An excuse to survey Death motives

2022-12-19 @Literature

At Centro Cultural San Pablo in Oaxaca I stumbled upon José Guadalupe Posada’s (1852-1913) exposition of the Calaveras, those satirical death caricatures accompanied by lyrical poems. Under a glass case also appeared Joaquin Bolaños 1792 death treatise, La portentosa vida de la muerte, whose prose style and choice of thematic, after subsequent research, I added to the distinguished ranks of my reading list, however remote the hopes of ever finding an inexpensive paperback for what seems a rare text.

Posada’s exposition sent me on an occult train of thought: a train decorated in death imagery. I was instantly reminded of Felician Rops' satanic figures, Paul Delvaux' sinister train stations and skeletons, Dore’s bleak illustrations of the inferno and Redon’s symbolist concoctions.

I could venture upon endless tangents, mentioning Rembrandt, Durer, or (especially) Goya, in addition to the Flemish school of allegorical painters whose proverbs I couldn’t exhaust after even a year-long inspection.

The romanticists Fuseli and Delacroix have likewise much to express in the realm of the macabre. Among the expressionists we then arrive at the likes of Kathe Kollwitz or Lynd Ward, whose suggestive sketches give me the ultimate creeps.

I find death caricatured in graffiti all over the tourist sections of Oaxaca, which also holds particular renown among the sites to experience the Day of the Dead.

It makes me wonder when the fascination with death transgressed from the ranks of bleak medieval morbidity into a fashion icon. A strong case can be made for Edgar Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

In hindsight I’m not that widely traveled to assert the link quality with Death as exercised in, say, the African nations or the Afro-Brazilian religions, in Haiti or in some crevice of the Himalayas, but I feel the sickle heavier parodied in Mexico than elsewhere.

Or maybe my skewed level of comprehension deserves at least a reading of Octavio Paz' Laberinto de la Soledad, whenever I manage to tame that obstinance for heavy literature.

Speaking of which, Bolaños' work reminded me of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial (or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk, 1658), still the most poetic death discourse I’d up to now read, assuming I anything understood, for it’s likewise some of the best writing I least grasped. See my referenced write-up.

Ancient philosophers, stoics in particular, speak much of death and the merits of the domestication of its inevitability. The 16th-century Montaigne, however, synthesizes all of these sources in palatable portions in his three lengthy books of essays.

Death (along with religion) is particularly pervasive throughout medieval canon (although Old-English poetry no less), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales being a prime specimen among the British. The tales combine elements of humour, eroticism and satire on the one side, with allegory, Boethian philosophy and the fragility of existence. By far not the least accessible Middle-English poetry you’ll encounter, Chaucer’s magnum opus thus also presents a learning opportunity.

Continuing with the medieval, the Divine Comedy is a multi-tiered allegory on the Christian notions of life and death. To the day Dante conveys hell in one of the more visceral portrayals, as we continually descend down the nine circles, encountering decapitated or inverted corpses in frozen lakes along the way. Something I’ve still for the back burner is the middle-Italian/whatever-else bilingual reading to better appreciate the original verse.

Edgar Poe I almost refrain from further mention, so pervasive and explored already the topic between the poems and the stories.

But among the Victorians, I’ve yet to address Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne wrote long poems on topics covering decadent eroticism, sadomasochism, lesbianism, neoclassicism, neo-medievalism (appealing to near-Chaucerian medieval register), and naturally, Death: see The Leper, Dolores, St Dorothy (as Chaucerian as it gets), or A Forsaken Garden. Though I’m generally mixed on Swinburne’s verse, finding some phenomenal and some plain boring.

If in the mood for elegies, Milton’s Lycidas and Shelley’s Adonais offer solid examples. So does Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in the Country Churchyard (surprisingly well adapted/translated in Жуковского Сельское Кладбище, 1802), though I never managed to strongly appreciate the work.

Let’s proceed to the 20th century. TS Eliot’s Wasteland, beyond a remarkable modernist approach to poetry, also evokes the death register throughout virtually all of the five sections. From the Imagism group, Richard Aldington’s Choricos also comes to mind.

My Russian-language poetry exposure probably constitutes but a fifth of the English, thus I can’t comment as profusely. There’s already Жуковский’s mentioned adaptation.

Then from the silver-age school, Akhmatova’s Реквием (Requiem), written 1935-40 in the shadows of the Stalinist mass persecutions and unpublished until decades after, is some of the heaviest I’d read in the language.

Aleksander Blok symbolized death in such lyric as Потемнели, поблекли залы, the cycle Пляски смерти and the exodus Двенадцать - insofar as the meaning I derive therein. Among Gumilev’s acmeism, though lighter in character, I’d noted Грoза Ночная и Темная, Мечты, Камень, Средневековье. And lately I’d been rereading Konstantin Belmont’s Меж подводных стеблей.

My interest in the said topic probably lies plain evident. And returning to the Mexicans … I nearly neglected an obvious magic realism forerunner: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. No commentary required.


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