Excerpt: memento mori from Attention to Ordinary Revelations

A brief excerpt from Attention to Ordinary RevelationsPart 2 (of 8) from Book I of Volume I, in The Constellation of Man. I wrote this part several years ago. Today I decided to show it as a preview in October, the month of Halloween and Samhain, a time of both harvest fertility and cyclic transition into fallowing darkness, that may stimulate as much reflection and imagination as we allow. —CPB


Totentanz_Lübecker_Bernt_Notke detail

Detail from destroyed 1701 copy of Lübecker Totentanz, a tapestry by Bernt Notke c. 1463.

In acclimation to our lives, we forget remarkable things about them.

We forget the fragility of our own bodies—until our brief interval of youthful vitality and resilience ebbs, and we are reminded by pain or dysfunction. Some confront their vulnerability because of injury. Some are reminded by punctuated illnesses that their bodies could succumb. Some are surprised by inherited conditions in anatomy they once trusted to remain a silent servant. Some only learn later, from the ailments of aging. 

Still, on a daily basis living biology pulls away from existential realization. 

We are even induced to forget the stunning revelation of our own personal mortality. Instinct blurs reproduction with survival, to the blind benefit of progeny, also effecting genetic replication. Most want offspring—a family like themselves. Some adopt and promote other things like themselves. Many presume to survive through subordination to causes, including family, or more removed mythology.

Das_Jüngste_Gericht_(Memling)

Das Jüngste Gericht or The Last Judgement, painted by Hans Memling, 1466–1473.

Death—when recognized—becomes a word, a metaphor, an entity to haunt us, a god, a waiting judge, an anticipated afterlife or reincarnation, even an enemy to defeat—anything instead of a name for the time when our organism will no longer renew itself, and will rot; also the end of experience. Man would rather personify an inhuman notion.

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

Danse Macabre, woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

For any proper, thorough appreciation of death must terrify any ego, rooted in place, time, and a particular identity of things. It is far more difficult to accept dissolution of bodily integrity and annihilation of mental experience in an indifferent universe, than a universe governed by some interested or humanized order.

Even secular views make death an event, if secularization does not also mask sentiments very like those of religious descent. Often, we return to casting death as an enemy. Not only do we long to erode “the undiscovered country” by living longer, we also wish to overcome mortality through permanent advances in medical science—useful, but also another way to diminish self-effacing transience evident in the world all around us, and make it seem manageable.

Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_Dance_LACMA_edit

Shiva Nataraja in bronze, Chola dynasty India, 10th century. The Lord of Dance personifies the rhythm of creation and destruction—of both cosmic forms, and human illusions.

We forget that the measure of what we call time becomes apparent as changing phenomena, not by any numerical scale, nor by formal repetition of cycles (seasons, sunrises, moons) which have also governed the imagination of time. The ideas of numbers and cycles make transience seem regular. Time does not pass without transformation. Time marks the metamorphosis of things that are always going to become. “Time” is human, temporary; the universal flow of changing phenomena is never-ending, undelimited, and unfathomable—except as the erosion and vanishing and re-creation of things we can recognize. These things, and the loss of them, become remarkable to us.

In our towns and cities, we see each other going about our lives on the street, riding in vehicles, and inhabiting buildings. We observe animate life around us—trees and green plants swaying in the wind, animals walking and flying. We do not think of how the material of each living thing we see has had many other forms, has recombined uncountable times as trees, plants, animals, fungus, bacteria, through rot, consumption, growth, reproduction and birth. We do not see the other identities of the matter of that flesh and bone before us.

On the faces we see around us we may think we see the lines of the past. In the craggiest old faces we mark an instant of the geologic ocean of time in which the rocks themselves flow in shape, and wrinkle in furrows and mountain ranges. We do not envision the soils and silts through which the stuff of each human face has passed.

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