(Visiting）The Places of the Dead
‘Indeed our modern day culture in its aspect of ‘high’ or art culture appears as the survival of this memory or rite, performing the same social, community and identity functions as ancestor worship or family remembrance. Art culture as our modern day death cult, our ‘High Sublime’, the festival of the dead…’
‘(For) Travel is either hedonism, or nature worship or ancestor worship’.
From graveyards and memorials to quiet corners, and everything in between… so separating gardens from parks, reflection space from action space… the sitting or strolling that allows memory and thought, and the games and movement which forestalls or elides them… reflection versus escape, embodied in two types of space. Yet it is not they who are embodied, we are; it is they who embody us, who conjure our performance of our selves… Ourselves in two modes of identity; the former linked to the past (the dead) and the later to unthinking being in action (the joy of the body without thought)… The settling of self through the contemplation of the past as stillness (‘recollection in tranquility’), the stilling of the self as in meditation: and the loss of self in movement (our sense of being in the Eternal Present as flight)… Two forms of self: disguised as forms of self lost.
From stillness… (from graveyards to gardens and quiet corners in monumental parks) noting that all these types of place are relatively closed spaces; enclosed, frames, framing, framing a space we can enter, set aside, separated, and deliberately so, or in nature found to be so, felt to be as such, by a perceiving consciousness (the true genius loci of the ‘place’, ourselves). To be a ‘room’; constructed or ‘in nature’ – but always in the minds of those who inhabit the ‘room’, in our feelings, the ‘room in our head’ – awakened by our presence in the ‘room’ of Nature. An echo of self. A ‘remembering’ of self. Prompted by place.
From flight… So to the contrasting pole of open parks, open spaces used for action, for sport, for the exercise of the body rather than the mind, the flexing of the muscles as another way of lightening the spirit. Motion too is a kind of liberation. Liberation from a self, a past self, a ‘heavier’ self – from the past as burdensome memory, as well as the immediate past.
Two forms of the ‘death of the self’, the silencing or side-lining of the ego, perhaps rather a re-configuration in each case, in each case a different reconfiguration. The latter as movement, like dance… the former as akin to meditation… through absence, on absence, to absence - to the absence of the past… From the absence of the past (in our motion in the Eternal Present) to the absence of the past (its pastness as recollected - as past). Our becoming conscious of it through its absence.
So do the enclosed spaces in our lives, the rooms of place in the world, offer a link to meditation, to memory, to ritual - and to food… to the memorial feast, to a ritual continuity with the past, to the remembered dead… the dead memorialised. And we are reminded again that the graveyard or memorial plot may be the nearest thing to a quiet garden space… to the space put aside for the dead, all the way from the corner in the house (or under the floor, as with our ancestors, after the turn of the Neolithic) or somewhere nearby, in a corner of domestic cultivation, to a secluded spot found in fields, hills or woodlands, a plot, a place, put aside for burial or disposal rites and a simple memorial stone, to the country graveyard with attendant church or temple, to the city cemetery and the modern funeral home set in green fields. Including the private plot, chapel or mausoleum, not only in public space, the designated space for the dead, but on private lands or property – usually in the garden or grounds, but even, as with our ancestors, again ‘under the floor’, in a purpose built crypt. All coincidence of quiet spaces put aside, might there be some sign of their co-evolution? The places of ancestor worship appear not only outside of the work spaces of everyday life, or on the edge or put aside for agricultural use, but also outside the play spaces of everyday life; in space set aside, intimate but separate, accessible but hidden, near yet far. Both proximate and proper… Perhaps evoking a new notion of distance… A new genealogy of memory and distance… A genealogy of space reflective and (because) evoking the presence of an absent other; providing a gift to the self and answering a debt to the Other.
For we do still visit cemeteries, and not just to see our lost beloved, or the remains of our ideals once embodied (now deceased, the memory, the ideal, the model, the statue, headstone or plaque still remaining). As we go to see the gravestones of the famous (in Vienna, the vast grave park with resplendent mausoleums, and the quiet one in the hills, looking for Beethoven and Mahler. Or the Isola Cimertereo, in Venice (looking for Wagner, who is buried in Verona!). Or in Paris, sparing a moment for Pere Lachaise… and not forgetting those in one’s home village, or neighbourhood church and graveyard in town or city… found still to be bearing the marks and the prompts, still holding the ghosts of childhood, our past apprehension of the places of the dead (and how lucky we are, or were, if these were, for us, are still, for us, the only places of death…). Or a visit to Srebrenica, or Auschwitz.
For this type of visit too has become a form of tourism, these too have become part of the itinerary, now featured in our travel guides, another kind of travel.
From graveyards and their gardens, and from gardens as such, to all the forms of tourism or ‘travel’ that are more than just taking the taking of an economic, consumerist advantage (paying less for more, finding pleasures and novelties ‘on the cheap’)… Are not all of these ‘higher’ forms, our ‘serious’ pleasures, at bottom, in the final analysis, just another way of paying homage to the past? A homage that extends to wherever the stones of the Other can be found. Whether located in country or in city, concerning geology and geography or art and architecture: the collected (and collectable) genius loci of town and country - our own newer form of Nature worship, our own modern form of ancestor worship…
For if we take the path of gardens as reminders, then we find gardens lead us to the remainders of ancestor worship. The space for this, put aside, the time for this, an aside to the everyday, is the space/time of the rite of remembrance – of a space itself taken as a rite (the ritual visit with its mental associations); a ritual place with its own unique temporality (the precise date in the narrative of liner time and its ritual repetition, cyclic, evoking an attitude to the past and future and so a particular sense of self in the now, in the Eternal Present， so connoting for us eternity, that something out of time which guarantees our place in time). The place of the ritual remembrance meal perhaps… (now surviving in birthdays and public festivals of religious type origin). If normally we focus on the time of the meal’s recurrence, on ritual time as repetition, yet it is not the tie of the meal in narrative linear time, the time of location of the memorial moment, the retying of the knot or memory, that matters; rather it is its temporality, its effects on our self and our identity, its space as the place where the Eternal Present is focused on the past as something mythic, foundational. The special time which combines, a certain attitude to the past (and perhaps the future, anyway implying a future, of repetition and renewal recurring into the future) as occurring in our sense of the moment, the endless moment, the Eternal Present, that in turn transforms the space into place: a special place, the genius loci of the garden or tomb or private space in a park or other room in space, some other container in space (containing us…) aestheticised, sanctified, personified… But in the dead we already have our necessary personification; the genius loci is pre-named, pre-arranged, evoked from our past and by name: not only imagined ‘afresh’, as in the landscape moment, the clearing, or valley or bend in a river overhung with trees… Space as ‘pointer’ (the monument, the mountain) or as ‘room’; a room in nature (or tamed, a shrine-like nature, in the Garden, or the place of the Garden itself). Whose room? Ours; our new self, projected as genius loci or incorporated as a newly sanctified self… cleansed by the passing of water, stilled by the enclosing of space (or the opening to the sky), transported by the presence of stones, of water, of light…
Not only do we focus on the place though, this being obvious, this function of quiet memory space as deferred to graveyards and other spaces set aside for memorials; but the place as also the place for a meal, allowing, permitting, or demanding, the rite of a collective meal (and not just the silent laying of flowers, the sweeping and burning of paper, the moment of attention as gift to the past, as acknowledgement of debt, of identity with the past). It is the sense of a celebration that as lacking in this last, in such spaces, in the modern places of the dead… Part of the separation of death and pleasure… of the memorial and pleasure, of making memory pleasurable, marking memory as pleasurable; making a place for the past in the present by means of joy (and so guaranteeing its future, its survival as a marker of time, of periods of time, in combination with all the other markers of time, in the future). Yet the drunken wake still survives as such… A send-off that is also a celebration… a laughing memory.
At once, an ecstatic washing away of the taboo elements of the dead; and a ritual affirmation of their death, unique, occurring but once, at once a symbolic, so mental, washing of our experience, a ritual hallucinatory punctuation in the text of our life; and the preservation of a memory, of a life unique, occurring but once, which we forget and remember - all at once.
Or, again, if we consider the garden as a place of remembering; a space put aside for remembering – for other kinds of ritual remembering… A quiet space used for reflection as a means of ordering the past (for present and future) for making ones peace with the past – immediate or distant… So linked to the funeral gardens and parks of today by function and coincidence. Coincidence? We remember that the placement of funeral urns (for cremated remains) in a quiet corner, or purpose built shrine, or ‘house’, outside, in gardens, perhaps by their very presence constituting a ‘garden’ space’; organizing the space around itself, a space set aside, a space separate from open vistas or action, or practical utility (farming, fruit or vegetable gardening, the keeping of animals, the exercising of children). Close kindred to the set aside, meditative garden space. Places for the remains of the dead, in spaces kept back for the past, for quiet recollection and reflection… such space, such places, were and are prevalent in many cultures, today and going back far into our pasts (as far as 7000 BC in ancient China).
A telling example would be the recent use of temple garden space, where stones placed in water are used to represent the dead - their remains being held in an underground chamber, part of recent Japanese Buddhist burial or funerary practice. This fascinating innovation does not, however, indicate origins (rather a suggestive, modern expediency). Potential origins for, the globally admired and imitated, Chinese and Japanese gardens are suggested as a form of nature worship with Daoist and Shinto shrines as sites for contemplation, originating in a genius loci, a sense of the spirit of the place, personified, to whom a temple of shrine is erected; this sense then incorporated into a garden, by means of an enclosed courtyard space or other form of taming and ordering (and framing, if not by a wall than by a hedge or border or path or waterway). The veneration of Nature in both these religions, together with their influence on Buddhism, makes of all temples a potential garden – as the courtyards and forecourts, become the sites of trees, echoes of the ‘sacred grove’, and the miniature, ‘instant’ moveable garden of the potted plant (down to miniature mountains, and magical stunted Bonzai trees). In Japanese gardens walking and contemplation, is further formally spatially differentiated, in Chinese gardens this feature is also present but with less formal specialisation. In smaller spaces generally, it is contemplation that seems to be the main thing! (For example continuity of burial practice with garden type spaces from the ancient past seems unlikely as purity, pollution and other, spiritual or physical, hygiene-based, beliefs would have dissuaded. Some ancient cultures buried their dead beneath their homes or kept their remains in urns in corners of rooms; again we have a possible origin of the quiet devotional space in the house or garden. But, in the case of Chinese and Japanese history, this does not does not necessarily entail even the symbolic presence of the dead as in sacred space... for remembering, contemplation… the connection is coincidental and co-implicating, intuitive and generic, rather than a provable connection or genealogy (thus far anyway…).
Yet we cannot but help remember… one particular feature in the design of the Eastern Garden or Park; the importance of the flow of water - the direction of the flow of water. In theory and often in practice too this is from East to West and from North to South, a directionality which combines, more often than not, into an overall clockwise flow (see the section on Ji Cheng and his ‘The Art of Gardening’ (Yuan Ye/园冶) in my own book on ‘Chinese Gardens’ for a full and illustrated analysis). A directionality which, according to the Daoist-influenced schools of Feng Shui (but repudiated as superstition by Ji Cheng, who nevertheless appears to have kept the clockwise directionality) is a flow necessary to the cleansing of space, the removal of impurities… (from the living… and from, or of… the dead; from the visible, organic world, and from the invisible, spirit world). Moreover these two co-ordinates are also (and again, more often than not) found combining together into a clockwise mode of circumambulation, the direction of the paths around the garden space also follow the clockwise rule, circling the pool in the prescribed manner – so incorporating into garden topography the Eastern (and Western) mode of moving around a shrine or sacred object. A ritual movement. (The isle in the lake. The stone in the water).
As rites and rituals include symbolic washing so do they too involve eating; even in symbolically vestigial form, the sacrament at Mass, the consecrated Host, as well as the full anniversary or festive meal. Eating type rituals are universal, a matter of periodic repetition, the periodic repetition of the incorporation of matter; repetition being the matter of memory (the act of memory itself being a repetition in symbol - as well as symbolic repetition). Other celebrations may be more intense, or may be accompanied by the presence of food in an incidental, metonymic way; but the meal with others always functions as ‘marker’ or symbolic exchange of some sort, and so evoking ritual force. The expected default manner of marking the past, of re-marking the calendar of the self, reversing the entropy of memory as the meal reverses the entropy of the physical self (and as the gesture of a meal with others renews the relationship, reverses the wear and tear of social entropy). An exchange of matter and time, in space, for identity. Indeed most big festivals include a meal, real or symbolic (real and symbolic), as public and private fuse: the private, family meal to commemorate a public festival, Christmas, Eid, Passover, the Eastern Spring Festival, together with their more fluid Hindu and Buddhist equivalents; the public celebrations, the Chinese CCTV Gala and other televised events (the ‘Christmas Special’) watched as a family in private. All aspects of the festive public/private suture.
Whence the worry over the loss of shared mealtimes in modern life; as the loss of ritual contact. Remembering that these events also exist as a cure for social (as well as physical) entropy - to renew relationship bonds (to ‘refresh their memory) or to create the spring board for new bonds. The social organicist worries over the progressive loss of ritual to other (‘less profound’) forms of social repetition… But are not all forms of repetition a form of ritual, no matter how attenuated, mutated, adapted to modern conditions? We all live in and though our cycles of repetition, our rituals passing or cyclic, vestigial or intense. (If Durkheim’s views on Ritual and the Social are taken as the model for the organic society, then perhaps we no longer live as part of a totalizing experience, now in an ‘inorganic’ or urban society; yet perhaps it is quality of the totality that is different – as well as the relation to an ideal type that probably only existed in tribal societies). So if the quality may be different, quantitatively we still surround ourselves with repetitions, for our identities still require their periodic support (from daily, to annual, to rite of passage). If one kind of religion has passed, ritual repetition nevertheless lives on… incarnate in other aspects of modernity… decried by some as ‘archaic’, ‘irrational’: claimed to be the site of modern miracle by others, as, by both traditionalists and utopians, the gift is appropriated as redemption, as resistance to the commodified world. Yet modern life is replete with rituality and the inseparability of the commodity and the gift, as it is of the experience of identity and expenditure (as the mode of exchange that generates our identity fuses with our modern forms of the exchange of objects).
Food and the dead (once, in the past, the dead were eaten, out of respect or survival or the attempt to abrogate power and vitality, all these reasons and more have excused this most direct form of the re-placing and re-incorporation of the dead). More usually we have some kind of celebration of the dead, the funereal, then the anniversary meal (now the Saint’s days of countries with a Catholic culture); all functioning as a marker of membership as well as a memorial. Even the blessing given at the everyday meal, the thanks-given, often include a reference to the missing, the absent or the dead. The food consumed here, at these times and places, as with the time and space itself of these events, also is symbolic; nothing is quite what is appears to be – even the meal at the grave side, the funereal plot of land or mausoleum symbolises the time/space of ritual, the crossover into, ore overlap with, mythic, otherworldly, eternity (consider the symbolic wake to the ‘Last Supper’, the upper case says it all) the place of the funeral, or anniversary meal…) – and , as with role play in ritual itself, we both believe and ‘know better’ playing along with the ‘public secret’. All becomes imbued with a second meaning, or a parallel sacred or religious, ‘iconological’ (pointing back to origins) or ‘soteriological’ (pointing forwards to last things) point of reference. Symbolic food, may even be non-food, something inedible, present only as an offering, as part of the symbolic meal for the dead or past others (heroes, saints) albeit with positive present effect (ritual ‘effervescence’) and future effectiveness, that is a duration, ‘effective’ until ‘next time’…). Real food of course may be read, may be eaten, as a symbol (in the eating, or as left behind for others to eat); or may be residual, token, as in the communion host or wafer (a rather pale version of the blood once demanded, and demanded still at the ceremonies of syncretic religious cults). Blood once demanded, in the past, as sacrifice, burnt offerings, often human, in the age of tribal military aristocracy and economic expansion by enslavement. Food stuffs, offered or consumed as part of a ritual or just left at the temple door or on the altar steps; whether consumed, shared, or set aside (or consumed by fire as a kind of send-off) all perform the same function… The meal, that most fundamental precious thing, food, is taken as a rite (formalized, sanctified). The meal as ritual: the ritual as meal (repeated across time, and bearing a symbolic import that points beyond time). However if we only focus on cleansing as preparation for ritual activity, or the exchange relation of a rite as with the absent or dead or eternal, with the food sacrifice as a memorial rite for the dead (ancestors, savior, guru or prophet), then we miss out the most important practical function of ritual experience; that, in its actual effects, it is in the service of, for the, celebration of, the living. For us (here and now, in the Eternal Present), so for the future and not for the past (as it would appear, as we like to maintain), and for our future, a cementing of our identity as community (with those present, and supported by those gone). Believing we were honouring the past, remembering our dead, we are temporally extending ourselves and our connection to others - others of the community of the Same and not the Other - so promoting the unity that will aid us in the future (and whence the cynical functionality of the scapegoat, or pogrom, used to unify those present, both active and in witness - even through the relief of not being chosen, through the unspoken terror of being next…). For to use remembrance in the cause of the past is to use the past as remembrance; we cannot do without the dead in our self–fashioning, our foundation or spring-board into the future (a foundation itself anchored in eternity, the absent but necessary foundation of all faith, belief, religion or ideology, exceptionalism, universalism and rationalism). The overt belief, the public face of the funeral, memorial rite, with its symbolic sacrifice (of time and economic produce), its meal (token or real) with its repetition, its recurrence, its presence as a cycle that points forwards, ‘until next time’. So not for the past, but for the future: and of course for the present, in the present (always in the present), in the Eternal Present as we know, again, exactly who we are. And as the rite, looking backwards looks forwards, and as the sacrifice of things creates identity, so food, for the maintenance of the body, turns into mystical substance for the maintenance of identity, of mutual recognition, of communal belonging (which place in society is mine, is... me). So again we find this structure, of part assertion, part denial, is a little like the denial of self (the practices of the denial of the self) found in multiple religions, when, in practice, what we have is the construction of a new self, the assertion of a new subjectivity…
And of course we also travel to eat, part of the hedonism of tourism…
Saving remains: cleaning impurities. Mental and others… mortal remains. Whence our ritual spaces of purification… spaces mental and other; saving by purifying, making safe the object, sanitizing it, removing the taint of real disease, as well as the symbolic taint of the recently dead. The social body as cleansed (and renewed if the personage was of some note), and (individually, or with significant others, family, friends) removing the pain of memory… The settling of accounts with memory and requirement of personal functioning; between loyalty and living on… As set in a frame; a portrait of the dead, a photograph of the absent beloved, made safe, and at the same time unforgotten by the presence of a frame… Or the cutting out of reality that makes a photographic record of our travels – our ‘holiday snaps’. The same process that creates art, the putting aside, framing, cutting out of reality, in the picture frame, or the frame of the institution, also works for the dead, for the absent – for all manner of things that are found to be (because they cannot be found) to be) elsewhere. Like art: perhaps as its origin, one of art’s points of origin - shadowing ritual… shadowing the otherworldly, the eternal… shadowing death.
(The gardens of Catholics may today put aside a corner for remembrance, or a shrine for the dead, their ancestors… with offerings of flowers and other objects, objects connoting the missing, and so gathering sacred force. Put aside, as they do for a day; a festive day, with masks and processions and noise and food - the Day of the Dead. Its Protestant equivalent? Halloween. At once orgy of popular (half-believed) superstition and commodity festival. Yet, in fact, on this day too, people visit the graves of their lost dead to lay flowers and say a few words, to converse a little with the dead. A corner for remembrance. A corner put aside for the work of memory. A corner marked by objects, a corner marked by stones…).
And what is the Still Life, but such an arrangement of objects, often including food; so that the extra meaning or second meaning, the sacred meaning of an offering of food, the food sacrifice, is gained. The picture is a memorial, but also a memorial of a memorial; the originary memory or event being lost or occluded (perhaps felt to be too particular, personal) so with only the trace, its essence made up of a backward deixis, a tunnel leading back to the past, remaining? Accessing the past and its mysteries, but with (or by means of) the loss of the event – to be past it must be lost (a mystery with only competing stories remaining – and so an absence filled by creativity). Just like the black and white photograph: actually like any photograph, but the black and white means of expression maintains this special sense of the past (whether with classic distance or of recent grainy urgency), does not deny it. Whereas the colour image appears to have forgotten this loss, in its claim to reality, and truthful depiction – after all reality is, as we all know, in ‘colour’. And so as in the Still Life, as a particular case or inheritance of the Still Life, as a trace of that which once inspired the gathering of objects whose function was no longer (overtly) practical… So we have again a special corner here enframed, there set aside, here prominent it its arrangements, its enticement of vision, there curtained off, prominent in its veiling, its denial of vision; but present in life in many homes, and corners, of arranged objects and plants… The garden as Still Life, as sacred corner, as echo of the tomb space, the taboo space around the tomb, the space of respect, the memorial, replete with the peace of the dead… The repulsion of taboo, the attraction of the sacred, their combined force… our little piece of the dead… remaining (in memory and stillness…). Is it a case of the forces of attraction and repulsion canceling each other out, these emotions reaching equilibrium - neutralisng the force of the dead one? Their body and memory both, at once a problem; and a source of guilt, as a result of the perception, the self-awareness of there being a problem; so a compounded problem, with the exorcism of this problem, of these problems (the body, the memory, our guilt) itself part of the equation, of the space… the design, of being set aside… A kind of self-setting, self-framing, a kind of presence (of the absent, non-presence) so always different to other spaces… Both overcharged and neutralizing that charge, the mark of this, its trace, or ghost, remaining, what remains, the haunting of our affect; forgetting as reminder… Once removed: still present… And so the remains remain, even if only at second remove (so only further enlarging the function of the symbol or sign, its birth in absence… and its meaning in ritual, or other, contexts… other contexts of loss). What remains (of what once was)? Still life; nature mort; dead Nature: Nature tamed…
The aesthetics of gardens, whether Italian or Chinese, are linked to this, the matter of the dead. For the dead are like the referent, end of deixis, second meaning of trope (of prosopopoiea, evoking) an object both of forgetting and remembering; an active forgetting of the matter, a passive remembering of the name; an exorcism of the matter, the materialization of the name. And of transfiguration; as we see more clearly in the role of sculpture, those marble ghosts that litter classical gardens and the spaces that follow in their wake… It is in these that we find a link; from the memorials, the copies, reminders, the images of the dead, the life-size models of the dead… (our link to the lost remembered). Or parts of the dead; the bust or portrait in stone, the disembodied hand or headless torso, the relic or fragment of a saint, the ghastly inhabitants of a reliquary. All in deathly cast, signs of the further reaches: but also transformed, transfigured, and transfiguring… (as those that see transfiguration are transfigured - the process is purely mental) the further recycling of the dead into the living. A unity of extremes then, and the celebration of life as desire, as death… but not sex and death as in literature, as modern tragedy; rather that found in ritual in Hindu culture, on the walls of ancient temples, and in the depictions of the heavens, as we see in the Etruscans (the heaven on the walls of their tombs depicts a pleasure garden). And from the death of self in coitus to gardens as quiet spaces, spaces put aside for the recession of the self, reflection after all is nine parts memory; our pasts and the pasts of others, as well as the Other, the otherness of the past, whose time is now passed (the capital indicating what is lost), as the last place of the dead, as part of the rites of the dead … in modern culture. Indeed our modern day culture in its aspect of ‘high’ or art culture appears as the survival of this memory or rite, performing the same social, community and identity functions as ancestor worship or family remembrance. Art culture as our modern day death cult, our ‘High Sublime’, the festival of the dead, equivalent in whatever religion (or whatever ideology), as in the worship of the Dead Leader elevated to sublime status, or of the syncretic cults (’Santa Muerte’) as one example of the ‘Low’ Sublime of popular religion. An art culture, like the dear departed, felt as a personal inheritance, even a duty, certainly as ‘cultural capital’ (again the rites of memory, the rites and rituals of the self…). An intertwining of private and public, self and community, identity and recognition, which includes the hedonistic party of popular culture and the commodity festivals. Of celebration, saturnalia, transgression. Real or imagined. With Venetian Carnevale, for example, whatever its past (whatever once passed) now as collective trance… as a carnival of imagining (as actual Rabelaisian activity appears limited to the private sphere, in public all are, as if, in a dream…). So also, and at once, both commercial and ritual; and who can separate exchange and ritual, gift and self… or the gift to the self that is modern commercialization and fashion… or the debt of self that is our value giving, our… priorities. And either way a self which is built upon insistence, iteration and so repetition.
And repetition… Of repetition. Making actual, the connection that only comes with the second appearance, the return, the re-finding, the correlation. The recognition of such: recognition as such. One is lost; two is a connection, echo or coincidence; three already a tradition - an identity. Making actual, either a part of the past, to see and be reminded, or a thing with a name, famous, persisting from the past, to be seen, made actual, made present, living up to its name and greeted, after the sacrifice of time and treasure, the exchange of gifts, the prescribed offering made, and the purification of travel undergone; the ritual preparation of the self for the witnessing of the sacred event; the pilgrimage and its hardships, in preparation of a ritual of evocation and presencing. Of the appearance of the, what it was one only know through words or images, or in books or in signs: finally at the site; marveling at the sight: the site now before one; now we before it, in sight (with the blind still preferring the ‘photo op’, the ‘selfie’… an image they can understand). A life arranged according to ritual precept, the construct of a higher self: the true object of travel (with Rabelasian tourism as its plebian sister…). As sacral sight matches sacral site, and makes sacral self (immortalized in the selfie…). And for some even participation in the practices (witnessing a rite, or Mass, or Service or concert or other cultural event), renowned and now encountered as climax of an arduous quest… building block in the architecture of the self. The future-self implied by these events that have become memories.
All memory, all memories of the past, and the role of space as the means of recall, the recall of special memories, all partake of ancestor worship, are but death cults… as too are historical things, from the imagination of past events to the sense of ‘pastness’, a sense of history; the love of old towns, from ancient squares to landmark churches and temples; from the fascination with layers of history represented in a city street to the uniqueness of historical buildings; and in specialist institutions, galleries and museums, the love of old objects from paintings to antiques… We revel in the presence of the dead. For these too bear witness, partake of the same kind of drive or desire, which is as much a space for reflection as a kind of foundation;, a ‘re-founding’ of foundations by digging deeper down, by renewing foundations so as to be ready to build again, onwards, repetition and clearing, cleansing. Precisely a sense of ‘symbolic’ destruction of worn selves for space to build new, the space of reflection, of stepping back… Just like the ritual brushing aside of the emptied out forms of prior repetition to make way for a new start… a new content; a new present, a new self… in a new present… (…but we have returned to the function of ritual).
And so a repositioning of the past, of ritual and through ritual, and of repetition and through repetition, for the continuance of self in the future, a repositioning of our desires and aims, orientated through the present… (as past and future must be, anchored, glued in place, by the promises of eternity, as evoked in ritual). Before returning to the regular and mundane, challenging and stressful, counted-out hours of wear and tear that make up our ordinary, everyday life…
Like a deep pool fed by a spring…
In a stillness that soothes like death - but from its still depths relaunches life...
Bypassing entropy with beauty.
(For) Travel is either hedonism, or nature worship or ancestor worship. So either: the pursuit of pleasure in all forms of consumption (stimulating all the senses, but primarily culinary, alcoholic/hallucinatory and sexual, the culture of release); or the cult of Pastoral, the exotic, the authentic, supported by a Neo-Romantic, ‘Nature-first’ philosophy verging on the mystical; or it is a death cult where all that is gone, all that has gone before, becomes of paramount importance; an importance now transferred, found only in its signs and reminders, in what survives and what we find in ruins; an importance predominating in the imaginations of those who choose this particular pathway, this pilgrimage through the shrine of stones… this dromos in a petrified forest, leading to the underworld of our imagination. For our secret (and not so secret) desire is to find the sacred places of the world – to find the spring that feeds our particular font of value, releases our mode of giving, enabling us to bestow the blessings of a Grail firmly lodged in our nervous systems. Only looking for a key… (with much the same to be said for Nature worship…). To make of the world again a shrine…
As opposed to an expedition; a shopping expedition for a set of bargain basement thrills…
If the mono-theistic religious mythology begins with the Garden of Eden, it is not the only historical world view that begins with this unity with a tame and obliging Nature, certainly the depiction of the Heaven in the writings of many religions (and some secular religions too) as on the engravings on stone sarcophagi, and other representations, show heaven as a verdant garden – with the dead enjoying a happy life, carefree and well-fed. Nature worship and ancestor worship, the cult of the dead, are not so far apart after all. Nor separable from our desire for the Good Life (however defined). Our modern day Neo-romanticism appears not so new (and as a Nature-first philosophy, certainly much older than the movement that gives it its name). A set of traditions and desires we express, perhaps most fully, in our practices and expectations, in our expenditures and investments, in the time we put aside for the varieties of tourism and travel. For what we do when we have a choice of what we want to do.
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2017