An email from a friend this evening contained an aphorism from E.M. Cioran. The aphorism (from, I’m guessing “The Trouble With Being Born”) is:
She meant absolutely nothing to me. Realizing, suddenly, after so many years, that whatever happens I shall never see her again, I nearly collapsed. We understand what death is only by suddenly remembering the face of someone who has been a matter of indifference to us.
For most all of us, our daily life includes the presence of other people. The boy on the train with the white earphones, the young lady walking under the streetlight holding a shopping bag while typing on her cellphone or the young man at the cash register of the discount store down the street. These nameless others are somehow part of life and not part of it. We sometimes see them and sometimes do not. Probably, we see them and forget them. Even after only thirty minutes I fail to remember the face of the young man at the discount store. On some level, he means nothing to me other than being “the guy that works at the store”. More so are the countless others that we may pass by on the street, at the train station, on the bus. For the most part it seems that we move in our own bubbles, bubbles filled with holes, openings for the others that we must interact with in daily life. Its not that I don’t like the person at the counter ringing up my goods, but its just that I know that it is probably only in this brief encounter that we will ever meet.
It is hard to grasp other people as the unique once-occurent happenings that they are. Other unknown people come bound up in their garmented state, alight perhaps with make-up or fumbling about with shopping bags and briefcases. Perhaps we ignore them. Probably we do. Even if we have a brief-run in with them, they fade a bit from our consciousness and disappear. The boy at the store who held the door, the smiling passerby, the bus driver…they all fade away.
For Cioran it is through the recognition of the unique existence, the pure only-onceness of the other person, that we can understand mortality. To say the words “well, we are all mortal” is cliche, but sometimes…sometimes…it is through this way of thinking that the realness of death as the ultimate happening, strikes us, grounds us and transcends us. The unknown others that one never had the chance to meet, that slipped away, are gone. The face of a friend’s deceased relative passes before the mind. The face that we didn’t interact with, the face that while illuminated with life, didn’t enter into our close communicative sphere.
The passing-away of an unknown other, of an other who we may have just only brushed shoulders with or the passing away of a childhood classmate strikes us at some meta-level, some level below the radar…there is something cold in it, something indifferent in the whole act itself…something chilling, perhaps. The chance to see that person again has vanished, they are no more. However, something lingers, that face again, that distant face which hovers and fades like a distorted image of a television screen filled with static.
I think that in this aphorism, Cioran has captured and transcribed a moment of lucidity, one of these looking through the cracks moments, and he feels death welling up…a death that calls him to realize our for-the-most-part ignorance of the reality of the other as a pure unique moment of space and time. I think Cioran is calling the reader to think deeply about those around us that we simply see but do not meet, hear but do not know and, perhaps, through this contemplation, we may savor something, some recognition of the other, perhaps even a compassionate complicity for the other. Maybe, this is hopeful…