Death & Decay
Preface by Daniel Evers
Death, disease, decay; these are just some of the concepts that modern culture endows with negativity, morbid terms that humankind continues to ponder, obsessed as we are with our own (im)mortality. Yet despite countless poems, novels, plays, operas, paintings, and films that touch upon death, we are no closer to understanding it nor discovering the very meaning of our existence. Some turn to religion for comfort, others look to science for an explanation, and these are just two of the approaches that help people to accept their fate. But as Gertrude tells Hamlet: ‘All that live must die, passing through nature to eternity’.
If we cannot truly understand death or the forces that control it, how are we meant to confront it, and how have we confronted it as a species during our history? Issue three of HARTS & Minds examines just a few of the ways in which humans have attempted to deal with death through various cultural, artistic, and humanistic media. The articles contained within do not (and cannot) offer the definitive word on the subject of death, but provide interesting and important accounts of, amongst other things, the role of memory in death, how we react to disease, and our fascination with images of the dead.
The issue begins with a collection that spans history and encompasses very different disciplines in order to consider how people ‘perform’ death; for as Sylvia Plath suggests: ‘Dying / Is an art, like everything else’. Claire Holdsworth considers the spectral manifestation of recorded re-play and recording technology in Ken McMullen’s 1983 film Ghost Dance. Through Jacques Derrida’s notion of 'hauntology', Holdsworth examines how McMullen’s underlying consideration of mythic re-telling, tape recorders, and technology multiplies and imbues further meanings, stories, and selves into the settings and characters of this film. Philip Hughes seeks to elucidate the role of crucifixion in the Roman world. Hughes argues that selection for crucifixion was determined by social status, representing dishonour of the individual, and that the display was important for instilling both fear and delight in observers, and for asserting the power of the state. Lauren Sapikowski examines Andres Serrano's The Morgue in relation to Roland Barthes's assertion that in photographing a corpse, the living presence of the corpse is apparent. Sapikowski asserts that Serrano’s stylistic choices and manipulation of the viewing gaze redefine our relationship with the idea of the corpse, and radicalise our expectations of post-mortem photography.
Since, as Czesław Miłosz writes, ‘The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them’, our second grouping considers how people remember the deaths of loved ones and how certain societies have chosen to memorialise death through rituals or by erecting monuments to the dead. Rebecca Warren-Heys analyses two distinct attitudes to death in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV. She argues that Shakespeare calls attention to the continual manipulation and abuse of memory, whilst reminding us that it can never be absolutely contained or controlled by anyone, particularly not when that person is emotionally involved. Francis Myerscough contemplates how, more than two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the tomb of its first leader remains a popular attraction for locals and travellers, political pilgrims, and tourists. Returning to Derrida’s neologism of 'hauntology', Myerscough explores the continued post-mortem vitality of Lenin and his beliefs. Sarah Schwarz, employing empirical methods, considers why Neanderthals chose certain rituals for burying their dead. Schwarz claims that Neanderthal groups treated every deceased individual in the same way. Her work, therefore, asks whether we can assume an ‘ad hoc’ approach was being used, what other factors could determine how the deceased individual was treated, and how funerary sites fitted into the Neanderthal landscape.
In his (rather appropriately) posthumously published novel 2666, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño proposes that ‘The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy’, and so our final group of articles consider the use and manipulation of language in response to sickness and disease. Maureen Watkins examines disease and death in Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium where bodily disintegration is the norm and death a frequent occurrence, Watkins looks at the ambivalent reactions provoked by certain conditions, and argues that whilst they are generally perceived as abhorrent, frightening, and taboo, they also arouse a significant degree of curiosity, fascination, and desire. Mai-anh Peterson considers how people think about their own impending death through an examination of an early French AIDS testimony and, specifically, its English translation. The primary focus of the paper is the ethical responsibility that a translator has when dealing with such sensitive material. Louise Creechan considers the use of metaphor to discuss terminal illness in children’s literature. Engaging with Susan Sontag’s distaste for the medical metaphor, Creechan argues that using metaphor is a positive and practical means of representing illness for the child reader.
For the first time, HARTS & Minds is delighted to have accepted submissions of book and event reviews and creative writing pieces that relate to our theme. Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson’s two poems, ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Valhalla’ play with both the terror and wicked delight of death. Louise Ells offers three poems in a collection called ‘After Ivan’ that reflects upon her experience of Hurricane Ivan, which devastated parts of the Caribbean and United States in 2004. Ells also writes ‘Notes Towards Recovery’, a short story set in Ottawa that deals with death by winter drowning.
Jennifer Cowe reviews Eve Sussmann’s exhibition whiteonwhite, held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal between May and September 2013. Katherine Crouch looks at a major exhibition at the Museum of London that focuses on the history of anatomical dissection taking place between October 2013 and April 2014. Michael Tilley rounds off the issue by reviewing Matthew Levering’s 2013 publication Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian.
Death and disease have fascinated, terrified, and consumed the human race in equal measure for millennia. We might still not fully understand either, but we are getting better at fighting disease and delaying death, and consequently life expectancy continues to increase. Will we ever discover the secret to eternal life? Does such a secret exist? Should we even attempt to prevent death from fulfilling its natural duty? One thing is for certain: human beings will forever be absorbed by death; and the arts and humanities will play a vital role as they always have.