Five Questions with D. Vance Smith, author of “The Arts of Dying”

March 23, 2020
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How do we talk about one of life’s most persistently hard to describe events: death? Poets, musicians, playwrights, philosophers, theologians, and artists have tried to describe death for centuries, but this question still puzzles us today. With his new book, The Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England, D. Vance Smith goes back to consider the ways that medieval people thought and wrote about death. We talked with Vance about the book, how people in the Middle Ages thought about dying, the problems of language when it comes to death, and how ideas about death and dying are presented now. He also touches on the particular relevance of these questions today as we face the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic.

How do you come to this subject? Was there a particular piece of literature that sparked your interest?

I wrote a book a while ago (The Book of the Incipit) about the many ways medieval people thought about beginnings and shaped them in literature, and I started thinking about endings and what Foucault called the “analytic of finitude” then. Dying is the ultimate ending, and I found the intellectual and emotional challenge of writing about it important, but also overwhelming. The problem of large-scale mourning, and how it might change a culture, resonated with me because I grew up in the midst of war and epidemic in Africa, and a life-long struggle with bipolar disorder has made melancholy an all-too-familiar problem. But two texts, in particular, sparked this project: Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, in which the narrator apparently has so much trouble understanding the message that a speaker’s loved one is dead that it would be hilarious if it weren’t also heartbreaking. And Gillian Rose’s Mourning Becomes the Law, a powerful, cryptic, and profound work has stayed with me since it first came out in 1996. It seems now, in March 2020, more important than ever: she asks how—no, insists that we must—go on in the face of catastrophe and ruination. How can we find a resolution, or determination, that is more than an aesthetic appreciation of art and literature? Her book is a fierce riposte to Bataille’s work on death as an “infinite conversation”; we must find a way to respond, she argues, that is not mere capitulation to inevitable nihilism. I did take from Maurice Blanchot the idea, however, that literature’s particular engagement with death is part of what makes something “literature”: an openness, a lack of resolution, that allows one to think with a certain kind of respect, if not piety, toward the dead. Even if we can’t “solve” the problem of death, we’re all caught in the work of dying, and we have to decide how to move on.

In the book, you discuss some of the complexities of discussing death: its position as both an end and a beginning, something about which we cannot speak with personal experience, and the strangeness of saying someone “is” dead when they really are no more. Could you talk a bit about these problems of describing death?

One of the central problems in medieval philosophy was how to designate something that didn’t technically exist. You could call it a critique of the metaphysics of absence, except that the problems it raised for the philosophy of language anticipates the so-called “linguistic turn” in philosophy—so, really, it’s a version of the critique of the metaphysics of presence most familiar to us in Derrida’s work. In fact, the problem of talking about the dead pops up repeatedly in his early work.

In literature, the problem takes the form of a search for words that will adequately do the work of death, impossible as that might be. It might sound like a mere pun, but it’s a search for terms that will do the work of termination—the work of somehow resolving the never-ending relationship we have with our own deaths. The distinction I make between “cryptic” and “archival” modes of writing about death rests, to some degree, on the two poles of thinking about death in the modern epoch: Heidegger’s notion of death as the central existential question: Being-toward-death is the path to a certain kind of authenticity because death is “one’s ownmost,” something that you can never share. The other is the broadly sociological notion of death as a symbolic, social event, probably most famously explored by Phillipe Ariès.

What my book does is to examine how these elliptical references to death helped to shape the way people thought about the function of literature: it allowed people to think about overwhelming events indirectly, in ways that perhaps placed the emotions in the background by making demands on the intellect to connect the dots.

What are some approaches to writing about death that you discuss in the book?

I try to make sense of the vast field of literature about death in the Middle Ages by dividing it into three types of literary response: the debate between the body and the soul after death; the use of enigmas and riddles to try to represent an event that is, after all, unthinkable; and the deployment of a repertoire of representations of death. All three of these imply different ways of imagining history: as a series of existential inflection points; as something we are sealed off from forever, a mode that I described as “cryptic,” because it represents death as something sealed from us, and something we will never fully understand; and history as an archive, filled with images of previous deaths, whose totality might, in some notional future, help us make sense of death by archiving all previous deaths.

How do these compare to the ways in which we speak and write about death today?

Unfortunately, this book became a lot more topical just as it was being released. I’m seeing more and more stories about how the world might change after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Even the most pessimistic projections of fatalities, however, don’t come close to the figures for the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, which killed around half of the population in some areas. What’s perplexing about literature in the wake of the Black Death is that relatively little of it concerns death, at least not in the way we might expect: outside of famous examples like the opening of Boccaccio’s Decameron, there’s little about massive catastrophe, and the morbid tropes and figures that we associate with late medieval writing—the danse macabre, the transi-tomb, King Death—don’t really appear for a generation or two. What does happen, however, is that people write about catastrophic death in elliptical, cryptic ways, almost as if it’s too much to represent directly. In some ways this reticence resembles our own squeamishness in talking about death—we tend to use euphemisms like “passing” or Latinisms like “deceased.” What my book does is to examine how these elliptical references to death helped to shape the way people thought about the function of literature: it allowed people to think about overwhelming events indirectly, in ways that perhaps placed the emotions in the background by making demands on the intellect to connect the dots. 

What’s next for you? Are you working on any projects that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m finishing a book (currently titled Black Silence, White Noise) about the ways in which the African dimension of the profound contribution of African intellectuals to late antique and medieval European intellectual culture was forgotten, and the ways in which colonialism remapped its own vision of medieval law and social relations onto African colonies. I’ve also begun a shorter book called Blood Flowers, about the flower and game conservation industries in Kenya.

D. Vance Smith is professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of four books, most recently, The Book of Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century.

The Arts of Dying is available now from our website and your favorite bookseller.

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