A certain shifting of the emotional ballast in recent months has given me reason to pause and consider, as I find myself doing more often than is perhaps healthy, my own mortality. This most recent turn towards the introspective seems more profound than my usual self-indulgent bouts of moongazing, not least because it has been prompted by recent events but as a direct product of marking the one year anniversary of COVID-19. So much has happened in that time that it can feel quite unreal, as if each of us is playing a bit part in a long-running TV drama deep into its eleventh season when the exhausted writers have resorted to making increasingly elaborate appeals to the absurd. All of this is somehow global in scale and yet also intensely personal which has the effect of magnifying any hardship.
2021 will also be my fortieth year on Planet Earth, a not insignificant milestone that I’m sure is exerting some restless influence on my current state of mind. It’s a big number, signifying entry into what our cultural forbears dubbed middle age, or that period of life marked by trips to the garden centre, man tits and a certain vogue for home renovation. It can’t be a coincidence that in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the late Douglas Adams gave the “answer” of forty-two to the Big Question, which just so happens to be the age when people start to ponder these sorts of weighty existential matters. I was reminded of this recently when flopping open a copy of Camus’s 1935-1942 notebooks I confronted by a quote from Jean Grenier, Camus’s philosophy teacher, which the Nobel laureate had chosen to jot down in his dairy. Mine is a well-thumbed edition whose previous owner must have been similarly struck by the following statement having circled it three times with black biro:
We always have too low an opinion of ourselves. But in poverty, illness, or loneliness we become aware of our eternity. We need to be forced into our very last bastions.
Hardship and the contemplation of death is a powerful motivator, he seems to say, bringing our existence into a keen and unsettling focus. It is a thought that turns up again in the work of philosopher Herbert Fingarette, who tells us that “The confrontation with death is in fact a confrontation of life; death itself has no meaning.” What he’s saying is that when thoughts turn to our limited shelf life, it isn’t the end that bothers us so much as what happens in the bit beforehand, a sentiment he sums up rather pithily as “the ‘fear of death’ is […] an agony that concerns life.” Camus’s point seems to be that in confronting one or more of the horrors that can erupt in the midst of life we gain a rare appreciation of its fragile magnificence, although at the same time this can be all too quickly overwhelmed by a sense of despair since it is so fleeting, or as he says, “a glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”
I thought about this a lot while I was working in my garden over the Easter break. In Fingarette’s view there is no afterparty to speak of, only oblivion, which in the grand tradition of Existentialism has the effect of forcing us, as the principal architects of our own destiny, to turn and face the challenge of living a good, productive, or in some other sense meaningful life. Moreover, it not only makes us responsible for our own individual choices, but seeing as there is only one life and that our actions affect those around us and the planet we share, it’s important not be a total dickhead while you’re here.
Depending on your personal worldview(s) you might find this “no excuses” approach to existence frightening or oddly liberating. I’m of the latter view and have been ever since I first started messing around with existentialism as a teenager after Mr Hughes, my community college English teacher, encouraged me read Sartre’s short novel, Nausea, with the exaggerated promise that it would blow my mind. In the event it didn’t quite shake me my to foundations as he suggested, but it was enough to get me started, and more importantly resonated with an awkward teenager’s sense of alienation. Still, dismissing one’s death as insignificant and fixating on existence as Fingarette suggests does seem a rather chilly response to the big question, suggesting that we should wave off mortal insecurities about our inevitable demise because there’s really nothing that we can do about it, although I do always work better with a deadline. In one memorable passage he asks why we should suddenly start to care about what happens to our conscious selves after death when we have zero interest in what happened to it before we popped into existence, our lives bookended with a cavernous silence at both ends.
Sifting through the various metaphors we use to try and make sense of these things, such as the Big Sleep or embarking on a long journey, Fingarette settles on the image of a traveller from outer space visiting earth, a tourist really, who must depart at the end of their stay amongst the humans. It’s a concept I find comforting without being condescending, and has the additional benefit of being reassuringly attainable. He writes:
It seems to me apt to think of my life as a visit to earth. I arrive a stranger, without language, without understanding of this earthly world. Over time I learn something of the language, the ways of people, some of their history. I join in their activities, even become intimate with a few. I get the feel of life on earth. The visit will have turned out—as visits do—to have not only its delights, but also its ordeals, its stretches of boredom or annoyance. Of course, being a visitor, my time here is limited.
That has always been the ideal.
This works well enough for me, although upon reading it for the first time my mind immediately jumped to the David Bowie film, The Man Who Fell to Earth and the sequel, Lazarus, which isn’t exactly an uplifting saga, and probably says more about my residual pessimism than the veracity of Fingarette’s analogy. Reflecting on this further, I also tend to think of the indifferent alien visitors in Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic, who treat our precious blue planet with the same kind of casual, unthinking contempt that we do, dumping their hyper advanced space trash in our cosmic layby where it shunts our species in an unexpected direction. Nevertheless, the idea that we are but momentary visitors suits me very well, and I do tend to think of myself as a somewhat hapless individual, bumping around without really knowing what I’m doing in a manner much like an interested yet lightly inebriated tourist or a confused bumblebee. And besides, if nothing else it is perhaps a good thing to be periodically reminded of our cosmic insignificance and the need to leave the place much as we found it, if not slightly better.
Thinking of ourselves in this way can be freeing, a gentle reminder of the need to make the most of our stay. It also lacks that fidgety adolescent imperative beloved of self-help gurus that insists we should all be constantly striving to “seize the moment”. I mean, who really has the time, especially when there’s something good on TV we want to watch and that report due in on Tuesday, it really is the most unhelpful of aphorisms. Suddenly a trip to the garden centre to dally amongst the hostas and ornamental wheelbarrows seems like a wholesome compromise. It takes the pressure off, even if it does lack a certain amount of ambition. A tourist doesn’t charge about trying to wring every last molecule of joy out of a day trip, not if they’re anything like me at any rate. They should potter about, take in the sights, maybe have a cheeky pint and snap some pictures, basically having a nice time, in other words establishing a healthy, achievable baseline.
Taking a leisurely yet promiscuous interest in the world seems like a good strategy for enjoying your stay in the mortal realm, and one unencumbered with those troublesome things called “expectations” that other people have a habit of forcing upon us.
Rather than our own departure, however, it is the thought of leaving loved ones behind that causes the greatest distress, imagining their continuing suffering in your absence, the missed opportunities, the perpetual ache for what is no longer there, family photographs now tinged with sadness, the cold side of the bed. It can be a sense of absence so profound that it has an almost physical quality, so much so that the idea of being haunted can take on a new, at times even a quite beautiful gravity. What is certain is that the death of a loved one is not an ending as far as those left behind are concerned. And while I can accept that my own personal existence is finite, that does not diminish in any way the experience of grief that accompanies personal loss. Your passing will almost certainly leave its mark on the living. Even just thinking about the pain your death would inflict on others can be unbearable since you are helpless to do anything about it and would never knowingly or willingly want to hurt those you love. Fingarette’s statement that death is an agony that concerns life then takes on additional meaning. For those poor souls facing death, their imminent passing is anything but meaningless and must be accompanied by every conceivable extreme of emotion that makes the senseless, absurd, unjustifiable end feel all the more monumental. Much as I try to dismiss the thought, it is an overwhelming one, and horrifying.
My father’s passing in 2008 was the first time I came into close contact with grief of a kind that changes you. In the years since then I have felt the internal reservoir of personal anxiety gradually deepen, as if his passing removed some vital internal structure without which the world has tilted ever so slightly out of balance, leaving me vulnerable to occasional trips and falls. The changes are subtle, although it’s hard to self-diagnose these things. Rather than a dramatic shift in personality or something like that, it’s more the sense of a lingering, peripheral absence, both of the person you once knew and that part of your inner self that was sustained by their presence. Friends and onlookers may not see the change, and you might not appreciate it yourself, at least not for a while, but it eventually makes itself known. For me, it revealed itself in a change of perspective - that deepening reservoir that I mentioned - that occasionally pulls me under.
That grief can change you seems self-evident. If you care about someone, or had an attachment of some kind, or yearned for an attachment that never came, then losing that person is devastating. Seeing that other people experience this sense of loss in similar, intimately relatable ways also reassures us that we are not entirely alone in our grief, even if that is the experience of it. Grief is a lonely business.
To those who have lost loved ones the idea of haunting can be comforting, and I think it is a concept that is often wheeled out too dismissively as a supernatural gimmick when in fact it is something far more tangible and perhaps necessary than people like to think. I’ve heard others say that here in the West we have lost touch with the intimacy of death, that we have sterilised and compartmentalised it in a way that has made us strangers to this unavoidable aspect of existence. It has become unfamiliar to us, and perhaps there’s some simple truth in that. Visiting the remains of a loved one can present an image of peace, even in the midst of tumultuous grief, a reminder that the body is an anchor, momentarily tying the person you knew to the shores of the physical world, each day the tide growing in strength, pulling on the tethers that bind us until the anchor finally slips.
I find that the ocean is a good place to release thoughts of the dead.
It seems strange that for all the stock our culture puts in the power of memory, it is for the most part an unreliable and rather superficial archive. This is one of the things I find tragic about it, at least in my experience. I can easily pull images of my father from memory, appearing like poorly animated faded Polaroids, more of an emotional residue than a crisp image. I see him in his red polo shirt and tattered shorts on the pebbly beach in Dorset, keeping a watchful eye as I snorkel in a rockpool. I see him strike a match and light his blacked meerschaum pipe as we fish the Grand Union canal. I see him rest on the handle of his spade while digging the garden in that same pair of tattered shorts. When the moment takes me, I can easily remember lots of these little vignettes without too much trouble. Occasionally I think I can remember his smell and the timbre of his voice, although that seems unlikely. Once again it is the ghost of memory. A haunting. What lingers in the forefront of memory, more than any particular image is the knowledge that we loved one another, accompanied by a comforting wraparound sense of presence. The way I tend to think about it now is that for a long time I had a father and then one day he was gone. What remains of him is what I carry around inside my head. Some amongst our family and friends say we have a similar stocky build around the shoulders and the same big nose and unmanageable hair. Perhaps that is why self-portraiture can have an unexpected haunting quality, since you see some small fragment of the dead written into the lines and buttresses of your own face. I certainly seem to look a lot more like my dad as I approach the age in which I knew him best.
The end of conversation is a terrible thing to comprehend, and many times I have wanted so desperately just to speak to my father one more time. I even have a folder of his emails stored in my Gmail account, since in their perfunctory, business like way they represent a connection, each one opening with the same greeting, “Hi mate!” followed by a few lines organising a fishing trip or arranging tickets for the rugby. It’s a concept that I have often thought about and which for a time was a focus of my doctoral research, noting how absence can be an almost overwhelming presence, even and especially when we try to deny its existence. On some fundamental and fairly obvious level haunting is about confronting absence. Learning to live with the absent-presence of a loved one is just that. It’s living with the dead, seeing their echoes in old photographs, a favourite chair, a space of shared experience now changed because the story that you want to be able to tell about it has now reached a premature end. What marks haunting out as abject is that no matter how much we wish it to be otherwise, the ethereal nature of that connection will always remain a ghost and cruelly out of reach. The key distinction, and the one that marks a keen departure from spooky tales, is that we haunt ourselves. There are no haunted houses or eerie trails through the woods, only haunted people, their memories alive with the footsteps of the dead.