Dancing to Death

This relatively long opening update offers a general orientation to some of the themes that will hopefully be addressed in the future in this blog.

Socrates: The story goes that the cicadas used to be human beings who lived before the birth of the Muses. When the Muses were born and song was created for the first time, some of the people of that time were so overwhelmed with the pleasure of singing that they forgot to eat and drink; so they died without even realizing it. It is from them that the race of the cicadas came into being; and, as a gift from the Muses, they have no need of nourishment once they are born. Instead, they immediately burst into song, without food or drink, until it is time for them to die. After they die, they go to the Muses and tell each one of them which mortals have honored her. To Terpsichore they report those who have honored her by their devotion to the dance and thus make them dearer to her. To Erato, they report those who honored her by dedicating themselves to he affairs of love, and so too with the other Muses, according to the activity that honors each. And to Callipoe, the oldest among them, and Urania, the next after her, who preside over the heavens and all discourse, human and divine, and sing with the sweetest voice, they report those who honor their special kind of music by leading a philosophical life. – Plato: Phaedrus (259b-d)

This will always be one of my favourite passages in Plato for placing thought and discourse – philosophical or scientific – alongside dance, music and love as overwhelming passions. In this we can hear the origins of philosophy as philo sophia, the love to wisdom – in Nietzschean terms at least as much a Dionysian frenzy as an Apollonian detached study. Perhaps philosophy, and once again we can include science under that banner, can only be truly approached in passion and love. Yet there nevertheless seems to be a mark of restraint here. One might even read the tale as a kind of warning against excess: the men who forgot to eat and drink died without realising it and only divine intervention stopped this story being an absurd tragedy. Yes, the cicadas remain, gifted to sing all day; however, we are clearly not cicadas: we must live alongside them in the forest glades, living “a philosophical life” in its more traditional common-language meaning, a life of restraint and moderation. We can honour their music, but only at a distance, only as men paying tribute to their semi-divine song.

Yet as is so often the case in Plato, surrounding details cause us to wonder. After all, wasn’t Socrates’ life precisely one of a cicada-like excess? We encounter him in the Symposium walking with Aristodemus to the house of Agathon for a meal followed by drinking, yet he suddenly stops walking in a fit of abstract thought. When Aristodemus arrives at Agathon’s house having lost Socrates on the way, Agathon sends servants who find him sitting under a portico in a trace, unresponsive to direct calls of his name. It is not until the meal is almost finished that Socrates finally appears at the party. While he then eats and drinks, he seems profoundly indifferent both to having almost missed his food and to the effects of the alcohol – while everyone else either becomes intoxicated or sensibly leaves when the party starts to descend into raucous drunkenness, Socrates himself calmly stays until the next morning, drinking more than anyone and yet apparently without effect before going straight about his daily business the next day without even sleeping until the following evening. Socrates apparent detachment from either the need for or the effects of food, drink and sleep seems to mimic the cicada. In the texts that centre on his death, whether the speech given in court in the Apology, the refusal to escape jail in the Crito or his reflections before drinking the hemlock in the Phaedo, he continues to show, and thus to exemplify to us as the model philosophical life, a life that is not designed to impress the cicadas who will report back to Callipoe and Urania, but to become one. Perhaps it is from this that we find in the work of Jacques Derrida the following pronouncement:

“I philosophize” can mean that as a man I am a cicada, I recall what I am, a cicada who remembers having been a man. – Derrida: The Animal that Therefore I Am

Yet can we really maintain such an attitude before death? A perhaps melancholic certainty informs us that the most inescapable fact, perhaps the only inescapable fact, is our death. Even the grandest post-human prophets of man’s impending digital or genetically modified immortality must admit that in a universe of expansion and entropy we can only defer the inevitable.

The most obvious question that suggests itself to us might be “Can we accept the inescapable fact of mortality?” This question actually hides two rather different concerns: firstly, can we accept that we will die, are we capable of really processing and internalising this fact as a fact? Secondly, can we find this acceptable – does it render existence itself objectionable or absurd? Do we depend, as so many philosophers have believed regardless of their religious convictions, on some notion of posthumous survival to render life worth living? However, perhaps a more productive angle from which to approach this inescapable fact is the question of the cicada – “Can we forget it?”

Here the philosophical tradition is divided into firmly opposed camps. On the one hand, there is the chain that flows from the Ancient Greek Epicureans to the Roman poet Lucretius, onward to Spinoza and right up to contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou. These thinkers broadly proclaim, in the words of Lucretius, that “Death is nothing to us”; or in Spinoza’s words that “A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” Whether it is a task that is regarded as easy or difficult, one of the promises and aims of philosophy would then be freedom from an obsession with mortality – in its extreme form we come to identify ourselves precisely with that which is immortal, with truth itself, and thus perhaps to repeat with Corithians 15:55 “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?”

Yet on the other hand, a very different tradition also emerges from Christian reflection in which our mortality is instead the most easily forgettable thing. For these thinkers, while we never escape the fact that we will die, we have a tremendous capacity to ignore it, to distract ourselves from it, or to actively flee it (frequently fleeing it through acts of apparent bravado such as the confident dismissal “Everything dies, get over it”). We require then the momento mori of a well placed skull adorning our desk or the weekly reminder of the skeletons’ message in the ossuary of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be”. Through such reminders to constantly think on one’s death, on the fact that it could strike at any moment, one will hopefully rectify one’s life – where life itself remains the greatest distraction from the far more substantial issue of death. In philosophy, Heidegger is perhaps the most famous inheritor of this tradition. In his philosophy our finitude is the most easily forgettable thing, the thing constantly fled from in our idle talk in which we only thinks “everyone dies” and never really process that “I will die”. We might think here of the famous lines from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych:

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

Yet for Heidegger it is precisely an acceptance of the temporal structure of our being-towards-death that can form the central pillar of our authentic singular existence. An existence that wouldn’t merely be the everyday existence of the crowd but that would be truly our own.

In short then, it seems that the Spinozist camp is telling us to become cicadas – to forget mortality in favour of the passionate pursuit of immortal philosophical truth; while the Heideggerian camp is telling us that a cicada who has forgotten the finite nature of his existence through being immersed in such immortal projects has actually fled his own nature and cannot be doing philosophy properly understood. One of the aims of this blog will be to show that this apparent division between two camps is in fact superficial and misguided.

We can hopefully approach this through a particular puzzling case – while Derrida is in the Heideggerian rather than the Spinozist camp on the matter of death (this is a simplification to which I’m sure we’ll return), he nevertheless refers to the philosopher as a cicada. If for Derrida philosophy itself is a meditation on mourning, a constant inheritance and respectful concern with the work of the dead, then how is it also simultaneously a forgetting of death, a transcendence in passion of mortality in favour of a kind of survival. Our suggestion is that Derrida’s work can function as a hinge that will show that the apparent positions of those who say we should never think about death and those who think we should constantly meditate on it are far closer than it might superficially appear.

5 thoughts on “Dancing to Death

  1. I was wanting to know if you ever considered replacing the page layout of your site? It is well written; I love what you have got to say. But maybe you could create a a bit more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. You have got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

    • Thank you for your comments. I confess this website is at the moment very new, very rushed and I’m too snowed under with major deadlines to seriously address these issues. Hopefully in a month or two I’ll be in a position to really work on this and I’ll certainly take your comments into account.

  2. I have got 1 recommendation for your website. It appears like there are a handful of cascading stylesheet problems when opening a number of webpages within google chrome as well as opera. It is operating alright in internet explorer. Probably you can double check that.

    • Thanks for your comments – I created and tested the site entirely in Chrome and have encountered no such issues, thus it’s difficult to know what to do to fix them. I’d be interested if anyone can give further details of problems they are experiencing.

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