The Elegance of Decay

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
T. S. Eliot

The falling apart. The breaking down. The return to elements. Out of the realm of recognition to simply matter. And then, to not matter at all.

Everywhere, there is a slow constancy of decay. Decay is what happens when time throws itself in full gale against matter. Against nature.1

elegance of decay
The breaking down of London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We exist in time and space. What we lack in space we try to regain in time. Stretching our body’s elasticity. Death happens when matter fails to keep pace with time.2

But stretch as we try, even our time dimension is minuscule compared to tortoises’. To trees’. To oceans’. To stars’.

Notwithstanding tortoises, in the end, all of these—all of us—entangle with decay. And we lose.

That impulse to withstand decay is—at its extreme—one of the creepiest aspects of humanity. It’s the impulse to embalm Lenin. Literally. Vladimir Lenin has avoided decay since his death in 1924. An embalming process that renders the former leader a waxen figure with the appearance of one who has been honey-glazed. I saw him fifteen years ago. Lenin is still lying in Moscow, honey-glazed, and I’ve most certainly begun to decay. Is there comfort in Lenin still being Lenin? (Is Lenin still Lenin?)

Decay is so horrible. We revel in its absence and revile its presence.

elegance of decay
The signs of decay are everywhere. Visible to any curious eye. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

There is a curiosity in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the bodies buried after a 1833 cholera outbreak have been oddly preserved by wrappings and clay soil. Now, they are oddly preserved in a museum. I saw them twenty years ago. They are still there, having changed less than I have. Is there comfort in their consistency?

Not unlike the peoples of Pompeii who were covered instantly with ash and entombed in 79 AD. I saw these remnants maybe ten years ago at the Boston Museum of Science with my mother.

Neither of us were sure if we were supposed to be proud, transgressed, empathetic, or merely in awe of science. Both of us have changed immensely since then. I fear her decay outpaces my own. At a certain age, it happens. I suspect the Pompeiians have not changed.

We think we avoid decay. But there is no such thing. We’ve just pushed it out of our lifespan. (And beyond for those who opt for cremation.)

As I write this, it is the hottest day ever recorded in the United Kingdom, and we have a new Prime Minister. Things are breaking down. The air is cloyingly thick and fecund with rampant atoms and elements. Things returning from whence they came. Time is ravaging everything. Will Nature surrender?

Almost a century ago, American-born British poet T.S. Eliot witnessed and lamented a similar feeling:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Eliot wrote this most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” in the hollowed aftermath of his failed first marriage and the First World War. In this mindset, he held “fear in a handful of dust.” What would he have written today?

elegance of decay
As things decay, the materials rebound in vibrant new colors and patterns. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Although the heat of today is novel, the decay is not. Not in Britain. The disintegration of the once-great British Empire has been a headline feature of the 20th century. A political-scientist friend confessed recently, all this country has going for it is nostalgia.3

George Mikes’s humorous, truthful, and timeless guide, How To Be a Brit, has an interesting chapter on the British penchant for decline.

The greatest days of Rome were its days of decline: The most splendid period of the Bourbon monarchy was the period before the Revolution. It is more elegant wise and stylish to decay than to flourish; better to decline than to pant, rush around, sweat and get hoarse in vulgar bargaining.

Mikes was a Hungarian immigrant to Britain who, like all of us immigrants, adapted to the country best he could and then supposed it would be appropriate to reflect on the British using their own humor against them. Mikes achieved this better than most, which is why this 1946 book is still in print. That being said, except for the quality of writing, it is almost imperceptible from modern accounts.

I agree with the British about this; I too prefer constructive decay to futile progress. But one has to know how to decay; one must learn how to be decadent. You must desire to decay, yet your inborn excellence, your splendid human qualities, your shining character may keep you on the top. Or else, you might overdo it and decay a shade too speedily.

Look carefully: Britain shows us how to decay. Keep calm and carry on (decaying). Elegance.

(Well, it did before Brexit.)

The world, the universe, every single thing we know and don’t know would not work without decay. Its agents (worms and bacteria), its byproducts (cheese and dirt), its sufferers (the entire human race), our beloved pets, empires, old oak timbers, and, with an exceedingly enormous allowance of time, our ever-constant stars.

As Nature tries her best to specialize and grow things piece by piece, to make trees, stars, coral, a human brain (and then those specializations aggregate to make other specializations—we make forests, empires, reefs), Time shakes its head. “I will allow you, Nature, some coral and human brain but only for so long. This is not the state of things.” “What about the stars?” responds Nature. “In the stars you have put your very soul,” answers Time. “They can last longer.”

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, known for his great (permanent) wall, cairn, and arch installations, also makes up to two “ephemeral works” a day.

These works are made for a particular place and may last anything from a few minutes to a few days. They are an exploration of the land, often made without knowing what the result will be. They are intuitive responses to light, material, time, weather. They need to make mistakes, and sometimes to produce bad works is part of the process. I have far more failures than successes.

Wetting leaves on river stones, threading grass through branches, standing ice sheets on end—all ephemeral works. The sharpened teeth of decay waiting in the wings to tear apart this human invention. But its brief existence meant something. Goldsworthy simply makes more, better.

Nature does the same. More complexity, more ingenuity each time, fed with the decay of the old. She has learned how to use decay as part of the process.

elegance of decay
If you look beyond the context of decay, beyond the utility of form, beyond what the item was, you can see the intrinsic value of the materials. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Albeit tyrannical, decay isn’t greedy. It isn’t deceitful. Nothing is present that isn’t needed, and nothing is needed that isn’t present. It is the most tidy of henchmen. It is elegant. To push against it is inelegant.

It is, moreover, its own reward. A beauteous simplicity, suggests philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.

Our contemplation of decay is complex because it is a contemplation of mortality. As I’ve written elsewhere, you cannot always exist. But you will always have existed.

I would hitch up these fragments against my ruins, hold them fast. I would find myself in a forest, under an oak, pressed into coal. Waiting for that drill bit. My atoms released into fires and furnaces, then somehow cleaned, into the air and part of all things.

If you change your notion of being, you will always be. Decay is elegance. There is comfort in that. Much more so than a glazed, petrified Lenin.

Our Unknowable Real Mortality

“'Remember, you too are mortal'—hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau.”
Christopher Hitchens

As I gather and reflect on things that connect us, in which we might find imagined connections,1 I cannot escape death.

As a topic, I mean. Dying—the exact moment of it—is something none of us has experienced. But all of us will.

Each of us walks through life with the unshoulderable burden of not knowing death. Our unknowable real mortality. There’s nothing to know. “Death means you stop being,” thought visionary Jorge Luis Borges. “You cease from thinking.”2 Knowledge is impossible in the unbeing.

That will not, however, stop us fretting, fussing, and dripping anxiety in our wake as we drag our eventual corpses through life.3

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas IV, Dreams, After A.C.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. A few centuries ago, humans felt death awareness was a moral imperative. Not only would it remind viewers of life’s evanescence, it would also invoke perspective necessary for virtue and contemplation. The contemporary photography of Paulette Tavormina spins a modern perspective of the Old Masters’ Memento Mori paintings. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

Perhaps that is why we take a logistical approach to death. As if packing for a trip. Must sort out the health care and wills. To do: caskets, burials, musical selections. Making peace with all and sundry.

Humans find mental clarity and comfort in planning and executing. Especially related to the thing delivering our death. Susan Sontag kept fierce and constant vigilance over her own deteriorating health until the day she died.4

The reality is the living have no idea how to “prepare” for death because we’ve never journeyed to death before. Never seen it. Don’t know anyone who has. Nevertheless, we push the distraction until death awareness comes upon us. Sizzles and smokes like a spent wick.

The moments we become aware of our own death—I mean emotionally, cognitively, intellectually distraught with the numbing truth that there will be a point when we do not exist—are what psychologist Irvin Yalom calls “awakening experiences.” Like Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his own tombstone in A Christmas Carol.5

“Our existence,” writes Yalom, “is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably diminish and die.” Our preternatural awareness of this truth arrives through dreams, deep discussion and contemplation, literature, and grief.

In 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most frustratingly wise contrarian, had an awakening experience when his undiagnosed cancer triggered a terrifying physical malfunctioning.

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs… It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services.

Hitchens’ word choice “came to consciousness” is apt. For this deepening awakeness to one’s own death is an expansion of consciousness.

What began as an overpowering physical assault was soon found to be esophagal cancer, which Hitchens addressed with his classic vigor, intellectualism, and un-sentimentality, choosing to undergo chemotherapy and write about it.6

‘Remember, you too are mortal’—Hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice—and had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends. I’d been ‘straying into the arena of the unwell’ and now ‘a vulgar little tumor’ was evident. This alien can’t wait… The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.

British writer and publisher Robert McCrum suffered a stroke in his early forties, and then, two decades later, a stumble on the pavement made him revisit his unknowable real mortality.

Face to face with mortality, McCrum, like Hitchens, turns to contemplation on the miasma of death that surrounds him as he steps forward every day. His language is similar to Yalom’s. Maybe there are only so many ways we can talk about death.

This book reminds anyone who has lived as if they were immortal that there are no privileges or exemptions—no backstage passes. The remorseless passage of time and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning.

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas VI, Reliquary, After D.B.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Using items of her own and others found in markets and shops, Tavormina’s work, especially her Vanitas series, suggests a painstaking amount of work. Envisioning the space, cultivating a sense of life and death simultaneously, and then carefully positioning the objects. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

We cannot avoid the proximity of death. Which doesn’t mean we think of it all the time. Even when it’s close, we jump in and out of our awareness of it.

In Katie Roiphe’s wonderful, wonderful book The Violet Hour detailing the last moment of great writers, there is a passage about John Updike that struck me.

When his children came to visit him at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was, as his youngest son, Michael, put it, ‘a good host.’ The common human impulse to entertain, even in a hospital room, sees to have been especially strong in Updike, though he also saw through the impulse, resented it, examined it. At the same time, he was writing a poem about lying in the hospital, making small talk with visiting children and grandchildren.

Like Updike, who both played games and wrote poetry, John Keats was also in and out of a full death awareness before his death. In his last known letter before dying of tuberculosis, Keats admitted: “I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas I, Treasures, After E.C.” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Not only do Tavormina’s pieces remind us of death, but many items in her work are in the act of dying. Petals drop, leaves slump, candles extinguish. There is movement, change, even in stillness. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

The death anxiety comes to everyone awake with expanded consciousness. It is the cost of being thus awake.

But it need not be negative. It need not be paralytic. Being aware of death doesn’t change our likelihood of death. (Like denying pain does not make it disappear.)

McCrum’s purpose in writing Every Third Thought was to move through anxiety and arrive at understanding. Christopher Hitchens’ intention in chronicling the short remainder of his life (he died in 2011) was to present unsentimental truth as he had always done. Susan Sontag so fretted about her own illness because she had a ferocity and life that needed letting out.

Irvin Yalom’s “awakening experience” is not just a moment of awareness; it is a moment of change. He writes:

Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

We can galvanize something from death. We must. There is no other way to live.

Do Mirrors Tell Us Who We Are?

“Mirrors show everything but themselves.”
Rebecca Solnit

As we fling ourselves headfirst into the universe, asking unspoken questions like “Do I exist?” “What am I?” “Who am I?” very few things respond as fast and as accurately as a mirror. Sight is our primary sense to take in and process information, and in the mirror we see ourselves. There we are. That we are.

We see ourselves in mirrors, but what do we see of ourselves?

My daughter flirted with the threshold of self-awareness around six months ago when she first saw herself in the mirror. She went nuts. Flapped like a flamingo. She then saw herself flapping like a flamingo and began barking and flapping like a puppy-flamingo hybrid.

Did my daughter see herself in the mirror? Did she think “I am here”? Or did she merely see something entertaining and react? (It was thoroughly entertaining.)

Besides humans (older than six months, we assume), there is a list of animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors. This list is expanding so rapidly that scientists are now wondering if the test they use—a dot on the face that animals try to remove—is inept. Apparently, a fish passed it recently. The dolphins migrated in protest.

It’s complicated.1 The mirror test—flawed or not—speaks to self-awareness. Are you a hand, a foot, a reflection in a mirror? Or are you you?

Between the body and the mind, there is a spirit of something—existence.

My daughter didn’t just flap. She flapped, saw herself flapping, and knew it was she who was flapping. That is incipient self-awareness. Pretty soon, like most humans, she’ll look to a mirror to deliver honest truths about her appearance, her self.

We learn to trust mirrors early on. Rely on them fully.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for a Portrait” by Francis Bacon, 1952, Bacon’s distortion of an unnamed man in suit is also entitled “Businessman.” Learn more.

Consider the Robert Lowell poem, “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell, leader of the confessional poets of the mid-20th century, struggled with manic depression his entire life and spent many interludes in psychiatric hospitals. In that space, specifically McLean Hospital outside Boston, he saw his physical self bent and twisted in the “metal shaving mirrors.”2

From “Waking in the Blue”:

The night attendant, a B. U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)

[…]

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases.

Mirrors of metal so they couldn’t become shards. Metal that returned “pinched” reflections and “shaky futures.” Twisted and blotched like a Francis Bacon portrait. Lowell saw his fractured self in the mirror. Is that who he was?

mirrors tell us who we are
Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” 1979-80. Learn more.

Bacon was a modern British artist whose work electrified its viewers, delivering shock and feeling with features that looked human, mechanical, and dreamlike simultaneously. Bacon acknowledged his art was self-representational:3

Autobiographical? Well yes, inevitably, it’s about my life, at some level. It’s filled with my thoughts about things. And yet when I’m in the middle of it, I forget about everything, about myself and about friends and things that have happened. That might sound as if I’m talking about inspiration, but it’s not that. … I just get the bits of paint down and hope they suggest a way I can make something that looks as if it’s come directly off the nervous system.

In the mad dash to “get the bits of paint down,” Bacon created work that reflected sight but not visual. Something deeper, emotions drawn directly from his nervous system and passed intravenously (intranervously?) to our own subcutaneous essence. In that way, Bacon was mirroring himself—and perhaps mirroring everyone? Is that a realistic portrayal of humanity?

If I could draw my emotions, my soul, my psyche, at times it might indeed look a bit like a Bacon portrait. Mechanical, human, and dreamlike. Or at least a reflection in a metal shaving mirror.

But that’s not how I appear. What about appearance?

Terry Gross has interviewed thousands of people in her 40 years hosting NPR’s Fresh Air. Gross has said that the most common question from the audience was what she looked like.4 Why? Does what she looks like tell us more about her than what she says on the air and in interviews? Our appearance is a reflection without deeper consideration. A physical without a self.

This distinction is the crack into which slips the concept of a double. This double, this us that appears exactly like us, which is not us.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called a Doppelgänger, which means ‘double walker.’ In Scotland there is the fetch, which comes to fetch a man to bring him to his death; there is also the Scottish word wraith for an apparition thought to be seen by a person in his exact image just before death. To meet oneself is, therefore, ominous.

The above is Jorge Luis Borges’ definition of “The Double” in his wildly delightful The Book of Imaginary Beings, a collection of creatures from various cultures and histories. Has anyone written more about mirrors—their power and limitations—than Borges? This Argentine writer, poet, and essayist and man who stepped back from life and marvelled that we are alive. A man who must have seen himself from a distance, like a mirror would.

Except, Borges did not see himself in a mirror. Not only did he suffer from extreme shortsightedness—and at the end of his life, blindness—he also had a lifelong dislike (he even uses the word “fear”) of mirrors and strictly avoided them. When asked about his usage of mirrors as an image, he answered:5

Well, that, that also goes with the earliest fears and wonders of my childhood, being afraid of mirrors, being afraid of mahogany, being afraid of being repeated. […] the feeling came from my childhood.

The double is us but isn’t us. It is us without the self.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)” by Francis Bacon, 1955. Learn more.

I am fascinated by the double except, bizarrely, I imagine myself as the reflection not the original. A Midwestern-bred need to please makes me “mirror” others rather than project myself.

American essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote she was made to feel she was the “mirror” of her mother. Solnit grieves for her lost self.6

Who was I all those years before? I was not. Mirrors show everything but themselves. […]She thought of me as a mirror but didn’t like what she saw and blame the mirror. When I was thirty, in one of the furious letters I sometimes composed and rarely sent, I wrote, “You want me to be some kind of a mirror that will reflect back the self-image you want to see – perfect mother, totally loved, always right – but I am not a mirror, and the shortcomings you see are not my fault.

A mirror is where we meet and see our embodied self. A mirror tells us that we are. Frozen in time. Mirrors don’t capture the past or the future, but they do reflect the present. They are immediate, instant, and reflective of right now. As long as we stay in the now, there will be no then. No death, no pre-existence. Do we ever feel more alive than in those moments when we’re certain we’re not dead?

As I dance around these issues, throw a few into the universe, gently strike the concept of a mirror and wait for a chime, one thing that is certain—despite the intelligent attempts of the magpie—is that self-awareness, mirror or not, is wondrously unique to human beings.7

Mirrors might tell us that we are, but as Borges knew well, they don’t tell us who we are. Only deep contemplation and examination of the miracle of life, of our existence, and, ultimately, our nonexistence can do that.

Self-knowledge is beyond the mirror.