Depictions of Death Make For Important Art
Over the break I wanted to briefly write down some observations about the power of memento mori, but then I lost my post; then I tried to reconstruct it and lost my train of thought. Here is what remains of the wreck.
Memento Mori is of course the reminder of our mortality that is woven into themes and paintings. There’s a theory going around that the purpose of artistic endeavor itself is a kind of memento mori, and what makes art truly important is how powerful this reminder can be. This would explain the persistent popularity of such genres as Gothic Horror in literature or Goth as a style, and even heavy metal music. What struck me about this is that it is actually difficult to make something lasting without memento mori. In turn, the most popular works of any artist picked at random probably deals with death.
Shakespeare’s most famous play is ‘Hamlet’, and it has the famous “alas poor Yorrick” scene with skull in hand as well as the soliloquy about living and dying. If that is too literal, then at least it is worth considering that memento mori in literature marks most of the great books in any list. In the Iliad, there’s Achilles’ lament for Patroclus mirrored with Priam’s lament for Hector. In the Odyssey, there is the episode where Odysseus talks to the dead in Hades; The epic of Gilgamesh is about Gilgamesh’s search for immortality because deep down he fears death. It’s everywhere in classical literature. This is a tradition in narratives that flows through to modern texts.
So it seems to work for the importance stakes by just inserting death. For instance, if Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin didn’t die in those books, would they have been revered less or more? What makes every photo taken during the US Civil War so artistic but the intrinsic knowledge that all he people in it are dead, and that if they were soldiers, some of them likely died not long after the photo was taken. Doesn’t Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series milk this for all its worth? This suggests you can have a pretty good work of art and add death and it probably adds profundity – and what else is this profundity but the sentiment that is provoked by the memento mori?
Try this for an example: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ has a sad ending. When Disney gets its hands on it, it has a happy ending, and a spin off TV series to boot. Which is more profound? We know it’s the original version with the death. I’m not really going anywhere special with all this except to say that it is a lot more ingrained in the arts than we might think at first glance. Is important Art then good art? The sizable audience to the Disney ‘Little Mermaid’ franchise might suggest otherwise. Critics always pick the less popular, but death-wedded original.
I know I’ve mentioned this before that if you stick the Holocaust reference in to your film somewhere, it doubles your chances for an Oscar. This is suggested by some to be because the Academy is filled with Jewish people, but the more direct reason is that the Holocaust has placed itself as the ultimate memento mori that substitutes for all the massive death and destruction wrought in World War II. A film increases in importance simply because you have the Holocaust as part of the story; like a talisman it activates our awareness of death. Considering that Stalin’s regime killed more of its own people than the Nazis did to their own and others, and the demonisation of Communism through the twentieth century, it’s interesting to note that communism, gulags and the GRU don’t have quite the memento mori effect of Nazis, death camps and the SS. By comparison, the dull utility of comunism and communist design has far less weight in fiction and the arts in general.
Of course, it is easier to understand Nazism in light of memento mori because in most part it was an attempt to aestheticise ethics. Thus, Hitler and Himmler adorned the SS uniforms with mystical symbols and a deaths head. It’s an instant fetishisation of death that is familiar to us. It is a familiar move because we’ve seen it before and since. But the allure of aesthetising death itself as a political act couldn’t possibly have so much meaning without the power of death in art itself.
The modern world of media and pop culture is filled with more references to death than you can poke a stick at.
Here are some examples worth pondering. My favorite Pink Floyd album is ‘Animals’; The best-selling work by Pink Floyd is ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ which in survey of ideas such as time and money, deals with death with the song ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ (which I covered, by the way, here).
For all its celebration of sex, a lot of rock is a kind of memento mori, what with all the heroes who have died young. The list of dead rock musicians who didn’t make it to a ripe old age is a significant list of names starting with say, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.You only have to write the names of dead rock stars and it suddenly evokes the body of work in rock. Try these names: John Lennon, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Marc Bolan, Keith Moon, Syd Vicious, Kurt Cobain. When you watch the Foo Fighters live, David Grohl himself becomes a kind of living memento mori in the memory of Kurt Cobain, which explains the morbid fascination surrounding the Foo Fighters.
Yet, of all the sub-genres of rock, the most enduring branches are in fact Metal and Goth because their visual motifs remain largely unchanged. Death features prominently in the oeuvre of metal and goth. Album after album by Iron Maiden is filled with ironic images of death. Death is central thematic unity of Metal. One could argue the excesses are a kind of kitsch but if you judge the sales of Iron Maiden albums to their die-hard fans, you’d have to conclude it is doing its job.
Recently I put together an electric guitar from Warmoth parts for a friend. It had one knob – a volume knob and it was important that it had a death skull on it. The meaning of it was simply to imbue the guitar with a memento mori. “all shred axes should have a memento mori,” he proclaimed. It makes some sort of intrinsic and extrinsic sense, not only because it is to play heavy metal, but because deeper down playing music makes you count down time; and thoughts of time inevitably lead to thoughts of death, vis a vis ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.
The main character in the Star Wars cycle turns out to be Anakin, who is Darth Vader, and Vader’s helmet is like a skull with a helmet. In the original three movies, Darth Vader is like the big memento mori character – who of course dies at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’; and in the more recent prequel trilogy, the audience grapples with Anakin’s descent into being Darth Vader. It’s part of existentialism that the prior acknowledgment of one’s one mortality enables one to take on the challenge that the remaining time in our lives present, and yet it actually has artistic roots in things that go back to pre-history.
The point of all this is to say, it is everywhere, if you simply choose to look.