Friday, December 6, 2013


RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource
Heidegger said that the only way to live an authentic existence is through the awareness of death. By this definition Zadie Smith is living an inauthentic existence since she is not capable of entertaining the notion of her own impermanence. In her essay “Man vs. Corpse,” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013) she writes, “death is what happens to everyone else. By contrast the future in which I am dead is not a future at all.” All of this is sparked by her viewing, “Man Carrying a Corpse,” a drawing by Luca Signorelli. The painting shows is a dorsal view of a naked man carrying a naked corpse over his shoulder. Smith’s musing recalls W.G. Sebald, the author of such tomes as the Rings of Saturn who was often set off by the objects and places that that catalyzed memory and a feeling of eternity. You find a similar sentiment in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” where ruins conjure the same sublime feelings about the finitude of the human enterprise. Still Smith’s inability to entertain the idea of her own death is an improvement on the delusion of unending progress that modernity presents. “Death is rarely seriously imagined or even discussed—unless some young man in Silicon Valley is working on permanently eradicating it,” she remarks. “Yet a world in which no one, from policymakers to adolescents, can imagine themselves as abject corpses—a world consisting only of thrusting vigorous men walking boldly out of frame—will surely prove a demented and difficult place in which to live. A world of illusion.” Smith ends her essay quoting a skit by Louis C.K. about the juggernaut of technology that is the insulin which puts are death consciousness into remission, “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die.”

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