In 1965, the English academic Frank Kermode gave a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr college which were later compiled into a book published in 1967 entitled “The Sense of An Ending.” It’s a slim volume, not well-known outside the academic establishment, although the New York Times called the book “brilliant” and the UK Daily Telegraph called it “magnificent.”
Kermode’s book is a work of literary criticism and eschatology that looks at the ways that we make sense of literature and, by extension, the ways we make sense of our lives. From a mortalist’s perspective, there is one aspect of the book that is particularly instructive. Kermode references Aristotle, who quotes the physician Alkmeon who observed that as we are all born in media res [into the middle of things] and die in mediis rebus [in the middle of things], we must create a significance for ourselves that covers the beginning and the end.
Kermode argues that our minds struggle with the idea that our lives only form an infinitesimally small slice of history. Because we are born into the middle of the story, we are drawn to stories because stories have beginnings, middles and ends. In essence, they have a meaning that we lack. This sense of our mortality is primarily why we have evolved into story-tellers and story-consumers.
One concept that Kermode discusses is that of “immanence.” Whether in a story or in life, when an ending is known, it no longer sits at the conclusion of the story waiting to be reached. An ending that is known casts a shadow over the story. In Kermode’s words, it is “immanent” in every page. For example, once you know that, in “Anna Karenina,” the book ends in Anna’s suicide, the ending permeates the entire book and is immanent in each plot point.
This is the essence of “Memento Mori.” Once we’ve flipped off the safety switch that protects us from the knowledge of our own death, that end informs every day.
This is the Stoic Epictetus describing a similar concept: “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: tomorrow one of us will go away and we shall not see one another anymore?”
These are not just morbid thoughts. The Stoics dedicated themselves to creating thought experiments that served a purpose: to enhance the art of living. Some argue that Epictetus’ thought experiment serves the purpose of detachment, that being aware of the mortality of a loved one or friend is a way of inoculating oneself from grief by developing a contingency to the relationship. While it’s true that the experiment is a remedy to reduce mental anguish, it’s also a tool to appreciate life, particularly life’s fragility.
Memento Mori can help us appreciate what we have today, like sharing a tender moment with a son or a friend. If it does inoculate against anything, perhaps it inoculates against future regret. Helping us in the moment appreciate how important that moment is could be one of the most powerful tools in the art of living.