My philosophy class is going up and down. As a friend predicted, I’ve started to lose patience with the kids in the class, most of which act like they’ve been hit upside the head with something very, very hard. Nevertheless, I now present to you my most recent essay on death, a critical review of Kathleen Higgins’ paper Death and the Skeleton. Feel free to reply, stamp upon it a letter grade, post comments, and so on. My teacher simply puts a check mark at the top without any advice. Annoying.
It’s been said that as soon as you’re born, you start dying; death is inevitable. The cigarette is burning down to its last cinders. In time, reminders of death start to creep in; reminders come stomping in. Bones act like floorboards. The skin sinks. Disease moves into the body, slows the mind, causes forgetfulness, hinders mobility, and so on.
Kathleen Higgins is looking for a new way to look at death. “Death, for the most of us, is a challenge to our sense of self as aesthetically valuable. We fear death as an endpoint, but also as a force that extends backwards, by means of aging, to undercut the sense that we ‘walk in beauty’…” She begins to awaken to some unique ideas about all this when a five-year-old tells her that it’s a skeleton that lives within us all. It might be fun thinking of it like that, she decides: Death is the liberation of the skeleton.
This is a fantastic writing; many different ideas are covered. (1) Death is glossed over in our culture because most do not find it aesthetically pleasing. (2) The approach to enhancing wrinkles. “Why not enhance them with gold, or some other indication of value?” (3) The skeleton is a limber acrobatic character waiting underneath to shed the skin and move about unencumbered, dance around like an earthquake. (4) An early death. With the death of an infant, there isn’t mourning so much as there is a life-long aching and questioning — what if our child had lived? And (5) the dream of mother and daughter, both dead, referring to one other as sisters. “Why do you call your mother ‘Sister?’” “Because we are both dead.”
Though I wonder, when Kathleen Higgens is old and gray, if she will have in mind that playful, giddy skeleton and want to dance, or if getting up in the morning will feel like a punch in the eye, and want to stay down. I cannot pretend to know death and aging as intimately as say, a senior citizen. But we all reach a point where it’s no longer hypothesis or guesstimation.
As we progress in this world, it can become for many of us one more increasingly difficult to live in. The intense times cause us to focus on these questions of life and death, while modern culture, if it cannot avoid these questions, at least tries to make them youthful, entertaining, and beautiful so we continue to consume with gusto. I’ve always found it interesting how most older women are removed from the public screen by the age of forty (or sooner than that!), while it is considered that older men can age more gracefully and radiate a sort of fatherly warmth and respectability — therefore they endure. Just a bit longer.