Some of us are born with morbid imaginations. My mom tells a story about me, at the age of three: I wanted to know where we go when we die. The question consumed me, and she let me wonder. I apparently asked every adult I met and was unsatisfied with all of the answers I heard (heaven, six feet under; the great standards) Then she read me Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant” which ends (spoiler alert) when the selfish giant is spirited away [by a christlike child] to the garden of paradise. “That’s it,” I told her. “That’s where we go. Paradise.” Perhaps all I needed was some vegetation: the vision of a garden. Or perhaps all I needed was a poetic term: something that felt like candy, or fresh fruit, on the tongue.
Many years later I was passed through the mills of deconstruction, postmodern thought, continental philosophy, feminist critique. Paradise became – to me – a power play: the gleaming veneer over transcendence, just another evisceration of finitude. Philosophers hate death, Simone de Beauvoir argued, because it carries a kind of placental stench. To think death, to really think death, is to take in the stink, the funk, of mortality. Philosophers prefer the clean purity of the immortal, the infinite. And women, said Beauvoir, are blamed for death because it’s birth that gave us death, in the first place. Beauvoir’s words always felt very true to me, and and there was feminist inspiration in the long sojourn I made into creaturely life. In creatureliness I wanted to embrace a kind of pure mortality; to make peace with the body’s limits, to illuminate its vulnerabilities, to be in its suffering. Contemporary theory is a rich vineyard to pull from, if this is what you thirst for. But, lately, I’ve grown weary of death.
This is the fifth semester in a row that I’ve been teaching a class on death. Right now I call it “Being Mortal.” In five terms, the syllabus has undergone a significant shift. Once it was heavy with texts that encourage a focus on raw mortality, with subtle critiques of immortality (both the biological and the supernatural varieties). But increasingly it becomes riddled with visions of the sweet hereafter, in various flavors. I once believed that the most difficult intellectual task would be to challenge students to question a pious valorization of the afterlife, and to rend a new form of openness to the limits of mortality. But this, I discovered, was actually the easiest thing to do. It was also, quite frankly, the most boring. It slowly began to dawn on me that my students believed, deeply, in mortal decay. But their speculative imaginations were, more often than not, deadened by it. At most, they would weakly (albeit dogmatically) offer the vision of a soul that would somehow outlast this decay. But our conversations about strange places like heaven and hell get their fictive impulses churning. Death can really be a dead end.
Tonstad’s book is not only a book about the trinity but is also, as the title promises, a book about the transformation of finitude. It is a vision that refuses to subordinate us to the reality of death. Unlike the philosophers who (as Beauvoir believed) hate death, Tonstad doesn’t deal with death misogynistically . Instead, death (like other elements of the book) is inspected using the diagnostic tools of queer theory and radical feminism. Read the rest of this entry »