plugged up though it is with goopy little lumps. I am so happy to be in paradox with you. Not anti-dox—just para, just beliefs alongside.
Whoever is right, I just realized, we both win. We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is. And that’s all I want—is to know you forever.
SARAH RUHL, 2/16/2015, “A STABLE TRICYLCE”
I love your dear letter. Let’s know each other forever!
I will write a longer letter later because I have to go teach.
One funny thought I had when you said W. for Wittgenstein was at first
I thought you meant W. as in George Bush and I thought—wow, did he think that about language?
Also—was your use of the word tricycle purposeful? (Buddhism being the vehicle and the wheels being three pronged, thus the magazine of said name?)
Why do we ride bicycles instead of tricycles in adulthood? They say the triangle is the most stable shape but my three children seem quite rickety sometimes in terms of constantly toppling each other over.
“I’m afraid death is nothing.” But we’ve never found nothing! We can’t find nothing anywhere! It requires such a leap of faith to believe in nothing! I’ve never seen nothing anywhere! Not even those black holes talking to each other in space are nothing properly speaking. No matter where I look I can’t find it! Emptiness maybe, nothing, never.
And you’re right—I falsely injected the strawman of Freud into the conversation. I thought first that that was what you meant about childhood conditioning our adult personalities. You meant more Proust than Freud. Another question: can souls have preferences? Or are souls beyond preference?
And the twin towers of faith and reason—perhaps their parallel co-existence is what is meant by non-dualism…Oh there is so much to be said and it makes my brain hurt.
I love the idea that you might go to the Holy Land to get your tumors blasted away. But I hope you are not in the Holy Land while I am in LA. We would be surrounded by Palm Trees on opposite ends of the earth!
I’m attaching the Peter Pan play because I revised it a lot in Louisville and I think this draft is pretty different (hopefully better) than the one you originally read.
There is so much more to say—about totems and athletic dogs and Victoria’s charcoal drawing! Please send her my love. I am so glad she is with you—I have to say you have sounded much better since she has arrived.
More as I know it, or at least wonder about it….
lots of love, and fingers crossed on scan day,
Max Ritvo is a poet living in Manhattan. He was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, AEONS. His poetry has also appeared in Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. He is a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Max’s prose and interviews have appeared in Parnassus, Huffington Post, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a sketch comic in the NYC-based troupe His Majesty, the Baby. Follow him on twitter @Maxritvo.
Sarah Ruhl is a playwright and author.