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Death’s Dream Kingdom

By Zaheer Kazmi.

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Half a century ago, in The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski evoked the trauma of the Holocaust through the eyes of an unnamed child roaming anonymous villages in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Life comes to mirror the enigmatic futility of death as he witnesses the lurid brutality of everyday abuses meted out seemingly without reason or consequence. The relentless cruelty in the novel, carried out by superstitious peasants steeped in folk beliefs, is set against the faint backdrop of unforgiving rationalism associated with the Nazi exterminations. In this foreboding landscape, civilization and barbarism have become indistinguishable. Kosinski’s obsessively dark meditations leave little room for redemptive light in the midst of human suffering. Weighed down by plagiarism accusations later in life, he became a mute witness to his own brutality in the auto-asphyxiation of his suicide. Like the child voyeur who lost the power of speech in the suffocating nightmare Kosinski had imagined, violence ultimately jolted him too into his own silent world.

The intimacy between voyeurism and death, which so marked Kosinski’s life and work, might well be a peculiarly human inclination. It is certainly a form of surrogate gratification which has come to characterise how death is managed, particularly in the West where it has also become increasingly absent of religious ritual. This oddly dehumanising dimension of humanity is reflected most starkly in the way even the death of a family member tends to be dealt with at a step removed from one’s own life by the outsourcing of funerary rituals which the state has now largely standardised. In this way, death is sublimated into impersonal processes and bureaucracy to make it appear more distant and obscure from our everyday experience as human beings. The inability to confront death directly may be why in America state executions are mediated through the polite theatrics of curtains drawn and undrawn: the botched executions of Dennis McGguire, Clayton Lockett and Joseph Wood last year provided rare glimpses into the netherworld beyond the screen when the grim choreography goes awry.

While America executes its deviant citizens as a means of asserting the state’s social control, its particular mode of killing also seeks to remove death from view, even when – as these recent executions have shown – death can persist as an otherworldly reality which haunts its own. Yet, beyond its theatrical method of capital punishment, is there also a stronger intimacy in the way the modern liberal state in the West deals with both death and dissent? Might death also underpin the state’s wider existential fears of dissent – not only of capital crimes such as those of McGuire, Lockett and Wood, but of the state’s deeper subversion by religion in particular?

Religion uniquely threatens the vicarious way the secular liberal state deals with death. On the one hand, in death, believers celebrate the afterlife and often affirm its superiority over this life. On the other hand, in life, religious belief interrupts the state’s day-to-day rational civility through occultist invocations of deities above and beyond the state. Seen in this light, the state’s rational need not to comprehend an authority outside itself means that both death and religious dissent can only be conceived of in a world of fantasy, at least in the secular liberal imagination. The state’s religious subversives thus become a kind of living dead because, like the dead, they too belong to a realm of unknowable and dehumanised relics – inhabitants of a clearing-house for the vestiges of supernatural belief beyond reason.

This attempt to write death out of the present has a deep history in modern Western society, where liberal, secular and rationalist trends have failed to hasten the decline of faith-based superstitions and their animated visions of death and the afterlife. It is both unsurprising and ironic, then, that Enlightenment luminaries whose thought was significantly shaped by their religious backgrounds – from the puritan Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the American state, to former Dissenting preacher, William Godwin, anarchist progenitor of the anti-state – could only imagine the death of death, rather than death itself. Through the proper exercise of reason, humankind could eventually, they both believed, overcome death. However, with the inevitable ‘euthanasia’ of government, Godwin noted, the state itself would eventually die, making its own calls for liberty strangely suicidal. The paradox, of course, is that as death itself could not be rationalised by Franklin and Godwin, they shared implicitly with religious believers an irrational or indeed occultist vision of it.

The belief in an enlightened civilization built on science and reason which would see humans living forever is paralleled today in the growth of artificial intelligence and the quest for life after life in the transhumanist melding of man into machine, from Mother Nature to motherboard. So the possibility of eternal life has not been jettisoned altogether but rather replaced by the notion of human consciousness kept alive on a computer hard drive or in the Cloud. Perhaps the most striking thing about these remarkable developments today is that such thinking is no longer relegated to the margins of dissident thought, but takes place in bastions of mainstream academia like Oxford University’s ‘Future of Humanity Institute’ and the work of philosophers such as Nick Bostrum who has been included in Foreign Policy magazine’s annual lists of ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers.’ The irony is that eternal consciousness – and the radical dislocation of mind from body which it implies – is an eschatological concept central to religious teachings: even truly rational human agents can be propelled towards envisaging some kind of afterlife in their repulsion of the flesh.

Can such transcendent visions of death, which liberals and believers in God share in their different ways, also tell us something about the ambivalence of the liberal state to killing in an era of wars which have claimed the lives of so many in its name? In those Western liberal states such as the UK which, unlike America, no longer put their own citizens to death, there is still a desire to alienate death and dissent but it is often projected outwards to a global enemy who is equally unfathomable. Violence has become increasingly identified with religion as a kind of rekindled anti-Enlightenment barbarism. Since 9/11, Islamist militancy, it is argued, has become the quintessential example of a new and deadly anti-rationalist philosophy epitomised today in the appalling acts of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria. In the wake of suicide bombings and the deep-rooted religious desires that have animated them, these 21st century wars do not appear to fit readily within the usual rationalist vocabularies of military strategy or liberal morality. Like the pantomime murders that play out in America’s execution rooms, technological advances in warfare have also increasingly sanitised acts of killing in these arenas through ever greater estrangement from direct experience: as leaked video footage from US drones and warplanes has shown, their victims can also function as voyeuristic entertainment, or ‘bug splat.’

At the same time as it signals a return to barbarism, today’s religious violence is unavoidably suffused with the ways of modernity and can be understood as an outgrowth of them, at least according to writers from John Gray in Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern (2007) to Karen Armstrong in her more recent Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014). But might the opposite be true – that the modern world cannot exit the transcendental categories of religion? The eternal life that Franklin and Godwin sought in the name of reason and progress is echoed in the rhetoric and practices of militant Islamism today. But this is not simply because they too cannot escape dreams of an afterlife, or because they have a tendency to be as utopian and naive as suicide bombers in imagining future salvation. It is sometimes argued that the Enlightenment project seen through a mirror darkly has led directly to a host of atrocities, including genocide, because of the brutal logic of its rigid belief in instrumental rationality. But perhaps it is the superstition liberalism seeks to extinguish but which remains an indelible part of it – rather than the implementation of its rationalist ideology – that reveals more about why its current wars on religious fanaticism are also a mirror onto its own dreams of death. Liberals may yet make sense of the primal behaviour of their adversaries through the transcendental vocabulary they share with them on matters of death, but which they have relegated to the realm of dreams.

Dreams have often been associated with the counter-cultural subversion of bourgeois practices. By identifying rationalism with the oppressive alienation of humanity from its more authentic and spontaneous nature, they have been central to Surrealism and the avant-garde, for example, but also linked to heterodox Sufism and militant Islamist martyrology. But even for liberals, death is the one thing that is at once known, as a pristine fact, yet unknowable, a void encountered in dreams or nightmares. So in some sense, as Werner Herzog has observed in his reflections on death-row executions in the US, regardless of our belief systems we are all living in death’s ante-chamber and staring ‘into the abyss’, witnesses to the ineffable ‘recesses of our existence.’ Perhaps this is why the missionary zeal of liberal internationalism is even more relentless than that of the religious empires of the past, which ultimately succumbed to diplomacy and accommodation. And why the ‘war on terror’ really is endless: not because it is impossible to stamp out global terrorism altogether, or to destroy an abstract noun, but because by hunting ghosts, it seeks in vain to eradicate what is ethereal, unable to ever fully discern what it cannot reason.

It is not unusual for liberals to find refuge in a kind of faith themselves when they are finally confronted with the reality of death. In The Fog of War, Herzog’s peer, filmmaker Errol Morris, lists the ‘second lesson’ from the life of US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to be the dictum ‘rationality will not save us.’ During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the singular point in modern history at which death had stared humanity as a whole in the face, the vanguard liberal state, it seems, jettisoned rationality to rely on a kind of metaphysical providence. Just a few years earlier, at the height of the Cold War, Kosinski, a staunch anti-communist who was alleged to have had CIA associations, had emigrated to America from Poland, the place he would later re-imagine as the nightmarish landscape of The Painted Bird. Despite claims that he was a literary fraud who revelled in deception and reinvented his own life story as sheer spectacle, the tragic inner world of Kosinski and his ambiguously shaded anti-totalitarianism still resonates today. For what cannot be truly apprehended often becomes an object of denigration in the minds of those who must seek an answer to its mystique: the eponymous bird of Kosinski’s work was itself killed by a flock of birds threatened by their incapacity to understand its rare but artificial beauty. And like primitive beasts acting in concert, it is, after all, the organized and collective violence of the state rather than its lofty ideals that ultimately ensures its dominion over dissenters. So it is that a kind of dead dream born of the need to alienate continues to colour the folkloric imaginings of the barbarians and the totalitarian desires of the civilized.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zaheer Kazmi is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History at Oxford University and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University. He has published two books, one on William Godwin’s anarchism, the other on contemporary jihadism. He has also written for The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, The Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, openDemocracy, TANK magazine (forthcoming), Bidoun (forthcoming), and Carta (a Berlin-based blog) and has two books forthcoming with Oxford University Press/Hurst – a co-edited volume with Faisal Devji, Beyond Muslim Liberalism, and a monograph on Muslim ‘anarchism’ called Jihadutopia: Visions of Anarchy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 18th, 2015.