Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

“To See My Home before I Die”: The Trip to Bountiful, Memento Mori, and the Experience of Death

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

“To See My Home before I Die”: The Trip to Bountiful, Memento Mori, and the Experience of Death

Article excerpt

Such a caring for death, an awakening that keeps vigil over death, a consciousness that looks death in the face, is another name for freedom.

-Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death1

Jacques Derrida, in the above words, elucidates one of philosophy's most potent concepts: Living with the constant knowledge of one's own mortality, of the inevitable end that will eventually come, leads-paradoxically-to a fuller and more vibrant understanding of death's opposite side: life. The thought of dying enhances the process of living, in other words, and what Derrida calls "caring for death," "keeping vigil over [it]," results in absolute self-determination, or a "freedom" in which we fashion of our selfhood free of obligation to any religious, political, or cultural system. As Simon Critchley puts it, in a useful discussion of Heideggerian "being-towards-death," the anticipation of death "mobilizes mortality as the condition for free action in the world."2

In many respects, such an understanding of death is similar to the ancient Christian idea of memento mori, which can be roughly translated as "remember mortality." The more direct translation is "remember that you will die."3 Ideas of memento mori haunt texts ranging from Ecclesiasticus' injunction "in all you do remember the end of your life" to the skulls and rotting fruit inhabiting sixteenth and seventeenth century vanitas paintings to the verbal reminder that accompanies the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday: "remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return."4

Much has been written about memento mori in the arts. For example, Martin Jay finds memento mori's "specter of mortality" strongly present in Roland Barthes' ruminations on photography and memory.5 Additionally, Jonathan Blower notes that Goethe's Elective Affinities "consciously and consistently mobilizes historic monuments and relics of times past as premonitions of future death."6 Texts outside of literature are also read through memento mori: Phillip Shaw calls Patti Smith's classic album Horses "a form of memento mori, an artistic meditation on the limits of mortality," Louis Kaplan finds memento mori throughout the photography of the AIDS epidemic, and Benjamin BennettCarpenter finds memento mori in the contemporary films titled Power of Ten, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, and Blue.7

Each of the previous texts presents perceptive analyses of the fundamental impulse behind memento mori: the injunction to keep death always before one's eyes. Bennett-Carpenter's point that "one discerns one's limited future, takes (or refuses) action in light of this discernment, and these actions (or refusals) have material (including psychological and social) consequences for one's life, but especially for coming generations" is indicative of the strong work that has already been done theorizing the myriad implications of facing one's own death.8 What thinking about memento mori has yet to examine fully, however, is how the awareness of one's future death can function as Derridean possibility, as what I referenced above as honest action and "the seizure of absolute responsibility." The purpose of this essay is to consider memento mori in such terms. In particular, I will investigate Peter Masterson's 1985 film The Trip to Bountiful and demonstrate that the awareness-and experience-of impending death functions to mobilize free and ethical action for the film's elderly main character, thus not only increasing this character's self-understanding but also pushing her to select priorities and to take responsibility for the life she leads. For this reason, a careful look at Masterson's film adds immensely to critical analyses of memento mori, doing so by placing the longstanding idea in conversation with late deconstruction and its "ethical turn."

A summary of the film's most important events helps in fleshing out the above claims. In brief, The Trip to Bountiful (set in 1947) tells the story of Carrie Watts (played by Geraldine Page), an elderly woman living in a one-bedroom Houston apartment with her dutiful son Ludie (John Heard) and none-too-pleasant daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlyn Glinn). …

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