The Name of the Bow: A Reflection On the Relation Between Death and Writing

​I came across the following on Tumblr the other day via The New Inquiry, from George Lazenby:

The name of the bow is life but its work is death

​Think about that line for a moment.

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​Lazenby is talking about technology, particularly in response to a question about Steve Jobs. The reason he’s talking about death is because he’s arguing that without mortality—the knowledge of the inevitability, even the imminence of human death—there is no reason for technology.

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I’d heard this argument before, but in terms of art. Would we continue making art if death did not exist? This relates to the technology argument.

In a blog for Scientific American, Katie McKissick quotes Megan Rosenbloom of the Norris Medical Library and director of Death Salon, who replies to the aspirations of transhumanism, which aims for eternal post-human life through technology (think AI and the Cloud but with people); Rosenbloom says,

​“Life is precious partially because it’s finite. Knowing that it’s finite is what makes people try to live to their fullest. …There is no art without death.”

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So we can see the argument that technology requires mortality because it’s tied up in improvement of present conditions and inexorably with the aim of extending that life against mortality.

We can see too the way art could depend upon mortality because human endeavor itself stems from the finiteness of life; think of art history: it is a general stereotype that artist’s “greatest,” “most mature,” or “best” work is produced in the latter stages of the artist’s life–a case that requires the fact of mortality to make sense.

But I wonder if writing holds a special spot in the discourse of mortality because of its connection with language. Philosopher Michel Foucault writes about this relationship in a beautiful passage, if a dense one, in his essay “Language to Infinity” (1963):

“Perhaps the figure of a mirror to infinity erected against the black wall of death is fundamental for any language from the moment it determines to leave a trace of its passage. … Writing, in Western culture, automatically dictates that we place ourselves in the virtual space of self-representation and reduplication; since writing refers not to a thing but to speech, a work of language only advances more deeply into the intangible density of the mirror, calls forth the double of this already-doubled writing, discovers in this way a possible and impossible infinity, ceaselessly strives after speech, maintains it beyond the death that condemns it, and frees a murmuring stream.”

Writing is not only a form of expression, but a means of record. In the face of mortality, we write, in one sense, because we know we won’t always be around to communicate in person (speech); meanwhile, we are fully conscious, full of ideas, always growing (and in growing, dying). Hence, writing duplicates what we could otherwise say with our mouths, to record ourselves, in the first instance, and also to express our agency (perhaps our [Sartrian] anguish?) in the face of and because of death and the effects of its imminence. The act of imitating and then duplicating speech in writing, writing further about what is already written, copying what is written (leaving aside Foucault’s arguments about alphabetical letters themselves and the self-referentiality of the word) adds up to a gesture toward the infinite driven by the awareness of death, of terminus as such:

“Before the imminence of death, language rushes forth, but it also starts again, tells of itself, discovers the story of the story and the possibility that this interpenetration might never end.”

Death, in a way, is why we tell stories in the first place. Narrative isn’t just for purposes of recording; this is particularly so in fiction. No, perhaps we tell stories to make the most of the limited time we have and to help others (desperately at times, reaching, imploring them) to do so as well.

So we have stories that entertain us, that drive us, that challenge us to transcend, that dare us to change, that assure us of our future (or that warn us), that teach us how to be, how not to be, how other people are and how they live (as models, as curiosities, as examples)—or at least how authors think they are or do. There are stories that in the act of setting up their mirrors attempt to set us free from something, and others that, in effect, reassure us of the status quo, of the supposed rightness of our positions and relations—but both arguably from the same urge, that life is short and for the sake of the reader or for the sake of the reader’s society something must or must not be done! Whether that something resembles conformity for the sake of peace or revolt for the sake of freedom, the motivation, the original driving fact is always the same: Our time is limited.

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This, perhaps, is why Devika Pathak wrote last week on Medium that “I haven’t written something in a few months and it’s not because I’ve been lazy or busy, I haven’t been unhappy or going through a difficult time. Interestingly I’ve just been very happy and relaxed; and apparently these are the exact conditions to have around if you want to NOT write.”

For it is conflict that drives the most compelling stories (if we are strict,every story?), not normal everyday life; stories are not driven by characters who are “happy and relaxed” unless they are disturbed in the process. The imminence of death lends urgency to conflict, in many cases incites it in the first place. But death need not occur in a text for its presence to be felt; it is what we all somehow, in some way fear; and if we fear it not, then that provides its own conflicts.

Would there be human conflict if there were no mortality? A difficult question, and perhaps impossible to answer with any degree of certainty in the present.

To say, “Well, best make the most of it,” of course, would smack of a copout, of sheer nihilism. Is it rage against the machine or head-down, blind surrender to the inevitability of its mechanisms to say such a thing? I am tempted toward platitudes in defense of it, though: It is actually a quite beautiful thing, the meaning of what it is to be human, etc. But I feel that would be disingenuous, even if it is true. And is it not? After all, the most convincing fictional AI characters are not the ones who pass the imitation game of the Turing Test, but the ones that recognize the inevitability of their end…

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