Dust is a condition

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

A very beautiful and melancholy essay from an architectural blog, BLDGBLOG, on the Library of Dust. It includes mentions of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the reason I picked the University of Oregon for an English degree was because Ken Kesey taught there at the time), Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which was influenced by Borges, two of my favorite writers and their fantastical visions of librari-es/ans), and a book titled Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible by Joseph Amato, which was an amazing piece of science writing about something we rarely consider anything more than a daily annoyance if we consider it at all. Geoff Manaugh writes a beautiful counterpart to the images,

“Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?”

Or do we just see ourselves in another form? The byproduct of a chemical bloom of color, the matter we used to be creating a florescence marking not the end, but continuous and constant change, even after death?

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Making sense of our finite lives

From a BBC news article, “I think that there is a huge role for philosophical reflection as a way of changing our attitude towards events over which we have no control…We have to learn to make sense of a finite life.” Philosopher Havi Carel uses the tools she understands best to place a personal perspective on her own terminal illness. She is working on a book due out in the fall titled Illness (The Art of Living). I’m sure it will contain reflections similar to the one’s she mentions in the longer article of last March from The Independent,

“Illness breaks down the neutrality and transparency of our bodily existence. But it has also given me perspicuity. I observe my life and the lives of others and see them for what they are: brief, full of emotion and agony, activity and joy. I see people arguing over nothing, worrying about wrinkles and careers. Illness makes you immune to that. From the loneliness into which my illness forced me, I became able to see the world anew.”

Her’s is a different way to view illness: as an emotional world that can incorporate well-being and the possibility that you can be ill and still happy. It is an unexpected hypothesis and one that depends on a different and more creative approach and attitude than most of us are used to, or maybe more than we are even comfortable with. After all, no one says they’re sick or terminally ill with a smile. Or do they? Which is why this a useful bit of mind-bending.

To be sure Dr. Carel has creativity to spare. On doing a bit of further research I found an article she authored (from SCAN, The Journal of Media Art and Culture) that appears to draw from similar themes only in a very off-beat and fascinating way, with a really terrific bibliography at the end. I won’t reveal too much about it since you only have to read the first paragraph of the link to see where she takes the essay, but I will say it involves illness as a metaphor to one of the most horrific monster movies of all time. The one that completely freaked me out when I was a kid and to this day I can’t bring myself to ever watch again. To draw such parallels you certainly do need to be an out-of-the-box thinker. (Thanks to Chris at Crooked Timber for the heads-up).

Take a picture, it lasts longer

tonbridgepmthn.jpgThat’s the traditional comeback line to a long stare. Yet there are some things we just can’t help staring at in order to capture an essence that escapes us at first glance. That is what the photos of Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta do for me. They cause me to examine them so closely I find myself staring, captivated by what Cory Doctorow calls, “…the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill.” And interestingly, because of the intimate juxtaposition of life before death and the amazing brief stories they tell about their feelings towards that death, they are more powerful than the similarly somber cabinet cards or postmortem photography of the late 1800s (where equally as many children as adults were photographed).

Pulling out a camera after death must certainly be difficult emotionally. I know it never occurred to me to preserve that particular moment. It’s also hard to judge what might be insensitive behavior toward other family and friends in attendance at a deathbed who might consider it an intrusion or at least be uncomfortable with it. It’s true we can watch it in the abstract on tv, or in movies, or in games, but there does seem to be something odd about, “lights, camera…inaction” when someone you love is involved. (Photo credit: Paul Frecker collection of 19th century postmortem photography)

What you see depends on how you look

gorywoman.pngI recently visited Mount Auburn Cemetery which is one of the earliest “garden” cemeteries in the U.S. An extremely well-kept and beautiful place (thank you Karen, my photos don’t do it justice) and I’ve even mentioned it briefly in this blog before. While I was there, leaving yet another note for one of the staff I’d been trying to arrange a meeting with, I realized that my repeated attempts potentially had the effect of branding me as yet another cemetery obsessed goth chick or slightly downbeat Ruth Gordon when actually I’m closer to being Barnesian in my approach and attitude than either of those other stereotypes. In fact I’m looking forward to reading Julian Barnes’ latest book, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, since it does sound so much like what runs through my head on a regular basis. Well, the staff member never did decide to give me the time of day, and although of course I’m disappointed I can’t say I blame her. Despite my insistence I’m not morbidly obsessed with graves other than to appreciate cemeteries as rather pleasant sculpture parks, I must admit that a very early love of Edward Gorey did influence my warped sense of goulish humor and fondness for Edwardian landscapes and draped grecian urns. An idiosyncrasy that does tend to set me apart from your average Joe-anne, although from her perspective I’m likely not all that unique.

A difficult position

images.jpegYou could argue that every day we all unintentionally or indirectly kill something; ending the life of an insect caught in the bathtub, eating meat or eggs, or wearing leather. But this blogger has a job which requires her to euthanize injured or sick animals:I work with a lot of injured wildlife. Also not wild animals that are just in a lot of pain. Sometimes I have to euthanize them. I decided to record each animal I euthanize here.” What a very tough job that must be even if you manage to find a certain peace in understanding it as an act of grace. I’m sure there are instances where the job is overwhelming. I remember very vividly the vets who helped me with jcee, and earlier with little edd. I was more than a wreck, but each time they brought a kind of mercy to the end of those lives I loved and I was so grateful for their powerful acts of kindness and understanding. There is nothing more difficult than making the decision to end an animals suffering and then having to watch the consequences of that decision, but at least advances in medical care and human understanding has made it so the end doesn’t have to be painful. Although I also wanted to be a vet when I was a kid I sensed way back then I didn’t have the fortitude to be able to hurt something in order to help it. I’ve always truly admired people like this who can.

Unanswerable questions

sontagbook.jpgThis one hit home for me, an excerpt from “Swimming in a Sea of Death, A Son’s Memoir” from an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

“Thinking back, I wish I’d hugged her close or held her hand. But neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with the other, and while much has been said and written about how people transcend their pettier sides in crises, in my experience, at least, what actually happens is that more often we reveal what lies beneath the waterline of what we essentially are.”

In his book David Rieff writes about his mother, Susan Sontag, and her struggle with cancer. She died around the same time as my own mother, with mine being only a few years older. David voices some of the same “unanswerable questions of a survivor” that in hindsight plagued my ability to talk openly with my own mother about her failing health and the forced cheerfulness, or in my case ignorance, of the gravity of her diagnosis. And while my mother was not a famous writer, I can say without hesitation she loved life equally as much in her own way, whereas my feelings tend to drift towards the “…eighteenth-century French writer who wrote a friend asking “why, hating life as I do, do I fear death so much?” That was Larkin’s perspective, too. It was even Canetti’s when he wrote, “One should not confuse the craving for life with endorsement of it.” Regardless of a personal perspective on death, Rieff puts the difficulty of consoling another facing it into sharp focus, and everyone who has confronted similar situations will be left nodding their heads. He talks of the things he felt he should have seen, the do-overs if given the chance. He examines them without the overly sentimental perspective one would expect from a child who has lost a parent. They are simply those unanswerable questions we are each left with in the end, “Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Or proposed an alternative? Or been more supportive? Or forced the issue of death to the fore? Or concealed it better?” and there is no predicting them. Listening to him talk about what he wanted from her and what he felt she wanted in her own death is an interesting reflection on death and his mother’s struggle to deny it purchase.