A society that does not accept death can hardly enjoy life. The Portuguese Nobel Prize Laureate Jose Saramago, author of The Intermittencies of Death, wondered what would happen if death failed to kill. His response was blunt: “It would be a real disaster.” Years before, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan affirmed: “You are quite right to believe that you are going to die, of course; that sustains you. If you did not believe that, could you bear all this? “And Borges ironically alluded to statistics to remind us that although we do not know who is going to die today, we do know how many.
Covid-19 has forced us to look at ourselves, as a society, in the mirror and the image that returns to us contains its chiaroscuro. We welcome, in addition to initiatives of solidarity, the sublimatory beauty of the works created by older artists: Scorsese’s cinema, Núria Espert’s theatre, the characters of José Sacristán, Antonio López’s paintings, Omara Portuondo’s songs or the literature of the recently deceased Isabel-Clara Simó. And at the same time we have decided, in the name of variables as relative as quality of life or social value, that we can “invest” less in protecting their vulnerability.
The reason surely is none other than the stain that we see on their faces when we look at them, the same stain that in Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” hides by means of anamorphosis (reversible deformation of an image produced by an optical procedure) the skull as incarnation of death. An illustrative painting, where the gaze is focused on the symbols of power of values and on the insignia of the world, including artistic signs, while death is only seen when leaving the room, from an oblique angle, and only if one pays attention.
Will culture, in the times to come, redouble the segregation of the most vulnerable or will it make creation and invention the best antidote to the real that confines us?
Translated by Roger Litten
ELP/WAP – Barcelona. Published in the newspaper “La Vanguardia” on 2nd April 2020.