Some say you can tell a People by the way they treat the women. Others, by how they treat their children, or their animals. In other words Culture has to do with the degree of relatedness to the Other.
The ultimate other is Death.
and cultural attitudes towards death are going to tell us much more about ourselves than the PR pamphlet used to fob off tourists.
You could say that Western attitudes are characterised by denial but that would be to further deny the sheer trouser compromising terror that typifies our otherwise correct and cheery outlook.
A story that parodies our relationship with mortality is from Grimm’s, ‘The boy who set out to shudder’. Our hero sallies forth to find the meaning of fear. He spends the night beneath a gallows where seven men twist in the cold wind. He cuts the corpses down and builds a fire to warm them but they just ignite so he puts them back, cursing them for their carelessness.
He spends the next night in a haunted castle where he daringly plays cards with ghosts. When the bottom half of a man falls down the chimney he calls up for the other half to follow..
could it be a sub-space disruption, chief?
.. a magical bed that takes him on a hell raising ride around the castle is met with cries of, ‘More, more’. He plays skittles with skulls and leg bone nine pins.
or a dimensional shift caused by thoron emissions in the plasma field?
On the third night he encounters six men carrying a coffin containing his dear cousin whom he tries to revive. When the corpse starts choking him he slams the lid down, angry at his ingratitude.
some kind of anomaly in the space/time continuum, perhaps?
An old man arrives having heard all the noise. Our hero traps him by his beard and beats him with an iron rod until he reveals the castle’s treasure.
And so he’s rich enough to marry the princess who soon so tires of him going on about wanting to learn how to shudder that she pours a basin of cold water, full of wriggling gudgeon, all over his head.
So he learns how to shudder, but not the meaning of fear.
..or something induced by tri-phasic malfunction, maybe?
He seems to have it all. He gets the girl and the castle, but he really fails in his quest. He is satisfied with the concretisation of change rather then the real thing, the cold shock of gudgeon water rather than the cold shock of aqua vita, the spirit of life that impels us across its thresholds into the unknown.
A gudgeon is a slang word for someone who is easily deceived, a gullible dupe, a sucker, the underbelly of our hero’s narcissistic refusal to really be in a world which refuses to be surmounted by his own efforts. He is therefor someone who is easily put off the scent and easily led because he his not rooted in the givens of life..
Setting out to shudder is so grandiose. Its like, ‘some of my best friends are black, or gay…’ Its all waaay over-sold, a piece of ‘reaction formation’, a defensive strategy used to ward off experience by assuming the opposite. It reveals itself in the sweeping gesture, exaggerated sincerity and is..
..’a walking power principle. By pleasing others we are better able to manipulate them, albeit unconsciously.’ M Woodman.
Our hero has an agenda.
His subtext is not to face death but to cheat death.
severe malfunction in life support, captain.
Some cheat death with suicide, they think to transcend death by being its author. A tad ironic given the end result. But there is another way to do it. Stay out of life. Sit on the bleachers where no-one can call time on you. Don’t experiment or wonder, don’t risk anything or invest in anybody. Pour cold water and gudgeons on every innovation.
Be the Death Mother’s patsy.
I recently attended a meeting to see what ideas there might be for a joint venture. After a few minutes one jumped up..
in high dudgeon..
‘we’ve done it all before,!’ he announced and marched out.
It must be crap. It was crap before and it will be crap again.
Death Mother pours cold water and dudgeon gudgeons over every body.
I could have pointed out that his logic precluded him ever having sex with his wife again, or getting up in the morning, for that matter. Imagine the deadness produced by a looped subliminal tape that says, ‘there’s nothing new in the world.’
but there seemed no point and all I could do was wipe his gudgeons off me and allow him to flee the prospect of something unscripted from happening.
Our hero’s treatment of the corpses as if they were alive and in need of warming is more than denial, its a break with reality brought on by excessive pre-occupation with his own little world.
‘Life becomes death longing when all longing else be vain…’ Sophocles
a life whose goal does not go beyond the limited needs of the personality, namely the propping up of itself at all costs, is not worth living. When we depersonalise others, the ‘ungrateful cousin’, the ‘careless corpses’, and relate to others as a means to an end, we lose connection to ourselves and weaken our own internal cohesion, we lose meaning, identity and the sense of our place in the world.
By contast we have the story of Skeleton Woman from Inuit culture. In this story the hero is a fisherman who foul hooks Skeleton Woman, lying at the bottom of the sea. When he sees what he’s caught he runs back to his igloo in blind terror but skeleton woman is all caught up in the line and bounces along behind him.
Once home, the fisherman takes some pity on Skeleton Woman and begins to unravel the line that is caught about her. He straightens her bones and makes her comfortable. In the night he cries a single tear which skeleton woman drinks. She takes out his heart and beats it like a drum, calling for the flesh to return to her bones… then she climbs in next to him…
impulse engines and thrusters back on line, captain.
Dragging something up from the depths is a metaphor. It heralds the new possibility, fresh awareness, or the surfacing of something discarded or suppressed. Its hard work and its scary. The new thing is always the death of the old…
whatever it is.
”the person who begats something which is alive must dive down into the primeval depths…and when they rise to the surface, there is a gleam of madness in their eyes because in those depths death lives cheek by jowl with life.” W. Otto.
The fisherman has the good sense to be terrified but he can’t get away from her. She bounces along behind him, nameless dread, the theme of many a dream on the cusp of rude awakening.
The fisherman reflects on the situation. He sees her all tangled up. He teases the line from her toes and then from her other bones. He re-members Death. He gets out of the comfort zone that change requires and allows into his consciousness that which now need not hijack his destiny. He tends her, instead.
Life is made meaningful by our participating in its mysteries. We’re not here to find answers or to laugh in the face of danger. At some point the questing hero has to bow before the mystery.
‘Unpalatable as it is, mystery forces itself upon the mind of the enquirer, not as a cloak for ignorance but as an admission of the inability to translate what s/he knows into the everyday speech of the intellect.’ CG Jung
We’re here to participate, to be wrenched by the realisation that love and death are first cousins, to make visible whatever we have inside us. To be unknowing of purpose and direction…
a story that emphasises this aspect of many death stories is an amplification of the Inuit story, ‘the Juniper Tree’ in which a young boy is murdered by his mother and turned into sausage. His horrified and desperate sister, Marlinchen, gathers up his bones beneath the table, wailing terribly. She folds the bones into her best hankercheif and goes out of doors crying tears of blood. She lays down under the Juniper tree and falls asleep. While she sleeps a magical bird appears in the tree and flies off with the bones in its beak….
ship’s systems running normally..
Eventually the boy is restored, the wicked mother gets a millstone dropped on her head by the (very strong) bird and there is new life, but only by the strength of Marlinchen’s love which makes her brave in the face of fear and determined in her sacred task.
Her courage is not the absence of fear. She uses it to inform her of what is important and what she needs to do in that moment. Fear is trying to draw attention to priority.
If we demonise it we will simply experience it as fear of one another instead and rob ourselves of instruction in the process.
plus there will still be a snake in the room.