Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Death: an introduction

As I mentioned in the previous post, just the mention of death makes me, for one, anxious.
Freud’s own analysis of anxiety shows, although Freud himself never said so, that there is a close and deep connection between anxiety and the death instinct. Anxiety is a response to experiences of separateness, individuality, and death. The human child, which at the mother’s breast experiences a new and intense mode of union, of living, and of loving, must also experience a new and intenser mode of separation, individuality, and death
From Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959).

This anxiety inhabits every day of our lives, every night of our obscure dreams:
We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. . . . The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.
From Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973).

Becker’s book was great (you may recall that Alvy buys it for Annie in Annie Hall) but there’s something too earnestly obvious about it. Becker’s breezy dismissal of the internal lives of animals is interesting: how does our understanding of our own fear of death change now that we know that certain animals (chimps, dolphins, octopuses) are highly intelligent and, who knows, may know that they will die? Elephants have been observed mourning their dead. Don’t all animals act as if they are scared of death – in their behavior in avoiding death? If the fear of death is universal, what is it, other than another symptom of DNA’s strategies to perpetuate itself? (That doesn’t quite make sense.)

It is rare that any living thing wants to stop living. The purpose of a living thing is, most essentially, to live. Not to live is contrary to the very purpose of a living thing.

In any event, this month, the OG will venture into the realm of death. We will be scared, but we will go forward knowing that life is always against death, like foot against floor.
One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? the trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don't know, I don't know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn't death, considered such a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of--

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don't like it.
From Donald Barthelme, “The School”


Anonymous said...

Reccomended listening for your new theme:

Camille Saint-Saens: "Danse Macabre"

Modest Mussorgsky: "Songs and Dances of Death"

Sergei Rachmaninov: "The Isle of the Dead"

Franz Liszt: "Totentanz"

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.2 "Resurrection"

Gustav Mahler: "Kindertotenlieder" (Songs on the Death of Children)

Richard Wagner: "Liebestod" (Love Death - final scene from "Tristan und Isolde")

Richard Strauss: "Tod und Verklärung" (Death and Transfiguration)

Henry Purcell: "But Death, Alas! ... When I Am Laid In Earth" from Act III of "Dido and Aeneas"

Franz Schubert: String Quartet in D Minor D 810 "Death and the Maiden"



chanchow said...

Looks like MK has a death obsession!

Anonymous said...

Not really. More a music obsession. You could simplistically say that art in general has an obsession with love and death.


ivanomartin said...

You know, I was thinking the other day...art in general has an obsession with love and death.......


chanchow said...

Music obsession my eye. Anyone who can list that many death songs (yes, death songs) has a death obsession!

hh said...

have you been to death valley? i haven't. it sounds sexy.

Anonymous said...


Name any other topic of your choice that is similarly ubiquitous in the arts and I'd be happy to supply an equally lengthy list of works, if you don't believe me. Besides, there are only two sets of "death songs" on that list, two operatic arias, one string quartet and the rest are orchestral pieces, not songs.

I posted the list really only as a follow-up to the list of recommended classical recordings I sent the Octopus a few weeks ago.


Anonymous said...

BTW, one of the above deals with resurrection (generally, not just in the Christian sense). It starts with death and then comes back out as an affirmation of life. An amazing piece of music, too.


Octopus Grigori said...

Where the hell on the list is Megadeth?

Octopus Grigori said...

And to offer MK some aid and comfort here, who's the one devoting a month of blogging to death with a background of dancing skeletons?

Octopus Grigori said...

HH: I haven't been to Death Valley, but I'd like to go. Later posts will address the kinship between death and sex that you allude to in your comment. That dark union is powerfully depicted in this print by Munch.

Anonymous said...

Re: Megadeth. I thought you're having a serious discussion of death? ;-)

hh said...

ron, did you know that i had that print up in my room in my last studio?!?!

did mrs. octopus tell you that? are you messing with me?! haha.

man, i must really be obsessed with death and sex.

Octopus Grigori said...

HH: Weirder and weirder. I did not know that you had that print up in your last studio. And you probably did not know that I had that print up in my senior dorm room.