Undying

voices to voices, lip to lip
i swear (to no-one everyone) constitutes
undying…

ee cummings

Danie Goosen*, following Hans Jonas, says that distinction between modernism and pre-modernism can be made in terms of ‘life’ and ‘death’. To the pre-modern man, everything was alive, and death was the great anomaly. Philosophically speaking, he was ontologically-animistic, meaning that he thought that the fundamental structure of reality (ontology) is living, rather than dead. Death was the conundrum on which he spent much time and energy in an effort to reintegrate it back into the orbit of life through myths and rites of the afterlife. In his seminal The Phenomenon of Life, Jonas observes that

This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground: being was intelligible only as living: and the divined constancy of being could be understood as the constancy of life, even beyond death and in defiance of its apparent verdict.

According to Jonas, one of the projects of modernism was to reverse this paradigm. Death now became to ruling theme, and life the exception to be explained (we speak of the ‘miracle’ of life). The weight of this idea is felt in modern man’s view of the cosmos as a lifeless, cold, mechanical space of fleeting forces and the “accidental collocation of atoms”. Jonas writes,

From the (modern) physical sciences, there spread over the conception of all existence an ontology whose model is pure matter, stripped of all features of life… The tremendously enlarged universe of modern cosmology is conceived of as a field of inanimate masses and forces which operate according to the laws of inertia and of quantitative distribution of space. This denuded substratum of all reality could only be arrived at through the progressive expurgation of vital features from the physical record and from strict abstention from projecting into its image our own felt aliveness.

During modernism, being is stripped of all meaning and weightiness as it is only lifeless matter. Any meaning, therefore, is created by laying transcendent acts and rationality on top of this lifeless, precipital reality (which is where post-modernism is birthed, according to Goosen). We long for meaningful experiences – in travel, in relationships, and even through religious experiences. We edit our memories through Instagram and add them to facebook in order to define our lives as at least a bit exceptional. We erect gravestones and write books as monuments proclaiming I was here – I left a mark, but we know that these are merely bulwarks against our transience. Death is no longer dramatized in order to be reintegrated. Rather, our time is characterised by living exceptionally as a means of hiding against this all-encompassing foe – “He who must not be named”. Where the pre-modern man reunified death with life, the modern man has made death the Enemy – we speak of death’s ‘clutches’ and ‘jaws’. Darwin’s “fight for survival” is another example; against the backdrop of a lifeless cosmos, life can only be defined as that which resists death.“I fight against death, therefore I am.”

If life is a fight against death that we all lose in the end, then surely undying is the only real living. You undie in those moments of “blessed self-forgetfulness”, when you’re so captivated by others (or the Other) that you forget that death should rule, and remember our immortality. You “dance your death away at the wedding” as ee cummings says. The veil of death is lifted – ever so briefly – and you glimpse the scintillating radiance of another soul unveiled by laughter, art, dance, sport, sex, worship, wonder, or Love.

Is Christianity pre-modern, then? In some sense it is. On the cross, in so many ways, God performed the ultimate act of undying. He did this not only to change how we see the world, but at his resurrection Christians believe that the very structure of reality was altered. Chesterton writes**:

They took the body down from the cross, and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden, the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of the ancient Eastern sepulchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that cavern, the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history – the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die, and they were dead.

On the third day friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died that night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of a gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening, but the dawn.

~~~

*Note: The bit about modernism was more or less translated and paraphrased from Danie Goosen’s Die Nihilisme, and he deserves full credit for any resultant profundity.

**G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. cf. Gen. 3:8 and John 20.

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