The Dance Of Death

A reproduction of the Lübeck ‘Totentanz’. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In London Waterloo station, I saw a sobering sign in a bookshop window:

It’s much, much worse than you think.

This was a promotional display for David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story Of The Future. That same day, people were eating lunch in T-shirts on the nearby South Bank, during February temperatures so warm they broke British winter records.

I haven’t read The Uninhabitable Earth (you can find a review of it here), but the poster speaks of a wider escalating alarm about our climate crisis. This is a strange time. A time when winter becomes summer; a time when scientists debate cataclysmic scenarios that sound like the ramblings of religious zealots.

I’ve written about how arts organisations might respond to climate breakdown. But here I want to explore its more personal, interior aspect. Like the passengers at Waterloo, most of us must bear some cognitive dissonance – between knowing the need for radical change, and having to go about our business in the world as it currently is.

It all puts me in mind of a disturbing historical story. In July 1518, a ‘dancing epidemic’ occurred in Strasbourg. People began dancing involuntarily in the streets for days on end – some reportedly dropped dead of exhaustion. It’s an episode that has prompted various explanations: from stress-induced mass hysteria, to hallucinogenic ergot poisoning.

The idea of a sickly, unstoppable dance feels horribly relevant, as the rhythms of lives based on fossil fuels propel us toward climate chaos. It’s often said that ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. Are we heading, as some fear, towards the Earth’s sixth mass extinction? Is our civilisation – our Bach, Shakespeare, Da Vinci – merely a dance of death?

The fact that this question is even on the table is obviously acutely worrying. But in one sense, prophesies of fire and brimstone are nothing new. On a visit to Salisbury last year I came across the medieval St. Thomas’ church. In the shadow of the more famous cathedral, it boasts a Doom painting that has survived from the late fifteenth century: a vision of the Last Judgement.

Perhaps the worldview of that distant time has something to offer us now. Perhaps we need more chastening reminders of the limits of our existence. And to the poor of pre-modern Salisbury, God’s retribution wasn’t only to be found in the Book of Revelation – it would have manifested itself in real events like plague and famine, the same hardships which may have pushed the dancers of Strasbourg into their summer madness. Untimely death would have been a common part of life for these people, in a way that those of us in modern wealthy societies have been fortunate to marginalise.

Part of the St. Thomas Doom, cropped from a photo by Nessino. Wikimedia Commons.

I’d like to get a little morbid here, if you’ll allow it. Perhaps death can help us to think about our planetary crisis. Both topics feel impolite to discuss, overly gloomy. We’re generally happier when we don’t have to contemplate them. We cannot square being alive with Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country’. You might enjoy a murder mystery, that rare form of death wrapped up as a puzzle. But you wouldn’t go to a dinner party and turn the talk towards the cold embrace of the tomb.

Such morbidity was no problem in the Renaissance genre of Vanitas paintings. These combined worldly objects – often musical instruments and manuscripts – with a skull. As a symbol of mortality it’s a little on-the-nose, you might say (if it had one). But London’s National Gallery displays one spectacularly strange example from 1533. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors combines two figures and a table of objects, full of references to the religious discord of the time. Across its lower section stretches the familiar memento mori, but distorted completely out of proportion. Only if you stand to the far right of the frame does the foreshortened view magically condense it into shape.

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein. Wikimedia Commons.

This Vanitas aesthetic went beyond visual art. Consider the words of the consort verse anthem Behold, Thou Hast Made My Days by Orlando Gibbons:

For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

The bitter-sweet, minor-major turns of the music suits the melancholy text, which calls on God to ‘spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen’. As the solo voice stops and starts, hesitantly repeating itself, it is borne ceaselessly on a river of counterpoint from the viols – through all our mental turmoil, time marches on regardless. The sunny Picardy thirds of its cadences could be a resigned smile through the sadness.

In visual art, the transience of life was taken to absurdist lengths in the Danse Macabre genre. A church in Lübeck, Germany once housed a long cloth hanging called the Totentanz (Dance Of Death’), in which skeletons piped and cavorted among figures from every level of society, from the Pope right down to a baby. The accompanying text described each scene with black humour (in an extra deathly twist, the whole piece was destroyed in a bombing during the Second World War).

Fortunately pictures of the Totentanz design survive, and Thomas Adès set its text for baritone, soprano and orchestra. He wisely kept this untranslated – no language suits the sound of the grave better than German.

Totentanz forms a compellingly grotesque pageant, a relentless conveyor-belt of dispatches. ‘The thing that makes it funny’, Adès said in a BBC interview – ‘is the total powerlessness of everybody, no matter who they are’. And there’s plenty of schadenfreude thrown in when the proud and powerful are laid low. The Pope is mortified (quite literally) to be told his hat must come off, as it’s too big for his coffin. Only towards the end, when the lowly and hard-done-by meet their demise, does a sense of sympathy creep into the music. Like our planetary crisis, death touches all – but not all equitably. The score extinguishes itself in a series of deep thuds.

You can laugh, you can smile, you can cry: in the shadow of the scythe, it makes no difference. Neither does faith in salvation, for all the comfort it offers. John Tavener’s choral work Funeral Ikos sets a passage from a Greek Orthodox Order for the burial of dead priests. It’s a hauntingly simple piece – alternating between unison chant, a few contrary-motion harmonies, and a chordal refrain in a loosely repeating pattern. Tavener is well known for pared-down simplicity, but here it almost feels like an admonishment: what use is your complex artistry, in the face of death? Or as the text puts it: ‘Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then is the glory of this world?’

None of this takes away from the beauty of Funeral Ikos, and its borderline-disturbing directness. One part of the text meditates on the degradation of the dying body in unflinching detail, and Tavener sets these morbid observations to music of serene acceptance:

Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death, and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed. The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered, the shapeliness of the neck destroyed […]

When each Alleluia refrain swells to full harmony, for a heartbreakingly brief moment we hear the full flower of life in song. But it resolves neither to major nor minor – only a long, bare open fifth. Every time, the flesh withers from the bone.

Music generally finds its death in resolution. Dissonance leads to consonance, and even the most screeching atonal music relents to the balm of silence. We are not accustomed to the idea of a continuous crescendo. Endlessly growing intensity is an alien narrative, a terrifying one.

Perhaps that is part of the problem of mentally accommodating the planetary crisis. Because within the timescales of generations, a continuous crescendo of climate chaos is a significant possibility for how life on earth will play out, if it’s fed by self-escalating natural feedback loops. As the sustainability writer Alex Steffen puts it, there may be no ‘new normal’ to adjust to.

In another review of Wallace-Wells’ book, John Gibbons referred to our ‘mind-numbing, sanity-bending’ truth. If this sounds like the language of bereavement, that’s because we are in a position to grieve. The cruelty of our current moment is that it threatens a secular consolation for mortality – the notion that there will be a worthwhile legacy left, that the world might become a better place after we’re gone.

So what do you do, when you realise that your civilisation is a dance of death? The only sane answer is you begin to learn the dance of life. You start moving against the rhythms of destruction, however pulsing and insistent they may be.

Gramsci famously said that in the interregnum between the old world and the new, morbid symptoms appear. Perhaps this blog post counts among them. But there is cause for hope, in that once momentum starts, it can build surprisingly quickly.

In the last year, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has taken strikes from school to demand radical action from world leaders, an idea which has spread across the world. Thunberg speaks with a burning clarity that shames the tepid equivocation of politicians. She is also diagnosed autistic, something she partly credits for her focus on climate justice. ‘I see the world a bit different, from another perspective’, she said in a New Yorker profile. Sometimes it takes a divergent viewpoint to stand aside, and remind us of the skull hidden in plain sight.

During the recent February heatwave, I wandered in to the National Gallery. It had been a while since I’d seen The Ambassadors, and when I arrived a group of Chinese tourists crowded in front of the canvas, listening to their tour guide. As I walked to the right-hand wall beside the frame, I’d forgotten what a tight angle you need to appreciate Holbein’s amazing trick. The rest of the picture became skewed beyond recognition, but there it was. Death.

As I stood and marvelled, the streets outside the gallery resounded to the noise of city traffic. Across the Thames, passengers in Waterloo station hurried past the bookshop window. Along the busy South Bank, ice creams melted like glaciers in the February sun. And in parks and gardens across London, magnolia trees were silently coming into bloom. The colour of their flowers fade from the base to the tip: from pink to white.

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