Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)


[Older essay of mine, not so much about literally dying as about the art of living including a constant dying to things and selves. The poem at the end references three Australian road signs. The ‘RTA’ was the Road Transport Authority. The famous painting of peasants dancing is by Pieter Bruegel].

Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)

The foetus at some point senses that the time has come. The time to move on. To leave that lovely warm, secure home of the womb in which all its needs were, if it was fortunate, fulfilled. This dwelling has now become somehow constricting. It needs to break through the shell of its walls. It sends out the chemical messages to its mother that will begin her contractions and the painful expulsion into birth.

We seem to follow this pre-natal model throughout our post-natal lives. Just like lobsters and spiders or Kuhnian scientific paradigms. While the snake can simply shed its skin, lobsters and spiders must actually break out of theirs, their protective exo-skeletons, when these have become too old and constricting. When they do, their bodies are at first very soft and vulnerable until they harden.

Given the rough-and-tumble nature of the universe, perhaps it is inevitable that we need to soon again develop a new shell after experiencing the extreme vulnerability of just having slipped out of the old one. And perhaps the breaking open of old shells is hard work. For after all, we have often accumulated so much, invested our splendid old shells with such meaning, just grown so comfortable with those ragged old suits we have worn for so long.

But the time comes, as inevitably as the tide, the time for change, the time for breaking up and out of the old so that the new may emerge. The tide drags the dead old things off the beach and deposits some new surprise: a castaway rubbing his salt-stung eyes, a shell-born Venus, a cryptic message in a dark green bottle.

Old ways of thinking and feeling, mind cages, old notions are things we have long cherished. This can also have a more general cultural dimension. Thomas Kuhn’s influential theory of scientific progress (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,1962) is based on a historical notion of scientific theories or ‘paradigms’ that gradually outlive their usefulness until they are, usually after much resistance from the adherents of the old paradigms (this process constituting a ‘crisis’), eventually outgrown, discarded and replaced by revolutionary new and more adequate paradigms, which then undergo the same process.

Nineteenth century English physicist Faraday’s accurate description of this process can be applied both to this Kuhnian scientific development and to its equivalents on the personal level of the individual:

‘In our conceptions and reasonings regarding the forces of nature, we perpetually make use of symbols which, when they possess a high representative value, we dignify with the name of theories […] Such conceptions have their advantages and their disadvantages; they afford peaceful lodging to the intellect for a time, but they also circumscribe it, and by and by, when the mind has grown too large for its lodging, it often finds difficulty in breaking down the walls of what has become a prison instead of its home. (Cited in Walter Benesh, An Introduction to Comparative Philosophy)’

This pattern would seem to apply not just to cerebral mind prisons, however. Some prisons are a little closer to the bone and strongly anchored in body and emotion: old, often infantile, coping and defence mechanisms that have long served their purpose and are now constricting further development. Sometimes, perhaps mostly, these splendid constricting shells we need to break may be our very own personalities. ‘Personality’ or ‘character’ may be home-grown interior architecture that is inherently ambiguous. It would seem to be both (in the Freudian view) a complex conglomeration of all our neurotic defence mechanisms and a useful form of necessary armature in a difficult world, as well as (in the more Jungian view) a gnarly weathered expression of what we like to feel is our inherent nature.

James Thornton (A Field Guide to the Soul), would tend to the latter view and also see the shell of ‘personality’ not as static but as serial and changing, as a means used by a higher-level of self or identity he calls ‘awareness’:

‘Our personality is the armature that our awareness uses to move through the world. We employ our personality at each point in our evolution and growth. We have serial personalities. We exude them like a lobster its shell.’

Of course, we usually tend to forget that ‘we’ are not our shells, our personalities, our egos, and spend much effort defending and maintaining them. However, our evolutionary momentum, our personal growth imperative keeps up the pressure on these shells of personality. They will start to feel tight at some point when they are no longer adequate to new demands or challenges presented. We call this a personal crisis because when our armature is shattered ‘there is always the terror of stepping out of our old protective skin.’

Moreover, this shattering of our old ideas of ourselves is not a once-and-for-all event but an ongoing necessary process during life, a process culminating, or seemingly culminating, in an opening and widening spacious enough to contain the world. According to Thornton,

‘growth requires that we surrender this idea again and again […] And even though the new skin allows a bigger view, we will again make the mistake of taking it for who we are. So the growth and shattering goes on. Our heart is broken open, again and again, until it is big enough to hold the world.’

Thus, there would seem to be an art of letting go, an art of dying or ars moriendi to the old in this process of living and growing. Part of this art would seem to be realising that all stability is temporary, only to be shattered by the next growth imperative. Calcified aspects are broken open, reconfigure, begin to calcify again, are broken up again, and so on…

And, of course, we are neither snakes nor spiders and lobsters. We cannot simply leave our old coverings behind on the sand and move on, much as we would perhaps sometimes like to do so. Our dying to the old and growing into the new – our difficult ars moriendi that is our ars vivendi too – requires a more complex art.

We, apparently, are required to not simply cut off and discard, but to integrate the old into the new. No simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater for us. Although this is possible and frequently done, to do so is asking for trouble down the track. The thrown-out baby has a nasty habit of continuing to squeal away in the background and warp and spoil all our present pleasures until it has been fully acknowledged, held and accepted, i.e. integrated.

Transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber formulates this process a little more abstractly. According to him, the successive stages of individual psychological development all dance to a threefold rhythm that follows a kind of Hegelian dialectic of identification, dis-identification and integration.

First, like children, our own identity is largely formed by identifying with someone or something. Then, growing up, in an opposing movement, we are obliged to dis-identify with what we have been hitherto identified with from infancy onwards. Finally, to achieve maturity, we have to integrate the two previous movements, i.e. not spitefully, immaturely, cut off, suppress or throw away the dis-identified, but rather ‘negate and preserve’ or ‘lift up’ (aufheben) this material into a higher integration with the newly identified. Then the whole process starts all over again.

So, we take up the shell, the bath water, the green old bottle even as we are excited by our new Venusian shape, new self or the cryptic new message in the bottle we are so busy deciphering. We pocket them, knowing they are part of ourselves too, albeit old, albeit obsolescent. We have now understood their erstwhile functions and hung them up lovingly in the spacious closet of our selves. Our selves that already feel the distant tide mounting once more on that feint horizon…

Meanwhile, to help us on our way, there may be signs. Metaphysical signs, road signs.


Ever noticed the metaphysics of road signs?
The ever present reminders strategically placed
by the neon-orange mystics of the RTA?

Indeed, reverend! A pulpit
at every freeway exit. A million fingers
raised across the country.
A million RTA Moses booming
that our Golden Calf is doomed.
Repent! The End is Nigh!
One wrong turn and we will sigh
into that fatal speed
of our oncoming fate.
(Retrace your steps to That Point.
Decide again. That way is Home…)

Give pause, pilgrim! Let life resurge
your hard bent back. Drink deep
now so your cells can swim. Breathe
in…. Grass is green again, the eye
unclouded, free of thought. The ear
birdsong, open as a frameless door.
Nothing to do but stop. Cease.
Life shall carry you over
to that other shore.

What hallelujah of final release from division!
The eternal fight of I and I, of suck and spit,
Ended! One road now, shining,
Endless as it snakes our way
among round green hills. One path now,
pathless. Beyond crossroads, lines, signs.
Straight as light, wheel-round,
it bends into its own sweet nothing
that is the final stuff of flesh.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 22, 2016.

2 Responses to “Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying)”

  1. another one i resonate with truly, peter…
    right up the visual alley i’ve been walking in…

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