The Sacred Scandal and Denial of Death

One of the acute paradoxes afflicting conscious human life is the awareness of death.  The paradox reaches crisis when one fully realizes that death cannot be experienced — it occurs outside of experience, and we therefore lack any frame of reference for it.

The intense weirdness of death has of course captivated many great thinkers and artists, some to the point of psychoses and suicides.  Death thus creates vast empty spaces for contemplation; these spaces are of prime importance for nearly all religions.  No religion can persist without adequately filling this enormous teleological void.

I have been twice reminded of this recently.  In a Spiegel interview, the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann discusses his memoir, which fixates on death from start to finish:

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the overriding theme of your extraordinary life is death. You begin your memoirs with thoughts on the death penalty and end it with your masterpiece, the monumental documentary film “Shoah.” Where does this obsession come from?

Lanzmann: That’s a good question, because it’s a central question for me. And yet it also contains a paradox. My book is a hymn to life to a certain extent, a hymn that rises above the horizon of the experience of death. For me, death has always been a scandal.

“Death has always been a scandal” — how perfect, and quintessentially French.  Developing similar ideas in the spirit of late capitalism, Jean Baudrillard pushes this thanatos theme to its limits in Symbolic Exchange and Death.

In the second reminder, Peter Berger places death at the center of his religious explanandum in The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion:

Death radically challenges all definitions of reality — of the world, of others, and of self.  Death radically puts into question the taken-for-granted, business-as-usual attitude in which one exists in everyday life.  Here, everything in the daytime world of existence in society is massively threatened with “irreality” — that is, everything in the world becomes dubious and eventually unreal.

Insofar as the knowledge of death cannot be avoided in any society, legitimations of the reality of the social world in the face of death are decisive requirements in any society.  The importance of religion in such legitimations is obvious.

There are some keen and subtle intuitions at work here; this is not simply a matter of stating that religion provides comfort and meaning in or around or about death.  This much is obvious, but like all truisms it is uninteresting.  What Lanzmann and Berger are hinting at is something that fully occupied Ernest Becker and reached fruition in his remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death.

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