Death reincarnate

Lord, have mercy, fire & brimstone
I’ve been dancing with Master D

a wicked activity | dishonest & unscrupulous
I read today an article by Yuval Noah Harari“Attitudes to Death” — that used corona as a flag to muse over humankind’s attitudes to death: in the past life after death was considered a dead certainty (for peasants in pestilence, paradise was presumably a positive prospect), nowadays science reigns supreme, it is faith in cutting-edge technology as an enabler of ever greater stays of execution that had arisen to become our confession of choice.

The modern world has been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death. That was a revolutionary new attitude. For most of history, humans meekly submitted to death. Up to the late modern age, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but as the main source of meaning in life. The most important events of human existence happened after you exhaled your last breath. Only then did you come to learn the true secrets of life. Only then did you gain eternal salvation, or suffer everlasting damnation. In a world without death – and therefore without heaven, hell or reincarnation – religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism would have made no sense. For most of history the best human minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to defeat it.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Vedas, and countless other sacred books and tales patiently explained to distressed humans that we die because God decreed it, or the Cosmos, or Mother Nature, and we had better accept that destiny with humility and grace. Perhaps someday God would abolish death through a grand metaphysical gesture such as Christ’s second coming. But orchestrating such cataclysms was clearly above the pay grade of flesh-and-blood humans. . . .

God causes you to live, then causes you to die; then He will assemble you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt,’ but most of the people do not know.

— Quran, 45:26

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

— John, 5:28-29

. . . Then came the scientific revolution. For scientists, death isn’t a divine decree – it is merely a technical problem. Humans die not because God said so, but because of some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. Cancer has destroyed the liver. Viruses multiply in the lungs. And what is responsible for all these technical problems? Other technical problems. The heart stops pumping blood because not enough oxygen reaches the heart muscle. Cancerous cells spread in the liver because of some chance genetic mutation. Viruses settled in my lungs because somebody sneezed on the bus. Nothing metaphysical about it.

And science believes that every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for Christ’s second coming in order to overcome death. A couple of scientists in a lab can do it. Whereas traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it’s the folks in white lab coats. If the heart flutters, we can stimulate it with a pacemaker or even transplant a new heart. If cancer rampages, we can kill it with radiation. If viruses proliferate in the lungs, we can subdue them with some new medicine.

True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. The best human minds no longer spend their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy extending life. They are investigating the microbiological, physiological and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age, and developing new medicines and revolutionary treatments.

In their struggle to extend life, humans have been remarkably successful. Over the last two centuries, average life expectancy has jumped from under 40 years to 72 in the entire world, and to more than 80 in some developed countries. Children in particular have succeeded in escaping death’s clutches. Until the 20th century, at least a third of children never reached adulthood. Youngsters routinely succumbed to childhood diseases such as dysentery, measles and smallpox. In 17th-century England, about 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during their first year, and only about 700 made it to age 15. Today, only five out of 1,000 English babies die during their first year, and 993 get to celebrate their 15th birthday. In the world as a whole, child mortality is down to less than 5 per cent.

Humans have been so successful in our attempt to safeguard and prolong life that our worldview has changed in a profound way. While traditional religions considered the afterlife as the main source of meaning, from the 18th century ideologies such as liberalism, socialism and feminism lost all interest in the afterlife. What, exactly, happens to a communist after he or she dies? What happens to a capitalist? What happens to a feminist? It is pointless to look for the answer in the writings of Karl Marx, Adam Smith or Simone de Beauvoir.

The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism. In its more poetic and desperate moments, nationalism promises that whoever dies for the nation will live forever in its collective memory. Yet this promise is so fuzzy that even most nationalists do not really know what to make of it. How do you actually “live” in memory? If you are dead, how do you know whether people remember you or not? Woody Allen was once asked if he hoped to live for ever in the memory of moviegoers. Allen answered: “I’d rather live on in my apartment.” Even many traditional religions have switched focus. Instead of promising some heaven in the afterlife, they have begun to put far more emphasis on what they can do for you in this life.

The only modern ideology that still awards death a central role is nationalism

Will the current pandemic change human attitudes to death? Probably not. Just the opposite. Covid-19 will probably cause us to only double our efforts to protect human lives. For the dominant cultural reaction to Covid-19 isn’t resignation – it is a mixture of outrage and hope.

When an epidemic erupted in a pre-modern society such as medieval Europe, people of course feared for their lives and were devastated by the death of loved ones, but the main cultural reaction was one of resignation. Psychologists might call it “learned helplessness”. People told themselves it was God’s will – or perhaps divine retribution for the sins of humankind. “God knows best. We wicked humans deserve it. And you will see, it will all turn out for the best in the end. Don’t worry, good people will get their reward in heaven. And don’t waste time looking for a medicine. This disease was sent by God to punish us. Those who think humans can overcome this epidemic by their own ingenuity are merely adding the sin of vanity to their other crimes. Who are we to thwart God’s plans?”

Attitudes today are the polar opposite. Whenever some disaster kills many people – a train accident, a high-rise fire, even a hurricane – we tend to view it as a preventable human failure rather than as divine punishment or an inevitable natural calamity. If the train company didn’t stint on its safety budget, if the municipality had adopted better fire regulations, and if the government had sent help quicker – these people could have been saved. In the 21st century, mass death has become an automatic reason for lawsuits and investigations.

This is our attitude towards plagues, too. While some religious preachers were quick to describe Aids as God’s punishment for gay people, modern society mercifully relegated such views to its lunatic fringes, and these days we generally view the spread of Aids, Ebola and other recent epidemics as organisational failures. We assume that humankind has the knowledge and tools necessary to curb such plagues, and if an infectious disease nevertheless gets out of control, it is due to human incompetence rather than divine anger. Covid-19 is no exception to this rule. The crisis is far from over, yet the blame game has already begun. Different countries accuse one another. Rival politicians throw responsibility from one to the other like a hand-grenade without a pin.

Alongside outrage, there is also a tremendous amount of hope. Our heroes aren’t the priests who bury the dead and excuse the calamity – our heroes are the medics who save lives. And our super-heroes are those scientists in the laboratories. Just as moviegoers know that Spiderman and Wonder Woman will eventually defeat the bad guys and save the world, so we are quite sure that within a few months, perhaps a year, the folks in the labs will come up with effective treatments for Covid-19 and even a vaccination. Then we’ll show this nasty coronavirus who is the alpha organism on this planet! The question on the lips of everybody from the White House, through Wall Street all the way to the balconies of Italy is: “When will the vaccine be ready?” When. Not if.

When the vaccine is indeed ready and the pandemic is over, what will be humanity’s main takeaway? In all likelihood, it will be that we need to invest even more efforts in protecting human lives. We need to have more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses. We need to stockpile more respiratory machines, more protective gear, more testing kits. We need to invest more money in researching unknown pathogens and developing novel treatments. We should not be caught off guard again.

Some might well argue that this is the wrong lesson, and that the crisis should teach us humility. We shouldn’t be so sure of our ability to subdue the forces of nature. Many of these naysayers are medieval holdouts, who preach humility while being 100% certain that they know all the right answers. Some bigots cannot help themselves – a pastor who leads weekly Bible study for Donald Trump’s cabinet has argued that this epidemic too is divine punishment for homosexuality. But even most paragons of tradition nowadays put their trust in science rather than in scripture.

The Catholic church instructs the faithful to stay away from the churches. Israel has closed down its synagogues. The Islamic Republic of Iran is discouraging people from visiting mosques. Temples and sects of all kinds have suspended public ceremonies. And all because scientists have made calculations, and recommended closing down these holy places.

Of course, not everyone who warns us about human hubris dreams of getting medieval. Even scientists would agree that we should be realistic in our expectations, and that we shouldn’t develop blind faith in the power of doctors to shield us from all of life’s calamities. While humanity as a whole becomes ever more powerful, individual people still need to face their fragility. Perhaps in a century or two science will extend human lives indefinitely, but not yet. With the possible exception of a handful of billionaire babies, all of us today are going to die one day, and all of us will lose loved ones. We have to own up to our transience.

For centuries, people used religion as a defence mechanism, believing that they would exist for ever in the afterlife. Now people sometimes switch to using science as an alternative defence mechanism, believing that doctors will always save them, and that they will live for ever in their apartment. We need a balanced approach here. We should trust science to deal with epidemics, but we should still shoulder the burden of dealing with our individual mortality and transience. . . .

“Last Judgement”
A triptych by one Hans Memling (1466–1473)

. . . The present crisis might indeed make many individuals more aware of the impermanent nature of human life and human achievements. Nevertheless, our modern civilisation as a whole will most probably go in the opposite direction. Reminded of its fragility, it will react by building stronger defences. When the present crisis is over, I don’t expect we will see a significant increase in the budgets of philosophy departments. But I bet we will see a massive increase in the budgets of medical schools and healthcare systems.

And maybe that is the best we can humanly expect. Governments anyhow aren’t very good at philosophy. It isn’t their domain. Governments really should focus on building better healthcare systems. It is up to individuals to do better philosophy. Doctors cannot solve the riddle of existence for us. But they can buy us some more time to grapple with it. What we do with that time is up to us.

Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.

Allen Edgar Poe 📙 “The Tell-Tale Heart”

“A Fit Medicine for Melancholy”

Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests


* Resurrection or anastasis is the concept of coming back to life after death. It is mentioned in the scripts of various ancient Near Eastern religions. Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough brings to light several references to Egyptian and Babylonian resurrection happenings (i.e., Osiris and Baal). In Greek mythology too: Asclepius was killed by Zeus, only to be resurrected and transformed into a major deity. Achilles, after being killed, was snatched from his funeral pyre by his divine mother Thetis and resurrected. In the King Jame bible, the character Jesus is said to have raised several dead people such as the daughter of Jairus shortly after death, a young man in the midst of his own funeral procession, and Lazarus of Bethany, who had been six feet under for almost a week. Christians regard the resurrection of Jesus as the central doctrine in Christianity.

Just saying…

Life is short /
chill the duck out.

See no evil, hear no evil, say whatever “The F” you want so long as it ain’t
argumentum ad hominem
Let’s remind ourselves just how very much the Brits love the F word.!.

I will be queen
And you
You will be king

We can beat them
Just for one day

We can be heroes
Just for one day

David Bowie

{ A Correction }
We may wanna say: “courses for horses” as opposed to, “horses for courses.”

All that glitters

Pyrite / an iron sulfide / FeS2

Please allow me to introduce to you, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, by James Frazer (1st ed. 1890; 2nd ed. 1913). (📙 The Golden Bough.)

You know, when we English Lit. students dream of being writers, we somehow think we’ve something to add to the canon, in some ways, we all have, but the more I dig, the more I scan Project Gutenberg (e t c .),* the more I realise that countless thousands who’ve lived (read, thought, written) and died before I was pushed out into this world, have probably (no ‘definitely’) thought what I think (far more deeply), have set out to articulate what I abstractedly and dreamily plan to one day articulate (& they’ve actually done so in concrete codex form). I feel I’m in the dead calm at the very centre of a tropical vortex –((( it’s wondered off course, North, for I reside in The Pearl; a multi-story complex built beside an artificial lagoon on a peninsula that juts out into the tepid seawater of the Arabian Gulf. Languid in largesse the panoramic view is beset by an unrelenting, near blinding, shimmer — the sun bleaches and becalms vigour. Maritime scenes are confused by midday mirages, mercury in colour — oil money stymies gainful endevour. )))– for I’ve scedules and to-do-lists, ambitions and passions, but I’m laying here listless. And while all is swirling tumultuously around me I’m strapped down by paralysis, I want to write, I want to let it bleed, I so dearly want “writing to be my therapy” as we’d say to each other it would be. We’d say such things in abstract ways mulling over a potential future parting of ways that neither you or I, back then, could seriously contemplate as a possible eventuality. // The whirlpool’s walls tower up indeterminately, they seem to be leaning in, this could be an optical illusion, but more likely it is nature’s way via the force of gravity; you sea, once I had it all; now I’ve nothing at all. \\ They’d say things like “he’s a man of letters” — I’ve read it said — and I’ll update that to be s/he, but yes, in the days before swiping right and switching swiftly between screens, writers on their typewriters (or with paper and gravity aloof pencils), would certainly have been better readers and thus better writers. I was born less than half a dozen years before the millennium, iPads were out before I was into my teenage years. I can’t compare the past to now from knowledge of both, but I’m confident that reading (in say the Victorian/Edwardian way/day) is increasingly a rarity today. On my bloody fucking university campus most key text books are only supplied to us as eBooks (I ain’t even lying . . . I will walk and I will talk).

Here’s an extract — the Preface to a follow-on work The Aftermath (1936) the language, I think, is sublime:

When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Rough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking ; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood. But insensibly I was led on, step by step, into surveying, as from some specular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race ; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into inditing what I cannot but regard as a dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavour, wasted time, and blighted hopes. At the best the chronicle may serve as a warning, as a sort of Ariadne’s thread, to help the forlorn wayfarer to shun some of the snares and pitfalls into which his fellows have fallen before him in the labyrinth of life. Such as it is, with all its shortcomings, I now submit The Golden Bough in its completed form to the judgment of my contemporaries, and perhaps of posterity.

Here is another one:

The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. We need not murmur at the endless pursuit:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.
Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. In the ages to come man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun. Yet the philosopher who trembles at the idea of such distant catastrophes may console himself by reflecting that these gloomy apprehensions, like the earth and the sun themselves, are only parts of that unsubstantial world which thought has conjured up out of the void, and that the phantoms which the subtle enchantress has evoked to-day she may ban to-morrow. They too, like so much that to common eyes seems solid, may melt into air, into thin air.

Foot notes

* Project Gutenberg is the world’s oldest digital library. It places books into the public domain — most are older works that are thus out of copyright. This altruistic endevour began with the efforts of American writer Michael S. Hart in 1971. See for example: 📙 The Golden Bough. A similar project is called The Internet Archive. It provides free access to researchers and the general public. It’s mission is none other than to provide universal access to all knowledge thus far accumulated by human kind. See for example: 📙 Aftermath, a Supplement to the Golden Bough

** “You were not made to live as brutes / But to follow virtue and knowledge.”
— From Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Roses for my grave

=== forget-me-nots ===

Let’s be frank, it’s as easy as A, B, C . . .

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.
I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.
Alfred Tennyson

. . . Love is love and there ain’t nothing greater. There is no emotion capable of so fundamentally altering and perturbing the human brain than can and does the one we call “love.” It clouds all reason and it’s the root cause of much of humankind’s best art: literature. Here are some noteworthy Tennyson poems:

01. — Milton
02. — Ulysses
03. — Claribel
04. — Mariana
05. — Timbuctoo
06. — The Charge of the Light Brigade
07. — Recollections of the Arabian Nights

Mars and Venus United by Love
“Mars and Venus United by Love”
by Paolo Veronese (c. 1575)

In this visually opulent and sensual painting, Cupid binds Mars (the god of war) to Venus with a love knot. It celebrates the civilizing and nurturing effects of love, as milk flows from Venus’s breast and Mars’s warhorse is restrained.

“Sap away”

· · · a poem · · ·

Sap my sap away
Switch A to a U
See now, it’s “Sup!”
Anyhow I’m drained
All’s so very strained
As in: “Depleted”
Paradise was there
Purgatory’s here:-
Penitence afire.

It’s all encapsulated, enveloped in a vividly coloured circular shape; it is not without ornithological appeal. I modelled it god-like out of willing and kneed full clay (sometimes viscus and earthy blue-gray brown, sometimes rocklike ochre, traced with terracotta). But the clay I am here referring to was actually a handful of timeless hourglass-grade sand; sometimes molten hot and sometimes, congealed, dull and cold, but either way, mine to sculpt. We can think of Madagascan spices and gemstones, we can think of what Ernest Shackleton[1] and Robert Falcon Scott[2] would have heard and observed. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” — it’s carved into a trunk of oak down there, below the Southern Ocean. The astute will note it is lifted from Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” it was chiselled out in 1913 and, 107 years on, faces out, steadfast and stoic, to the Roaring 40s. From that powerful poem I retype the following lines (Oh how divine, with hindsight, were those heady times):

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

Alfred Tennyson

Harland Miller
Harland Miller is an English artist born in Yorkshire in 1964. He studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art, graduating in 1988.
Harland Miller
Notable artworks by Harland Miller include his giant canvases of Penguin Book covers. The paintings include sardonic statements, e.g., “Whitby – The Self Catering Years,” “Rags to Polyester – My Story” and, “Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore.”
Aldridge & Miller
Miles Aldridge (born 1964, London) is a fashion photographer and artist.
Photograph by Miles Aldridge
Photo by Miles Aldridge, book in hand by Harland Miller.

Post Script

[1]   Ernest Shackleton
I paraphrase in a wholly unworthy parallel: I had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. I’d reached the naked soul of [my] man.

[2]   Robert Falcon Scott
I paraphrase in a wholly unworthy parallel: I took risks, I knew I took them; things finally came out against me, and therefore I have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of happenstance [& one too many rolls of life’s Damoclesian dice], despite this truly frightful plight, determined still am I, to do my best to make amends for the the past …

[3]   Sword of Damocles
If you say that someone has the Sword of Damocles hanging over them, you mean that they are in a situation in which something very bad could happen at any moment (an imminent and ever-present peril). It can also be used to denote the sense of foreboding; you feel it in your bones that something bad’s about to happen but you can’t be sure what (or more probably ‘how’). William Shakespeare used it in a fashion: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer refers to it too: “Above, where seated in his tower, /I saw Conquest depicted in his power/ There was a sharpened sword above his head / That hung there by the thinnest simple thread.” Roman poet Horace also alluded to it by waxing lyrical about the virtues of living a simple, rustic life; favouring this in preference to the myriad threats and anxieties that accompany holding a position of power.

Sword of Damocles
“Sword of Damocles”
by Richard Westall (1812)

[4]   Gouge away / You can gouge away / Stay all day / If you want to //


~ ~ ~ irony

At the outset of the 2015 BBC documentary Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis suggests that,

We live in a world where nothing makes any sense and those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing.

The contention argued in Bitter Lake is that Western politicians have manufactured a simplified story about militant Islam into a “good” vs. “evil” argument. This argument, which is informed by and a reaction to Western society’s increasing chaos and disorder, is neither really understood by the governments and think-tanks that have manufactured it or the people (the citizenries) to which it is being peddled.

📹 Bitter Lake (2015)

Bidoonism’s Adam Curtis collection

Post Script

1.   Eric Hobsbawm
Hobsbawm focused on the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism and nationalism. His best-known work is his trilogy about what he called the “long 19th century” (The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914). Read on …

2.   Edward Saïd
Saïd focused on the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, and contends that “orientalism” is a powerful European ideological creation that is the key source of the inaccuracy in cultural representations that form the foundations of Western thought and perception of the Eastern world {نحن نعيش ، نموت}. Read on …

3.   Horses for courses 🐎
Proverb • British
— Different people are suited to different things.

4.   Bidoonism  ❱  Politics &c.  ❱❱  History
According to me, “history’s basically histrionics… because, to attract attention, we inevitably state it melodramatically. Read on …

The dreadful mistake

deader than dead

My mistake was to treat you my Muse
I’ll tell you about ‘complicated’:
“I will tell you how I wander lost
— the books I note and the texts I read —
and the pain felt by my tongue-tied heart”

as though you were simply my mistress.


^ Winn, R. (2018). The Salt Path. London: Penguin.