The timeless numinosity of death
|'The Source of All Life,' by Selene's Art. Reproduced with permission.|
Last week we lost the author of much of the soundtrack of my childhood: Prince, the musician. I hadn't thought of Prince in years; he'd just dropped out of my inner world, except for the very occasional song played on my car radio. In those rare moments, his songs would immediately bring back memories of my early years; yet, not the image of Prince himself. The artist was just a faded figure in my mind, who I assumed to be an old and grumpy man by now, enjoying retirement somewhere in Florida.
However, upon hearing the news of his passing, I noticed something that had evaded my reflections up until that moment: the strange numinosity that death invests people and their work with. Prince was no longer that old-fashioned, trite, grumpy old man I imagined him to have become. No, no: now he was a mythical figure I'd had the unfathomable honor to share the world with.
How the hell did this sudden change happen? How could the mere passing of a man lead to this complete reversal in how I experience his memory and work? Listening to 'Kiss' was banal until a few days ago, but now it almost brings me to tears. How? Why?! 'Kiss' still has the same notes and even the scratches on my 1986 record haven't changed.
Death somehow instantly changes the way we look upon characters and their ideas. It removes them from the field of the ordinary, placing them on the altar of timelessness instead. Ideas that might have been seen as trivial or shallow become invested with some form of mysterious higher meaning and depth. Those we might have considered struggling and flawed human beings like ourselves, acquire a messianic aura; something more-than-just-human. While you and I, mere mortals, need to use the toilet every day and are beset by fear and confusion, the dead aren't. It's almost as if death, from the point of view of the living, were some kind of cosmic initiation that retroactively invested people and their ideas with more respectability.
It was funny to catch myself falling for this kind of psychological trick, so I decided to expand the exercise. Do I have any reason to think that, say, Nisargadatta Maharaj had superior or more complete introspective insights than, say, Adyashanti? Coming to think about it, not really. If anything, Adyashanti seems much more capable to articulate his insights with clarity and consistency. But Nisargadatta died when I was six, so he now has the numinous aura of timelessness. Many will even put his picture on an altar and pray to him under candlelight. Meanwhile, Adyashanti is just that guy running around the Bay Area as you read this. If I came across him in a supermarket, I'd probably just say 'hi' and continue on with my business.
Another example: my favorite physicist, Richard Feynman, became a mythical hero of mine when (by?) dying just at the time I was discovering his work. In contrast, equally significant Nobel Prize Laureate Carlo Rubbia was just my boss'es boss'es former boss at CERN; a figure to be slightly feared if you happened to bump against him in the cafeteria, but otherwise just an ordinary man.
A final example: I have a strong tendency to put Carl Jung on a pedestal, something I am entirely unable to do with any living person. Jung is my personal image of the Wise Old Man archetype. Yet, James Hillman, whose work I was familiar with while he was still alive and well, and whose significance is comparable to that of Jung, never captured my imagination in even remotely the same way (huh, now he actually does, a little, since he's been dead since 2011).
Why do we do this? Why does death seem to open the doors to all kinds of projections of super-human numinosity on our part?
Death puts the coat of timelessness on people and their ideas, lifting them out of banality. As I discuss in Part II of my new book More Than Allegory, what we see as 'the past' is a symbol of the more primary, root-level mental contents of the singularity we call 'the now.' To put it allegorically, the stuff of the past is closer to God and the Devil. Indeed, the myths underpinning every major religion consist of events in a far distant past. If those stories were meant to have taken place last week, for instance, would they be invested with so much power, meaning and significance? Would we look upon them, as well as their characters and message, in quite the same way? When people die, they and their ideas are instantly locked in the past; exclusively. They no longer partake in the banality of the present, thereby acquiring a different aura.
All this, of course, raises some critical questions. Which side of the divide is more true: (a) the respect we grant to people and their ideas after they are dead, or (b) the cynicism, contempt and disregard we often treat them with while they are alive? Does one need to die in order to be granted a fair hearing and be taken truly seriously?