The Culture of Death and the Death of Culture


The colder grew the fire of the atheistic humanity, the harder it was for this humanity to take on the challenge of death


There is a well-known story about the outstanding Swedish director Ingmar Bergman who became afraid of death at the age of 35, and only having filmed his brilliant movie “The Seventh Seal” managed to get closer to the answer to the question, “What is there to live for?” “As far back as I can remember,” Bergman writes in his memoirs, “I carried a grim fear of death which during puberty and my early twenties accelerated into something unbearable. The fact that I, through dying, would no longer exist, that I would walk through that dark portal, that there was something that I could not control, arrange, or foresee, was for me a source of constant horror. That I plucked up my courage and depicted Death as a white clown, a figure who conversed, played chess, and had no secrets, was the first step in my struggle against my monumental fear of death.”

The sense of life’s meaningfulness is what helps to overcome the fear of death. There can be religious meanings (and then eternal life awaits beyond death) or secular ones (and then we are talking about extending life by means of a common cause continued by the following generations). But only these can properly oppose the fear of death.

What if there are no meanings? In this case, the impoverished start to glorify death as salvation from the disgusting struggle to make a living. While the rich start to glorify it as the deliverance from the hedonism and lechery they have grown so sick and tired of. A death glorification cult inevitably emerges among those people, who are stripped of meaning. Because otherwise, they will go mad from the deathly horror.

A movie called Rita’s Last Fairytale was released on October 18, 2012. The movie was directed by Renata Litvinova. It is a low-budget film claiming to be an art film; the director invested her own money in the production, the actors played for free. The stated theme, human life at death’s door, refers to intellectual cinema.

The plot. A certain Mythological creature (played by R. Litvinova) visits a dying woman. Its goal is to guide the woman to the netherworld at a time when her loved one, and her best friend, expressively named Nadezhda [meaning “Hope” in Russian – translator’s note], can do nothing to help her.

Renata Litvinova explains her choice of the movie’s theme with being interested in existential questions, questions of life and death, since her childhood. She studied myths about ancient gods, legends, rituals, and symbols, with which different peoples associated death. Renata Litvinova claims that death respects humans, it warns them in their dreams that it is coming. What one has to do is to listen closely to the “subtle world”, which is capable of sending signs to the person that death is coming. When asked whether this faith of hers (Renata Litvinova’s) in supernatural forces is a provocation, the actress replied, “The norm is anti-art… Madmen create art.”

One can claim that the norm is always anti-art only by having erased a multitude of works out of the history of art. All of classicism, for example, which is based on the apologetics of the norm. Then the point here is not that any kind of art denies the norm. Art that rejects the norm is the one that, having rejected meaning, has become infested with death. Having become infested with death, this kind of art started a war against life and the norm, something without which social life is impossible, including everything that makes humans human.

The theme of death in art, in literature in particular, has been raised in the most varying aspects. For example, Aleksandr Blok wrote about the death of the soul:


He awakened: 30 years!

Bang — there was no heart to hear.

His heart was a painted corpse.

When his life came to a close,

He found death a banal toll

For his sorry, cheerless soul.


The great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca noted the special attitude towards death in Spain. “In every other country death is an ending. It appears and they close the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain, they open them. Many Spaniards live indoors till the day they die, and only then are carried into the sun. A dead man in Spain is more alive when dead than anywhere else on Earth: his profile cuts like the edge of a barber’s razor… what is most important of all finds its ultimate metallic value in death.”

Death in culture is always treated as an ultimate challenge to life. As an eternal and irreconcilable antagonist of life. As something against which humans battle without compromise. It is this battle that fills life with both a special meaning, and with a feeling of bitterness.

It is clear which religious meanings oppose death. A Christian, for example, knows that life is a part of a bigger path. The reward in the afterlife depends on how you live this life; based on its results you will go either to heaven, or to hell.

It is, of course, much more difficult for atheists to oppose the challenge of death. But, as we know, revolutionaries who were atheists managed to solve this problem in their own way by sacralizing their lifework: the revolution.

But these are revolutionaries with their passion and fieriness. The colder grew the fire of atheistic humanity, the harder it was for this humanity to take on the challenge of death. Rites were all that remained from the solemn moment of transition to afterlife. The rites gradually lost their meaning. And since the question of death received no answer, a veil of silence was thrown over it. Death turned into something indecent, something not to be talked about. If you don’t talk about something, it’s kind of absent. But it’s easy to say “absent”…

Life without consolation, which could be either faith in an eternal life or a sacralized common cause, became more and more helpless in the face of death. Because of this, humanity faced the problem of death in a new quality. Renata Litvinova wants to talk about death, but she has nothing meaningful to say. She keeps searching for associations and hints in myths, Russian and Soviet literature, African cultures. When asked why the name of the principal character is Rita she replies, “I love this name, Margarita… It’s in Goethe’s writing, in Bulgakov’s.”

And later in the movie, she reproduces her associations: the color yellow, crows, the masquerade… She tries to put a spell over death, to build a relationship with death, like in archaic cults, inventing a new ritual, behavior at the moment of death, new symbols, and consolation as she understands it… It turns out that to die in such “vintage” dresses, in the glitter of trinkets, in elegant poses is “very beautiful”.

In Ancient Greece, the god that came to take a person’s soul was Thanatos, the son of the goddess Nyx (Night) and the god Erebos (Darkness), whom even the gods were afraid of and disliked. The  Mythological creature that came to take the protagonist’s soul in Rita’s Last Fairytale is a beautiful, extravagant woman. She turns out to be more loyal, kind, and attentive than friends, loved ones, relatives… And she grants the only deliverance from worldly hardships and betrayals.

Incidentally, it should be noted that the emergence of such “mythological creatures” pursuing inexplicit goals has become an almost trivial occurrence in modern art. A whole show was put on out of the approaching death in Bob Fosse’s movie All That Jazz (1979). The protagonist is seriously ill, but he begins each morning with a shower, a dose of medicine, a smile, and a phrase, “It’s showtime, folks!” What follows is a crazy working day. At times he is visited by a mysterious creature called Angelique: either a muse, or a nurse, or, perhaps, the angel of death. Losing the sense of reality, having regained consciousness after fainting, the protagonist writes a note to the nurse, “Am I alive?”.

And now to the most important thing in Litvinova’s movie.

The movie constantly claims that the “mythological creature” is interested in beautiful souls, “souls capable of loving.” And then this is further elaborated: this character is interested in “souls capable of loving” because “they will be freed from returning back here, where everything is so imperfect, where is so much suffering.” This is how quickly, simply, and unobtrusively the entire substance of secular, Christian, and other cultures that battle death are negated. Life turns into a burden. Death turns into a lucky chance for the select few to escape the Buddhist cycle of Samsara.

The theme of “putting an end to earthly sufferings” emerged in Russian cinema immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first Russian horror film, The Touch, was released in 1992. While investigating strange suicides (for example, a mother murders her son, and commits suicide), the protagonist discovers that the perpetrator is a ghost that convinces its relatives that the earthly life is an illness, and that real life will happen only after death. A whole “organization of dead associates” exists, whose goal is to bring people with pure souls to an early death. In that same year, the movie A Stroll Along the Scaffold was released. The plot of the movie is based on a gnostic myth claiming that the world was created by an evil demiurge. Which means that escaping this world is a good deed, not a crime.

But what is the importance of the new culture which rejects death as a challenge that needs a response? A culture, which can be quite appropriately called the culture of death? (A whole other question is whether the transition to the culture of death is also the death of culture.)

It turns out that this new culture is quite important. That is, of course, if we want to defend our country, rather than turning it into a large cemetery or a giant hospice.

In the past decade, the number of suicides in Russia among the youth has tripled. A sinister trend, isn’t it? 14,157 minors committed suicide in the past 5 years alone [in 2007-2012 – translator’s note]. And cinema is also responsible for this.

In the West the young director Alejandro Amenábar raised the topic of death in a new way. His movie The Sea Inside was released in 2004. Right away, it won two Oscar awards, the Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and 14 Spanish Goya film awards.

Alejandro Amenábar makes no secret of the fact that the theme of death is what interests him the most. Prior to The Sea Inside, he directed The Others, a movie in which it turns out in the end that the life of a young woman with two children in a large empty house is life after death. The woman killed her children and committed suicide. After which it turned out that life continues… just in another dimension. “Someone came up with an interesting formula: The Others is a movie about the dead, who want to be alive, while The Sea Inside is about the living, who want to die,” says the director.

Note the words “the living, who want to die.”

The Sea Inside caused a heated discussion in Spain due to the topic of euthanasia, which it raised. But the message of the director was deeper than that. To raise the topic of voluntary departure from life he uses an example of a person who quite technically qualifies as a case in which one can at least provisionally discuss the possibility of euthanasia. The protagonist of the movie, Ramón, is paralyzed. But he is a strong man, who continues to lead a rich, interesting life: he writes, draws, socializes with people; women fall in love with him. But all of the protagonist’s willpower is aimed at one thing: the desire to die.

Alejandro Amenábar considers himself to be an agnostic. Technically speaking, he is far from the topic of leaving the burdensome life into the sweet nothing raised by our directors. His protagonist wants to die only because the desire to die is just as much of a desire as the urge to live.

To convey his message to the viewer, Amenábar introduces a number of scenes into the movie, proving that the protagonist is right. This way, a paralyzed priest, who came to dissuade the suicidal man from doing so, is portrayed in a laughable way. “By portraying the priest in The Sea Inside I didn’t intend to make a caricature of the church. I saw once a cardinal, who on some TV show accused Ramón, called him a coward, and his family; supposedly they didn’t love him enough. This is where the dialogues in my movie come from. I didn’t make this up,” the director says.

Amenábar’s sympathies are fully with the characters who decided to take their own lives. And agai,n an angel of death appears, portrayed as an active girl from a special agency that helps those, who want to end the suffering called life.

The theme of this angel (by the way, it is entirely not out of place to remember the scenes from the Apocalypse in this regard) gradually receives such a development and emotional charge that the most prominent keepers of universal meanings are compelled to react. But this we will discuss in the following article.


Source (for copy):


This is the translation of the article (first published in the “Essence of Time” newspaper issue 3 on November 7, 2012) by Maria Ryzhova on the culture of death. Fascism worships death and, at the same time, turns death into means of achieving its inhumane goals, from enslavement to extermination. Last time they failed, and so now they try to enter through the back door, make people accept death.

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