Taylor divides his
book into 52 chapters. Each chapter is a double chamber where the thoughts of
the day collide with the remains of the night. Taylor declares his Protestant
roots and even though one senses the elitism of Calvinist election, I am able to
detect St. Francis on the edge of Taylor’s thoughts. Francis is there in
Taylor’s love of nature; in the light, that scatters the darkness and in the
night, that illuminates what the light fails to reveal.
Like a good
Buddhist monk, Taylor shows us that life is suffering but as a Nietzschean, he
is able to realize that joy is deeper than sorrow. Though Taylor has declared
himself a Kierkegaardian, I find that he is still unable to rid himself of
In Field Notes
from Elsewhere, Taylor provides us with a Protestant version of the rosary.
In many ways, his book is a meditation on the secrets of the Mother. He shows us
how sorrow transforms itself into joy because we can discover the luminosity of
glory even in the dark night of the soul where no written text can provide us
With honesty and
secrecy, Taylor takes the reader to the margins of his life. The dance brings
us to a place where ghosts, demons and spirits step on our dreams of perfection
Taylor records the
illness that brought him to the brink of death. In the CCU hooked up to
machines, he recalls his struggle to live. He recounts the compassion of
strangers; how we are indebted to others who care for us when we are distressed
Taylor takes us
where we might fear to go by ourselves. Perhaps the main reason I was attracted
to his book was that I was looking for a map of what Taylor calls, the
“unsettling territory.” I realize of course that Taylor’s journey his is own,
but to read his book is to hitch a ride on his GPS signal. As Taylor writes, “it
is my hope that as you turn these pages, you will see your own life
I began reading
Taylor’s books in 1987. Erring and Altarity were works that
opened a new way of thinking and writing for me. For more than two decades,
Taylor’s works have arrived as packages of delight, disagreement and deep
wisdom. Field Notes is an exemplary text because it shows us that the
best philosophy is always religious and existential.
Taylor argues that
human beings occupy the position of “elsewhere.” Elsewhere is defined as
“between” the places we ordinarily dwell. Elsewhere is a revealing of the Real,
past the world of appearances where Smarties are no longer red, white
reticence and the secret. Yet, I wonder, what is so terrible about what the
secret holds that it must not be revealed. Often, what is exposed in revealing
the secret is nothing new. What one thought to be unique turns out to be mere
cliché, much like the weary and predictable storyline of the TV drama House,
What Taylor chooses
to reveal is what most of us live through: disease, pleasure, pain, grief,
sorrow, joy, boredom and death. If this is the case, why is Taylor’s book unique
and why would Paul Auster write that “it is a work without
philosophical reflections have been combined with autobiographical narratives
before. Think here of St. Augustine’s Confessions or Nietzsche’s
Ecce Homo. Field Notes provides those who have followed Taylor’s career
with a key to understanding what drives him to write.
I enjoyed reading
about Taylor’s search for ghosts and his visits to graveyards. My travels have
taken me to the same places of haunting. I have learned that there are
interesting things to uncover in old stone houses, especially those built in the
mountains of Hercegovina.
I was most moved by
Taylor’s meditation on abandonment and leave taking. The photograph of Taylor
with his father on page 70 contains what Barthes calls the punctum. It
is piercing for me, because it reminds me of my own parents and the day they
will no longer be present to be photographed.
Where do we differ?
Unlike Taylor, I do not think that creativity is God. If the world is a work of
art, it is in need of both art and work. Taylor still believes in the Word, even
as he writes to escape from it.
Taylor sees the
danger of science insofar as we are reduced to plot lines on a graph. Through
these abstractions, we become the dot, the slash and the hyphen. Taylor is
obviously blessed. When he was struggling for his life, those who loved him were
next to him. With the love of his wife, son and daughter, he could never be
reduced to a number. Taylor shows us what counts. Pythagoras may have believed
in the beauty of numbers but Taylor shows us how love is stronger than
that writing and teaching are his vocation. He wonders, “How far into the night
beyond night take my students.” He tells us of the dilemma facing those who
teach, namely, how much can be revealed. A simple answer would be to tell
students the truth. Beckett and Sartre never had a monopoly on nothingness. In
the end, they were describing their own struggle with life as they drew on
Kierkegaard, Descartes and Heidegger for inspiration.
Taylor teaches us
that every moment is the last moment. This is why it is important to say goodbye
properly. However, if Kierkegaard is to be believed, each moment can be new
rather than simply final. I sense that Taylor is still held tightly in Hegel’s
grip of negativity. This is especially evident in his belief that “the edge is
the only place where it is worth living.”
reflections on loneliness show it be capable of giving death to the one that has
suffered loss. Is not the lesson here that we should stop relying on the other
to prop up our suburban dreams? Taylor writes, “the curse of old age is
loneliness.” It is interesting to note that death lifts all curses.
Death appears as
the ultimate teacher in Taylor’s book. He reveals, “things never seem stranger
than when cleaning out the possessions of the dead.” There is a strange trespass
involved when gathering the belongings of the one who is no longer present. Here
I recall the grief on Suzanne’s face when she closed the door to her Mother’s
house for the final time once we had cleared everything out. Here I understood
the meaning of finality.
We learn that
Taylor has done grave rubbings of his favorite authors. He also collects relics.
I wonder what the point of these activities can be. Does ivy from Hegel’s grave
or dirt from Kierkegaard’s burial site have special powers? In collecting these
relics, Taylor becomes very Catholic.
I remember a person
coming to ask our neighbor, if he could take some dirt from her flowerbeds. He
grew up in the house where Heather now lives. His father had recently died and
he wanted a shovel full of dirt as a reminder. I did not have the heart to tell
him that the dirt he was taking home was delivered from a garden center. Grief
makes us do strange things.
The passage where
Taylor records his father’s grief haunted me. I wonder why his father was left
alone when he was suffering so much. I would think, that coming from a
collectivist background that Taylor’s father was more important than teaching a
course on “nothing.”
Taylor believes in
the value of humor. He writes, “where life’s darkest moments cast a shadow over
all that had seemed important, the faithful response is to burst into
uncontrollable laughter.” When Titus loses everything, all he can do is laugh.
However, his laughter is not joyful.
Taylor shows us
that learning how to live means learning to let go. This is one of the most
important lessons that Taylor’s book gives us. What he means, I think, struck me
with full force when I took Noah and Holly for a bike ride. Noah who was seven
rode his mountain bike far ahead on the trail. Holly, who was almost two, was in
a carrier. Learning to let go requires that we no longer believe in the safety
of being carried by someone. To let go is to let become. Here the lesson of
dukkha asserts itself. Taylor writes, “physical pain is the dark shadow
of the mental anguish of knowing you cannot assume the suffering of those you
love most deeply.”
In keeping with the
spirit of Taylor’s beautiful book, I thought I should add that I finished this
review at the beginning of September 2010 while camping at Pinehurst with Noah,
Tom, Karen and their children. After a freezing cold evening, I emerged from the
tent to find a monarch butterfly being eaten by ants.