The Art of Danse Macabre

Cal Hewitt & James Soderholm

JS: As the entire world seems swept away by one dreadful thing, the little black death of our time, I would like to engage you on the subject of Art, not as a distraction or an escape from the only language game in town, but simply as a subject of more importance, even if the numbers swell to those of 1918 (which they certainly won't). Actually, I would like to engage you on the subject of art, death, and their intimate liaisons.

In Bergman's justly famous film, The Seventh Seal, the Knight's Squire (Jons) comes across someone painting macabre scenes on the inside of a church.

Jons: What’s that supposed to be?
Painter: The Dance of Death…
Jons: And why do you paint such nonsense?
Painter: To remind people that they’re going to die.
Jons: Well, that won’t cheer them up any.
Painter: Why try to cheer them up? Why not scare them a bit?
Jons: They won’t look at your paintings.
Painter: Oh yes they will – a skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.
Jons: If you scare them, they’ll-
Painter: They’ll think. I paint things as they are – people can do what they like…

What is the connection between Art and Death? And what can we say about the Art of Death, the Death of Art, and the possibility of scaring people into thought – into thought, not into the kitsch of feeling (the dominate mode of our time). Are we witnessing a 'a dance of death' or a parody of that dance? Is realism the best way to scare–or trick–people into thought? And do we now generally believe that nothing in the world is more interesting than a naked woman?

CH: In 1918, Egon Schiele succumbed to the Spanish Flu three days after Edith, his wife. We are told he spent those three days sketching her, though the sketches do not seem to survive. No doubt they were burnt by some neighbour convinced that Egon was corrupting their children. I am very moved by this image of the repentant narcissist. Eyes finally unfixed from the looking glass. And I posit a naked woman (for he always drew himself naked, so we can assume) ten times more interesting than a mere skull.

Egon was shocked into something, as have we been in the shadow of our petty pestilence. It is either a game of chess or holding hands and dancing in a long line (more Bergman, of course). We cannot really play chess with Death but at least we can play each other. Do you remember the frontispiece to Through the Looking Glass where each chapter corresponds to a move on the chessboard? So too with this dialogue, perhaps.

It is now Good Friday morning and the Matthew Passion, naturally, is playing. It too is a song of Death. What do we make of these high works of memento mori that lack the crude imperative of scenes from Revelation daubed onto the walls of a church? What’s the difference between the art of our merry peasant pictor and that of such an artist as Ingmar Bergman or Bach?

[I found this later on, which isn't quite what I was talking about. It was drawn from life on the day she died.]

JS: High art tends to last longer than ideological daubing and artists enjoy the relative immortality guaranteed by, as Humbert Humbert says, “the miracle of durable pigments.” But Woody Allen impishly exclaimed, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve immortality by not dying!” In Allen’s Love & Death (a spoof on the Russian novel and Bergman’s masterpiece) Allen’s character is danced off by Death at the end of the film, a jaunty danse macabre of two. Are films somewhere between high and low art? And dialogues between chess-mates?

I find it hard to digest (what is the appropriate verb?) the exquisite sadness of the painter sketching his naked, death wife for three days before joining her. Is this a case of the death of woman being, as E.A. Poe claimed, the most poetic subject? You found a way to play the mortal trump card so quickly that we never even had a chance to discuss lively naked women vs. skulls as subjects to command our interest. I suppose one could argue that a naked, dead woman—if one has truly loved her—is possibly the most interesting subject of all, because it most energetically draws forth both agonizing emotion and tragic insight. Are we very far away from a compelled meditation on Liebestod?

CH: I had tickets for Tristan at Covent Garden this season. Isn’t it funny how real Death comes in and lifts the stylus on those blissful waves of abstracted love-death? The chord shall not be resolved for the time being. Real Death is an irritation in that high-art world, no food for our mediation; Real Death is not Rette Dich. It is an irritation of the most unwelcome kind to be forced up from your opera-box and forced to put aside your gin and tonic. Et in Arcadia ego, eh? A twitch upon the thread brings the silken opera-going world to its knees.

[I’m sorry to be feeding iced buns to the Elephant in the Room]

The dying beloved: most poetic subject or most tired trick in the book? I’m not sure poor old Poe knew the difference. Even so, it gets you sometimes when you’re off guard. I was bowled over by Tom Stoppard’s waltz scene, speaking of dancing and Arcadia, which is far more moving than it has a right to be. Don’t you feel so clever for falling for Thomasina and clocking that stage-whisper about the fire? How does he do that?

I’ve only now remembered Dead Mother I, which I suppose is the sinister Freudian flip-side to those sketches of Edith. I saw it in Vienna on the same day I locked eyes with the self-portrait that got me hooked on him in the first place.

JS: I wonder if some people must scare themselves into art. Auden wrote in his memorial poem about Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” But so many true geniuses, like Bach and Rembrandt and probably Shakespeare as well, were not hurt into the art at all, but produced one masterpiece after another because their souls were so overripe with materials and inspiration, often—in the case of Bach—sacred inspiration. Stolid Germany did not hurt Bach into the St Matthew Passion.  

As for Real Death, it is rather a bore unless it is happening to you or to someone you fiercely love. That’s what makes Dylan Thomas’ famous villanelle so moving, especially the last stanza.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Before joining the danse macabre, very few people—even devout Christians, I suspect—go very gentle into that good night, which is probably not a good night at all, but rather eternal nothingness. A good reason to rage against it, no? But in art, death must be beautiful, abstract, objectified, and possibly feminized. As a biproduct, the depiction of death seems to trick or tease or even hurt us into thought, as we are currently demonstrating. I wonder how far our discussion is bleeding together two distinct realms: the producers of art and the consumers of art. Artists do not need to be scared into thought and art. But normal people certainly do need a good kick in the rear to get them thinking. Do you agree? How about the people in the opera box for whom nothing is as interesting or diverting as a gin and tonic?

CH: Let’s consider our man in the opera-box, who dutifully gets his nightly dose of Death-thought. He thinks – of Madame Butterfly stabbing herself, of Tosca leaping from the ramparts – he has heard a thousand Tristan chords. For what precisely can he thank his thought? Why can he thank Daddy Art for keeping such unrelenting discipline on the back-side? Is he enlightened? Desensitized? Deluded? I think I’d consider him a very interesting man to talk to, and that’s something.

Compare him to our blissfully ignorant normal person, who spends his evenings watching television spies blow each other up or gunning down virtual prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto. Is Grand Theft Auto a memento mori?

It strikes me that overripe souls are invariably alive. I wonder if real death is the absence of art, not the stuff of it.

Consider this: the curtain goes down on the Liebestod and one perpetual night ought to be slept. But Isolde jumps up from her Hoechste Lust and straight into her dressing-room because she promised she’d be home early tonight. No, this isn’t the real thing at all. We don’t rage against the death of Tristan and Isolde. Why should we rage against the beautiful and possibly feminine? I contrast real death to art-death because I wonder if it’s something different entirely, no matter the identity of the dying. How did Egon feel when he was making those sketches? Out of his mind, I should think. It’s only at a safe distance that we make an art-death of those three days, make of them something that swallows well with a gin and tonic. And why do we have such a soft spot for when biographical chance makes real death and art-death coincide?

Here is Walter Raleigh locked up in the Tower, scribbling a third-hand verse:

The Sunne may set and rise // But we contrariwise // Sleepe after our short light // One everlasting night.

Would he have put it so well anywhere else?

JS: Dr Johnson said, “The thought of death wonderfully concentrates the mind.” And Nietzsche wrote: “The thought of suicide gets one through many nights.” I think actual death evacuates art, as you suggest. But perhaps not for long. Human beings seem very talented at turning to account their losses and creating from their misery all sorts of beautiful things. Egon, after all, immediately set to work. But can one ever know his state of mind during those three days? Could he? I am not really sure what separates our opera-goer from the ordinary person. Human beings seem to be drawn like moths to destructive flames. A dose of death is just what the doctor ordered. An inoculation? But not a vaccine. Overall, however, I think we moderns have sanitized death as far as possible. So much of our lives seem to me designed to make death entertaining (and fake) or to avoid it like – the plague. Perhaps our soft spot is one way of not being quite so elusive about death and owning up to it, at least vicariously, although Heidegger says, “Death is the one thing one cannot do for another. We die alone.”

Who can blame people for not wanting to think about death? Is there anything more absurd than spending one’s life pondering the certainty of one’s future non-existence? The danse macabre will come along soon enough. I say all this as one who has in fact spent most of his life contemplating “One everlasting night.” Locked in the Tower of self. I would have escaped if I had known how. Wouldn’t you?

CH: I think of Bach whose D minor chaconne is an elegy for the wife who too predeceased him, I think of the Elgar cello concerto because the quadruple-stopped chords sound the same, I think of the War Requiem because it’s the same war and then I think of Derek Jarman’s film and, Oh! I am skidding in dizzying circles across the icy plain of art, everything and nothing to cling on to. This is thinking about Death. It is the absurd, clownish counterpart of the real danse macabre: sombre, elegant, eloquent. And I have a headache from the most intense concentration. We concentrate on death and yet to wrap the mind around death is impossible. We see this even for the quibbling Wittgensteinian reason that to do so is like to see your own eyes. We spend much of our lives trying to concentrate on the unthinkable. ‘Death concentrates the mind’: on what?

Likewise we begin this dialogue in full knowledge that we will never get close to answering the point. We play with death, toss back and forth quotations from the old authors, abstract it, charm ourselves with the abstraction. What of this process? Compare the emperor Nero, grotesquely stage-garbed and singing a tragedy on the lyre as his henchmen torch the city. Is it as simple as that Death gives us something to sing about? That Death gives our Dramatic Soprano something to sing about before galloping into her own ever-during pyre?

I am enchanted by the notion that art-death be a tamed strain to inoculate against the real thing. Compare the old Chinese emperor who thought he could do it by swallowing mercury pills. What tragic intent! Compare the bottle of whisky given to the disgraced gentleman-officer. How many artists think they are inoculating themselves? (And we’re back to Woody Allen.)

Escape? I suppose I would. Though he did get his book done. You must have a divine sense of humour to use the Tower of London as your writing retreat. And I’m sure he of anyone was well aware of what Hesse, in a vulgar but irritatingly true-to-life rendering of that Nietzschean idea, called the Emergency Exit.

JS: Death concentrates the mind on the narrowing fragment of life remaining, I should think. It is absurd to think about death itself, but heaven knows we do, and are doing so now. But it is a concentration on the unthinkable, as you say. It is no doubt telling that there are no good metaphors or similes for death, because death is simply not like anything, so the means of comparison are stripped away from us. Sleep is/as Death’s Brother is commonplace, and plausible, except of course Death is probably, despite Hamlet’s worry, a sleep without dreams. I became so frustrated with Death’s incomparability that I came up with my own metaphor about fifteen years ago. I am rather fond of it because the expression also undoes a hoary cliché.

Death is the tunnel at the end of the light

And what’s at the end of that tunnel? No one knows. Probably nothingness, forever. When someone died near Lord Byron (it happened all the time), he said, “He has solved the great riddle before us.” The only way to solve the riddle and “see” what’s at the end of the dark tunnel is to die. That’s a high price to pay for curiosity. Therefore, we give ourselves little premonitions and hints of the big D as we race through life, as if to prepare us for the tunnel at the end of the light. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust, Amen. Are these mortal reflections singing while Rome burns? Probably. Swan-songs. And then welcome to the dance.

CH: We begin with art and end with the impossibility of expression. Our dialogue has come around from its trance. Disoriented, hungover. Looking the paradox in the eye is a great sobering force. Throw a bucket of water over the swooning Isolde. Ultimately our discussion has said nothing new, made no philosophical ground. And yet it has felt necessary at every step. And we feel as if a great conclusion, a great synthesis is forever near. I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s notebooks from the months leading up to his death, collated and published as On Certainty. I mean the storyline (so to speak) rather than the philosophical content. We have laid out our principles so elegantly but can get no further than repetition and example of what we already know. A tragic frustration as our voices fade away. We are stuck walking, thinking, dancing in circles. The syllogism has no third line.

For that reason I feel uneasy signing off. Like in Bach’s chaconne a new line of melody keeps grasping my imagination and my writing-hand. James Rhodes says Bach is trying to answer the question, what would be the last thing you say to a dying beloved, if you know it to be the last? (He connects it to the Orpheus myth, I think.) No notes or words could possibly deserve to go at the very end so we’re caught in an eternal cycle of false-finishes on a D minor theme.

But of course I am not signing off for good. Our dialogue will bubble up again on paper or across the tables of a murky tavern where perhaps it better belongs. Dialogues may set and rise but we contrariwise live on, linear and finite.

I put off and put off but now it’s time to be put to bed. In the words of Sir Walter on the block: Strike, man, strike!