I was perhaps ten or thirteen years old when my family traveled by train to visit a friend in West Virginia. Maybe younger. Probably a bit older. Whatever my age, I remember going to DC to visit the Smithsonian. The art museum wasn’t the only museum we visited, but it is the only one I remember. And in that museum I remember only one painting: one of Jackson Pollock’s very large, and very long, drip painting. Very possibly the one pictured above. I didn’t note the title, the date of creation, or even the fact that it represented Pollock’s drip painting period. None of that matter to me then. The presence of the paint on the canvas completely swallowed my attention.
Why do I bother bringing up this memory now? Well, this painting, the experience of standing in front of this painting, haunts me. It’s haunted me ever since I first saw it, all the way to this precise moment. It haunts me, because after all these years, I still can’t verbalize the experience. The painting seems to defy expression — in spite of being a form of expression itself. Or maybe I should say, as a form of expression it defies further expression, further explanation, further analysis. It is complete. Yet somehow it is also incomplete. Or rather, it’s form of completeness is by nature incomplete. You see why this haunts me. What form of “completeness” could possibly be “incomplete” by nature. It makes absolutely no sense. And yet I remember, standing before the painting, short, young, ignorant of what I didn’t know, and I remember feeling a sense of endlessness within the texture of the paint, within the composition of the lines and drips. Endless. Yet also complete in its endlessness. But this seems contradictory. If something is endless, if something never comes to an end, it can never be finished, and so by nature is never complete. Anything endless is by nature incomplete. And yet, Pollock’s painting aroused in me an overwhelming, baffling, almost terrifying sense of eternity. An eternity that was complete. That was finished. Even though such an thing is impossible.
But again, why bring this up now? Perhaps, because I’ve never made an attempt to verbalize the experience, I feel that it’s time to try. Perhaps. Or maybe the idea of a “complete” eternity bothers me on a human level. I’m talking about death here. Death and the idea of eternity afterwards. I’ve grown up with the idea of eternity as a given; the question I grew up asking wasn’t what are the implications of eternal existence, but what will exist in the eternal afterlife? Will there be golf courses? Will there be a need to eat or sleep? And, several years after puberty, will there be sex in the afterlife? None of these questions are really relevant to anything. They are unanswerable, and to some extent irrelevant. The real question, I think — or I am lead to think today — is what is eternity? What does eternal existence imply? Mortal existence, it seems to me, finds its purpose largely in making and reaching goals. We plan out our careers, save for retirement, even prepare ourselves for death and the possibility of judgement and enjoying a pleasant afterlife. Everything humans work towards has an ultimate end — a foreseeable goal. Our entire lives are predicated on the idea that things come and go. That we begin and end: work and retire, live and die, wake up and go to bed. And we have very precise instruments to measure exactly how much “time” has passed between achievements.
Without this sense of beginning and end, what is left for us? What purpose can we possibly imagine in an existence that doesn’t end? Imagine, for example, those scientists who, back in 2005 (I think) launched a probe towards Pluto, knowing it won’t arrive until at least ten years later. Ten years. Ten long empty years where nothing happens except the passing of time. But eventually, the probe will reach Pluto and will begin sending information back to Earth. The project will have reached the completion of its mission. Or at least the probe will have finished its job. Done. Next comes the data crunching, which also takes long hours, long years of dedication. But even the data crunching will come to a head, an impasse, an end of sorts. But suppose those same scientists sent out a probe knowing its travel will be endless. It will never arrive but simply exist in transit forever. Always the same probe, always moving, but without any practical direction, because eternity has no end, and so living within eternity couldn’t provide any ultimate goal. The probe, the metaphorical human soul, will continue traveling towards something it can never reach. This terrifies the hell out of me.
And this is why Pollock’s painting is so haunting. It seems to suggest to me the possibility of an eternity that is not endless, but has come to a completion of some sort. The painting itself is complete, finished, nothing more to add or erase. And yet the experience of it feels endless. What to make of this? What to do with it?
Maybe the eternity I experience in the painting is a kind of unending collection of mortal events. Lives that come into existence and flicker into nothing, only to burst into another existence that exists for a time and dies, and so on for eternity. This sounds very similar to the Buddhist idea of the circle of reincarnation — the wheel of unending death and rebirth, until the moment of enlightenment that takes you out of the circle into . . . well enlightenment I guess. But this disturbs me. The idea of “escaping” the wheel of rebirth is very disturbing to me. Because what then? Without birth and death and rebirth, we are back inside the space probe on its way to nothing.
Give me death. Not “give me freedom or give me death,” but give me death. Death is freedom. Freedom from my own limitations, my own personality, my own perspective. If I can never fully comprehend the life of a fish, then let me die and become one. If I can never understand the pain a woman feels holding her still-born child, then let me die and be reborn as that woman. And what of the other worlds? Let me die and live between suns and three moons. Let me die completely. The idea of eternity is terrifying, but only if I am eternal within eternity. I could not bear to be me forever.