When I was at college, a minority of students described themselves as ‘Goths.’ They were not, in case anyone wondered, Arian heretics of Iberia descended from northern Germanic tribes. They were teenagers dressed in black who wore black nail varnish and black lipstick, dyed their hair black, and were followed by the lingering aroma of things unwashed. I always had a soft spot for the Goths. They seemed to me to represent modernity’s last pathetic attempt at romanticism. I expect they drank cider and played computer games like most college outcasts, but they imagined themselves as tortured poets who gazed at the moon and wrote passionate verse in the light of candles stuck in old wine bottles, on torn parchment stained with tears. I’m not sure whether Goths still exist, but my encounters with them always left me with the feeling that they defied modern sensibilities in at least one crucial respect: their very presence seemed to highlight that we outsiders had missed something essential about life, namely that it is sad and gloomy.
Maurice O’Connor Drury, a student and friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, worked for several years as Resident Psychiatrist at Dublin’s hospital for the mentally unwell. He familiarised himself to an admirable degree with the complexities of mental health and the greater complexities of man’s tendency to depart from such health. In a book entitled The Danger of Words (what Wittgenstein’s celebrated biographer Ray Monk called “the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein’s students”) Drury observed that psychiatrists occasionally help people to manage the disappointments and general melancholia that are part of ordinary life for everyone. Drury, in fact, agreed with Sigmund Freud that often the aim of such a mental health professional, if he is doing his job properly, is merely that of replacing in the patient “neurotic unhappiness” with “normal unhappiness.”
Agreeing with Freud is a very new experience for me, and not one I wish to habituate, but I am forced to agree with him in this case (or at least agree with Drury as he agrees with Freud). The point is: mental health cannot mean a mentality free from sadness or unhappiness. Fergus Kerr, in his wonderful examination of post-Wittgensteinian psychology entitled Work on Oneself, writes that “psychiatry based on a purely hedonistic ethics, a psychiatry that does not recognise that periods of anxiety and periods of melancholy are a necessary part of every human life, such psychiatry will never be more than a superficial affair.”
Whilst I’m reluctant to trivialise the many mental health illnesses and anxieties that modern people claim, I suspect that much of their emotional confusion is just what everyone normally feels. The difference being, however, that the young modern was told that such feelings had been—or would be with the next cultural revolution—banished by Progress. Melancholia, that dark feeling that follows us like our shadows throughout our lives, to whose gifts we nonetheless often turn when in search of some profundity, appears to the modern person as an unnatural thing, rather than the totally natural framework of any balanced mind, which it truly is.
I deeply sympathise with the season of Autumn, for this season appears to me like nature’s dramatic manifestation of the secret we all carry in the hidden chambers of our hearts: this world is a sad place, full of suffering, misery, and death—and moments of jubilation are in fact treasured exceptions rather than the normal state of our existence. The leaves fall, the wet and slippery mud rises with the rain and suffocates the grass, and the bare trees shiver in the chilly wind. The world reveals in theatrical expressions its inner melancholia and calls us to testify to this cosmic sadness by the binding of wreaths and the building of fires.
It is fitting that Halloween is celebrated at this time of the year. Whilst the Americanisation of European cultures, with the arrival of many of that republic’s mores, is something to be lamented, I like the sudden explosion of the macabre onto our streets. The tradition of the Danse Macabre has already been wonderfully explored in this journal only recently, but this cultural motif was just one of a number of ways our civilisation popularly meditated on the darkness of our world and the pitiful end to which we all shall come.
In Northern Europe, rich gentlemen in the 16th century commissioned artisans to carve boxwood miniatures of coffins with little wooden skeletons inside, which they wore on their belts to remind them of the one inevitability of which they could be sure: death. Thus, they could be ever prompted to recall the vanity of life, and simultaneously fall into the pettiest of vanities by signalling their wealth (for such boxwood miniatures cost a small fortune).
It was common to see around those cities in which Christianity had put down deep roots, a Memento Mori, often as simple as a single skull but sometimes something much more elaborate. In the homes of the wealthy, a subgenre of the Memento Mori was developed, known as the Vanitas. In such paintings, symbols of the luxuries of upper-class life were gathered for a still life painting: books, musical instruments, fine wine, exotic fruit, hunting trophies, precious metals and jewels—and in the midst of them all, a human skull.
The keenness for imaging death reached extraordinary heights. Anyone who has wandered around the Sedlec Ossuary, now in the Czech Republic, or Portugal’s Capela dos Ossos, knows just how high. In these chapels, the walls and ceilings are covered with the bones and skulls of thousands of people. Whole skeletons hang overhead on ropes. Chandeliers, arches, and crests are made from human remains. How else to give so many victims of the Black Death a glorious burial than to assemble them into a building built to offer worship and glory to God?
Such architectural endeavours may strike us as a little too much. Still, the point remains: a culture that encourages awareness of death is a mature culture. Joseph de Maistre, as a young boy, was a member of the Penitents Noirs, a confraternity whose purpose was to keep vigil at the cell of any criminal who was to be executed the following day, praying and encouraging the prisoner not to despair, and also to ensure a Christian service and burial would be provided after the execution. Each week, the young Maistre would confront the imminence of death in the eyes of the reaper’s next victim. I am sure that such a moral formation was not insignificant in making the man who remained completely unmoved by the puerile enthusiasm for philosophie in that chaotic era, condemning such thoughtlessness in prose that shook the whole continent.
The notion of hiding death in the way we do today would have struck our forebears as lunacy. The one future event of which we can all be certain is surely the one thing we all need to be open about. If there is anything we ought to be preparing for, it is death. And how on earth are we going to do that if we are hiding the fact, in the hope that we will keep it out of mind?
Our lives are sad. We struggle through them, often poised on the precipice of material ruin. The people we love betray us, and if we reconcile with them, they soon die anyway. We in turn become frail, and weak, and we then die too. That is the normal course in any case, if not interrupted by disease or some accident that ends it all—such things, though, make life swifter but no less unhappy.
It is shocking to me, when I reflect upon it, that I did not see a dead human body until I was fourteen years of age, and that was quite by accident. I was travelling down the Zambezi and the accompanying raft capsized on a rapid and a young man—a newly qualified doctor from Bristol—was sucked down into a whirlpool. His lifeless body rose to the surface five minutes later, and we all sat on the riverbank beside the corpse for over an hour until a helicopter came and took it away. Years later, on another continent, I wandered the streets of Varanasi and meditated on the vanished lives of the cadavers that lined the streets awaiting their cremation, the pyres for which were being assembled by the family members of each deceased person. I remember at the time thinking about how right it was to treat death as if it were something that should not be hidden.
In our technologized culture, we all pretend that life will continue forever, and we seek to perpetuate the appearance of youth accordingly. And because we never think about it, we are blind to how deeply disordered our discomfort with death really is. We let people die unseen in sanitised cells; their bodies are then secreted away to crematoriums, where the dead person won’t be encountered until he is unrecognisable as a pot of dust. These remains are then thrown to the wind, that the departed may henceforth make no claim on us or play any further role in the lives of the living.
This cultural ‘forgetting’ of the dead is deeply deranged. It is to behave as if yesterday never happened, and today is all that has ever been. It is to behave as if what has happened to that person will never happen to us. There is something extremely infantile in the refusal to confront the central mystifying mystery of our world, namely that it is a realm in which we must all courageously struggle amidst death and mourning.
The key lie disseminated by modernity is that humankind is entering an epoch of infinite opportunity, and that the word ‘limitation’ is one that belongs to ages past. Of course, none of this is true, and people are more intellectually and emotionally fettered than they have ever been since the ascendency of Christianity. For this reason, what was three centuries ago a much broader conception of freedom has now been whittled down to the basest and most appetitive yearnings, the free expression of which is what people really mean when they talk of freedom today. (In fact, you only really know you’re free during Pride Month, which is why Pride Month now has fifty-two weeks.) The great limitation on our freedom, with which we don’t know what to do, is death. And since—for the modern—the body is all there is, death is the ultimate limitation, and the only one that really matters. Thus, the only solution left to the modern is to shut his eyes, put his fingers in his ears, and cry “la la la la la la la!”
To recognise that this is a world of sorrow and death, notwithstanding the rays of light that intermittently break through the otherwise ever-present clouds, is necessary for adopting the kind of calm acceptance that makes life manageable. Such recognition is also a fundamental part of being in the truth. I knew a French philosopher who would say, “The more you know, the more you’re in hell.” This, of course, may seem like a typically French rendering of the English folk wisdom found in the expression “Ignorance is bliss,” but in fact the philosopher in question never thought that ignorance was the preferable condition, but that—like Christ’s harrowing of hell—entering the hades of understanding was necessary if any beatitude was to be procured.
It is said that on the first day of each month, Joseph Cafasso—the spiritual director of St. John Bosco, and a man known as the “saint of the gallows,” as his ministry was to accompany those on death row to their place of execution—would lie in a coffin all day, meditating on his future demise. This practice may not be very practical for most of us, but Cafasso could do it, and consequently Cafasso was a mature person. Not to be overcome by knowledge of an event that’s coming to us all, and not to crumble when the shadow of sorrow darkens one’s life, is part of having an integrated soul.
Of course, the possession of joy, and not gloom, is one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost—the proofs, if you like, of the operation of grace in one’s life. One’s joy, however, is had despite the knowledge of this world as a Valley of Tears where the devil reigns as Prince. Habituating the recollection of one’s future death, acknowledging that the gifts of the devil belong to this passing world and can never satisfy the human heart, and that the presence of melancholia is exactly what one should expect to feel in such a world, are among the first steps to shaking that deceiver off one’s back. So, let’s start talking about death again, for in a world where modern isolation has so thwarted our ability to relate to each other, we can fall back on something we all share—for we are all in the process of dying.