The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: Mortality, the Corpse and the Fiction of Will Self.
Death, according to Jacque Lynn Foltyn, has replaced sex as the 21st century’s definitive taboo. While the valance has long since been ripped away from the collective Victorian piano leg, the corpse, meanwhile, has become primed with symbolic explosives, threatening the very foundations of society built upon the mythology of modernist progress. Be it the computer-generated cadavers of CSI Miami, or Gunther von Hagens’ reality TV autopsies, Foltyn argues that the human corpse has become an increasingly pervasive object of revulsion and attraction in our culture, a site of anxiety about medicine’s failure to conquer, but enthusiasm to hide, death. With all this in mind, it’s not surprising to find that the fiction of Will Self – an author who frequently weaves his narratives in, around, and beyond the boundaries of taboo – is one who showcases several literary autopsies, in which death and the human corpse are explored with a surgeon’s eye (and, more often than not, a coroner’s tongue).
A recurring trope with regards to death in our culture is that of its threatening inconspicuousness; we are, for the most part, distanced from the physical processes of death, and unprepared to deal with it on its arrival. However, while this is in one sense a recent phenomenon, this trope has in fact been explored long before the rise and fall of modernism. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, uses an anamorphic skull to foreground the theme of death as a concealed presence in life. Viewed head-on, the skull is an insignificant blur, but from the side, it asserts its true appearance, reminding the viewer of their own mortality. Similarly, Self crystallises this societal anxiety in the form of Lithy, a lithopedian foetus belonging to Lily Bloom, the cantankerous protagonist of How the Dead Live. Like Holbein’s skull, Lithy’s unknown existence in the abdominal folds of Lily Bloom acts a symbol of death’s dormant, silent residence, erupting in cacophonous karaoke only when Bloom herself kicks the bucket.
Even the cover of the novel delves into this compulsion to hide our mortality. The Bloomsbury paperback edition of How the Dead Live features Damien Hirst’s sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: a title that neatly summarises the anxiety that we have been considering. In an earlier work, Pharmacy, Hirst lays bare the pharmaceutical industry’s promises to sweep death under the carpet by eerily recreating a high-street chemist’s, empty save for the corpses of flies killed by a bug-zapper. Similarly, Self, and his self-proclaimed Buddhist allegory How the Dead Live, in which the afterlife consists of a banal, karmic mirror to one’s living years, foregrounds the failures of this materialistic approach through a comedic normalisation of non-Western spirituality.
Indeed, as the name suggests, the supernatural Dulston is as monotonous as any penumbral province of the living, suggesting that Judeo-Christian promises of the afterlife have upset the natural symmetry between life and death, even if it is, in the case of Lily Bloom, a symmetry of suburban ennui. That Bloom’s demise from cancer is somewhat sadistically drawn out over a considerable chunk of the novel’s narrative arc further conveys Self’s spiritual/satirical intentions. In one review of the novel, the character of Bloom is criticised as being merely the “construction of an entire life, just so we can get to the punch line of her death”. However, viewed in the light of Self’s adoption of Buddhist spirituality, and of what he himself notes as the “perennial” influence of The Tibetan Book of the Dead on his work, then this accusation becomes a pithy comment on the use of non-Western notions of mortality to foreground our own preoccupations with death, and the detrimental shadow they often cast over life.
Moving on to consider the role of the corpse in popular culture, we see how Self’s transgressive impulses inevitably lead to lashings of coronary prose. Considering that Self counts JG Ballard, an author who frequently recounted with glee his formative dissection lessons at university, it’s not surprising to find that Self has followed suit in his own exploration of the cadaver. However, what is particularly interesting in Self’s graphic descriptions of the corpse is his awareness of their greater social symbolism. No more so is this prevalent than in Self’s depictions of The Motos, a race of man-pig mutants that are ritually slaughtered by the future society imagined in The Book of Dave. In a theological debate between two of the novel’s characters, The Motos are referred to as “sacred creatures”, a description that apparently clashes with the “spraying pink mist” of their execution. However, converting the human body into a symbolic site, of which an entire society can claim ownership, is one of the most prevalent ways in which death and the corpse have been historically engaged with. Indeed, Self cites the description in Samuel Pepys’ diary of the hanging, drawing and quartering of Thomas Harrison as an influence on the “maroon tides” of the Moto slaughter, and their greater social significance; the paradoxical revulsion/attraction of the dead body is intensified by the corpse’s status as an object of state power.
The role of Moto slaughter in the primitive mythology of Ham reflects that of sacral kingship in the formation of ancient states, as explored in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The Hamsters, with their Fathers-4-Justice-scavenged religion, typify the early stages of theological development, a stage in which, as both Frazer and Self demonstrate, the sacrifice of the human body plays a pivotal role in establishing fertility rituals. In the execution-free Britain of today, Self’s own consideration of the symbolic corpse is directed towards the cult of celebrity. Self interpreted the media coverage of Jade Goody’s death from cancer as indicative of our morbid obsession with:
“… death, and more specifically, our collective need to at once gaze fixedly upon the memento mori of other people’s extinction, while carefully averting our eyes from our own extinction and that of our loved ones.”
For Self, the celebrity corpse is one over which we all attempt to claim ownership; just as Goody’s body was appropriated in life to function as a symbol of countless disparaging social stereotypes (the chav, the underclass racist, the blonde bimbo, etc), so her death saw her fashioned into another set of exploitable symbols, many of which (such as the need for repeated cervical smears, and the speed at which cancer can spread), foreground our attraction/revulsion to the human body as both a distraction from our own physical vulnerability, and a reminder of medicine’s often devastating shortcomings.
Will Self is an author who continues to devote reams of unrelenting and richly imagistic prose to the exploration of our most private neuroses. Despite this, the increasingly public taboo of death and the corpse is one that is, as we have seen, equally pervasive in his fiction. Indeed, as Brian Finney notes, Self’s first novel, My Idea of Fun, opens with the narrator declaring to the reader that his “idea of fun” entails decapitating a commuter and “addressing” himself to the corpse. It seems that, in this inaugural passage, Self prophesises one of the recurring themes of his taboo explorations; as a keen psychogeographer, Self seemingly admits that he cannot help but wander into the most widespread of psychic territories in our culture; that of death and the corpse.
An essay by Joe Barton, a final-year undergraduate in English language and literature at Newcastle University.
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