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The Undiscovered Country

William Blake - Death on a Pale Horse

The exploration of death in this MythBlast is not a departure from our theme of Harvest for the month of September; instead, it's an inescapable deepening of the Harvest motif. Harvest time means reaping, and voila, with the smallest prompt to imagination we move from the image of a farmer shearing wheat directly to the shrouded, skeletal image of the Grim Reaper, scythe in hand, similarly severing souls from bodies and guiding them to the afterlife. 

A persistent theme found running through Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology is that of death. Death is the most enduring, and probably the most dreadful problem that ever faced animals of the genus Homo. In Primitive Mythology, Campbell writes that the “human being is the only animal capable of knowing death as the end inevitable for itself, and the span of old age for this human organism, consciously facing death, is a period of years longer than the whole lifetime of any other primate” (53). Facing death is complicated by circumstances such as ineradicable comas and persistent vegetative states, or the final stages of chronic, debilitating diseases that remove the sufferer's ability to communicate; conditions that make it very difficult to determine the difference between life and death.

Early peoples began speculating about what death might be based on the experiences they had in life, particularly the nature of the life they observed in the world around them. As Campbell noted, “Among the hunting tribes, whose life style is based on the art of killing, who live in a world of animals that kill and are killed and hardly know the organic experience of a natural death, all death is a consequence of violence and is generally ascribed not to the natural destiny of temporal beings but to magic” (Primitive Mythology, 106). 

Magic, he says, became the technology employed, not only to defend oneself against death, but to deliver death to others as well. Understood this way, death is an enemy to be fought off, held at bay, and resisted to the bitter end. “For the planting folk,” however, “death is a natural phase of life, comparable to the moment of the planting of the seed, for rebirth” (Primitive Mythology, 107). Through an agrarian lens, life and death are naturally cyclical, and there was, just beyond physical life and death, a larger ground of being of which one had only glimpses or intuitions. These various intuitions eventually coalesce, and somewhere around the second millennium BCE the notion of immortality is refined, and ideas like eternal rewards or punishments begin to make death arguably the most important part of life. 

Four thousand years on, one may reasonably insist that we haven’t added significantly to our understanding of death. The people of that distant age seem instantly recognizable to ourselves in that, like them, we still wrestle with the mystery of death, we have the same hopes and fears about life, and the same problems of human nature. Near death experiences and visions described by the dying tell us nothing about death; they speak only to dying, which gives way to the understanding that the important death, the death for which biological death serves as a metaphor, is psychological death.

Psychological death, sometimes referred to as the death of the ego, provokes a profound—and a profoundly difficult—transformation of the psyche. All the familiar, comforting ways one routinely thinks about and understands oneself drop away—one’s purpose, identity, rationality, moral fiber, one’s character—and one is left apparently empty, with a self that is a stranger to itself. Coming to consciousness is seldom a serene act, it’s usually terrifying and often accompanied by violence—or at least intimations of violence—and disorientation. One undergoes a form of psychic decline in which trusted inner constructs crumble and logical relationships to thoughts and experiences end.

It makes sense, of course, that it should be so; no one makes radical changes when life is comfortable. The psychological death prepares the psychic ground for rebirth and greater growth; it makes untenable the merely performative postures of goodness, success, knowledge, and happiness, and one is forced to confront the entire reality of oneself. It's not likely that one is completely good, or oh so happy, and one’s success may be nothing but an illusion. Any number of harsh truths that are in some way unique to one’s own experience of living and to the community in which one lives will be recognized. 

“Death fertilizes the imaginal and works to open a poetic space that brings depth and meaning to everyday life” (Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, 76); death insists upon a deeper, more richly nuanced connection to one's own unconscious, the unfolding of our own lives, and that of life itself.  The psychological death gives rise to patience, humility, empathy, and transcendence of the old self. It is such a radical reconfiguration of the self that one will say, “But I will be a bridegroom in my death, and run into ‘t as a lover’s bed” (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV).

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