Monday, June 25, 2012

Death and therefore life (or vice versa)

I was thinking about death a for while there, but didn't want to write anything about it, largely because I didn't think I had anything all that interesting to say.  I don't want to die, the end.  Or else, since we are all going to die anyway, what's the point of doing anything, and so why write at all?  Not surprisingly this post has been hard to write.  Its taken longer than most, this is my second try at it, and I'm still not sure its all that great.   I'm going to start with my image since that I know how to write about, at least most of the time.

This is (part of) the transi of Jeanne de Bourbon -Vendome, which I've been visiting at the Louvre and so may explain my train of thought.  If you aren't familiar, a transi is a type of tomb sculpture that represents the dead and so decomposing body.  Look at the swirl of her entrails that have apparent burst out of her body - although the real bursting seems to happen in the draperies that frame her lower torso and lap and overlap on top of themselves.  By contrast the entrails themselves make an oddly neat little pile. Above that some worms eat their way out of her flesh.  And then I'm not sure what is folding back around her breast - fabric?  flesh?  Caroline Walker Bynum has some interesting things to say about this type of sculpture in her Christian Materiality, writing about how the stone material makes strangely permanent the squirming changefulness of decay.  Although I loose interest when she goes on to contrast this type of sculpture to body-part reliquaries, as representing the "bad body" in contrast to a body elevated and sanctify by precious metals and stones.  She moralizes and so normalizes the transi as a type, where I would rather sit with the contradictions of a lively death shown in squirming stone.

And Jeanne herself seems particularly lively here, beyond the liveliness of her body's decay.   Unlike many transis, this one is intended to be vertical so that she seems to be standing, with both feet placed on a little lump of earth, and even walking with one foot slightly in front of the other.  And look at her hand placed on top of the surrounding architectural niche, as if she is moving forwards out of it.  And then, in my favorite part beyond the draperies, her other hand pressed up among the drapery folds as if trying to hold herself together even as her body is bursting apart.  And finally her head turned away, as if trying to deny it all. 

My train of thought also probably had to do with the reading I was doing.  First, thinking about death may simply be what comes from sitting in Parisian cafes on rainy afternoons reading philosophy.   And then there is what I was reading, Jane Bennet's Vibrant Matter (see the wonderful post on it over at the Material Collective's blog).  There are a lot of things I liked about that book.  In particular, I was taken by her championing of anthropomorphism as a way of resisting anthrocentrism (i.e. if we attribute things other than human beings with some of the same qualities as human beings we will be less likely to subordinate them to our human needs).  I'm hoping that can help me continue to think through my issues with sculptures, as I obviously tend to anthropomorphize them - as I just did with Jeanne above, seeing the sculpture as her rather than as it and even as her still struggling to be her  after her death.  But at the same time I found myself reacting against Bennet.  She makes everything - human or not, organic or not, animate or not - so vibrant, so lively and I kept thinking, but I am going to die!  Isn't that what makes me special?? 

And I should say that my thinking about death had less to do with bodily decay and decomposition, with the bursting entrails and squirming worms of the transi tomb, than with the ending of my conscious existence, with what I see Jeanne herself still struggling to exert in that sculpture.  I have a plan to deal with my dead body (Cremation of course, than a scattering of ashes, one third in Cleveland, one third here in Paris, and the last third at home in the Pacific Northwest.  My mom helpfully pointed out that I'll need to leave money behind for someone to make that trip or trips).  But I rather like being conscious, at least most of the time.  And I don't have a plan for getting over that.

Other things may die in that first way, may decay and disappear over time, but do they die in the second?  Do they??  What would it mean, for example, to say that a sculpture was dead itself, rather than that it represented a dead body or a dead person?  And not dead in that its physical form had been destroyed, but dead in some other sense??  Here my train of thought passes over into the writing I've been doing, about stories of sculptures doing lively things and thus seeming to have lives of their own.  But if they have lives, don't they also have to have deaths? 

And finally, my train of thought probably had something to do with the tummy ache I developed after being here for a while, which clearly had to do with the amount of dairy I was consuming.  I've cut way back and am feeling much better now.


  1. Is her face also a skull?! It's a bit hard to make out in this photo...

    1. Its a bit skeletal, but not a full skull. Its hard to photograph because of her position and the lighting.

  2. She reminds me a bit of the various versions of the Three Living and the Three Dead, the dead ones. They too are vertical, animate, and decomposing. Great post.