A social psychologist explained mortality salience to me: in the presence of death, people become conservative. Confronted by death, they think only of themselves, their immediate families, and reassuringly rich companies with powers adequate to ensure things remain the way they are.
No plague of asteroids is necessary to induce mortality salience in test subjects. You just use the word “death” in a sentence, or write it on the wall. Hours later, those you have reminded of death still believe justice and beauty are luxuries best postponed to a future golden age.
I got to thinking about mortality salience today because I often think about it. It’s one of the great pitfalls of environmental activism. “Nature is dying,” the activists say, and the public replies, “Nature is dying? I’m mortal, my kids are mortal, and you’re talking about bright blue half-inch chameleons?” To be effective as an activist, never say die. Unless you’re on the right. Then say it as often as you can, alone in the basement, standing in a trash can full of water. Come upstairs only to eat and sleep. That’s my advice for people on the right.
Essays should be thoughtful and well informed. Too much thought is crippling, and information should remain within the bounds of common knowledge. I have a very advanced degree but never really got off the ground as an intellectual, so I can write essays just fine. The quality my essays exhibit is “literary.” As in, words about words.
If you watch TV, you will have noticed that it reprises the climax of possibly the greatest American poem: “Death, death, death, death, death.” If not the greatest American poem, definitely the greatest tragic love poem about birds on Long Island.
However, poetry and TV do not work in isolation to maintain the mortality salience condition. Today it was a novel that made me think of it: nearly thirty years after it was published, I read White Noise by Don DeLillo. The narrator thinks of death day and night. He sees it in clouds, Hitler, his bones, his wife, and his gun. Dying, the physical process that in many cases makes childbirth look like a walk in the park, doesn’t seem to figure in his thinking at all, possibly because not everyone does it. In Genesis there’s someone who “walked with God: and he was not,” and if you look at a picture of the mortal remains of Robert Walser lying in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956, you can see that he may not have died. It’s possible he walked with God and was not. Many people—even today, even in hospices—die screaming. Others have the common sense to walk into hospices under their own power with notes from physicians giving them permission to sleep through the whole thing. Two weeks later they’re dead, insensible throughout, having smiled sweet goodbyes to their loved ones on the first evening. Visitors hear about them only from junior staff and only in the middle of the night. A scream echoes through the halls, and a sheet-changing 19-year-old who isn’t yet with the hospice program remarks, “You know, it’s strange more people don’t ask to sleep.”
It’s an ethical gray area. Sleep resembles death. Thus induced sleep resembles euthanasia, which is illegal even where suicide is not. Plus why would you want to sleep through something as “comfortable” as palliative care? “Comfortable” means (a belated tip from a rather contrite marketing person at a hospice organization) “not screaming and writhing.” Screaming and writhing do not resemble death in the least. Rather than nonexistence, they suggest denial or even anger. It’s not the hospices’ fault. It’s hard to fine-tune a sedation dose to keep a steadily deteriorating person alert but not screaming or writhing without allowing for the occasional scream and/or writhe. Not to mention “terminal restlessness” and “agitated delirium.” Hospices are crawling with volunteer counseling staff and littered with brochures that depict an easy death as a reward for a positive mental attitude, possibly because no psychosocial intervention has yet been shown effective in reducing “existential suffering.” You’re on your own with it, because they can’t treat it without altering your consciousness in a way that might shorten your life. Correction: It’s an ethical no-brainer but a public relations minefield, and you can’t blame the hospices for running a command-driven system.
Personally I think the reason people employ grand euphemisms of mortality and ceasing to exist is because they know that dying can lend a whole new meaning to the word “unpleasant,” and even make inroads on redefining “torture” and “terror.” Most especially, dying (as opposed to death) can help us distinguish “inevitable” from “gratuitous.”
I feel I should spread the word about mortality salience because knowing its effects can help you stay free, critical, and unselfish should future mortalities tempt you to hunker down. You will definitely be dead someday. But who says you have to die? Have a frank talk with your doctor about general anesthesia before he or she gives you “conscious sedation” that reduces you to the condition of the living caryatid guy glued to the wall in Alien and muscle relaxants that make “Kill me” sound like “Ih ee.”
I’m not knocking our society for keeping people safe and warm to die of thirst. (Asking for water is “a habit,” and sucking hard on damp swabs is “an unconscious reflex,” while “home,” where hospice clients consistently beg to be taken, is death itself.) If you need mass media to keep your mortality salience levels high enough to make the status quo seem uniquely meaningful, you’re a lucky person. For what it’s worth, Albert Schweitzer said the most pathetic thing about third-world life was strangulated hernias.
A contrasting, less depressing stimulus of mortality salience is the femme fatale. She sleeps with you on a whim. You toss and turn in bed next to your wife every night for weeks. When months have passed, you atone at the taxpayer’s expense, taking a test for HIV. The results come in. What a relief! Your wife loves you desperately, and you regret your involvement with the highly competent, even acrobatic, yet somehow unfeeling woman who now avoids eye contact.
When did the virgin and the whore trade places? Not so long ago, virgins submitted to conjugal duties while whores had passionate attachments that sealed their sad fates. Now the respectable girls are the ones who fall hard, follow you around, and call at inopportune moments, wanting you to pick up the kids or whatever, while sluts provide a taste of mechanical detachment and a chance to try out sex practices that looked good on paper. There are so many new ones, it’s hard to keep up! In a market, no brand can prevail without a unique selling point, and the ramifications are endless.
But can the sex industry ever hope to overtake the mortality salience industry? They say if it exists, there’s pornography about it, but mortality salience has more body parts to choose from, more genres (mystery, hospital, mafia, zombies, et cetera), it’s been going longer (Iliad), plus it can legally show children and animals, so I’d say it’s a close call.
Being almost purely a documentary genre, porn has lower barriers to entry, but I like to think that its variety may ultimately be limited, somehow.
In conclusion, a case study to test your comprehension of the purposely jumbled argumentation above: Can Batman’s nemesis Catwoman induce the mortality salience condition (Republicanism) by trying to kill him, and if so, in whom?
Discussion: If she were a human-sized cat, she would confine her movements to seven thousand square feet near her food dish and never kill anything larger than a burrito. Being a woman, she follows Batman around. Many would call this stalking, yet she never attacks without first drawing attention to herself, usually with a pose that is sexy rather than frightening, plus doesn’t she carry a whip? It is very much unlike actual stalking, and I don’t recall that either of them dies. (Disclaimer: I know nothing about Batman.) Here we see again the cruel paradox under which women must live today: the domesticated woman miscast as predator. Salient above all is her immortality. Many woman have played her, and many will in the future. Like Americans in times of peace and safety, Batman and Catwoman have nothing to fear but each other. Each remains committed to the well-being of Gotham City as he or she sees it, chained to the same friends and enemies for all time, a surrogate family in endless shared struggle. One is never more engaged with one’s environment and more eager to foster its positive potential than when trapped in a common space with no way out.