Nazim Hikmet’s poem “My Funeral” and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Day of My Death” celebrate the idea of life by looking at it through the eyes of the dying. The point is not merely about aestheticizing death, but finding life beautiful because we have an insight into how the world looks in our absence. It is a world at ease with itself, as though we were a detail in a picture frame rendered inconspicuous by the blank canvas.
Having suffered persecution for more than a decade in prison, Hikmet found that the “sad” cannot exist unless intertwined with the “beautiful.” Some of the passionate melancholy in his poetry is inherent in how a sense of mourning dominates Middle Eastern and Turkish writing. The weight of this mourning is built into the impermanence of human longing. Life can only be made meaningful against a backdrop of pain.
This is not a romantic or sentimental view of dying with a “forever” attached to it. What death will destroy is the body, and one’s consciousness of the body as a body. Death is not the “other” of existence, but death is existence. There is no notion of an existence outside of dying. The tremendous sense of being that life will bring is owing to the continuity it shares with death. Ideally, a communist society is one that recognizes this continuity and in doing so rejects what is fundamental to the bourgeoisie, which is the ownership of property. It is property that perpetuates the illusion of life as an end in itself.
The idealizing of life in the bourgeois world is about excluding the materiality of death or about making death the polar opposite of life. Death becomes an enemy that constantly needs to be suppressed or combated. In emphasizing the materiality of living, Hikmet concentrates on the practical details surrounding his death:
Will my funeral start in our courtyard below?
How will you bring my coffin down three floors?
The lift will not take it
and the stairs are too narrow.
For Pasolini, the “ardent” Mediterranean sun stands witness to the drama of his death. It is a poignantly bright day in contrast to the poet-narrator falling into “death’s darkness.” The “self” in a work of art is an invented one. The “I” cannot exist as if it were a “real” person. The reality of “I” can be found through reference to the perception of a self. Therefore “I,” in theory, can be anyone or anything. At the end of the movie The Decameron (1971), the figure of Pasolini appears with the final line, “Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” The “I” is an element in a fantasy, and death does not make it any less fantastical than what it is. The struggle with one’s own sanity is part of the process of creating a work of art, and it is this struggle that makes life real as opposed to the fantasy of a dying self.
It is so much sweeter to dream of one’s death, than creating a work of art commemorating it. Yet the poem will make claims over reality more than the self that dies in the process of conceiving it. Saint Augustine says that God exists in the eternal present. In Hikmet and Pasolini, death can only happen in the eternal present. The vision of life in its wholeness is viewed in that dying present, which is at once time and eternity. Only in childhood can one catch a glimmer of such a present inhabited by both God and death.
“The Day of My Death”
I’ll close my eyes,
leaving the sky to its splendor.
Under a warm green linden
I’ll fall into my death’s darkness,
scattering linden and sun.
The beautiful boys
will run in that light
which I’ve just lost,
flying from school
with curls on their brows.
Perhaps the courtyard will be knee-deep in sunlight and pigeons
perhaps there will be snow and children’s cries mingling in the air
or the asphalt glistening with rain
and the dustbins littering the place as usual.
Whether a band turns up or no, children will come near me,
children like funerals.
A feeling of ecstasy dominates the poems because of how they approach death. It is through ecstasy that time is obliterated, an ecstasy at once death-like and greater than death. Children unconsciously participate in ecstasy, like the “beautiful boys” who “will run in that light” and the ones that “like funerals,” because it is an occasion to rejoice at the sight of people caught in a moment of play-acting when they weep at the thought of their own deaths to come.
“I eat existence with an insatiable appetite,” Pasolini once said. He loved life with the appetite of a dying man, which is why he could make his last film, Salo, or the One Twenty Days of Sodom (1975), with relentless daring. The film is a scathing attack on fascism, but also an invitation to death given the severity of his criticism of the role of the Catholic Church and the State in perpetuating a system based on consumption and commodification of the human person.
Death symbolizes a resurrection for the believer because life is an idea journeying from the here to the hereafter. For Pasolini, the resurrection is about revolution, which is a spiritual act because ultimately it is spiritual equality that will transform into social and political equality. The spirit however is not the abstract soul but the body struggling to defy its own limits. The body needs to believe that it is more than just a body.
What cannot be avoided is the literary understatement of discussing one’s own death. To write about one’s death as if it were an ordinary event, one among countless others, is to invoke tragedy in a way that seeks forgiveness from the world. More than love, what it seeks is remembrance. Thus Hikmet ends his poem:
Our kitchen window will stare after me as I go,
the washing on the balcony will wave to see me off.
I have been happier here than you can ever imagine,
friends, I wish you all a long and happy life.
Is it sweeter to create life rather than dream of it? Is it easier to die without thinking of death or to pass away at the moment when life is the sweetest? Saime Goksu and Edward Timms named their biography of Hikmet, perhaps the greatest Turkish poet of the twentieth century, Romantic Communist: The Life and Work of Nazim Hikmet. If “Romantic” is meant in a metaphysical sense to mean a combination of a mystic and an outlaw, then perhaps it makes sense. But certainly Hikmet doesn’t qualify as romantic in the conventional sense of the term; of someone distant from day-to-day life. Life is about creating meaning because inherently it is a meaningless universe. Beauty is what gives it meaning. Hence the sweet state of sadness in Hikmet’s penultimate line: “I have been happier here than you can ever imagine.” For Pasolini, death is what endows the struggle to be creative with a meaning that transcends life.
Boys will continue to run in the light, though “I” have just lost it.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher working as Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. He is the author of Conjurer of Nights [poetry: 2012, Waterloo Press, Hove, UK]; Nunc Stans [Creative Non-fiction: 2009, Crossing Chaos enigmatic ink, Ontario, Canada], Pearls of an Unstrung Necklace [Fiction: 2005, Fugue State Press, New York] and Streets that Smell of Dying Roses [Experimental Fiction: 2003, Fugue State Press, New York].