Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Worship of Death

"Sure, I find the odor of death very erotic. There are death odors and there are death odors. Now you get your body that's been floating in the bay for two weeks, or a burn victim, that doesn't attract me much, but a freshly embalmed corpse is something else."

"There is also this attraction to blood. When you're on top of a body it tends to purge blood out of its mouth, while you're making passionate love .. You'd have to be there, I guess."

- excerpt from an interview with Karen Greenlee, a female necrophiliac

"You feel the last bit of breath leaving their body. You're looking into their eyes. A person in that situation is God! You then possess them and they shall be a part of you, and the grounds where you kill them or leave them become sacred to you, and you will always be drawn back to them."

- Ted Bundy

Christ Passion...

It is the obsession we all share. I am as sure of that as I am of anything else, no matter how many times people deny it, a certain fear coming into their glazed glances, a toss of the head, their hair in their eyes, their lips pursed demurely, coldly, their mouths saying 'no' while their eyes tell you of dreams in the depths of sleep, dreams where they meet me and yet can never recognize my face. Their eyes tell me 'yes'. Their eyes tell me...their thoughts turn soundlessly in this black gyre, pressed ever forwards as they start up in the middle of the night, between heartbeats, between breaths, not sure if they are dead or alive...and if they were dead - how would they know? Perhaps when we die everything continues as it ever did, we slough off this time as a snakeskin and propel ourselves onwards, forwards or backwards...perhaps when we sleep we always die...

But the other - that face, that mask that appears one by one on all of their faces at any given time, surfacing slowly as my lips move with a will of their own and I gaze deep into their eyes...that mask of humanity...at this second, looking into a mirror, I would doubtlessly see my face as it truly appears, the way it stares into the night while I dream...the face with all masks removed: emotionless, with no personality, no identity at all - just a mass of inert flesh that awaits the awakening of its puppet master.

When all the masks are removed, would we recognize each other?

Do the dead dream? Pressed under the shuddering earth, soused with periodic rains, hands stretched out among tree roots, eyes foaming over...

Each one of us carries our corpse around with us, and would love to see inside - that last mystery, almost never pierced - the color of one's internal organs, the pumping, so free, of one's blood, dark and light, spilling over the ground, the breath, so precious, slowly draining, the death rattle, as all muscles relax before the ending rigor...

Perhaps as the last theater the angels of death hold us back, away from the abyss, circling low and high, as we watch our bodies decay...

I would break through this last gate, in my sleep if not anywhere else, always searching for the liminal boundaries, a transition, a territory of trespass, an exterior covering an interior, a threshold - but where is the line between life and death? And how do we cross into a different land when we can't even see where one world ends and the other begins? Must I be blinded in order to see?

In certain states of utter exhaustion or trauma, with one foot firmly across the wall that divides the two realms (or is this just another illusion?) the temptation to step over becomes almost insurmountable. The light weakens, the darkness swallows all pain, all controversy, all conflicts, it seems to promise sleep, the freedom from the ego, the bottomless well that will somehow extinguish consciousness - somewhere, down in the descent, the air just gives out, and one's corpse falls forever...but where will 'I' be? Will 'I' have ended? Will 'I' pass into some other sphere? Or are there options that I am not even considering here? But these are age-old questions, and, as such, completely worthless...in order to carry myself closer to the truth I must forget humanity's questions, I must do away with the thoughts of those who have come before me, I must practice deriving answers only from my own experience...

Death Instincts...

I believe that we all, as eternally divided subject and object, humans, animals, creatures trapped under the sky, search for limit experiences, happenings and events that will not only define the limits of our consciousness but, at times (which we learn of, and then manipulate in order to achieve the effects again and again) transcend the conscious phenomena that we have defined as our own selves, subjecting us to influences, powers, and effects from external sources - or, indeed, internal sources that we can not consciously control. Psychiatrists in the 19th century (yes, Freud and his circle, but let's proceed beyond them) often labelled this as a 'drive' to return to an infant state, where our bodies, consciousnesses, and minds were subject to the arbitrary will of the 'other' - left open to the world, as it were, undefended, completely 'spiritual' in that the conscious was derided in support of the external. I know that everyone experiences this drive, almost constantly...witness the urges we all share towards mass movements, demagogues, mass entertainment, crowd scenes, father (and mother) figures, or our own instincts. In the history of our species, the burden of consciousness is a relatively novel experience, and we, as humans, still regard it as a potential traitor. What feels more 'natural' than a return to completely instinctive behavior, unless one has been neurotically separated from one's instincts and regards them, in turn, as a horror from the darkness within? As humans, our experiences and learned behaviors can become liminally instinctive in their own right - this is only one of the reasons psychiatrists often search for motives for current actions/thoughts in one's childhood experiences, often we become entrenched within roles and patterns of behavior or habits that we do not realize we can shape at will (with a great deal of persistence, it's true) - what else is a personality but an interlocking system of behavior patterns, coupled with particular instinctive drives?

But besides these instincts - the physical and most basic of the mental processes, which are native to everyone in our species, and the experience-based instincts, which have formed in response to events - what other drives do we admit to ourselves when alone, when not faced with the stigma of appearing outside group behavior? What instincts do we all have that we carry deep within us, away from the light - for a variety of reasons - away from the eyes of others, as relating only to the microcosm of our own consciousnesses, our own world, our own realities? What instincts do we feel only we can understand, as they are so personal they can not even be translated into language?

I'll answer: the drive towards death, and the drive towards love...

During the few seconds of an orgasm, a man feels, often, as if he is leaving his own body behind, and his consciousness retreats into a noiseless world deep within where everything surrounding one, including one's partner, the immediate environment, the sensory data available (unless one effect is heightened over all the others) is dimmed, rendered colorless, made almost transparent, as if one could see through objects into the energy behind them, vibrating on an atomic or molecular level...the rhythmic recurrence of sex (it's not a coincidence that it's a rhythm, or can be translated into a frequency, a wave form, radiation) is like any other kind of repetition: it leads to a retreat of the consciousness behind the walls of the mind, and this, allied with the pure pleasure of physical activity, is what we often call ecstasy, always communicating with the use of this word not only an excess of pleasure (excess = beyond one's control, something one is subjected to) but a corresponding loss of consciousness. The French have a term for it, again: le petit mort, the 'little death', a very exacting moniker, and one that easily gets to the heart of the matter. In an orgasm, what one cherishes is not just the pleasure involved - although that is never really sneered at - but the escalating nature of the pleasure, the goal aimed at, the hill that one slowly climbs where, at the very summit, there is a cliff that one is pushed over almost as if against one's will...falling over, consciousness is extinguished, and impaired for a short time afterwards, as if one just awoke from a pleasing dream. This is the most common form of threshold experience, one that almost all can share in...and, as such, it defines almost all of our other liminal experiences. When we relate any kind of 'extreme' event as being, in the excitation of our emotions, 'almost sexual', it is not because we naturally seek out phenomena that we can sublimate our sexual drives within, it is because the vocabulary of our liminal experiences is based on the most basic thresholds of all: orgasm, or dreams...

'I'd get to drive out to the cemetery with the family. I'd get to mourn right along with the family at the loss of that loved one. Except I was groaning in a little different tone! People can't really tell if you're grief stricken or passion-stricken.'

- another excerpt from the interview with Karen Greenlee

In truth, the experience of orgasm is probably the most ancient reserve or pathway to the 'extra-conscious' that humans possess - witness the Tantric monks and their practice of extending orgasm indefinitely, through ritualized intercourse and rigidly defined patterns of physical motions or behavior, to the point where it becomes a road to God. In this 'controlled' ecstasy they achieve states of consciousness that transcend the physical...as do the monks of other Eastern philosophies related to Buddhism, who can so transfigure their individual consciousnesses that their death, by whatever means (lighting themselves on fire in protest would be the one most familiar to Americans) is something completely inconsequential to them. Two well-travelled paths towards the 'spiritual' (outside consciousness), sex and death - are they really so different?

And, as everyone must know, post-coital suggestion is one of the most powerful methods of seduction - and what is seduction other than the trading of one conscious state for another? Is Death just the seduction of the material world, the voice of the body calling out to the 'spirit' and whispering, softly, 'retreat into silence with me'? Do we fear Death because we feel such an intense desire, in the end, for its release? Do we fear it as we fear everything we love, because it exerts a totalitarian dominance of pleasure and pain? Because, like love, it is inescapable?

But because it is the first, and the knowledge of its effects so widely disseminated, does this mean (in other words: does history tell us) there are not any other methods of 'extra-material' experiences? Is repetition and the manipulation of pain or pleasure the only way towards the threshold? Besides repetition, then, allied with the coordination and restriction or surfeit of pain and pleasure, can liminality be reached through sensation alone? Are there pleasures that would drive one mad, as excessive pain is supposed to accomplish? At one point are pain and pleasure unable to be categorized or differentiated? Are there new pleasures for the human, limited to this material plane, relating both the emotions and the psyche, or does the world only offer unlimited potential for pain?

In fact, I believe it is actually a measure of a culture's level of 'civilization' (meaning their understanding of reality, and, consequently, their own actions, the links between cause and effect, the art of living) how they understand and react to both their own mortality and their sexuality, how they react to pleasure and pain. For Americans, either one is equally almost disposable...Western cultures do not respect the liminal experiences of sex (as there is a general misunderstanding and contempt for the body) or death: in sex, they procreate mindlessly, or only try to achieve the weakest of orgasms as quickly as they can, only reacting to the body's pleasure and not the mind's needs; in death, they know only fear, or a neurotic fascination that stems from their relative inexperience...

Am I mistaken about this? Am I misinterpreting the messages my culture is sending me?

It is a matter of a long tradition on the part of strategists that one's enemy is weakest just after coitus - the sooner one strikes after the subject's orgasm has consumed him, the better. Like a snake that has just gorged itself, he has feasted on the experience of another world, and is vulnerable because he is not completely conscious...at the point of orgasm, he will not even care if you kill him or not - lost in the reverie brought on by the body's pleasure, he will watch with indifference as his body is taken from him...this is yet another beautiful paradox of the human condition. We should not pity a man who is killed cleanly and quickly at the climax of an orgasm, as it is probably the closest to Heaven he will ever get. In fact, the inevitable decline of this 'extra-conscious' state and the return to 'normal' awareness is a mirror image of the original fall from grace. In orgasm, a man tastes The Eternal (in other words: death), but he must always return to Earth. And so here is another paradox, one that is much more common: at the height of orgasm, when one is involved in the process, technically, of creating new life - for a man, the exact moment when his abdominal muscles spasm and his body propels his seed into the external - at no other time is one so close to death, or dying - what other times are there when one is both conscious and experiencing the dimming of consciousness? I anticipate that dying, for some people (if not all) is quite like an extended orgasm, only it is filled with the trauma of pain, the fears of mortality, and the bitter hopes for an afterlife. Irony? It is a proof of the universe's absurd sense of humor that often one must die in order to put an end to one's fear of death...

Speaking dogmatically, however: like any other threshold experience, man has come to personalize, demonize, and worship the 'extra-conscious' attributes of death, and not only of death, but also the entire slow process of dying. Because the path and progress of dying is something we (as the living) can not 'understand' or sympathize with, but can only watch, it has become a reserve of instincts and/or behavior always filled with a shadowy hysteria or fear - men never react with courage in the face of the unexplainable. This much is known, these are clich├ęs - that is why I repeat them in a cold blooded manner. However, what is still not known is the true nature of the entire process of dying - just how close is it, really, to normal states of consciousness? Has anyone ever related this information? I doubt it, as dying people are usually extremely selfish, and prefer to either die in stony silence, pitying themselves, or complaining bitterly about their 'undeserved' fate. I am not mocking them, just describing. In the entire history of our weak species, has there been even one brave soul who has gone down to the depths slowly, eyes wide open all the while, recording his impressions for the benefit of 'humanity'? We speak of our species as explorers, always intent on 'conquering' or mapping new ground - who has even mapped this internal territory, this silent world that we all carry within us as an unreached potential, an inevitable future? My question is this: does the entire process of dying (which, like it or not, is nothing more than the slow dissolving of one's conscious self - those who are kept on life support but who will never recover we already refer to as 'dead') so alter the nature of conscious states than a dying person could not communicate his or her impressions in a language or vocabulary that we could understand? Do you have to die in order to truly 'understand' the effect death has on one's mind? What could I mean by the word 'understand' in this context anyway?

My guess (educated or otherwise) would be that consciousness - awareness of one's thoughts, actions, thought processes, and the immediate environment, both external and internal - would actually be 'heightened' in the process of dying, and that while we often think of death as the slow decline of one's faculties, it is probably quite the opposite. In fact, one's consciousness probably gradually expands - spreading out, susceptible to new influences, aware of new sensory information, passing through novel states and events of the mind - as one dies, until the individual's conscious self is spread so thinly through events in time (events and items of one's attention) that it feels as if the consciousness is collapsing (or imploding), its borders are disappearing, merging with the environment and the mental phenomena itself: both the memories, reflections, thoughts, and instincts that are constantly boiling beneath the personality as well as the sensory record of one's situation begin to blend together, sharing forms, forming new relations, losing personal cohesiveness while gaining in objective importance as one's body becomes an object. In fact, I would guess that there is a space or time, right before the 'final death' (meaning unconsciousness) occurs, where the mind, close to becoming an object itself, freed from the subjective personality that inhabits it, actually enables one to think like an object, regarding all matter as being equal, eternally connected, filled with a trascendent 'oneness' - sound familiar?

This is another great source of the belief in the 'external', closely corresponding with dreams in our tradition, this experience of 'interconnectability'...

Some would call this 'enlightenment', but I think it is merely the mind's way of rationalizing liminal experiences and trying to place them within the confines of language, whether they come from meditation, sex, drugs, dreams, or death...

So, to follow this thought to its natural consequences, the 'worship' of death is really only the prostration before this experience of 'oneness' - a solidarity and cohesiveness that can not be penetrated by the fragmented human mind. Man, forever separated, isolated, individual (even though longing all the while not to be), reaches towards the utter alien in the object: the cold, voiceless, eternally silent self-sufficiency not only of the material world, bereft as it is of 'spirit' or an animating principle, but of subjects that have left the realm of the 'extra-material' and transcended their former primacy as actors, instead of that which is acted upon. In worshipping death, we fall silent before the wordlessness of that which is beyond our senses, and we strive towards rendering ourselves (through repetitive ritual or other means) silent as well. In my view, prayer or any other kind of ritual activity, proscribed as it is by tradition or legislative institutions in the realm of the Church, is only another method for forcibly rendering silence, by repeating that which is meaningless. The individual, no matter how harshly he shouts his praises or how fervently he enacts the rites of obeisance, does not speak for himself and does not confront death on his own...and so he is silent. Through prayer he dies in turn. What can his utterances mean to me?

The most telling speeches, I believe, that people make when confronting death are the moans, curses, and wordless exclamations of their body as they react in animal fear or great pain. One has doubtlessly noticed how similar they are to the 'bird cries' of pleasure or the 'nonsense' of infants - they are the sounds of the body encountering a threshold, that is: the body speaking for itself, without the intercession of language. Facing death, a man is powerless to describe what he sees or feels because language does not have the capability to describe something that is experienced for the first time. As the others who have stood before the same death retreat into silence of the inanimated and can not add to our knowledge, their experiences can not be subsumed into general understanding - that is, our species can not describe death because those who would add the proper faculties to our reserve of language (and thus thought) must die first. This may sound flippant, or overtly obvious, but think about it for a moment. The most profound thing a man can say about his own death is his death rattle, prolonged to the point of obscenity...and if I can not understand my own death, how can I ever hope to understand his?

But still our culture exhorts one to seek out and experience (and thus be isolated, again, and feel all the bitter poisons of that isolation and solipsism) liminal events - almost every message that the American culture, for example, rains down on itself is just such an exhortation: feel, completely, your loneliness, your abject spiritual poverty, your distance from God, your utter worthlessness. And convinced of this poverty, this meaninglessness of life, fall to despair and turn, once again, towards the Deity we are offering you. And, once again, our culture's emphases on sex and death are almost exactly the same...whether you reach God through the despair that comes with profligacy and the 'spiritual corruption' of random, 'meaningless' sex (how terrified the Puritans are of their own bodies and the bodies of others - basically life itself as symbolized by the body) or the depression of mourning, a turning away from the world, it doesn't matter. The path of Love or the path of Death are one and the same - they both end in dissolution, namelessness, and a silent return to the elements. Even so, with all of this massive propoganda, this life or death struggle for the minds of its population, this returning obsession with the 'spiritual', this constant, insane emphasis on 'escaping' the boundaries of this life, though whatever means possible, and degrading life itself in the process...is our culture really convinced that after leaving this life or the boundaries of our consciousness, that we will all 'find' our way to their God? What if, after dying, there was only...nothing? Is their emphasis on escaping life anything but nihilism? What if, after dying, or 'transcending' this consciousness we did not encounter the Christian God, or nothingness, but...something else? Something much more malevolent? Something that will let us know, once and for all, why we worship death and fear it instinctively like nothing else - why death is the fear behind all our other fears? Why we love it, in the end, more than our own lives, because it is supposedly an escape from life?

U. Amtey
21 April 2001