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Reflection: The Weight of the Soul – CWPG815 Creative Non-Fiction
Although my creative non-fiction article, “The Weight of the Soul”, started as a class exercise, it came from a deeply personal space in my subconscious. The class exercise from week 3 was to use colour as the inspiration for a story, aided by the readings “Yves Klein and the Blue of Distance” by Rebecca Solnit and “Ultramarine” by Ashley Hay – and I chose grey, which is my favourite colour (yeah, weird choice, but I write horror, so it’s inevitable, I guess!). I applied some narrative techniques from my creative writing seminars, including anachrony and metaphor, to write this creative non-fiction piece. Helen Garner’s The First Stone, with its questions about subjective truths, was also an influence.
The end result was a short but intertwined story of different forms of grief, including my own, along with anecdotes about the colour grey and snippets of Smith’s experiments measuring the weight of souls in animals, which ultimately served as a complex metaphor on life itself. The story suffered from the word count limitations (1500 words), so the final few sections are truncated, which blunts the metaphor. Based on class critique, I’ve since added more sections about grief, grey, and souls to build up to a more coherent metaphor.
THE WEIGHT OF THE SOUL
By Shane Cummings
Did you know the human soul is supposed to weigh 21 grams? It’s one of those semi-scientific factoids that rattle around in the back of your mind, and I remembered it the day I was handed my grandfather’s ashes. They were sealed in hard grey plastic, a giant Lego block roughly the weight of a housebrick and double the size. William Charles Cummings had been a big man. I didn’t know his exact weight when he died, but the grey plastic box that I’d held in my hand felt about 120 kilograms and 21 grams too light.
Years later, I discovered that grey plastic box cost the funeral parlour just $4.60. The sum of a life should be worth more than that.
Grey is my favourite colour, or more accurately, achromatic colour. According to Heller’s Psychologie de la Couleur, I’m in the one per cent who prefers grey as their favourite colour. It’s a rare day I go out into the world without wearing something grey, even if it’s a contrast of black and white. In my mind, it’s still grey—unmixed, deconstructed, Hipster-style.
I fail to understand why more people don’t like grey. It represents conformity, sure, but we all secretly crave conformity, don’t we? It’s in our programming. Even the Hipsters conform in their manner of non-conformity. Grey is neutrality, grey is even a little boring (to the uninitiated), but it is ubiquitous. Our cities, roads, and skies are grey. It is the colour of concrete, and metal, and clouds, and ash, and ultimately, us. Our choice of funeral arrangements makes no difference; we become an achromatic husk that bloats and dwindles with the march of entropy, or our bodies are subjected to two hours in a furnace at 1,500 degrees to burn down into two kilograms of ashes. Grey either way.
Grey is our fate.
Pop died on the day between ANZAC Day and my wife’s birthday, just three days after my own birthday. An in-between day on the calendar. A grey one. Not that he would have been aware of it. He died the way he lived, moving as little as possible. He was bloated from 50 years of alcoholism, insensate from dementia.
I heard the message on the answering machine from Mum around one in the morning. She was frantic as she’d tried and failed to reach me for the past few hours. The anxiety was unnecessary, of course, a jittery front for fear and grief. I was powerless to act and so was she. All the big decisions had been made months before. No, in fact, the wheels that led Pop to die in a nursing home 550kms from his home had been set in motion years before.
I sobbed myself to sleep in my wife’s arms after the call. It was just the third time I remember crying like that. The other times: a year before, Amber, our family Labrador, had died, and a year before that, my unborn son didn’t make it to term. I woke with grey over my heart, although I didn’t know it at the time. When my grandmother, Betty Cummings (nee Burgess), died just three weeks later— Nan, the woman who raised me and called me every week without fail and worked for 30 years as a laundrywoman, washing shit from sheets to ensure I had a decent life, who raised me as her own and loved me unconditionally—I didn’t shed a tear. I had sobbed for both of them that night because I knew, deep down, with Amber gone, then Pop, Nan would be the final domino to fall in a tragic game I was unable to stop. Death comes in threes.
I flew back to Sydney from Perth the next day, and I was the one to tell Nan about Pop’s death. She had fallen a few days before and was in hospital. Despite fighting breast cancer and bone cancer for years, a fall down three stairs hospitalised her. She was a self-described tough old battle-axe, but she wasn’t invincible. We didn’t know it at the time, but she had contracted a virus in hospital that led to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). She was barely lucid when I told her about Pop, but in my heart of hearts, I knew she understood. She was a woman who needed to be busy, needed to be needed, and with Pop no longer a burden, she deteriorated and died within three weeks.
The 20th century signalled an explosion of scientific and technological endeavour. In 1901, Dr Duncan MacDougall of Massachusetts weighed six patients at the moment of their deaths. Based on his first experiment, the New York Times broke the story that Dr MacDougall had discovered the weight of the human soul was 21 grams (‘three-fourths of an ounce’ in the vernacular of the day).
Of course, the good doctor’s research was not up to the scientific rigour of today, so his findings were easily dismissed. These days, ethics prevent similar experiments from being conducted. However, the romantic part of my brain likes to believe we have a soul and that soul has weight. When I picture the soul evaporating out of the body and into the aether, I see grey.
Australia gives everyone thirteen years of compulsory education but the system never teaches us the important stuff: how to be a good parent, why you devote yourself to a footy team like the Sharks who are cursed to never win when it counts, stuff like that. Scattering your loved ones’ ashes is something they should teach you how to do. Holding that grey plastic Lego box with Pop’s ashes on a windy day in early May 2000, I had no clue what to do.
Pop had made it clear he wanted to be scattered along the ‘Mad Mile’, a mile-long straight stretch of road that connects Sutherland with the Princes Highway at Loftus. It was a place to hoon along in your car back in Pop’s day, but the day we scattered his ashes, it was a leafy road with the council pool complex on one side, train lines and the local TAFE on the other side, and a thin strip of bush in between.
We chose to trudge through those trees a bit, and at a random spot, through unspoken agreement, between Mum, my brother Damien, and I, we stopped and I pried open the cap to Pop’s ashes. The wind gusted, and as I shook the box, the first wave of ash was blown into my face. Horrified, I spat the ashes from my mouth, changed direction, and released the rest in an unceremonious pile that the wind had trouble shifting.
Years later, I replay that moment, and in my mind, our family hoons down the Mad Mile in an open-topped sedan, whooping like Thelma and Louise during their getaway, a grey trail of Pop diffusing behind us in the wind like the wake of a speedboat, like a soul leaving its body.
But Pop’s life wasn’t like that. The reality was anti-climactic, as banal and grey as the ashes I spat from my mouth. I wish I gave him the madness the Mad Mile of his imagination promised.
I have a theory that only grey animals experience grief in the sense we would understand it—elephants, in particular. Their grief involves rites and memorials. They have 300 billion neurons, as many as humans possess in their cerebral cortex, and they are capable of complex emotions. Researchers have described a funeral ritual where elephants cover a dead member of their herd with branches, leaves, and grass. Screaming and rumbling, they crowd around the carcass and touch and sniff it with their trunks, as though taking in the scent and roughness of that wrinkly grey skin for the last time. A grieving mother would linger in despondency over a dead calf, or a herd would gather to farewell a dying matriarch in silence and stand vigil for days afterward. Little wonder then that a herd of elephants is sometimes known as a ‘memory’. An elephant never forgets its loved ones.
Nan wanted her ashes scattered in her beloved backyard garden in Miranda. We did it with the same lack of fanfare we had for Pop’s scattering. None of our family lived in the area at the time, so the house was sold two months later and the profits split between family members.
When the anniversary of Nan’s death rolled around, the absence of a memorial cut deep. I had nowhere to go to have quiet words with her soul, no sacred place of quietude to sit and commune. A stranger owned that house, that garden, the concrete where the old pool used to be, where Pop had traced my initials into as he laid the pool’s foundations: S. C. 1986. A stranger owned Nan’s resting place, those initials, everything of my past, and over the years, it gnawed at me.
Twenty years later, my wife and I returned to the old neighbourhood, just a few streets over from my childhood home. The once pristine white paint is now flaking away, revealing grey beneath; the fence has splintered and sagged; and from the glimpses I’ve had into the backyard, Nan’s old garden has overgrown. ‘Blood and Bone’ fertiliser with a twist. Nan would have appreciated the irony.
Occasionally, my walks draw me back to that little greying house, where those strangers who own Nan’s ashes now live. Remembering the lifetime I had a lifetime ago, I lay my hand on the rough, sagging fence, like an elephant would the bones of its loved ones. I now understand the elephant’s need to touch. It’s the only memorial I have.
The intrepid Dr MacDougall repeated his soul experiment on dogs. With fifteen test subjects, his methods were even more rigorous than his human experiments, although it was rumoured MacDougall killed the dogs on the table rather than going to the trouble of finding the mortally sick and injured. With such brutal control, perhaps not surprisingly, his results were more uniform: no change in mass. No soul.
That rare privilege, in his opinion, was solely the domain of humanity.
Hubris, I say. An elephant has the same amount of neurons – grey matter- as a human; an elephant mourns like a human; an elephant has memorials. Surely it has the right to a soul?
The concept of emergence explains how smaller entities interact to make larger, more complex ones that exhibit properties the smaller entities lack. It’s the theory of how water crystals become majestic fractal-patterned snowflakes, how groups of unregulated people produce ‘spontaneous order’, or ultimately, how life developed from the primordial soup.
Biologist Cyrille Barrette believes the soul is a property that has emerged from the complex organisation of matter in the brain. By that logic, elephants should have souls, too. Other researchers speculate the soul is a form of quantum consciousness, existing inside the body and yet somehow part of the wider universe. The quantum soul theory has more credibility (although is no more provable) than MacDougall’s spectacularly unscientific experiments.
So how much does the soul truly weigh? Taking everything into account, it’s fair to say the soul has no weight at all … except the weight it bears itself.
The world could end in all manner of gruesome ways. My favourite hypothetical apocalypse is ecophagy: the world being devoured by endlessly self-replicating nanobots. Death by trillions of hungry microscopic mouths. Nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler first postulated the theory in his book Engines of Creation. The end result would be plants, animals, rocks, people and even water becoming uniform grey goo. Death by extreme conformity. Literally, death by grey.
Nan and Pop didn’t believe in an afterlife. Instead, Nan was practical bordering on obsessive, and Pop did as he was told. Nan hoarded for the Y2K bug. Even as she was dying, she was preparing to live. She was a woman of foresight and determination, and she had a watchful eye on society’s rapid technological advancement. I like to think she believed the grey goo apocalypse was on the way, so she and Pop knew memorials didn’t matter. Their ashes would join the rest of it, eventually, in the grey goo.
But grey is not about grief. It’s not moral ambiguity, neutrality, conformity, boredom, old age, war, or any of that commonly associated stuff. Grey is a promise to be kept. Grey is a memorial.
In the grey goo, the entire planet would become its own memorial.
Through emergence, a world soul—the anima mundi—arising from artificial intelligence would connect the grey in the same mysterious way souls are supposedly connected to people now.
And perhaps, through emergence, hope would grow out of grief, the memorial would become a celebration, and the weight of the soul would finally be unburdened.