Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Sadness and the monuments: remembering the ancestors and embracing this one life

(Or 'Ramblings and Reflections upon sadness', part II)

Another aspect of sadness in relation to the megalithic monuments is the feeling of melancholy  engendered by thinking about the ancestors, and the lives that they endured, and the sometimes harsh existences they lived through. And to what end? So that we can exist on this day? So that we too can endure the fullness of life, and all its agonies and all its ecstasies?

I think part of the sadness relates to the temporal, and temporary, nature of our physical existences. As I wrote in Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, "we are here only for a short time". We look at the magnificent megalithic edifices, those wondrous temples of stone from the ancient world, and we stand in admiration of a society of people who created something so powerfully enduring, so permanent, in an ever-changing and ever-vanishing world. And that sums up a powerful part of the human experience on this earth. We are born. We live a short life. We die. And what do we leave behind, as a memorial of our brief existence here?

The builders of Newgrange created something powerfully enduring in an ever-changing world.

In Land of the Ever-Living Ones, I addressed the issue of ancestors in the beautiful dialogue between the sean-draoi, the wise old man, and the young boy. The sean-draoi tries to impress upon the boy that we must never forget the ancestors, because we are them and they are us.

"We are the ancestors," the sean-draoi declares, to the bemusement of the young boy.
"We are on a winding trail, an ancestral pathway that is much longer than any road we will ever walk in this world. It winds out of the furthest reaches of the past, and leads onwards to some unknown destiny, far off in the distant future. If we were to forget from whence this path emerged, from our own mothers and fathers of the long forgotten yesteryear, if we were to forsake our own journey along this path, would we not also be denying the magical future, the unknowable destiny that awaits our myriad descendants yet to come? Are there not a thousand, nay a million, even more, of our offspring who will look back along the path to remember us, their distant progenitors, those who continued the pilgrimage on this great path that leads back to the very dawn of time itself?"

"We are the meeting point of ancestors and descendants. The track leading from the past, and the road heading off into the future, are joined, here and now, with us. We are what binds ancestors to progeny, forebears to descendants, yesterday to tomorrow. We have a very special place in the life of the world, and we must recognise and honour it, holding fast to the onerous pathway beneath our feet, and all the time remembering ancestors who have brought us to this point. Some day we will be the ancestor, lifted off this worldly trackway and brought aloft towards the heavenly realm, and although our own feet will no longer tread the sacred pathway of life, those of our children and our children’s children will, we hope, find their way on the never-ending trail from ancestor to descendant."

It's so beautiful. And yet to tragic. And poignant. None of us will endure the harsh contract that life imposes upon us. "We are locked into a binding and irreversible contract with life, a treaty that insists upon death for every last one of us, with no exception".(1) The 17th century poet James Shirley, in his poem Death the Leveller, wrote:
The glories of our blood and state
     Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
     Death lays his icy hand on kings:
               Sceptre and Crown
               Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
The following short film that I made a few years ago tries to capture some sense of the sadness relating to the passing of the ancestors, and of the temporal and fleeting nature of our earthly existence:(2) 


Faced with this awful reality, that we must all tumble down into the dusty grave of death, what are we to do?  We have but one choice. To live life, and all the consequences that that choice entails. Joseph Campbell has some good advice for it:

“All life stinks and you must embrace that with compassion.”  (3)

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

“You can't say life is useless because it ends in the grave.”

Of course, all the above is predicated on the belief that "this is it", that this life is the only life, and that when we die, we are going into a grave, and we will be extinguished forever.

If there is one thing that can be said about the ancient mound of Síd in Broga/Newgrange (and there are many great things that can be said about it), it's that the people who built it were keenly participating in life and its mysteries, at the same time, preparing themselves for what might lie beyond. In Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, I postulated that the design of the monument is in tune with aspects of the near death experience (NDE), with its dark tunnel leading towards the light. We might call them primitive, but our distant forebears were pragmatic about life and death. They sensed that there was something beyond this life, and aspects of this belief survived into later times in the form of stories about wondrous otherworlds and places or realms where people lived on in happiness.
"All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world...have told us clearly that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning. But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert where the majority imagine that this life is all that there is... Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove fatal for the future."(4)
And so it becomes clear that the sadness that I sometimes feel at the monuments is not always one that's inherently part of those monuments, but rather a sadness that I bring from my modern world and its attendant psychosis, and its bulldozers. We see fit to destroy in order to create. We deem it normal to rip the earth asunder, because in our own shortsightedness, we think that this is all there is, so we'd better make the most of it, even if that means depriving our descendants of a hospitable planet.

Despite my great love for the monuments, there are yet some hard questions that must be asked. To shy away from them would be a disingenuous act. An honest appraisal of our relation to the mounds, and the landscape, and the past, and the ancestors, requires us to remove the mask and to see ourselves as both ancestors and descendants. What would we have done, in the same situation, in the past? And what are we likely to do in the future? Does anything really change? Do we change at all?

We might ask Newgrange if it should ever have been built at all.

At Newgrange, "we wish that we could scale the fence, walk right up to its gleaming facade, and ask the very monument to speak to us of matters cosmic, of creation and the journey of life and, ultimately, why we are here and where we are going".(5)

Could I even dare to suggest that, at Newgrange, I might even ask it, "should you have been built at all?"

Was its construction not the beginning of this sometimes awful phase of humanity, the one in which we rip the earth up to build our castles of mortal life on foundations of sand? Has the result of this "civilisation" of ours not been the gradual removal and detachment of humans from the natural world? And has that divorce of human from wilderness not been one of the greatest crimes against the planet? (I'm not blaming the construction of Newgrange for the state of the planet, but merely opening up a line of enquiry here.)
"Modern industrial society is a fanatical religion. We are demolishing, poisoning, destroying all life-systems on the planet. We are signing IOUs our children will not be able to pay ... We are acting as if we were the last generation on the planet. Without a radical change in heart, in mind, in vision, the earth will end up like Venus, charred and dead."(6)

When we left the forests, and the antediluvian hunter-gatherer life of the Mesolithic, were we not beginning on this frightful march towards oblivion? Could we yet contemplate the notion that there was someone who stood watching the construction of Síd in Broga all those 50 centuries ago, who observed with bewilderment the emergence of a new phase of human madness?

To be continued...

References and footnotes:
(1) Murphy, Anthony (2012), Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, p.134.
(2) I should add that several times in this movie I mention the "men" who built Dowth. This is not an intentionally sexist statement, but rather a repetition of the myth about Dowth, which says that the king commanded "all the men of Erin" to build it.
(3) Campbell, Joseph, Pathways to Bliss.
(4) Sogyal Rinpoche (2002), The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p.8.
(5) Murphy (2012), p.10.
(6) Former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, Jose Antonio Lutzenberger (quoted in the Sunday Times, London, March 1991)

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