According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, humans seek the satisfaction of their needs following a hierarchy whose four first levels are known as deficiency needs. For example, we eat food to meet physiological demands, we seek roof for safety reasons, we have friends to satisfy our needs of belonging, and we excel in our activities to meet the need for esteem.
Why do we want enduring remembrance for some of our actions? The need for esteem, the fourth in the scale, is the need to find us comfortable with our existence, from both our perspective (self-esteem: how do I see myself?) and from the others’ perception (recognition: How do others see me?) Self-esteem depends from us and will disappear with us. The curious desire to be remembered postmortem is an irregular extrapolation of the normal need of recognition while we are still alive. Thinking that our works are enduring generates an imaginary sense of eternity as if we were to exist for ever.
We certainly know we are going to die but we cannot imagine ourselves extinct; the sentence ‘I am dead’ cannot be told in its literal sense. Some poets, who often penetrate into the human mind with more understanding than psychologists, are at odds with such artificial eternity and even scoff at the need to be remembered; their life and their works are sufficient for them. Here follow some literary quotes on the subject, the first one with an attached story.
In 1957, Colombian writer Gonzalo Arango founded an extreme nonconformist movement he called ‘nothing-ism’ (nadaísmo). According to its initial manifesto, the group aimed to “not let any faith intact or any idol on its place”. The rebellious ‘nadaistas’ perpetrated all sorts of irreverence, from incineration of books to sacrilege of sacred wafers, which got them big headlines that would ensure lasting memory to Arango. In 1970 something changed in the head of the poet and he abandoned his own movement; the radical atheist became then an unrecognizable spiritualist.
In the very same year, writer Orlando Restrepo Jaramillo published “Beyond the Words”, a collection of his poems which he sent to Gonzalo Arango. He replied with a warm note that Orlando recently shared with this columnist. From this letter I copy the following line of detachment to memories: “Living is no more than walking into oblivion carrying a lot of shattered dreams and broken baggage”.
Jorge Luis Borges could well have signed such touching line; his own verses on forgetting and detachment abound. In his poem ‘We are oblivion’ the great Argentinean poet writes: “We are already the oblivion we will become… We are already, start and end, the two dates in the tomb… I am not the fool that clings to the magic sound of a name…” In ‘I am’, the poet describes himself as “I am the one who is nobody, who was not a sword in battle. I am echo, oblivion, nothing.” And ‘Limits’ ends with “At dawn I seem to hear the busy sound of crowds that move away; they are those who loved me and me they have forgotten; space and time and Borges, are now leaving me behind.”
Twenty five hundred years earlier, the Buddha states, with crystal clarity, that we are transitory beings and that nothing of us will remain after death. The denial of our impermanence and our fear to disappear create the illusion that something intangible will survive us. In his poem ‘Chess’, Omar Khayyám (1048-1131), Persian astronomer and philosopher, shares the Buddha’s thought: “Life is a chessboard with nights and days, where Destiny plays with us, Men, as pieces; here and there, moves us, and mates, and slays, to finally throw us, one by one, into the box of Nothingness.”
So, let us keep up to date our earthly affairs, the now. As for eternity, we are to forget of imperishable memories, not even the universe is permanent, and we would rather accept the reality of death and, if relaxed enough, have a laugh at the grim reaper while we recite another poem by Omar Khayyám: “Be happy today, as you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Take some wine, sit down in the light of the moon, and say to yourself that tomorrow the moon might look for you in vain.”
So, let us keep up to date our earthly affairs, the now. As for eternity, we are to forget of imperishable memories, not even the universe is permanent. We would rather accept the reality of death, and make fun of the grim reaper while we recite another poem by Omar Khayyám: “Be happy today, as you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Take some wine, sit down in the light of the moon, and say to yourself that tomorrow the moon might look for you in vain.”
Atlanta, May 8, 2015