The Post-Future of an Illusion:
Meaning of Death, Death of Meaning
By Greg Rushton
University of Chichester
Word Count: 11,328
- Abstract i
- Introduction: Last Man’s Task ii
- Chapter I: Last Man in Crisis 1
- Chapter II: Death Surrounds the Last Man 10
- Chapter III: Last Man Letting Go 20
- Conclusion: Last Man Reborn 28
- Bibliography 32
In the era of postmodern literature, it has become apparent that the ontological structures which in the past ensured our societal capacity to share in the meaningfulness of events are now breaking down. The loss of a credible system for collectively interpreting cultural reality has left us isolated from one another, and tipped our society onto a course set for disaster. ‘The End of History’ threatens not just our physical existence, but worse, our ability to experience life in a meaningful way. And with nowhere to turn, we are stuck wretchedly grasping at the dregs of a disintegrating culture, as we fail to see that meaning, rather than existing within words, images, and institutions, can only be created by piecing back together our broken, and scattered selves.
In this essay it will be argued that the key to reversing our melancholic condition lies in recognising the underlying liberation, and completeness that comes as a result of embracing, rather than fighting against, the ‘death of meaning’. This comes in the form of a realisation that as prisoners of a bloated, bulging, and twisted-back ontology, which classifies the human ‘self’ as nothing but a random, lonely aberration, we have never experienced the natural integration into our lives of death and meaninglessness which this ontology prevents, and which the death of meaning represents. It will further be argued that this realisation is currently sweeping across our society at an unprecedented pace, but that we need not worry as to how we might speed it on its way, since the cultural shift that we are currently experiencing carries with it the entire heaving weight of Western history.
Last Man’s Task
Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.
(Freud, 1964, 72)
… Insofar as postmodernist fiction foregrounds ontological themes and ontological structure, we might say that it is always about death… In a sense, every ontological boundary is an analogue or metaphor of death; so foregrounding ontological boundaries is a means of foregrounding death, of making death, the unthinkable, available to the imagination, if only in a displaced way.
(McHale, 1987, 231)
Throughout Western history, Death has been worshipped, sacralized, repressed, denied, bargained with, lamented, rationalized, and hated by many. But it would seem that no major culture has yet to successfully overcome or accept our innate dysfunction towards its existence in a psychologically balanced way. This essay seeks to ask: ‘Can death, as both immanent reality and painful historical legacy, ever truly be accepted, in the way that Freud suggests we must accept our religious past?’
In order to answer this question we shall examine what we mean when we speak of death on the scale of the individual, the society, and the species, through the acute textual lens created by the postmodernist movement, and related critical endeavours, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And more specifically, by the work of several major figures in postmodern literature whose foregrounding and varied exploration of themes concerning life and death has created a rich new discourse from which to trace our arguments and draw our conclusions.
Postmodernism comes at a moment in history unlike any other. It has been variously stated, and more or less agreed upon, that the life of the individual at the turn of the third millennium, is not the same thing as, say, a life in the early part of the nineteenth century. The ever-climbing momentums of technological integration, population rise, spreading education and ideological evolution (flywheels driving what is sometimes called ‘linear historical progress’) have coalesced to transform the average life-experience of every human, but most pronouncedly those living in western liberal democracies, beyond historical recognition.
But many contemporary thinkers have begun to wonder if, by living in such a far-removed way from the lives of our forebears, we have robbed our lives (and by opposition, our deaths) of the inherent value that they once held as part of a larger historical narrative. The idea being that an individual existence is meaningful only in so far as it contributes to the development of what we might call ‘the life of the species’. This proposition is extremely debatable, however to examine it we must consider not only what we mean by ‘Death’ and ‘Meaning’, but also the unique historical conditions under which we labour in our investigation.
As modern technology gradually conquers disease and want, setting its sights next on old age, and science begins to unravel mysteries beyond religion’s strangest imaginings; as we are confronted daily with a slew of apocalyptic projections, and the bloated surface of culture swells and subsumes its own horizons, it becomes impossible to ignore the looming threat which now interrogates us. Might we already have passed into that fated abyss that waits beyond the event horizon of historical time, graveyard of meaning and meta-narratives, the much-postulated ‘End of History’?
This issue concerns postmodernism greatly, and is inexorably woven in with the question that this essay seeks to explore, since if one can speak of the human species as sharing one life, one destiny, one death, then to what else can one be referring but the historical process and its eventual close? Whether entropic or apocalyptic, the eschatological implications of ‘The End of History’ are clear. And in considering our own aversion to the idea of ‘the end’, we must maintain a dual awareness of both the individual, and the millennium-spanning multiplicity which we call the species.
The breaking-down of historical mechanisms is reflected within postmodernist fiction, though not an exclusively literary phenomenon, by the dissolution and de-construction of traditional structures underlying knowledge, language, and values, such as religious, ideological, and literary conventions. This results in what some have referred to as ‘The Death of Meaning’ in postmodernism – the idea that it is no longer possible to make a meaningful statement or perform a meaningful action since all culturally shared meaning has been shown to be in some way false, and de-constructed into subjective oblivion. The deep uncertainty that this creates gives rise to what Brian McHale refers to as ‘Postmodernism’s ontological dominant’:
The dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls “post-cognitive”: “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” (McHale, 1987, 10)
To this list that McHale provides we could perhaps add “What is it not to exist?” and “Who is this ‘I’ that is afraid of death?” This focus on issues of being, which pervades postmodernist fiction, is precisely the reason that there has never been a better time to seek answers to questions like ours. We truly are living as none before us have – poised on a knife-edge between enlightenment and total destruction; Utopia and Dystopia. And it may be that the keys to anticipating our own, non-fictional, future are hidden somewhere within the resolution of these ontological anxieties. Now, as the death of the species seems potentially imminent, it really matters.
And, as luck would have it, much of our work has already been completed for us. Lacking only a cohesive strategy of interpolation and interpretation, many of the twentieth century’s greatest literary minds have already laid the groundwork in prose form for our investigation.
Ian McEwan struggles through tragedy after tragedy in an attempt to give hope to the disenfranchised, disempowered modern individual, in those moments where their loss and insignificance seem complete in the shadow of history. With intimations of elusive and forbidden truths about the nature of love and meaning, life and death, he suggests a path inwards; cutting through our ordinary perceptions not to escape from reality, but contrarily to escape from the very societal narratives which give rise to our unnatural fear.
Don DeLillo, with his acute sense of the ridiculous, contends with the manic peaks and troughs of a world made unbearable by society’s pathological evasion of the meaninglessly real, in favour of the really meaningless. Slicing a path through the obfuscations of a truth that does not want to be known, he elucidates for us the essential equity of death, its rightful place in our lives, and the hallucinatory nature of both our terror and the ignorant bliss for which we often strive.
Graham Swift waxes and wanes on the future of a world that has unequivocally shown its inhabitants that permanence is not, and never was, an option; a world in constant flux, that revolts at the very idea of a stable and unchanging system of any kind. Sacrificing the false security that ever-so-few are willing to give up, Swift undertakes the unthinkable task of forgiving history for its mistakes, and providing assurances that, despite our deepest intuitions, there still remains a bigger picture which has yet to come into view.
These authors’ novels, aside from being for their creators a method in themselves of achieving some sort of immortality, we will view as hypothetical responses to the societal conditions under which they were produced, as therapeutic attempts at resolving the culture’s inherent contradictions and anxieties. And as we have already discussed, the form of the postmodern novel arises not only as a response to modernist poetics, but as a series of experimental responses to the unstable, confusing, and contradictory ontological landscape of late consumer-capitalism. So perhaps, with the aid of the artist and the critic, this protracted apex of ontological stress will afford us the insight to once and for all deconstruct that ultimate boundary that we call Death, and redefine for desperate modern-Man that thing that he calls Life.
Now it may not seem an obvious connection, to say that the prevention of a violent, stagnatory, or ecological apocalypse may hinge on the personal understanding of a ubiquitous concept like death. After all, what is new about death? But one must remember that in exactly the same way as a car is merely a vast amount of particles, of steel and rubber and petrol particularly arranged, a society is nothing more than a particular arrangement of the individuals within its structures. A revolutionary change in the character of its constituents’ most fundamental methods of thought, like rust in the gears, could have the power to exert a butterfly effect on the entire course of its history. And the issue of death (more specifically the chronic fear thereof) has resided in the dark heart of western civilization since its earliest iterations.
Plato may have been the first to observe the basic dichotomy that drives human endeavour, that answers the question ‘Why do we bother making and maintaining these things called societies?’ For Plato, it all came down to a concept he dubbed ‘Thymos’ which roughly translates to ‘pride’ or ‘the desire for glory’, and was, in Plato’s day, closely associated with the willingness to risk one’s life in battle, for the prize of the recognition of one’s fighting prowess. This, contrasted with the counter-instinct to preserve one’s own life at any cost (what we might cynically call ‘fear of death’), formed the basic struggle which necessitated the co-operation of large groups of people, living, as it were, with a shared ‘Thymos’ and a shared desire for self-preservation – in turn giving rise to greater, nation-scale, conflicts, and necessitating ever-larger societies.
Since then, these concepts have been countlessly re-defined and re-negotiated by many of western philosophy’s tallest figures – from Plato to Hegel, to Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Neitzsche, Freud and Marx. But they have each recognised in their own ways the incorrigibility of these basic human instincts, the necessary part they play in all human activity. In the modern era, perhaps the most relevant and prolific of these is Sigmund Freud.
Freud expressed in his powerful work, The Future of an Illusion, the sentiment that the basis of Man’s voluntary subjugation to institutions of control like religious bodies and organized governments, his personal investment in the meta-narratives governing the historical process, was the protection they offered the ego from the terrors of the natural world – from hunger, disease, darkness, and death. ‘It seems rather that every civilization must be built up on coercion and renunciation of instinct.’ (Freud, 1964, 5)
And as we know, this drive must be balanced with the ego’s other universal desire, the want for recognition. This is achieved most sweepingly and successfully in modern liberal states by the system of consumer-capitalism, which one could say sublimates the psychic energy of modern Man’s ‘Thymos’ onto careers, material benefits, luxuries, and comforts, and the status associated with them. But Freud, as if anticipating the breakdown of historical institutions that we see, leaves us with the message that this dysfunctional relation to death and glory cannot continue indefinitely: ‘Surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children forever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’. We may call this ‘education to reality’.’ (Freud, 1964, 81)
‘In the end’. The conscientious observer has to wonder exactly how much closer to the end we will allow ourselves to get before engaging in this long-overdue re-education. As the titles of this essay suggest, the time may finally have come to claim for ourselves the sought-after title of the ‘Last Man’, in its historical sense. After all it is us, standing on the precipice of a historical singularity massive enough to consume our entire world; us in the twenty-first century, living at a time when we may still have the chance to deflect these chaotic momentums, who must seek answers with more fervour than ever before. We are witness to the crucial moments, the deciding turns, which will provide the answer – for their must be one, even if it is null – to the infernal question of what comes after the end.
Last Man in Crisis:
Mourning Meaning, Melancholic McEwan
We used to ask what might come after the orgy – mourning or melancholia? Doubtless neither, but an interminable clean-up of all the vicissitudes of modern history and its processes of liberation (of peoples, sex, dreams, art and the unconscious – in short, of all that makes up the orgy of our times), in an atmosphere dominated by the apocalyptic presentiment that all this is coming to an end.
(Baudrillard, 1994-b, 22)
The process of mourning, which traditionally follows an instance of death, is intended to facilitate the transformation of the mourner’s psyche from a state in which the lost love-object is still felt to exist, to a state in which it is known to be gone forever, with minimal stress placed upon the person’s ego, or sense of identity, in the meantime. Unsuccessful mourning can sometimes, if the lost object is too heavily internally identified with the ego for it to be let go, become a cyclical process of self-punishment and manic defence, known as melancholia. In this chapter we shall attempt to apply the psychoanalytic logic of mourning a lost object to the postmodernists’ assertion that what is lost to us in contemporary times is the very possibility of meaning itself, and in-so-doing hope to elucidate a path down which to further seek a renewed interpretation of death.
The oeuvre of English novelist Ian McEwan is a shining example of thoroughgoing literary exploration of the themes of meaninglessness and ontological collapse, which categorize the era of late consumer-capitalism. Well-informed by the developments of twentieth century theory, and ever-focused on the effect of societal conditions on the individual psyche, McEwan’s work poignantly foregrounds precisely the concerns of this essay and those like it. His characters are deeply involved, whether they know it or not, in the search for substantive meaning by which to define and justify their lives (and deaths) under the breakdown of historical and contemporary meta-narratives.
Most often this search is triggered by a real or perceived instance of loss. And McEwan presents his projection of the world to the reader through the perceptions of a single protagonist at the centre of events, as they wade through melancholic experiences on their way to some form of psychic reconciliation. But he is sure to always anchor his narratives to a keen sense of cultural reality (or lack thereof) as well. In doing this he achieves a dual-perspective on the relationship between culture and subject, collective and individual, which reflects the mutual influences exerted on each by the other.
Although McEwan’s bibliography is extensive, here we shall analyse The Cement Garden and The Child in Time, as two of the novels most prominently concerned with death and mourning, in terms of their engagement with the postmodern ‘death of meaning’. The characters’ journeys toward reconciliation with reality being perhaps analogous to our own search for new meaning, McEwan’s exploration of these themes may provide us with a hitherto-unrealized method by which to approach our rehabilitation.
The events of The Cement Garden centre around the bourgeoning adolescent romance of two siblings, Jack and Julie, whose reactions to the traumatic death of their mother, including their only partially successful attempt to bury her body in concrete, leave them and the other siblings completely isolated from society and in a deeply melancholic state. The urban waste-ground that the children occupy seems to reflect the barren ontological landscape of the postmodern. All the structures surrounding the house have been torn down, and the children play freely amongst the ruins.
The other houses were knocked down for a motorway they had never built. Sometimes kids from the tower blocks came to play near our house… once they set fire to one, and no one cared very much. (McEwan, 1980, 21)
With no points of reference, physical or social, around which to construct a new system or routine of any kind, their days are listless, and their inner-lives tumultuous with repressed emotion, denied impulses, and lack of understanding. Psychologically unprepared to mourn their mother, they first attempt to ignore and forget her. But soon the effects of loss can no longer be denied and their need for reparation manifests itself in ‘deviant’ sexual desires, and regressive psychological states.
Even though mourning is generally accepted as a ‘natural’ process following an experience of loss, Freud comments in his well-known essay On Mourning and Melancholia that ‘It is most remarkable that it never occurs to us to consider mourning as a pathological condition and present it to the doctor for treatment, despite the fact that it produces severe deviations from normal behaviour.’ (Freud, 2005, 203-204)
Freud would appear to be suggesting here that mourning, although it may eventually resolve a loss, is still an imperfect method of dealing with death, one which in some way compounds a simpler possibility. And McEwan’s projection of the children’s strangely regressive, incestuous experiences would seem to affirm the truth of this, in that without supervision or internalized cultural guidelines the children are unable to successfully mourn their loss, instead sinking into dysfunction. Perhaps mourning, then, requires cultural participation in order to properly function.
McEwan’s treatment of the themes of incest, masturbation, transgenderism, and regression within the novel as the manifestation of, and resolution to, natural emotional excesses would seem to suggest that it does. These psychological mechanisms serve to transition the characters from a world given meaning by their relationships to their mother, to a world coloured by a new meaning of their own creation. ‘The impossibility of knowing or feeling anything for certain’, Jack tells the reader, ‘gave me a great urge to masturbate.’ (McEwan, 1980, 81)
In the final pages of the novel, after the tensions between the siblings have been resolved, without the completion of a ‘normal’ mourning process, Jack narrates:
We seemed to wake up and began to talk in whispers about Mum… We were not sad, we were excited and awed. We kept on breaking out of our whispers until one of us called shhh! … ‘There!’ she [Julie] said, ‘wasn’t that a lovely sleep.’ (McEwan, 1980, 126)
This seemingly reconciled and hopeful ending presents us with an interesting example. It would seem that in McEwan’s view, reconciliation with the world that has been devastated by the loss of a loved object or person is no less valid for having taken place in the absence of culturally dependant structures and values. It may even be that this abnormal stand-in for the ordinary process of mourning is more reliable precisely because it does not necessitate a stable cultural ontology, relying only on the children’s immediate emotional experiences to work through their trauma.
Contemporary theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, and numerous others, have argued that in the era after ‘the death of meaning’ there can no longer be any new significance to events that is anything more than a transitive and de-constructible illusion. And that therefore our current state of cultural production is one of ‘simulation’. Baudrillard, in particular, has lamented the oversaturation of contemporary culture, claiming that as we have shifted away from a life of immediate and discreet experiences and events, towards a culture of mass-media-fuelled simulation and hyper-reality, the possibility of any ‘real’ event infringing on this space has fallen almost to zero. He names this phenomenon ‘the Event Strike’, and attaches to it much of the blame for the nullity of our age. (Baudrillard, 1994-b, 17)
But when contrasted with the deep and intimate relations of the children, enacted under these same conditions of ontological dilution, Baudrillard’s outlook seems somewhat reductive, in that it views events as significant only in-so-far as they are a shared cultural experience. Baudrillard and those in line with his view are overlooking the duality which this essay’s introduction attempted to invoke, of the individual consciousness and the collective consciousness of society as mutual, fractal representations of each other, with influences flowing constantly in both directions. On this view it would seem that if it is possible for an event to be significant to a single person, then it would only be a matter of multiplication for it to attain significance for a group of people even as large as an entire culture, if only the experience itself could be organically replicated. If only there were some universal point of reference, not yet subsumed by the simulacrum, shared by people of all upbringings, around which a new and functioning referential meaning could be constructed.
However, this line of thought itself contains a contradiction. How can one generalise the significance of events as singular and subjective as an incestuous love affair, or an organically realized instance of transgenderism, onto an entire population? Publish a novel about it, perhaps. But still, that is not enough. Even if through these potent psychological means one could break through the malaise of the end of history, and re-imbue one’s life with significance, they are by their very nature personal and ungeneralizable.
But wherein, we might ask, lies the significance of the children’s taboo-shattering solution to the loss of meaning? You may recall the second epigraph to this essay’s introduction: Brian McHale argues that since the boundary dividing life and death is, as far as we know, the ultimate and most in-de-constructible ontological boundary conceivable to us – forever stuck as we are on the side of life – the transgressing of all other boundaries (for instance male/female, adult/child, good/bad, allowed/prohibited) is analogous to the attempt to, in imagination, cross this fundamental divide. To imagine being something other than what you consider yourself to be, in other words, is good practice for imagining what it is like not to exist at all.
The children’s actions, then, and McEwan’s puzzling exaltation in them, make much more sense when viewed not simply as neurotic reactions to psychological trauma, such as we might expect in a process of mourning, but a desperate attempt to vicariously imagine, internalize, and overcome the reality that their mother no longer exists. And consequently to overcome the reality of their own eventual ends as well. Their struggle is truly our own.
So although it may be true that the ‘event strike’ prevents events from holding onto their significance on a societal level, it may also be said that on the level of the individual the loss of a loved person is enough to set in motion an impulse which may lead to their psychic reconciliation with the world torn apart by anxiety towards death. And in-so-doing bring them to the creation of a new, non-culturally-dependant meaning.
Now we must only imagine that there were some set of experiences, universally accessible and not requiring the demise of a loved-one (which one must admit is not ideal), by which to engage in this sort of aggressive boundary transgression, and we may avoid entirely the ‘interminable clean-up’ of the past that Baudrillard dreadfully anticipates. We may even facilitate a smooth transition from the regret-filled, bloated, and incomprehensible ontology of the present, to an innocent future ontology made stable by the sharing of experiences analogous to death. But that is a thought for another chapter.
For now let us address The Child in Time. With this novel, McEwan presents a vision of loss and the search for new meaning which takes place well within the cultural space of a near-future, pseudo-dystopian England. As opposed to The Cement Garden, in which the children have been raised and then abandoned in a desolate cultural landscape, The Child in Time’s protagonists begin their journey when their illusions of societal safety are shattered by the devastating abduction of their daughter.
The central tension of the book is created by the inability of the parents, Stephen and Julie, to effectively mourn the loss of their daughter, Kate, once it becomes obvious that she will never return. The opposing approaches they use in attempting to do so soon drive the two apart, and they embark on separate journeys toward atonement, reconciliation, and eventual detachment from their lost past, and the empty potential futures that will now never be. They cross paths only briefly, once for a short-lived sexual encounter, and again at the close of the novel when the resulting pregnancy inspires Julie to reconnect with Stephen. And together they are finally able to look to a new beginning, in the light of which the tragedies of the past may be viewed as a necessary condition of future life and happiness:
‘Well?’ Julie said, ‘A girl or a boy?’ And it was in acknowledgment of the world they were about to rejoin, and into which they hoped to take their love, that she reached down under the covers and felt. (McEwan, 1988, 220)
During Stephen’s journey, over a course of years rather than a single summer, the reader witnesses a plethora of attempts to deny, rationalize, and evade the reality of the situation – continuing to buy birthday presents, compulsively engaging in distracting hobbies, compiling lists of bereaved parents as potential suspects. All of which succeed only in prolonging his suffering and that of those around him, and completely detaching his ego from shared societal reality. Julie, although she retreats into solitude, makes little attempt to escape from the meaninglessness of their continued existence together; however she is the first to instigate a renewed connection between the two. The neurotic excesses of mourning, this would seem to suggest, are more an encumbrance than a necessary condition to the process of reconciliation.
As such Stephen is only finally relieved of his condition after experiencing a series of events disruptive to his neurosis, including a near-death road-collision, and the witnessing of his best friend, Charles, a successful government minister, regressing into a child-like state and eventually committing suicide. But the strangest and most significant event is an unexplainable transgression of space and time, confirmed by his mother, by which he is able to influence the moment in the past at which she decided not to abort his pre-natal self, and so glimpse a world in which he never existed.
These reality-defying events, as with the much more primal and basic acts of the children in The Cement Garden, and without the accompanying cultural shock to the reader, are ultimately ways of imagining a world in which one does not exist, and so relieving the anxiety of the unknown beyond death. In the case of The Child in Time, the mental process of the parents could be seen to be more melancholic than mourning-like, since the death of Kate is never explicitly confirmed or denied. However, still, after trying and failing to enact a clean-up or redemption of the past, such as Baudrillard suggests is the destiny of the postmodern theorist, Stephen’s salvation from ontological distress comes in the form of direct conscious experiences of boundary dissolution. Adult/Child, Past/Present/Future, and ultimately Existence/Non-existence. These perceptual shifts imbue his life anew with the significance of meaning, and allow him and Julie to confidently head towards the unknown future together, secure in the knowledge that new life is made possible only by the death of the old.
It would seem then, if we were to extrapolate a hint for our search from McEwan’s writings on mourning, it would be this: Since the immanent reality of death is poison to the notion of a stable and permanent ontology, and denial of death is an untenable delusion, the only viable option must be to vicariously experience non-existence itself; and in doing so create an esoteric ontological position whose transience and individual significance match the breakdown of historically-dependent meaning that we witness in the postmodern era.
Now, as has already been hinted at, we face a new challenge. Clearly the sort of involuntary, ego-obliterating tragedies which McEwan’s protagonists face, and their resulting chance-experiences of abstract-death, are neither desirable nor practically replicable. However, it remains the contention of this essay that our great loss has already befallen us. So as we fail to mourn the pre-cognitive, naïve societal conditions which once allowed us to feel firm in the knowledge that our existence held historical meaning, in reality we are left with the same simple choice; between the easy way, and the hard way forward.
Will we flounder and recoil from our terror of the end, as Baudrillard suggests we must, cowardly sinking ever-deeper into the simulated void of non-reference? Or might we find a way, through determination or desperation, to embrace the option that remains, detaching ourselves from the empty past by identifying, as a collective, with the essence of the void itself?
Death Surrounds the Last Man:
DeLillo Braves the Silence
For Federman, as for Laurence Sterne, writing is more escape from death than transcendence. But other postmodernist writers have attempted to imagine transcendence; filibustering fate even beyond the supposedly ultimate limit of death itself, they project discourse into death.
(McHale, 1987, 230)
The time has now come for us to bring perhaps, for Western thinkers, the most noxious and intractable assertion that this essay plots to propose, squarely into the limelight for examination. So far we have discussed the possibility that curing human kind’s chronic thanatophobia, in regard to both individual ends and the potential end of the historical process, may be the key, in-so-far as it continues to necessitate that process, to dispelling the condition of mourning that negates our capacity to create for ourselves a new, post-historically meaningful narrative. In this chapter we will question the validity of this fear, by a cross-examination of its proponents. In other words, we will ask ‘Who is this ‘I’ that I call my ‘self’, and who is afraid of not existing?’
In fact we shall attempt to discredit the very notion of the identifiable ‘self’ by the utilization of strikingly synchronous patterns of thought located both in postmodern literature and theory, and also in the vast annals of ‘spiritualist’, often religious, writings to be found in the traditions of Eastern philosophy. And by these efforts we will look to unearth a previously unconsidered approach to organizing our collective confrontation with non-existence.
Although it may seem a wild outstepping for one to question the existence of the ‘self’ outside a religious context, when the perspective that it provides seems such a necessary aspect of our subjective experience, this is not in any way to suggest that we as individuals are secretly all one and the same (as many believe, manifestations of some Godhead or Brahman), or that our personalities and experiences are in some way not our own. It is merely, as many in Western philosophical and scientific communities have already begun to do, to notice the inherent discrepancy between our ontological mapping of reality in the form of the distinction between self and other, agent and event, thinker and thought, and the actual nature of reality in which thoughts do not require thinkers, events do not require agents, and the freely-acting centre of our consciousness that we call ‘I’, when we look for it, can never be located. As prominent contemporary neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris, puts it:
As a matter of neurology, the sense of having a persistent and unified self must be an illusion, because it is built upon processes that, by their very nature as processes, are transitory and multifarious… The sense that we are unified subjects is a fiction, produced by a multitude of separate processes and structures of which we are not aware and over which we exert no conscious control. (Harris, 2014, 115-116)
To demonstrate the similarities between the postmodernist and what we shall call the ‘transcendent’ approach to death, meaninglessness, and the nature of the self, this chapter will focus on a combinative analysis of the ways in which writers of both disciplines have grappled with the conditions of late consumer-capitalism that we have so-far modelled as ‘the end of history’, ‘the death of meaning’, and ‘the culture of simulation’.
The American novelist, Don DeLillo, has displayed throughout his works a keen understanding of the nuances, both psychological and systemic, of our condition in its most malignant forms. Leonard Wilcox writes of him:
The informational world Baudrillard delineates bears a striking resemblance to the world of White Noise: one characterized by the collapse of the real and the flow of signifiers emanating from an information society, by a “loss of the real” in a black hole of simulation and the play and exchange of signs. (Wilcox, 1991, 346)
DeLillo’s protagonists struggle fiercely against the overwhelming mental anguish of living in an age saturated with nothing but surface images, steeped in anxiety and fearful investment in the simulacrum of contemporary culture. Within this meaningless space they tirelessly seek an escape, something to which they can cling and call ‘real’, even momentarily – as the title of his break-out novel suggests, a brief opening of silence amongst the White Noise.
Though they themselves are as terrified as anybody else, DeLillo’s heroes are incapable of fully succumbing to their fear of death, since as his inventions they are always at least subconsciously wise to its insuperable presence, which both necessitates the simulation and reveals it to be false. In this way DeLillo’s protagonists mimic the crucial role of the mystic, or Buddha, in the spiritualist understanding of an ‘age of anxiety’ such as our own – as ones who are inexorably set against the current of attachment and fear, forever seeking clues to the falsity of their immediate reality, and the true harmony of the invisible world that underlies it. Alan Watts, a well-known populariser and proponent of the philosophy of self-transcendence in the west, provides in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity: a Message for an Age of Anxiety a conception of the postmodern condition predating and uncannily reminiscent of our own, in which the excesses of modernity conceal a much deeper, and more ancient, unease:
The frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “What’s the use anyhow?”… Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.”… This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. (Watts, 1951, 21)
Like us, Watts ascribes the blame for this systematic anxiety and pathological need for distraction to the breakdown of ‘faith’ in institutions of authority, cultural and religious myths, including the myths of utopian progress and scientific perfection. And all higher societal goals whose purpose it is to assuage Man’s intuition that all of this created world will someday come to a futile and meaningless end, by placing evermore unreachable goals in front of him. Now that these institutions, and the meta-narratives which were their lifeblood, have at long last been de-authorised by the populace at large, we have unwittingly entered into a confrontation with the very primal forces which it was their function to hold at bay.
It is therefore, from a transcendent perspective, the role of the mystic to pacify this anxiety by demonstrating to those still in the throes of attachment (beginning with themselves) that what they fear is in fact as much an essential part of themselves as the air that they breathe, the plants that supply the air, or indeed the sun that sustains the plants. By logically showing that our separation from these things is merely a matter of linguistics, of the convenient ontological categorization of what is really a ceaseless continuum, the exclusive ‘selfhood’ that we proclaim is revealed to be a perceptual illusion, since we could not possibly exist without the totality that we call the universe existing alongside us. In other words, each of us exists only in relation to all other things that exist. We are each, so to speak, a function of the entire universe.
And as functions of the universe it is death, by contrast, that defines us, and all that we do whilst alive. To ignore or forget this fact, as we all do to some extent, is to give rise to a most tragic case of mistaken, we might say under-extended, identity. It is what spiritualists the world over refer to as ‘attachment’, or what we might think of as erroneous self-identification. The mystic simply reminds us that we have, over the course of history, forgotten this essential truth by completely alienating ourselves from death, explicitly excluding it from our perceived identities both individual and collective by the operation of the aforementioned myths and institutions. Watts compares this delusion of the isolated self to the attempt to organise a room in which everything is up, and nothing is down – an impossible and unreasonable task.
In the West, concordant with the modern scientific outlook, we generally see death in this way; as something to be feared, lamented, mourned, fought against and ultimately cured, rather than celebrated and honoured, expected and ultimately accepted as a natural facet of human life. Because of this intimidating perspective, we fail to see that what is false is the very attachment that we feel towards, the identification with, the perceived need for, a ‘higher purpose’ in order to justify our existence as something separate from the rest of the universe (which seems to require no referential justification) – as something that comes into it, rather than out of it, that does not share in the innate meaningfulness of immediacy.
On the transcendent view it would seem that death, as a prerequisite of life, rather than invalidating meaning in fact guarantees it by providing the backdrop against which it may be measured, invalidating only the false meaning which attempts to deny its totality – the false consciousness of Western history. In an extremely similar way, Don DeLillo’s writings project discourse into death by recognising it first-and-foremost as an absence, a negative, a silence within the cultural discourse of the West – like the empty space that contains and mediates all physical matter, essential, ever-present, and yet intangible. This is a conception that is shared by numerous postmodern theorists, including Ihab Hassan, who describes the need for a ‘language of silence’ thus:
The crisis is modern and postmodern, current and continuous, though discontinuity and apocalypse are also images of it. Thus the language of silence conjoins the need both of auto-destruction and self-transcendence… Silence implies alienation from reason, society and history, a reduction of all engagements in the created world of men. (Hassan, 1982, 12-13)
Viewing it as such helps to explain why when a culture such as ours reaches a fever-pitch of hysterical noise, it is possible, with enough neurotic determination, for it to become separated from the reality of death altogether. When this state of fundamental cognitive dissonance skews all aspects of cultural reality, the outside world of death transforms into a terrifying, unknowable other, rather than an essential aspect of ourselves:
It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. (DeLillo, 1986, 142)
This is the reality with which DeLillo confronts us – the view from inside the simulacrum. When this alienation occurs on a cultural scale, without the void of death as a reference with which to contrast all meaningful things, the elements of the culture begin to appear undifferentiated, flat, meaningless. And so the images that form the simulacrum must be excreted at an ever-growing pace in order to drown out the nagging silence. Even previously morbid and serious concepts become re-packaged and robbed of their significance, for example ‘The National Cancer Quiz’ (DeLillo, 1986, 214), or the endless, pointless simulating of natural disasters. It is in this way that ignorance of our true relationship to death gives rise to the death of meaning, and perpetuates the culture of simulation.
The protagonist of White Noise, Jack Gladney, and his family feel this, and they become increasingly frustrated as they wade through an ocean of distracting trivialities on their inevitable journey towards death. Even in those rare moments where death does seem to spill into and disrupt the continuum of non-events, and briefly relieve their expectant frustration, the gap is swiftly and invariably covered over again by a discombobulating flood of images – some new consumer distraction, incomprehensible technology, or artificially inflated news event to fill the silence. Jack’s search for peace of mind eventually leads him onto the trail of a drug named Dylar, which his wife Babette has been secretly taking, and which is revealed to be an experimental attempt at medically numbing the fear of death. But upon finding out that Babette had to perform sexual acts in order to acquire the drug, and after learning of his own vaguely prescribed demise, Jack sets out on a vengeful mission, risking his life to once-and-for-all confront the silence behind the cultural static. And this effort, which may ostensibly be an unhappy one, fills him with a strange elation.
So, in a very similar way to how Ian McEwan’s characters’ transgression of ontological boundaries seemed to alleviate their fear of the unknown by vicariously experiencing death, in White Noise the characters instinctively seek out death directly, since the excess created by its collective othering makes them constantly frustratingly aware of its absence in their lives. This is perhaps most strongly exemplified in the final pages of the novel when Jack’s infant son, Wilder, confidently crosses a motorway on his plastic tricycle, seemingly for no reason at all. DeLillo seems to be suggesting that even an infant recognises on some instinctual level that our society’s grand attempt to insulate itself from death must ultimately fail, and instead yearns for a confrontation with it, and thus an end to fear. An end to the pitiful denial which necessitates the white noise, and keeps the significance of our lives forever deferred.
This sentiment pervades the discourse of the novel: ‘… watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.’ (DeLillo, 1986, 64) And Jack comes to the same realization when he discovers that Dylar is ineffective, and that its inventor, Mink, his target, is not only addicted and mentally crippled by it, but remains as hopelessly afraid of death as anybody else, if not more so. Jack’s plan to murder him then backfires and both men get shot, whereupon they go for treatment at a church where the nuns profess a pretend believe in Christianity, because ‘Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers… We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your non-belief possible.’ (DeLillo, 1986, 319)
The truth about Dylar and the attitude of the nuns reflect the fact that all of modern Western history has been enabled, driven, and shaped by the continued othering of death; even, absurdly, beyond the point of non-belief in its own convictions, past the breakdown of its own structures. The inherently silly medical preoccupation with ‘curing’ death, as well as the nuns’ simulated existence, conceal from us the fact that we are all, as long as we continue to indulge in our illusion, hopelessly alienated from reality in this way. There simply no longer exist the means in our cultural repertoire to see it any way else. As Brian McHale puts it, ‘We have all but lost the ars moriendi [two related Latin texts from the 15th century which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death]; we no longer have anyone to teach us how to die well, or at least no one we can trust or take seriously.’ (McHale, 1987, 232)
Despite this shortcoming, the doubled shattering of Jack’s desire to find somebody out there who is not afraid, who has understood and conquered their fear of death from within the simulation, combined with the risking of his own life, gives him the insight to realize the truth on his own. And he is finally able to rest in his personal search, no longer feeling isolated from reality. ‘I knew who I was in the network of meanings.’ (DeLillo, 1986, 312) Thereby partially fulfilling the function of the mystic, he is momentarily able to understand that death is in fact a culturally forgotten aspect of his own identity as a human, and that all attempts to abstract, postpone, or cure it merely lend false credence to his baseless fear. The resultant resurgence of significance into Jack’s world finally allows him to ‘tune-out’ the white noise, and perceive things anew in the light of death:
I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them… I knew for the first time what rain really was. I knew what wet was… A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist. (DeLillo, 1986, 310)
What this resolution seems to suggest is that in order to dispel one’s fear of death, which at its heart is a fear of the unknown, one must first let go of all illusions that in some abstract way one might permanently avoid it, excise it from daily life by anesthetization cultural, religious, or narcotic, or that this would even be desirable. One must rather identify and renounce in oneself all impulses which with hidden intentions attempt to impose upon reality the idea that death, meaninglessness, and void are somehow not the essential criteria for our existence which the spiritualist and the postmodernist likewise proclaim them to be. We must strive to see death, in other words, not as something that happens to us, but as something that we do, something implicit in every moment of our lives, constantly lending our existence the very meaning which we seek.
In this way, like Jack, we finally possess a metric to perceive the separation of those elements in our culture which necessitate the state of white noise, from those which do not. And in true literary fashion, the mastermind, the figure of our antagonism, the very culprit behind it all is revealed to be none other than ‘I’, when defined by our own idiotic conviction that all this was not, in the very first instance, destined to end. In truth what we think of as our self-contained subjectivity, our identity as something separate from the rest of the universe, and by extension the culture that it continually creates in its own image, is merely an ongoing aspect of the universe as a whole, which despite our conceit cannot be expected to preserve the temporary constructs of the fickle human ego.
To demonstrate this, it would appear, is the innate function fulfilled by the slow approach of ontological breakdown in the postmodern era, as recognised in literature. Like a single, personal experience of death, whether vicarious or near-direct, allowing vision of a world in which one does not exist, the auto-deconstruction of cultural reality that we call the death of meaning forces a mass-confrontation with the forgotten fact of the culture’s oh-so-temporary nature, in the face of eternity. And even though Western humanity’s collective digging in of its heels, in the form of the culture of simulation, has held strong longer than perhaps expected, in the end it has only postponed and exacerbated this instinctual drive towards the re-inclusion of nothingness into our lives; as White Noise stands to show, a force that may have grown more powerful even than our fear.
Last Man Letting Go:
Swift Envisions a Life Less Defined
O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in springtime in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it… That is the natural sound of thine own real self.
– The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
(Evans-Wentz, 1960, 104)
What is the difference between an individual consciousness and the entire universe?
An individual lives, and dies. This distressing characteristic makes us feel, quite understandably, removed from a reality which seems only to require one perfect and all-encompassing expression of its being. It needs no externalities by which to define itself since it already contains and exceeds all oppositions that we can imagine, therefore ‘”World,” in its phenomenological sense, cannot normally be an object of perception in its own right.’ (Jameson, 1989,111) But from our perspective we seemingly occupy two opposing states of existence within this seamless whole, divided by a non-porous barrier of time and form, while the intergalactic ecosystem which produced us shows no signs at all of fracturing in this way. And despite the fact that science has now discovered that we are literally, to borrow the phrase of popular particle-physicist Lawrence Krauss, ‘Star-children’ (Krauss, 2014, 47:10) – that is to say, we are made of all the same basic elements as the rest of the seemingly inanimate universe – we remain unable to take solace in the singularity of our world, since we often consider ourselves to be the only things in existence without a rightful place therein.
Reality demonstrates, in contrast to ourselves, what we might if we were feeling charitable call ‘oneness’ (or if we were not, a lack of compartmentalization). It cannot be chopped up into sections, preserved, and rearranged in the way that our words and thought-patterns imply it can. By definition it cannot be de-constructed by use of language, since to impose linguistic categorization onto it is to create the very semiotic dualities which it is the function of de-construction to reduce. The universe is alive and dead all the time, both and neither, since it includes and exceeds the living and dying of all things. Therefore to speak of life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, as if they were separable from one another is in fact to create the illusion that they are not, as we have seen, transiently variant forms of the same fundamental reality. What necessitated the proposal of a ‘language of silence’, by making clear our ontological self-imprisonment, is the fact that reality is, in the most literal sense, unspeakable. And the harder we try to describe it, to pin it down, ever more nimbly it seems to slip from our grasp.
Because of this unfortunate characteristic of language, we seem always to find ourselves trying to have up without down, light without darkness, life without death. But, as we have previously discussed, this is a self-sustaining illusion – one that could potentially be shattered in the ways that we have seen. The ‘oneness’ that this essay is attempting to perceive corresponds to the state of abstract-death that earlier we wished to invoke en masse, in that to be able to envision it is to remove from one’s perception all ontological boundaries, up to and including the opposition between life and death. And a coalescence of intuitions between the ancient and the contemporary allowed us to imagine this transcendence by an analysis of the de-stabilising effect that alienation has had on the culture itself. Now it falls to us not to devise a method, involving some sort of intentionality on our own part, by which to enact this sweeping perceptual transformation – since that in itself would be an act of ontological imposition – but rather to demonstrate that this process is already, and has been from the outset, irrevocably underway.
As its title suggests, Waterland is a novel founded upon juxtaposition and paradox; its focus is the point of crossover where one state of being (water) becomes another (land). The resonances (both literal and metaphorical) of this site of transition are of crucial importance to the structures of meaning in the novel. (Lea, 2005, p.73)
What Graham Swift’s meandering opus, Waterland, whose focal theme is this reversibility, the inter-reliant and transitory nature of form, so elegantly demonstrates is that our inherent inability to describe the complexity of nature is in fact a decidedly good thing, and that it should inspire in us great satisfaction, and relief. The fact that we cannot with language alone ever truly capture the reciprocal ebbing and flowing of forms, of meanings – of life and death – as though dipping a bucket into a stream and expecting the stream to come away with us, tells us that all such attempts can not only be dismissed as failures in this matter (however heuristic), but as contradictions in terms, unworthy of our continued attention. It tells us that continuing to treat static words as if they equalled complexly interwoven things when discussing death, consciousness, and non-existence, ignoring the fundamental lessons of post-structuralist progress in the twentieth century, will not suffice if we are to achieve our aim of drawing death back into the range of our cultural comprehension. Furthermore it assures us that in realising this fundamental truth we have already taken the first, the most decisive, and perhaps the most difficult step in our journey towards a new way of viewing the world, human history, and our place therein (or thereafter).
‘We may expect in the novel Waterland, then, a strategic blurring of distinctions between apparently discrete entities – especially past and present, history and story.’ (Widdowson, 2006, p.25) Waterland’s protagonist and narrator, Tom Crick, is a history teacher. Although he himself admits that history can yield no set of instructions for future happiness, a history teacher being ‘someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here’s how to do it, he says, And here’s what goes wrong… He’s a self-contradiction (since everyone knows that what you learn from history is that nobody-).’ (Swift, 2010, 235-236) Despite this Crick humbly upholds the value of his discipline, amongst descriptions of disasters past and present, as ‘-notwithstanding a devotion to the usefulness, to the educative power of my chosen discipline… a yarn… the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark.’ (Swift, 2010, 68) For Crick, as for our own investigations, human beings, in their natural state of ignorance, isolation, and fear, have an essential need not only to have reassuring stories told to them, but most importantly to feel like they are each integral players in a cohesive narrative much greater than themselves. This, Crick confirms for us – as though we did not already know – is the deepest purpose of history; a nightlight for all of humanity.
As such much of the novel is spent expounding the lessons and experience he personally has gained from both his extensive studies, and direct experiences of those once-real stories that make up our image of the past, as well as the elusive ‘here and now’ which eternally punctuates and drives them. And though many attempts are made by Crick (by Swift) to chip away at the layers of complexity concealing the underlying essences, as he sees them, of grand-narrative concepts such as history, destiny, religion and generational guilt, and the incomprehensible variance of causes and effects which guide them, in the last instance he wisely sees that they must always remain just so, incomprehensible. As a man half-way through his life, having encountered many shocking reversals of expectation along the way, the feedback from which show no signs of ceasing (quite the opposite), Crick recognises that the job that history has set itself is ultimately an impossible one. To taxonomise, to filter through and separate, pin down, make black and white and easily digestible, down to the most infinitesimal interactions, the infinite variables which account for the events we see around us. And lay them out before us, as though points on one great sheet of planetary graph-paper, ready to be thrown away once marked. If such a fantasy were to be realised, the human race might well be able to decisively grasp the reigns of its future in one fell swoop, but for the reasons we have explicated here, it must always remain only that, a fantasy. And fantasies, no matter how noble, are ultimately unhelpful in discovering the way things really are.
However, Tom Crick tells us also that this seemingly terminal failure of history and language is nonetheless an informative and valuable one, in that:
…by forever attempting to explain we may come, not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain… to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder workings, pie-in-the-sky – to be realistic. (Swift, 2010, 113)
And so we see that, as all the worst in history have done, to wish for the permanence and totality of our inflexible ontology, for an end to change and surprise, upset and revolution, for an escape from the natural flux of reality into an artificially rigid space built of unchanging categories, is, as it were, to wish for an escape from life itself. Since the notion of such an immane system of control as would be needed to negate the holistic nature of transience, dynamism, and change in our universe is so antithetical to the way that we consciously experience reality, the more we attempt to shelter ourselves within these linguistic and ontological boundaries of our own creation, the more we separate ourselves from the real stuff of being, which like the titular substance of Waterland obstinately refuses to stay in one form for long.
But this inherited ontology of ours, this pathetically emaciated concept of self that has been so relentlessly attacked in the preceding pages, despite being precisely such a vain monstrosity as has just been described, is itself vulnerable to change and de-stabilisation. As Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo already showed us, the ‘death of meaning’ is in truth a blessing in disguise, since it demonstrates to each and all of us living within this system the very lesson that the history teacher (and the author behind him) is attempting to impart. Whether they know it or not, it will eventually free even those of us with no interest in literature from the mind-forged manacles of the collective guilty weight of history’s failed endeavours, by allowing the now outdated and meaningless precepts of organised religion, of nationalism, and of all dogmatic approaches to life, to be discredited by the re-empowered modern individual.
By subverting the fraudulent goals of history, it allows the individual, nay, forces them to emancipate themselves from the narrowly defined ‘self’ imposed upon them by societal meta-narratives, re-activating their innate intuitions about the ultimate unknowable-ness (what, from a restricted perspective, appears to imply meaninglessness) of reality. And this intuition, as we have seen, leads ultimately to the liberating realisation that meaning, in keeping with the lives of the conscious beings that experience it, is temporary. And, as opposed to all of history’s failed attempts at permanence, culminating in the rabid ‘culture of simulation’, that is precisely what makes it meaningful.
Now, it may seem at first as though a strong suggestion has just been made towards the insignificance, the ultimate hopelessness, and universal irrelevancy of the human species, and all its hard-won accolades. But upon closer inspection, one will see that this is not the case. An argument is not being made here for the truth of a world-view in which all of human achievement can be dismissed as an ill-guided misadventure, and the ideal resolution would be the utter destruction of it all – though such a cynical polemic could certainly be constructed. For this would be to ignore all that we have learned about the illusorily restricted nature of the modern self, with which we still remain afflicted, and which continues to blind us to a much simpler, and more elegant possibility. Rather this essay proposes the humble suggestion that if we all were to appreciate a little more explicitly, perhaps even joyously, the truly, utterly, blatantly obvious fact of the eventual destruction not just of ourselves, but of every last scrap of matter that ever testified to our existence in the cosmos, it may detract somewhat from our habitual anxiety towards death in the here and now. And we may, as a result, one day reap the previously-outlined societal benefits of this desperately needed re-alignment with reality.
If – just imagine – this suggestion were to be embraced on a cultural scale, rather than instigating mass-nihilism, would it not incur an automatic re-integration of the significance of temporality into our collective lives, such as we witnessed affecting Jack, Stephen, and Jack, upon their own brushes with mortality? And can it be argued that such an unwelcome truth is not already in the process of forcing itself upon us, in the form of the death of meaning? To the contrary, it is the very avoidance of this truth which incites us to nihilism, by suspending our one-sided lives forever in perpetuity, and condemning us, as Baudrillard rightly observes, ‘to an absence of destiny, to the negative immortality of what cannot end and thus reproduces itself indefinitely.’ (Baudrillard, 1994-b, 98)
This unknowable-ness of which we, and Swift, speculate, the sheer unspeakable complexity of reality, in the same way as life implies death, and consciousness implies unconsciousness, is the back to meaning’s front, the out to its in. It makes the things we do know worth knowing, in-so-far as we do not attempt to claim that this knowledge will forever remain unchanged. And so the central portent of this essay should not shock or depress anybody. In fact it should come as a great relief. We needn’t, in despair, throw out the baby of intellectual and scientific progress, cultural achievements and technological majesty, with the bath-water of our inability to reduce the universe to a verbal equation, simply because we have finally come to terms with our own mortality and found it to be inescapable.
If anything, the realisation that we may never be able to invent a grand-unifying-theory, a total-history to save ourselves from the fearful unknown, should only impress on us the true value of our successes thus far, and the need to preserve and advance them as much as possible. We need only see them, and respect them all the more, for what they truly are – the smallest of lamplights in a vast, and pitch-dark ocean of space, keeping us warm nonetheless.
Last Man Reborn:
The Self is Dead, Long Live the Self
It has now, finally, come time to review what we have learned.
The thrust of this essay’s small contribution to the discourse surrounding death has been to suggest that it is no longer possible for us to ‘die properly’, precisely because it has not, for many decades, been possible to ‘live properly’ either. And that these two failings are, in truth, the two reciprocally mangled sides of our single most valuable, yet under-valued, coin.
The false consolations of the modern western-liberal-democracy, for which we merrily traded the security of our ancient and heart-felt illusions, have eclipsed from our view the very horizons that contain within their fragile equilibrium all the wonder, truth, beauty, and wisdom which abounds in the human imagination. And they have been replaced by the scrabble to escape an endless freefall into the ever-tightening snare of over-definition, of ontological alienation and semiotic self-imprisonment – a path that we know leads only to ever-more ‘attachment’, and suffering.
Though hyperbolic, it is no overstatement to say that in reaching for a permanent and infallible interpretation of reality through the language of science and criticism – one that does not acknowledge the reality which exceeds language itself – we have taken a sledgehammer to the long-maintained inner/outer balance of our subjective universe. And after stripping the roof off our ancestral home we find ourselves not only rained upon, but drowning in an inch of water, since in our panic we have forgotten which way is up, and which is down. Therefore whether man or woman, child or adult, educated or not, in the extended period of uncertainty following the seeming historical crescendo of the twentieth century blood-orgy, we are all allied and equal in our savage inability to extricate our own sustainable meaning from the gravity of past events.
Now, a disclaimer: In response to these dire conditions, this essay has argued rather vehemently for the de facto non-existence of the identifiable subjective self, in the pursuit of its true aim of exposing the West’s incessant alienation of death. And the author is aware that oftentimes people have been known to grow extremely attached to their idea of being a discreet and internally consistent conscious entity. Therefore he would be remiss in not alleviating the sudden disenfranchisement and distress they may feel upon finding out that they are not, in fact, as self-contained as they have been led to believe by the afore-reviled Western ontology.
Although this is a view supported by the insights of modern physics and neurology, which have been unable to distinguish the conscious matter within our brains from the unconscious outside, except in their contrasting levels of organisation, the decision was made to present the argument in its original terms of Buddhist spirituality precisely because they offer such a positive conclusion. Whether or not one believes that the illusion of the self can be momentarily dispelled by ‘ego-death’ or ‘self-transcendence’ experiences – meditative, psychedelic, or traumatic – as was summarily suggested by McEwan and DeLillo, it is an illusion with which we are otherwise invariably stuck.
The benefit of realising that the thing we call ‘I’ exists only from our own extremely limited perspective lies not in subsequently ridding ourselves of this illusion, but in mastering it by letting go of the desire to control one’s own consciousness, as if it were a mechanical suit of armour in which ‘I’ reside. The resultant frustration of this situation is what in the first place compels us to try and impose meaning onto death, which by definition is the lack of meaning. And it can only be resolved by acceptance that, in reality, ‘I’ am the suit of armour. ‘I’ am the barrier that separates what is outside from what is inside, though apart from ‘I’ there is no difference. ‘I’ create the very fatuous notion of inside and outside, which makes meaning possible, by seeming to exist in a self-contained form, when in reality the seamless continuum of existence flows through ‘my’ thoughts, like it flows in the movements of animals, trees, and stars. For ‘I’ am an illusion, but an indispensable one.
And so, as has been argued, if the death of meaning represents a cultural scale backlash against the consumptive Western representation of the self, as a mortal being forced to curse its own mortality, what would a liberated Western self look like after all this time?
Well, one need only look around and notice the accelerating trends among counter-culture movements in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries of activities which explicitly involve either the transgression of ontological boundaries, or actual potential encounters with death. And one will see that in the age of the internet, mass travel, the sexual spectrum, the explosion of electronic music and art, and the widespread consumption of a myriad of mind-bending drugs, we are already in the process of putting together a blueprint for what the post-historical self might be.
The existence of postmodern literature itself is a standing testament to the inevitability of this transformation. For half a century, authors have relentlessly attempted to define the multitudinous change that is taking place within the public consciousness of our society, the explosive inflation of culture – as though liberated from a long incarceration – that has more or less redefined what it means to be a human being. And for half a century they have been unable to capture it in writing, since the change that is now taking place extends beyond language, beyond history, and beyond even culture itself. It is what Freud described in that portentous passage from The Future of an Illusion. It is the awakening of Mankind.
- DeLillo, Don. (1986). White Noise. London, Picador.
- McEwan, Ian. (1980). The Cement Garden. London, Pan Books Ltd.
- McEwan, Ian. (1988). The Child in Time. London, Pan Books Ltd.
- Swift, Graham. (2010). Waterland. London, Picador.
Quoted Secondary Texts:
- Baudrillard, Jean. (1994)-b. The Illusion of the End. Cambridge, Polity Press.
- Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1960). The Tibetan Book of the Dead. London, Oxford University Press. [Paperback 3rd edition]
- Freud, S. (1964). The Future of an Illusion. S.A, Anchor Books. [Revised Anchor Books Edition].
- Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia. England, Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.
- Harris, Sam. (2014). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. New York, Simon & Schuster.
- Hassan, Ihab. (1982). The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press. [Second Edition].
- Jameson, Fredric. (1989). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York, Routledge.
- Krauss, Lawrence, M. (2014). Universe from Nothing. [Online – Accessed 16/04/16] Available at: < http://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=sbsGYRArH_w >
- Lea, Daniel. (2005). Graham Swift. Manchester, Manchester University Press.
- McHale, Brian. (1987). Pöstmödernist Fictiön. London, Methuen.
- Watts, Alan. (1951). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York, Pantheon Books.
- Widdowson, Peter. (2006). Graham Swift. UK, Northcote House Publishers Ltd.
- Wilcox, Leonard. (1991). Baudrillard, DeLillo’s White Noise, and the end of heroic narrative. Contemporary Literature, (p3). Available on JSTOR.
Unquoted Secondary Texts:
- Baudrillard, Jean. (1994)-a. Simulacra and Simulation. S.A., University of Michigan Press.
- DeLillo, Don. (2010). Point Omega. London, Picador.
- Euben, J. Peter. (2003). Platonic Noise. Political Theory, 31. (p63-91). Available on JSTOR
- Fukuyama, Francis. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. London, Penguin Books.
- Harris, Sam. (2012). Free Will. New York, Free Press.
- Jameson, Fredric. (1991). Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London, Verso.
- LeClair, Thomas and DeLillo, Don. (1982). An Interview with Don DeLillo. Contemporary Literature, (p19-31). Available on JSTOR.
- McHale, Brian. (1992). Constructing Postmodernism. London, Routledge.
- Noys, Benjamin. (2005). The Culture of Death. New York, Berg.
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