The face, the caratula, of Death


We said the day before yesterday that people – children included – “seem to enjoy” imaginative, “picturesque”, representations of death, despite their ugliness and frightening appearance, and that there must be a good reason for this. Are they – people and children – not put off, repelled, by these horrid figures and what they represent (called by Mexicans, as we noted, “the skeletical”, “the bony one”, “the cold one”)? They are terrified, no doubt, just by merely thinking of the subject… The explanation of this morbid and paradoxical attraction – amounting even to a fascination in the case of many people (what to say, if not, about horror movies, ever so popular?) – is that death is humanized, personalized, at least to some degree. The root of the problem (pathological in extreme cases) is fear of the unknown, and if that unknown ‘x’ is none other than nothingness (oblivion, to disappear, to cease to exist, none-being), which is that to which death seems to point, the feeling of dread is all the greater, compared with other kinds of unknowns.

Death, "something" abstract, unknown in itself, in its very substance, dark, with no recognizable face – a phantom, precisely –, becomes personalized by being given a face, a repulsive one at that. The ‘figure’ itself seems somehow human, or has the semblance of a human being. It continues to be ugly, obviously (and something else than ugly), but the terror that it inspires is more manageable, more "homely", because of it being somehow recognizable,  and thus cut down to size. There is even the possibility of having a dialogue with "it" (“go away, go away, wait, wait, not yet… give me a chance”). "She" might be moved, and, coming down to the level of a child, perhaps become even a friend. This is the double play: “attraction” and repulsion; being afraid, yet making a move to elicit friendliness, or accessibility; keeping a distance, yet entreating the unbecoming visitor, so that we can deal with him.

From that to invent a game, a play, a dance – Death, now a little domesticated being a participant – there is but one step. One more step and… but no; It, or “She”, cannot become a toy, a real friend, unlike in the case of Ogres or Monsters, which become “cookie monsters” to the delight of little children. Death merits respect, lest…

In any case, and this is an aside, life was harder for children forty or fifty years ago. There were no palliatives then, no cookies, and no little, cuddly, monsters. Life was more bare. If not, ask those who still remember Frankenstein, with the prominent, buttressing, forehead, the body all bandaged up as it emerged walking stiffly from a tomb, cobwebs and all. And now a question: Who, or Which, is more to be feared, Death ‘in person’, or the Devil ‘in person’, that is, face to face? After all, they both are quite unattractive, threatening and ugly characters, with a function to boot, a not very appealing function. And this is the key: they both play a role (even as concepts) in the life of human beings, and symbolize different aspects in this terrestrial, contingent and thus aphazard, life of ours. And they are both, in a sense, ineluctable. But this is a different topic altogether.


About amartingarcia

General surgeon (retired). Studied Western philosophy at U of Toronto. Afterwards interest turned to advaita vedanta and non-duality for past 20 yrs, plus a long interlude in Sufism coinciding with that period. Now contributing in ’Advaita Vision’ with regular posts and discussions.
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