Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Death is the Road to Awe

Re-watching Aronofsky’s The Fountain, I was struck by a line that Izzi heard from a Mayan guide: “Death is the road to awe.” The guide shared that when his father died a tree grew on his grave. His father became part of the tree–bark and blossom. When the birds ate of the tree, his father took flight with the birds. The guide concluded: “Death was his road to awe.”

This phrase pulls me in two seemingly opposite directions. On the one hand, it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. Something about it sounds like a cross between a New Age aphorism and something you read in the liner notes of an emo album. Death is the road to awe? What does that mean? Death is the road to nothing. Only the living are in awe of Daddy’s cells in birdy bellies. And what about those who don’t “become” trees? “Don’t worry Honey, Daddy became a thistle, under which a pack of stanky weasels made their nest!” Death is the road to aweful.

On the other hand, maybe death does help to create a road to awe, or at least, help engender a posture of awe. After all, non-being is part of being. Humans are aware of the proximity of non-being and impending negation, and this creates anxiety. But are anxiety and awe so far apart? Rilke writes, “For beauty is nothing but/ the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear . . .” Death, as the Unknown, is a necessary horizon for awe.

Of course, awe is a state of consciousness. My spleen does not feel awe. As far as I know, neither do the bacteria in my stomach. Granted, there is a process that I am a part of that never dies; this was the Mayan guide’s point. But normally this does little to comfort my ego. However, there are moments when death does not seem so scary. There are those people–like Izzi–who make friends with the dark. They face the horizon of non-being and let go, not only of their ego, but with their ego. This can sometimes happen, as it did with Izzi, through a state of awe.

How do we make the transition from anxiety to awe? Or how do we slide down the scale from terror into awe? I am not sure how this works. Maybe I need to watch The Fountain a third time. I do think that an acceptance of death can come through awe, through a state of wonder, where the ego releases its fears and is filled with Fear–with “terror that we are still able to bear.” I get an inkling of this state when I watch Aranofsky’s film.

Maybe we should remix Izzi’s line and say: Awe is the road to death.

photo credit: caterina.appia via photopin cc


  1. Rilke’s Elegies are about dying, but are full of life. Recently I’ve begun to understand life as exchange. When I breathe, I exhale, exchanging my breath with the breath of plants. Every living process is an exchange. Life for life. As Rilke suggests, its not only that we take in the world as substance, we take in phenomena and transform the world within ourselves. “Forever, invisibly within,” I believe is the line.

    I like that metaphor. But it still leaves me with the anxiety of the end of consciousness. My body will forever continue in the exchange, but I don’t. Do I?

    This makes me wonder if this “awe” business is a way of “dealing” with death.

    Back to the appropriation of symbol conversation, for a moment. Symbols can exist absolutely without running into the same problems that lexical definitions or logical concepts have. What is eternity? What is infinite? Death? As definitions (logoi) these fail to encompass the existential/affective aspect of human being. So, what if this awe business is permission to deal with meta- concepts at a pre-lexical level?

    Just throughts.

  2. I don’t know why we need to bother with the notion that symbols exist absolutely. If symbols are absolute and pre-lexical then animals should respond to the same symbols that humans do, but I have never seen a dog kneeling before a cross, or a lizard constructing a sand mandala.

    A possible response might be that the human unconscious is different from the animal unconscious. Here we might appeal to Jung. Animals do not respond to symbols because they do not have access to a collective human unconscious, a psychic reservoir that accounts for the widespread resonance that humans have with certain symbols or archetypes (the cross, the circle, the mother, the trickster).

    But an alternative explanation might point to a more verifiable difference between animals and humans. Humans seem to use a different system of language than animals, one that involves art and writing. Symbols, therefore, may not be pre-lexical at all; that is, they may not be symbols until they have been sutured to a semantic field. This could be the reason that humans react to certain symbols in a way that animals do not.

    I do think that symbols can evoke awe in specific cultural contexts, and yes, I was suggesting that awe is a way of “dealing” with death (though I do not like the term “dealing,” as it can imply “getting rid of”). But we don’t need to appeal to ideal forms beyond language to account for symbols stimulating awe.

    This approach assumes that our unconscious is something that needs to be fixed apart from the structures of our particular situation; that human nature involves a fundamental lack: “Every human fears death in some absolute sense, so every human must imbibe absolute symbols in order to pass into the void without screaming.” But this is just original sin all over again, and that is one symbolic nexus that leaves me “awe-less.”

  3. Let’s please distinguish between sign and symbol. The cross is a sign. It has conceptual ‘meaning’ tied to a visual symbol. The symbols that populate our unconscious are pre-lexical in the sense that they are undefinable. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about them, it does mean we can’t experience them in our defining of them. This is Badiou’s sin. All this suture talk is a mis-taken understanding of the void. The void cannot be approached or withdrawn from, let alone owned.

    I’m not suggesting that our unconscious needs to be fixed, per se. I am suggesting that our preference (codified with Plato, but present before) has been for the rational, the lexified, the conscious. And the unconscious does not need to be purified (see original sin comment above), exactly the opposite. It has atrophied and needs to be preferenced once again.

    Our symbol is akin to animal instinct. But our consciousness is different: built with language and the baggage of our frontal cortex. Our social identity is grounded in communal instinct. The ‘meanings’ that present themselves to our consciousness (symbol) are the pre-lexical–dare I call them animal, no, I’d rather say creaturely–, aspect of human consciousness.

    Let’s stop there for the moment.

  4. We can distinguish between sign and symbol according those criteria if you wish, but it leads us to the same quandary–speaking about pre-lexical symbols. First, let me say that I like your language about a “creaturely” aspect of human consciousness that has ties to the pre-lexical. It is because we have such a dimension that we can utter primal screams.

    Second, I did not use Badiouan “suture talk” in order to align myself with the thought of Alain Badiou. I was merely questioning the assumption that we encounter symbols at a pre-lexical level, in other words, that we encounter symbols before they become signs.

    The irony of your anti-Plato rhetoric is that the idea of absolute symbols has a similar structure to his idea of absolute forms. Plato argued that the things we perceive in this world are merely copies of ideal forms that exist in a perfect realm. These can only be grasped through the rational mind. Could we not say that the major difference between your pre-lexical symbols and Plato’s forms is that your symbols are grasped by the unconscious instead of the rational mind? You advocate more Vader to Plato’s Skywalker; more Dionysus to his Apollo.

    What is a symbol? What are these things that “populate our unconscious” as the forms populate the heavenly realms? Now we approach holy ground; as you named it, “the void.” But I refuse to remove my shoes. I think we need to stomp around a bit. I have mystical leanings. I am moved by signs. But is hyper-abstraction the best way to explain these phenomena?

    Before I continue putting the horse before the cart, I will ask you Rekon–and anyone else reading this thread–what is a pre-lexical symbol?

  5. Plato’s absolute forms are impossible because he suggests that we grasp them via the purification of the rational. Symbols are already present, they are part of our creature.

    Above, you said: “The irony of your anti-Plato rhetoric is that the idea of absolute symbols has a similar structure to his idea of absolute forms.”

    In fact I mean the opposite. I am suggesting that our experience of the world takes place on levels of consciousness not limited to the ‘spotlight’ of our rational awareness. The ‘not limited to’ part of our consciousness is what we can discuss but not experience by discussing. It is our existential map of the world, not the lexification of it.

    Plato chaps my hide because he insists on the purification of consciousness as the means to attaining the absolute. The absolute is already present within us–it is our experience of the world. The definition of that experience (see Badiou’s Being and Event, and for that matter most of Western Phil) is never equivalent to that experience. This has lead to the illusion that our finite creatureliness is fully subjective.

    If we follow Plato’s prescription, we plunge headlong into this illusion and ignore what is essentially human in our effort to transcend human being. That is the path out of the cave and into the light.

    The difficulty, as you are more than aware, is that ‘essentially human’ is impossible to define. It is pre-lexical. We can, at best, talk around it. Describe it. It’s like using words to shade out the negative space of a drawing instead of tracing lines.

    But it is by tracing out these existential maps of human being that we approach what ‘pre-lexical symbol’ is. It is an approach that is not an approach.

  6. I do not intend that your absolute symbols and Plato’s forms amount to the same thing, far from it. I understand that Plato argues that one can grasp forms only through the rational mind, and that one must purify consciousness to do so. I understand that you speak of immanent symbols that are experienced by our unconscious (“existential maps”).

    My point is that both concepts occupy a similar structural position. Both concepts are absolute–theoretically they can be grasped/experienced by anyone. Both concepts are ideals that lie outside. Absolute symbols lie outside our lexicon and the forms lie outside of the world of perception. If you read Plato, as I know you have, you find that he speaks of experiencing the forms in almost mystical language. But this is only a minor point for me.

    You write that the difference between the definition of the absolute (which you define as “our experience of the world”) and our actual experience of the world “has lead to the illusion that our finite creatureliness is fully subjective.” I am not sure what you mean by this. I hope that I have not given the impression that by questioning absolute symbols I am arguing for complete relativity of human knowledge and experience. We have not gotten that far, nor would I argue for such a claim as it is generally argued.

    Digression! My question remains: why postulate absolute symbol? I still have not heard a good reason. Why hypothesize something so abstract merely to explain that humans experience the world? Yes, we experience the world consciously and unconsciously. Yes, both are important. There are a whole lot of terms here that are swiftly becoming homologized: “absolute symbols,” “human essence,” “experience of the world.” I did not ask about human essence. I asked about absolute symbols. It seems to me that if there is an X, a void, a transcendent unconscious experience that we cannot directly speak about, then we are better off not constructing abstract theories about such an entity. We are better off not being so sure.

  7. Ah. I’m tracking you now. Here’s why I bring up the term absolute. If we trace the history of ritual and and corporate narrative, we find that human cultural groups have tried to deal with absolutes in a couple of ways. To generalize: there is the Platonic (rational) and ritual (symbolic). Where Plato fails to ‘grasp’ absolutes in his definition of them, ritual seems to situate human being in such a way as to allow for an approach (that is not an approach) to the absolute. Be it infinity, or the divine, or death, or good, or evil, it seems that there is a subterranian (or immanenent, as you put it) capacity of consciousness that can appropriate as symbol what remains impossibly distant as concept.

    This is why I bring together the language of existential map and the absolute. As I think you know, I’m not suggesting that symbol is limited to the absolute, just that within the larger consciousness of human being there exists the capacity to appropriate what we call absolutes. Insofar as we think in terms of the rational and logocentric, the absolute is absolute. But if we examine the experience of ritual, I think that we find that there is an appropriation–through the back door so to speak–of what the rational self would call absolutes.

    Simply put, symbols can carry the weight of absolutes, they are Trojan horses. But if we think in terms of symbol as opposed to concept (what I would consider to be abstraction) symbols are not absolute, yet they serve the function of what has been called by that name.

    The Trojans would never have opened up their gates to Greek soldiers, but they admitted them in the belly of the horse.

  8. That was a very interesting point of view. I think if we can accept death as something to not be afraid of, then it comes as easily as doing anything else. Perhaps people look at death in a negative way because no one can tell them what it’s like, unlike someone who has just bungee jumped or something.

    Oh, and thanks for dropping by my blog the other day :)

  9. Ok, I think I am understanding you more now. This makes more sense to me! I think the phrase that helped me the most was “. . . symbols are not absolute, yet they serve the function of what has been called by that name.” To get back to Aranofsky for a moment, death is only absolute in Tommy’s mind. It is only absolute in the phenomenal sense: as far as he knows Izzi’s consciousness will end at death. This is why he must spend himself–as conquistador–to conquer death and save Izzi. (Although, to push further into the film, I think that Tommy ends up fighting more-than-death).

    However, as Izzi has somehow realized, death is not an absolute end in the sense that dying is just a part of the bio-process. What I think I read you saying is that symbols can effect a pre-rational change in a person’s psyche that has ramifications for that person’s conscious mind–where “absolutes” dwell. So perhaps a Mayan constellation of symbols has helped Izzi to come to this realization.

    I have more questions and comments but am out of “time.” Thanks so far for the thoughtful responses!

  10. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we just had a conversation. Yes, I do think that symbols are mostly pre-rational and yet have a profound effect on our conscious psyche. Those soldiers who sneak through the gates in the belly of a horse cause all sorts of havok.

    Where I part ways with Freud is in calling the havok bad. I like Jung’s perspective more, but feel that he didn’t have the best interpretive filter in the 20th c. Lacan has Zizek. Where is Jung’s champion/interpreter?

    This whole symbol thing deserves a bit more unpacking.

  11. You should take up that mantle!

    Gilles Deleuze likes Jung, partly because Jung questioned some of Freud’s premises, like the notion that Oedipal relations govern the unconscious. I don’t think that he champions Jung the way that Zizek champions Jaques Lacan (hook, line, and sinker), but he is definitely worth a look. Here is a quote I like from Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Felix Guattari:

    It is said that the unconscious is dark and somber . . . but doesn’t one indeed lend to the unconscious horrors that could only be those of consciousness and of a belief too sure of itself? Would it be an exaggeration to say that in the unconscious there is necessarily less cruelty and terror, and of a different type, than in the consciousness of an heir, a soldier, or a Chief of State? The unconscious has its horrors, but they are not anthropomorphic. It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters but vigilant and insomniac rationality.

  12. The ‘violence’ of the symbolic is categorically a-moral. Instead of serving a moral function–moral in the sense of value judgments within a given social matrix–, symbol acts as the go-between. Acts in what way? I don’t know. Go-between in what way? Not sure.

    It seems to exist in that no space between Lacan’s real, and the phenomenal. To call up Plato’s language, symbol is what arises within the khora. It is perhaps the only thing we can ‘see’ when we peer into that darkness with our rational sight.

  13. I think this is the only thing left to say.

  14. You, sir are very wise.