Yesterday I got to do my Monsters Chapel talk. I entitled it "Monsters as Memento Mori." If you read my earlier post on this you're aware of how I think monsters (along with Halloween) can function as a memento mori.
Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you are mortal" or "Remember you will die." Memento mori refers to an art form where reminders of death are painted or included in a painting. The classic example is a still life of a skull:
Sometimes a hourglass is added to symbolize the sands of time:
Occasionally, more subtle details are added, like bubbles:
The bubbles remind me of these biblical passages (along with the entire book of Ecclesiastes):
James 4.14bGiven my existential bent, you won't be surprised to know that I use a memento mori. On my desk is a skull I use for this purpose. A picture of my desk:
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
[Yahweh] remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be."
That's my skull on top of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Freud is also waving at you in the bottom right corner (he's a card in a mug of pens). The skull, incidentally, is wearing my academic hat, the hat that goes with my academic robes when I participate in commencement. Couldn't think of a better place to hang my hat.
[If you want a tour of my office, I'll continue. Hanging in the middle of the picture, and from the ceiling, is a dragon puppet I bought in Prague castle. On the top of my desk is a phrenology bust. Next to the bust are some rare/prized books I own: First edition copies of some William James, a first edition book autographed by William Stringfellow, some first edition copies of Ernest Becker, etc.
Looking at the skull from the other direction, from where I sit, this part of my office looks like this:
In the foreground is my vintage rotary phone. (Funny story about that. The phone I had before this one was a fancy digital phone that could do all this cool stuff. I never used the cool stuff. So when I got the rotary phone I had to place a work order to get the digital line switched back to an analog line. The phone guys were just flummoxed. They keep asking my administrative coordinator, "Is he sure he wants to do this? He's going to lose a lot of functionality." She just smiled, "You don't know Richard. Yes, he's aware and this is what he wants." I love my rotary phone! Jana gave it to me for Christmas. It was huge hit with the boys. They asked, "How does it work?" I said, "Well, you put your finger in the hole and then turn the dial until your figure hits the metal piece over there. Then pull your figure out." They thought it was the coolest thing. And I make calls just to dial the phone.)
Just past the Calvin and Hobbes books and the skull with gold-tasseled hat is the small art desk Aidan used when he was little. It's covered in paint and markers. Couldn't throw it away. So it's in my office and has, on top of it, my Ugly Doll collection. I'm big into Ugly Dolls.]
But back to this post. I have a memento mori--a skull on my desk. And on hard days at work I look at it and think: Remember the truth about all this stuff around you, all this stuff that is stressing you and everyone else out--all this striving, pushing, competing, assessing, goal-setting, excelling, climbing, and performing.
It's all just Vanity of Vanities.