Cultural Notes: Without death, there would be nothing

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The Independent Online
TO BE modern is to turn away from death. Or so we're told by those like Philippe Aries, the eminent historian of death. In the most industrialised, urban-ised, and technologically advanced areas of the Western world, says Aries, "society has banished death . . . Everything in town goes on as if nobody died any more." Like most advocates of this view, Aries believed that in earlier times people had a healthier attitude to death: they accepted it as part of the natural order. Death to them was "tame", whereas for us it has become so traumatic as to be in need of denial.

But the thinkers and art-ists of the past and the present suggest a different story: be it in visual arts, literature or philosophy, they tell us that death has never been tame in Western culture; and the more traumatic it has become, the more profoundly they have contemplated it. Although you don't get this from Shakespeare in Love (a film which gives superficiality a bad name), the world's greatest dramatist, like most of his imaginative contemporaries, was obsessed with death. And this wasn't just the comfortable melancholy of carpe diem - live for the day - it was also the grimmer preoccupation with how death, and its medium, time, disintegrate everything into oblivion.

The truth of things seemed to lie in their decay and dissolution, in their ceasing to be. Think of Hamlet at the graveside, holding the still rotting (and stinking) skull of Yorick. Less well known but no less compelling are those Renaissance illustrations of rotting corpses (called "transi"); sometimes they are shown being actively decomposed by worms (they even had a word for it: "vermiculation"). Many at this time made the perverse, imaginative leap whereby the real energy of the universe seemingly resided not in the generative life force, but the disintegrating potency of death. For many today this seems morbid, pathological and even morally offensive. And yet this preoccupation with death was integral to the Renaissance, arguably the greatest period of intellectual and aesthetic production the West has seen.

In some respects the modern period has rediscovered this older way of thinking and feeling about death. Philosophically, aesthetically and erotically, the merciless immanence of death was discerned by some of the most influential thinkers from the later 19th century through into the 20th. They include "continental" philosophers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille and Kojeve. And, of course, Freud.

About six months into the First World War, Freud predicted that this conflict would revive an older attitude to death; from now on he warned, "if you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death". Freud went on to disturb many with theory of the death drive which said, in brief, that "the aim of all life is death". This too was a revival of an older idea, one well understood in the Renaissance.

All this is of course alien to the analytic tradition of philosophy which mostly avoids such existential reflection; one recalls the analytic philosopher who, asked the meaning of life, never got beyond a consideration of the meaning of the word "life". But it is a way of thinking hugely influential for the artist: we need only recall the profound influence Schopenhauer's views of death had on Wagner's Tristan. This - in his own words - is what the musician "took" from the philosopher: "the genuine ardent longing for death, for absolute unconsciousness, total non-existence".

Without death there would be no philosophy. So said Schopenhauer, Montaigne and many others back to the Ancient World. We should add that without death there would be no art, certainly not as we think of it. For more than two millennia some artists and philosophers have gone even further and embraced the ultimate paradox: without death, which destroys everything, there would be nothing.

Jonathan Dollimore is the author of `Death, Desire and Loss' (Penguin, pounds 9.99)