Anyone who was able to read Maira Kalman’s book, The Principles of Uncertainty, and understand it on the first go is a certifiable genius; and I would very much like to meet them. Her book is comprised of objects and people that often are only glancing-ly (yes, I made that word up) related to one another but somehow intrinsically mean the same thing to her. I struggled to find what Kalman was really getting at with her book and I ultimately decided that her entire work is either an exhibition in absurdity or a panicked response to the inevitability of death.
From the first page when she discusses the extinct Dodo throughout the entirety of the novel, if you can call it that, Kalman tries to deal with the very sobering fact that all humans are destined to die. In the chapter titled, “Heaven on Earth,” Kalman writes, “What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief – isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.” (Kalman 46). At some point, perhaps early in our lives, all humans start to understand that we are going to die one day and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Yes, this is an extremely earth shattering revelation once discovered; however, I don’t believe the majority of people spend their time fretting over this fact. The fact that Kalman is stopped dead in her tracks a dozen times a day by this thought is either an exaggeration or extremely unhealthy behavior. There is nothing wrong with contemplating one’s mortality but stopping dead in your tracks multiple times a day seems a tad obsessive. I like her mantra to find “meaningful distraction” to keep one’s mind occupied but perhaps she should take her own advice.
She then proceeds to note how she reads the obituaries every morning in order to see how people really got joy out of in life. She writes, “Maybe it is a way of trying to figure out, before the day begins, what is important.” (50). I like the idea of meditation at the start of the day to give yourself purpose and if this is how Kalman does that, I am not one to judge. Perhaps by surrounding herself with death, Kalman is reminding herself of the value of life. But as we have seen throughout the semester, there are many less morbid ways of achieving the same end. I think part of Kalman’s morbidity arises from the fact that she doesn’t seem to believe in God or heaven as she writes, “the whole thing is insanely unlikely. I prefer the notion of Heaven on Earth. Of sweet, funny, loving moments. For me, Heaven on Earth is my aunt’s kitchen in Tel Aviv.” (51). Kalman finds joy in human interaction and camaraderie. Humor is means through which any two people one earth can communicate because laughter is a universal language. Perhaps Kalman finds her sort of heaven in the shared experience of humor that all of humanity belongs to.
Kalman obviously places an extreme value on the little things in life and on family. She believes that it is in these moments that she finds her heaven and escapes the shroud of Death. However, I see it a slightly different way. For a book that is wholly focused on distracting oneself from death, Kalman is ruled by it and does not escape from it at all. She argues that we need to find meaningful distractions but the average person does not need to actively be doing this because they are not constantly worried about dying. Yes, each person should approach each day with the mindset of doing something useful or beneficial to humanity. But this desire should come out a spirit of good humor and good will towards others, not due to fear of something we cannot change.