Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/03/2011

Mortality awareness–to become the all

My father's ring, his mother's sewing machine--the all

My father's ring, his mother's sewing machine--the all

[I am fully aware how strange, perhaps even macabre the following is. I have simply written what I must write. Reading it is required of no one.]

Mary Shelley, in chapter 8 of Frankenstein, allows Victor Frankenstein to recall for Walton the depth of his feelings at the hanging of Justine, beloved member of the Frankenstein household, a hanging that Frankenstein’s cowardice and deception had helped to precipitate.

. . .  I had retired to a corner of the prison-room, where I could conceal the horrid anguish that possessed me. Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. I gnashed my teeth, and ground them together, uttering a groan that came from my inmost soul. . . (1).

My students always understand the irony that, although Justine is about to die unjustly, Frankenstein believes she cannot possibly be suffering the “deep and bitter agony” he feels.

I’m not particularly interested in debating whether or not the enormity of Frankenstein’s narcissism and self-absorption is worth judging. I point out this bizarre passage simply to raise what for me has become an unavoidable question—one that probably manifests my own narcissism and self-absorption: How do I view the death of someone I love in light of my awareness of my own mortality?

On the intermediate phalanx of the middle finger of my right hand, I have been wearing—since September 20—my father’s ring, his ring of the pair he and my mother exchanged on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987 because he had never had a wedding band and hers was nearly worn through. A few people have commented on my unconventional placement of the ring. The day before my father died, his nurse gave it to me. It had slipped off. I did not, of course, yet know when the moment of his death would be, but I wanted to be sure his ring was not lost. I put it on that finger to save because it is the only finger on which it fits without easily slipping off. I have not removed it since that day.

How strangely my thinking moves, from Frankenstein (I am in the middle of grading a set of student essays on the novel) to my father’s ring. The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky observed that, “A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know”(2). Theologian Vern Fletcher explains that for Dobzhansky,

“death awareness” is integral to self-awareness. It is I who will die; it is I who am dying. Death is not something extraneous to my existence which comes to me, knocking at the door. In one sense, it is this of course: I cannot choose the biological mode or moment of my dying, and my actual death falls outside my conscious experience. However, in a more profound sense, death is an interior event and the interiority of death surpasses in significance its exteriority. . . (3).

You will undoubtedly think, however strangely my thoughts have moved from Frankenstein to my father’s ring, I have now passed over into the grotesque. But in order to continue the strange movement of my thinking, I need Poet Marianne Boruch’s help. She tells the story (without explaining how it came about) of her being allowed to accompany medical students on their first experience of dissecting cadavers. Her account is as strangely astonishing as the very thought of her experience—but gentle, poetic. Through her experience she understood as she never had never that “the individual face is the most public part of the body, the way it mirrors back whatever it sees. . . Still, each face is what it is, private, unique. . .”  She was amazed to see that, even in death, the faces revealed

exactly who they were and no one else. Only now were they human, each fully different than the others, individuals with specific lives, childhoods somewhere back there frozen in the brain, memories of afternoons, years of sleep and dream in those faces, hard work, sorrow, deceit, remorse, joy, pride, indifference, rage. But something else too: they were finally the dead; they were everyone who had ever lived (4).

As my father lay in his bed through the last days of his life, mostly unconscious, one might have said that his face did not reveal exactly who he was—or at least who we remembered him to be. I have seen faces in those moments before—my partner, my mother. May I say in that time, as they lay dying, their faces revealed less about them than after their deaths. I understand Boruch’s description of faces. And I understand that “they [had become] everyone who had ever lived.”

In a loved one’s death—as I have experienced it three times—each one becomes the all. And as I contemplate my own mortality, I become more aware of being a part of the all by knowing those I love have become part of the all. I am aware of myself as being “exactly who [I am] and no one else.” But I am aware that I, too, will die as my father has died, and his father before him, and the awareness

has this decisive meaning for my entire existence when and as I come to terms with the fact that death involves the whole of me, body and spirit. Death is not a process happening to a part of me, while another part, the “real self,” prepares to escape surreptitiously at the last moment like a butterfly from the cocoon. I myself as embodied spirit, I do the dying. The existential reality of death involves the whole of me moving toward my end (5).

And as I move toward my end—that process that began the instant I was born—I am more and more aware that the mystery of becoming one with the all “involves the whole of me, body and spirit.”

The difference between my awareness and Frankenstein’s is the difference between my allowing for the mystery of all and Frankenstein’s attempt to control mystery. His hope was to discover “the cause of generation and life; nay more, [to become] capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” To reverse the awareness of death. No wonder his deep and bitter agony.

Thus, death-awareness confronts us with our essential finitude, the radical limits of personal existence. Perhaps it would be more precise to speak of mortality-awareness, awareness of the finitude of this event which is our human existence.

Awareness that we will become “everyone who ha[s] ever lived.”
(1) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Intro. Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Classic, 1981 (74).
(2) Dobzhansky,Theodosius. “Self-awareness and Death-awareness.” The Biology of Ultimate Concern. London: Collins Fontana, 1971 (69).
(3) Fletcher, Verne H. “Some Reflections On Death.” Theological Review 31.1 (2010): 4-59.
(4) Boruch, Marianne. “The Little Death Of Self.” American Poetry Review 40.3 (2011): 51-55.
(5) Fletcher, ibid.


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