Dusting the Furniture of Our Minds

Michael Marder in the New York Times:

StoneWeb-blog480Dust is everywhere. We contribute to its multiplication through our polluting industries, by wearing clothes and using things around us, and in the course of merely living — shedding skin cells, hair, and other byproducts of our life.

But we also are it. Both the Bible and William Shakespeare would have us believe as much. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” Adam and Eve are told in Genesis. Hamlet, in his nihilistic soliloquy, asks rhetorically about the human, “What is this quintessence of dust?” Science, of course, has provided some actual basis for this notion in findings indicating that the most fundamental material of life on earth originated in the “dust” of long-dead stars.

In any case, be it prophetic, poetic or scientific, the message is clear: We are in a continual flux of growth and decay, but the latter will win out, and each human body’s end state will be the same — a collection of mere particles, dispersed.

So what is the relation between the dust outside us and the dust that we are?

Most of us lack the courage to examine ourselves with Biblical or Shakespearean frankness. We fail to understand that, as we clash with external dust, we displace existential anxieties and confront our mortal, rootless, restless selves, albeit no longer discernable as such.

Let me give you an example of this strange displacement. Since household dust is comprised, in large part, of the material traces of our bodily existence, the endeavor to eliminate it strives, quite unconsciously, to expunge vestiges of ourselves.

More here.