It’s not that death is unexpected. Even untimely, it demands acceptance. Perhaps the most odious snark is to criticize how others mourn a passing. I won’t do that. This year of avulsion has wrenched our future from the familiar channels of our politics, our nostalgia, and our efforts to mean something.
Deaths aren’t the only occasions for existential confrontation with ourselves. Maybe we’re struck upon seeing the surface of another planet or reading about the sterilizing jets of a gamma ray burst. But these only extend to further realms of the unimaginable the truth we learn more directly when struggling through the sands and forests of terrestrial wilderness: We are not the universe’s conceptual center. What is yet still harder won is to feel, rather than just to think, not that we are within the universe but that we in fact are the universe, our separateness an illusion and our sensed connections a pale but suggestive reflection of reality.
Jedediah Purdy warns against taking too far the belief that reality is a continuous fabric, its people, rocks, and stars not discrete phenomena but conceived as such by the mind - and this, the mind’s construction, as much an undifferentiated ripple as falling rocks or calving glaciers. As he puts it, we may be tempted, especially in this moment, to combat the myopia of self-interest by believing “biological identities are possible only because of aliens within us, the bacteria and portmanteau cells that form our so-called selves.” But this, he reminds us, is “inadequate because it does not take seriously ... that democratic community is utterly real, as real as dirt, because we are trapped in it, because the facts we majoritarian bandits choose become the facts we live with every day.”
And that is indeed the brute fact, that we do suffer, that we do fear, and that we do thrill and love. Even though we are the universe, this universe that we are imagines alternatives to the causes and effects that mark its temporal shape. It imagines joy and suffering, the very real, grounded states we believe are our own. In culture, as well as in law, it expresses as a humming multitude of minds all aware of one another, a hall of mirrors.
The deaths this year have come as repeated blows to this collective imagination. So many talents, so many hauntingly beautiful and wonderfully flawed people have left us. They stand in even greater relief against the electoral victory of Trump, a triumph of fear over imagination itself. His toddler instincts are so obviously the unrepressed failures of introspection that we all sometimes recognize bubbling up within ourselves. He secretes them as infantile demands to be adored, to be the most powerful, and to get the last hit, demands the rest of us usually damp through inner, reflective conversation. It feels too much to bear that his repeated, embarrassing blatherings are treated as important, even as we mourn the passing of adult lives of such full scope.
From music, to art, to science, to film, and even to goofy TV shows whose decades-old cathode beams still illuminate our adult minds, our culture and its pioneers are shadowy representations of the true fact of our togetherness. Their genius is ours. Their failings, ours. To say this is to engage in more than collective claiming, it is to restate the ultimate truth. While our universal body regularly sheds its skins, mostly escaping similarly universal notice, we find ourselves now ridden with cancer and wishing them back, that our body would cease its sloughing and keep warm by a hearth we wish were there.