Anguish, Absurdity, Death (Tate Modern, strictly by ticket only, sold out).
Monday evenings, Tate Modern, Level 7 East Room, 18.45 – 20.15 Followed by drinks in Members’ Room, Level 6, 20.15-20.50.
Week 1. Monday June 11th. Level 5 ‘Setting the Scene’, Turbine Hall ‘For the Love of God’
Week 2. Monday June 18th. Level 3 Damien Hirst, rooms 1-10
Week 3. Monday 25th June. Level 3 West, ‘Poetry and Dream’
Week 5. Monday 9th July. Edvard Munch
Notes from Session One
Aims of the course:
- To think about and discuss some key themes in existentialism
- To view works in Tate Modern (especially by Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch) from an existentialist perspective
This week's topic was Death, a theme dear to existentialists, but one that has preoccupied philosophers frequently throughout the subject's history. It is also a subject that preoccupies the artist Damien Hirst, whose Tate Modern exhibition we visited.
Epicurus on Fear of Death
The Greek Epicurus (the inappropriate source of the word 'epicurean') was one of the most interesting of the ancient philosophers to have thought about death (his ideas about death in Lucretius's poem 'On the Nature of Things' - there is an excellent translation of this by Dryden - listen to a short podcast with Stephen Greenblatt on Lucretius). He was particularly keen to eliminate fear of death, which he felt ruined many people's lives. In his view fear of death was irrational, and could be significantly reduced by thinking clearly about the topic. His main arguments were these: first, most people make the mistake of imagining their own deaths as if they will be present and able to observe them. But death, as the extinction of consciousness, means that it isn't something that we could possibly experience or feel bad about at the time. We can experience the process of dying, but the moment of death removes us from the world. The 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared along similar lines:
'Death is not an event in life.'
Epicurus's second argument was about asymmetry: most of us don't wory about the eons befre our births; why the get so worked up about all the time after our deaths when we won't exist any more. We could have been born a month or so earlier, but that loss of time doesn't worry many people; why worry about when we die?
Epicurus's epitaph neatly sums up this philosophy (which will only work if you believe that death does involve extinction of consciousness - if you believe in life after death in some form, it may not have any effect):
'I was not; I have been; I am not; I don't mind'
Jean-Paul Sartre on My Death
Sartre, writing in the 1940s in Being and Nothingness, took a rather different line about death. Consistent with his phenomenological approach he focussed on the subjective point of view, on the questions about death that arise from the individual contemplating his or her own death, rather than death viewed objectively from outside.
As an atheist he did not believe that death had been given any significance or meaning from outside the individual perspective. There is for Sartre no God and no afterlife. But he also completely rejected one humanist view of death as the equivalent of the final chord in life that brings the piece to a close not just with finality, but by somehow making sense of all that has gone before. For Sartre it is clear that death is absurd - an aspect of our contingency: we find oursleves thrown into a world we didn't choose, with no pre-existing values that are binding on us, forced to carve out values through our choices, and constrained by our facticity, which includes death. Death is simply a given (though we wouldn't have known that it was on the cards for us if there had not been other people around who die). The fact of my own future death contributes nothing to the meaning of my acts - it will not (as Epicurus noted) be something I experience. Our finitude comes not from death so much, but from the fact that we make our choices in time, and that each moment of choice can never be revisited. Death is not one of my possibilities - it is an absurd given, but not something that is part of me as a conscious choosing free being.
For Sartre all meaning for any act is created by the choosing individual. When you cease to be able to choose (at death), your life loses meaning from within. At every turn while alive you could re-evaluate your past, make choices in the present that affect the meaning of your previous choices, metamorphose, or decline. When you are dead 'the chips are down.' But that doesn't mean that your life's meaning is fixed at that point. Rather you as creator of meaning are no longer present. Your life is in other people's hands from then on, your life becomes 'Prey to the Other' and its meaning and significance may be transformed completely. He talks of the Other 'triumphing' over the individual at the point of his or her death - a view consistent with his bleak account of social relations as tending to fall into either masochism or sadism, with an me/them struggle to perserve authenticity in the face of people trying to impose their will or desires on to me. At death I will be turned from a choosing individual to an object for other people - another aspect of 'Hell is other people'
In the Gallery
We visited the Rooms 1 - 10 of the Tate Modern Damien Hirst show, an exhibition centred on the theme of death. We had previously seen 'For the Love of God', the jewel encrusted cast of a skull, with real teeth, that drew world press attention when it was vauled at £50 million. It is plausible to see that work as being not just a game-playing gesture directed at the art market, but also as in the memento mori or vanitas tradition - the art work frequently featuring skulls, that drew attention to the inevitability of death, and the need to focus on living because of the ultimate future awaiting us all (see, for example Frans Hals painting of a young man, Hamlet-like, holding a skull, or the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors - both in London's National Gallery).
Many of us felt that the photograph of Hirst grinning next to a severed head 'With Dead Head' with its disrespect for the remains of someone who presumably donated his body to medical science and whose family may recognize him, was offensive and immoral and raised the issue why this sort of image was treated as acceptable within Tate Modern, but would have caused outrage had it had been taken in a military situation (an interesting piece on the topic of trophy-taking and laughing at corpses in war here). On this question, some people believe that artistic merit (assuming this particular piece by Hirst has it, which is debatable) should exempt work that would otherwise fall foul of censorship laws (that was essentially the legal decision in the Lady Chatterley's Lover case). I disagree. The philosopher Bernard Williams made the point nicely that such a view is confused: if you want to protect creative activity from censorship, you should also protect the right to make unsuccessful experiments (i.e. achieved artistic merit shouldn't give you a joker card - artists need to be able to attempt works that fail artistically). Special retrospective merit-based legal exemption from censorship is a model that is bad for artistic creativity - as Williams put it in his essay 'Censorship' (p.144): 'If one believes in freedom for artistic merit, then one believes in freedom and accepts censorship only on the narrowest of grounds'. Applying this reasoning to Hirst's 'With Dead Head' would mean that it should be treated like any other photograph of someone playing around with a corpse - probably the image-making shouldn't be illegal, and it is better to tolerate a degree of freedom that allows for immoral image-making - but even if the image had great artistic merit, that would not be a major consideration in relation to its legality).