Existent Death

Chapter 8 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

At PJ’s the three convened to work on Tender Branch [an excerpt of PJ’s account of his “death and renascence” in mid-life]. Whenever Rogue and I talked about PJ’s invented words, odd style and his way of separating sentences with three dots, PJ looked annoyed. Rogue was curious about PJ’s “new” words, engaging in word play with him, while I tended to accept them whole.

It was hot inside his apartment, with only a fan to cool the three of us, and when we were almost finished editing, Rogue and I decided to go outside and enjoy the day. PJ, reluctantly, let us go.

Coming back from the park, PJ met us on the corner and ambled back with us to the street-level door. Rogue waved and went on his way. I followed PJ upstairs.

“Rogue is deliberately taking you away from the work,” he fumed, “because he does not want The Old Man to accomplish anything.” He went on to say that Rogue wanted him to remain handicapped and helpless. “The Company, he could see, would never work, because Rogue was determined to subvert it.”

I assured him that Rogue said he would finish the typing later that night. But PJ felt Rogue would find some reason not to do it. “He’ll find one excuse or another, because it has never been his intention to help PJ.”

His assault on Rogue appalled me. If he kept harassing Rogue, wouldn’t he leave?

As soon as Rogue came back, PJ attacked him. Rogue shrugged it off. He took the pages home to type. Leaving PJ’s apartment, he and I agreed that it was “all exhausting.”

PJ said that Rogue was attracted to handicapped people. In PJ, the handicap was his age and illness, his “decrepit body.”

I received a letter from PJ:

The old man gave the kids their freedom after dinner and came to his squalor, was lonely, far too, went out into a light drizzle. Sixth Avenue had become a street theater. Couple guitarists, amplified, and a wailing sounding instrument were blasting country music; seated in a shelter, a large circle had gathered for audience and the guitar case was full of coins and bills. Good for the old man. He could hear every note, feel the rhythm. A young woman in street clothes danced, her feet, body and arms punctuating the sound. The old man felt an anguish of pleasure, stayed and watched for an hour.

The dancer was a cripple, at last she took an abandoned cane and shopping bag and limped away. So, we’re the existent dead. Moments of diversion, sound in the rain, then back to our evasion (however) of life. The old man returned to his lonely bed, after pills, with a wish for sleep/death.

“I don’t think you’re one of the existent dead.”

“No,” he said, but at times he experienced it. He handed me several pages.

I read, “Existent death is a phase of variable lengths of time. The existent dead live without consciousness and completely through rationalization, a thought process by which we evade evaluating what is happening in our lives. Everyone goes through periods of existent death, and of being renewed, into times when we are more conscious of what we are doing and pursuing what is valuable to us.”

He wrote what I thought was succinct, with a provocative ending:

Existent death is a state of being in a functioning body, by one’s self and in relation to others, but evading consciousness of experience, especially the memory of eternity in the present instant.

PJ stayed up late cutting the pages and pasting them up for his booklet. Coming in I saw him lying on the bed in a state of exhaustion. At the work table Rogue and I had set up with its strong overhead lamp to aid his poor eyesight, I looked through the pages. Some were slightly crooked, but easily fixed. I had to admire the job he did.

At the bottom of the title page, though, he had cut off the last lines. I told him and he nodded, yes, he thought so. He wasn’t sure, because his eyesight was so poor.

He had asked me to make a number of copies of each page in case he made errors, and I selected the best one of that page and cut it carefully and correctly, aware that he had done this as a professional in his earlier life.

My assistance made him look dejected, but simultaneously hopeful. When I finished he barely glanced at the work, as if to say I know it’s all right, but I couldn’t do it, don’t rub it in. So I moved on quickly. He acted resigned, but as we collated the pages he livened up.

We put the cover on the mock-up and he was enthusiastic again.

“The old man has been thinking we three might promote the publication of PJ’s million words.”

Tender Branch was out, he said, and before that a blurb on “World’s End.” The writer had hundreds of pieces. The three of us could print, bind by hand, and mail them.

He wrote to me:

The old man’s efforts at promoting the writer had been weak, for the lack of concept how to. Tender Branch had shown the way.

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14 thoughts on “Existent Death

  1. I find this interesting but leaves me wondering: “Existent death is a state of being in a functioning body, by one’s self and in relation to others, but evading consciousness of experience, especially the memory of eternity in the present instant.”

    I wonder about the term “evading consciousness”. It implies intentionality, as if the state is consciously willed. To consciously evade consciousness seems contradictory. I also wonder about evading a memory of eternity in the present moment. I wonder whether eternity is the sort of thing that one remembers.

    I wonder most of all whether PJ was one of that very sad generation of thinkers who did their thinking alone, and therefore when they thought impossible thoughts, they had no one to pull them up with an obvious retort. Logic is a communal discipline. Solitary thinkers tend to wander down mazes of impossible thought.


  2. PJ’s generation was influenced by Freud and others working on how the brain and “mind” operate(s). Consciousness was a new field to explore then, and still baffles thinkers today, as you are very much aware. Whether we evade the reality of our experience, of being too conscious of it, purposely or as an unconscious, or non-conscious, defense because at that time we can’t cope with it, is an interesting issue to debate. I think it’s a bit of both.


    • Yes it is baffling and Freud has a divided reception even today. I can appreciate evasions of thought i.e. refusing to think about something that has come to ones attention, and perhaps this is all PJ means. I can also appreciate that at any time our awareness of something is never full and complete, and whatever we say about it is always a bit like the tip of the iceberg. I can agree that often people think about whatever it is in a very superficial way and refuse to contemplate the whole. This links to the thought of eternity in the present, or the nunc stans, the standing now, which is a different dimension of time to the flow that seems to pervade the phenomenality of experience. I can agree with PJ that it is easier to get caught up in the flow than remain in the stillness of being. It is inevitable that the necessity to act means being in the flow of time (as it appears) and so it is easy to forget there is a different way of apprehending the world altogether.


  3. Beautifully stated as usual. PJ meant though a very thorough suppression of consciousness, a time of not being fully active or participatory in this life. I think he believed he found the nunc stans by deep diving into the flow. And everything we do or say is instantly a memory, so even those moments of feeling or being in tune or touch with eternity are folded into memory, but they remain part of every present moment if we learn how to savor our experience as it happens.


    • Mary, overnight I’ve been contemplating PJ’s words and your comments upon them. I think PJ was going against the received wisdom of the philosophical tradition, if he thought to be within the nunc stans whilst at the same time being totally within the flow (the chaos, the turbulence, the flux) of existence. When philosophers discovered the nunc stans it was by leading a life of contemplation rather than activity (for example political or economic). Arendt refers to this as the difference between ‘vita activa’ and ‘vita contemplativa’. Of course in practice no one can achieve a fully contemplative state all of the time, and quite possibly the point of contemplation is to maintain a sense of order and even serenity whenever one has to become part of the flux.

      Now I come to trying to understand PJ’s experience of ‘existent death’. It is quite possible that his experiences within the flow exhausted him, and he lost contact with the nunc stans. He was also aware of his existence as a deathlike suspension in the midst of life, without contact with the nunc stans (and thus he remembered it, and longed for it).

      As I see it, anyone who fully immerses themselves in the flux, without heed for the consequences, loses contact with the experience of the nunc stans, and enters into a condition of living death. Our position as humans if we are to develop full consciousness of being in the world, is to be partly in the flux, sharing mortality, whilst remaining in the nunc stans, which quite rightly said, is experience of eternity in the now. As such the condition of being “in” the world, is at the same time a condition of being partly removed from it. It is the duality of being/non-being. (But non-being does not mean not-being).

      I think this duality is something of which poets have always been aware and tried to convey in language.


  4. I shall have to defer to PJ’s comprehension of his own life, not disdaining it though. I will need to contemplate it for quite some time! Thanks Mary for putting it all out there so well, and being prepared to make comments to those reading your text without the deep inside comprehension that you so evidently have.


  5. I think there’s a difference between the “flow” and “the flux.” PJ’s flow was his “subliminal stream of consciousness.” This subliminal stream gave him access to his own consciousness and the unconscious. He reached it as you suggest through contemplation, but he tried to keep in touch with it in real time, that is, in the midst of experience. You are right to say that this led at times to periods of high confusion and loss of contact with either the nunc stans or external reality. Then he had his biases which influenced his interpretation of what was occurring. However, he believed he gleaned so much understanding from this approach he continued til the end of his life.


  6. Right! So flow and flux and non-identical. Get this then. Any half way decent account of the world has to allow for flow-flux-nunc stans. Time, timelessness and chaos.


  7. Sorry, a typo. I meant to write “flow and flux are non-identical”. The problem is how to distinguish them. I’m inclined to think of flow as the ordering of flux. It is possible that PJ thought that times of flow were typical and just happened all by itself. If however flux comes before flow, then any apparent ordering could be very temporary, indeed illusory.

    However if we are prepared to consider flow as illusory then it opens the nunc stans up to a similar claim. I am rather more inclined to see flow as the integration of nunc stans into the flux. The nunc stans is an ordering or stabilising principle in the chaos of time (which potentially has feedback loops and all sorts of weird stuff.)

    The upshot of this way of thinking is that the nunc stans is the indispensable principle in order to get any sense of flow in the midst of flux. If one loses the sense of nunc stans one is opened up to the flux without any respite, a state in which everything become disordered, and breakdown happens and life falls apart.


  8. Isn’t this the question Ray Bradbury, in his sci-fi way, grappled with? Are we deluding ourselves, creating our “world” from a tissue of needs and desires? PJ worried about “delusions of comprehension.” Does the nunc stans give us clarity or is it a delusionary state in itself? How can we know? Simply because we experience it as clarity, as being outside time, is not proof that this is so. I do like the “triality” of flow, flux and nunc stans.


  9. This is why we need times of reflection, and in today’s world there is less and less: The nunc stans is an ordering or stabilising principle in the chaos of time (which potentially has feedback loops and all sorts of weird stuff.) This idea is something I would like to explore.


  10. I was thinking about the nunc stans, not a private individual experience of clarity, but as the possibility of all such experiences, for all people, at all times. It is a truly universal standpoint, admitting of no description of itself. Which is why I was doubting whether it could be remembered, but I guess it can be remembered as a state of consciousness divested of any particulars.

    What renders it non-delusionary is the sense of flow one has as a result. One moves into the conscious experience of being in time, as it were stationary, without moving at all. Being behind the wheel of a car is a kind of metaphor of this. The car is doing all the work; one simply steers.

    As such it is neither reflective or projective. It is content to be, but if reflection or projection has to happen (which is does because we are also active in time) the stasis of the nunc stans creates an inner sense of orderliness, of no haste or effort, no push or pull, no frenetic energy.


  11. Thank you, David. I know I hold onto a moment I had years ago, while driving (funny you should use that metaphor), of being for an instant or two in touch with eternity. I recognized it and thought: I will not forget this. I knew that I could not “capture” it, since I am a being in time, yet its resonance is always fresh.


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