Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fate and the Symbolism of the Undead

I dream of the dead...

In the nightmares that come frequently, the dead are an unstoppable wave, akin to the forces of nature: implacable, undeniable, nameless, all powerful...and the fear that one feels is mainly that of an impersonal doom - that is, fate felt as something completely outside of one's self, a power that doesn't recognize one's personal identity, one's history, or one's claims to life...or any other kind of justification. The powers of speech are removed, one is rendered mute and frozen in the path of the oncoming hurricane...without the ability to use one's talents to circumvent the coming tragedy, without the chance to enact any measure of avoidance at all...no, you are completely and utterly helpless, and the only thing that separates you from contact with the dead (for once you are touched, the virus has been transmitted) is the slow sinking of time. 'Create more time...' is the fervent wish, 'let us outrun the dead, let us wait, maybe it will pass, all things are transitory.' - and so the thoughts in dreams act out, in their own code, the meaning of the dream itself. 'All things are transitory.'

In the dreams of the dead the idea of contagion runs ahead of all other fears, as if the world (and its agents, the undead), in its corrupt state, carries with it the only seeds of death possible, as if these same seeds were not somehow is all of us...and the Others (the one, indivisible Other - the external) in these dreams - all others, dead, walking, given to death and decay but still alive (this is the true paradox of fate around which all ideas stemming from these dreams arise), these revenants, are somehow not me, not given the chance to escape the finality of doom, perdition, and death - these dreams immediately and in a conscious state (conscious in the dreams) dictate the differences between subject and object: they, the living dead, are objects, given over to grim dissolution, but I am not, I - the subject - still walk without the taint of black evil, even though my blessed state is in constant jeopardy, and must ultimately succumb...

I am separate, and I am inviolate...and yet...they pursue me, they carry a mocking laughter in their eyes, an acid that would eat away at all my assurances of reality and dream...

Fate? Only in the fact that in these dreams I can not escape the tides of dead, and that my doom becomes universal, even though I never think of the destiny of others...they (the dreams) always end with my own corruption and death, as I feel the dead claw savagely at me, seize my legs, drag me down: as I end so does the world, and all drowns in darkness...

As I die my dreamworld expires, and everything that ever existed within falls back into unconsciousness...like a civilization of puppets with their strings suddenly cut...

Fate? It is the feeling of helplessness, the sheer panic that replaces rational thought, the de-evolution of the Subject, the return to the eve, one could say, of consciousness...when the instincts take over and Fear becomes my only master. My will is dashed to pieces, torn to ribbons, my personality disappears, my notion of who I am and what I have been is replaced by the dissolution of death, and I become just the same as everyone else...only this death is not a true release, because there is no rest at the end of it...I must die, but then I will awake again, and I will not recognize myself in the mirror...

Fate? It is looking death in the face, without flinching, and the realization of one's mortality at that second in time and space, the recognition and immediate natural resignation - it is feeling the mind let go of the world, and the body slacken, giving way to the forces of nature, as it returns to the elements from which it first arose: it is the inevitable pause at the moment of death where one realizes that all potentiality in one's personality and history - everything one could have accomplished but never did, everything that was given to you - will now be silenced, and you are returned to the earth...ashes to ashes, dust to dust...I am no more, and this was not my choice...

Fate? This is another word for the wages of Life...

Fate, the forces of Life that keep one as a prisoner inside one's own personality, the remorseless grinding machinery that connects cause and effect, that searches for causes in one's own history (which can never be denied, they have already been set into action) and slowly, deliberately, computes the consequences...

But is this Death that is so frightening? Or is it something else? Is Death the only thing that can not be avoided? Is Death the only reserve that the World has that leaves us feeling absolutely powerless to counter its demands? What about those who are trapped in a life they have not chosen? What about the cursed souls who are living as if they were already dead?

As for The Subject, a few unnecessary words :

Typically, the immediate understanding of undead imagery is usually limited to the most obvious (that is to say: incorrect) interpretation, based on internal characteristics (i.e, what one knows from prior experience) and the pseudo-investigations of popular myth, folklore, or pop psychology. We de-personalize the realm of death from the dead that walk, and posit this abstraction as the source of our fears. We extract 'death' from their state, from their actions in the dreamworld. The undead merely represent Death itself, one is inclined to say, without really knowing why. These images and myths have existed for millenia, how can they have changed? What is central to 'human nature' (does this even exist?) is central for all time, in all places, through all societies, is it not? But I believe this is a fallacy, and the undead - a powerful symbol appearing, yes, in many cultures, through many different societies, is not a signifier and signified (in the structuralist sense) paired through all time with the fears of death. The undead are signifiers with an inexhaustable range of meanings. In fact, to me, this signifier, the sign and symbol, is actually a sign without any obvious inherent interpretation, a powerful image and source of meaning that, in my opinion, is to be interpreted on a much smaller scale - instead of expanding outward in the search for meaning, towards 'society' and the fears, inculcated behavior, and respective cultural tenets involved in any sociological approach towards a Subject, it is much more interesting to stay close to the dreaming Subject itself - his history, his thoughts, his fears...instead of expanding the sign to embrace the macrocosm of a 'society' that it appears in, why not the microcosm of the actual mind it appears in? We must interpret it on a purely random and subjective basis...and so we go back to the free association...

We have to return to the life of the subject, his own experience...for after all, we are not extracting 'meaning' to be extrapolated and enlarged upon to provide another level of 'interpretation' for all of society. When dealing with the dreamworld, we are thinking only of personal subjective meaning, internal realizations...what the Subject has created with these symbols, and what they can mean to him/her in the light of day...

Dissecting the Undead:

In these dreams, and in the cultural stereotypes, the dead are not truly dead, are they? They rise, they feed, they move - they even speak at times, although it is without the use of language...if they communicate at all it is only in order to alert us of their presence or to give voice to their internal agony...the pain of not willing their actions, and still being forced to carry them out, as marionettes, as automatons of the implacable: they are living signs of Fate, and Fate breathes through their mouths. Fate is present in every one of their movements, for every word they utter or every facial expression they manage to form, Fate has already cast over it another much more powerful symbol: its own Existence, its own residence in the present. They can not escape their existence as moving, acting symbols in dreams...whatever they do, whatever they say, they are already forced into the role of the symbol they represent. This is their fate, their destiny: to be the signs of Fate itself. These revenants are not truly dead because they manifest all the signs of life - we think of them as being 'dead' because they decay, they suffer mortal wounds without stopping all action (they are beyond death), or they exhibit absolutely no signs of an independent motive, personality, or willpower. They are closer to Object than Subject. But to cast them in the role of symbols of 'death': is this realistic? Do they share any of the characteristics of the abstraction of death? They wear death as a mask, but do they hold 'it' inside them, as the dead truly do? Do they serve as avatars for the deity of Death - loci for its manifestation? No, the reason we call them 'undead' is because they have escaped or are outside the reach of death...they are something else. It is not death that has taken hold of them, but eternal life...they, in fact, can not die...

What one fears in them is not the 'death' that they carry with them, as corpses walking the Earth, but the fact that once rendered dead by their hands (this 'death' that they transform into a transitory state, a period of change, nothing more - it is not death but something else, a metamorphosis, a cocooning and rebirth) one arises again without the freedom to choose a path or course of action anymore at all...what one fears is not death directly, but the inevitable dissolution of one's Ego, from a mind and personality cut off from the rest of man (Freedom) transformed into a hive mind, linked to all...and yet unable to die...how terrible is this? Freedom is destroyed, personal choice is destroyed, the instincts of the personality are killed...but the body lives on...and this comes directly to the heart of our cultural/social misconceptions and problems of 'identity': what are we, our bodies or our minds? Our souls, or something else entirely? What makes up our 'identity'?

By the same token, and at the same time, I wish to discount their obvious 'significance' as symbols in themselves (which is to say: just to give them another name) of the unconscious drives...all accoutrements and paraphernalia would lead one to 'think' so: they arise from the earth or from beneath (the unconscious in shallow Freudian interpretation), they come out of the darkness (once again, the unconsciousness), they are implacable and unstoppable (the unconscious drives, which can only be diverted or suppressed, but never halted), they can only be 'killed' by destroying their minds, the seat of their power (an all-too-simple reference to the direct suppression of the unconscious by the conscious), etc. One immediately thinks of the overtly Freudian scenes in 'Day of the Dead' where the undead are kept in a deep, dark cavern or cattle pen from which they emerge into the light/consciousness of their keepers/suppressors like the darkest secrets of the libido. Following this, of course, is the 'descent' series of scenes in which the heroes must enter this Hell and face the revenants in order to 'escape' back to the light. Joseph Campbell would say, without a pause: Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas, Dante and Virgil, Demeter and Persephone, etc. In other words, the fall into death and the return, the heroic cycle...one must die, be swallowed by the darkness, and then return to the light, in order to gain wisdom...

In my dreams, none of these attributes are always true...the undead often appear in direct daylight ('normal' reality), and they can not be stopped in any way. What is more, I often recognize them...if not by name and body (for they have been de-personalized by 'death' and Fate and no longer have identities) then by some internal prompting which, in the dream, lets me know that they once meant something to me, and that I must feel even more pain because they can claim emotional ties to my own history. Moreoever, because they are united into one grim force as separate-but-equal soldiers in one army, they must all share an existence as one symbol, even though they appear divided...this explains the feeling of inescapable terror when one encounters even one of them: where one exists, others will follow, and when one is sighted, the end is near, as the process of Fate - that of dissolution - has already begun, they appear as symbols of themselves...no, they are all signs of one much greater fear...

Death or...Life?

If it was death that I feared on an unconscious level (which I fear no more than most men, and much less than many) - and many would still interpret my dreams in this fashion, no matter how many objections and obstacles I put in their way, such is the beauty of the unconscious and the psychoanalyst's sole claim to its delineation - I would then have to ask: what is it about death that I truly fear? What characteristics of this archetype and abstraction 'death' trouble me the most? Are these characteristics shared by any other abstractions? For how can one fear something if one does not also fear its effects? Or are its effects the only thing one fears? Is it possible to fear something separated from the effects it can have? Is it possible to 'know' something when it has been stripped of all its attributes - is there an 'essence' to be felt? Perhaps, at the center of its effects, death represents an abstraction within an abstraction, a core of unknowing - of the unknowable, a mystery, a nothing - beyond which it is impossible to see. Is death only the absence of all life? Centered around this void, this dark pole of nothingness out of which which no life can escape, are of course a wide range of effects: the ways in which death appears in Nature, the methods in which things kill or are killed, the ways in which destroyed life impacts on other subjects still alive, the cultural and species-specific systems in which death is 'handled', both in a funerary and bereavement sense, etc. All of these extraneous abstractions, symbols, and systems have their own effects, both aesthetic (as affects) and moral, and these effects, in turn, have their corresponding associations due to personal experience. It is questionable whether one could fear death never having witnessed its effects in any fashion...as Adam and Eve, perhaps, could never fear anything, not knowing the root of all fear...

But, as I said above, is death the only abstraction and force that can lay claim to sponsoring the sense of the 'implacable' within us? For it is this sense, this awareness of a grim, absolute force that I can not placate or circumvent in any fashion...this is what I fear. Are there not other forces equally powerful - if not on a wide scale, within society and our own culture...within our own lives? Things we have come to know through our own individual existences, our own experiences which we don't share with any other person? Forces that are part of our own personal mythologies? As an experience, here, I am thinking (as I always do) both of things witnessed, sponsored, and taken part in as a segment of one's history as well as the thoughts that one has had...I include both the internal and the external reality as parts of what a subject has experienced because, for me, they are not only inseparable (one is interpreted, assimilated, or prompted by the other) but also, in many case, actually identical in terms of their 'importance' (personal meaning/relevance) to the subject. 'Death' is both a social abstraction and a much more personal series of experiences inside me...I understand what society understands by using that term, and then I know what my mind summons when I brood over the word...and there are thousands of memories, images, connected words, ideas, thoughts, remembered thoughts, etc. that center on that one term in my mind. All are connected by the term, its associations in my psyche, and the understanding I have of what that idea must ultimately mean to me. Depending on one's psychological orientation (I do not mean this in a technical fashion, this is not a technical term) either internal or external experiences (or a corresponding mixture of both, as most minds understand it - unless one is strictly introverted or extroverted) are vital to one's feeling of a unique, integrated identity, an individuality...for me, internal experience is the most important part of my life, and always has been. This is not something that I can change or will to end...it is my nature, and because of this, 'meaning', for me, obviously will only be given to my understanding through my own internal musings...the idea of 'Death', to me, is not connected to physical processes or the memories of Others dying, it is the collection of all I have ever felt about dissolution, and the funerary tastes of my melancholic character. I do not pay attention to what society says about death. For me, the external is meaningless.

A Corpse Without A Soul:

For the undead, however, the psychological problems that enjoin our notions of personal history and identity have been eradicated. An 'individual' free-thinking member of the undead is unrealizable, and we do not ever think of any creature of this sort as being individualistic and capable of willpower (unless we are talking about vampires, which are of course the arrogant sexual instinct - the drives for the self, the infant self - abstracted and increased to a preternatural degree) or, in any case, stricken with independent thought or the diseases of the isolated psyche. The undead are only motivated, in a personal sense, by their hunger, or (in my dreams) by their overwhelming desire for destruction and death. In my dreams they kill all that could offer happiness to me. A parallel is the Golem of Jewish myth, which is raised/molded from ashes and dust - the dirt and salt of the earth - as an elemental force in order to wreak havoc or bloody vengeance. The Golem, formed from this detritus and cast off matter (the excreta of society) reduces its designated victims (who are its destiny, one could say) to death and hands them over bodily to the agents of putrefaction. From ashes and dirt follows ashes and dirt in turn, and matter can neither be created or destroyed...like creates like. Much as a plague (another species of animal life that was once thought to be a divine curse, the work of astral forces) does, the undead work towards a single-minded purpose: the assimilation of all life into their own realm, and their own reproduction. The undead create new undead life by killing - a beautiful paradox....but of course, they do not really take away life, after all, but bestow 'immortality' on their victims, through the transmission of their curse/disease/blessing. They kill in order that their victims may be reborn. In this sense, they are not at all indicative/symbolic of death, whose reaper eventually gathers all into its arms and carries all that lives across the threshold into dissolution. Where Death renders all permanent and finished (all over, expired), the undead bring their victims back into life, into a state of flux and torment. Being 'dead', they also have to contend with the vicissitudes of life...although as part of the hive mind, the not-conscious, not as an individual cut off from the rest of humanity. I assume this is a very small consolation. The main torment of their new 'lives' is hunger - an all-consuming, always enduring, perpetually torturing hunger: the gnawing stomach and vitals of the biophage, not the necrophage. The undead eat the living so that they may continue in death. Where the forces of death end all consumption and instead give the consumer over to the maceration/mastication of the worms or parasites, the forces of Life say, again and again: 'Back into the sun, walk through another day, live, eat, breathe, feel the torments that arise through your body, this is Nature, this is reality...'

The undead, for me, let it finally be said...they are symbols of the Light, of the Life that I must take part in no matter how much I struggle or curse...they are the heralds of the morning, the awakening from dreams...

And, one must remember, there is no exit for these souls to take, no hint of personal choice, no chance for deliberation and the consolations of regret, hatred, or renunciation. There is no identity on which to work the magic of psychological processes, no consciousness to suppress the unconscious drives...there is only the motive, the hunger, the pure suffering of being alive...

No finish for the undead, no rest, no peace, no fade to black, no tasting of the nothingness at the center of All, only an eternal walking, a never ending search...for...what?

Is it any wonder that one fears the contagion of the undead...is it not just the fear of being utterly alive? Of being completely subsumed and absorbed in life, as an agent of Life itself, to the point where one's identity is fractured, the mind is given over to madness, and the animal (which is to say: the Body, the Physical, not the Dionysian) takes complete control? Is it possible to live forever in such a fashion, to be subjected to the eternal torment of the Life and Light, and to not be able to flee for solace into madness because madness or the dissolution of one's identity/personality offers absolutely no relief from the suffering?

I'll say, here at the finish, that when the Christians speak of Eternity in Heaven, this is what I think of....I think of a soul locked in a lightless cell, in a swirling vortex, hanging over the abyss of all Creation filled with a poisonous nausea, and screaming in agony for all time...I think of the undead, who are dead yet still live, who are immortal, who have died but have not been saved by death...and I tremble at the possible existence of this 'Heaven'...

In place of the Catholic metaphor of the sempiternal gazing upon God's face, peering in upon His Mystery, I substitute the Lysergic communion: five tabs and a mercury mirror, lit by a single candle, where the gods of the pantheon are tempted towards possession and appear, one by one, in a slow procession, upon the neophytes's face. From the crowning halo of cold light in Apollo's eyes to the bestial mask of a frenzied Pan...and all eventually transfiguring the face I have been given by Fate into a final residual: the basilisk stare of the viper, the hissing of the serpent...

U. Amtey
13 January, 2001