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Monday, 29 April 2013

From the staff room

29 APRIL 2013

I was gobsmacked some months ago to the reaction in this staff room when I inadvertently used a dirty word. I refer not to one of those colourful and sometimes (when it suits police) even illegal anglo-saxon verbs that used to be an unacceptable part of human discourse but which are now, I am told, mere filler words (or, technically, “discourse particles”). Iam referring to the dreadfully chilling and obscene D-word.

In a remarkably prescient book The Denial of Death, published nearly 30 years ago, Ernest Becker argues that this topic has become the most terrifying taboo of all. Where once our obscenities almost all referred to either bodily functions – evacuative or reproductive, or were belittling sacred language (words such a ’zounds, ’strewth, or the various variations of God, Jesus Christ and so on) – now the D-word surpasses all others, revealing our deepest anxiety.

I suggest that in what Nicholas Lasch called our “culture of narcissism” the deepest fear we have is the knowledge that we will die – that the centre of our solipsistic me-centred universe will one day cease to be. To our ancestors this was, and to our Indigenous neighbours this is, de riguer. To us it is an unspoken terror, so nowadays we never die. We pass or pass away, we go to the other side, or in flippant moments we may cark it, pop our clogs, or in good Shakespearian terms shuffle off this mortal coil, but we refuse to die, and we refuse to let our loved ones die. (Ironically though, once they have “passed from sight” we care little for their physical remains, bulldozing graveyards, as Philip Adams pointed out last weekend, with what once was called gay abandon.)

Christianity has made many concessions to schmaltzy social religiosity, so it too has by and large forgotten that at the heart of its task is the proclamation of a brutal symbol of executions and death – or a symbol of brutal execution and death. Christianity of course professes that this brutal “no” to existence is not the final word, and that the Creator breathes a new “yes” into human experience, but not before the brutality, the obscenity, of death. Even Christianity these days, though, often sidesteps the brutality of death and prefers instead to float off into the sky with angels, so that our loved ones become part of an amorphous “out there”, lost and meaningless amidst the endless stars, enjoying a fluffy time with Jesus without closing the door that needs to close before we depart.

Even literature and the teaching of literature has been afraid to face reality. Perhaps the only literary figure really to face mortality was Louis Ferdinand Céline. He was prepared to face mortality far more than was the better known Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre had enough problems of his own, for, for all his existential angst he was less willing to embrace real death than his existentialism suggested. Instead he spent life chasing the glorious French substitute “la petite mort”. No: Céline faced death with brutal honesty – he was, after all, a GP by training.

If you haven’t heard of Céline it is no surprise – too hot to handle, this French GP-come-novelist has as far as I know appeared on few if any tertiary, much less secondary reading lists. It is, as Alan Bloom noted in his acerbic The Closing of the American Mind, precisely Céline’s brutal honesty, stripping away the veneers of human existence, that has kept him off academic reading lists. But in his Journey to the End of the Night he travels deep into human mortality, the sword of Damocles that hangs over your existence and mine every moment of every day. He acknowledges Death as few others have done since biblical times – more even than John Donne, though I doubt Donne would deign to merely pass away.

I intend to die. Not now, I mean, but when my turn comes. I intend to be dead. I will disinherit and haunt anyone, especially any of my innumerable offspring, who believes I have merely passed away. I will endlessly cite Monty Python’s Dead Parrot scene at them until they go stark raving sane and face at last the fragility of their own, your own, and my own existence. And less you think this is all no more than a tangential rant, I suggest that as educators we should all, in rites and words, be at the very forefront of communicating the truth of human existence to those in our care.
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