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Memento Mori

This article was written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley

“Cattle die and kinsmen die,

thyself eke soon wilt die;

but fair fame will fade never,

I ween, for him who wins it.”

—“The Sayings of Hár,” stanza 76, Hollander translation

For those who fear it, the Death Wolf banner is a grim provocation and a bearer of ill intent. But for those who choose it as their standard, or even emblazon its image into their skin, it has a very different meaning. It is first and foremost a memento mori, a reminder that we all bear within us the heavy burden of our own mortality. This is a tradition that is often associated with world-rejecting religions, where the memento mori symbolizes the futility of earthly things and the transience of the flesh. More importantly, in the context of the Abrahamic faiths, it directs the seeker’s eyes to Heaven and to God, a reality that supersedes—but also de-values—the contingent world of mere matter. This is the significance of sites like the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, or the Capela dos Ossos in Portugal. One is also reminded of the Hermits of St. Paul (the “Brothers of Death”) or the ahl al-qubur (the “people of the graves”) in Islamic Sufism. In Buddhism, and especially Tibetan Buddhism with its magnificent kapalas and kanglings, ritual implements and imagery connected with death are used to suggest that this world is nothing more than māyā, an illusion. For us, however, the symbol of the death’s head inspires reflection of a different sort altogether. We do not seek a release from the striving and the struggles of existence, nor are we entranced by the promise of a Heavenly afterlife. On the contrary, death represents the outer limit that imbues this life with meaning. Like the anonymous author of the “Hávamál,” it is “the fame of a dead man’s deeds” that matter, and those deeds can only be achieved in the here and now. Because—as the silent testimony of the Totenwolf reminds us—death is coming.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger is notoriously difficult to read. However, for those willing to make the effort, his writing serves as a sweeping critique of Western metaphysics, as well as providing a framework for understanding the decline of European civilization in terms that rival anything found in the works of Oswald Spengler or René Guénon. For readers who want to delve deeper into Heidegger’s ideas, Collin Cleary’s “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Modernists” provides an excellent jumping-off point. Here, I will merely try to sketch out the significance of death for Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, and what this might mean for us.

In philosophical terms, ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the question of Being-as-such. For Heidegger, the question concerning Being is the most important question of all. But what, exactly, does Heidegger mean when he talks about “Being?” We all encounter beings constantly (a chair, a man, a picture hanging on a wall); in fact, everything we experience in our everyday existence is a being that contains within itself the quality of Being. But Being itself cannot be a being (such as “God”), since Being necessarily precedes beings. Being, in Heidegger’s terms, is literally no-thing. All of this might seem hopelessly obscure, but what Heidegger really means when he talks about the Being of things is their meaningfulness. Heidegger does not deny that there is a reality that exists independently of human consciousness (Kant famously defined this as the noumenon or the thing-in-itself). But human beings (who are referred to as Dasein in Heidegger-ese) bestow Being on things by bringing them into presence meaningfully. In Heidegger’s terms, human beings are “the clearing” where the Being (or meaningfulness) of beings reveals itself.

For Heidegger, the error of Western metaphysics has been to paper over Dasein’s true role as “the clearing” or the “opened-ness” where Being comes to presence. In our own lives, we lose ourselves in idle chatter, mindless consumerism, and Facebook posts with our virtual friends, which all distract us from confronting this aspect (which is really the essence) of ourselves. But death is the force that can direct us back towards living in a more authentic manner. In the confrontation with death, and in the anxiety that this inspires, we are forced to experience our own groundless finitude. This, in turn, can compel us to live lives in which we resolutely embrace our nature as the clearing where meaning enters the world. It should be noted that Heidegger is not implying that living authentically means that we can make up “meanings” out of thin air (as a relativist might interpret him). In fact, it is our very nature as beings who will die that situates us within a world of specific possibilities, bounded by the horizon of our own mortality. These possibilities might include the situation of our birth, our family, our language, and our heritage as a part of a people (Volk). They will invariably color the way we bring Being into presence. Therefore, the summons to authenticity can be seen—in part—as an appeal to become who we are.

When Heidegger first published Being and Time in 1927, the idea that the confrontation with death is what can compel us to live authentically would have had a special resonance for his readers. Many were men who had survived the unparalleled brutality of World War I, and who were forever changed by the experience. Like the character Krebs in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home,” simply getting on with the hum-drum routines of work, friends, and family life was no longer an option after the violent upheavals of Soissons and the Argonne. But we do not necessarily need the experience of trench warfare to confront our own mortality (although to live fully, one must sometimes also live dangerously). In some cases, simple mindfulness of death may be enough. A recent article in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology by researchers who study Terror Management Theory (this is apparently a real thing, and not the name of a heavy metal band) found that when athletes were subjected to thoughts and images of death, their performance in competition measurably improved. Even subconsciously, this study seems to suggest, the realization that we are radically finite beings who will one day cease to exist is not just a cause for despair. It is the very impetus that can push us towards the things that matter most: engaging with our world in a meaningful way and building a legacy that will survive us.

Winter is an ideal time to reflect on these themes. In the north, the earth lies frozen under snow and ice and even here, below the Mason-Dixon line, the leaves have fallen from the trees and the foliage stands withered in the barren ground. The days grow short, and the nights grow long. In the starlit sky, one might even see Woden’s ghostly procession, the Wildes Heer, as it charges across the heavens. According to medieval folklore, witnessing this terrible spectacle was said to portend war, plague, or one’s own death. The truth, however, is that we hardly need a portent to tell us that we are all—sooner or later—going to die. Yet it is undoubtedly significant that Woden is not only a god of death, but also a god of inspiration. This is the mythic paradox that the memento mori might be said to invoke: death is a force that gives us meaning.

—Joshua Buckley