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Joseph Bottum THE LOGIC OF DECAY This this, this true—now not. "Now not": I sound a drunkard or a fool when I try to saywhat troubles me, that in time's passing, real things really cease to be. But cease to be they do, and in their fallings from us, vanishings, is solved the first dilemma we encounter when we think about decay, that nothing decays as itself. Did things decay by becoming somehow less themselves, somehow not quite other than themselves, decay would be impossible. Nothing turns less what it is: an old dog is not less a dog than in his prime, nor is a brittle antique glass less a glass than when new-blown. We equivocate when we speak of things' decay. While he lives, the dog is a dog, though his muzzle-hair turns gray. Little ancient glass survives, because the elastic solid stiffens over years into fragile stacks ofcrystal shards.1 And when at last the glass is broken, we lose what we had before. But though it chips and weakens, still, while it is a glass, it is—for what is actual may only persist or cease to be in act; being offers no temporal gap for decay to intervene between persistence and cessation. Since not-being cannot be a mode of being (as zero might be a quantity, or empty an amount), things are never less what they are than they are. Of course, things do decay; decay is the perfect testimony of our experience. "Be angry at the sun," as Robinson Jeffers has it, "if such things anger you." Things wear away, decline, and break. They rot, get lost, lapse, deteriorate, rust, dissolve, fade, and die. The vast vocabulary we have to speak ofdecay confirms decay's ubiquity, as does the care we take with fragile things: we anchor them, affix, secure; we pad, preserve, Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 91-104 92Philosophy and Literature protect, maintain; and all our prizing of antiques is proof we fail. Things decay. However, it is not as themselves that they decay, but by relation to the death of other things. With each death, a branch offuture possibility is wrenched away, and what remains is thereby shorn and shaken. "No man is an Hand,"John Donne famously writes in the seventeenth of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." Seen from the aspect of eternity, the future grows no new branches of possibility, but has its present branches broken off in each and every death. And yet, Donne means something other than I do, for he intends us to be moved by another's funeral to anticipate our own: "Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, Morieris," Donne puts as epigram to the seventeenth Devotion, "The bells now slowly say that you shall die." The death of others certainly afflicts us, but "affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough ofit." So, "by this consideration ofanothers danger," Donne takes "into contemplation" his own danger. I am not so sure, however, our own death matters all that much, for that death is never present to us. "We feel and experience," says Spinoza, "that we are eternal."2 Our death may clamor all around us in our frailty and fear, but the death itself remains unseen. Freud points out that the logic of imagining ourselves dead requires thatwe imagine ourselves still alive to observe our dead selves after our imagined death.3 Of course, we know with perfect clarity that nonetheless we all must die. But, as Tolstoy observes in a well-known passage, the it of death, the shift from universal to particular, is not so clear: "This form of the syllogism—A is a man, men are mortal, therefore A is mortal— had seemed to him all his life true only in its application to A, but never to himself. It was A as man, as man in general, and in this respect was perfectly correct; but he was notA, and not man in general, and he had always been an entity...


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