Updated: Nov 28, 2022
You’ve seen many an artwork like it. Perhaps there is a vase of freshly cut flowers and beside it a bowl of ripening (or ripened fruit). There may even be a few far more ostentatious items like woven baskets teeming with lobsters or wheels of delicate cheese. Perhaps a lute or horn or even a necklace and mirror make a part of this aesthetically pleasing but somewhat innocuous display. Such is the still life, a tried and true pictorial form in western art (typically painting) that has often enchanted or bored many a museum visitor.
But on certain occasions a distinct pair of objects sneak into those pictures of motionless bios: a skull and a timepiece. Depending on the historical context it might be a wall clock, a stopwatch, an hourglass or even a sundial but the skull remains, as usual, uniform. After all, a death’s head is about as individualistic as any grape on the bunch or coffee cherry on the branch. Death, like time, is a universal albeit non-identifiable entity. When someone says “it’s noon” we know the sun is at its zenith but were most of us to be handed a freshly exhumed cranium we would more than likely have trouble identifying it as Yorick. That being said, when a skull and watch invade the still life it becomes a work of Memento mori and while not every Memento mori is a still life some element of time passing and another of death must be present. And that imperative “must” is key to understanding the motif.
Memento mori is often translated somewhat “over elegantly” as “remember that you are mortal” just as Festina lente is gummed up and ironically slowed down by being rendered as “make haste slowly.” Both translations are correct in that “memento” and “festina” are imperatives yet both magically puncture the urgency of each adage with an excess of “classical” affectation. Festina lente does not contain any iteration of the verb facere (the infinitive of facio, “I make”) but is a simple, even brutal command; HURRY SLOWLY! One might argue that by making the translation that much more “ornate” the oxymoronic effect is heightened. But it is precisely the insistence of the order that makes its ironic composition that much more penetrating. If you are to “hurry slowly” you must rather “quickly” meditate upon your course of action. Contemplation must be swift but all the more contemplative due to its swiftness. A good day is one where you “hurry slowly” as opposed to “relax quickly” or “rest energetically.”
Memento mori is likewise a command and one just as incongruous but ONLY if translated directly. Memini is a third conjugation verb meaning “I remember” and memento is its second person, future imperative form (obviously, almost all imperatives are second person only with a few odd exceptions and many orders are future-oriented to boot). So, the first half of the dictum is the simple command to “remember.” It’s the mori that is far more intriguing. Morior is a third conjugation, “io” verb of the deponent variety meaning “to die.” A deponent verb is any verb that has an active interpretation but, due to its actual meaning, a passive form. And this makes perfect sense; one might “kill themselves” but cannot “die themselves.” “Dying” may well be active but it happens “to you.”
So, if morior is the first person active indicative (the “I do x” version) what is mori? Clearly it cannot be something as “grandiloquent” as “being mortal?” No, rather, mori is the first person, present, infinitive (the “to do x” version) meaning “to die.” In other words the EXACT translation of Memento mori is simple, ghastly, and not a bit perplexing —“Remember to die!” But, how could one possibly forget? How could one even “remember?” Sure, someone could easily command “remember to pick up milk” or “remember the Alamo” but “remember TO die?” This suggests a very high amount of control over our own mortality which is especially odd given that, again, morior is a deponent, a verb masquerading as active that is ultimately passive. Furthermore, the phrase is not the far more understandable (but much more macabre) “remember to kill yourself.” No, this is remembering to have something “done” to us that is completely inevitable and often (to our horror) unpredictable despite being scheduled far in advance. Enjoining one to “remember” that they “are mortal” is quite philosophical, even urbane. At best it comes across as so much stuffy “wisdom,” at worst a phrase we might hurl at one of our friends during their surprise party if we find ourselves in an impetuous mood once the thirty rack of Pabst Blue Ribbon is depleted.
But for the ruby apple in the terra cotta bowl alongside the key limes and pomegranates to secretly whisper “remember to die?” No, that is by no means easy to shake off as oh so much pious sagacity, a nice spiritual call to engage in frequent “examination of conscience.” No, it is a truly AWful command.
But, what does it mean? What does it truly ask of us? Perhaps in contemporary culture we are flanked too often by the opposite maxim: Obliviscere vivere (now, I must confess I “coined” that term and my very poor skills as a wannabe Latinist might be off base. If so, apologies in and after advance). The imperative (dare one say the “ideological” imperative) of our age is “Forget to live!” For proof, look no further than that commercial tableaux which, for the vast majority of us, has eclipsed that once ubiquitous and most venerable art form of still life: the Mise-en-scène of restaurant and breakfast cereal advertisements. Whether it be a commercial broadcast between quarters in a football game or a coupon flyer in the mail the structure is conspicuous: a sterile white background and/or garishly bright kitchen table, a plate of rubber pancakes and/or a porcelain bowl placidly displaying the pond scum of Cheerios or Frosted Flakes (“THEY’RE GREAT”) alongside an absurd assortment of fruits all in immaculate states of ripeness overshadowed by a pitcher of orange juice, milk, or the oh-so evocative pot of coffee, steam suspended above it like a chemical burn marring a cherub’s visage.
Too much? Or all too real (as the Zoomer set is wont to utter)? Notice, especially, how fruit is arrayed in these exhibits when compared to a typical, even minor, Flemish still life. On the one hand we have the literally “artificial” coalescence of canvas and oil paint wherein the oranges or grapes or pears appear close to bursting with vivacity despite being mere daubs of pigment while…on the other hand…the commercial (still or moving picture) of those same fruits (captured by the most technologically advanced equipment which transforms the very photons that fall across bodies in space into an image) appear as hyperbolic yet deflated orbs of emptiness. Such apples and oranges are the equivalent of mirthless smiles worn by politicians every election season.
Of course, the fruit in that commercial or print ad may very well BE artificial, literally composed of plastic or wax. But does this not even further underscore the point? There is nothing in that picture that commands you to “remember to die” but there is plenty which lazily groans “forget to live.” Breakfast and dinner, we are often told, is something that should be “quick” and “easy” and take only “minutes to prepare!” Even the verb “prepare” within its particular culinary connotation is a synonym for “keep kitchen drudgery at bay!” Google “meal prep tips” if you are skeptical. The meal, whether alone or in the company of others, is not a labor to be dreaded a la Dough Boy in the gloomy bowels of the Piquod or a feast to be treasured like Trimalchio regaling his guests with an epic course whereby each of the twelve dishes represents a different constellation of the Zodiac. No, the meal, at least as it is commercially offered, is not sold to us as anything more than something to get out of the way and discarded. And if one thinks that base commercialism is a poor barometer of what maxims we live by in our culture, recall that the commercial is nothing less than desire personified and invasive. It aims to sell us what we want already (or make something undesirable desirable). Either way, the desire is alien to living as such.
And as an election season has just passed, keep something else in mind. Wherever you may fall on the spectrum (right, left, over, under, adjacent or parallel) a message common to all candidates remains constant; working people deserve a fair shake! Sounds great! But who are “working people?” Not to be too tautologically dense but a worker is, of course, “someone who works.” Now, even if we are charitable many of us must admit that we cannot ALL be workers and yet, for every politician all potential voters ARE workers. Clearly, the term no longer holds the misguided but romantic notion of “proletariat” and in our day and age rarely has it any connection with “union membership” let alone manual labor. Rather, Americans (and more than likely all Western peoples) are, in the eyes of the senator-to-be, “workers.” Logic would then dictate that appealing to workers might contain some sort of promise about “working less” or increasing leisure time. FAT CHANCE! Rather the appeal to the American Worker is always one for “higher wages” or “lower taxes on income” or “greater benefits'' or “more job security” or at least sticking it to those shadowy people who “don’t work” either out of their perceived poverty or wealth (or, the promise of a job). What the worker wants is WORK with greater monetary, social, or political compensation. But not working? This is highly irreligious, even blasphemous.
See how leisure and labor are thus treated. The meal is meant to be quick in the morning and also in the evening so that you can either “get to work” or “get to bed.” And if it is actual leisure you want well…become an adrenaline junkie OR spend your free moments “learning how to earn passive income” OR trawl social media OR consume the latest entertainment product that assumes you are simply too tired and distracted to endure a narrative that requires an active thought process OR play a “game” that is designed not to inspire let alone amuse but simply to record your behavioral patterns to sell you more products. Do not take this to mean that in our age I believe there is no actual worthwhile art, that no one is ever satisfied by their work, or that no one feasts sumptuously or that all video games are garbage or that there is not one worthwhile working film director. Far from it. But what is “trending” culturally, what is omnipresent, is Obliviscere vivere.
Labor and leisure must be sprouts of the same root, just as creativity and analysis must be lovers, just as sleep (Ὕπνος) and death (Θάνατος) are brothers. And death takes many forms and means many things. Death, quite frankly, should occur very, very, very often in life so that life itself might develop, prosper, and glory. Old ways of thinking are to die. So too old grudges. Even young things, like a sudden eruption of misplaced passion likewise out to be put to death. When you study all night for a trigonometry exam you remember to die, just as you do after leisurely walking through an ochre aspen grove in late October. You remember to die when you ecstatically shove shoulder against shoulder at the moshpit during a concert in your youth and when you settle down after a day’s labor to read about Shigekuni Honda’s efforts to locate the next incarnation of his departed friend Kiyoaki Matsugae in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Remember to die at funerals, weddings, baptisms, communion (especially communion). Remember to die on the long boring commute and the short run to the grocery store. And when death itself comes, brotherless, to greet us, we would be wise to remember him. Remember to die. Memento mori. Only when we are resurrected will we be permitted to forget