V. Embodiment and disembodiment
Susan Bleakley’s photographs capture the morgue after hours, when no bodies are at home—the material furnishings rather than the pathologists, mortuary technicians and dead bodies who normally inhabit the space.
Figure 27. i Cliff diver in Acapulco. Photograph courtesy of Alphonso Lingis
There are people who actively seek out dangers, heading into lethal situations. Death can appear to be a good compared with a life in which the cause to which one had consecrated oneself without reserve is lost, in which all the goods one aims for are blocked, or with a bleak life in which nothing attracts one.
There are people who readily engage in dangerous activities—reckless speeding in motorcycles or cars, unprotected sex with multiple partners, harmful recreational drugs, unhealthy eating and drink indulgence. They are attached to the pleasures of these things and do not heed the dangers. But perhaps unconsciously they are actively heading into the dangers and into death.
There are government leaders and captains of industry who conduct enterprises of great risk to whole populations and to themselves. They stoke industries that pollute the land and air, they devastate environments and pollute the oceans, they pursue losing wars. Individuals acquiesce in these enterprises out of weakness and inertia.
Sigmund Freud believed that certain behaviours betray a death drive. Soldiers from World War 1 who suffered grave traumas had dreams that repeatedly brought them back to the scene of the disaster. Freud’s patients who had suffered painful experiences that had subsequently been repressed compulsively re-enacted those experiences. Children’s play often staged the loss of the mother or of themselves. Freud speculated that all living organisms tend to the quiescence and inertia of inorganic matter.
Maurice Blanchot saw in the active engagement with death the culmination of the value of freedom that characterises Western post-Enlightenment culture. Freedom advances by rejecting the authority of religion and the state and with science and technology delivering humans from bondage to natural and material necessity. Freedom runs up against its ultimate negation in death. Freedom triumphs over this negation by choosing the time and means of one’s death. In Dostoyevsky’s Demons Kirillov dies by his own hand when and how he chooses; his choice of his death is a rejection of the dominion of God.
To know what happens, what is
“We do not know what happens, what is, if we do not know great joys, great pains,” Georges Bataille said. That is the conviction, the experience of some people who seek out dangers.
We happen upon unforeseeable objects and events that radiate incalculable excesses of reality. Astonishment and joy open before them. Joy is greeting, acknowledging, affirming the wonder and power of what happens, what is. Joy is the feeling of excess energies surging. Joy is the body affirming itself, saying Yes to itself, overflowing. The joy that breaks forth before an enchanted object or event spreads across the world in which such a wonder is possible. To welcome in joy, the unpredictable marvel, is to say Yes to the zigzag path through contused halts and blind stumblings that brought us there. Joy is the state that opens widest to what happens, what is, what was, what will be.
Joy is the most expansive state; it illuminates the distances and the heights, it opens wide upon what happens, what is. Joy sees the uncertainties and the risks and says Yes to the determinisms and Yes to the chance that composes the world. Joy is the most comprehensive, comprehending state, the most truthful state.
Boredom and sadness, wariness and prudence shrink back from much that reality harbours, they raise up fences and walls, they leave the horizons and the depths in darkness. Scepticism and suspicion narrow down the mind, recoiling from and saying No to things and events; tear peers into the future to say No.
Exposing oneself to the grandeurs and the depths is also vulnerability. We are never so vulnerable, so easily and deeply hurt, as when in love. There are people who understand that to seek fulfilment in the love of one or several people is to close off the love and joy of what the universe lays forth every day. There are people who understand that the body armour of security, status, accoutrements, and possessions walls us off from what is, what happens. Who understand that in vulnerability and exposedness comes ecstasy.
The chosen vulnerability
After Chris McCandless’s death, mountaineer and writer Jon Krakauer (2015) recounted his life in Into the Wild. Emile Hirsch played him in a film of the same title, directed by Sean Penn (2007) (see also Brown 1993; McCandless 2011; Saverin 2013; McCandless 2015).
Christopher Johnson McCandless was born in 1968 in California and grew up in Annadale, Virginia. His father Walt was an aerospace engineer who worked at NASA and later created his own company. From his first marriage there were six children. Then Walt courted and moved in with Wilhelmina Johnson, called Billie, who worked as a secretary at Hughs Aircraft. Chris was their first child; a daughter Carine was born three years later.
While in high school Chris went to Washington DC and roamed the streets buying hamburgers tor homeless men and women. When he finished high school he spent the summer driving his second-hand Datsun south and across Texas to California and back. At Emory University he majored in history and anthropology. He took courses in ‘The Food Crisis in Africa’ and ‘Apartheid and South African History.’ The summer between his junior and senior years he drove to Alaska and back. When he graduated in 1990 his parents wanted to buy him a new car and urged him to apply, given his outstanding grades, to Harvard Law School.
He took the remaining $24,292 of his college tuition fund—a bequest from a family friend—and donated it to OXFAM America, to fight hunger. Telling no one, he got in his Datsun and headed West. When asked he said his name was Alexander Supertramp. In July, his car was drenched in a flash flood in Arizona. Removing and hiding the license plates so that it could not be traced, he abandoned the car. He burned the last of his money—$123. He was not seeking risks or death. He cast oft the body armour and panoply in order to expose himself, vulnerable, directly to the grandeurs in nature and the individuality in people met at random.
He hitchhiked to Reno, Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada. He fished and scavenged for food. He kept a journal and took photographs. In the fall he hitched and rode freight trains up the Pacific coast to Washington, then east to Montana. In South Dakota he worked for Wayne Westerberg, who operated two grain elevators and combines. In November he hitched to Idaho and down to the Mojave Desert. Everywhere people were drawn to him, his modest charm, his evident intelligence, his enthusiastic storytelling. To some of these people he regularly sent postcards. In a December postcard thanking Westerberg for his hospitality, he wrote,
Sometimes 1 wish I hadn’t met you though. Tramping is too easy with all this money.
My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal . . . I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.
In Arizona he bought an old canoe and paddled down the Colorado River some 400 miles into Mexico. He paddled down the Mexican coast and camped in a cave, not seeing or speaking to anyone for more than a month. Returning to the US, he worked briefly in Las Vegas and at a McDonald’s in Arizona. In January he went back to South Dakota to work tor Wayne Westerberg.
He was 24 years old when in April he left tor Alaska, to live off the land for the summer. He gave his wristwatch to the last driver who gave him a ride; “I don’t want to know what time it is. 1 don’t want to know what day it is or where 1 am.” He headed on foot on a track known as Stampede Trail, with a field guide to the edible and toxic wild plants ot south-central Alaska, a light rifle, and 10 pounds of rice. And books—Thoreau, Jack London, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak. Twenty-eight miles down the trail he came upon an old bus that had been left there to serve as a shelter for hunters and trappers and soon made it his base camp. He carved on a board on the bus:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shall not return, cause “the West is the best,” and now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution! Ten days and nights ot freight trains and hitching bring him to the great white north no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.
After three months he decided to leave, but found the summer-swollen river impassable and returned to the bus. At the end ofjuly he became violently ill. Subsequent research by Krakauer determined that he was poisoned by a plant that was not identified as toxic in the guide to edible plants he studied. He grew progressively worse and died on the 113th day of his stay in the wild. Hunters discovered his body two and a half weeks later.
Just before he died, he took a photograph of himself standing holding a board on which he had written: “1 have had a happy life and Thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God Bless All.”