poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Being Dead

Below is the text of the talk I gave at Ed Atkins and Siôn Parkinson’s “A Dying Artist” on Friday. My thanks to Ed and Siôn for organising this perhaps surprisingly enjoyable event, which was distinguished throughout by the thoughtfulness and passionate engagement of its contributors.

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…”. In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Claudio is begging his sister Isabella to surrender her chastity in order to save him from the gallow’s pole. He does so by inviting her to weigh the immeasurable awfulness of death against the relative horror and ignominy of submitting to sexual coercion. His initial bargaining move is to exclaim that “death is a fearful thing”, to which Isabella retorts, “and shamed life a hateful”. As the commonplace expression has it, she is facing “a fate worse than death”: destruction of the sexual integrity which, through her vows of chastity as a nun, has become the lynchpin of her social and spiritual identity. A “shamed life” is one from which this identity has been stripped, bartered away so that all that remains is the shameless female body, no longer defended by any notion of “honour” from general sexual exploitation: in the social world of Measure for Measure, the direct counterpart of the nun is the prostitute. In order to surpass this menace, Claudio has to reach for the superlative, arguing that death itself is, in fact, a fate worse than a fate worse than death: “The weariest and most loathed worldly life / That age, ache, penury and imprisonment / Can lay on nature is a paradise / To what we fear of death”.

Neither Claudio nor Isabella is directly concerned with the immediate agonies of rape or execution, but rather with the state into which they will be translated by such extremities. It would seem that no comparison is available between the state of being dead and the state of living in sexual dishonour, or indeed any state of living whatsoever. Whatever the conditions that life “can lay on nature”, whatever degradations that nature can support, life remains a “paradise”; that is, being alive is as different from being dead as being in paradise is from being in nature.

What is it about being dead that is so unsurpassably horrible? For Claudio, it is “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot”, and for “this sensible warm motion to become / a kneaded clod”. It is clear that being dead is an embodied state: to be dead is to be a dead body. The living body faces death as the negation of its vital properties - “cold” is opposed to “warm” as “obstruction” is opposed to “motion” - but each of these terms is only meaningful in reference to its opposite. A body without motive force cannot meaningfully be said to be obstructed; a body that does not generate warmth will eventually come to match the temperature of its surroundings. The horror of “rot”, of being reduced to the condition of “a kneaded clod”, is likewise opposed to the active sensibility that translates external events into forms of experience. An actual “clod” has no reason to protest at being “kneaded”.

In a certain sense, then, Claudio’s fear of death is hysterical: it shifts an imaginary locus of experience out of the living body with which it is normally identified, and into a dead body from which we would normally understand it to be absent. There is something that it is like to be dead, and the fear of death is fear of being this way. There is no common measure between this hysterical terror and Isabella’s quite reasonable fear of living a ruined, degraded life; and thus Claudio’s plea trumps Isabella’s, or at least renders further discussion futile, by ruling out any rational counter-claim. As a rhetorical ploy it fails - Isabella calls him a “warped slip of wilderness” and condemns him to perish - and yet the strange warp of his argument remains imaginatively, if not morally, compelling. There seems to be something in our lived experience to which the hysterical fear of being dead appeals, some vulnerability at which it strikes emotionally.

In Philip Larkin’s great and terrible late poem “Aubade”, the fear of death is once again conjured by “the dread / of dying and being dead”, which in moments of stillness and introspection “flashes afresh to hold and horrify”. I’ve argued in Cold World that this “flash” of horror correlates inversely with the euphoric or epiphanic revelation of “God’s Grandeur” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem of the same name: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”. Hopkins’s metaphor is one of the accumulation and discharge of energy, God’s grandeur being a kind of zero-point energy that lies “deep down things”, continually refreshed and refreshing. The bequieted world of Larkin’s “Aubade”, where he finds himself “waking at four to soundless dark”, is the inverse of Hopkins’s, draining energy into the void of oblivion: all that appears is destined to vanish, all that moves is destined to fall still. Both poets are transfixed by a moment in which they see, in Larkin’s words, “what’s really always there”; and Larkin’s reverse epiphany shows him a world of dead circuits from which the vital spark of creation has been withdrawn.

The point I wanted to make about the “cold world” is that it is a world in which a kind of anti-event has taken place: to use Badiou’s terminology, what once appeared with maximal intensity in this world has been reduced to a minimal intensity, and has (so to speak) dragged everything else down with it. The anti-event, the moment of libidinal or economic collapse, induces a state of being which is like that of being dead - a kind of radical austerity, if you like. Larkin becomes for a time a kind of shade, viewing the consolations of religion and philosophy from the perspective of one who is already imaginatively under-going the horror they attempt to disguise or mitigate. “Aubade” regards the living world from the standpoint of an inhabitant of the land of the dead, ruthlessly devastating the appearances with which it covers up its already-terminal condition.

If there is any connection at all between the poetry of Philip Larkin and the “depressive black metal” of Xasthur - and I admit it seems a bit of a stretch - it is in this condition of being “telepathic with the deceased”. As I suggested earlier, Claudio’s imaginative displacement of a living sensibility into a dead body is a kind of hysterical projection. One aspect of this projection is that it brings about a kind of splitting of identity, such that it is no longer entirely clear whether I am projecting myself into my future dead body, or my future dead body is projecting itself into me. In her discussion of Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ”, Julia Kristeva notes that the mutilated body in the tomb represents, amongst other things, the abject separation of the Son from the Father: between the moment when the crucied Jesus cries out “why have you forsaken me?” and the moment of the Resurrection, this entombed corpse is both that of a God who has really died on the cross, and that of a mortal creature utterly abandoned by his creator. It is as if God himself were dead to himself, hysterically beside himself. In this splitting, Kristeva suggests, something of the character of modernity appears. The being-dead of Holbein’s Christ is the emblem of an interruption in the identity of God, which prefigures the lapses, disconnections and dislocations diagnosed by psychoanalysis in its examination of the modern psyche. The continuity of Being, the hierarchical connection between the Father and the Son, has been broken. In a sense, both the epiphany of Hopkins’s vision of God’s grandeur flaming out “like shining from shook foil” and the counter-epiphany of Larkin’s fugue of frozen horror in the dark can be seen as hysterical short-circuitings of this contingency: energy arcing across the severed connection, establishing a brief and impossible identification between the world of the living and the land of the dead.