Archive for November 1st, 2013

You might be a king or a little street sweeper,
But sooner or later you dance with the Reaper.
  –  Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Neil Gaiman's DeathToday is the Day of the Dead.  It has been called by many names over the centuries (Samhain, All Hallows Day and El Dia de los Muertos are but a few) and it has been observed at a number of different points on the calendar, but that hardly matters:  Death is the one great universal experience, the sacrament shared by every dynamic thing from the most ephemeral of microbes to the stars and galaxies themselves, the inescapable conclusion to every form of existence not already dead in its immutability.  As such, the day on which we celebrate it is immaterial, though mid-autumn to me seems a properly symbolic time.

In last year’s column I discussed the irrational fear of death, which has increased dramatically as people have become less accustomed to it (due to both the decreasing violence of human life and the increasing disconnection of human existence from the natural world).  Many live their entire lives in dread of it; they submit to any tyrant who falsely promises to delay it for a while, stunt and warp the development of their progeny in a foolish attempt to “protect” them from it, and deny themselves many of the pleasures of life, even to the point of restricting themselves to the consumption of life-forms they can pretend weren’t validly alive in the first place.  To these people the traditional depiction of Death, a terrifying figure who cuts down human lives like so much ripe wheat, is the most meaningful one; they see it as a monster, a pitiless destroyer to be fled for as long as possible no matter what the cost.

Nothing in the DarkBut this is not the only depiction of Death we find in the iconography of our species.  Though its comparative distance from modern daily life has resulted in most developing a paralyzing dread of it, that same distance has allowed wiser heads a sense of perspective; in recent centuries some depictions of Thanatos have become more complex and nuanced, even positive.  Now that it no longer stalks our lives as closely as it did for most of history, some have even begun to realize that a world without it would be cold and static:  life and growth require change, and change must eventually lead to dissolution.  A world without death would be one without development or advancement, a world as still and inert as an insect trapped in amber.  And because this is not such a world, death can also be something else: a release.  We have learned to prolong life, but often at the cost of sickness, torment and debility; all too often, modern medicine is nothing more than a cheat, denying to Death an organism which Life has abandoned.  At such time, Death may become a longed-for companion, a lover who, after a long flirtation, one is at last eager to embrace.

Obviously, neither extreme is desirable for the majority of a human life; our species itself would be doomed if too many young people were overly enamored of the Ever-Smiling One, and we’ve already seen what happens when an entire culture hides under its collective bed and refuses to risk even the most casual encounter with It.  The Dance of Life is, paradoxically, also a dance with Death; the steps are many and intricate, and we change partners many times as we move across the decades.  And when the time for the final figure comes at last we should not make fools of ourselves with spastic capers in a vain attempt to change the pattern, but rather take the long-anticipated partner’s hand and pass gracefully from the floor to make room for the new dancers who are always waiting for their turn. All That Jazz

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