Facing Death

A common theme that interconnects multiple readings, and perhaps becomes more apparent in Defoe’s work and matures in Pushkin’s “A Feast During the Plague” is the personification of death. We are introduced to different descriptions of mortality and the plague and more importantly, further understand characters, figures and viewpoints through how ‘it’ is described.

To bring you back to the feast table, as Louisa revives (line 112), she states:

I dreamed I saw

A hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes…

He called me to his wagon. Lying in it

Were the dead-and they were muttering

In some hideous, unknown language.

The details that Louisa highlights raise an interesting question about how we choose to visualize death and how that may vary between different cultures, religions and time periods. Particularly in art history, death plays a key thematic role and the Art History Project’s Curated portfolio takes you through different cultures and pieces of artwork guiding you through how the depictions and the perceptions have or haven’t changed.

Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” is perhaps one of my personal favorites, along with Hugo Simberg’s “Death Listens”. The contrast between life and death is more recognized in Klimt’s, but what surprises me about Simberg’s depiction is how patient and almost respectful death looks as he is listening to the boy playing the violin. Additionally, straying slightly away from art history and towards modern cinematography, one of my favorite scenes from the Harry Potter films captures death’s persona through an eerily interesting tale (spoiler alert).

It seems most curious then, that such a rich and vibrant track record of work has led us to the modern COVID era, where the killer is now the image of a spiked virus that has become ubiquitous all around the world.

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  1. Thanks for these links. I’m still given to wonder about the specific representation in Pushkin of the “black” man driving the cart. I mentioned in class that discussions of disease in the Atlantic world often included commentary on race and climate. It may also be of note that Pushkin himself had African heritage. One of my colleagues at NYU, Anne Lounsbery, has written about this. Of note: “the curious and oft-ignored fact that Alexander Pushkin was the descendant of an African slave. Pushkin’s great-grandfather, Avram Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in what is now Cameroon, just south of Lake Chad. By his own account, he was the son of a local prince. Abducted as a child from his native city and taken to Constantinople around 1705, Gannibal was acquired as a slave by a Russian diplomat. The African was taken to the court of Peter the Great, where his intelligence endeared him to the tsar. Peter made Gannibal his godson (hence the patronymic “Petrovich,” son of Peter) and sent him to be educated in France. During the reign of Peter’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, Gannibal became an engineer and a general in the Russian army. Gannibal’s military rank entitled him to the privileges of nobility, but his petition to the court mentioned only his father’s princely position in Africa. Ivan, Avram Petrovich’s son, would become a famous general. His granddaughter, known in high society as “the beautiful Creole,” was the mother of Alexander Pushkin.”

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