Saturday, March 24, 2007

Death Becomes Her

The news that John Edwards, contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, would continue his campaign despite the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, is certainly significant. While the pundits may debate whether Elizabeth, and John, are admirably courageous or merely consumed by ambition, we naturally frame the question as, what behavior is appropriate when you are dying from cancer? But the better question to ask is, what behavior is appropriate when you are living with cancer (however short the time you have left to live)? (Here, I want to acknowledge once more the usefulness of Mara Adelman and Larry Frey's book The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids in thinking about such issues, as I discussed in a previous post). What could be more exciting, fulfilling, more full of life than the decision by Elizabeth Edwards to carry on with the campaign?

With the ascendancy of typographic literacy and the specialist mentality of mechanical/industrial culture, dying became a private affair, one that was sequestered from polite society--the final act was to occur offstage. Aldous Huxley captured it perfectly in Brave New World where dying was supposed to take place in hospitals as a sanitized (and soma-ized) stress-free event.

But communication technologies beginning with photography and the motion picture, and progressing to television and the internet, have brought the private act of dying more and more into the public arena. McLuhan, among many others, argued that television was instrumental in turning the American public against the Vietnam War because it gave us unprecedented access to images of death. We have witnessed, as a mass audience, the deaths of the Challenger astronauts, and the end of thousands of lives as the Twin Towers collapsed. And video of terrorist acts such as beheadings and suicide bombings can be found in all their grisly detail on the internet. This shift is also reflected in programs such as HBO's Six Feet Under, which looks death straight in the face as a family funeral home becomes the environment for a family drama.

We are experiencing a major change in the way that we deal with death, with both positive and negative ramifications. In his brilliant book The Denial of Death Ernest Becker argued that we humans are alone in our self-conscious awareness of our own mortality, and that this poses an incredible blow to our self-esteem. Our solution is to live our lives as heroes, following the examples of the great heroes of the past, and it is the function of culture to serve as a hero-system, enabling us to construct our heroic selves, and thereby shore up our self-esteem. I would think that the narcissistic personality lives in complete denial of death, and that this may well characterize many suicide bombers, who are encouraged to see themselves as great heroes, and reassured by promises of an afterlife of pleasure and sexual fulfillment (sex itself being an affirmation of life). And, it appears that Harry Houdini was poisoned in retaliation for his efforts to debunk spiritualist mediums, with their claims to speak with the dead, thereby establishing the reality of a life after death.

The written word is a denial of death, as it lends a kind of permanency if not immortality to our words, and the selves we construct through our words. Other recording media, the photograph, the sound recording, the moving image, etc., also serve to deny death. We are inexorably moving to a situation where we will feel that the unrecorded life is not worth living--an excellent expression of this can be seen in the SF film The Final Cut starring Robin Williams. No doubt, there will also be methods of preserving thought patterns and a sense of consciousness and personality via computer coding. But in the end, there is no getting around the end.

Forced to confront death through the electronic media , we may be able to spend a little less time denying death, and a little more time embracing life.

No comments: