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Looking at Death while being Alive

A1_RR_Horror1Lekker gruwelen. Filosofie van de horror
Lezing door filosoof Dimitri Goossens

7 juni 2017

Historian and philosopher Dimitri Goossens from the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp started his lecture by asking why we thought this was going to be a normal lecture. He had a suspicious backpack with him and he came here from Antwerp with two shady compatriots in a fishy white van. Although anything can happen, always, nobody in the audience was on high alert. Goossens wondered why. And wonder, as we all know, is where philosophy starts. It is also the start of the philosophy of horror.

The start of horror, Goossens continued, lies in our knowledge that we are limited beings. We know that we will die at some point and we know that it can happen at any time and at any place. Humans are unique in this respect. It may even be called one of the defining aspects of being human. This is neither only positive nor only negative: it is both. Our being-towards-death is a blessing, because it gives our lives intensity - Carpe Diem. At the same time, it is a curse, because it does not really lift our spirits.

Goossens connected the duality of our being-towards-death to a certain kind of homelessness. We are trapped between our animality and our self-consciousness and our animality represents our bodily being. We are our body: we eat, sleep, defecate and perceive by being a body. At the same time we are self-conscious. We know that we do certain things and are even free to a certain extent. We often want to be free without bounds, but we are held back by our bodily aspect. Therefore we are neither purely a body, nor purely self-consciousness: we are homeless.

Because we do not like to know that we are our bodies (and therefore mortal), we have devised countless ways to deal with it. In one word, Goossens calls these ways ‘culture’. Our culture is our way of dealing with death. And we learn to understand and appreciate the hidden values and structures behind our culture by paying close attention to horror. Horror shows us the rules by breaking them. Through horrifying us, we see the other side of the rule and therewith get a better understanding of the rule itself.

Horror achieves this through its use of the abject. The abject is that which horrifies us by violating our established cultural categories. To give an example (given by Goossens): a corpse is a relatively common form of something abject. It is neither a living subject nor is it a dead object. It breaks with our cultural category of subject and object. As we don’t know what to do with such a thing, we create specific cultural ways of dealing with it.

We must not think that culture as a way of dealing with death is something new. Not even the horror genre is only of this age. Goossens conveyed that Homer (~700 BC) spoke in the Iliad of a gruesome slaughter. He does so, however, in a very machinelike manner of conveying, almost as if he is reading a news story. Only when Achilles, having just killed Hector, binds his fallen enemy to his wagon and drags it over the ground in order to mutilate the body, we find Homer horrified. Bodily integrity after death seems to have been important for as long as culture has been around.

Goossens had even put this to the test by asking his students whether they thought the idea of their limbs being hacked off after death gruesome. Why would it matter, he said? You would be dead anyway. Still, all of his students found this very gruesome. One posed the question if, if that were true, why people want to be cremated so often? Goossens answered by posing a new question: would you mind if we cremate only half your body? Again they became horrified. This only goes to show, remarked Goossens, that we want our bodies to stay whole in one way or the other. We either want it to be buried as a whole, or we want it to be cremated as a whole.

Our desire for a pure self-consciousness and the transcendence of the body is ambiguous precisely because we are a body. We would perhaps like to bracket our body like in the epoché, but we can't. Horror helps us out here as well. For while watching horror, you are in a voyeur's position, which means that you get to see and to feel the horror story develop, without actually being in danger yourself. Horror allows us to be confronted with our mortal and temporal body, but at the same time it brackets the body for a short while.

The lesson we must learn, according to Goossens, is that our duality towards death is a very human trait. Notwithstanding the (contemporary) taboo on death, we should break that taboo because it threatens to make us less human. If we bury being-towards-death, we bury our humanity. We must instead face our mortality and take a good look in the dark mirror called horror. This is not pleasant. After all, if you look at the abyss for long enough... the abyss looks back at you.

Tom Meijer