Jo Walton On Death

At present, we’re reading a fiction book, Jo Walton’s Or What You Will, and enjoying it. We’ve never read the author before, but plan on looking for more of her writings. This book has elements of postmodernism about it, in how the narrator and some of the characters speak about the story, storytelling, and such; the breaking of the fourth wall. But it’s probably better described as metamodern, the combining of how modernity takes itself seriously and how the postmodern stands back in self-conscious critique, mixed together with experimental playfulness and sincere inquiry; all the while touching on various themes and topics, casual and weighty; but always coming back to what a narratizing voice(s) means, dipping into the territory of the bundled mind.

A focus of concern the author returns to throughout the book is mortality and the desire for immortality; how the human relationship to death has changed over time, how we speak about it and narrate it, and how it shapes us and our culture. Besides comparing present attitudes and responses to earlier times, at one point she contrasts the modern detachment, confusion, and discomfort with human death with the modern ‘extravagant grieving’ over pets. Anyone in our society is familiar with what she is talking about. A coworker of ours, when her lizard died, was so distraught she couldn’t talk about it, to the extent that she became upset when we brought it up, in our trying to be consoling; as we had often talked about her lizard in the past. She was not consoled. It might be the most inconsolable we’ve ever seen anyone about any death of any species.

For whatever reason, we’ve never been that way about death, be it human or non-human; even with a cat we had for more than 20 years, a cat that had sometimes been our sole companion in dark periods. So far, we’ve tended to take it all in stride, with what acceptance we can muster. It’s sad, but so much of life can be sad, if one thinks about it; the world is full of pain and suffering, where death is the least of it and sometimes a blessing. Maybe a lifetime of depression and depressive realism has inoculated us to such things. Death is death. There’s nothing to be done about it, other than to avoid it for as long as is possible and desirable. But as someone who once attempted suicide and used to contemplate it often, we don’t hold it against people who decide to opt out early. Most modern people, though, don’t have this perspective.

p. 111-113:

“If you are a modern person, in our world now, it’s not unlikely that you might not have known the true grief and loss caused by the death of someone close to you until well into adulthood. […] The estrangement from grieving is a change in human nature, and one that has happened over the course of Sylvia’s lifetime. Young people today are not the same as they were when she was young. […] Death comes to them as a stranger, not an intimate. She notices it first in what she sees as extravagant grieving for animals, and then starts to notice it more when her friends lose parents at older and older ages, and take it harder and harder. […] Then she observes a growing embarrassment in younger people around the mention of real death, where people don’t know what to say or how to reaction, until talking about it is almost a taboo. Simultaneous with this came the rise of the vampire as attractive, sexual, appealing, rather than a figure of horror. […] Other undead have also undergone this process in art, even zombies by the first decade of the new millennium. Friends with no religion, who mock Sylvia for her vestigial Catholicism, revert to strained religiosity in the face of death because they have no social patterns of coping.

“Look at it this way: Freud wasn’t necessarily wrong about Thanatos. But he was living in a different world, before antibiotics. His patients were very different people from the people of this century. They would all and every one of them have lost siblings, school friends, parents. […] We read Freud now, and wonder how he could have thought of some of these things, but his patients lived crowded together in houses with one bathroom or none, where they shared rooms with their dying siblings and fornicating parents, and where death was a constant and familiar presence. Nor did they feel grief any less for the familiarity of loss. Read Victorian children’s books; read Charlotte M. Yonge (as Sylvia did as a child in her grandmother’s house) and see what a constant presence death is, almost a character—and not necessarily violent death, but death by illness or accident, inevitable death that simply cannot be cured. We mock their wallowing in woe, the crepe, the widow’s weeds, the jewelry made of jet and hair, the huge mausoleums, the black and purple mourning clothes, until we are faced with our own absences in emptiness, with nothing at all to console us and no signals to send to warn others to tread lightly. […]

pp. 115-116:

“Death in fantasy, is generally defanged. Ever since Tolkien brought Gandalf back, and Lewis resurrected Aslan, both of then in conscious imitation of Christ, and right at the beginning of the shaping of genre fantasy, death in fantasy novels has been more and more negotiable. It’s more unusual for a beloved character to stay dead than for them to come back to life. Death is for enemies and spear carriers, and the way a spear carrier death is treated is that the main characters will have a single dramatic scene of mourning and then rarely think of them once they turn the page at the end of the chapter. Boromir’s death resonates through the rest of The Lord of the Rings but the imitations of it lesser writers put in do not. Tolkien and Lewis lived through the Great War, and saw as much death as anyone has. Their imitators are modern people, whose understanding of death is much less visceral. Modern fantasy, even, and perhaps especially “grim-dark” fantasy, is often written by people without much close-up experience of death. The horror of the Dead Marshes, in Tolkien, comes direct from Flanders field. They are not there for thrills.

“As for resurrections—she goes to San Marco and sees Fra Angelico’s paintings of the angel in the empty tomb, and Christ harrowing Hell and opening the door that has been closed for so long and letting in light where there was only darkness. The easy way people come back to life in fantasy cheapens resurrection. The ultimate mystery of Christianity becomes commonplace, with the extreme version of the cheapening happening in computer games where there can be an actual fixed price in gold for bringing a party member back to life.”