Sunday, October 27, 2013

"In the midst of life we are in death..."

Theodore Dalrymple visits an art exhibition and one of the portraits causes him to reflect on our tendency to avoid thinking about death:
.... Yesterday I went to an exhibition at the National Gallery in London called Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. ....

The most moving work in the exhibition, for me as for many critics, was that of Egon Schiele, who drew his wife, six months pregnant, on her deathbed a few days before the armistice in 1918 and the Austrian Empire collapsed to the great detriment of Europe. It is of a woman alert but exhausted, scarcely with the strength to keep her eyes open, emaciated, turned almost reproachfully toward the viewer. For a moment I felt almost guilty at being so healthy at twice the age at which she died. What had I done to deserve so much more fortunate a fate?

Three days after he drew this sketch, the artist himself was dead, aged only twenty-eight, and of the same disease: the Spanish flu, the epidemic of which was to kill many more millions than the Great War itself. The question is whether anyone would have found Schiele’s sketch of his wife a fraction as moving if the context were unknown to him? I tried to imagine how I should have responded to the sketch in the absence of that knowledge, a task almost impossible: One cannot unknow what one knows, as the first story about human beings in the Bible informs is. ....

In their explanatory notes, the exhibition’s curators said that the deathbed portrait was a manifestation of a Viennese “fascination” with death (both Beethoven’s and Mahler’s death masks were also exhibited). The implication was that this “fascination” was in some way morbid or neurotic.

This persuaded me that the one thing we refuse to do in these supposedly multicultural times is to try to see the world, including ourselves, through the eyes of others, either in time or in space. Might it not be that those others would consider our own determination to push aside or avoid personal confrontation with death—which is, after all, still the inevitable dénouement of human life, technical progress notwithstanding—morbid and neurotic? Is our avoidance of all contact with death (except on video games) not a pretense that we shall live forever, that death is an aberration that we shall not fall into thanks to our healthy diet, our full health insurance, and our thirty minutes’ exercise a day, and that, while some people no doubt continue to die, it is really by their own fault or at their own insistence? Is not our revulsion from deathbed portraits—an old genre, after all, and by no means confined to the fin de siècle Viennese—more indicative that we wish to ignore the fundamental condition of our existence, even at the cost of forgetting our loved ones, so that we can get on with the business of life, which is to amuse ourselves? .... [more]
I was reminded of this from the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer:

MAN, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery.
He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower;
He fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death;
Of whom may we seek for succour, but of Thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour,
Deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts;
Shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy,
O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour,
Thou most worthy Judge eternal,
Suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death,
To fall from Thee.


The Sketch Pad Near the Deathbed - Taki's Magazine