Flight from Arcadia: On Death and Not Dying


Dull Gret, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

by Ed Simon

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.
—Michelle de Montaigne (1580)

And light it up forever/And never go to sleep/My best unbeaten brother/This isn’t all I see.
—Bonnie Prince Billy (1998)


i. The Infant

At first, the infant, /Hugging and loving in the nurse’s arms.

At the eastern edge of the city of Pittsburgh, where neighborhoods lined with red and pin oak, birch and elm start to merge into the forested thicket of Frick Park, there is a hilly 650-acre plot which constitutes Homewood Cemetery. Framed by wrought iron gates coated in thick, black paint, with a gothic entrance built from heavy beige stones once smoked black from the exhaust belched from steel mills that had lined the three rivers of the city. A small Tudor chapel, framed in green vine, sits a bit off of Dallas Avenue, as if an English vicar’s church had been transported to Pittsburgh. Cars and city busses make their way down Forbes Avenue on the southern edge of the cemetery; thousands of people walk or drive by its gates every day, but inside the inhabitants are much quieter.

Homewood Cemetery is a tony address, residents include the robber baron Henry Clay Frick, food mogul H.J. Heinz, and several scions of the Mellon banking family; their new homes marked in the motifs of Victorian mourning – two-story Masonic pyramids, and faux Greco-Roman columns; pre-Raphaelite statues of crying angels cradling dying boys, and High Church gothic spires. Such is this assemblage of those wealthy families who profited from America’s industrial revolution that it would be apt to describe the cemetery with the language used by native daughter Annie Dillard when writing about the neighborhood – it’s a Valley of the Kings. But whether a pauper’s chalky grave or one marked with a bronzed statue of a winged angel, the process of what’s going on six feet under is the same.

The burial ground was part of the same historical movement which encouraged the construction of park-like burial grounds, liberating corpses from the jagged, broken-teeth of mushy gummed graveyards outside of white steepled churches in favor of these ecosystems of the dead. A nineteenth-century melancholia, all rain-drenched green ivy and black stone, hangs like crematorium smoke in places like Glasgow’s Necropolis, or Cambridge’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery. In the nineteenth-century, particularly in the years after the Civil War among a death-obsessed populace who had seen their sons killed at Antietam and Gettysburg, reposes like the Homewood Cemetery became quiet places for contemplation, parks for a type of haunted recreation. This has always been my feeling about the cemetery, from the time when I was growing up and friends and I would hike around its confines to my trips home when I enjoy going there right at the pregnant hour of sunset in August, when droning cicadas are the only sound cutting through magnolia-scented air as the dusk turns to hardened yolk. Something about funerals makes me optimistic; something about graveyards instill a sharp, poignant, melancholic hope in me – the only places that still my neurotic fear of death for a bit.

Such quiet is the rich, decomposing fertilizer that allows for philosophical contemplation to grow. The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that “To philosophize is to learn to die,” and during a brief sojourn as an undergraduate philosophy major it was the still of the cemetery I wished to capture more than the Anglo-American discipline’s propensity to argue over what the definition of “is” is. For me, Montaigne’s formulation seems unassailable, a diagnosis even as he doesn’t quite offer the prescription. My preferred philosophers, indeed my favorite authors, were those that took death seriously, who regardless of whether they believed in immortality and eternity, or rather extinction and oblivions, at least understood the enormity of the subject.

Unlike the Victorian landscapers, architects, artists, morticians, and grave diggers who built the Homewood Cemetery, our twenty-first century society is one that hides death away, makes it antiseptic in hospitals or the subject of cartoonish movie violence. A whole culture permeated by death but that is unwilling to look into the grim reaper’s empty eye-sockets. When I was a teenager, I used to sneak into Homewood Cemetery long after the front gate was closed, a convenient space of entry found at a weak point where two of the bars in the fence had been pulled apart by something of inhuman strength. I continued using that point as an entrance until I had the disquieting thought that it must have been made by either someone trying to get into the cemetery, or something trying to get out. Both possibilities were equivalently upsetting.

ii. The Student

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.

Perhaps only a few of the English sailors who loaded their cargo onto a ship in the early autumn Norfolk sun in September 1349 felt a bit sick. Strapping young men fixing bundles of wool in the belly of a small skipper, Norway bound. Whistling hymns as they worked on the swaying ship held to dock with heavy rope; arguing over some fine theological points of John Wycliff as they prepared to ship off. Maybe a few of the workers felt a strange, uncharacteristic chill working on the docks in the high golden autumnal light; maybe as they made their easterly trip some of the men developed fevers. Sailors would have started to get fatigued not far after their leaving; somewhere in the midst of the North Sea would be when the diarrhea started, weak ale and hard tack shat into buckets until the crew became too weak to even dump the refuse into the Atlantic. Perhaps by the time they were off the coast of the Low Countries, or the northern coast of what would be Germany, or near Denmark, the men would have begun hemorrhaging sticky black blood, from their mouths, from their noses, from their assholes. By the time they were almost in view of the rocky beaches of Norway, with lines of tall, spindly green fingered pines above the black shores, they’d have developed the characteristic gangrenous buboes, swollen black sacs hanging from armpit and groin. By the time their ship crashed into the harbor of Bergen, Norway every single man aboard was dead.

Hearing of the devastation in Sicily and Venice, France and England, King Magnus Eriksson had bewailed that “God has caste a great plague on the world with brutality,” and he prayed that his twin kingdoms of Norway and Sweden would be spared the indiscriminate violence of the pestilence, able to strike down bishops and heretics, noblemen and paupers alike, the body of Christendom looking nothing so much like St. Sebastian’s beautiful corpse penetrated with arrows that had landed in a beefy thigh or a bloodied eye. Only six months after the English frigate had crashed upon Norwegian coasts, where the locals had prayed that the chill would keep the populace purified from the noxious miasma that had undoubtedly infected those in more torrid climates, and possibly as much as 2/3rds of the kingdom was dead. A contemporary Norwegian account called the Lawman’s Annual claimed that “People did not live more than a day or two with sharp pangs of pain. After that they began to vomit blood.” Neither distance nor cold would spare Scandinavia from the worst of Y. Pestis, so that like the rest of the continent, Norwegians would learn what it meant, as one observer of the rapid plague noted, to “eat lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors.” Such calamity in those dark years from 1347 to 1351 when upwards of 200 million people would die in the same grotesque manner.

From the Tartar Steppes the bubonic plague would make its way westward, first in the Genoese colony of Kaffa on the Black Sea, where Italian merchants had been besieged by Mongolian invaders for months, the latter who in a pique of martial frustration catapulted the most fetid of rotting bodies over the heavy stones of the city. A few years earlier, and the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta would write that Kaffa was “one of the world’s celebrated ports,” with a “wonderful harbor with… [hundreds] of vessels in it, both ships of war and trading vessels, small and large.” Wealth and pedigree can’t stave death however, for in 1346 Jani Beg Khan of the Golden Horde made that fateful order that marks the first recorded instance of biological warfare. In the harbor were galleys filled with Chinese oranges and lemons, Indian curries and Indonesian peppers, but on the cobble-stoned streets of Kaffa with her Venetian and Genoese merchants and sailors there was now the stick of burst bodies, dead Mongolian soldiers propelled through the Crimean air and exploding like bags of viscous blood and bile filled refuse. Such an order was indicative of Jani Beg’s desperation, and indeed the siege of Kaffa failed, but it was the sailors of that metropolitan city who now hosted the living fleas from dead bodies. A Genoese lawyer named Gabriel De’ Mussi who was witness to the siege notes that when the survivors left for Venice and Genoa, Palermo and Florence, “it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them.” Only three years after Kaffa, and in distant Wales a poet would write “Death comes into our midst like black smoke.”

John Kelly writes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time that “Seven hundred years after the fact, what we call the Black Death – and what medieval Europeans called the Great Mortality, and medieval Muslims, the Year of Annihilation – remains the greatest natural disaster in human history.” Such pandemic is as if a null point in human history, all of our theological and ethical theses about meaning approach a type of absolute zero. In the fickle unpredictability of who will be struck down by the disease, simple religious moralizing about God punishing the wicked and rewarding the pious are given demonstrable falsification as some of the good die and some of the evil flourish. Such horror acts as a test of human intention, as both wickedness and compassion are born from the fetid rot of a dying populace, some eager to exploit, some eager to console.

Likewise, social stratification and culture mean little as pestilence turned Fortune’s wheel, crushing the noblemen and their peasants alike under its rotation. A man of great erudition and learning like the Florentine Giovani Boccaccio could be effected by the plague, writing in his The Decameron (the Black Death’s greatest literary work) that “hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly visited each other… such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband… fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.” For all of his eloquence, learning, and power of description, Boccaccio didn’t necessarily experience the plague any more deeply than simpler people did, for what a Sienese cobbler named Anglo di Tura lacked in poetry, he made up for in brevity, simply writing in a letter that “This is the end of the world.”

In such an environment, the stench of pus-filled buboes permeating the fetid air, the piles of cadavers left in town squares and in front of cathedrals, grim Death’s vacant eye-sockets staring out over mocking, toothless grin, and it changes the culture a bit. Kelly writes that the Black Death “cast a deep shadow across the centuries that followed, and it remains part of the collective memory of the West.” Religion had always had its concern with death; arguably human culture genuinely begins with the collective awareness of our individual human extinctions. Something different for Europeans in the fourteenth-century though; something a bit more terrifying in the piles of bodies, the untended fields overgrown with rotting vegetables, the mewling infant grasping towards her dead mother’s breast. And so, a great focus on mortality entered the Western consciousness, an obsession with death that we’ve in turns embraced, and in later centuries denied. Before there could be a Renaissance, there was in some ways another renaissance, a Golden Age of Death whereby poets and theologians, priests and writers, were drawn to the sepulchre and the full terrifying implications that the finality of the grave is everyone’s inheritance. Death is our final and greatest of teachers, and we become her students the moment that we’re born.

Some sixty years later, and most-likely a pair of anonymous Dominican friars would enter into the canon of death two classics of Latin literature, known together as the Ars Moriendi. “The Art of the Good Death” – both manual and method, the full flowering of late medieval Catholicism’s perseveration on what it meant that we all shall die. Arguably within the same tradition of practical thanatology guide, alongside the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, the Ars Moriendi gave instructions on how the Christian penitent should properly die, from how to engage certain predictable weaknesses from faltering faith to spiritual impatience, the ways in which the dying woman or man should imitate Christ in their countenance, and the prayers that the living must offer for the departed. So popular were the guides that the Ars Moriendi was translated into every major vernacular, and it became a mainstay of sacramental devotion for the more than 50,000 people who bought copies, among the earliest of printed books.

An illustration from Master E.S., a German engraver whose name and identity remain unknown, depicts a gaunt man on his deathbed surrounded by human and supernatural interlocutors. The man is withered away, spindly arms twisted at unnatural angles, his head tipped downward, looking massive on his emaciated frame. Three doctors stand conversing over their patient, their conical hats perhaps indicating that they are Jews. A younger woman and an older man – family? – supplicate before a column with a statue of a crowned, shirtless boy, its Christian provenance remaining ambiguous. Behind the dying man are three figures with halos – a bearded God the Father, his Son, and the Virgin Mary – perhaps a reflection of the common Medieval misapprehension (and inadvertent heresy) which held that the Mother of God was a member of the Trinity. And circling around the bed side, tugging at his sheets and pulling his death shroud over him, are a legion of grinning devils, bestial and caprine figures with twisted smiles and wide, vacant eyes.

For the authors of the Ars Moriendi, death was both subject and instructor, and we were as in a great classroom of mortality. As students of death, we’ve become negligent; so fearful of our professor that we deny She even exists while we tremble with a fear no less terrible than that of our ancestors from six centuries ago. What of those great themes of the good death, of Memento mori and Carpe diem? They are less binaries than friends, principles that remind us that we too shall pass, and so in the interim it is our task to prepare ourselves on that voyage, wherever it may be that we’re ultimately intended to land. Such is the perspective exemplified by the Anglican priest Jeremy Taylor, a great student of the Ars Moriendi tradition, who in his 1650 book Holy Living and Holy Dying would write that he has “seen a Rose newly springing… but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe sentiments… it bowed the head, and broke its stalk, and at night having lose some of its leaves, and all of its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces.”

iii. The Lover

And then the lover, /Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

At almost the exact time that Taylor was writing Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the poet Andrew Marvell would be considering death in perhaps more ribald terms, but in his own way with no less piety. His carpe diem poem “To His Coy Mistress” is true to the conventions of that form, extolling the virtues of living life to its absolute fullness as a rebellion against death in our inevitably losing war of attrition. The narrator speaks to a woman whom he is trying to fuck, and he draws from a similar reservoir of metaphor as the Rev. Taylor did. Much as the minister had compared our lives to newly blossoming roses, while connecting the entropy of age and then decomposition to a type of deflowering. Marvell makes this comparison explicit, his narrator saying that even if the mistress in question resists his sexual overtures, ultimately “worms shall try/That long preserved virginity, /And your quaint honor turn to dust,” with the third word of the last quoted line an early modern vulgarity for a woman’s genitalia. For both writers there is an unsettling conclusion; upon death, whether we’re libertines or virgins, our death bed is as a marital bed. Death is thus the greatest lover.

That combination of Eros and Thanatos vibrates through the verse of our great obsessed poet of the grave, Emily Dickinson. Some biographers claim that when the spinster died at 56 in 1886 that she was a virgin, even while such a definition has its own heteronormative blind-spots, but whatever the ambiguous (and uninteresting) details of her sexual history, Dickinson had certainly imagined death as the great lover that She is long before the poet shuffled off her mortal coil. Imagine moving through the narrow, brick streets of antebellum Amherst, Massachusetts and coming upon the Dickinson household, where Emily was sequestered as a (strangely) chatty anchorite in the top of their yellow wood home overlooking her beloved garden, where “They shut me up in Prose – /As when a little Girl/They put me in the Closet – /because they liked me ‘still’ –.” There Dickinson is inside her cell, the petite, pale, pretty woman whose auburn hair is pulled back tight into a severe mid-part, dressed in white as if for a nuptial, writing lyrics on the back of envelopes and bills, her love letters to death.  Dickinson is the poem, whom critic Susan Howe describes, as an “American woman with Promethean ambition [who] might know better than anyone how to let the august traces (domain of dust) lie.”

Dickinson had intense feeling for other women and men, like her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert to whom many of her poems were dedicated, or in her correspondence with the writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. As concerns the later, you don’t write letters to people were you give description of yourself as being “small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves” without there being some romantic feelings. Whether these were infatuations or passions, relationships that were consummated or unconsummated, Dickinson’s greatest lover was always that dark clad mistress whose visage is barely seen from the corners of our eyes and yet stalks our frost of cares. She is best described by the contemporary poet Terrence Hayes, who in his brilliant collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin writes “We suppose Ms. Dickinson is like the abandoned/Lover of Orpheus & too, that she loved to masturbate/Whispering lonely dark blue lullabies to Death.”

What better illustration of this, of Dickinson’s prophetic red-eyes gazing upon wild nights, than poem 712 from her variorum edition? In her original version – correctly punctuated with dashes rather than commas – Dickinson famously begins “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me – /The carriage held but just Ourselves – /And immortality.” What grace, what tenderness! This is a love poem to Death, that personified gentleman who has all of the sweetness of a lover. The narrator tells us that she “could” not stop, and importantly not that she “would” not stop. Like all of us, the narrator can’t imagine a world in which she doesn’t exist, the possibility of nothingness simply impossible to fully conceive of. Hers is not an obstinate declaration, a refusal to face the reaper, but rather a statement of fact, that to envision a state in which we no longer exist is a de facto impossibility. Then to that carriage she intimately shares with Him – who is this member of their ménage trois, the one called Immortality? Is She to be personified as well, or is that how we refer to the relationship between the narrator and her paramour who has called upon her? Then that adverb (curse you if you disparage that maligned part of speech), for whether we wish to die or not, whether we’re prepared to die or not, it is the one eventuality, there is a grace in Death’s stopping “kindly.” It’s that single word in the first stanza that makes the entire poem.

Their perambulation at dusk, like two lovers in a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park, where the “Horses’ Heads/Were towards Eternity –,” all of it dwells in Death’s presence, makes it known, makes it personal and tender – the last breath as soft as a caress, as “The Dews…drew quivering and Chill – /For only Gossamer, my Gown – /My Tippet – only Tulle – .” The narrator is dressed in night’s thin fabric, but she is perhaps adorned with a wedding veil, true to poet Charles Olson’s observation in an early draft of Call Me Ishmael that “Dickinson loved Christ but jilted Him and married Death.” What Death and Dickinson (if we can pretend that she is the narrator) look upon are “the Fields of Gazing Grain – /We passed the Setting Sun –,” no doubt the burnt color of late evening, the coppery finality of autumn illuminated with that glorious, immanent hue of declining day. Death may or may not have been Dickinson’s only lover, but as for all mortal beings She was to be the poet’s final and greatest lover. The two still gallop onward in that blessed carriage, “’tis Centuries – and yet/Feels shorter than the Day.”

iv. The Soldier

Then a soldier, /Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, /Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, /Seeing the bubble reputation/Even in the cannon’s mouth.

When the dread virago Dull Gret invaded hell, she put on an armor of kitchen wear: a breastplate made from a baking pan, a helmet made from a colander, and a skillet in addition to her sword. Across a red-burnt Flemish countryside, Dull Gret gathered a legion of her fellow women –  wives, domestics, cooks, midwives, servants – and marched them as a conquering army towards a bloated whale-like demon’s hellmouth which acted as a portal between our world and the realms beneath. Above Dull Gret’s army, the sky blazed an eye-watering red, as if the sun itself had broken like rotten yolk over the very earth; set on the horizon are collapsing brick towers; upon the fields which they maneuver, an already engorged hell had expelled some of its inhabitants to defend their kingdom against the conquering women. One appears as a rotting wooden barrel, a flat face pressed against its head; another as a sort of anthropomorphic fish, with bent legs scuttling it across the Flemish countryside; silhouetted on the decks of burning ships that crowd the distant horizons are hominid amphibians hanging from hulls. But the Boschian array are insignificant to Dull Gret, their bestial visages and deformed bodies aren’t terrifying to the warrior, who with the countenance of a grim fanatic marches onward towards hell not oblivious, but confident. Confident that even upon the very entrance to hell that it is Satan and his legions within who must shake at her approach, for as the Flemish proverb has it, “She could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed.”

Such is the subject of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s Dull Gret, his disturbing, nightmarish, hallucinogenic 1563 painting of the Flemish legend that imagined a warrior so disgusted with the ways in which the most pernicious and evil of inequities were continually enacted upon her fellow women, that she decided to take the battle directly to the source and so invaded hell. However, as the patriot Thomas Paine reminds us, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” Brueghel’s painting has had as convoluted a history of ownership as it has of proper interpretation; variously held by the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp, Vienna’s Kunstistorisches Museum, and in the Prague galleries of the sixteenth-century occultism-obsessed Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Dull Gret’s inspiring intransigence has flitted about the consciousness of those who imagine abolishing the very confines of perdition. As Christ had once harrowed the halls of hell, so too would this peasant woman of the Low Countries command an army into the capital of Diss, pillaging and marauding along the way. Demons would pass fearsome account of her uncompromising acts, so that by the time Dull Gret would brandish her skillet before the throne of Satan, the fallen angel would quake at her approach. In dramatist Caryl Churchill’s feminist classic Top Girls, a character based on Dull Gret explains her justifications for battle in simple, earthy Dutch colloquium: “I’ve had enough. I was mad, I hate the bastards. I come out my front door that morning and shout till my neighbors come out and I said, ‘Come on, we’re going where the evil come from and pay the bastards out.’”

There’s an ambiguity to Brueghel’s painting, as to whether or not we should read the battle scene of Dull Gret as misogynistic joke about the intemperance of pushy women, or as a mystical proto-feminist allegory in which oppression, injustice, and inequity can be defeated as if by an army that fears not even hell. Whether or not we’re to find her the object of respect or mockery, whether she is fearsome or ridiculous, the theme of harrowing is one that goes back to Orpheus, Odysseus, and Aeneas in Hades, to Christ in hell. Not everyone who journeys to the underworld and returns unscathed does so as a conqueror, and in that Dull Gret shares far more with Christ than she does with those classical antecedents. Maybe the very idea is nonsensical, if we’re talking about a Flemish peasant woman and not the Son of God, and yet how much more so inspiring for it? The idea that all which is required to abolish those evil systems which oppress us is the requisite bravery, the commanding confidence, and a colander on your head?

Because whether or not this was his intent, what Brueghel depicted in Dull Gret is a type of utopian yearning, rendered in red and black oils. Maybe the legend of the fearsome Amazon who marauds into Pandemonium is meant to be mocking; maybe she’s supposed to be a figure of levity. But I can’t take it that way when I look at Breughel’s painting that is so beautiful in its terrors. Rather what I view is a paean to subversion, an ode to resistance, an epic of what it means to carve out a space for emancipation even within the sulphurous smoke of the hellmouth. Imagine that – is it hubris to think that a mere human can abolish Satan’s kingdom? Or is it the very essence of what it means to hope? Because whether or not there was a Dull Gret, whether or not there is actually a hell, and whether or not after her death the Flemish spinster would find herself returned to those confines as a prisoner punished for her intransigence, the message of Breughel’s painting announces itself as clearly as those trumpets that punctuate Revelation. Dull Gret’s message concerns not whether it’s possible to conquer hell, but the necessity of living our lives so that we imagine it could be, for in that sublime possibility we can see the demons trembling, if only a little bit.

v. Justice

And then the justice, /In fair round belly with good capon lined, /With eyes severe and bread of formal cut, /Full of wise saws and modern instances;/And so he plays his part.

Across the darkened horizon, as dusk sets her spindly fingers across the severe terrain, you can squint and just make the figures out as they hold hands and kick up feet, performing their dreadful, beautiful dance on the scarred earth. In ruins lay great gothic cathedrals, their sanctuaries emptied out and their roofs caved in; crumbling Roman walls and moss-covered aqueducts. In front dance the dead, the dying, the momentarily alive. Decomposing stump to decomposing stump, flesh hanging in tatters from bone-exposed limbs, mushy gums with teeth falling out and wisps of hair clinging to sandy pates. They kick up their heels in dusty exuberance, dancing to some unheard music. Look closer, who do you see? There is a bishop, perhaps the Pope himself, his miter covering a caved-in skull, rotted eye-sockets now blind to piety and sinfulness alike, a stole slick with accumulated adipocere. And next to him? An emperor, cleaved beard clinging to a chin rotted away and speckled with mold, his crown having sunk to where eyes once looked out. Over to the right, holding up both Pope and king, is the merchant; his bag of wares now composed of pulpy, rotting fruit, half a leg stumping him along in their infernal circle, a bevy of walking skeletons linking arms with the trio to the edge of this vision.

Such is the trope of the Danse Macabre, which depicts prelate and priest, bishop and bureaucrat, all united in their station of death. Popular in the fifteenth-century, and born from the same obsession with mortality inculcated from the Black Death as the Ars Moriendi. The earliest example of dates from 1425 and can be found in the Holy Infants Cemetery, only seven decades after the plague had moved across Europe, leaving those untended fields and those empty houses. Some grandchild of a survivor saw fit to memorialize when the infected had wandered across the continent, crowds of zealous flagellants prostrating themselves before a God who brokered no release. As with the Ars Moriendi, the Danse Macabre existed for a pedagogical reason. The former provided instruction on the proper way to die, but the later reminded the viewer that whether they were good or bad at the process of death, they had no choice but to go through it. Good death or bad, the result will be the same, as the ironically joyful dancers remind you.

From Paris to Basel, London to Krakow, the Danse Macabre (also known as the Totenanz) became a mainstay of Medieval funeral art, just another way to keep the mind focused on the inevitability of such final things. The most famous example of the art form dates from slightly after the Reformation, when the German engraver Hans Holbein the Younger made a series of block prints in 1538 to illustrate the theme. Protestant children were no less fixated on mortality than were their Catholic parents, and Holbein’s series was ecumenically popular, a means for everyone to try and conceive of that radical equality promised by the reaper. The earliest edition promises “Images and Illustrated facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived,” and it’s true to its word. Holbein presents the pope, being met by the college of cardinals, not noticing that one red-clad gentleman wearing his ecclesiastical galero is a disguised, slyly smiling skeleton. Or in the following print, where a haughty emperor sits confidently upon a resplendent throne; he looks distractedly to his right, mouth open as if he were speaking (or ordering) something of the numerous attendants who surround him, unaware that behind him a skeleton is slinking off with his crown. Death isn’t a snob, however; for another illustration in the book includes a peasant in tattered clothes plowing his fields, weary as he walks behind a pack of mules tilling the soil, not noticing the rag-draped corpse who walks alongside him.

Holbein’s first edition was composed of forty-one woodcuts, illustrating a variety of professions and social classes, from cardinals, priests, preachers and nuns; to kings, dukes, noblemen and senators; and lawyers, judges, physicians, and astrologers; to soldiers, sailors, peasants, and merchants; and gamblers, drunkards, and fools. The message is so basic that it’s easy to forget its profundity (which is precisely the point of such a genre) – everyone of these people will die. You will die. I will die. Two centuries before, and Dante Alighieri could imagine complex punishments for the sinful in the hell of his Divine Comedy. Holbein, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily proffer a hypothesis as to destinations, but he’s certain in matters of transportation. None of these figures can escape: neither wealth, nor holiness, nor power can guarantee survival. In an early Totenanz book from 1460, Death speaks to an emperor by imploring him that “your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” This then is the good news announced by the Danse Macabre – that death is fundamentally subversive, death is fundamentally radical, death is fundamentally egalitarian.

Death fulfills all of the promises that every failed revolution (which is all of them) could not deliver on. The only force that’s ever been so consistently democratic. In death there is a radical egalitarianism, a slaying low of every single hierarchy, a diminishment of wealth, the abandonment of power. Nothing guarantees more justice that the equality of death. Dante promised redress through hell, but whether or not our presidents and televangelists will get their comeuppance there or not, it should be enough to know that entropy ultimately takes every woman and man, and even our demagogues will one day die. Between here and Armageddon it’s impossible to know what history will do to us, but one unequivocal verity is that death shall, in one way or another, lay low all. There is no bribing the reaper, and no threatening him either.

So, look to the horizon, what do you see beyond the fiery ruins of skyscrapers and penthouses? A circle dances, coming near us. Who holds hands? A president whose jowly face is decomposing, rotting like rancid bologna; and a minister who smells of embalming fluid; a corporate CEO whom Death has liquidated the assets of, and a general who has grown so skinny that his medals now weigh his skeletal frame down. They dance and dance and dance, but theirs is a silent celebration, for death has made quiet the bloviating trumpets of tyrants. Never forget that they’ve saved a spot for you. Be joyful about that – it’s a club that not just everyone is allowed to join. It’s one that we’re all required to.

vi. The Pantalone

The sixth age shifts/Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, /With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;/His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide/For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, /Turning again toward childish treble, pipes/And whistles in his sound.

Diagonal from the elevated Mellon Square Park on Sixth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh, there used to be a strange little linoleum brick that some anonymous, unseen person had pressed into wet asphalt. About four by six inches, the brick had been beaten by the inevitable decay of time as cars and busses passed over it and pedestrians dragged gum across its surface. Dirt and soot wormed their way into the cracks of the tile. I myself have dragged my rubber soles across the surface of this particular tile, and several others like it pressed into the streets of Pittsburgh, and on the Avenue of the Arts in Philly, and at 42nd Street near the New York Public Library. Framed by a red border, blue letters are pressed into white, with a number of variations in message, but most frequently the inscrutable mantra of “TOYNBEE IDEA/IN MOViE ‘2001/RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPiTER.” Going back to the ‘80s, similar “Toynbee Tiles” are found not just throughout Pittsburgh, New York, and Philadelphia, but also in Boston, Washington DC, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. There have never been any witnesses to the placement of a Toynbee Tile, and nobody has ever taken credit for this strange vandalism. Whatever person, or group of people, may be responsible for their installation, is unknown. Why they’ve installed them, is unknown. What exactly they’re supposed to mean, is unknown. Millions of people in dozens of cities have had their feet touch these relics of the unknown, these artefacts of uncertainty, including myself, and possibly you as well. The thought of them frightens me.

For those enthusiasts who’ve tried to interpret the message of the tiles, there are a set of poetic allusions, references, and connotations that may provide some illumination as to what exactly they might mean. The first word of the Sixth Avenue tile is taken to be a reference to the British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee, particularly a passage from his 1969 Experiences. Toynbee writes that there are puzzles which have “not yet [been] solved,” chief of which is the connection between mind and matter, soul and body. He elaborates that for those who accept the present materialist and positivist account of the universe, it may seem “impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again.” Yet Toynbee alludes to the possibility that despite resurrection being a religious belief, there could conceivably be a way of “thinking more ‘scientifically’” about the issue of life beyond death.

The “MOViE ‘2001” reference is clearly to the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the “RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPiTER” perhaps alluding to that book’s sequel, in which the mysterious monoliths imagined by Kubrick and Clarke transform that planet into a new, life-giving sun, especially for its frozen moon of Europa. As 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with the apotheosis of its central character, the astronaut David Bowman now elevated into an Ubermensch space-baby, the creator of the tiles perhaps imagines a similar ability to scientifically resurrect the dead, as Toynbee hypothesized, on the location depicted by Kubrick and Clarke. I like to think that the lower-case “i” is a statement of the diminishment of the self, a kind of kenosis burning away our identities by the heat of the eternal. Maybe. It’s pretty had to say. The tiles are kind of crazy.

To venture my own hypothesis, one that I’m unsure if others have already made, but the content of the Toynbee Tiles bares some similarity to heterodox arguments made by some Soviet occultists known as the “God-builders.” For example, consider the rocket-scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who in his 1928 The Will of the Universe: Unknown Rational Powers enthuses that “The conquest of the air will be followed by the conquest of ethereal space… Will not the creature of the air turn into a creature of the ether? These creatures will be born citizens of the ether, or pure sunshine and the boundless expanse of the cosmos… one cannot doubt the attainment of immortality.” Such foolishness is what the British philosopher John Gray describes in The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death as a “materialist Rapture,” whether on Jupiter or not.

vii. Old Age

Last scene of all, /That ends this strange eventful history, /Is second childishness and mere oblivion, /Sans teeth, sans taste, sans eyes, sans everything.

Beneath the cool marble of Westminster Abby is a memorial for a man who may never have existed. Or at least who never existed to the fullness implied by the hyphens that separate the year of his birth from that of his death. Unlike his neighbors buried in the cathedral, Old Tom Parr discovered nothing of physics like Isaac Newton or of biology like Charles Darwin, he didn’t pen any stanzas as did Geoffrey Chaucer, nor did he write novels like Charles Dickens, and he commanded not a nation as Elizabeth and Mary did. Rather the only exemplary thing about Parr, this simple rustic of Shropshire, was that he took a very long time to die; for the date of his birth was 1483 and that of his death was 1635. In the 152 years of Parr’s life, all of history had shifted. When he was born in Alderbury, Columbus had yet to set out for the Indies, by the time of his death the Spanish, French and Portuguese had built mighty empires in America and the English entrenchments at Jamestown, Plymouth, and Boston were already beginning. When Parr was born, the War of the Roses was still being fought and it would be two years before a Tudor would take the throne; he would die but a decade before the English Revolution would take the head of the king who provided the burial space for him at Westminster.

Old Tom Parr’s life encompassed from beginning to end the entire English Renaissance, though whether the farmer was aware of Shakespeare and Donne, Jonson and Marlowe, I know not. He did get to meet the physician William Harvey, though admittedly on the autopsy slab. Harvey noted that the man of a century-and-a-half had lived “in his home, free from care” and so “this poor man [did] attain to such length of days.” The doctor hypothesized that perhaps Parr’s diet of “subrancid cheese and milk in every form, coarse and hard bread and small drink, generally sour whey” didn’t have something to do with his remarkable longevity.

I’ve another potential diagnosis for Parr’s condition. Perhaps he was one of those unfortunates, whether through will or curse, who’ve attained a degree of immortality. Those who’ve made Faustian bargain, and flitter through the footnotes of history, the centuries-old and millennia-old women and men who appear in oil portrait, and daguerreotype, and black and white photo. Men like the Count St. Germain, in his powdered wig and breeches, entertaining the salons of Paris on the eve of revolution in one century, and with fedora and trench-coat watching the Nazis march into that same city a few hundred years later. Or that Scottish witch Thomas Weir, escaping the pyre in the seventeenth-century but still stalking the cobble-stoned alleys of Edinburg’s Royal Mile in the twenty-first. And then there is Ahasver, enjoying mint tea at a Haifa café overlooking the Mediterranean, waiting out the past two millennia of the messiah’s stony sleep. Maybe Parr was like all of them, with one important difference. He surveyed this world, our empire of the living with its frost of cares, and decided finally that at the end of day there was more wisdom in closing his eyes.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.