On the denial of death, modern and early modern


What is death? In our everyday lives, is it ever more than an idea? In our century, it would appear not. In The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance, Robert N. Watson vividly illustrates how abstract mortality has become by using a counterexample:

A few years ago, one of my teaching assistants convinced her husband, an evolutionary biologist, to lend her the human skull from his lab collection so that she could confront her discussion section on Hamlet with the shock of the thing itself, unaccommodated death, a little touch of Yorick in the late afternoon. The class passed the skull around with all due reverence, until one amazed student managed to ask the teaching assistant where she could possibly have acquired it. She, not thinking of course about how it would sound, replied cheerfully, “Oh, it’s my husband’s.” (11-12)

It may be a good joke to us, but it is less so for the students. Death is concretised not once, but twice: first, through contact with the skull itself, and then when the common-garden human fossil seems to become the specific leftover of the TA’s unfortunate spouse.

The fact is, we like to turn a blind eye on death. We are regularly exposed to images of violent death through the media; these distance us from our own mortality rather than making us appreciate its significance. Popular murder mysteries such as Midsomer Murders, Poirot, and Marple shield us from the reality of death – after all, what we seek is the mild thrill associated with the creak of a wheelbarrow being pushed past dimly lit thatched-roof cottages (a wheelbarrow that may – or may not – contain a body). We do not seek to be reminded that one day, our time on this earth must end. Death is entertaining, an amusement. Even when it is not – as in the news – we rarely see past its pixelated representation.

This capacity to deny the reality of death is a survival mechanism we share with our early modern ancestors. The proliferation of death imagery during the Renaissance would seem to suggest that the people of Europe felt a more urgent need to control the fear of death than ever before. During the Middle Ages, artists depicted Death as a coward, emasculated by the triumph of Christ (for Chaucer Death was a “privee thief”), but in the Renaissance Death was portrayed in a more fierce light. Realistic images of skulls, skeletons, cadavers, and so on replaced the skinny black man of previous centuries.

Such memento mori devices were ostensibly designed to perpetuate the fear of death; they were in accordance with the Christian message captured in Ecclesiastes 7:40, “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” Yet these same devices were so ubiquitous that they came to be overly familiar. The idea of death was no longer a threatening one. Mortality personified became so mundane that the reality of corporeal finitude was easily overlooked. Death was even portrayed in the character of the beloved – bridegroom or bride, fondly escorting his or her lover into eternity.

For Ernst Becker, whose pioneering work The Denial of Death has been hugely influential in the field of psychology, the basic human need to forget about death stems from a paradox: “[man] is out of nature yet 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.” [1] But this truth is hardly a discovery of the twentieth century, although the theorising about it may be new. In the late 1860s, Tolstoy wrote that “we are two things – children of the earth here and now, and children of the universe in eternity.” [2] Shakespeare’s Hamlet (who else?) comments that “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” – presumably due to the “quintessence of dust” (alas, poor Yorick).

Whether our fate is that of the embodied soul or the brainy animal, can we ever quite escape the fundamental irony of our existence? Whatever the case, art, literature, and music offer a means of redemption, if not salvation. Even I am overcoming my death instinct in writing this post – after all, what is death? It is a word, a concept, an idea, and while we can keep it that way, it is safe.