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Death in Literature Numerous Evils of Humankind

Death in Literature Numerous Evils of Humankind
© Photograph by Nick Chao

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that while death is the most reliable experience in human life, death remains inexplicable and unknown. People, therefore, need to encounter the death experience in other ways, such as by watching and following the death of others, as well as with the help of fiction, imagining how it will feel. The German philosopher and literary critic Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin was another scholar who claimed that what we seek in fiction is the knowledge of death that is denied to us in real life. If the purpose of philosophy is to prepare us for death or to be the practice of death, as Socrates put it in Phaedo 81a, then we might ask what the relationship between death and literature is? How can literature contribute to our existential concerns related to death as a characteristically private experience and a real loss in our lives? Can literature help us face or conceive this most definitive of all endings?

Literature can provide us with ways of approaching death and imagining it from different perspectives. Some literary genres (elegies, lamentations) are intentionally written as reactions to the loss of a loved object or a person, and literature can act as a consolation to those who are suffering. Classical consolations, for example, offered solace in the face of death or exile, while in the first book of his consolatory ‘Tusculan Disputations Cicero’ noted that death has even been praised and welcomed as it liberates us from the world of distress and the numerous evils of humankind. Some literary deaths are more perplexing and less easily closed than others, and some literary heroes have left the life more painfully and dramatically than others. In comedy, violence may hurt but the victim always survives, whereas tragedy typically represents a meaningful and dramatic grand-scale death that prolongs the scene of dying, as is the case in William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear.’ The plot of classical tragedy is based on suffering, and the drama often ends in the premature death of the tragic hero combined with the development of some self-recognition. In tragedy, the meaningful existence of the hero is paradoxically created by his death.

Literature offers insights into death, dying and mortality in multiple ways. One could argue that death is beneficial to literature. While providing fictional encounters with death to its readers, the stories also use death in their narrations to create emotional effects, plot twists, suspense and mysteries. However, even more importantly, death and storytelling seem to have a fundamental and existential connection. This is what the first essay in this volume by Antje Rávic Strubel suggests by focusing on the author’s relationship with death. Life and death offer us the opportunity to tell stories, which, however, often contain an element of illusion precisely owing to their narrative character, which perhaps sometimes makes more sense than the banality of life and its ending does. Antje Rávic Strubel considers storytelling an existential act crucially important to our lives; storytelling helps us to maintain a (deceptive) sense of order in our lives and momentarily keeps death at a distance, as though it did not exist at all.

The awareness of the finitude of life may thus lead us to ponder the human condition or to structure our lives in a meaningful way. The complexity of this effort is reflected in numerous contemporary novels, such as Haruki Murakami’s best-selling ‘Norwegian Wood,’ a novel often read as a sad but somewhat harmless love story which is, however, keenly occupied with the ubiquity of dying in the young characters’ lives. The narration revolves around suicides and premature deaths, and death is depicted as a crucial part of human existence: “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.” Importantly, Haruki Murakami’s novel illustrates the fact that abrupt physical death is (nearly) always accompanied by a second, longer and even more painful form of death that takes place in the mind of the survivor who has lost his loved one. The process of forgetting becomes an equivalent to death while the memory of the past love gradually fades away in time and changes the mourning subject. Many literary representations focus on this second, psychological type of death, which also has its distinct religious undertones as a suffering and punishment following the first, physical death.

Literary descriptions of death are thus not merely preoccupied with the painful scene of dying or individual loss, but the concept of death can be understood more widely as a site of many projections and fantasies and as a metaphor of many social issues. Literature can also discuss death through metaphors and characterisations. Karl S. Guthke, for example, argues that despite multiple alternatives, Western art and folklore have chosen to give a human form to the abstract concept of death, they personify death. Karl S. Guthke also claims that through the personification of death (and its victims), death necessarily becomes gendered as a cultural product. And since death as a lover is a common, even a universal theme, death necessarily becomes eroticised in these products. Karl S. Guthke maintains that in Western cultures, both genders have been available, but although male figures used to be more common, during the twentieth-century in particular female death figures have become increasingly popular. This discussion continues in the section of major Western novelists in this book. Deng Tianzhong examines old male characters in Ernest Miller Hemingway’s books as personifications of death, whereas Risto Saarinen shows how the intimate relationship between love and death is one of the recurring themes in Marsilio Ficino’s ‘De Amore’ and how, according to Marsilio Ficino, the lover’s soul when turned to the beloved is open to death as well.

At the metaphorical level, death can be used to mark issues that need to be alienated or in other words, abjected. “Abjection” is Julia Kristeva’s concept and refers to something that has been part of a human being, but after separation from the subject it creates a threat to identity and needs to be cut loose. The experience of abjection is also linked to dead bodies and to death itself. The very connection with death can mark social issues as marginalised or invisible. Several vampire stories, for example, use the intimate and sexual relationship with death to mark active (female) sexuality as horrendous. In Abraham Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ (1897), the vampire seduces Lucy and Mina. The men in the story need to hunt down both the Count and his transformed victims and kill them in order to tame any forms of sexuality that threaten the accepted social norms. By punishing female sexuality by death, the novel also marginalises other types of sexuality than monogamous and heteronormative relationships.

Thus, in literature death exists at many levels: it is part of the narrations, imagery, metaphors and character traits; it reaches outside literature’s own realm and discusses death-related social issues and emotions that are recognisable for the reader. Literature retains memories of past lives and gives them continuity. Literature itself can be considered a form of immortality, like novels, poems and short stories live through imitation and find new generations of readers centuries after their own time and the lives of the authors. This book aims to discuss these different dimensions and meanings of death in literature.

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