Academic journal article Antipodes

Literature and the Intimate Space of Death

Academic journal article Antipodes

Literature and the Intimate Space of Death

Article excerpt

THE DESIRE TO COME TO TERMS WITH DEATH, ONE'S OWN OR an other's death, is profoundly human. In our quest to understand our mortality, a quest that must by necessity fail, we turn often to literature, art, and music, and are confronted repeatedly not with revelation and certainty, but with the spaces of absence and death they shelter within. Theorists like Maurice Blanchot can help us understand some of the imaginative strategies artists and writers employ in their attempt to represent the ungraspable experience of death. In this article some of Blanchot's ideas are utilized to negotiate the spaces of absence and death that inform Alex Miller's novella, The Sitters, and Noel Rowe's poem, "Next to Nothing." In both of these texts we see the protagonists responding to the actual or threatened loss of a sister; both Rowe and Miller employ the device of portraiture; and in both texts death is represented through the unsaid, the absent.

Blanchot argues that humans are preoccupied by dying "because when we die, we leave behind not only the world but also death." This leaving behind of death constitutes a profound paradox. "Death works with us in the world; it is a power that humanizes nature, that raises existence to being, and it is within each one of us as our most human quality." We only know death because we are human, and we are only human because we are "death in the process of becoming. But to die," writes Blanchot,

is to shatter the world; it is the loss of the person, the annihilation of the being; and so it is also the loss of death, the loss of what in it and for me made it death. As long as I live, I am a mortal man, but when I die, by ceasing to be a man I also cease to be mortal, I am no longer capable of dying, and my impending death horrifies me because I see it as it is: no longer death, but the impossibility of dying. ("Literature and the Right to Death", 392)

It is important to understand that Blanchot, as a 36-year-old resistance fighter, faced death by a German firing squad only to be inexplicably waved away at the last moment by one of the soldiers when the Nazi lieutenant was distracted. Having looked death in the eye and then escaped it, Blanchot proceeded to theorize on the role such temporal moments play in our lives and art. As the narrator of L'Instant de ma mort concludes: "the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance" (11).

Blanchot distinguishes between death (?a mort) and dying (ie mourir). Death is synonymous with possibility. We will most certainly die, and in the moment of death we may grasp the meaning of our mortality. Dying is another matter. He identifies dying with impossibility because dying "entails the ungraspable facticity of death, where [we] can no longer lay hold of a meaning for human finitude" (Critchley 118). Here is where artists, writers, and musicians come in, for they strive continually to find ways to represent death or at least make it comprehensible. Yet, another paradox looms. As Simon Critchley, reading Blanchot, argues, since none of us can know what it is to die

the only relation we can have with death is through representation, an image, a picture of death, whether visual or verbal [or aural. But] . . . the representation of death is not the representation of a presence, an object of perception or intuition - we cannot draw a likeness of death, a portrait, a still life, or whatever. Thus, representations of death are misrepresentations , or rather they are representations of an absence. (108)

Alex Miller's protagonist in The Sitters confronts this dilemma when he paints a portrait of his friend at the moment of the friend's death. In doing so he alienates many people: "They said it wasn't Henry. That it was too cold. Too grim and too austere. He'd never been like that, they said. What did I think I was trying to do? Was this some kind of iconoclasm?" (60) He defends himself, stating that it was a picture of how he saw Henry "at the end": "He's not lying in bed. …

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