Ethologies of Death

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology posted some thoughts in response to my last blog on the concept of Life. I suggested that one way of distinguishing the human from other kinds of being is that we can contemplate abstractions like life-in-itself, and therefore also, death-in-itself.

Adam writes the following:

I think this is worth discussing further, and while I think Matt is on the right track here, I also want to ask: what does it mean that elephants perform burial rituals for both other elephants and other species such as the rhinoceros (as Bekoff says is the case)? Is there some contemplation of the meaning of “life itself” and its inevitable end result in death? It seems that elephants in this case are contemplating not just their own life cycles, but also acknowledging that such cycles are a property for living beings in general, which would in a way hint that they are contemplating the meaning of life not just “for them.” Of course, I am speculating, but I think its worth thinking about. Elephants partaking in the aporia of the life/death mystery? Thats the kind of question I’m interested in. More to come, Im sure.

Adam is right, Homo sapiens are not the only mammals who have some inkling of their own mortality. Elephants mourn dead members of their group, and apparently, other species as well (I’d like to know a bit more about that!).

Then there are chimpanzees:

I think I’d still argue that, while other animals can mourn their dead, they are still mourning particular beings, rather than contemplating life-in-itself. After all, even human scientists only recently came to grasp the significance of extinction, the death of an entire species. But then again, this raises an interesting line of inquiry… there is nothing inherent to our biological constitution that makes us aware of death, since children only gradually come to understand mortality, often with great emotional difficulty. And if we take Socrates seriously, even fully enculturated adults are in the dark in regards to contemplating the true nature of death. Perhaps it would be more helpful, if also a bit more mystical, to conceive of the “Human” or “Anthropos” as a transbiological, archetypal potential not monopolized by the Homo genus, but available to a wide variety of complex earthlings, particularly mammals? To be human, then, would mean to be capable of contemplating the meaning of death; but “Human” as an ideal that a number of biological species, including elephants and chimps, participate in to varying degrees.

There is a lot more to be explored and unpacked here. Plenty of occultists (especially Rudolf Steiner) have suggested that there is an intimate link between thinking and dying, and that somehow consciousness is always already an awareness of spirit, or that which is beyond this body. There is also a rich tradition of Hermetic speculation about the Anthropos and its evolutionary relation to the human animal and the rest of the earth community.

I’ll close this admitedly aborted inquiry for now with an few words of Georges Bataille’s cited by Thacker in After Life:

And the spirit is so closely linked to the body that the latter never ceases to be haunted by the former, not even at the limit, the point where spirit is never more present than when death reduces it to the status of a thing… In this sense, the corpse is the most perfect affirmation of the spirit. It is even the essence of the spirit to reveal the definitive powerlessness of death, in the same way that the cry of that corpse is the supreme affirmation of life. (Theory of Religion, p. 54).