Dying in America
The notion of the sublime can help us understand the magnitude of the pandemic's toll – and pushes us to rethink our approach to death.
By William Schweiker|March 22, 2021
On the date of writing (18 March 2021) some 536,000 Americans have succumbed to Covid-19, while worldwide the number is a staggering 2.6 million deaths. The sheer magnitude of those who have died has reached “sublime” levels.
Religion’s place in the pandemic is obvious: pictures of mourners, pastors, and priests at bedsides, and the anguished loss of loved ones where the usual rites of death, especially religious rites, are disallowed. From Europe to the USA and elsewhere, questions about in-person worship and the propriety of clergy visiting nursing homes and hospitals abound. All of this and much more is well-known. So, how is this column supposed to give a sighting of religion? And what about the sublime and the pandemic?
Ever since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published her groundbreaking book, Death and Dying (1969), the veil has been lifted in popular discourse from the realities of death. The five stages of grief that she noted have become something of a psychological canon for those who lost loved ones or themselves face death. In the meantime, most Americans, it seems, want a quick and painless death, a fact that has energized the work of palliative care. And Americans are also increasingly averse to the idea of dying in hospitals amid highly medicalized death. Hospice, like palliative care, has, mercifully, helped to address this concern. In fact, many more American now die at home than in hospitals. Indeed, some medical ethicists even speak of enhancing the life of the dying. Point being, death is now in the open, loosed from the strictures of awkward silence.
Enter religion, center stage. While, despite what some people think, religion is not only about death and the sublime (more on this below), religious thinkers and movements have pondered, ritualized, and imagined death for a long time. Two Latin texts published in the fifteenth century amid the horrors of the Black Death inaugurated the tradition of the Ars Moriendi, the art of dying well according to Christian precepts. The genre continued in various forms: Martin Luther’s A Sermon on Preparing to Die (1519), Jeremy Taylor, called the “Shakespeare of the Divines,” in his Holy Living (1650) and Holy Dying (1651), John Wesley in sermons like On Mourning for the Dead (1726), as well as others who carried on the practice.
What terrified these people was the idea of a speedy death alone. Alone, the dying could not say goodbye to loved ones. A quick death meant that they could not prepare their souls through religious practices for leaving this world. Thinkers were also aware of the sins that demonically attack the dying, say, spiritual pride, lack of faith, or despair, and must be prevented and repelled.
Is Covid-19 teaching our high-speed, isolated, and anesthetized culture about the errors of its ways with death? Is the horror of dying a drawn-out death by Covid-19, alone, ventilated, drugged, finally seen as a human indignity? To be sure, to prolong dying strikes hard in a culture of speed. Of course, disease often drives people to religion. But something about dying well might just be happening. And, in terms of dying and dying well, the religions are in front of the culture.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the pandemic is somehow a religious event, or that it will reform the ways Americans die, or that it might drive people back into worshipping communities. This nation is too diverse religiously and non-religiously to imagine any of those three scenarios playing out in full. Besides, there are many conceptions of religion. The first point is merely to note a cultural shift over the last centuries about grief and dying and what it means in our fraught times. But more is going on, it would seem.
During events and experiences as catastrophic as the pandemic, the mind searches for ideas to make sense of them even as they escape conceptualization but not feeling and imagination. It is the feeling called the sublime. While the sublime was named in the first centuries BCE for elevated language, it came into fashion with thinkers like Burke, Kant, and the English Romantic poets to include not just language use, but also power and magnitude—greatness—beyond calculation. The mind is taken beyond itself and yet scrambles to make sense of its object mixed with feelings of danger and even terror. It is an experience of ecstasy, but one unable to attain its object. And, to continue this too brief review, scholars of religion will recognize the sublime in Rudolf Otto’s famous study Das Heilige and his notion of the experience of the mysterium tremendum.
There is a danger in seeing the pandemic as sublime. William Wordsworth, in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” wrote:
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burden of the mystery
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened. (37-41)
Wordsworth, oddly, seeks release, enlightenment, in the sublime. The danger in this Romantic account of the sublime would be to aestheticize the horror of death, as if it could be transcended through the imagination. Such imaginings demean the dignity of the dying and the dead, despite their poetic powers.
Danger noted. There are, nevertheless, elements of the sublime in the global experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of dead and dying exceed rational apprehension and fill us with terror. Unlike the holy, it holds no fascination. Few if any imagine it as demons attacking the dying because of their sins. In fact, I think we need a new concept for this experience, one that will, by the nature of the case, be inadequate for its object. Let’s call the experience of the pandemic the tedious sublime. As sublime, it staggers the mind and evokes fear and terror. Yet as tedious, it is long, monotonous, and slow. It can neither lighten nor enlighten “this unintelligible world.” But, perhaps, the tedious sublimity of the pandemic can provoke us—is provoking us—to rethink dying in America.
Photo Credit: Jared Earle (via Creative Commons)
Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.