DEATH AND SETTLING FOR LESS
Thereâ€™s been a lot to remind me of mortality lately. Close calls. Three friends with cancer. Our son going back to Iraq. My motherâ€™s voice in the absence of my fatherâ€™s. The increasing number of dead animals in the road where Raleigh is trying to become Atlanta.
Yesterday, I was driving down the I-540 outer beltline on my way to run an errand, and there was a huge deer corpse right between two lanes, mutilated by serial impacts and rollovers â€“ no doubt from surprised drivers who reacted to slowly â€“ that has splashed blood-and-flesh patterns down the highway in a kind of grotesque expanding fan-fractal, like an abstract painting â€“ Mandelbrot in blood and flesh. People swerved around it, worrying no doubt about broken bones and punctured tires, each deploying his or her own dissonance-defenses against this collateral damage of urban development.
Just like the old Medieval lithographs, that deer was telling us, â€œAs you are I once was; as I am, you shall be.â€ But you canâ€™t stop to hear that in the course of a day, or you risk morbid paralysis.
We mark the passage of time with wristwatches and oven timers and â€“ as Eliot noted â€“ with coffee spoons. But even our basis for time, the rotation of the earth, is slowing down, approaching its own death. Even the worldâ€™s official timekeepers, with their cesium clocks that measure time in the billionths of a second, have to add leap seconds periodically to compensate for this slowing in the rotation of the earth. The earth itself will die, as surely as that Ococoileus that was being pulverized into the asphalt of I-540.
All the vanities in which we engage to transcend death, like writing, are but a temporary reprieve. These vanities merely leave behind reminders for other mortal homo sapiens that we were here, with only the slightest capacity to really represent the totality of a former existence that has now been swallowed up into a stone-deaf infinity. And as sure as tomorrow, the time will come when the last homo sapiens will go out with that whimper, and the earthâ€™s rotations will decelerate as the planet is dragged by gravity back into the decaying sun.
Never and forever are real. We will never be back; and that is forever. Our lives, our families, our civilizations, our history as a species, the very existence of the earth, will become an invisible footnote without a reader. There is one merciless god and it is the Second Law; and out of that we are able to exist; and out of that we are destined for extinction. No form survives. Ever.
It doesnâ€™t matter how we try to retreat from this â€“ whether into the magic of religion, the soothing delusion of Gaia, or the frantic quest for sensation â€“ the arrow of time travels in one direction only, and it carries us along with it only very briefly.
The passage of time, the god of the Second Law, requires no meaning; and so it bears no meaning. None whatsoever. Meaning-making is confined to its makers, and with their extinction, meaning disappears. Itâ€™s no longer necessary. Infinity does not require it. Only human beings ask the question, â€œWhy is there something, and not nothing?â€ Infinity is in-itself. It requires no outside referent.
The same Second Law exists as a wall before our last-ditch fantasy of escaping the planet. We will never escape the planet. We will die here. Every last one of us will die, and when the last of us goes, we will still be living on earth. You who read this now will not care when that happens, because you will have already ceased to existâ€¦ as will I.
Our vessel is so small, and the ocean is so vast.
Whatâ€™s the point, then, after all?
Well, the point is, even in our universal non-significance, we do exist. It matters a great deal, in the material reality of things, that we are composed of the stuff of dying stars, that the great clock goes only clock-wise, and that we are born and we die according to that Second Law which existed before we ever gave it its juridical identity or a sequence number. It matters to us, if we are writing and reading this.
And it matters, to us, that we exist, so it matters, to us, how we exist.
Infinity doesnâ€™t need an outside referent, because it doesnâ€™t require meaning. But we are meaning-makers because we have to be. Itâ€™s our nature every bit as much as itâ€™s the nature of a potato sprout to reach toward light. In the same way that sprout is heliotropic, we are semiotropic. We are compelled to seek and share signs and meanings. It is essential to our very (temporary) material survival.
But it is only through each other that we do this. There is no more basic rebuttal to the myth of individualism than that. You canâ€™t tell the moon itâ€™s the moon. Whatever we sign, signify, give signfiâ€¦ cance, we must signify for another and in a common language, because we require signs to construct meanings.
Even death itself, or Death, almost a proper noun, a personification, a signifier making something out of the absence of something: Death is more than the absence of life, but the end of life; it says the life happened. I was dead for an infinity before I was born, but Iâ€™ll only be called dead, only be assigned a Death, after I have lived â€“ just between us â€“ even though another infinity will swallow that meaning and us with it.
Somewhere in all this is the whole riddle of consciousness. Iâ€™m sure someone somewhere has made it all empirically intelligible, with descriptions of us as organisms and descriptions of all the biochemistry of awareness that sets us apart in the world as individuals with the world itself to mediate our intercourse. But that does not explain the experience of subjectivity. It does not. And the physical explanation of subjectivity does not capture the fact that there is still this I-ness and you-ness that exists as a moment-by-moment gestalt, as the mix of memory and movement and reflection and action and affect that exists as a single evolving whole of Experience.
It also doesnâ€™t capture that knowing, that knowledge of time, and that something will take us. Maybe not an externality like a truck on I-540. Maybe an embolus in our cardiac artery, or a set of cells that wonâ€™t quit hyper-replicating, or a spontaneous pneumothorax.
The Knowing makes us different, and we couldnâ€™t know were it if not for our symbolic sociality.
We are remarkable really, even prior to the operation of The Knowing.
Ten trillion cells growing out of two, each cell composed of a membrane, cytoplasm, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi complex, mitochondria, lisosome, vacuoles, et cetera. Two cells differentiating into epithelia, connective tissue, three types of muscle, fascia, bonesâ€¦ perfectly organized to make a bipedâ€¦ erythrocytes, leukocytes, vessels to transport themâ€¦ heart, lungs, kidneys, an alimentary canal, liver, pancreas, diaphragm, reproductive organsâ€¦ and neuronsâ€¦ canâ€™t forget neurons, because they make up the most remarkable piece of all â€“ a brain.
This is where the real mystery, the deepest paradox, and the greatest sense of cosmic injustice, resides. The brain.
100 billion neurons, each neuron networked with as many as 25,000 other neurons, doing brain-things, regulating temperatures, running an endocrine system, maintaining balance, registering sensationâ€¦ but human â€œencephalization,â€ as it is called, includes an extra helping of cerebral cortex, and within that an even more sophisticated structure called a neocortex, and within that again, a super-sophisticated section called the pre-frontal cortex. There may be more complex structures in the universe, but no one has identified one yet.
And it is in the way we experience this brain and the whole body with it that this complexity becomes self-awareâ€¦ then cognitively aware, as well as emotionally aware. From two cells, we get all this differentiation, topped off, literally, by this complex computing and emoting powerhouse. This highly coded structure, DNA, passes along instructions that allow this complexity to be replicated, even to the point that there are now well over six billion of these brains still getting enough glucose and oxygen to work.
In this organ, these neural pathways have to be opened like the pathways on which we walk, by using them. Things unfamiliar are grasped with difficulty and â€œwillâ€ â€“ another paradoxical notion.
One of the questions that the brain imposes on itself in what we metaphorically refer to as reflection is: Could this level of complexity really exist without any meaning beyond the operation of fortuitous accidents and natural laws?
In existing as it does, for our survival, it leads us to The Knowing that we will not ultimately survive. And so we tend to reach for the most comforting replies to the question above â€“ that this is really too complex to be an â€œaccidentâ€ (which is itself a thing that doesnâ€™t exist independent of consciousness). It seems grotesquely unfair that we get to be the tiniest speck of the universe aware of itself in this special way, but only for a while, and in time all that awareness is extinguished. Yet we only exist at the pleasure of the self same natural laws that allow us to be. The injustice is that this organ allows us to wish.
And it is in wishing, and loving, and â€œreflecting,â€ and in our inevitable social intercourse â€“ which includes passing our experience along from generation to generation â€“ that this consciousness, however slippery as a concept, makes us both afraid and transcendent.
What kind of creature is this, that exists at the most entropic and evolved corner within the web of biological being on earth â€“ this thing that has to make meanings? What is our essential condition? Who are we?
I might argue that we are, at our most essential, this thing with The Knowing, but that this essentiality is not nearly enough to explain us to ourselves. Because we are not little islands just because our experience is surrounded by this outsided-ness like a patch of land peeking out of the ocean. We know this intuitively, even when we deny it. We are hard wired to care what others think, to seek that subject-to-subject connection, and The Knowing only makes it that much more urgent. And we are embedded in that outsided-ness.
Which means at some level there is no outside, that this inside-outside thing is illusory.
Some of that epithelial tissue I mentioned earlier is devitalized, keratinized into a kind of armor or vestigal tool. Hair and nails. We shear them off with hardly a thought, having grown them out of our vitalized tissue, seen them as dead matter, and we send these bits of our former selves out into the greater generality. The hair actually rains off of us, as do epidermal cells, bits of us in our breath, mucus, urine, feces, all carrying molecules away even as those same molecules were drawn into this organism, this dialectic of form and function. Yet the consciousness remains, even if only, sometimes, as memories of memories.
What we see and hear is a dance between us and the Outside, and exchange of signs. And there is no more engaging something on the outside than others. Without them to acknowledge us, shape us, hold us against The Knowing, we suffer a starvation of the consciousness, a terrible deadly wasting.
Somewhere in all that is a special caring â€“ distorted as it has become by organized power â€“ that we ineffectually represent with the linguistic marker â€œlove.â€ But I donâ€™t want to give the impression that because this thing we call love exists that I am about to be sentimental, that I am about to sugarcoat this account with â€œlife is beautiful, we are the worldâ€ Pollyanna optimism. Thatâ€™s not true. Life is cruelly hard for many, blindly unfair, a sequence of struggles to escape pain and seek refuge, rest, comfortâ€¦ and to escape The Knowing too.
Annie Dillard once said, â€œEvolution loves death more than it loves you and me.â€ How right she was. It loves pain and deformity, too. It tests a million mutations that end in tens of millions of tiny horrors before it gets something right, matches something successfully to a niche. Then it could be a brighter baby, or it could be a human immunodeficiency virus.
Jesse Helms gets to be an affluent octogenerian, while a four-year-old child is killed in a car by an airplane that overshoots a runway.
Donâ€™t look for meaning there. Definitely donâ€™t look for justiceâ€¦ or karma.
The only meaning is what we make, and we make it in the teeth of blind indifference, and we only make it with each other.
I have to be emphatic about this, because if Iâ€™m not it can be taken as an equivocationâ€¦ another of countless denials. I have to say it as starkly as possible â€“ this is no game.
Because there is no pat answer to the question, â€œWhy bother?â€
Why not just take what you can when you can and do as you damn well please; make your philosophy the philosophy of getting over, getting high, getting laid, getting getting gettingâ€¦ because once you quit getting, the getting is gone for good.
This is a serious question, and it deserves a better answer for serious people who are not buying it when they are offered a carrot and stick bribe of eternity â€“ take your choice, heaven or hell. Donâ€™t tell me Iâ€™m not really going to die! I may think I need to hear this, but I donâ€™t. It will make me irresponsible â€“ just as irresponsible as the nihilist who goes on and on about carpe diem while he turns others into instruments.
The universe is beyond vast, and life is trapped in profound indifference, unpredictability, and iron lawâ€¦ all at the same time. And we are what we are, signifiers looking to one another, anchored in the stream of an endless night by these tiny intangible threads of caring and love. The minute we allow ourselves to surrender that, in our service of a world now reified and commodified, the minute we surrender that intersubjectivity and all the potentially painful vulnerabilities that go with it, we are lost to ourselves. We have surrendered our humanityâ€¦ which will die at any rate, no doubt, but itâ€™s all we have.
I have this grandson, three years old, and I have allowed myself to love him so much that I know if I lose him I will fall apartâ€¦ I will cease to embrace and defend my own existenceâ€¦ at least, thatâ€™s how deep the vulnerability feels.
I could cut myself off, which is a common price paid for living in a reified world, most common for men who are taught to objectify others as a defense mechanism against this vulnerability. And I have in the past. Cut myself off. Reduced another in my own sight to the mere-ness of an insensate object â€“ even taken life that way, objectifying to really objectify. This cutting oneself off to avoid vulnerability is another paradox of our existence. It is only in risking feeling loss that we avoid losing our own humanity. That is a very high priceâ€¦ even in the larger scheme of things, since the notion of a â€œcostâ€ (there is an exchange metaphor if you ever wanted one) is moot outside our heads and the intangible bonds are between us signifiers and meaning-makers.
This is settling for less than we might experience in this exceedingly brief time to be alive. Not less sensation, but less depth of understanding â€“ because we are pieces of the universe now self-aware.
It may be that the universe as a whole is somehow aware, though I canâ€™t concede that the action of action, the fact that all things at some level respond to all other things is necessarily proof that there is a single one-ness from which we may be divorced for the time we are alive, trapped perhaps inside this organic vessel with our ten trillion cells and our big fleshy , ultra-networked brains, and cut off from some vast unity that is aware of itself simply because it is something and not nothing.
But for what I do know, and that is a very small thing, I believe that there is something tragic (and this is about as human as it gets), tragicâ€¦ about living a life of perfect obedience to others, to sensations alone, and to mere appetitesâ€¦ when there is this connection that is not guaranteed in a world where we might be one of the casualties of evolution, but where it is possible to make that connection where we look into each otherâ€™s eyes and say without saying that we are so tiny and temporary in all that infinity but that together we can â€œmake one out of more than one,â€ and hold each other in that sure recognition â€“ you are here and I am here with you â€“ in the howling winds of that brief night.
Anything else is settling for less.
This is where politics walks onto the stage.
These relations we have as signifiers and meaning-makers, and as creatures that donâ€™t merely occupy a niche, but construct them by altering the externality, have come through history to be characterized by powerâ€¦ structured power, and power that permits certain groups of people to perpetuate the starkest miseries in the lives of others in order to sustain their own comfort and denial and the triumphal hedonism that goes with this.
There are levels of engagement that embrace intersubjectivity, that â€œmake one out of more than one.â€ That engagement is taking responsibility for one another and our selves, of being in the world together for one another instead of with one another, or worse, against one another.
The point of reference is not outside us at all, but between us. That the nihilist may win all arguments at the end of the day is irrelevant.
And the reality of life, all life, under any and all systems of social organization for human beings is one in which unpredictability will always be a part, in which The Knowing will always be a part, and in which the highest striving will not be for an unreachable Utopia, but hard, Sisyphean work to minimize suffering, and maximize the opportunity to love.
History presents all its participants with a time and place and circumstance, and our nature as signifiers and intergenerational meaning-makers has made us participants in that very evolution that loves death and disfigurement more than it loves you and me.
We now live in the most reified society in history, a society that in an orgy of commodification has made it immensely difficult not to settle for less. We will settle for alienation from nature, and accept images and commercial fantasies of nature instead. We will settle for alienation from one another, and accept our mutual objectification for superficial pleasure and profit instead. We will settle for alienation from our very selves, and accept the anesthesia of manufactured compulsions instead. In many cases, because we simply donâ€™t know any betterâ€¦ in some cases because our own socialization is so deeply rooted and affectively resonant that we havenâ€™t the strength to fight it.
This struggle, the social combat, to change society, is the highest form of engagement in the general struggle to ensure one can be made of more than one, be that two lovers whoâ€™s hearts have harmonized with the merger of their bodies, or in that inexplicable sense of embedded communities, or in the unification and mobilization that is part of the great social revolutions.
In the larger scheme of things, it will cause less than a ripple in the universe, true. But that is not the issue. No meanings are made there. They are made between usâ€¦
Sister. Brother. Lover. Comrade.