Essay by Eirik Melstrøm. April 2019.

Besides, it´s always the others who die

Epitaph on Marcel Duchamps tombstone

My mother called me around noon to tell me that my Grandma had died. It was a Friday, just a few days before Christmas. Even though she had been sick for a couple of years, and even though the rational side of my brain had known for a while that it would eventually kill her, the emotional right side of my brain reacted without language, experience or perspective.

Two days before I had seen the nurses at the hospital lift her unconscious body, and whilst turning her exposing the bruised and swollen parts of her torso she had been hiding from us over the past months. In that split second a physical weight leaned up against me, one I am only able to describe in material terms. It was as if every cell in my body was gradually filled with a heavy mass, leaving no vacancy to maneuver, paralyzing me to a complete stand-still. It was akin to what in popular terms is called a shock; complete chaos due to the forceful collision between what you expect to be real on the one hand, and what you experience as reality on the other. The sight of her carcass beat up by disease made clear the unsolvable nature of the so-called mind-body problem. Only death will bring it to balance.

For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to death. Not necessarily my own death, but towards a romanticized notion of death. In short, an attraction to death as phenomenon, not the act of dying. Identifying with a set of emotions associated with death has always come easier to me than with others. Feelings of melancholy, despair and self-destruction, of sorrow and subsequent anger, of irrefutable endings, being conscious of the inevitability of death, of fatality and all its symbolic and mystical connotations are all forces I have felt a belonging to ever since I was in my early teens. I remember feeling ashamed listening to the “Introitus” of Mozarts Requiem for the first time by chance one morning while still in High School, having turned the frequency of my clock radio too far and thus ended up in the otherwise pestering classical section. It was the first time I experienced death as potentially beautiful, and at the same time feeling ashamed because at that age you weren´t supposed to be moved by anything other than scoring a goal at a soccer match, or catching a seasonal trout in the village pond. So, I kept it to myself, as with a lot of similar experiences back then. 

By contrast, experiencing the death of my Grandma was anything but beautiful. My built-up romanticized notion of death was confronted with the reality of death as biology. Expectation colliding with experience. The smell of that entire section of the hospital will never be remotely romantic.

To create “focused zones of ambiguity” concerning a topic such as death involves hitting it from all angles. It can be addressed biologically, through natural- and medical science: What happens to our bodies when we die? It can be addressed historically; death as cog in the Hegelian wheel of history. Religiously, through the idea of the afterlife. Philosophically; is life constituted by the fact that we are all going to die? And how do we relate to that logic facing the contemporary pursuit of immortality?

Alongside the ones mentioned above, visual arts constitute an angle of approach necessary to tackle death as a paradigm of reality. From Chris Burdens 1971 Shoot-piece, to Marc Quinns portrait-sculpture Self (1991), made with his ownfrozen blood,to Marguerite Humeaus FOXP2 (2016) where she recreated the vocal cords of a series of extinct animals. Not to forget Paul Theks The Tomb (1968, frequently called “The Death of a Hippie”); a life size model of the artist as deceased. Especially Nathan Coleys In Memory (2011) is a work I think is relevant to the project I am working on at the moment. Like Rothko he is aiming to make a place, a site, one that might be filled with contemplation and remembrance, or perhaps challenge the boundaries of life and death, pointing towards that unknown place Rothko talked about, one that might be read as spiritual but also in my opinion as pointing towards the future. 

In many ways, death is the most speculative part of life. How can you feel drawn to a concept you will probably never experience yourself? Why focus on the ending of one’s life, instead of relishing what goes on throughout it? Why do we write music based on it, attempt to describe our feelings because of it using language, aestheticize and fetishize it? As it turns out, life is rich, filled with knowledge, beauty, community, love – and with lots of opportunities of transgression. So why have death play a part in our lives at all? The obvious answer is of course because it is not a matter of choice, at least yet. Death does play a part in our lives whether we want it to or not.

In his book Western Attitudes Towards Death, historian Philippe Aries claims that our relationship to death has changed dramatically throughout history, and he identifies four main attitudes. From death being an unsentimental and familiar resignation to the collective destiny of our species in pre-medieval societies, a change occurred in the Middle Ages where man suddenly grew aware of his own death. Death became individual, evoking the notion of the self in an entirely new way. But it was not until the eighteenth century that western civilizations began associating death with meaning, and thus emerged a view of death as transgressive, as a rupture of life – death as ripping you apart from daily life and robbing you forever from the rational world of the living. No longer just concerned with one´s own death, it was now the death of the other that concerned us; the sorrowful disbelief associated with the death of someone close to us. The idea that someone is left behind when a person dies was now a new feature, and exaggerated mourning of the dead became a normal way of life (i.e. death). The point is, death became feared. What is interesting with this attitude is that death is paradoxical; on the one hand, it is no longer considered desirable, but at the same time we see the emergence of romanticized notions of death – death as beautiful. The traditions of the Nocturne both in music and visual arts at the time is a testament to this deathly presence in what has later been termed Romanticism.

The fourth and modern attitude toward death is according to Aries one that is characterized by denial. Today one must avoid, no longer for the sake of the dying person, but for society´s sake, the disturbance and emotional strain caused by the horribleness of death and its presence in our otherwise happy and successful lives devoid of friction. If there is one thing that can be said about our attitude towards death in contemporary society, it is that hiding from it is a primary virtue.

One example is the simple displacement of the site of death. Up until very recently it was normal for people to die in their homes, surrounded by family and relatives. Most people today die in hospitals, hospices and care centers, many alone despite having close family. It can be read as a way of distancing ourselves from death being a part of our lives. The ideal now is what Aries calls an acceptable death, one where the survivors are protected against the embarrassment associated with the messiness of death, which is now left up to nurses and hospital staff.

Considering the contemporary pursuits of immortality I have dealt with in this collection of essays, I would like to introduce a fifth addition to Aries four western attitudes to death. I would like to call it the Rejection of Death. From scientific efforts in genetics and robotics, to cryonics and colonization of other planets, the attitude is no longer characterized by a naïve hiding-away from death, it is rather morphed further into an active rejection of death, into the belief that death need not occur at all. Chasing radical life extension and in the end immortality is based on the belief that “death is wrong”, to paraphrase the mantra of the 2018 National Convention of the American Transhumanist Party. And this brings us all the way back to Fedorovs Cosmist utopia and the belief that death is not inevitable after all, as well as the Cryonics Institute´s advertised sales pitch that death is a process rather than an event. 

How does the death of my Grandma fit into all of this? Well, was I hiding myself from it? Did I consider it so horrible that I denied the event of her death? According to Aries, yes. Does that mean I did not realize the full implications of the phenomena of her death until long after she actually died? More so, have I ever, and will I ever? With that in mind, is our pursuit of immortality really based on a desire to survive, or is it the culmination of our hiding from death, essentially rejecting that life and death at all need be part of the same reality?