Friday, October 17, 2014

Goldengrove Unleaving

I like autumn (which is at least in my part of this Great Republic so appropriately and simply called "Fall").  I love the color we see in the trees, especially in the angled sunlight which makes the world seem somehow more comfortable and accepting.  I like the way fallen leaves swirl in the wind and the not yet oppressive chill in the air.  Some of my most tangible memories of my increasingly distant youth include the smell of burning leaves.  We lived in Michigan then; I don't recall burning leaves anywhere else during my family's travels.  No doubt burning them is prohibited now, and has been for quite some time. 

The title of this post is of course taken from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins (how wonderful it must have been to have "Manley" as a middle name).  A very inventive poet with a suggestively archaic, almost magical, way with words.  "Grieving over goldengrove unleaving" is quite good, I think, as is "Kingdom of Daylight's Dauphin; dapple, dawn-drawn falcon" (I quote from memory, and may be inaccurate).  "Goldengrove" seems particularly appropriate given the temporary golden-like color of the leaves as they slowly--die.  There's no other word for it.

But they return, as does so much else after winter, and the turn of the seasons in turn induced our ancestors to dream of gods who died and were reborn, and even more to dream of being reborn after they died, or at least to live again in some manner, in some place, and better than they had here.  We've had that dream for quite some time, and have it still.  Probably, we had it in Europe even before the Eleusinian Mysteries developed, in some way or another, and those mysteries may date from Minoan times or even before.  Ancient Egypt had such dreamers as well, though in its case death and rebirth was likely suggested by the rise and fall of the Nile.

The person ostensibly grieving in Hopkins' (I'm tempted to call him "Manley" but won't) poem is a child, and the poet implies that those older than a child are inclined to consider the unleaving more coldly, which I assume means less sadly in this context.  This seems odd.  Why would a child grieve over falling leaves at all, let alone more than those old?  One would think children would find little to grieve over in dying nature, and suspect Hopkins of a bit of sly posing.  But we forget that children had a tendency to die with some frequency not long ago if they survived the trauma of birth.  Perhaps the anti-vaccine zealots will see to it that the days of high child mortality will return.  In any case, children in Hopkins' time may have been far more aware of death than they are now, and so may have been more likely to grieve as does his Margaret.

Why does the idea of dying cause us to grieve?  For reasons primarily selfish, perhaps.  Life is all we know.  So, it contains all we can desire as well as all we can fear.  Unless we think we continue in some sense, there's nothing "in" death for us that would render it worth our while.  The idea of nothingness is daunting to those who have been something.  And death deprives us of friends, family, lovers.  Death causes us to suffer just as life does (according to those jolly antinatalists).

The ancients, if they felt life after death was a kind of shadowy, poor substitute for the life they knew (the Greek Hades, for example), apparently longed for everlasting glory, or at least everlasting notoriety.  The story of Herostratus who burned the great temple to Artemis to the ground so his name would be known forever is instructive.  We still know his name, or some of us do.  Human lifetime was shorter then, though we hear of some who lived into what is considered old age even now. Yet they struggled for immortality of a sort.

If we become nothing at all, though, what possible difference can it make to us that we're remembered, by many or a few?  Clearly, the emphasis then was on the world and not on the world to come, and to such an extent that our lack of participation in the world due to death was not a concern.  What was of concern was what was thought or known by the living.

Perhaps the ancients' feelings towards death were less selfish than ours are now.  We're largely concerned by what, if anything, will happen to us, or what will happen after death.  They were concerned by how they would influence what would happen to or be thought by others after they died.  Or is the desire to influence what takes place after our death, and the steps we take to insure we still have such influence, the ultimate in selfish conduct?

Some of us through wills or trusts impose conditions on the disposal of our property or money in an effort to limit or restrict what our heirs may do with it once theirs.  What better example is there of concerning ourselves with things not in our control than seeking to control what takes place after our death?

Should a Stoic be concerned with what happens after death?  Perhaps Marcus Aurelius didn't take any steps to prevent his lunatic son Commodus from assuming the purple because he felt that to do so would be to seek to control what was not in his control.  But the fellowship we have, according to the Stoics, due to our sharing of the Divine Reason may extend after life if we become one with it after death, and because of that fellowship we retain an interest in those we would leave behind and act for their good.

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