On Life, Love and Death

Elisabeth Bronfen is an American professor of literature. She teaches in the English Department at the University of Zurich. Her specialty is 19th and 20th century literature. She has published books on Gender Studies, Psychoanalysis, Film, and Cultural Theory.

Do you think that love can exist beyond death?
For the one who survives, the death of the other and love for the loved one certainly lasts forever. That’s why the Liebestod is such an important topos. Polemically speaking one might, and that is something that interested me in my book about the way women portray death,1 say that this is the logical consequence of Petrarchic love. In the Renaissance, the notion that it takes the death of the loved one to inspire art begins with Petrarch and Dante. When commemoration is linked to love, true love is no longer love for the real body, for the real woman, but for the dead one. So one might not only say that love survives death, but even that death is potentially the true and only proof of love. This also applies in cases where women sacrifice themselves to prove their love. That would be the topos that you find, say, in Lars van Triers’s film Breaking the Waves.
Whether the love of the one who dies also extends beyond death, depends on whether you are a Christian. If you believe in heaven, then of course it does. If you subscribe to the Buddhist or Hindu concept of the return of the soul, then of course it does too. If you are a secular person belonging to no confession, then probably not.
Fundamentally important in representations of death is a desire not to have to face up to death. That’s why people say that death is not the end of something, but the beginning of something else. The transition to another metamorphosis. In this, love naturally remains the constant.

Is the Liebestod really a sacrifice, or is it not more an egotistical action?
That, I think, is an important question when you consider the tendency to self-sacrifice that is to be found in an incredible number of women. On the one hand you would naturally like to view this as a sacrifice for a great cause. As a sign of how selfless women really are. From a psychoanalytical point of view however, it becomes clear that suicide is the ultimate egotistical act. Suicide is understood as an assertion of self. It is a kind of statement, an expression of desperation. It probably isn’t so important to distinguish whether someone really wanted to die, or whether it was a last cry for help. Self-sacrifice, suicide, attempted suicide are signals, a form of communication in which the “ego” takes a central place. “I’m going to kill myself.” This is aporetic logic—precisely by throwing oneself away, one is in fact really there.
If you really want attention, then put yourself in a drastic life situation. This is also of course the idea behind hunger strikes, and suicide attempts share the same unbelievable dramatic quality. This is an ego in the process of break-up. As it breaks up it turns itself into a perfect signal, knowing that it will be absolutely effective. With dramatically motivated suicides like these, you can be sure you’ll be remembered.
My book Over her Dead Body is about the female corpse as a sign. Take the case of Sylvia Plath.2 Put cynically, she was abominably egocentric all her life. This extended to the way she staged her death, with the two small children in the next room and the milk and bread on the table. This is like the final act of the self. Another startling/explosive case is that of Charlotte Stieglitz. In the middle of the 19th century she was the mistress of an utterly untalented writer. She thought to herself, if I kill myself, he’ll become a great poet. She thought her death was bound to shock him into doing great things. So she went ahead and did it—and of course he didn’t become a terrific poet. This too this is naturally insanely egocentric on her part, to put her body on the line as a sign for him.
At the moment though, what interests me much more is the question of survival. I always try to work counter-intuitively. I ask myself when everybody is interested in some specific thing, what is being overlooked in the process. When ten years ago I began to take an interest in the sexuality of representations of death, not a soul was interested. I find that we live in an age addicted to the death-wish. Maybe it is a form of degeneracy. From bungee jumping to drug addiction in youth culture, from anorexia to political suicides. I find it interesting to consider what surviving means. Isn’t this wish to give up everything, to stake everything on one throw of the dice easier than to consider what the consequences are, when I take responsibility for what I do?

It seems to me as if our age is one of compromises, in which more extreme positions are threatening to disappear.
That is the other side of the coin. But it isn’t a time of political visions either, in the sense of what can I build up, and how can this be carried on? You can see that people keep doing the same thing. Wars must continue to be fought. There is nobody able to imagine a new form of life, in the way they could in the early Sixties or in the Eighties. It may be dangerous just to postulate this, but I am no longer entirely convinced by this death worship and the squandering of self in Bataille’s sense.
I would argue feministically against the phallic idea of the Almighty and the Only One. That would be my feminist argument for the navel against the penis, as I have described it in my book Das verknotete Subjekt.3 The navel, which women as well as men possess, is a sign of mortality and of that part of all humans which is damaged. People have to understand that there is not only one law. We must insist on cultural difference, and people must understand that there is not only one language, one God, one scripture, not only one human being with sole right to live in one place. That there is history and we have to deal with it in a productive way. At the moment we are not developing any more. We are perpetuating forms that have been around already for a very long time. The thing that was important for me in the hysteria discussion, was that the prototype of the hysterical gesture consists in permanently attacking the suffering in the world, one’s discontent with civilisation, while at the same time insisting that there can be no tidy solution. There will be attempts but no ultimate solution. We have to accept ambivalence. In the Middle East conflict two fundamentalist leaders currently have the idea that there could be one or the other exclusive solution.

In connection with what you have written about hysteria, you describe self-liquidation and self-exhibition as interlinked. Could one say that the oppressed and misunderstood are sending signals with their suicides? Wouldn’t the self-sacrifice then be part of a hysterical gesture, which has the effect that these persons are understood beyond their deaths?
That would be my first reaction too. And that is exactly how I understood it at first. What you have constantly to bear in mind with hysteria, is that hysterical women resort to this body language for lack of other means. All other forms of language have already failed them. It may be an expression of desperation, or the hysterical woman is trying to lend urgency to something by moving outside the purely linguistic field and into a physical language. In the case of self-sacrifice I would want to distinguish between an authentic gesture and one which can be subsumed under ideology. If everybody blows themselves up, the impact is no longer quite as mind-blowing.
Antigone’s gesture—I will bury my brother, come what may—is a magnificent one, she is one of the great tragic figures. But if it becomes the norm, then it’s no longer unique, it’s a mass movement. Then it might be more interesting and more courageous to say, no, I’m not going to do that. My point is, if self-sacrifices take place en masse, we no longer see the sacrifice. Then it’s just one more sacrifice, one more corpse. That’s what I meant by an authentic gesture. My utopian idea would be one that says, sacrifice perhaps, but for an idea that serves life and tries to find a way ahead.

What is the connection between the language of hysteria and art?
I wanted to shift the performance-like art forms of Body Art, which works with the human body, into the proximity of hysteria. Among the hysterical women the ones who interested me were ones who persisted obstinately, even if they sometimes ended up dying tragically. In his case studies Freud describes women who are incredibly courageous, who want to stick it out and give expression to their discontent with civilisation with this body language.
I’ve just seen Hannah Wilke’s photographs in an exhibition in Lucerne. It is fantastic how she displays her ravaged body shortly before her death. With such self-irony and a simultaneous lust for life in the face of death. For me at the moment this has an expressive power that is something else. She’s doomed to die, yet she presses on with her artistic project.
Her works were hung in the exhibition alongside Ferdinand Hodler’s pictures of Valentine Godé Darel. This automatically throws a different light on Hodler, whom I of course know, because I thematised him in my book, Over her Dead Body. The juxtaposition makes it clear how absolutely voyeuristic Hodler is. Wilke’s pictures have a quite different expressive power. She exhibits herself as a body ravaged by illness and thus forces people to look at her frailty and death.

In reference to Hodler, you say that his work is never really about women as such. Does Wilke fill the gap that Hodler leaves?
For a start Hodler makes Valentine Godé Darel the object of his art, whereas Hannah Wilke shows her own body. Wilke adopts and also estranges the pose of the pin-up, which is extremely witty. She poses as if she were a pin-up and plays on that gesture. This irony in the face of her own death, which she knows is near, and which the people looking at her work also know will happen soon, is fascinating. The pictures are disturbing in quite a different way from Hodler’s. His work too is disturbing, but in a smooth, sentimental, way. It may be moving because you can see that the woman is dying, but mainly what you see is the artist’s suffering and his panicky efforts to capture that in a formal language. What you don’t see is the ravaged body. It is too formalised.
Wilke forces us to look at this body. This once so incredibly beautiful body, which one would like to see as a pin-up. It is as if she were saying, look at me now, this body was once beautiful, now it’s no longer beautiful, and I am going to force you to look at it. With Hodler you don’t see the body.

How are tragedy and fate connected? What is the role of fate in a suicide?
I can only give an contradictory answer, for fate doesn’t exist, it’s a figment of our imagination. We like stories about fate because they allow us to ascribe a convincing order to contingent events. It is much easier to see the world in this way, because at certain times you have no choice. You can only do what you have to. That is the Antigone-gesture.
Where I would bring in fate is with the figure of the diva.4 I have described Maria Callas as one of these. They are figures, who have something godlike on earth, who have something damaged about them, who go right to the edge, and if they don’t sacrifice themselves for their art, they at least wear themselves out in its service. What differentiates divas from glamour stars like say Marlene Dietrich, is that their careers were on the cards from the start. The idea: I am not as important as what I want to do, is something that in my view is innate, a predisposition. That is also the difference from people who attempt suicide, who turn to suicide because other people tell them it’s their best weapon. It’s not the case that from the age of five these men or women say to themselves: I have to sacrifice myself. It’s not a vocation. The tragedy concept on the other hand only works for particular persons. They are not quite of this earth. They are higher and fall further, and in this sense one might speak of fate as a vocation.

It is the sacrifice in this case motivated by religion?
Yes, the divas are something like modern martyrs. Quite early on they have a vision of something special they must do, even if it’s only little Marilyn Monroe sitting on the orphanage roof and watching the flickering logo on the MGM Studios. There is something inevitable about it. These are the figures who so fascinate us. And we should critically examine the reason for that. Alexander Kluge in his film Macht der Gefühle [Power of Feelings] asks the question, “why must the soprano die in the fifth act?” Could things not work out differently? That is the question that nags at me. I know of course how this whole sacrifice business works. Classical crime fiction also deals with it. Death is contingent. But we can’t cope with that, so we like stories in which certain persons are declared to be closer to death. They are then the victims. At the end of the classical crime story death has been banished and we have survived. The message of many plays is, they die for us that we may live. But is that very healthy? Would it not be better to assume that we are all mortal, and to develop an artistic language whose point was to look for a form in which no dramatic sacrifices were necessary?

These ritual sacrifices might also be interpreted as rituals for overcoming the fear of dying and being forgotten. You enact it in order to banish it. But if we can escape from the image of the female martyr maybe it will be a step forward. There will be no need for sacrifices any more. Why are these “great feelings” still a theme in art?
This is the aporia that we are stuck with. That on the one hand we recognise that it is not so healthy in psychic terms. On the other hand we have an incredible desire for these stories. We somehow want these great feelings. The culture that produces no tragedies is a boring culture. That is also the problem with all these welfare states. The drama is missing. Switzerland would be utopia realised, Arcadia. But the people are bored to death. Security and a quiet life don’t in fact make people very happy.

  1. Elisabeth Bronfen, Nur über ihre Leiche. Tod, Weiblichkeit und Ästhetik [Over her Dead Body, Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, 1992], Freiburg, 1994.
  2. Elisabeth Bronfen, Sylvia Plath, Frankfurt am Main, 1998.
  3. Elisabeth Bronfen, Das verknotete Subjekt. Hysterie in der Moderne [The Knotted Subject. Hysteria and its Discontents, 1998], Berlin, 1999.
  4. Elisabeth Bronfen and Barbara Straumann, Die Diva. Eine Geschichte der Bewunderung, Munich, 2002.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Tragedy, pages 123-128