Reading the Remains of Death and Life
27 August 2022
The Last Second, © Dr Gindi; Image credit: received.
The perspective of art offers a corrective to the doctrine of the Epicureans: the death of the individual is never absolute, for there is a survival of something (let us call it a soul) and then a rebirth as the traces left behind meet the gaze of others, whether one day later or two thousand years into the future.
Reading the Remains of Death and Life
What are the most disturbing of emotions? Fear of the gods, fear of death, and fear of pain, and also desire which exceeds the limits fixed by nature. These disturbing emotions are the root of all evil, and unless we defeat them, a multitude of evils will grow within, and consume us.
Diogenes of Oenoanda, transl. after M. F. Smith
The ancient city of Oenoanda in modern-day Turkey has long been a ruin. All that remains of this Roman provincial outpost are jumbled heaps of stone and buried walls embedded in a wild mountain landscape. The leavings of imperial pretensions to eternity lie alongside the decayed traces of individual lives and the once-impressive edifices that housed them.
It has long been fashionable to see such ruins as monuments to human arrogance, the magnificence of the past brought low to show the fundamental smallness of human life. Blank stone gazes looking out across lost lands from Mount Nemrut. The past becomes a cautionary tale; its remains nothing more than a reminder of our frailty. What once stood tall and proud is now gone. The dead are truly departed. The great are laid low.
But this is not the only way to read the text of a ruin. Where the moralising historian sees a memento mori, another gaze might choose to find a testament to survival.
The dirt of Oenoanda offers up a captivating mirror, a dust-filled scrying bowl in which to view that liminal borderland between death and life, ruin and resurrection. Here, a certain Diogenes, committed to the claim that death is the complete annihilation of the self, set down his views in enduring stone, making himself immortal. Here, a vast hand-carved text communicated his philosophy to yet-unborn generations, a monumental presence conversing with a future in which Diogenes himself was absent. Centuries later, Diogenes’ paradoxical continuity was extended and intensified by the destruction of this text-in-stone, its repurposing, concealment and eventual rediscovery. Now scholars add yet another audience, another layer of creation and destruction, as they toil over the fragments, attempting to reconstruct and reinterpret Diogenes’ lost wisdom.
The Epicurean philosophers, among whom we must count Diogenes, often seem the most “modern” of ancient thinkers. The bi-polar reality of the Platonists, with their hidden gods and veiled transcendence, has little to say to the scientific mind. The stern voice of Aristotle and the stiff upper lip of the Stoics appear to many as relics from another age. But how contemporary the Epicureans! No murky metaphysics here – just the rational clash of atoms dashing predictably through a perfectly empty void. And if this determinism should feel too constraining, then the layperson can indulge in the magic of the random atomic swerve, breathing an infinity of possibilities into the finitude of predictability. Here is a world in which gods play no part and in which human lives are untrammelled by divine laws or interventions; a world in which the goal of human life is to live at peace in tranquil happiness. Above all, the Epicureans connect with purely materialist thinkers in claiming that we each live briefly in this world and then pass away into nothingness. On their account, there is no resurrection and rebirth, no life ever after, no scourging in hellfire and no heavenly bliss. There is only the comfort of complete annihilation – a removal of all cares through the complete destruction of the one who cares.
Therefore that most frightful of evils, death, is nothing to us, seeing that when we exist death is not present and when death is present we do not exist. Thus it is nothing to either the living or the dead seeing that the former no longer have it and the latter no longer exist.
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, transl. Long and Sedley
The idea that death is nothing to us was meant as a medicine for the sufferers of the human condition. But it is not a pill I can swallow. My training as a doctor immersed me in another stream entirely. In the world of Western medicine, death is not only not nothing; it is everything bad, the great enemy, the final mark of failure. Medical schools turn out insurgents against death, warriors radicalised to the holy cause of life above all else. In my life since, I have sought to interrogate and challenge this view, to reassess and re-evaluate. But it will remain with me, I suspect, until my own last breath.
The self-reflection incumbent upon an artist provides another, less sterile, vantage point. In clay and bronze, my work rejects the finality of death, struggling back and forth across the border between complaisance and terror at the interruption of vitality inherent in the incomplete end. My sculpture The Last Second embodies this duality in the instant of disembodiment, embracing the ambiguity by holding together two irreconcilable perspectives: release and loss; completion and diminution; the start and the end, all become one. And yet, at the same time, the multiplicity remains, unresolvable, irreducible, a playful, mournful flitting across the boundary line of light and shade.
The game of creative destruction and destructive creativity also plays out in the medium of Diogenes’ stone remnants. Reading philosophy inevitably involves a (re)construction of another’s life, a resurrection of the dead in new clothes and new skin. At the same time, the reader cannot but accept the loss of the original and the impossibility of true return. We must interpret, translate, arrange and fill in the gaps with more or less active imaginations. Diogenes’ traces live on, and even if he should wish to escape immortality, he cannot. Whether or not any vestige of Diogenes’ soul remains to experience our contemporary encounter – and I suspect it does – we nevertheless continue the conversation with a thinker still alive, projected through time, invented. He speaks, we respond, and then the conversation continues in a newly synthetic unity of past and present. This atemporal communication is a form of immortality, an extension of life past the time of death, even if not of sensation. The apostle of the finite becomes infinite in spite of himself, because of himself.
The inescapable presentness of a person who is absent is a constant for the artist and the appreciator of art. Meaning is constructed in the encounter, mediated in particular moments and parsed from unique perspectives. The artist gives up their work to the world, surrendering the right to dictate the message, dying a little in the ambiguity of distant conversation, yet resurrected again in those distant interpretative reflections.
Like Diogenes, and the other followers of Epicurus, my work seeks to help people overcome the fears and anxieties that attend the rush of life towards death. But I believe the perspective of art offers a corrective to the doctrine of the Epicureans: the death of the individual is never absolute, for there is a survival of … something (let us call it a soul) … and then a rebirth as the traces left behind meet the gaze of others, whether one day later or two thousand years into the future. Diogenes remains in his decayed traces, his soul departed from the atoms of his body but not gone for good. And in these traces lies the seed of a common, shared life that, even if it flickers and dims for a time, remains forever in potentiality.