Featured image by Kristy Dooley.
By James Clark Ross
‘Transience’ has caused me great distress—so much so that I feel guilty discussing it. But, while many are happy not to lay it onto the examining table, I’m willing to dissect the visceral discomfort it elicits in me right here in front of your eyes. I felt better for writing it; you might not feel better for reading it. This is your warning.
Our reality is underpinned by a fundamental state of being: the impermanence of life.
Perfect moments are ephemeral; they fade and become increasingly remote. We experience nostalgia, its melancholy, for these times gone by, for experiences which will never be relived. We mourn for what and who will never return.
Matter decays. There is no rebirth.
This is the conscious but ruthless experience of transience. Is it possible to cope?
Transience and the difficulty of reality
It was following a talk on transience by Jonathan Lear in May 2018 at the University of London that I was finally able to process some of my emotions on the topic of death.
Lear presented the poem Six Young Men by Ted Hughes, which speaks of our eventual nonexistence. The poem’s subject is a photograph taken of six men shortly before they fought and ultimately died during the First World War.
Six Young Men by Ted Hughes (first and last stanzas only)
The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.
That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.
The poem was written to express our difficulty at comprehending reality: one day we’ll all just be the smiling features of photographs (later we’ll not even be that). This is a troubling thought for us mortal humans. We cannot necessarily fathom the human life cycle in a reasonable way, for we anticipate times when we simply will not be.
We’re aware of life’s boundaries: as far as we perceive life is finite. We know there’s an endpoint, a dead end. And yet the mind wishes to go on in some way. There is an unknown, unreachable future and we still want to be part of it because our versions of reality outlast reality itself. So we conceive afterlives—Heaven, Saṃsāra, immortality—to manage.
There is transience we’re happy with—desire, mood, phase. But all of these are temporary states which say nothing of the permanence we attach to our identities and the meaningfulness we find surrounding them.
We grip onto life—for ourselves and for those we love.
Death surrounds us; its ubiquity a constant reminder that nothing lasts.
Attachment to life cycles oftentimes feels futile. There’s a paradox between our continuous experience of life and its abrupt brevity. Eras end. Movements rise and fall. Nature’ seasons pass: flowers bloom and die, the lives of buzzing creatures succumb to hostility.
Sigmund Freud wrote in his essay On Transience:
‘Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.’
There is brutality to it all. We’re left hopeless and empty by the deaths of family members, companions, and friends. We cannot deal with these events matter-of-factly: no rational power can fix us. The unavoidable realism of death is that it’s deeply upsetting.
Freud considered the state of mourning, in response to loss, a symptom of pathology.
‘Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. The demand arouses understandable opposition—it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, the respect for reality gains the day.’
But he was wrong to treat the state of mourning as a symptom of pathology: that therapy can restore reality is fantasy. There is no justice in death that will obediently restore all that was destroyed—no retribution, no removal of pathology, no ‘getting over it’ that can be reasoned to. Transience reflects a dissonance between reality and our desirable perceptions of it, in which we inherently but pointlessly cling onto the lives we value, delivering colossal aftermaths of emotion that we cannot process.
Mourning, while a psychoanalytical riddle, is fundamentally a senseless reaction of the human psyche.
Life knows no fairness: it’s brief and punctuated by irreparable pain. We do not ever fully recover: only bury the sadness and move forward burdened and wounded. There is no solace in these facts alone. There is no true coping strategy for loss. But, by openly addressing life’s transience, I’ve been able to relieve some of the strain of a profound agony.
The weight of transience on my mind is huge. As such, there’ll be another article on the topic, in which I explore meaning, existentialism, and nihilism. Next time: Transience: The angst of existence.