The following is an interview with Mark Taylor, author of Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Living and Dying and professor of religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
Question: The book begins with an incredibly traumatic series of events unfolding in your life. Tell us a little about what happened to you and how you came to write the book Field Notes from Elsewhere as a result.
Mark Taylor: I had been thinking about writing a book that combined personal narratives with philosophical and theological reflection for many years. The issues about which I teach and write are often very abstract but are significant because of the ways in which they illuminate specific experiences we all undergo. I knew that this kind of writing would be different from anything I had done before and realized that the only possible research is life itself.
Three years ago, I went into septic shock as the result of a biopsy for cancer. I also suffer from diabetes, which complicates everything. Septic shock is caused by a severe infection in the blood and is fatal in 50-75% of the cases. My case was especially bad. I taught a class on Derrida’s The Gift of Death at noon and by 7:00 that evening was on the verge of death. I was in the intensive care unit for five days, stayed in the hospital for another five days, and then on intravenous antibiotics for five weeks. Six months later, I underwent surgery for cancer. It was quite a trip! One never really recovers from such experiences, but in the months following surgery, I felt I had done enough research and it was time to begin writing.
Q: This book is structured differently than other memoirs. How does the structure of the book interact with the writing?
MT: I did not want to write a traditional narrative. Life is not a story but is episodic—brief periods of continuity are punctuated by unexpected disruptions. I envision the book less as a memoir than as a diary or book of hours. It is also a photo album with more than 120 images. The interrelation of text and image is carefully calibrated. There are fifty-two chapters or sections, which are divided into AM and PM entries. The book begins with dawn and ends with sunset. Each section is a brief meditation on a single topic—Light, Nights, Pleasure, Money, Disease, Hope, Vocation, Ordinary . . . My hope is that people will read these meditations slowly and will ponder these issues in their own lives.
Q: You are the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, so you’ve obviously touched on life and death issues through your academic work in religion and philosophy. How did confronting these issues on a personal level change your viewpoint? Can a person ever be prepared for such things even after a lifetime of studying them?
MT: The writings of many of the philosophers I teach—Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and others—are abstract and, for many people, very difficult. But the issues they probe lie close to the heart of life. Sometimes I teach literature, which, in some ways, is more accessible; the questions good works of art raise are often similar to those raised in important philosophical and theological writings. I am not interested in philosophy or art for their own sake but rather insofar as they provide resources for thinking about the problems and questions life inevitably poses. Nothing prepares you for chronic disease, catastrophic illness, and death, but having read the works of these great thinkers and writers does help one cope with these challenges when they arrive.
Q: Where does the title Field Notes From Elsewhere come from?
MT: The title is my own. As with so many thoughts, I have no idea where it came from. One day it was there, and usually when I have a title, I have a book. In an instant I see the book as a whole, and at that point it virtually writes itself. Elsewhere is not a place but a condition in which one is simultaneously present and absent, there and not there at the same time.
Q: During the course of the book, you discover and reveal some dark secrets from your family’s past. How did you choose what to include and what to leave unsaid?
MT: This is not an easy question; there are personal, professional and ethical issues involved. Not everything that can be said should be said about oneself and about others. Perhaps what I left out is more important than what I included. I cannot be sure. The problem of what to say about people who are still living is difficult because any disguise a writer develops will never be perfect. I finally decided that some material I wrote should not be published—or at least not published until I die. Then the decision to publish or not will be left to my daughter and son.
Q: What do you hope readers will bring away from this work?
MT: We live in a world that places a high premium on speed and offers endless noise and distraction. I hope people will read this book slowly—picking it up and putting it down, while taking time to reflect quietly. I intend it to combine aspects of a diary, a book of hours, and a family photo album. Everyone will face many of the traumas I explore in the book, and when that time comes, I hope they will remember Field Notes and that it will offer the resources to get through the night beyond night.