Memento Mori


In Victorian times there was a fashion for keeping Memento Mori about the place, maybe on your desk, glaring gloomily at you… maybe on the mantle above the fireplace. The Memento Mori was intended to be, as the name suggests, a reminder of the finitude of human life. It was supposed to say to you, remember that one day you too shall die.

As a child I had something of a powerful fear of death. I remember vividly that I would leap out of bed the moment I was awake with a sort of fear of losing precious minutes from my very finite life. You may think it a strange thing for an eight year old to be obsessing over in the back of the skull, but I did. Over time that fear of death ebbed away a bit. Maybe adulthood does give us more of an illusion of time unchanging? Certainly, our twenties, even our thirties, can seem as if they are stuck in the amber resin of timelessness. The body and the mind can seem either changeless, or in the case of the mind, under a gradual and never-ending state of improvement. I honestly don’t think I had my wits about me until I was at least twenty-eight. Maybe older.

Lately though, I have been feeling something of that feeling of life being finite again. It might be temporary. It might not. I have always half-wanted to have a Memento Mori on my own desk–maybe a clean white minimalist and artsy skull–so perhaps this is just a stronger feeling attaching to something that has been there all along. Certainly, my most recent feeling that life is short, precious and ought not be wasted did come about through a series of outside influences. I was listening to an ABC Radio National Tim Minchin and Phillip Adams interview where they discuss the importance of getting things done before you die. That led me to re-listen to Tim Minchin’s UWA Address. And then, to get extra gloomy, I listened to the recent ABC Radio Nation Philosopher’s Zone program titled Life as a Matter of Death. At that point, perhaps it would be surprising if I did something other than experience a long, slow introspective glance at the self, at mortality and at the art of getting things done.

One thing stuck me in particular, the thought experiment suggested by Nietzsche (yes, yes, a problematic philosopher, but bear with me), that you should imagine that tonight a demon creeps into your bed and whispers to you that you will live every day of your life over and over again, exactly as you are going to live it tomorrow and the next day and the next. Your life will be forever on repeat after you reach the end of it. In that case, are you living the days and having the experiences that you want to have? Are you living as you want to relive?

I haven’t heard this particular thought experiment before, and I found it interesting, and a little frightening and motivating too. The old adage of ‘live each day as if it is you last’ never did make much sense to me. It involves too much burning up of the future to fuel the pleasures of the now. But that other way of looking at things, that is something to think on.

I suppose a final thing to think on is that I do not have a Memento Mori on my desk. Instead, I have what I call The Snail of Encouragement. It’s a small, artsy, crafty sculpture I bought in Tasmania from an artist in the Salamanca. The snail is not brightly coloured, mostly white and yellow and russet colours: but he or she (I have never decided and snails are hermaphrodites anyway…) has this beautiful, encouraging smile. I do find that when I feel discouraged, the Snail of Encouragement helps, in its strange, inanimate way.

So maybe that is something approaching my point. It is good to remember that life is finite and the minutes precious, but don’t forget to have a little joy and encouragement in with the mix too. A life driven entirely ahead of the storm-clouds of death is a bleak life. A mixture of light and dark, dapple and shade, radiance and shadow, is I think what we all need.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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