Mashup: Time, Death, and Ballastexistenz

Rockwell ThanksgivingThere have been two significant deaths to me recently. My grandfather died just before Christmas.  And Judi Chamberlin … died this weekend.

And yet again I am coming up against my instinctive responses to death, that don’t seem to be all that standard.

When we consider the House of Hades, we must remember that the myths—and Freud too—tell us that there is no time in the Underworld.  There is no decay, no progress, no change of any sort.

For one thing, my memories of people who have died do not do that peculiar transformation I see in other people’s minds.  That is, I remember the people the exact same way I remembered them in life.  They don’t transform into saints, the bad memories don’t go away, I do not suddenly see them as all good and no bad.  I know that this steps on a massive taboo.  I did not know how massive until I saw people judging my entire character on the fact that when a particular person died a while back I did not suddenly cease to criticize the dead person’s actions.

Because time has nothing to do with the underworld, we may not conceive the underworld as “after” life, except as the afterthoughts within life.  The House of Hades is a psychological realm now, not an eschatological realm later. It is not a far-off place of judgment over our actions but provides that place of judgment now, and within, the inhibiting reflection interior to our actions.

Whereas I find it incredibly disturbing that when people I know die, even people I mostly like, suddenly they are transformed in eulogies into people who never existed.  Sometimes the eulogies even turned those people into the opposite of who they were in life—a total gossip will be described as never having an unkind word to say about anyone.  This strikes me as frightening, disturbing, and disrespectful, but then my way seems to strike most people the same way.

So that was thing number one about my reaction to death that seems to be weird.

Thing number two is related but different.  This is that not only does my memory not suddenly change the person into someone they weren’t, but that my memory does not change at all.  The person is still there as far as I am concerned.  I continue to use the present tense, not just by habit but because as far as I am concerned the person still exists even when I am fully aware of the fact of their death.

This simultaneity of the underworld with the daily world is imaged by Hades coinciding indistinguishably with Zeus, or identical with Zeus chthonios.  The brotherhood of Zeus and Hades says that upper and lower worlds are the same; only the perspectives differ.  There is only one and the same universe, but one brother’s view sees it from above and through the light, the other from below and into its darkness.

I have heard of something superficially similar happening during denial but this is not denial.  It happens whether I am grieving a good deal or grieving not at all.  I simply don’t see the person as gone.  I don’t see people who died thousands of years ago as gone either, I just see them as… temporally inaccessible or something.  I grieve for our inability to inhabit the same time-area as each other anymore, but I don’t grieve for their nonexistence because they seem to exist, just somewhere (or rather somewhen) I can’t share with them now.

An imaginal ego is at home in the dark, moving through images as one of them … the dream-ego and the waking-ego have a special “twin” relationship; they are shadows of each other, as Hades is the brother of Zeus.

The first thing makes me into a terrible person in some people’s eyes.  The second just seems to make me strange.  But both of them are just how I am, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be otherwise.

Of all terms of analytical language we have been reviewing, the unconscious is the first we should renounce … It is useful only within a fantasy of opposites through which the psyche is divided against itself between head and body, ego and shadow, day side and night side.

And as for the second thing (which I find more interesting by far)… what is it about me that doesn’t respond the same way most people seem to when death occurs?  I have talked to a lot of people and very few respond the way I do, or even understand my response.  And I don’t understand theirs either.  Why is it that most people process death so differently?  Why does death seem to me almost as if it didn’t happen?  Is there something about death I just don’t understand?

(And before anyone asks, I doubt that either one of these has to do with autism.  Many of the differences between me and others on both counts are things I have observed both within and outside the autistic community.  I have only met a few people who see both the way I do.)

Gregory Bateson discusses primary process as the way that very small children, animals and the adult unconscious think.  This might also be the case among the autistic.  Features include one time, one space and no negatives.  In primary process, you can’t image what a thing is not, only the thing itself.


All italics save for the final paragraph, from James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, and The Myth of Analysis:  Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology.  Final paragraph, from Andrew Lehman, Shift Journal, Autism and Aboriginal Society.  Original essay (excerpted), from Ballastexistenz, There’s something about death I don’t understand. For further possible examples of Bateson and Lehman’s take on primary process—or, the world as viewed from the perspective of the “unconscious”—see the follow-up essay, Right here, right now.

My own experience parallels that reported at Ballastexistenz, closely in regard to the dead and somewhat more loosely in certain other areas.  This entry continues the line of thought I began in Still a Crowded Room and Notes on Three Dursleys, though more questions are raised here than answered, I’m well aware. Comments welcome.

on 01/29/10 in featured, The Unconscious | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. abfh says:

    I’d say that the taboo against speaking ill of the dead is more a matter of social pleasantries than an actual expectation that everyone’s memories will change. Complaining about a dead person might be taken as a show of disrespect toward those who are grieving. Also, continuing to criticize a person who is dead (and therefore unable to respond in any way to the criticism) can seem like a petty and pointless grudge.

    Often the person who writes the eulogy did not know the dead person very well, such as when it’s written by a minister who has only seen the person on his or her best behavior on Sundays at church.

    My condolences on your loss.

  2. abfh says:

    Just realized that my first comment was a bit mixed up; the condolences were supposed to go to the Ballastexistenz post…

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