I have a slightly gloomy but, I think, not unreasonable view of birthdays, which is that they are really all about death. It rests on two simple observations. First, much as they pretend otherwise, people do generally find birthdays to be poignant occasions. And second, a milestone can have no poignancy which does not ultimately come from the knowledge that the journey in question must end. (Would an eternal being find poignancy in ageing, nostalgia, or anything else associated with the passing of time? Surely not in the sense that we use the word). In any case, I suspect most of us are aware that at these moments when our life is quantified, we are in some sense facing our own finitude. What I find interesting, though, is that to acknowledge this is verboten. In fact, we seem to have designed a whole edifice of niceties and diversions – cards, parties, superstitions about this or that age – to avoid saying it plainly.
Well it was my birthday recently, and it appears at least one of my friends got the memo. He gave a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, a sequence of woodcuts composed in 1523-5. They show various classes in society being escorted away by a Renaissance version of the grim reaper – a somewhat cheeky-looking skeleton who plays musical instruments and occasionally wears a hat. He stands behind The Emperor, hands poised to seize his crown; he sweeps away the coins from The Miser’s counting table; he finds The Astrologer lost in thought, and mocks him with a skull; he leads The Child away from his distraught parents.
It is striking for the modern viewer to see death out in the open like this. But the “dance of death” was a popular genre that, before the advent of the printing press, had adorned the walls of churches and graveyards. Needless to say, this reflects the fact that in Holbein’s time, death came frequently, often without warning, and was handled (both literally and psychologically) within the community. Historians speculate about what pre-modern societies really believed regarding death, but belief is a slippery concept when death is part of the warp and weft of culture, encountered daily through ritual and artistic representations. It would be a bit like asking the average person today what their “beliefs” are about sex – where to begin? Likewise in Holbein’s woodcuts, death is complex, simultaneously a bringer of humour, justice, grief, and consolation.
Now let me be clear, I am not trying to romanticise a world before antibiotics, germ theory, and basic sanitation. In such a world, with child mortality being what it was, you and I would most likely be dead already. Nonetheless, the contrast with our own time (or at least with certain cultures, and more about that later) is revealing. When death enters the public sphere today – which is to say, fictional and news media – it rarely signifies anything, for there is no framework in which it can do so. It is merely a dramatic device, injecting shock or tragedy into a particular set of circumstances. The best an artist can do now is to expose this vacuum, as the photographer Jo Spence did in her wonderful series The Final Project, turning her own death into a kitsch extravaganza of joke-shop masks and skeletons.
And yet, to say that modern secular societies ignore or avoid death is, in my view, to miss the point. It is rather that we place the task of interpreting mortality squarely and exclusively upon the individual. In other words, if we lack a common means of understanding death – a language and a liturgy, if you like – it is first and foremost because we regard that as a private affair. This convention is hinted at by euphemisms like “life is short” and “you only live once,” which acknowledge that our mortality has a bearing on our decisions, but also imply that what we make of that is down to us. It is also apparent, I think, in our farcical approach to birthdays.
Could it be that, thanks to this arrangement, we have actually come to feel our mortality more keenly? I’m not sure. But it does seem to produce some distinctive experiences, such as the one described in Philip Larkin’s famous poem “Aubade” (first published in 1977):
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Larkin’s sleepless narrator tries to persuade himself that humanity has always struggled with this “special way of being afraid.” He dismisses as futile the comforts of religion (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”), as well as the “specious stuff” peddled by philosophy over the centuries. Yet in the final stanza, as he turns to the outside world, he nonetheless acknowledges what does make his fear special:
telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
There is a dichotomy here, between a personal world of introspection, and a public world of routine and action. The modern negotiation with death is confined to the former: each in our own house.
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When did this internalisation of death occur, and why? Many reasons spring to mind: the decline of religion, the rise of Freudian psychology in the 20thcentury, the discrediting of a socially meaningful death by the bloodletting of the two world wars, the rise of liberal consumer societies which assign death to the “personal beliefs” category, and would rather people focused on their desires in the here and now. No doubt all of these have had some part to play. But there is also another way of approaching this question, which is to ask if there isn’t some sense in which we actually savour this private relationship with our mortality that I’ve outlined, whatever the burden we incur as a result. Seen from this angle, there is perhaps an interesting story about how these attitudes evolved.
I direct you again to Holbein’s Dance of Death woodcuts.As I’ve said, what is notable from our perspective is that they picture death within a traditional social context. But as it turns out, these images also reflect profound changes that were taking place in Northern Europe during the early modern era. Most notably, Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation had erupted less than a decade before Holbein composed them. And among the many factors which led to that Reformation was a tendency which had begun emerging within Christianity during the preceding century, and which would be enormously influential in the future. This tendency was piety, which stressed the importance of the individual’s emotional relationship to God.
As Ulinka Rublack notes in her commentary on The Dance of Death, one of the early contributions of piety was the convention of representing death as a grisly skeleton. This figure, writes Rublack, “tested its onlooker’s immunity to spiritual anxiety,” since those who were firm in their convictions “could laugh back at Death.” In other words, buried within Holbein’s rich and varied portrayal of mortality was already, in embryonic form, an emotionally charged, personal confrontation with death. And nor was piety the only sign of this development in early modern Europe.
In 1533, Holbein produced another, much more famous work dealing with death: his painting The Ambassadors. Here we see two young members of Europe’s courtly elite standing either side of a table, on which are arrayed various objects that symbolise a certain Renaissance ideal: a life of politics, art, and learning. There are globes, scientific instruments, a lute, and references to the ongoing feud within the church. The most striking feature of the painting, however, is the enormous skull which hovers inexplicably in the foreground, fully perceptible only from a sidelong angle. This remarkable and playful item signals the arrival of another way of confronting death, which I describe as decadent. It is not serving any moral or doctrinal message, but illuminating what is most precious to the individual: status, ambition, accomplishment.
The basis of this decadent stance is as follows: death renders meaningless our worldly pursuits, yet at the same time makes them seem all the more urgent and compelling. This will be expounded in a still more iconic Renaissance artwork: Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599). It is no coincidence that the two most famous moments in this play are both direct confrontations with death. One is, of course, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy; the other is the graveside scene, in which Hamlet holds a jester’s skull and asks: “Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” These moments are indeed crucial, for they suggest why the tragic hero, famously, cannot commit to action. As he weighs up various decisions from the perspective of mortality, he becomes intoxicated by the nuances of meaning and meaninglessness. He dithers because ultimately, such contemplation itself is what makes him feel, as it were, most alive.
All of this is happening, of course, within the larger development that historians like to call “the birth of the modern individual.” But as the modern era progresses, I think there are grounds to say that these two approaches – the pious and the decadent – will be especially influential in shaping how certain cultures view the question of mortality. And although there is an important difference between them insofar as one addresses itself to God, they also share something significant: a mystification of the inner life, of the agony and ecstasy of the individual soul, at the expense of religious orthodoxy and other socially articulated ideas about life’s purpose and meaning.
During the 17thcentury, piety became the basis of Pietism, a Lutheran movement that enshrined an emotional connection with God as the most important aspect of faith. Just as pre-Reformation piety may have been a response, in part, to the ravages of the Black Death, Pietism emerged from the utter devastation wreaked in Germany by the Thirty Years War. Its worship was based on private study of the bible, alone or in small groups (sometimes called “churches within a church”), and on evangelism in the wider community. In Pietistic sermons, the problem of our finitude – of our time in this world – is often bound up with a sense of mystery regarding how we ought to lead our lives. Everything points towards introspection, a search for duty. We can judge how important these ideas were to the consciousness of Northern Europe and the United States simply by naming two individuals who came strongly under their influence: Immanuel Kant and John Wesley.
It was also from the Central German heartlands of Pietism that, in the late-18thcentury, Romanticism was born – a movement which took the decadent fascination with death far beyond what we find in Hamlet. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the eponymous artist shoots himself from lovesickness, led to a wave of copycat suicides by men dressed in dandyish clothing. As Romanticism spread across Europe and into the 19thcentury, flirting with death, using its proximity as a kind of emotional aphrodisiac, became a prominent theme in the arts. As Byron describes one of his typical heroes: “With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe, / And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.” Similarly, Keats: “Many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.”
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This is a very cursory account, and I am certainly not claiming there is any direct or inevitable progression between these developments and our own attitudes to death. Indeed, with Pietism and Romanticism, we have now come to the brink of the Great Awakenings and Evangelism, of Wagner and mystic nationalism – of an age, in other words, where spirituality enters the public sphere in a dramatic and sometimes apocalyptic way. Nonetheless, I think all of this points to a crucial idea which has been passed on to some modern cultures, perhaps those with a northern European, Protestant heritage; the idea that mortality is an emotional and psychological burden which the individual should willingly assume.
And I think we can now discern a larger principle which is being cultivated here – one that has come to define our understanding of individualism perhaps more than any other. That is the principle of freedom. To take responsibility for one’s mortality – to face up to it and, in a manner of speaking, to own it – is to reflect on life itself and ask: for what purpose, for what meaning? Whether framed as a search for duty or, in the extreme decadent case, as the basis of an aesthetic experience, such questions seem to arise from a personal confrontation with death; and they are very central to our notions of freedom. This is partly, I think, what underlies our convention that what you make of death is your own business.
The philosophy that has explored these ideas most comprehensively is, of course, existentialism. In the 20thcentury, Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre argued that the individual can only lead an authentic life – a life guided by the values they deem important – by accepting that they are free in the fullest, most terrifying sense. And this in turn requires that the individual honestly accept, or even embrace, their finitude. For the way we see ourselves, these thinkers claim, is future-oriented: it consists not so much in what we have already done, but in the possibility of assigning new meaning to those past actions through what we might do in the future. Thus, in order to discover what our most essential values really are – the values we wish to direct our choices as free beings – we should consider our lives from its real endpoint, which is death.
Sartre and Heidegger were eager to portray these dilemmas, and their solutions, as brute facts of existence which they had uncovered. But it is perhaps truer to say that they were signing off on a deal which had been much longer in the making – a deal whereby the individual accepts the burden of understanding their existence as doomed beings, with all the nausea that entails, in exchange for the very expansive sense of freedom we now consider so important. Indeed, there is very little that Sartre and Heidegger posited in this regard which cannot be found in the work of the 19thcentury Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; and Kierkegaard, it so happens, can also be placed squarely within the traditions of both Pietism and Romanticism.
To grasp how deeply engrained these ideas have become, consider again Larkin’s poem “Aubade:”
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Here is the private confrontation with death framed in the most neurotic and desperate way. Yet part and parcel with all the negative emotions, there is undoubtedly a certain lugubrious relish in that confrontation. There is, in particular, something titillating in the rejection of all illusions and consolations, clearing the way for chastisement by death’s uncertainty. This, in other words, is the embrace of freedom taken to its most masochistic limit. And if you find something strangely uplifting about this bleak poem, it may be that you share some of those intuitions.