Whether we think of life as rehearsal for death or as a trajectory towards death, we are using metaphors because we cannot grasp meaning without having useful filters to which we can attach emotion as much as intellect. Ultimately, as deconstructionists tell us, language itself is a set of signs that points to what we may experience or may try to incorporate as knowledge, but it does not guarantee meaning.
A friend of Hermitary sends along an excerpt from an article about Heidegger’s description of death. Heidegger is always difficult because he knows that he is grasping after the ineffable but nevertheless goes on crafting a language or vocabulary that will capture the weight of emotion and sensibility in his terms. Perhaps, as the influence of German mystics in Heidegger’s later work shows, one must reach a certain level of intuitive capability before the richest “language” can be understood. That level altogether eludes those who do not seek.
Lao-tzu openly tells us that the Tao is unnameable. Yet he goes on to give us senses and intimations, presenting images cosmic to small: everyday images of nature, and simple images of human effort. Like all good sages, he speaks in parables.
There is a simplicity that allows for the essence of things to enter more clearly into one’s sentiments. Noise, controversy, rapidity of life, artificiality of language, music, appliances, food, technology, and rigid habits kill the spirit even while flattering the self. Thus is the social self manufactured, groomed, presented to the world as adept, clever, glib, ready for teamwork and cooperation with the modes of modern culture.
Cacophony interferes with the clarity of insight that we say we want but which most people will easily trade for a little noise and pleasure because noise and pleasure drown out the pattern of reality.
From this scenario of worldly-wise functionality, Death must be made remote from complexity and contrivance. Death is too final, too insistent, and undermines the pleasure of vanity, the meaningfulness of daily life and culture. In noise and contrivance, meaning is made part of experience because they cannot exist outside of attributes. Death does not suffer attributes. Death is hard enough to contemplate as it is, let alone by ignoring it.
I lived in a large city at one time and rode buses. One day two women sat a couple of seats in front of me, and an old man sat alone behind them. The women were chatting loudly and at length about where they were going to travel this season, and just couldn’t settle on where they wanted to go. It happened that the bus was passing a familiar city landmark: a cemetery. The old man, who had put up with their chatter for some time, leaned forward, politely tapped a shoulder, and said, pointing out the window: “There, madam, is where we all go in the end.” It was a wonderful moment of what I’d call peasant wisdom.
The peasant has the reputation of telling it as it is when provoked to speak or of just keeping quiet. St. Ambrose said that it is more difficult to know how to keep silent than to know how to speak. Further, Lao-tzu says that the wise do not speak and that to keep silence is to conform to nature. One cannot observe if one is busy talking, and it is always best to consider oneself dull and ignorant in the face of the world which boasts of cleverness and novelty. One subject about which the world has little more than platitudes to offer is death, so we need to ignore wishful thinking and contrived socializations of death and go straight to the sages — and peasants.
If death is dissolution, then we are like water — the favorite image of both Taoism and Buddhism. The form of dissolution, whatever we expect or hope, whatever is retained or not, whatever speck of consciousness remains in a universe of consciousness, should not matter. We defer to the universe not because we have no choice but because we need to cooperate and not contrive our own way. In that paradoxical manner do things become ours, yet without contrivance. Not one speck of dust on the mirror.
Water finds its own way by not contriving. Water finds its natural place, and does so eventually, with patience, with a molecular confidence, a defiance of annihilation that is not defiance but hope.
And that is what we need in reflecting on death — except that we will always be dealing with anthropomorphisms and metaphors — such as water and slippery concepts and the prospect of never quite touching the face of things.