Vikshepa Blog

Mental Distractions

07 Jun 2020

Looking through my father's photo albums

There's something inexpressibly sad about looking through these old albums. My father, as he grew older, no longer looked at them. Most of the people there were already dead - he had simply outlived them all. And now I have outlived my father. But that is not the reason I find it sad. It's more because seeing these images, many of them representing “peak" moments in life like weddings, vacations, and time spent with children, can make the whole of life seem pointless. It's true, of course, that the memories thus enshrined, the majority of them, were not my own. But recently Dorit sent photos of me with my children and I felt something similar. It was as if the persons there - my children and me - were of someone else. I hardly recognized them. Who was that person?

Writers often pose questions about memory and its relationship to identity. Max Frisch in “Stiller”, Phillip K. Dick in his writings, W.S. Sebald in his own way. In the film “Blade Runner” particularly (based on one of Dick's books), the characters have to deal with the fact that their most meaningful memories may actually have been computer implants of someone else's memory, and not really their own. To whom did these moments, frozen in time, occur? What consciousness lived them? What happened to that consciousness and where is it now?

Then there's the problem of fatality. Seeing my mom and grandmother, cigarette ever in hand, knowing that smoking is what eventually killed them. And one watches as the happy, hopeful person, grows into the dour jigsaw-puzzle-devotee of old age. All of life begins to look like a sham, the life lived utterly meaningless. Moments that capture the playing out of The Ignorance, as Sri Aurobindo calls it.

The Vedantic vision, which interprets life as a construct of Maya, is never far from my thoughts, and begins to assert itself when I look at old photos. That's true. But whatever the validity of memory, or the value of capturing these frozen moments in a picture (and one remembers that in an earlier time, a photograph was such a rare occurrence that one put on good clothes, combed one's hair, stared at the camera and looked grim) … whatever the importance of the photo to the subject, that value has now largely past. It may have been important at one point to bring out the albums when a few people gathered, to reminisce. To laugh at them together, feel wistful, or contradict one-another about what happened when. But regarding the photos now, when the context of these moments is now lost, is a completely other experience. The way in which I look at them is different; the thoughts and emotions that are invoked are different.

Mostly I think that life is there to be lived, without pausing to check on its validity. meaning, or importance. That's not a place we need to go. Trying to freeze life suddenly in order to examine it later, inevitably causes us to question the value of experience, revealing the transience of joy or the undercurrent of suffering. Go ahead and have a good time, but don't try to capture and immortalize the experience, preserve it in formaldehyde, linger on, thou art so fair. It isn't that this particular character lived life in vane. It's that life as we live it is a vanity, when seen from a particular philosophical angle. When viewed as a sequence of experiences, it does not stand scrutiny. The act of observation changes it, murders it. Life must be lived always in the present moment, and every moment must pass in order to make way for the next one. It's a roller coaster ride that doesn't let up till we die. If we stop, it is not to reflect on the vacuity of these particular experiences, because experience is unconditionally vacuous. It is to reach out to the perpetuity of the underlying consciousness that transcends and is not touched by experience, the wall upon which all the shadows play.

Tags: life
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