Thursday, November 18, 2010

Death Waits

Yeah, I get dark and moody sometimes, probably more often than my tweets and my blogging would suggest. Sometimes I consider all of the difficulties of living my life, the difficulties other people have living their lives, and the general course of world events (and "progressives" seem to think things are getting better and better all the time). There is one thing I take comfort in, though. Death.

I found myself thinking of how we personify death; that is, how we turn death into a person or a character in a story. I did a Google image search on "death" and came up with a complete mixed bag of graphics. Then I searched for "death personified" and among the results, came a scene from one of my favorite movies: The Seventh Seal (1957) directed by Ingmar Bergman. The summary of the film from follows:

A Knight and his squire are home from the crusades. Black Death is sweeping their country. As they approach home, Death appears to the knight and tells him it is his time. The knight challenges Death to a chess game for his life. The Knight and Death play as the cultural turmoil envelopes the people around them as they try, in different ways, to deal with the upheaval the plague has caused.

The classic scene from the film is the knight (portrayed by Max von Sydow) playing chess with death, literally with the knight's life hanging in the balance. Throughout the film, the knight sees the devastating effects of the plague on the people of his country and how terribly they're suffering. By the end of the film, the knight loses (of course) his chess game and he, along with the other people he's met on his journey, are claimed by death and find a complete release from their suffering. The final scene of the film shows everyone dancing and following death to...where ever one goes at that point.

The same personification is approached from the opposite direction in Death Takes a Holiday (1934). This film has been remade a number of times, but the summary of the original goes like this:

Death decides to take a holiday from his usual business to see what it is like to be a mortal. Posing as Prince Sirki, he spends 3 days with Duke Lambert and his guests at his dukal estate. Several of the women are attracted to the mysterious prince, but shy away from him when they sense his true nature. But Grazia, the beautiful young woman whom the Duke thought was to marry his son, loves him even when she knows who he is.

The problem is, while death, in the guise of Prince Sirki (and played by Fredric March) studies the "human condition", largely through his affair with Grazia, no one can die. People suffer horribly. Diseases, wounds, and injuries that would normally kill a person only result in those people existing in unending agony, unable to find release from their torment in death. Ultimately, others see him for who he really is and beg him to return to his duties. Reluctantly, the identity of Prince Sirki is surrendered and death once again roams the earth, giving final comfort and peace.

In both of these films, death isn't something to be feared but rather, a comforting companion to cause all pain to end once a person's body is too old, too sick, or in too much pain to endure. Of course, if we're enjoying life, we usually prefer that death not pay us a visit any time soon, but then again, we don't always have much of a choice in the matter.

It seems most of the time, death is depicted as a man, but why couldn't death be a woman? In older Thor comic books, death was a female character. The folks at Marvel adapted the norse myth of Hel (Hela), the goddess of death. According to

Hela is the daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. When Hela came of age, she was appointed Ruler and Goddess of the northernmost kingdom of the dead, allowing her to rule in the realms of Hel and Niffleheim. Although her dominion was only over those who did not die as heroes, as Odin was the ruler of these in Valhalla. Still, Hela often sought to expand her kingdom by conquering Valhalla as well which often brought Hela into direct conflict with both Odin and his son Thor. On one occasion, Hela attempted to persuade Thor into entering Valhalla when he was on the verge of death, although he eventually refused. Hela also entered into an uneasy alliance with the other Death Gods of Earth.

A vaguely similar comic book character is Lady Death who, depending on the version, is an outright villain, a mortal woman transformed to a supernatural being by a spell and destined to fight and overthrow Lucifer, or a somewhat more noble character, also under a spell and who battles darkness in a medieval-like world (one where she's not always in a bikini).

None of those images are my ideal female "death", and I imagine a personified death to be a supernatural and final lover; someone who embraces you, not in lust, but in intimacy (and what's more intimate than death) in your final hour. I suppose we all want death to appear in a pleasing shape, but the fact that we personify death at all means we want it on our terms.

Death isn't something we can have our way. It's not a person or a just is...and it waits...for everyone.

Afterword: I realized after I published this blog post that, if I could pick any actress to play death in a film, it would be Angelina Jolie. Ironic that her now husband Brad Pitt played death in the movie Meet Joe Black. Jolie would have done a much better job and have brought the true "presence" of death to the screen.

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