Rilke says it best that without solitude, the meditative place for the fostering of one’s inner life, there can be no art. No love, either. Love, he writes, is standing guard over another’s solitude.
I found a moment to go to the Phantoms of Asia exhibition in the Asian Art Museum, where I encountered this video, entitled, The Class, by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. The artist is in essence, lecturing the six dead bodies on death. It is no accident that from where we sit, we are in the same audience as the dead people. At some point, my body will be that corpse lying on a tray. And it is there that I sat uncomfortably energized, feeling that anxiety, or Angst as Heidegger put it, that I am a being-toward-death.
While there is a dark humor pervading this piece, like when the artist asks a cadaver, What was that you said?, it is only a small bit of the profundity that this video reckons with. For me, the fact that the artist, a stand-in for the living, is teaching the dead about death — those who know deeply about it but cannot say — hits on a facet of human nature that is confounding and all too ubiquitous. The living, in their attempt to colonize and conquer death, deaden and dull life itself. As Steiner summarizing Heidegger says, those who rob us of the anxiety of death alienate us from life. Because, afterall, “the taking upon oneself, through Angst, of this existential ‘terminality’ is the absolute condition for human freedom.”
My friend, sitting next to me in front of this video, said plainly that she wished she had chosen to see her dead father’s body when she was given the chance, to have closure with his death. I responded carelessly that when she had had the opportunity, her father might have been dead too long and maybe the body was too removed from who he was when alive.
Two weeks later, last night, my undigested subconscious regurgitated before bed, filling my mind with thoughts about my own father. Yes, it’s Father’s Day today, but I haven’t thought of him on the past 3 or 4 such occasions. As some of you know, my ending with my father was not fairytale, but instead riddled with anger, doubt and a feeling of homelessness. But I did have meaningful time with him after he died. Although I was policed and hurried out of my vigil by his new vulturous step-family, I had a moment of loving contemplation over his peaceful body.
I realized last night that this time with him was one in which I could reflect on his life and in those incredibly condensed minutes, to feel the totality of him part from my totality. But last night I also realized that in those moments I worried about him as he faced his abyss. That I heard how he was anxious moments before he died. And I wish something or someone was with him, that he wasn’t totally alone in his leaving. Because it is a leaving that is utterly alone, and utterly into the unknown. And because of all that he was to me, for better or for worse, and because he faced this unspeakable time alone, probably doubting love, like we all might, I wish someone stood guard over him. I wish him love.
And maybe that’s all we can do for the dying — and we are all dying — because to do anything else is to rob one of life: “The inalienability of death — the plain but overwhelming fact that each must die for himself, that death is one existential potentiality which no enslavement, no promise, no power of ‘theyness’ can take away from individual man — is the fundamental truth of the meaning of being.”
In solitude, most critically felt at death, we experience freedom. Rilke’s artists and lovers of the everyday seem to know that freedom is contingent on an acceptance of our mortality and a quotidian comfort with the unknown — and even to let go enough to stand guard over someone else’s solitude. A constant homecoming, if we are brave enough. I’m not sure my father was brave enough until he was forced to be, and god knows I am not either.
“‘The wandering, the peregrination toward that which is worthy of being questioned, is not adventure but homecoming.’ Man, in his dignity, comes home to the unanswerable.” (Steiner on Heidegger)