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.