The Noble Death in Western Visual Art, Part II

by Donald Kuspit

To sum up: our unconscious is just as inaccessible to the idea of our own death, just as murderously inclined towards strangers, just as divided (that is, ambivalent) towards those we love, as was primeval man. But how far we have moved from this primal state in our conventional and cultural attitude towards death!                                                          

—Sigmund Freud1

After long hesitancies and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct. (The contrast between the instincts of self-preservation and the preservation of the species, as well as the contrast between ego-love and object-love, fall within Eros.) The aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus—in short, to bind together; the aim of the second is, on the contrary, to undo connections and so to destroy things. In the case of the destructive, we suppose that its final aim is to lead what is living into an inorganic state. For this reason we also call it the death instinct.                                                                    

—Sigmund Freud2

Mathias Grünewald, <i>The Isenheim Altarpiece</i>, closed, c. 1515 <br/> Mus ée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, Germany <br/> Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Why are there no images of noble death in modern art? Because it is an age of “decivilization” and desublimation, more pointedly, an “age of catastrophe” and barbarism. There have been such ages before, but none so total, and thus totally demoralizing for the individual. How can one have nobility of spirit when the age itself seems so completely ignoble?

Writing about the “deterioration” of the superego in modern mass society, E.V. Walter notes that it is the “psychological vehicle of ideals, conscience, and morality” and a “transmitter of culture.”3 In pre-modern society, “superego commands come from the powerful and omniscient spirits of departed ancestors, who speak to the individual and come to his aid in time of need.” In modern Western society…superego controls tend to take a more abstract form…. After introjecting primordial figures from the external world, the normal superego grows by depersonalization and universalization, creating abstract ideals such as justice, obligation, and duty. After creating these internal abstract standards, it projects them into the external world, searching for concrete models to confirm the internal commands. From the tendency to magnify and universalize, the superego constructs a fantasy of omnipotence from experience with external power and a standard of absolute justice from experience with ethical norms and standards of conduct. The traditional model that incorporates omnipotence and absolute justice is…the idea of God. Beyond the concrete imagery of primordial authority…the idea of God…becomes an ideal of ethical perfection [or] absolute virtue.

For Walter, “the difficulty of sustaining such an ideal in the modern world is one of the factors leading to the deterioration of the superego,” and with that to what he calls “the crisis in political power.” It is not only that “the processes of secularization have so profoundly weakened traditional religious convictions that the idea of God has become dim,” and thus “less real as a source to confirm superego commands” and “controls.” In addition, “the realities of political conflict,” seemingly unresolvable, “in the present age have destroyed the moral authority of leadership,” further “sapping the strength of the superego.” “The balance between power and virtue…satisfied by the rule of law” is upset, opening the way to “infinitely corruptible” leaders. Walter quotes Harold Laski: “It is the record of all history that no class of men can retain over a period sufficient moral integrity to direct the lives of others. Sooner or later they pervert those lives to their own ends.” In modern “mass society,” corrupt leadership is epidemic—Walter points to the prevalence of “totalitarian states and modern dictatorships,” in which “the leader controls by fascination rather than by trust and respect.” “Moral anxiety” increases, a “free-floating anxiety” the leader manipulates by “ideological flattery,” generating “strong libidinal ties” to him and “strong hatreds of scapegoats and alleged enemies.”

What further complicates matters is “the absence of moral paradigms to confirm internal controls” in the modern age. This absence completes the deterioration of the superego; without its controls, the individual loses self-control, and with that regresses to an uncivilized mode of behavior. He instinctively resorts to force rather than reason, acts on emotion rather than with analytic forethought. The superego involves the conscious rule of reason—teaches “observation, criticism, and prohibition” (consciousness of society, consciousness of the self and control of the instincts). With its deterioration, the ego becomes subject to the unconscious rule of the instincts and external manipulation of Caesaristic rulers, as Walter calls them. He is no longer an individual with the capacity to reason, but part of a “mass.” That is, he loses the capacity to unite with other individuals in a “rational and co-operative group”—a civilization. “A mass regresses to what [Freud] called a ‘primary group’ dominated by a leader….In the mass, individuals are reduced to a more childlike form of behavior, their normal intellectual functions are lowered, and their emotions made more volatile. The individual gives up his superego, Freud said, ‘and substitutes for it the group ideal as embodied in the leader. The model of leadership in the mass is hypnosis, and in the case of hypnosis, no one can doubt that the hypnotist has dropped into the place of the [superego].’”

The problem for Walter is that the group ideal embodied by the hypnotic leader is not the ethical ideal embodied by God. The hypnotic leader is far from ideal. Hitler and Mussolini are Walter’s modern examples, but he points out that “caesarism…is not a new form of control,” for “the very name proclaims its existence in the Roman Republic,” and it was “used to describe the leadership of the Bonapartes in France, and Cola di Rienzo was a caesaristic proto-fascist leader in fourteenth-century Italy.” There are many false gods—outsized “superegos”—in modernity, and, it seems, no true gods, superegos that encourage and even enable the ego to be true to its highest ideals. For Walter, “the contemporary return to religion” is “superficial,” because it is “not an authentic movement of the superego but a pragmatic attempt of the ego to make up for the lack of superego controls by engineering piety and establishing religion as an instrument of comfort.” Walter notes that “modern illuminati, optimistic liberals and progressives of various kinds…have been on the side of secularization, correctly understanding that the traditional pieties were transmitted and held for irrational reasons and worked as restrictions, limiting the individual autonomy that they conceived to be the goal of civilization.” But they “were not wise enough to know that religion historically had cultivated a moral order that was a constitutive—not merely regulative—element for political power, and that its destruction would make inevitable certain regressive forms of political domination more harsh than the systems they had condemned.” That is, the destruction of religion makes barbarism inevitable. Walter sides with Cicero, who regarded religion as a socially necessary illusion: “not that the ancients acted rashly and were haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs.” Cicero ironically argued that religion “performed a civilizing function: ‘to the advantage of human society, there is nothing better than the mysteries by which we are polished and softened into politeness from the rude austerities of barbarism.’”

Otto Dix,<i> Dead Sentry in the Trench (Toter Sappenposten)</i> from <i>The War (Der Krieg)</i>, 1924<br/> Publisher: Karl <br/> Nierendorf, Berlin

The rude austerities of barbarism have returned with a vengeance in the modern age. Modern art often pictures barbarism—as Goya and Dix, along with Max Beckman and Leon Golub do—or becomes barbaric itself, as its so- called “primitivism” indicates. It loses polish, softness and politeness. Barbaric in its making and handling, perhaps most consummately in Pollock and de Kooning, it no longer mediates mystery, even as it proclaims the mystery of the unconscious (which Freud showed was not so mysterious, however strange its logic)—and with that its own “enigmatic” character, to refer to de Chirico’s term. The Dadaists have been called “barbarians,”4 but modern art in general is fascinated by barbarism—indeed, a mirror of inner as well as social barbarism— no doubt because the modern world is ruthlessly barbaric. Society has lost nobility of spirit, which is why it has become a mass society full of mass death. There is little opportunity for a noble death in total war. 

Eric Hobsbawm makes the point decisively: “more human beings have been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history.” And, I want to add, killed anonymously—en masse. “A recent estimate of the [twentieth] century’s ‘megadeaths’ is 187 million, which is the equivalent of more than one in ten of the total world population in 1900.” The twentieth century “was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record, both by the scale, frequency and length of the warfare which filled it, barely ceasing for a moment in the 1920s, but also by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide…. Since this century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.”5 Human beings can adapt to humiliation, however dehumanizing it is.

“Barbarism means two things,” Hobsbawm writes: “First, the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behavior by which all societies regulate the relations among their members and, to a lesser extent, between their members and those of other societies. Second, more specifically, the reversal of what we may call the project of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, namely the establishment of a universal system of such rules and standards of moral behavior, embodied in the institutions dedicated to the rational progress of humanity: to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, to Equality, Liberty and Fraternity….Both are now taking place and reinforce each other’s negative effects on our lives.” “[T]he first form of barbarism…is what happens when traditional controls disappear,” an idea clearly consistent with Walter’s idea of the collapse and loss of superego controls. “The second form of barbarism” is the collapse and loss of “the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.”6 Walter agrees, with the addition of the set of values inherited from traditional religion, that is, the general ethical ideals embodied in the idea of God. It can be argued that the Enlightenment secularized, particularized and rationalized them, even as it dispensed with the traditional religious institutions that irrationally justified and legitimated them.

Hobsbawm argues that the modern age “confirm[s] what many have already suspected, that history…is the record of the crimes and follies of mankind,” even as he remarks, in passing, that one “cannot reasonably deny the possibility that…things may look more promising.”7 It’s reasonable to entertain the possibility, but also reasonable, as he makes clear, not to expect it to become reality. Walter argues that “men have endured periods similar to the present, although they have not been so formidable.” Barbarism seems unending, but heis less despairing than Hobsbawm. “Restorations and renewals do not respond to invitations, but come silently, unexpectedly, and often in disguise, as if to deceive the powerful forces that would destroy them on recognition. In their secret wisdom, they take devious routes, ignoring our most desperate yearnings for their immediate advent, but once they are on the way, no one can hold them back.”8 Hope springs eternally, in defiance of what Donald Winnicott calls the “death inside,” comes to the emotional rescue when all seems lost. Walter has hope, a sort of mystical hope in a “renaissance” beyond “nihilism,” as he says, quoting Camus. It is the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box of evils. But it is a thin hope, as Walter implies, perhaps like a straw thrown to a drowning man.

Is it then hopeless to believe in the possibility of a noble death in barbaric modern times? How is one to die nobly when moral idealism, not to say social high-mindedness have given way to crude realism, not to say crass materialism, and technological idealism, that is, the worship of machines, the modern gods? Can one go nobly to one’s death when there is nothing worth dying for? Is it possible to die in a civilized manner in a decivilized society? One may revolt against death all one wants, as Aurelius thought the Christians did, but one finally has to accept it, despite the physical suffering it may cause. Physical suffering— mortification of the flesh—is the theme of much Christian art, as the numerous scenes of crucifixions and martyrdoms make clear. The crucifixion scene in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1515) is perhaps the most horrific example. The numerous tomb sculptures, with the dead laid out on them, suggest resignation to death, but enduring physical suffering and resigning oneself to death do not make one’s death noble.

The bodies of the dead Christ in the Avignon Pietà (c. 1455) and Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c. 1466) are completely different. The former is eloquently emaciated, as though epitomizing all the dead Christs in medieval crucifixions, while the latter has the tentatively heroic classicizing torso characteristic of early Renaissance Christs. It is already evident in the body of the crucified Christ in Masaccio’s Trinity (1428) and Donatello’s Crucifix (1444–47). But in both the Avignon Pietà and the Dead Christ, Jesus seems incurably sick with death, unlike the ancient figure in the Fayum Mummy Portrait of a Man (second century c.e.). He is hardly resigned to it, indeed, faces death unflinchingly—in the “thoughtful, dignified” way Aurelius thought was the noble way to die. It may look “undramatic” from the outside, as he said it should, but on the inside it was intensely dramatic, as I will argue. The crucifixion dramatizes death, suggesting its consummate importance, but the ancients knew that the attitude with which one died was more important than death itself, for it was the final statement of one’s attitude to life—one’s philosophy of life or Weltanschauung. To face death nobly is to affirm life; to surrender to it abjectly is to say that life is senseless. (After all, for the Christian, the afterlife and the other world are more important than this life and this world.) And to suggest that its end is unavoidably bitter—to look back on it in horror, waiting for it to end, and sometimes forcing it to end, as the mortification of the flesh does.

Death is always on the horizon of life, and there from its beginning, in the form of what Freud called the death instinct. We cannot imagine our own deaths, he argued, but we experience death, as it were, or “express” it, whenever we are aggressive: the “aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representation of the death instinct.”9 The self is always doing battle with death, always trying to save itself from death, to preserve its integrity despite the death that threatens it from the inside and the outside, that is, from the aggression one directs against oneself, in the form of masochism, and that others direct against one, in the form of sadism, as Freud says. Aggression is innate to human nature—instinctive, but the instincts are inhuman. To act instinctively is not to act rationally, which is what it means to be human—to have a self that can be considerate of other human beings, as Freud says, which means to cooperate with other human beings to form a civilization. Civilization and Its Discontents implies that civilization is always precarious, always ready to crumble into traumatic catastrophe: the instincts are always ready to erupt, express themselves uncontrollably, particularly the aggressive instinct, which, as Freud said, seems harder to sublimate and bring under superego control, that is, civilize, than the sexual instinct. Written in response to World War I, Freud’s book suggests that civilization has become even more precarious in modern times, and that the aggressive instinct has become dangerous, even, as Hobsbawm suggests, run riot. Modern sado-masochist war aims not only to destroy the enemy’s body but his self (soul): it is indeed “total war,” war against the very idea of the human. Lacking a soul, and thus not human, the enemy is a brute, allowing one to use brute force against him, which of course makes one an inhuman brute. The larger point is that modern human beings have no souls or selves, but are soulless machines that power can deploy any way it wants: they have no intrinsic value, but only the extrinsic value that comes with their social usefulness. How can it be noble to die if one has no soul or self?

And how can war be noble when it is fought between strangers? Individuals are strange to themselves because they experience themselves as cogs in a social machine (and thus not as individuals) and because society has been decivilized into a mass. In a mass, people are strangers to each other, however much they use and abuse each other. Baudelaire already noted the existence of the uncivilized mass, and with that the decline of civilized relations. (He argued that the only way to hold one’s own in the modern mass—a criminal crowd, as he suggested—was to be an artist-dandy, suggesting that being noticed as “different” gave one a soul.) If we cannot help but be strangers to each other, it is easier to kill each other, to refer to Freud’s remark that we are murderously inclined towards strangers. A stranger is never as human as a friend, which makes it easier to treat him inhumanly. A stranger does not have our morality, which makes it easier to demoralize him. How can it be moral to kill a demoralized stranger?

The paradox of modern society is that it is more soulless, not to say “primaeval,” to use Freud’s familiar term, than traditional society. People are emotional strangers, however united by their materialistic ideology and technology. In traditional society, spiritual ideals—the idea of God, if you want—emotionally united them, giving them individual dignity as well as a sense of shared community. They fought, but with dignity, and surrendered with honor, that is, without forfeiting their soul, as Velázquez’s Surrender at Breda (1634–35) suggests. Peace with honor was possible, and war was fought honorably—following certain rules, which included ruling out non-combatants as “collateral damage.” This is why warriors could be heroes, not simply cogs in a fighting machine, individually brave even as they abided by the rules of war. (Achilles violated them when he dragged Hector’s dead body behind him, refusing to surrender it to Hector’s family so that it could be cremated. Achilles was indeed a “heel,” that is, a hero with self-defeating hubris.) As Goya and Dix show, there are no heroes in modern warfare, and no spiritual ideals. The traditional triumphs of death, for example, those of Baldung-Grien and Holbein, show individuals spiritually struggling with death, while in modern triumphs of death, there are no spiritual individuals, only dispirited victims, often in mass graves. Death- heads appear in modern art—Rudolf Baranik’s Napalm Elegies (1973) is a major example—but no noble spirits, such as Holbein’s Ambassadors (1546), haunted but unbowed by death.

In part three of this essay, I will discuss two works that convincingly depict noble death, in spite of modernism’s decivilizing impulse.



1. Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” [1915], Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957), XIV, p. 299.

2. Sigmund Freud, “An Outline of Psycho-Analysis” [1938], Standard Edition, XXIII (1964), p. 148.

3. E.V. Walter, “The Politics of Decivilization,” Identity and Anxiety: Survival of the Person in Mass Society, eds., Maurice R. Stein, Arthur J. Vidich, David Manning White (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1960), pp. 291–308 in passim.

4. “Dada was first and foremost an attitude of mind,” Max Ernst wrote—a barbaric attitude of mind, as he made clear when he said it was a series of “attacks on the foundations of the civilization responsible for [the first world] war. Attacks on speech, syntax, logic, literature, painting and so on.” The attacks supposedly expressed uncontrollable “rage” at the war, but it continued to rage for the Dadaists. Rather than trying to make the best of peace, rather than trying to develop a less aggressive, more constructive attitude of mind, they continued the war on the cultural front. In effect, they denied that culture could do any social good: that literature, painting and so on could suggest the need for the self-control, reason and morality that had disappeared during the war. Without them, postwar renewal was impossible. The Dadaists were cultural warriors who refused to accept the fact that the war had ended: their rage was a form of bitterness, eschewing responsibility for it while suggesting the feeling of self-defeat it aroused in them. It seems significant that Ernst served on the German side, which was defeated. And that the other early Dadaists hid out in Zurich—a safe haven in neutral Switzerland—to avoid serving in it, suggesting that they felt unconsciously guilty about doing so. I think this guilt informed their bitterness: bitterness about the war masked their guilt about being non-combatants, even cowards. They refused to face death—to die young—which is understandable, but it doesn’t make them heroes. But then again there are no heroes in modern war, as the artists who dealt with it made clear. Quoted in Charlotte Stokes and Stephen C. Foster, eds., Dada Cologne Hanover (New York: G.K. Hall, 1997), p. 21.

5. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage, 1996), pp. 12, 13.

6. Eric Hobsbawm, “Barbarism: A User’s Guide,” On History (New York: New Press, 1997), pp. 253–54.

7. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, p. 584.

8. Walter, p. 308.

9. Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents” [1930], Standard Edition, XXI, p. 122.


American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2011, Volume 28, Number 4