I've been thinking lately about how we perceive death, not just rationally but emotionally. Death, and how people react to death, is a common element of many stories, so I guess that this qualifies as a literary question. But it is also a personal question to me.
I have feelings about death. I don't like it. It's not fear, or anger, or anything. It's...loss. What you feel in the presence of death. When you touch an animal that was recently alive, and sense that it's now dead, and something in you cries out for it to not be dead. Thinking back on my experiences, I realize that I also feel this even about animals that I've hunted down and killed. It's not as strong when the animal is, say, a mouse, but it's there all the same.
And yet, rationally, at least in situations when I have decided to kill this animal for my own reasons, I do not want the animal to continue to be alive. I want it dead. But I feel as if I want it alive again.
And what about a pet or another animal that we don't want dead? Why is it that even though we rationally understand that it was going to die one day, that death is inevitable, we still feel that it should not be dead? Why do we rub its head and tug its legs when we know that its dead?
What about other people? Why is it that even when we understand death intellectually, we don't accept it emotionally?
And what is the emotion that we're feeling? Why don't I feel that way about my motorcycle when it's no longer worth fixing? Or a marble carving of the madonna that breaks? Some of these things really are irreplacable. I've never smashed a Greek vase, but I imagine that sort of thing happens all the time. Well, if you include all antiques, and not just Greek vases. And it's not about being irreplacable. Animals are ubiquitous. But if the last eagle in the world were to die, I would intellectually care more about the extinction of eagles. But I would feel more loss about the eagle that died than about the species that went extinct.
First off, I'm not sure I can provide an answer to your questions of "why" partly because I don't have the same reaction to death.
For one thing, it is very possible (and quite human) to become attached to particular objects and mourn their loss as one might feel the loss of a loved one (well, maybe not THAT much, but more than say the loss of an armadillo on the side of the road.
You mention being a hunter. I think hunters develop a feeling for their prey that most people don't have.
But, bottom line, I think we identify with the living things we see dead (especially large mammals). Why? Could be because we see their death and envision our own. It scares and thrills us because we know deep down that we are just like them; or close enough. And a violent death to an animal is especially evocative. We look at their meat and see ourselves "that way."
Anyway, that's my midnight Thursday hypothesis and I'm sticking to it.
There are many sides to this discussion. One of which is, how would we view the loss of another's life if we didn't have these natural feelings of aversion to, or fear of, death? Would murder be a crime? Would war be horrific? Would we think of serial killers or other psychopaths as, well, psychopaths? The way we humans feel about death has shaped our society, our world, as much as any other factor and this is really a much larger question than just "why do I feel this way about death?".
I'm not philosophically opposed to the idea of death and dying. I happen to think that it's an elegent solution to a number of complex and interacting problems with living organisms.
And I'm not averse to my own death. I accept that it is inevitable and right that I should die. I also accept that it is inevitable and right that all other living things should die.
And I don't feel this feeling about things long dead, or things horribly dead, or insects and trees and a lot of other previously living things. But it's a real feeling. Or at least, it's real to me.
Anyway, it's a feeling that I'm not sure how to describe, and given that I deal with death in many of my stories, I think that I should try to understand it. Or even just learn whether it's important for me to know how to describe it in order to be a writer.
There's an interesting example of how to describe death in what was otherwise a fairly mediocre movie -- Three Kings. In it, the main character (played by that guy who left the show E.R.) describes what happens when a bullet tears through your gut. How things get released into body cavities and you go into septic shock. There's minute detail on the mechanics of dying from a gunshot wound.
One thing I like about that, in particular, is that it takes the glory out of death and makes it affect (effect?) the audience on a truly visceral level. Perhaps you could do the same for deaths in your story. What exactly is happening to the body and mind as the time-since-causal-incident passes. Example:
The axe fell and the head was severed. In that instant, the brain's neurons began to fire madly sending and blocking pain signals, trying to control muscles that were no longer connected. Then cells began to starve for lack of oxygen. More signals. No reply. The eyes flew open reflexively and watched the world spin and tumble.
Finally, the head landed in the large open basket as gouts of blood splashed it from the platform above.
(This isn't anywhere near the level of detail but you get the idea).
No, I'm not wondering about the clinical side of death. I'm wondering what it is that we feel when we observe it. I guess that I'm just not able to articulate what I mean, which is precisely the difficulty that I'm talking about.
Same answer, really, just a bit more difficult to pull off in a narrative. You would have to atomize your feelings. Show their progression in minute detail. Once you could do that, then you could choose what to present to a reader.
Have you tried to give yourself an instant-by-instant description of what you feel? Can you "pad" the description as much as possible? That works for me in some technical writing. I "over-write" the difficult sections, then cut out what is redudant or otherwise unecessary. It is a lot easier to cut than to figure out what's missing.
I may be reading too much into your posts on this, but it seems to me like a problem I often have as well -- finding the BEST possible description of some thing or event. I like the trick of purposefully writing too much, because then I'm not so worried about finding the BEST way to write as I am interested in finding as many ways as possible to say it. Then, I can refine and distill until I get a way that is satisfactory (or better). Usually it works for me.
As for conveying the feeling, I might also suggest that a novel description of the PHYSICAL events might evoke the desired feelings in your readers more effectively than the best possible description of the feelings. But I could be wrong. You poets seem to have ways of surprising me in your ability to describe a feeling so well that I can recognize it and feel a harmonic thrill based on your words.
That's just the thing. I've already come to the atom of this thing. This element of feeling that is present in greater or lesser degree, but is in no way different in character whatever my other feelings or thoughts.
Touch the still warm body of an animal, its body relaxed, the heart still, and repose almost like sleep. Still, quiet, silent, it lays there, not to wake.
Ah, this is useless. I don't even know that I'm even talking about a real feeling. Certainly I don't know how it can be evoked. I just want to know what it is.
I didn't mean to say that I thought you had those problems or feelings I mentioned. I wasn't clear on what I wanted to say, I guess. Anyway... I would think that everyone feels differently when seeing something or someone die. That phychopathic killer I mentioned might not feel good about what he does; he may actually be as repulsed by it as I would. (Well, as repulsed as I think I'd be-- I've never seen Death, live in concert ). I can only imagine that you would have to take into consideration who's feelings you are describing, and whether or not it was a group or an individual who caused the death, who the person or animal dying is, and why they were killed. Maybe, if we knew, we could better advise/comiserate with you.
Okay, I guess that it's just me. Sorry. But I suppose that we can discuss the fundamental aspects of portraying death without worrying about a feeling that I can't even verify the broader relevance of.
Posts: 8322 | Registered: Aug 1999
I am sure Death feels different to each of us. Tell it the way it feels to you or your character. I feel that every death is sad, not for those that are dead but for those left behind. It is a long goodbye. I don't like goodbyes very much. Someone I love was suffering. Death was a welcome relief for them. I knew that, but still I held on as long as I could. Why? Because I could not abide the thought that they were leaving me. Why the same feeling over an animal? Maybe it is for a similar reason. I could not touch a living animal if it was a wild animal. Touching the dead one reminds me that I never will feel its living body or be able to watch its delightful movements. If it was a pet I will never again enjoy its company again. There is the long goodbye. I think we are all a little selfish about death.
Posts: 80 | Registered: Oct 1999
I know the feeling of loss you describe. I feel it sometimes for insects and trees, as well as the cuddlier critters and people. I think Death is so moving because it is extremely truthful. It tells us that we do not live forever, that we are just a small piece of the world. It lets us know that we are not gods. We (at least so far) are powerless to the force of Death. When something dies, it is gone. Not to be experienced ever again. When we witness a death, we also are brought to the knowledge that one day, we too will pass from experience. "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."
Posts: 26 | Registered: Jul 2000
In one of my more contemplative and melancholy moments, I stumbled onto a tecnique for reproducing emotions associated with loss due to death.
I have never attempted to write down any description of what I was feeling. I'm not sure I would want to. It was rather intense for me, and I didn't like going there. But anyhow, it was somewhat of a self-hynotic thing like Poe's character in the Raven.
I was depressed, just sitting in front of my computer when my screen saver came on. You have all seen it, the starfield simulation. I was lost motion through the stars, just blankly staring for a long time.
I started thinking about what it would be like to travel through infinity eternally when the emotion of the following words hit me. "Where I am, you cannot come. Worlds without end". I had to turn away. And then came the stronger emotion. What if I couldn't turn away.
This probably doesn't speak to what you started the thread for, but if I wanted write the emotions of death, I would have to spend more time dwelling in that state than I would care to. I think Poe drank a lot didn't he?
[This message has been edited by Ether (edited August 11, 2000).]
A stiring topic. You talk of the death of animals. I have had many pets die. I am a hunter as well. The feeling are there. The touch. The moment of silence. But I do not think they compare to the lose of human life. It seems that that is what you want to express. Have you experinced human death?
The child of almost seven years of age stands by her father's casket and takes his hand and says, "Good bye daddy." In that childs heart and soul is the emptyness of no more bed time stories, no more trips to the beach in early spring . . . no more and no more and no more.
The young woman raised mostly by her grandmother standing at her grandmothers bedside after cancer has consumed almost all of her life. The feel of her grandmothers hand, the nurses refusing to give an old dieing woman any more morphine because it is addictive. The pain, the begging for it to end. And finally the end. Breath stops. The hand relaxes. And the young woman cries. Relief. No more no more no more, but this time it is no more pain. An end to suffering.
The group of friends riding motor cycles. Speed and laughter. A wet bridge. The cycle in front skids. The cycle and ridder skid under the bridge rail. All that's left on the bridge is a helmet. A splatter of blood. The friend's head is still in the helmet. The one time lover gone. no more no more no more. I don't want to know this. I don't want to see this. I can't even walk, guts tight, legs shaking. Lungs gasphing in horror. Twenty six years later I see that image and wake up shaking. No more, he is gone. No more cycles, ever. Can't get on one, feet won't move.
I have felt responsible for the death of two kittens. I felt that it was all my fault, though intellectually I knew there was nothing I could do about it, the dog did what he did, but I still feel some pain. they were both friends' kittens, and they didn't blame me, but I blamed myself. It's a hard feeling to describe, when you see the animal dead and wish it wasn't. Do we feel sorry for it? I don't think that's entirely it, but part of it for me anyway. --Lila
Posts: 239 | Registered: Jun 2000
Lilamrta, I know that. It's a strange feeling. I've owned some dogs before that became too much of a burden to keep with me, so I've given them away, and later found out they died, and felt like, If I' had kept them they'd still be here.