Friday 23 December 2011

Living on in memory solves nothing - Ceremonial Time by Hanson Mitchell


I commented recently on the fake modern 'insight' that death is not-so-bad because people live-on in memory, in our hearts

The bogosity of this insight is beautifully expressed in a beautiful book called Ceremonial Time: fifteen thousand years on one square mile by John Hanson Mitchell (1984), from pages 200-201.


The thing that had stalked me in the woods of Scratch Flat for all those years was nothing more than death.

But it came to me very clearly that morning that it was not simply my own death that walked a few steps behind me; it was the full realization that my own cohort will die, that everyone whom I now know, whom I have known, and whom I will know, is going to die; and that, in spite of this horrifying fact, the world, huge and momentous and indifferent, will carry one. 

There is no escaping this devastating reality. The mysticism of Tonupasqua and the supposed indifference of Pokawnau, the bear shaman, will not alter it. The solid foundations and heavy timbers of the seventeenth-century English structures on Scratch Flat could not alter it, and for that matter, neither will an account of fifteen thousand years of history on a square mile of land.

No matter where I looked, in the running walls that line the woodlands, in the folktales of the American Indians, or in the town records or verbal accounts of the area, I realized I was reading the obituary of my era...

Time has obliterated and will obliterate all the places and all the living individuals of this earth in its course, and we are living in a little match snap of light and life in a dark and dead universe and there is not much that can be done about it in the end. 

I found the thought curiously comforting...


Mitchell has never yet gone deeper than this in all his subsequent work: his subsequent work is perhaps precisely part of the 'curiously comforting' carrying-on of light and life in a dark and dead universe.


Mitchell's perspective is, in other words, pagan - as he is perfectly aware, however top-dressed with post-modern irony - it is the ground position of those who face the human condition honestly and insightfully and without divine revelation.

The conclusion of Ceremonial Times is a recognition that all the good things of life are floating soap bubbles - they are beautiful for a moment, then they burst; and  soon after observing this we burst also.


Mitchell has responded to this insight by blowing more beautiful bubbles, becoming absorbed in the task, imaginatively dwelling in the beautiful bubbles...

But always lurking in the background is that awareness.


To say that mortality is not-so-bad is to forget all this, or to suppress it.

When we watch a beautiful soap bubble burst, that loss is not solved by our having watched it happen and remembering, because we too will burst and everyone who saw us burst will themselves burst too.

Memory changes nothing about the reality of mortality except to displace the problem by one step.

Essentially, memory it is a distraction from the truth.


The only solution to mortality is im-mortality - everlasting life.

The only memory that solves anything is perfect, complete, absorbing, re-experienced reality - yet human memory is imperfect, incomplete, unreal, and decaying.

So, the only real solution to the inevitable change and decay of life in Time is Eternity: life out-of-Time.



The Crow said...

A sense of loss, is an emotion. Nothing more.
A beautiful soap-bubble is to be enjoyed and gloried-in while it exists, not mourned after it no longer does.
A human life is as unimportant as a soap-bubble.
While being just as important as the wonder of a soap-bubble.
It is only the curious ego of man that rails against the prospect of his upcoming physical extinction.
Does a soap-bubble engage in such angst?

Some beautiful prose there, though :)

Anonymous said...

How do you say in English when a man is afraid and desperate and has to pretend to be brave and unworried, because

a) He doesn't want to appear weak to the outside world?

b) He want to delude himself that he is not afraid so the fear is more bearable?

This word (please help me) is what describes the modern atheist/nihilist.

They claim and claim they don't fear death, they are living in the present, they are OK with becoming nothing, they live in reality and not with comforting illusions, worrying about death is only for these pathetic weak creatures called believers and so on and so forth.

But behind all this smugness, you can find the fear and the desperation. You find it when you see them inventing some comforting illusions:

a) Living in memory.
b) Living in myth.
c) The ecological recycle process: Becoming again part of the Earth and my body will be in each flower and everything will be life and all this crap (I think even Isaac Asimov was tempted with this at the end of his life).
d) I will not be here but there will always be songs (à la Billy Joel)

If atheists were consequent, they will reject all these things. When I'm gone, I'm gone and I go to the nothingness and nothing of this matters any more.

These comforting illusions (this ersatz immortality) reveal the nihilist's bluff: they are not strong ├╝bermensch superior to anyone else. They are only deluding themselves and others.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Imnobody - yes, and the medical/ health culture of clinging-to-a-few-more-days-of-life-at any cost in terms of naturalness and cosmic rightness.

PatrickH said...


Anonymous said...

Yes, Dr. Charlton, everything is a bravado. It's all "I don't fear death. I don't need God. I am a superior being" while at the same time looking for any comforting illusion. Hypocrites.

And thank you PatrickH, I have looked it up in the dictionary and it was "bravado".

The Continental Op said...

Whistling past the graveyard.