Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/01/2012

Taking Stock – in which I confuse myself so I must confuse you

Hildegard's migraines

Hildegard's migraines

The end of each year of my shuffle through this mortal coil (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1) nearly coincides with the end of the calendar year. I’m two days the other side of a “New Year’s Baby.” New Year’s, 1945. The Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration do not consider me a “Baby Boomer,” but my SS benefits are calculated as if I were; they are lower than if I had been born four days earlier.

Obviously my inability to hurry up and get things done (things like getting born) is a lifelong problem for me. The disorder of my life grows in direct proportion to my inability to understand the financial implications of my actions. I still lose money daily by not taking care of business when it would be most beneficial.

“Shuffl[ing] off this mortal coil,” is the human propensity to die amid the hubbub and disorder of life (the “coil”). I like to add another meaning of “coil;” that is, to “wind up,” as in a rattle snake’s coiling before striking.

This mortal coil is not only confusing, but it is also dangerous.

Taking stock of my progress through this mortal coil, therefore, is probably unwise. What I find will likely befuddle and frighten me. As Hamlet says, “what dreams may come. . . must give us pause.”

In a cheap plastic picture holder (my possessions and my home do not appear to have been designed and arranged by Nate Berkus) above my desk are photographs of eight people dear to me: my parents, my partner, two of my father’s siblings and their spouses, and my uncle by marriage (should I not refer to my uncle’s partner of 60 years as my uncle?). All are deceased. Two—my father and my uncle—died this year. Taking stock is, if not frightening, at least disquieting.

The source of that disquietude should be obvious.

I am disquieted by thinking about the deaths of these people I’ve loved. Apparently thinking about death is socially unacceptable among my friends. For that I have three possible explanations: some friends are too young to have yet discovered the reality of death’s inevitability; some are old enough but have no intention to dwell on reality; and some have a religious view of the world that does not allow for thinking about death in any realistic way.

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:|
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming

Allowing myself to be disquieted by—or even to ponder too closely—the deaths of those I love is perhaps unwise. Pondering their deaths inevitably leads to thoughts of my own mortality. Free-floating thoughts of death are more dangerous than confusing.  In most circumstances I will do almost anything to avoid danger. I do not, however, avoid the danger of thinking about death (2).

The beginning shall remind us of the end.

In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks proposes the (now widely accepted) possibility that the mystical experiences of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) were associated with migraine headaches. That she suffered migraines is apparent from her drawings which many migraine sufferers affirm are representations of what they see during one of those headaches. (I showed some to a migraine sufferer last week, and he agreed instantly.) Sacks finds even more important evidence of her migraines in her descriptions of her mystical experience as consistent with the

. . .  most intense symptoms of migraine aura, and the most difficult of description and analysis, [the] occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude… or [their] opposite. Such states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally, by everyone; their occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity and relatively long duration (3).

Let me now compare myself favorably (the nerve!) with the beloved mystic. I know well “the occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude… or [their] opposite.” I assume Dr. Sacks is correct in asserting that everyone has these experiences. For me they are induced by Temporal Lobe Epilepsy seizures. These experiences have, for most of my life, terrified me.

No more.

In my seizures, the world appears as it might peering through the wrong end of a telescope. However, what I see does not appear small; I have a sense of distorted reality—a sense that objects are nearby and far away at the same time, that is, feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude… or [their] opposite.

For those of us with these brain “disorders” this mortal coil is more snake-like than confusing. Or not. Perhaps we have clearly experienced the possibility that

We remember the past but we don’t remember the future. There are irreversible processes . . . like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can’t turn an omelet into an egg. And we sort of understand that halfway. . . Entropy is just a measure of how disorderly things are. And it tends to grow. That’s the second law of thermodynamics: Entropy goes up with time, things become more disorderly. . . Entropy goes up as it becomes messier (4).

As I shuffle off this mortal coil, the entropy of my life increases. That one little lapse of entering the world three days late has mushroomed into a life of (nearly total) confusion. However, Sean Carroll may have misunderstood. He’s not old enough to know we do remember more of the future than of the past. I remember the future of my deceased loved ones, the future that I, as they have done, will die. I do not mean some sort of heavenly reward. I remember being dead. We all remember that future, but we don’t want to think or talk about it. We remember because once we did not exist.

FEAR death? — to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place [. . . .]
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall, [. . . .]
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old  [. . . .]

The barriers fall and we do remember the future.  The “occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude. . . are experienced, momentarily and occasionally, by everyone.” We are suddenly familiar with our death because we remember our birth.

Eliot has cause and effect confused. The beginning does not remind us of the end. The end reminds us of the beginning. We remember the future.
(1) From “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” one of the five “Ariel Poems” published in 1962. One of these is the more famous, “The Journey of the Magi.” For a discussion of these poems, see: Sylvia, Richard A. “T. S. Eliot’s ARIEL POEMS.” Explicator 45.1 (1986): 41.
(2) A cursory search through my 319 postings here would probably yield 150 that mention death. Most prominent recently are: 11—18—2011, 11—11—2011, 11—03—2011, 09—19—2011, and my last birthday, 01—02—2011.
(3) Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York : Perennial Library, 1987.
(4) Biba, Erin. “What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory” (Interview with physicist Sean Carroll). Wired Science. February 26, 2010. Web. 30 Dec. 2011.
(5) Browning, Robert. “Prospice.” Asolando–Fancies and Facts. 1889. The full text below.

PROSPICE (Latin for “look to the future”)

by: Robert Browning (1812-1889) The collection published the day he died.

FEAR death? — to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so — one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute’s at end,
And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!


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