By Tom Ferraro Ph.D.
Oct. 12, 2008
For Clio's Psyche
(a psychoanalytic journal published in the U.S.)

"April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of dead land."
T.S. Elliot -The Wasteland

Death is an ugly affair. Nothing pleasant about it. It seems impossible to discuss it in a way that suggests hope, uplift or joy. Yet, as this call for papers suggests, it is an important fact of life that warrants discourse.

My father died three weeks ago. He was 94 and lived a good life. His slow dance with the Grim Reaper was symbolized by an ugly cancerous growth on his forehead which he refused to have removed the last year of his life. Instead he wore a Mets baseball cap to hide it from us. And I lost my son two years ago. He died more quickly and softly than my dad but his death was far more wrenching. He was 35 years old and well into a prosperous career in the film industry. Dead and gone at 35. Dead and gone.

The psychological literature on death, from Freud to Kubler-Ross, essentially says that loss must be met head on with a process of mourning which eventuates in recovery. To prove his point Freud wrote his greatest thesis The Interpretation of Dreams the year following his father's death. What I will discuss in this piece is how artists in film, literature and music deal with death.

Hanna Segal in A Psycho-Analytic Approach to Aesthetics writes that the artists unique gift is their willingness to experience and then to express the full horror death by working it through with the tenderness and goodness of aesthetics. She writes that the artist has the unique ability and strength to breathe life into death by having achieved the depressive position. They bring beauty, order and the life instinct into contact with ugliness, chaos and the death instinct. There are numerous examples of this and I would like to explore just a few here. The songwriter Leonard Cohen's famous line describing death as 'sinking into the masterpiece' is both simple and exquisite, capturing death by fusing it with beauty. T.S. Elliot's opening line in The Wasteland reads "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land." This perfectly expresses what Segal tried to say. The artist shows us how to pull flowers from the dead. They bring art to death's door.

My favorite line on death comes from the mouth of the beautiful replicant Roy Batty played by Rutger Hauer in the film the Blade Runner. The film was based upon a novel by Philip Dick. At the end of the film Roy Batty sits among the ruins in a future Los Angeles plagued with rain and garbage and darkness. As he slowly dies he says to Deckard played by Harrison Ford "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I've watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gates. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die." As he dies a white dove flies out of his hand. Beauty born from death, reminiscent of the first line in the The Wasteland where lilacs grow out of the dead earth.

What can we learn from death? What is the epiphany that it tries to bring to us when we lose a parent or a child and spend our evenings rolling around the living room floor in tears? The way I managed to overcome the loss of my son was to write about in a series of articles which were published in my syndicated column. I did the same after 9/11 when I found myself writing about that trauma for ten weeks running. This is a very healthy way to mourn and to process the loss. I think to do so publicly is very healthy. Isn't this what funerals are? A public display of tears and words.

The thought of those I have lost gets me to look back at my own life in an effort to find some solace there as well. Like Roy Batty I could say "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Like coming up out of the subway into the daylight in central Paris to see the Left Bank. Or sitting on a boat as it meanders down the Grand Canal in Venice at midnight. Or walking down a Manhattan street with the world famous Chinese modern dancer Hou Ying and watching the pedestrians look at her in utter amazement."

I was a friend of Spalding Gray. One day we were in a Manhattan restaurant as he told me the following story of how he always liked to play with death. A month prior he was finishing up a film where he played a man who had attempted suicide. He was made up to look like he had just slashed his wrists. He had a strong compulsion to play a trick on someone so he excused himself from the set and went to a hotel pharmacy. He went up to a nice old lady behind the counter raised his bloody wrists, smiles and says "Got any band aids!" Never have I heard a funnier story. The poor lady in the pharmacy nearly died of shock. Throughout this entire story I am sipping soup between hysterical laughter. I had a growing fear I could easily drown by inhaling the soup as I laughed so I put the soup spoon down and survived the story. As you all know five years later Spalding killed himself by throwing himself into the East River. Always playing with death and writing about it as well. Lilacs out of winter turf. Attack ships on fire off of Orion's shoulder. Sinking into the masterpiece. Life instincts conquering death instincts.

So how do I come to terms with my son's early death? I do not know. Death demands an epiphany and an answer. As my mother gets closer to death I think she has been having many chats with the Grim Reaper herself. I think she meets him at the Sea Watch in Lauderdale by the Sea, her favorite restaurant. If I asked she would I am sure tell me what they speak of. "Oh Tommy, don't you know we sometimes talk about you. He asks me why you haven't gone to Yosemite Park, or Barcelona or the South of France yet. He asks exactly what are you waiting for? And perhaps she will give me a gift from him. I am sure it would be a wristwatch which I ought to wear every day and think about time,,,,and how it is always running out.

Artists and writers do not deny the cruel fact that life will end someday. They have the courage to realize the ugliness of death and dying and to weave something around it to make it more beautiful. And they have the good fortune to be able to write about it or act it out in public. The Oscar winning film All That Jazz was about the death wish of Bob Fosse the womanizing workaholic choreographer. A young Jessica Lange played Death and wore a see though white silk gown and veil. Fosse, played by Roy Scheider flirted with her the entire film until in the end she won. Death always wins. All That Jazz is another reminder that we will all face the Grim Reaper some day so take some time to live life, feel joy and create some thing beautiful for yourself. Death instincts will win in the end but the life instincts can win while we are alive to feel them. This is the simple and vital role of the all the arts be that architecture, film, music, literature or painting. They give us the life instincts to marvel at and to revel in.

And if you are not an artist and do not have an outlet in which to express your grief you must rely on the opportunity to craft a eulogy at the funeral. Make it long and heartfelt and bring your tissues up to the podium. This is always cleansing. We can fight death by creating beauty, by witnessing beauty, or by traveling to see beauty. Either way we are all in a battle of life over death. So I say live in beauty until the end where finally the Grim Reaper smiles on us and wins the very last match. So win every day, feel joy every day, watch beauty every day. If you do that it is a life well lived and you will be ready to finally sink into the masterpiece.

T.S.Eliot, 1922, The Wasteland, in Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace and Company, New York
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., 1969, On Death and Dying, Simon and Schuster, New York
Hanna Segal, 1994, A Psycho-Analytical Approach to Aesthetics. In Essential Papers on Object Loss, Ed. Rita Frankiel, New York University Press, New York and London