It is not so surprising, these days, to come across a manual on how to live well. But how about dying? As a matter of fact, one informs the other and this has been known for centuries across time and space and cultures, in as much as it has been pursued by various religious practitioners. Below is an excerpt from a series of voyage writings initially performed by a character named X. They/him/her can be characterized by a certain sense of gender, age, race, and identity fluidity in general. Although plural references are not always preferred, they indeed point out toward a more complex and non-polar reality in which we exist. While revisiting the medieval genre of Ars Moriendi, one of the first Christian printed texts of the 14-15th century, X also spends time with dying people and animals. From a cultural perspective, the most common metaphor of death is a transition, a journey toward something. Some scientists claim, however, that the reason we don’t understand death is because we don’t understand consciousness. Hence, in his search for ways to link up Aristotelian and Platonic traditions of thinking, X is looking for knowledge in both materialism and metaphysics.  

               THE WITTGENSTEIN

“I don’t know how to move on,” X says to a close friend on Zoom (in those days the word ‘zoom’ already mutated from its original meaning). And then continues: “as… you know, one can not talk about the art of dying without touching upon metaphysics...” It is now 2021. “You have to read Wittgenstein,” the voice echoes from the other side of the screen, followed by an exhale, and a click. The flickering sound of a lighter. X fills up his glass with wine, and that very same evening he starts reading Wittgenstein. And then he remembers something: in 1993, Derek Jarman directed a film called Wittgenstein, and the following year, in 1994, died from an AIDS related illness. “At this point I am trying to express something that is impossible to express,” writes Ludwig in 1914. 

The philosopher explains his conception of the world using logic, applying mathematical categories. This thinker, as well as his ideas, are hard to understand to many. But it is mutually agreed that he is a genius. And one may ask: “So, what does this have to do with theart of dying?” Not more than the fact that logical considerations eventually lead to metaphysics, to the limits of oneself, and the restrictions of language. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” believes Ludwig. According to the philosopher, the need for mysticism arises from the inability of science to meet our needs. “We feel that even after all our questions are answered by science, the problem of ours, as such, would not have even be touched,” he writes. Metaphysics, non-polar views of the world, and fantasy are necessary when considering matters of existence and non-existence. Between existence and non-existence there is magical thinking. 

X thinks about the fact that in the Christian tradition god exists in three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Mother Mary in fact exists in more than one name, in more than one embodiment of representations (she is The Mother of God, The Virgin, Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Madonna del Carmine, Madonna dell’Arco, Madonna delle Grazie, Madonna della Fertilità, and so on). What is such a complex identity referring to, apart from the pagan tradition? Does this liberate a believer from an oversimplified perception of reality? In 1914, Ludwig wonders, how is it possible for the heat to be both: material and movement. What if things exist in more than one way, in a nonlinear time? “There is dualism, positive and negative facts, that bother me. There can be no dualism. But how to avoid it?” Ludwig makes a note and X reads it more than a hundred years later. Finally, X starts to understand some of the philosopher’s thoughts. For example: “words are like membrane on top of deep waters.” 

X learns about his friend’s death on Facebook. The last exchange is dated back to 2017. It sounds a bit like this: 

This friend: we could meet on Sunday. 

X: sure. 

They never meet, of course. At the funeral, X is crying for himself. “In reality there is only one soul of the world, which I first and foremost call my soul, and due to that I come to understand what I call the souls of the others,” writes Wittgenstein. And further adds: “In death, the world does not change but stops existing.” Time slows down and space becomes porous. X has a job interview at the National Portrait Gallery. There, presented with an image of a suffragette, he can’t recall her name. ‘Dead’ and ‘returned’ author of the bestseller Dying To Be Me Anita Moorjani says that our bodies and earthly experience are not more than 20 percent of reality. ONLY 20 PERCENT OF REALITY. 


                 EGG AND A SKULL

Naples, 2020, Autumn. The second wave kicks in (and by now we all know what it means). There are crowds of people in the streets of Naples. Their faces are covered by masks. “This virus follows the trace of human sins,” thinks X looking at Dante’s sculpture. “It spreads through pollution,” whisper the inhabitants of the city. That night, X starts to read Inferno. Dante is thirty two. He goes out for a walk in a forest and meets Virgil, the poet, who takes him to hell. Seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth. This is the architecture of hell. Dante is writing The Divine Comedy… up until his death in 1321. And where exactly is Dante at the moment? 


In the centre of Naples there is an ‘egg castel’: Castel dell’ovo. According to the legend, that same poet who took Dante to hell hid an egg underneath it. This egg is a symbol of the wellbeing of the city. VIRGIL’S EGG IS STILL UNDERNEATH THE CASTLE. “Virgil, show me what you have shown to Dante. Show me the hell and show me your egg,” X calls upon the poet. An egg stores creativity. Hell stores destruction. But what’s there, in the middle? “Do you know about Averno lake?” Giulia asks X, while holding a poetry book by Louise Gluck. Romans believed that the Averno lake is the gate to the underworld.


X finds herself at Santa Maria della Sanità, at the entrance to the catacombs of San Gaudioso. Underneath this baroque church there are Christian burial tombs, established in the 5th century. On the right hand side—bloody (literally) Jesus, not causing any major discomfort to anyone in particular. Naples has lived through quite a few pandemics. Not to mention the Vesuvius eruption which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum—the two Roman cities that are now cultural cemeteries. These beautifully sided natural and cultural monuments are reminders of a temporary life and existence. But, while we can, let’s go back to the church, to the catacombs of San Gaudioso, where the guide carefully warns the visitors: “Don’t touch the walls, they are covered in fresco. Frescos are there even when you can not see them.” In this moment, X becomes more and more comfortable with things that one simply can not see. 

The story is a time machine. Now, the guide takes his tourists to the 17th century, the same Napolitan catacombs, but somehow different, as now there is also an artist involved, by the name of Giovanni Balducci. The mannerist painter refuses the fee for his frescoes in order for himself to be eventually buried alongside aristocrats and the rich. In 17th century Naples, this type of funeral is a huge luxury. The amounts paid forcantarelle(‘drying of the body’) and the ‘exhibition of skulls’ practice equal millions in today’s money. This kind of investment into corporeal preparation is also a direct ticket to paradise (one that allows the sinner to skip purgatory, for example). Through a hole carved in the church’s floor, dead men and women are lowered into catacombs, where schiattamuorto is performing his duties. His job is to place ‘the seated dead’ into small arches, above a pot, where the liquids of eroding bodies will drip. This kind of skeletonisation practice is called cantarelle. Schiattamuorto (who, very often, is a prisoner) won’t work for too long: he will get sick or even die due to exposure to illnesses, viruses, dirt and, most likely—horror. The bones of the dead will later be gathered and placed in small shelf-like gaps carved in rock. All except from the skulls, which will be plastered into the wall and frescoed around. By Giovanni, of course, an artist aiming to become an artwork himself after his own passing. “Giovanni… Have you been working for free for so long in order to go to heaven, or because you wanted to remain seen among the rich?” X asks Giovanni, but receives no answer. 


It seems that here, in Naples, there is sufficient space for gaps: gaps of  knowledge and experience. The architecture of this city is both solid and porous due to the building blocks made out of the volcanic rock tufo. The community has long established ways of dealing with the unpredictability of the future. Apart from Virgil’s egg, the city is also guarded by the miracle of St. Gennaro. Twice a year, the dried blood of the tortured saint turns into liquid: a performance witnessed by many, broadcast on TV, and talked about across the country. Dry blood turning liquid means a good year for Naples. Death here does not mean anything bad, unless it comes in uncountable plurals. The loss of a hero, such as Maradona, is lived communally and, at least for a split second, thwarts even the pandemic related fears. Naples has approximately fifty patron saints. Maradona has good chances of joining them. Death, rituals, games, and miracles are tangled together and performed/exhibited publicly. In Naples, fiction meets experience, fiction meets life. 


The Fontanelle cemetery has historically stored the bones of pandemic victims. Unidentified, unblessed, and hence shielded from the heavens forever. People from the community, generally women, adopt those unfortunate skulls, pray for them, clean them up, and help the souls meet the god. Once in heaven, the soul mediates between the person and god, helping to fulfil the earthly needs of the sinner who passed. X would also like to perform an adoption. However, he is currently in a wrong era. The Fontanelle cemetery is closed for the duration of the new pandemic, and the practice of adoption is no longer officially performed. “Francesca, can you tattoo a skull for me please?” X asks her neighbour. Franci agrees and this is how imagination and blue ink fill in the pores of the skin and the gaps of possibilities. X thinks that the only issue with imagination is that it draws on past knowledge and experience. Plato’s cave metaphor is therefore the metaphor of madness. But is it really true that outside of our experience there is only madness? 



Travel back in time. The first wave of the virus K in Kaunas, Spring, 2020. X is reading a book called The Story of St. Michele, written by Swedish psychiatrist Axel Munthe, and first published in 1929. His memoirs speak of the cholera, the pandemics in Naples, an earthquake in Messina, and, of course, the saints. “My head sank on St. Francis’ shoulder. I was dead and I did not know it,” Munthe finishes the story describing his own death. X closes the book and goes for a coffee. “This is my favorite book,” says X’s mother while petting her dog. In his book, Munthe speaks of animals greatly. Birds, monkeys, dogs are as important as English aristocrats. The dog looks up and jumps barking at the balcony. The apartment that caught the dog’s attention is located on the sixth floor of a nine-story Soviet building. There, continuously and unluckily, pigeons are trying to build a nest. 


Time travel forward. Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples, the Autumn of the same year. An injured bird flutters on the side of the road. “It must have fallen out of the nest prematurely,” thinks X. Surrounded by trash, Vespas, and chaos, the bird is condemned to die. At first, X decides not to interfere, and then, of course, he interferes. Partially. She puts the bird in an empty bin nearby, and then goes for a coffee. Three hours later the bird is still there, in the bin, but this time, surrounded by trash including empty beer bottles, but excluding cigarettes. X imagines the bottles hitting the pigeon while getting into that bin. X feels guilty, leaves, returns, and eventually takes the bird home. All efforts to feed the nestling are unsuccessful. At night, the bird starts fluttering around. She knows the bird is going to die. X takes the bird to her palms, which calm the pigeon instantly. John Berger writes that animals first enter human imagination as messengers and promises. The bird dies at dawn. A simple death of a pigeon. Death is always at our side and it “is the one wise advisor that we have”, as anthropologist Carlos Castaneda writes in the 1970s. “Birds have a better ability to travel across space and time... and across lives,” exhales X as she remembers a tale by a buddhist monk, about a bird exposed to human gentleness that came back as a man.


In 2019, anthropologist Mayanthi L. Fernando gives a lecture entitled SuperNatureCulture, in which she discusses the non-human elements in culture, as well as the mysterious case of her cat’s ghost, which has pushed her towards an epistemological gap. She is no longer sure ‘what death is,’ and explains how her lived experience points at the epistemological limitation of secularity. Mayanthi claims that modern human kind is not only separated from the ‘natural,’ but also from the ‘supernatural’ world. In this context, the post-human(ist) project, which pays attention to non-human actors, can be understood as porous and post-secular. The anthropologist speaks about the word ‘uncanny’ and the fact that our encounters with other animals make us feel uncomfortable not because we don’t recognise this confrontation, but rather the opposite, because we remember what we have turned away from. Fernando wonders why anthropologists writing about the jinns (that exist in Islamic tradition as supernatural creatures that are neither innately evil nor innately good) don’t receive the same kind of enthusiasm in the academic world as those writing about biological non-human actors. Why is it easier to accept the existence of bacterias than the existence of jinns? She ends her presentation with words: make of it what you will.