Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’Eternité le change
Le Poëte suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siècle épouvanté de n’avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voix étrange!
[At last changed by Eternity into himself
The poet arouses with a naked sword
His century terrified not to have known
That death triumphed in that strange voice.]
What do we become after we are dead? Many think this the key religious question. We like to imagine ourselves living in some kind of afterlife, heaven or hell, or, in the hopeful Catholic institution of purgatory, where we can rid ourselves of the sins we are unlikely to have sufficiently purged during our lifetime. We try to imagine what paradise might be like; what enjoyments are available to the blessed? (The torments of hell need little imaginary effort; we’ve already experienced enough of these on earth.)
Yet it isn’t difficult to conceive what will happen to us after we are dead; the model for the afterlife, as of all supernatural phenomena, of all transcendence, is the verticality of the sign’s relation to its referent.
If I am nothing but this mortal body and its associated sensations, then there is indeed no way to imagine an afterlife. After its death, the body cannot continue to live. What survives, it is usually said, is our soul or spirit. In today’s vocabulary, we may call this our self.
Let us recall how the death of others is experienced. In the case of our family and personal friends, we rehearse our memories of them, we cherish objects associated with them. For those who have had a more general impact, we remember their works: the companies they built, the devices they invented, the treaties they signed, the books or music they composed.
Where is the self in all this? Mallarmé wrote the poem quoted above for the unveiling of a monument in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was an alcoholic who had led an unhappy, dissolute life. But his death makes such facts secondary; as he lives in our memory, it is in his art that Poe is truly Lui-même. Nor is this a sentimental figure of speech; it is a matter of historical fact. Perhaps Poe himself might have preferred to survive in some other guise, but we do not memorialize the dead in answer to their wishes. The himself that history makes of him is a function of his public image. It is subject to modification, but the dead person himself is no longer in control of this modification.
Death is a fact of life for all higher animals. What then could lead human beings at some point in history to begin to commemorate it? Poe is a name, a proper noun. The name is coeval with the self, which is in the first place a self-for-others; others give me my name, and call me by it. The idea that we have a self that survives our death depends on the existence of signs; in Greek, the word for both tomb and sign is the same: sêma. If we honor the dead, it is because death is a moment of crisis, when the referent of a public meaning, a proper name, is no longer directly available. What we fear is not the mere fact of death itself, but the extinction of a communally agreed-upon meaning. Death is the sign of a violence perpetrated against the community.
What then do I become after death? What I mean to others. Before, I had the potential to modify this meaning, even if I could not define it. Now that I am dead, I have no further chance to reposition myself in the marketplace of meaning–although my position within it will continue to evolve, modified by factors beyond my control.
Is this immortality? Today, market rationalization has caught up with the afterlife; the contemporary vision of the soul’s transcendent permanence is as fame. The pathos revealed in the horrors of daytime talk-shows reflects our hunger for what Andy Warhol so prophetically called our fifteen minutes of fame–hopefully enough to get us a footnote in a history book. The traditional ideas of heaven and hell belong to stable communities who can expect to remember their ancestors “forever”; industrial market society has changed all that.
Yet it has not changed the essence of our situation. Animals do not want to die, but they have no desire for, or concept of, immortality. That is a human trait, and like all human traits it is the result of our possession of language. We can only desire to survive beyond our death because we conceive of an essence, an Idea that corresponds to the name we are called by and yet does not die with us. If words have signifieds that survive the death of whatever they refer to, why not we?
This idea still lives in today’s world of market-driven art. But theory has become the crucial testing-ground for the deferral of success that tested the artist’s mettle a century ago. I’ll try to give these ideas some theoretical polish next week.