I have no biological siblings; I’m a quintessential only child. I’ve always felt excluded from sibling relationships. So I’ve studied them with curiosity. The psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell (whose work I encountered in the new magazine Parapraxis) argues that people with actual siblings experience the trauma of sibling relations in childhood. But only children, who yearn for and dread the sibling who never arrives, experience sibling trauma in their social life beyond the family. Everyone is a potential sibling.
I suppose this feels true, for me. I’ve had a number of female friendships with forms of identification that are so intense our connection thinly endured, even after breaking. And I’ve had friendships with men where I’ve either learned how to be combative, or felt the need to fight a bully in the playground if I worried my friend might not be up for it. But what do I know? Maybe this is me, attempting to replicate some sort of stereotypically gendered sibling relationship. Or maybe it’s just friendship.
My point is simply that I know nothing of sisters, biologically speaking. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and even creating, sisterhoods. Writing a book with sisterhood at the heart of it—Sister Death—nevertheless left me with only child imposter syndrome. Perhaps this is why, when I wrote my preface that (in part) explains the presence of Krista Dragomer’s art in the book, I didn’t refer to Krista as a sister (even though we’ve used that language in real life). Instead, I wrote about our friendship.
Next week, on the Columbia University Press blog, they are featuring a Q &A between me and Krista. I’ve been told that the piece will be linked here, if you’re accessing this after next Wednesday (January 25th). I had the opportunity to interview Krista, about her art. And she had a chance to speak about the book. I posed several questions, including one about sisterhood. I really loved what she had to say about sisterhood and thinking: the idea that we make families for our ideas. I’ve always found the phrase “school of thought” too administrative. A family for thinking is much more intimate, and messy.
In anticipation of this piece, I wanted to reflect on some of the the things that I don’t say about sisterhood, in my book. All of the things that I didn’t say have become especially loud for me, now that the book is out in the world and out of my control.
Life and Death as Enemies
For those who aren’t yet familiar with Sister Death, I think it actually makes sense to start with enmity. In the book I argue that a dominant and powerful strain of Christian thought has shaped the way that both religious and secular people in places like America today think about the relationship between life and death. This strain of thought presents life and death as forces in tension, in a battle, and in a state of war or enmity.
One of the phrases that I refer to pretty consistently, in the book, is the apostle Paul’s claim in his first letter to the Corinthians that the “last enemy” to be destroyed by God is death. Paul doesn’t develop a philosophy of death, in this letter. It’s not even entirely clear what he meant to suggest (except that death is bad). But this passage has had a massive impact on theology. It contributed to the belief that death is an enemy of God. It also aided the belief that enemies of God will not live on eternally with him, but will be punished with (or in) death. Life becomes aligned with God, and the good. Death becomes a force of evil. Theology promises that God, and those who follow God, will always be on the side of life. This sets up a hierarchical relationship in which God and life are always triumphant over death and those destined to just die.
I think this is a pretty corrosive ideology for a number of reasons. I spend a lot of time talking about this in the book, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. Suffice it to say, it suggests that things like aging and decay are fundamentally bad and evil. It also suggests that non-Christians are basically already dead, and can be killed with impunity.
As I argue in the book, this enmity between life and death may have initially been theological. Nevertheless, it shows up in subtle ways all over the place, including registers of culture we think of as secular. It’s not just religious people who tend to think that death is, essentially, the worst possible thing ever. But secular critiques of theology often turn theology inside out, or reverse it. So rather than God, the good, and life reigning triumphant, in secular frames the battle is often won by death. Religion has tricked you into thinking that God and life always win, this logic goes. But, really, the truth is exactly the opposite.
Think about Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, for instance. In this film there’s a kind of soft enmity that plays out between Max von Sydow’s medieval knight, and death personified. Their relationship is not friendly, but it’s civil.
It should not be lost on us, however, that they are playing chess: a game of war. They are enemies in a battle. The knight is fighting for his life. Death is fighting for, well, death. As viewers we can see, from the outset, that death has all the power. The plague is coming for almost everyone. And in one especially poignant scene, the knight reaches out to God in a confessional, only to realize that death has taken the place of the confessor. He reaches out for God and finds nothing there, except death. It’s a modern film made by a modern man who knows that God is absent (if not dead). Death comes for absolutely everyone, in the end. Even God. It’s not God and life who win in the end, but death. Enjoy those wild strawberries now, Bergman seems to be telling us, because we’re all going to die.
This proposition seems eminently reasonable to modern people. It resonates with Freud’s claim that the true origin of all life is death, and that we all carry this knowledge within us (in our drive to return to the inorganic). It seems to carry the truth of entropy within it. But this story, that death is the greatest power of all, is a biomythology—it’s a big narrative that we tell about things we can’t quite grasp, in order to make sense of them. I’m not calling it a biomythology in order to dismiss it. It’s just a reminder that there are other biomythologies we could tell.
This biomythologoical “truth” (that death is the most absolute power of all) is something we can easily read out of our own embodied experience. Let’s say that the end of my physical body is the end of “me”. It’s the annihilation of experience and personal identity. And it’s an illustration of the power death holds over our biology. We can read this onto other dimensions of biology. The ends of other animals (dogs, fruit flies) also illuminate the supreme power of death. But analogies often suffer from a breakdown. Is the end of “me” the same thing as the end of a tree? Or a mountain? Or a planet? Does the death of a star exhibit the absolute power of death? These aren’t simply bigger versions of us. I don’t think it should be so easy to read our own embodied experiences onto massive structures in the cosmos.
What do we really know about “the end of things” in a cosmic sense, at this point in time? What if, for instance, the end of things is nothing like what we would call either life or death? What if the “end of things” is actually more like the “beginning of things” (a birth)? What if the universe ends in some manner or form that looks unlike what we call either life or death? What if we had language that might help us describe this, rather than repeating the structures and formulas we appear to have inherited?
Life and Death as Sisters
For me, this is where sisterhood comes in. In Sister Death, I reflect on the sisterhood between life and death as a counterpoint to the idea that life and death are enemies. Sisterhood is a lateral, rather than a hierarchical relationship. This doesn’t mean that it’s a relationship that’s perpetually harmonious, or free of conflict. I know, from watching my mother relate to her four sisters, that sisterhood can be full of both love and conflict, at once.
I spend a lot of time in the book making the case for sisterhood (a phenomenon that I reflect on with the help of Audre Lorde, especially). So I don’t want to repeat what I say, in the book. But what I don’t talk about are some of the inevitable consequences (the practical or imaginative consequences) of thinking about life and death as if they were in a more lateral, or mutual, form of relationship (rather than a relationship in which one demonstrates supreme power over the other).
The most significant consequence, perhaps, is that this lateral relationship requires a different set of explanations. If we believe that God has power over all things, and life is on the side of God, then the triumph of life over death can be explained by making reference to this classical theology. Life wins, because God wins. We can have faith that this is true.
Or, if we want to critique this from a secular standpoint and flip things around, then we could say that death is ultimately the most powerful force because God doesn’t exist and the idea that life wins is a fantastic lie or delusion.
But if life and death are forces in relation... what is it that keeps them bound together? What is it that creates the conditions in which their lateral relationship can function or even thrive? Where does their relationship take place? What enables it?
Perhaps I don’t get into this, in the book, because it’s a complex problem that takes us to places that I didn’t want to go, in the book itself. But it’s something I thought about, as I was writing. And it’s something I keep thinking about.
Some might say that this is the perfect place for God to appear: God is bigger than (other than) both life and death. So it’s God that keeps life and death in relation. But I have trouble disaffiliating God and life. There’s such a deep and tight bond that’s been created, in classical western theological traditions, between God and life that I have to think about things a little differently.
The name I often give this power or force (that keeps life and death in a lateral relationship) is “creativity.” Next week I’ll tell you a little bit more about what I actually mean, when I use this word. What are your associations with creativity? Do you love the word? Hate it? Does it mean anything to you? Is it too problematically abstract? Leave me a comment!
Re: associations with "creativity" --
In the context of the concepts here, I see creativity as an extension of entropy; an illusion of organization which must always come at some kind of expense, some kind of destruction. You can't paint without emptying and rearranging the contents of your paint tubes. You can't sketch without wearing your pencil down. These are "deaths" of the destroyed thing for the sake of creation of the new thing.
Regarding entropy, would the painter feel that they finally put the pigments where they were meant to be? Did they REDUCE entropy in the universe? From a very human perspective, the argument could be made that the paint is more organized than it was before. From the perspective of the atoms contained, I'd say entropy has increased overall, as the atoms of the material in the art is now a few steps further along their journey from their most organized state (which could theoretically be that little compact thing that exploded into the whole dang universe, but I personally don't think identifying the properties of the original perfect state is necessary to support the theory that changing the state of a thing necessarily introduces entropy.)
I consider the human experience the same way. We are in a state of being: we are humans, being. There are catalysts for material shaping into what we are, and there are catalysts that reduce us back to raw materials. From ashes, to ashes. From dust, to dust. I believe that creation *necessarily* comes from the "death" of the organization of the materials used in creating the new form, whether it's a painting or a person.
I never made the connection before...no wonder we fear death. We've been indoctrinated our whole lives (via Paul) to see it as God's enemy. How illuminating!! Thank you!!