The mystery of life begins in death, for if death did not exist, think of all of the things that we would not struggle with and all of the questions we would not have much reason to ask. Imagine too the security and peace we might know without sickness, murder, pain and suffering that comes from both disease and the knowledge of our own death. What would be the reason for curiosity, for love, for needing each other if life was so easy that we could not err or cause harm?
It may well be that an existence that excluded death would be better, more peaceful and ideal. But that is not the world we live in. Perhaps the reason for things to be as they are is because the dayworld of the living that we know is necessary to create something greater than can be seen here. Maybe our purpose here is to use the seemingly separate and mortal lives we each live to bridge a gap between the dayworld of mortality and a world of eternity that we also belong to. Admittedly this is all very speculative.
But doesn’t death need to be wondered about? Isn’t it the primary and essential problem of life? Does not death cause us to err, to struggle and live in fear? Doesn’t it also serve as the weapon of power for those that can garner the most security through technology, political and religious structures, serving as an insulation for an elite group of people who no longer share our common fears? Do not some people use death to threaten weaker beings?
And if that is not convincing enough and you are still reading this, how do we reconcile the angst and guilt we share and witness in the killing necessary for life to sustain itself? But don’t we also sense that there is more to life than what we know and perhaps the mystery of our existence can somehow be reconciled, and so every culture has carried on the search for that reconciliation.
These are some of the thoughts I have about death, along with the question not only of is there life after, or beyond death, but what would the nature of that afterlife be like, how does it relate to this life? Does the reconciliation between birth and death come from knowing that the nature of life is eternal, but through birth we, as Greek, Hindu and other mythologies tell us, forget about the eternal world?
Although we moderns don’t seem to easily discuss the nature of death, I believe its inevitability shades our life – remaining a constant unseen companion we fear if we do not acknowledge that we walk on our own graves. Even though the dead may depart from our dayworld they continue to haunt us when their questions, their sufferings go unacknowledged as belonging to all of us throughout history, our shared past. We live in the shadow of their unanswered questions when they’re connection to us is forgotten.
Many cultures have had a practice of ancestor worship, a way to keep a thread of continuity from those who came before us to those who will carry on after us.
In Lament of the Dead, Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, James Hillman teams up with Sonu Shamdasani, editor of C.G. Jung’s Red Book, for a series of conversations about the book in which Jung chronicles a psychotic period of his life from 1913-17. During that time he experienced visions and a flood of images that became the foundation for most of the ideas he is known for; archetypes, active imagination, typology, theories of the unconscious, individuation and wholeness.
I have not read the Red Book yet, but from reading Hillman and Shamdasani’s dialogue now feel compelled to. The dialogue revolves around Jung’s experience of encountering figures through active imagination and grappling with their questions.
“What Jung hits upon is a stream of images and he encounters collective memory and fantasy. It’s not personal memory. There is a mnemonic dimension there, but he finds that what is animated, what is critical there, is collective memory. He finds himself having to address debates such as that between the Christian and the pagan and to see then how that reframes his own life. It’s not that his life is subtracted out of it, but the realia, the personalia of his life, isn’t the fundament. It’s the images that frame him.”
Jung came to believe that the figures he engaged in active imagination were not just inside him, but part of the ongoing dialogue taking place in the history of humankind. Sonu suggests:
“A shift occurs immediately when you stop thinking of Jung’s work in terms of the imperative to come to terms with the collective unconscious. If you shift from that language to the confrontation with the dead, accepting the lament of the dead, one’s understanding changes dramatically in that one enters a world and the problems one takes up and is confronted with are not one’s own.
And the issue then is how one adapts oneself, how one situates oneself, to these challenges. One is not dealing simply with an abstraction, the collective unconscious. One is dealing quite specifically with the dead of human history.”
The conversation moves on to the need for cosmology in our lives. Hillman is speaking here:
“Psychology may give you modes of understanding and you think you’re understanding yourself and others. But if you want to understand the world, you have to have a cosmology, you have to have a sense that things fit, that they belong, that there’s a need, a place to be given to it, and that there’s more and more to grasp. It’s the cosmos, and the Greek cosmos was an ordered and aesthetic realm.”
Cosmology moves us beyond our personal lives, although it also includes them, and it also includes the ancestors, their cares and concerns acknowledging the work they did carrying forward our understanding of life and the world we share. It invites us all to share in the continuance and importance of that quest.
When we can find a satisfying way to reconcile the mystery of our living with our dying; a cosmology that gives us enough meaning and sense that perhaps gives us a willingness to endure suffering, by knowing the true nature of ourselves, we may find a way to live in peace with a feeling that we belong here.
I’ll leave you with one more quote from Hillman, who laments as I do, the problem we moderns have:
“We’re a very strange culture, our modern, secular Western culture, in which our conversation, yours and mine, is set. We don’t have any ancestor worship, we don’t have any true cult of the dead. Different pieces of the culture do pieces of things, but even the use of the phrase “the dead” is hounded with frightening things— it belongs on the other side. There’s a radical separation in our modern culture between the living and the dead. All the medical work is life against death, to hold off death and prolong life, and at the expense of death, I would say.
So when we talk about the lament of the dead, or anything to do with the dead, we have to realize where we are situated, with its deep, historical prejudices against what has been and what is buried, and what we have done to create a realm of the dead, because it’s not merely those who went before us and died. It’s all the depository of the accumulation of human psychic history, the history of the soul. Somehow, since Jung talks about a lament of the dead, they must feel or have felt abused or neglected or something. The first step would be listening to them, which he did in the Seven Sermons of 1916, this sort of inspired religious document. But what is their lament?”
Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book (Kindle Locations 2237-2238). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.