I discovered that I can’t listen to Pachelbel’s Canon anymore. First ‘Abide with Me’, now this. A while ago, I received a kind of healing connected with a particular recording of this music. Perhaps it remains with that particular recording of it, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, the healing came not from the music, but from God, and that I know; the music was only a vehicle, and in that I take comfort. Since then however, the music itself has changed its meaning for me. Maybe it will not always remain this way, but it is this way now. And it is disturbingly sad.
I have been to some funerals since the healing event. So it has come to remind me of funerals. But not all funerals – only a particular kind.
Funerals frame the definition of life and death in our minds when we remember them, because they mark someone we know who crossed the threshold, who contributed to our grasp of the world. It is hard to resist the brand of comfort presented to us by the sympathetic tones of the officiator when we are hurting and vulnerable, even if we know that the worldview they are making us swallow is a poison pill. In a funeral, you can find yourself seeing life and death through whatever lens is presented to you, and the impression tends to cling to you. Pachelbel’s Canon whisks me back to the lens of the secular humanist officiator. That view of life and death, far from comforting me, made me feel sick to my stomach.
In these ceremonies, God is banished and the ‘why’ behind marking births, marriages and deaths as if the grounds for these events as objectively and ultimately ‘sacred’ (rather than just personally significant to the individuals concerned) is banished with him. But we somehow still inexplicably feel that there must be reasons more permanent than our own whims, desires and self-narrative, as to why it would be sacrilege not to treat them with the dignity of eternal things. And so we give our feelings free rein, not understanding the meaning of them, and not caring, because in a world with no transcendental shot-caller, there can be no ultimate meanings anyway.
The song makes me think of those ceremonies where there is no God, no heaven and no hell to lend our existence any ultimate significance or purpose beyond the memories of those left behind who will themselves, with their memories, also return to the dust from whence they came and be forgotten. The ceremonies where death is simply a barrier, walling us into our lives, trapping us, ruling us, sneering at us.
Certainly, death is presented as a cruel enemy in these ceremonies. But it is a disingenuous presentation. In a truly naturalistic worldview, death cannot be personified, and neither has a face, nor is faceless; it is neither an enemy, nor not an enemy. It can neither sneer, nor not sneer. If we hold to this kind of naturalism in theory and do not distract ourselves from these conclusions, then we live with some uncomfortable existential paradoxes. The world in this light would seem inexplicably cruel in its refusal to be grasped and labelled. For in naturalism and atheism, we live without a teleology such as that of the Judeo-Christian narrative, which gives Adam, born of dust and bound to return thence, a licence lasting beyond his own mortality, to grasp and label things with the authority of the eternal meaning-maker, who is the author of all Good. If there is no’Good’, how can we call ‘cruel’ the cruelty we intimately feel and suffer? And without the licence of an eternal meaning-maker, how can there be a solid definition or a grasp of anything that outlasts the death and decay of a person or a society? And what ground do we have to assert our rational faculties over anything at all, and assume those faculties to represent the world to us ‘as it is’, if there is no external benchmark? All we know of the posterity of our philosophies and worldviews, which may soothe us or harm us, is that unless there is a God and they properly describe him, then like Adam, they will certainly decompose with us into the dust of which we were composed, and neither their place nor ours will remember us any more. Must we believe that we are doomed to go through life blind? Can we really trust our instincts so little, our intimate sense that there is objective ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ which is so hard to shake; our longing for eternity despite the philosophies we might adopt which contradict it; our tenacious belief in the possibility of meaning, our perceived need to define and conceptualise our world…?
This song now makes me feel that trappedness I felt when I heard the disingenuous consolations of the secular humanist officiator… and I have to renounce it expressly not to feel it. For the song makes me recall, all too vividly, those vulnerable, impressionable moments when I forget that the secular ceremony is about art, not truth, because no such thing as truth is considered to exist. I forget that it is a palliative form of performance therapy for people who have no dawn, and who believe that there is no dawn to be had. The pomp and ceremony exist only to mask the crushing notion that the soul-stirring grandeur of all the hopes, loves and dreams of an existence, the ones we define ourselves by and live for, the ones we sing about, the ones we write books about to immortalize them in aeternum amen, the ones we live for and die for and kill for and protect by international law which we imprison people for infringing, are no more than our own dust. One forgets that ‘to dust ye shall return’ is perhaps the only belief we will admit to having in common. Then the crematorium machines whirr and the velvet curtains open and close and the casket goes through like the final curtain call of a shoddy comedy.
Pachelbel’s Canon never quite masked the ironic whirring of those dream-crushing machines completely. When I listen to it, it plunges me back into that moment where I am trapped in the performance of a godless theatre, grieving for the loved one to whom it was dedicated, and disgusted to my very core for their sake, everyone else’s, and my Maker’s. Perhaps that’s why I can’t stand listening to it. I hope this impression will prove transient.