Justin E. H. Smith
The Franco-Romanian aphorist and pessimist Émile Cioran describes his childhood in the Transylvanian village of Răşinari as follows:
My childhood was a paradise. Really! The Boacii hill is for me something entirely essential. Everything else seems to be of an incomparable mediocrity… You cannot imagine the extent to which those images are present to my mind. Without diminishing them in the least, an idiotic period that I regret having lived through has imposed itself between them and me.
I personally could not care less about the vividness of Cioran's memories of childhood. What matters to me are my own memories, not of Răşinari circa 1920 but of Rio Linda circa 1980, of the insects and the birds I encountered, of the fox that I imagined to live in what we called the ‘back pasture’ even though I'd never seen him; of the leaves I tore off from our garden's specimens, rolled between my fingers, and sampled on my tongue; of the mole I once found floating dead in the swimming pool; and of the cans of Del Monte vegetables I once discovered in the cupboard, bloated from botulism like a mole in a pool.
Who cares, you say, and that is in part my point. We each care about our own childhood thing, and can't believe that others, who've failed to share in it, nonetheless go about their adult lives as though nothing were missing. But while the particular details of Boacii Hill or of Rio Linda cannot be expected to matter, the fact that each of us has our own version of these places is worthy of some reflection.
Henry Miller once protested that there was at least as much metaphysical mumbo jumbo as smut in his oeuvre, and that it probably would have been energy better spent to take him to task for the former luxuriance. How likely is it, after all, that anyone could say anything meaningfully new about the au-delà, something that is neither recycled Blavatskyite blather, nor stale church dogma that is more memorized than believed, nor, worst of all, falsely comforting pabulum about 'resting' or 'being in a better place' after one's death? I'm certainly not going to try, but would simply like to record some intuitions I have had lately. (And no, it is not that I think intuitions have any legitimate place in philosophy, but who said or even implied that I am attempting to write philosophy?)
I have often felt like saying to adults: quit worrying about the afterlife. This already is the afterlife. You ghouls. You ghostwalking former children. Then I want to ask them: Why do you worry about whether your soul will exist 100 years from now? When is the last time you worried about whether it existed 100 years ago? When is the last time your presumed nonexistence in 1909 bothered you in the slightest? Could it be meaningful to ask what it was like to be me in 1909? I don't mean what would it have been like had I been alive in 1909. I mean what was it like. My sense is that young children would, if asked, have a different understanding of what is at issue in this question than adults would, and that it is when we come to think of the question as adults do that our elanguescence begins, and that our primary vital experience in childhood is reduced to an echo.
Now of course it is well known that not every culture is as preoccupied as ours with the question of the fate of the soul, to the near total exclusion of the question of the source of the soul. It seems to me that those cultures that tell themselves things about life before birth, as a way of explaining why this life is the way it is, might be in a better position to generate satisfying stories. They might, to put it another way, have come up with explanatorily more powerful religions. It seems to me that talk of life-after-death is pure speculation, born of fear, whereas talk of life-before-birth is rooted in our experience of this life. This, I think, is why the theory of anamnesis continues to be taken seriously by epistemologists, while the ‘theory’ of, say, the Last Judgment has no place in any attempt to make sense of things that hews as close as possible to what passes for naturalism in the current age.
And this is where the feeling shared by Cioran and Ivan Il’ich and Citizen Kane and so many others who have made it to this afterlife of adulthood might prove to be not just each his own private incommunicable Rosebud, but instead a key to understanding the continuity between our lives and the spans of time that frame them. When those early childhood memories come back to me most vividly, what is most striking about them is how beginningless they seem to be. This is the way it always was, it seems. There are and always have been the cardinal points, for example: to what would later be called the North, there is the back pasture, and then Elverta; to the South, there is G Street, and then good Sunny Mason’s home with the Danish hearts on it, the good Masons who were in the Lodge or the Grange or whatever it's called with my grandparents since the days of horse carts; to the East there is the Okie family in the trailer with the mad dogs on chains, so trashy we'd never even think of speaking to them, then there is Dry Creek Boulevard, then the high school, then the airport, then the brown fields of Yolo County; to the West there is the side pasture, then Hank's home, then the Air Force base, then the ghetto. 'Hank' is short for 'Henry' though 'Henry' already sounds like it's short for something, but the adults say there are kings named Henry and the German version is 'Heinrich'. Hank is a simple man with hair black and greasy like Ronald Reagan's: he loads and unloads bails of hay. And in every direction there are the animals, some that live in human society and some that just overlap with it, all providing running commentary on what transpires here in the center of the world, all worth listening to. And beyond them there are the plants, who don't talk because they don't really have to, since they are themselves what they would say, and you can learn what that is just by studying them with your eyes and nose and fingers. You can put them in your mouth too. You can recall what you already knew about them.
Joan Didion once wrote of the outskirts of Sacramento, by which she surely meant Rio Linda, among other air-base-hugging exurbs of California's modest capital, that out there “are marshaled the legions of aerospace engineers, who talk their peculiar condescending language and tend their dichondra and plan to stay in the promised land; who are raising a new generation of native Sacramentans and who do not care, really do not care, that they are not asked to join the Sutter Club.” It makes one wonder, she goes on, “late at night when the ice is gone; introduces some air into the womb, suggests that the Sutter Club is perhaps not, after all, the Pacific Union or the Bohemian; that Sacramento is not the city. In just such self-doubts do small towns lose their character.”
I quite literally do not understand what Didion is talking about. We come from the same place, but that's the end of it. I don't know whether my family counts as old or new in Sacramento, though I do know they were there before the aerospace people. Yet I scarcely know what the Sutter Club is, let alone do I stay awake at night worrying about its sufficiency, or wondering when I'll be nominated. She announces that in Sacramento “there is no reality other than land.” Real estate has such a pull on Sacramentans that, as she tells us, “even I, when I was living and working in New York, felt impelled to take a University of California correspondence course in Urban Land Economics.” Well I've never bought or sold anything of value, let alone considered taking a course like that.
So speak for yourself, Joan Didion, and I'll speak for myself, but I'll also use your reflections in a cautionary way, so as not to presume too quickly that my sense of what is in the blood, and of the way this is determined by where I was from, may be extended beyond my own queer experience. Of course, it is thanks to the adult capacity to deal and plan that Didion's ancestors succeeded in gaining title to all the good land, the land that is not on a flood plain, leaving the Okie and Arkie migrants to farm what they could on the outskirts, without even having to exchange the old tragic plights that held their folk culture together, in songs like 'Three Feet High and Rising', for new, more distinctively Californian ways of failing.
Yet it was at the very lowest point of our land, in the back pasture, where the rainwater would collect in November, and, so it seemed, would mix with the cow pats to generate tadpoles. It was at least three feet high come Thanksgiving, which made it perfect for stomping and splashing and even diving under, getting right into the mix, grabbing clods of half-digested hay from the bottom, getting a feel for spontaneous generation. What does Joan Didion know of that, I wonder, she who was born already wizened and wise? Didion is all adult, and always was, and it is for this reason that she forgets that before there is real estate, there are landscapes, and before dichondra come to mean something in the elaborate scheme of social distinctions of taste, they are flowers. This is the level at which I want to linger for a while.
Cognitive science now tells us that this feeling of recollection is not unfounded. What is it but anamnesis when a snake is introduced into a monkey's cage, and the monkey, who has never before seen a snake, clamors away in terror? If a human baby were born in a space colony, and fed nothing but MRE's and shown nothing but grey man-made things and lifeless moonscapes, only to return to the earth at an advanced age and to be immersed in an environment filled with flora and fauna, all breathing into and out of the same dank and earthy atmosphere, all weighed down by the same gravity, is there any other word but 'recollection' to describe the experience that person would have?
But what is it that one can remember besides ones own experience? I'm willing to go out on a limb and say there is such a thing as genetic memory –not the narrow atavism of Didion and her aristocratic pioneers, but the reality and immensity of the scattered mereological sum of animal lives– and that the greater obstacle to believing in such a thing is not what we know about biology, but what we refuse to give up about the metaphysics of the individual. I take it that there is no metaphysically significant event when two parental gametes become a zygote, and nor can I find, after that, the crucial moment in the process of cell division such that before it there was one less being on the list of things in the world, and after it one more. So it’s simple: one remembers one's past life, not the life of an individual being, but a life diffused throughout nature, indistinct from nature, and way down, so to speak, at the bottom of the food chain. I also take it that this sort of memory is something that comes quite naturally to small children, and that is forgotten over time as our biographies begin to come together and make us feel like distinct substances. This is why children are by nature pananimists: they know something we’ve forgotten. We get big and dull-witted, we get real-estate licenses and landscapes become ‘land’, and we reimagine the recollection experienced in early childhood as mere learning, and even congratulate ourselves for teaching things to children they could not help but know.
It is the forgetfulness of that mode of experience that leads people to hope to sit around in heaven forever, more or less as they do here. Sometimes this is called a 'childish' view of the afterlife, though in fact it is anything but that. It is a resolutely adult theory, an idiotic theory, one that comes to be compelling only when one's existence comes to be wrapped up in post-zygotic autobiography, in all those stories one tells about oneself, stories that seem to depend on not coming back apart, on holding on to title, on not returning to the elements.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
For a lovingly crafted tribute to Rio Linda, from which the first two photos above were gratefully borrowed, go here.