Questioning the “universality” of Death

October 28th, 2007 § 1 comment

When I tell people, as an explanation for specific recent work, that my best friend died last year they have a variety of reactions, but I can count upon receiving self-assured commiseration. There seems to be a prevalent attitude from such sympathizers that, while they may not understand the particulars they can understand the devastation. This seems reasonable at first thought, but when considered seriously it shows how meaningless death can become when it is not in any way related to ourselves. Answering such questions as could this work be seen as therapy forced me to seriously reconsider given sympathies, and question the extent to which a person can allow themself to grasp an unpleasant situation when the shattering nature of it has not been directly felt. Whether it is a hard worked at selfishness or an innate limitation of the human capacity to “feel” (I sometimes wonder if it is necessary to function as I can hardly stand to watch a plant wilt) there seems to be a clear line of how much I can understand of such situations for others and therefore others of mine. Watching the French film Joyeux Noel I cringed the moment the differing forces entered the battlefield made neutral by the appearance of Christmas. Knowing nothing of warfare and disregarding notions about the films “accuracy” I guessed or felt this holiday from war was going to make it nearly impossible for them to kill each other the following morning. Could this zone of personal interaction be lacking in discussions around and reactions to work dealing with death and loss of an unusual and intimate kind? I wonder about these notions of imposed limitation while fully acknowledging the fault could lie in my execution and explanation of these ideas. If these limitations are a truthful part of human nature, however defined, why then is there such a predilection toward false emotion and deference? Is it simply the upholding of a cultural custom, similar to the question “how are you?” that is asked without the slightest fear of it being answered? A wince and exclamation of “so young” can be surprisingly more honest than dismissive questions or an unhealthy curiosity for details—“how large was the tumor?”

This questioning of supposed universal feeling leads me to then question the real consequences of death, which seems to have very little to do with the actual act of dying. In an incredibly poignant scene at the end of Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out, the young heroine of course dies, yet it is not the death that is seen as tragic.

“This was death. It was nothing; it was to cease to breathe….As he saw the passage outside the room, and the
table with the cups and plates, it suddenly came over him that here was a world in which he would never see Rachel again.”

Following this idea of a changed reality, the specificity of my work does not necessarily lie in the sole fact that “he died”, but in the ripple effect one persons life has. In an It’s a Wonderful Life kind of manner the house his family lived in has sold—albeit ironically it is still empty—the place I spent many summers is gone, and with it most notably the countless nights of doing dishes together. It seems that for the people who must live after, death becomes simply a moment, or rather the moment, when much was lost and all is changed.

It is no longer a funerary reaction of condolence that is expected of my viewers, but a more complex look at the non-linear nature of our linear stories. My two recent pieces in particular deal less with grief and loss, and more with disillusionment: when stories are ended in life, one feels the need to go back and rewrite them. I never realized how ingrained fairy tales are in our notions of how events should be ordered, how relationships ought to progress, when and where they must end. I blame the books and movies I grew up with for giving me these ideas, and perhaps also the cultural need to compartmentalize scattered and disorderly stories, and I am still childishly appalled at the messiness of real life events. There is little sense to be made out of this particular story, were it not true it could be easily manipulated and rearranged for the better of all concerned, and death seems to only wheedle its way back into the foreground of my thoughts simply because it has forcefully provided a concrete beginning and end. If I could represent my memory accurately, it might look like a badly exposed roll of film, where not only light and exposure were a problem but something mechanical. It could begin in that house, with the front door open, with a girl sitting on a couch, with a boy carrying groceries, and it could end in that house the night of his birthday, with a table filled with burned chicken. And all the rest—with the exception of a few random spots where all the mechanisms miraculously worked correctly—could be black with unfocused streaks of gray. The cheerful notion of happy ever after is always in my mind juxtaposed with those brilliant moments of light and color, moments when life worked in a manner that is rare and perfect in its disproportioned excess. The story becomes not about neat endings and happy beginnings, but the in-between that literature, film, and, yes, even images fail to properly capture. These pieces are also about a calamity, and the slow fading of childish dreams; death has greater implications than we give it credit for. People have said, “but it’s over now”, as though death is an ending rather than a beginning, which leads me back to my initial questioning of the possibility to grasp when it is not absolutely necessary.

It is aggravating to be misunderstood by sympathetic attempts to understand, although this is perhaps the natural trial of being an artist. In a recent lecture the sculptor mentioned that while he loved misunderstandings between people and places he hated to be misunderstood. I seriously question death’s assumed “universality” because of the attitude that seems to diminish its consequences and dismiss a potentially meaningful sharing of human loss. In a culture Robert Lifton argues suffers from a “broken connection” between the continuum of life and death, death is seen as something unpreventable yet is treated as an evil that must be prevented. In the same vein as my mother’s refusal to being “put out to pasture” at the age of fifty, I believe my encountered “commiserations” are yet another way to repress. In the past my fear of death would temporarily freeze my thoughts, and because I currently have no fear I critically wonder where it came from. The fact that this fear could vanish through a personal encounter, study, and truthful experience with death arouses my suspicions of the lies and fears fed and nurtured within our culture. My desire is not to have this work seen as therapy, which it is certainly not, nor as excessively personal. If people are going to live up to their firm expressions of the sympathetic “universality” of death they must then acknowledge this work is not just for Jon who died young, but is dedicated to all who have died, and for the infinite number of people left behind.

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