Throughout October, I am looking at and celebrating death on my blog. Here is a short extract from The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Life,due to be published this month by Axis Mundi Books. It is a book that presents a combination of academic and professional expertise to help people explore the depths and the heights of love, spirituality, and creative expression, both in life and at the end of life:
Applied Aesthetics: Something to Read, Something to Do, Something to Hold Onto, and Something to Let Go Of
As this suggests, there is a clear and pressing need for a discourse that dignifies the death experience and brings it into life, something that we have too often lost sight of. In this volume, I am not offering a universalizing metanarrative regarding what might constitute a good death in contemporary culture. At the same time, my combined experiences as a scholar of the humanities and a practicing Artist In Residence in palliative care have provided a unique perspective from which to view these complex subjects. From this distinct vantage point, the issues appear in a different light. Perhaps above all, my experiences have repeatedly shown me that the end of life is all about life itself and the many different types of love that we experience as human beings.
Thus rather than adhering to a formulaic, predetermined script such as the ars moriendi, my combined scholarly, clinical, and artistic practices have reaffirmed the value of remaining open to whatever arises at the bedside, which is itself a highly liminal, individual, and emergent space. By remaining open to the open, I can be present, so that I can step out of the way, so that the artworks can emerge, so that they can reappear in the book that you are now reading. Just as the stories contained in this volume are ultimately not about death but about life itself, The Heart of the Hereafter appears far less like an ars moriendi than like an ars vivendi, a book on the art of life. And just as there can be no uniform script such as the ars moriendi because there is no one way to die, so too do the stories in this volume show that there is no one way to live. Instead, there are multiple ways to be alive, up to and including at the end of life.
When engaging these themes, I think of such an interwoven creative and clinical practice as a form of applied aesthetics. Notably, in its own way the ars moriendi can also be seen as an early example of applied aesthetics. At a time when personal agency was so very limited, the ars moriendi provided people with something to read if they could read and something to look at if they could not, as well as something to do, and something to hold onto. The ars moriendi also presented a vivid sense of connection between multiple realms of being, and thus, a tool for imagining sacred presences amidst extreme states of human suffering. The enduring appeal of such a project may well reflect people’s longstanding needs, hopes, and desires to feel a sense of accompaniment when facing the transition between worlds. As the historian David Morgan has commented regarding the power of such religious imagery, “The cultural work that popular images perform is often a mediating one, serving to bolster one world against another, to police the boundaries of the familiar, or to suture the gaps that appear as the fabric of the world wears thin.” The traditional ars moriendi represents a particularly powerful example of such popular devotional imagery, as it conjoins the sacred and the secular spheres to perform a practical function at the end of life, while also mediating between worlds and establishing order at a time when the world seems to be breaking apart.From The Heart of the Hereafter: Love Stories from the End of Lifeby Marcia Brennan.
Marcia Brennan, Ph.D. is Professor of Art History and Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas.