The Paradox of Mortality: Death and Perpetual Denial


Devaleena Kundu | Academia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015


Literary discourses often seek to explore the emotional motley experienced by individuals while encountering death and dying. Representations by literary artists offer a virtual space wherein readers partake of the conclusive episode in a character’s lived experience. However, does a reader in the process imagine and accept his/her own cessation? Or does it always have to be an “other” being at whose death we are present as voyeurs? Freud in his 1918 work “Reflections on War and Death” observed: “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators.”

While we recognize death as the annihilation of others, we take the possibility of our own demise as somehow being unnatural. We engage in a death denial syndrome which for instance becomes the basis of the story by Leo Tolstoy titled “The Death of Ivan Ilych”. This paper is a study of the literary representations of an intrinsic human tendency leaning towards denial whose basis might be social rather than purely an instinctual inclination. How do literary works perceive the truth of transience? Do these representations serve as a complementary projection of reality and reveal the socio-cultural repercussions of anthropological claims to immortality? Can literature aid in overcoming the existential dread associated with the notions of death and dying?

By evoking both the aesthetic and the pathological notions of death as represented in certain select literary works, this paper looks at the paradox of mortality and the role of literature in creating a forensic field that seeks to understand and acknowledge death as the unavoidable, all pervasive entity. The paper challenges the clichéd envisioning of death as the grim reaper and replaces it with a perception of death as the rounding off of an eventful life. The argument will be substantiated by references made in particular to Karel Čapek’s play The Makropulos Affair (1922), José Saramago’s novel Death at Intervals  (2008), and Carlos Fuentes’s novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), all directed at understanding the literature on death as means to interpret what it is to be mortal.

Revisiting the History of Denial

Exchanging finitude for eternal life has been a dominant leitmotif in the literature of death. Tales of attempted immortality populate histories of ancient civilizations, particularly the Chinese and the Egyptian. Consumed  by the dread of death – post-Freudian psychoanalysts traced the origins of this fear back to the narcissus compulsion  – Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, sent expeditions across the eastern seas in search of the fabled potion of life. It is indeed ironic that his untimely death was the result of frequent consumption of supposed life-extending concoctions. Recently unearthed artifacts of his tomb suggest that its creation was equally a part of his larger plan of outliving death. Constructed in the manner of an underground palace, the tomb was “an ostentatious display of funereal megalomania” (Portal 2007, 162).

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Devaleena Kundu – Faculty Member Christ University, Bangalore, India


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One Response to “The Paradox of Mortality: Death and Perpetual Denial”

  1. I appreciate the effort to discuss some parameters of the topic. Missing for me is any focus on the manner in which an individual faced with dying frames the matter — beyond simple beliefs in life hereafter and nothingness.

    The question is where is the rich list of way one can imagine dying as one approaches the final stages of that process. How many ways can one imagine moving on? The author avoids such a question — unhelpfully in my view.

    There is a famous book on Metaphors We Live By ( My own initiative was to explore Metaphors To Die By: Correspondences between a collapsing civilization, culture or group, and a dying person (

    In that process I tired to find interesting insights from — philosophers? mathematicians? musicians? etc? — offering their framing of the process. No much luck. Everyone seems focused on the binary framing which is most apparent in the author’s take on the matter.

    From a TMS perspective, what are the metaphors to frame the passing of civilization as we know it? Songs of Dying Earth?