Few arguments are more tedious than the one between partisans of the two possible ends of the millennium. After the more obvious end on December 31, 1999, we can all agree that January 1, 2001 erases the old millennium for good, and with it, the tedium of the subject. Since in 2001 I turn sixty, this is an appropriate moment for reflection on death, which a sixty-year-old can no longer ignore but need not yet try to forget.
We daily fill our brains with data, print, audio, video; the brain decays and nothing remains of its contents. What we leave behind is what we have stored on paper and on disk, in libraries and on servers. But look in the library at those yellowing books; and what will a century do to pages on the Internet–these Chronicles, for instance? We think of our descendants: but how much of self remains in genetic material constantly diluted? Bataille knew that sex and death put the individual out of place.
Death is everyone’s foxhole. Our sense of mortality, born in the fear of collective violence, has a life of its own; the deferral of collective violence is not the suspension of death.
If the operative force in the originary scene were simply fear of the potential violence of one’s fellows, it would be no more than animal fear, to which centrifugal flight rather than centripetal concentration is the normal response. Animal fear of death through violence is not humanity’s unique anticipation of death.
Humanity and the sacred are coeval. To say that the originary participants “project” the violence of their own mimetic conflict onto the central object of the scene suggests that humanity creates the sacred. But we should avoid deciding this priority. The human comes into being when and only when its central cognitive agency and means of communication are alienated from it to a sacred center that has power of life and death over the newly instituted community. In the scene, the fear of mimetic violence diminishes when the gesture of appropriation is aborted and becomes a sign. The referent of the sign cannot be appropriated by a participant on penalty of death, a penalty that does not proceed from the rival appropriative gestures of the others but from the sacred center itself. The center remains as the signified of the sign after the being that inhabited it has been divided among the participants and the real-world scene abandoned–and the fear of death remains along with it. The sacred is still taboo and the death penalty, permanently in force.
Animal fear is dependent on circumstance, ephemeral and intermittent. Once it has been transmuted into human fear, it is permanent; it is part of the signification of the violence-deferring sign. The sacred is fearsome because it concentrates within itself the potential violence of the community. This violence is not responsible for the body’s natural decay and death. But “natural death” is a sophisticated notion. It is no mere cliché that in tribal societies everyone dies for a “cultural” reason. What is minimally human is that we possess a concept of our death that transcends animal fear, a concept whose germ is the originary sacred.
The historical path from the tribal notion of “cultural” death to our own biological one deserves to be studied from an originary perspective. The cultural explanation of death has not altogether disappeared; health panics reveal a deep desire to blame death on culture rather than nature. But where is “culture” in my own apprehension of biological decay?
My father died suddenly after checking himself into the hospital with mild chest pains. My mother called me a few hours before her death to complain of being kept waiting to be sent home from the hospital. Like the victims at Pompei or the dancers drawn into the medieval dance of death, neither took proper leave of their worldly possessions. When I return from the store with a new gadget or piece of clothing, a gallon of liquid soap or a package of 75 shop towels, I think of the scarcely-worn clothes and gadgets and the stocks of quantity purchases I had to pack or throw or give away when I cleaned out their condominium in Florida. Or I make plans to do little things and worry less about living to do them than about their irrelevance to my ultimate purpose. Pascal observed 350 years ago that we seek distraction from mortality, too weak to spend our days paying off the wager of our ephemeral lives against a small but finite possibility of eternal salvation.
A pain in your chest, a tingling in your head, a fit of constipation, a mole, and you ask “Is it now?” Where is culture in our constant vigilance toward the body’s decay? Perhaps we envy the societies where no one dies a natural death; ours is not among them. Even as we rail against second-hand smoke or pollution or global warming, we know that in the last analysis our death does not depend on human action.
Anticipation of death is with us from the beginning, contained within the meaning of the sign from which all other signs proliferate. Knowledge of the profane world allows us to forget the sacred, but only because the sacred sign defers our self-destruction. For the moment, the sign has brought us peace; to die in bed at a decent age is a gift we forget to appreciate. Meanwhile, in the absence of world war, thousands continue to die the most culture-bound of deaths, and the world may be filling up once more with those who say with the young militant quoted in the paper the other day (LA Times, December 28, 2000, p. A12): “Jihad gives life purpose. Without it, we are useless.”
We understandably take for granted the sacred protection against our own violence, and then that pain or tingle comes… We are sure no God is commanding us to die, but we say anyway a little prayer, to make sure we are in the right state of mind, caring toward our loved ones and forgiving to our enemies, so that we may be well remembered. What we fear most is not death but oblivion. The animal fear of death, transferred to the sacred center, returns to us in our “profane” lives as the fear of being forgotten.
Let us resolve then to circulate more love than resentment in the world. The bleak solitude with our dying bodies that we hear so much about is as much a myth as blaming disease on witchcraft. It is in the human world, not in nature, that we either die alone or join in one of the many versions of the great recycling of souls. In affirming that the permanent significance of the sacred belongs to our temporary being, love, which won’t stop us from dying, shows itself stronger than death.