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?

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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?


  1. Interesting musings Bernardo. Such a beautiful turn of phrase too, "the numinous aura of timelessness." The profound influence of music in our lives, of course, is time, place and age specific, somehow rendered timeless by its association with life's most moving experiences. In the eighties, I was a thirty-something, stay-at-home dad, living on an island off the coast of British Colombia, who, for whatever mysterious reason, developed a taste for classical music, which I listened to on vinyl records, or on CBC radio, whenever I could catch a break from raising our firstborn child, who innocently exposed me over-and-over again to his infatuation with Raffi's song 'Baby Beluga.' Still that soundtrack of our son's early childhood, strangely intermingled with Chopin's nocturnes in my dreamlike reminiscences, can arouse deeply moving emotions when I revive those halcyon days. And yet, since I never listened to commercial radio, my exposure to the artistry of Prince during that same decade was almost non-existent, and thus, even with the news of his passing, it arouses almost no special feelings -- other than an appreciation of his obvious musical genius. I suppose the momentous equivalent for those who came of age in the sixties, would be the death of Hendrix or Lennon, who left deep idyllic imprints on our impressionable psyches. Nonetheless, my own playlist from the eighties, which encapsulates the experience of falling in love, along with the creation and rearing of a child, can still invoke tears of joy, like no other music can. The wonderful thing about art is that its meaningful influence lives on and on, long after the passing of the artists, perhaps made all the more poignant when that passing happens within one's own lifespan. Alas, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be among the crowds that attended Chopin's funeral, while the Funeral March from his Piano Sonata No. 2 was played at the graveside. Death does somehow seem integral to the bittersweet song of life.

  2. Both are equally true.

    Jesus Rejected at Nazareth

    Luke: 14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

    16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

    18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”f
    20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

    22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

    23Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”

    24“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosyg in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

    28All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

  3. 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.

    Bernardo you were definitely wrong on this one. The life form known as Prince still looked good, moved well, was as creative as ever, had big bucks and all kinds of female life forms falling all over him. So in his case there was no real change in how he was viewed in life or or death.

    Anyway weren't you aware that 60 is the new 40?

  4. Here is a link to a quaint little video I discovered a few years ago, perhaps a nice compliment for some to enjoy! ... --->

  5. The dead can never criticize, while we who live will eulogize.

    A person dead is fixed in death, unchanging, and yet fading over time in memory. Oh some will live on in books, art or music, but even amongst these rare few, their dot - like that upon old television sets turned off - slowly fades to black.

    The dead are easy to relate to because we are relating to ourselves through our memories and imaginings of them. They can be seen and heard in our minds either through imagination or through reading their words, listening to their music or viewing their art. We build a voice for them, whether we actually heard them speak or not, and we project onto them qualities and aspects of character that may align very poorly with who they were.

    This commentary reminds me of the epilogue in George Bernard Shaw's "St. Joan" where having been killed she is venerated as a saint, but in suggesting that she might come back from the dead as a living woman to be amongst them, they all quickly recede. Dead saints are good and useful ones, whereas living ones are a serious problem.

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