‘Death’ seems to be the most common word applied to the natural. Even ‘birth’ is less broadly applicable to natural processes: a flower is not ‘born,’ the seed is planted and it grows. A fire is not ‘born,’ it is lit or it is started. But flowers die, flames die and people die. Whilst the other words change, death remains the same because it represents the completely unknown; it cannot be further qualified.
This prevalence of the word ‘death’ is strangely reflected in colloquial language: ‘I went out to a bar but it was dead. Then my battery died so it was dead hard to get home. Now I’m hungover and I’m literally dying.’ When we are bored we are bored to death; when we are hungry we are starved to death; when we love a kitten we love it to death. Here, it is the completely unknown element of the word which explains its popularity; it can take the completely mundane and make it into something extreme, so that it can appear to contain unknown intensity, something beyond us, something exciting.
How does the place of death in language relate to its position in popular culture? I’m sure you’re dying to know.
Recent events have brought out the strange way in which when a famous person dies, there appears to be a competition to see who can post the first “RIP” on their Facebook page and inspire a mild sensation of necromancy by mindlessly posting Youtube videos of the deceased. It always comes ‘out of the blue,’ and the social media frenzy is about being the first to break the news, to use it to shock others. If you aren’t the first, you might be the first among your friends, or at least among some of them. Texts and status updates fly around, searching for someone who hasn’t heard the news, so that it can be ‘out of the blue’ for them.
The death of the famous person is essentially fictional, one does not experience it personally, but it is a reminder that death is out there, striking at random into normality. Does it really make a difference whether it was James Gandolfini or Tony Soprano who died? No, we are only affected by the fact that death comes out of the blue.
Last week Obama gave a speech congratulating the re-establishment and maintenance of peace after the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The live broadcast was stopped dead in its tracks to bring us the ‘Breaking News’ that Prince Phillip was leaving hospital. The key point is not that the marasmus of an obsolete royal is more important than debates on war and peace, but that death must be kept as this unknown force from without, which radically interrupts the course of things, no matter how important that course may be.
Strangely opposed to this is the Nelson Mandela death countdown, on full swing on every news channel. Here death is not a shock interruption but an end to a long narrative. But Mandela is still alive and no one’s used the word ‘dying,’ although journalists are keeping vigil outside the hospital repeating the fact that he’s 94, and the people of South Africa are praying for him; which is ‘a dead give-away.’ When he does die, the word ‘dead’ will come in, so that it seems to be out of the blue, sudden, and unexpected, when we all know it isn’t.
We celebrate famous and particularly unexpected deaths with heightened intensity because they perpetuate our fantasy that our own end will be an epic grand finale rather than a slow and unimpressive fading away. If we fade away we disappear, but if we go out in a blaze of glory we achieve semi-immortality; we will be remembered. We want to view our death as the most egregious event that will ever take place, in order to endlessly defer the great moment of our lives to the very end, to excuse or distract from the monotony of life, just as the word ‘dead’ does for us in colloquial language. To maintain this illusion, death must be a thing of striking significance, both glamorous and surreal, not the slow and expected end to the narrative of life.
Glossing Freud, Peter Brooks explains that the ‘death drive’ tends towards sudden death at every point, but the ‘pleasure principle’ makes sure that we die in the ‘right’ way, completing the fulfilling narrative of life and ending with the closure of death. But doesn’t all this evidence of the way we treat death, as a concept and as a word, reverse this? Instead of seeking a linear narrative that ends in expected death, we want death to interrupt suddenly, as a glorified event from nowhere, breaking our narrative. We still see this death-event as providing the final completeness that we have been forced to defer, since we could not experience it in life. We still desire completeness and see the glorified death-event as providing it; but our concept of completeness has changed; we can no longer imagine what it might be, so it has to be sudden and unplanned.