chapter  8
9 Pages

The Denial of Death?

Though richly descriptive and documented, Aries's thesis is questionable in several respects - not least its underlying argument to the effect that in the West we have moved from a healthy relationship to death to a pathological one. As Joachim Whaley remarks, Aries's whole work is based on the belief that man's relationship to nature and death has become increasingly unhealthy and distorted as a result of progress, with the two worst periods in this respect being the eighteenth and twentieth centuries (p. 5 ) . The problems with Aries's work are accentuated by other writers who, in support of the denial-ofdeath argument, reproduce it in an abridged and reductive form, like Zygmunt Bauman in Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Ariès had rightly described different attitudes to death as characteristic of different epochs, yet also continuous between them. By contrast, Bauman tends to ' f ix ' these attitudes to epochs in a way which misdescribes both. Thus he asserts that in something called the 'premodern era' there was a common assumption about death which remained 'unchallenged until the dawn of the Age of Reason' and which entailed a 'resigned yet peaceful cohabitation with " t a m e " death' (pp. 9 4 , 9 6 - 7 ) . The world was characterized by a monotony of being, itself experienced as normality. Further, 'Monotony made

existence un-problematic, hence non-visible' (pp. 9 7 , 9 4 ) . Death was so common that 'everyone had ample opportunity to get used to its presence . . . one had no reason to be puzzled or unduly excited when death, for the umpteenth time, struck in one's close vicinity' . In short,

Bauman's periodization is so overgeneralized and vague that it is unclear when the pre-modern, chain-of-being, everything-stuck-in-itsplace existence is supposed to have ended. 11 doubt that it corresponds to any period. Moreover, such generalizations have been challenged by social historians who rightly insist that class and wealth made a difference to how death was experienced: some people starved to death, others did not; in times of plague the rich could leave the cities, others could not; and so on.