Whether my life had been before that sleep / The Heaven which I imagine, or a Hell / Like this harsh world in which I wake to weep, / I know not——
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Triumph of Life’
Living on is not the opposite of living, just as it is not identical with living——
Jacques Derrida, ‘Living On’
When you survive, you are supposed to tell people about it. As the idiom goes, they lived to tell the tale. It seems, then, that we are not only storytellers compelled by life and its complex vitalities, but also ones intrigued by death. Death is not only the culmination of a story—after Shakespeare’s tragic fifth act, there is no sixth—but the beginning of a new one.
As such, this conference invites us to talk of things that start from the end. Epitaphs, photographs and suicide notes may not only be remnants of a closed chapter, but a means of survival, troubling the all too clear dichotomy between life and death that we have become accustomed to. So too monuments, literature, drama, music, film, paintings, inventions. All of us die but, somehow, we live on.
How do we survive death?
Sometimes, by preparing for it. If we look at our species in general, we know there is an end to come. As Jean-François Lyotard reminds us, the sun ‘will explode in 4.5 billion years’. And so we plan to survive by looking elsewhere, at exoplanets and terraforming. But, perhaps, the end is sooner than we think. What of global warming, and the disastrous effects scientists can already observe? How does one talk about the human-environment relationship, when the survival of our death is at the figurative centre of every ecosystem? We are also, of course, not the only species around. Narratives of extinction have shaped how we live: just as we desperately want giant pandas to breed, so too, biopolitically, we regulate our population, managing our lives, placing survival above all else. Even dying is, as Sherwin B. Nuland describes, ‘hidden, cleansed of its organic blight, and finally packaged for modern burial’. Hush, we must not speak of those who did not survive.
Looking more microscopically, how will I survive? My human body has that oft-bemoaned limitation: mortality. Cryogenics, robotics, virtual reality: is that one way of surviving? What does transhumanism promise us on this front, and what is critical posthumanism’s rejoinder? What is the body marked by finitude, and how is it different from that which survived? And what of the undead in all their forms, in mythologies and folk tales, in popular imaginations or, as Sartre warns, in each of us: ‘turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies’.
Perhaps we can learn from the past, from those who have already survived. To speak of the body is to speak also of corpus, as in the body of work, of an author, a poet or dramatist. They live on after their deaths, and literature itself, too, seems to be surviving. Has electronic literature survived the supposed death of the printed word, its spirit intact but lacking a body? What about the reception of literature itself, or of the work of art more generally? When we sing the praises of Shakespeare, Dante, Hieronymus Bosch or Chopin, the “death of the author” might be transformed into the author’s eternal survival. And what mechanisms are at play here, ensuring the survival of some and non-survival of others?
But, surely, to survive means not to die? Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ reminds us that, even if there remain ‘“two vast […] legs of stone”’, they are surrounded by ‘“decay […] boundless and bare”’; to speak of survival, therefore, is also to speak of the ultimate impossibility of survival. Death awaits all of us.
However, sometimes we survive only if we die, surviving into the after(-)life. There are the endless and at times even conflicting depictions of heaven, hell, and purgatory in painting, music, architecture and literature. Milton’s words resonate: ‘[t]he mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’. What, then, does the mind make of survival? One also encounters reincarnation (haven’t we heard of how Pythagoras met his old friend as a dog?) and the liberation from that interminable cycle as Nirvana. There is the elaborate afterlife of the Ancient Egyptians, or the idea from Germanic folklore that souls leave bodies in the form of bees, and thus the beehive is the abode of spirits. On the other hand, one sees the broad spectrum of secular nihilism stretch out across time and cultures. Don’t be daft, they tell us, there is nothing beyond life; “where death is, I am not”, to paraphrase Epicurus. Beyond life there is only decomposition to look forward to. Or perhaps, just maybe, we survive.
In light of the above, a conference on Survival is being organised at Lancaster University, on Monday the 3rd of July, 2017. Abstracts on or around the topic of survival are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the deadline for submissions is Monday, 9th January, 2017. Successful applicants will be notified by the end of January.
We are pleased to announce Professor Ivan Callus, from the University of Malta, who will be presenting his ideas in a keynote on the topic with a paper entitled ‘Surviving Criticism’.
Issues and topics relevant to this publication include, but are not limited to:
- Literary reception: the history of survival of literary works, authors, and genres
- Linguistic survival; dead(?) languages
- Survival and popular culture
- Extrajudicial survival—law, lawlessness, torture
- Fictional and non-fictional narratives of survival
- The philosophy of survival and the after-life; the impossibility of survival
- Surviving bodies: human, non-human, posthuman
- Ecocriticism and survival
- Canon and postcolonialism; the survival of the university
- Materiality/Spirituality; Theology/Secularism; against binaries
There is also the possibility of a publication of the proceedings of the conference with the peer-reviewed postgraduate journal antae (www.antaejournal.com), although other avenues might be explored in due course.
Aaron Aquilina is a PhD student at Lancaster University. He is the founder and general editor of the peer-reviewed postgraduate journal antae.