Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Día de los Muertos and the virtue of playing with the dead

Hoy es el Día de los Muertos. Today is the Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Yesterday was Halloween in America. For us, encounters with the dead are a scary phenomenon, even if a somewhat compelling one. In Mexico, Day of the Dead is an opportunity to honor and communicate with ancestors. It’s not very scary.

The two events do have humor in common, but it’s of a different sort. Halloween humor calls on that childhood part of us that loves to be scared by the “spooky” stuff of fantasy. It’s the part of us that compels us to see horror movies. In Mexico, the humor seems less restrained to me. The universal symbol of the day is candy in the form of a smiling sugar skull. There are all kinds of toys featuring every form of life in its skeletal guise, going about ordinary activities. I have a couple of cool wood assemblages that you can crank to cause the inhabiting skeletons, including members of a mariachi band, to jiggle. (Thank god it doesn’t include sound.)

I’m not sure that both celebrations aren’t driven by the same unconscious effort to come to terms with death. It may be that in our culture, that effort is more repressed, so that actual contemplation of the dead takes on a more defended guise. Halloween reminds us of the cemetery, our own eventual destination, but it’s not a cheerful image.

On Day of the Dead, however, people go to the cemeteries to decorate their relatives’ graves with marigolds, candles, incense and, sometimes, the dead person’s favorite food. People also create ofrendas at home — basically altars honoring dead relatives.

This aesthetic aspect of Day of the Dead particularly fascinates me. It’s illustrative, I think, of the premise behind imaginal psychology — that the psyche expresses itself through images. (Jung said “psyche is image.”) The same is very true in Sevilla during Semana Santa, when images of Christ’s passion and the grieving Virgin Mary are paraded through the streets, accompanied by costumed penitents and bands playing mournful flamenco. This ritual replicates an ancient pagan one, as do Day of the Dead and Halloween. All three are carnival-like and all three deal with death with varying degrees of openness.

Usually, we look at these holidays as breaks from the routine, but I think they mainly function as rituals that involve images in near archetypal form. They not only remind us of our eventual fate and call to mind our ancestors. They also replicate the literal style of the presentation of psychic reality.

James Hillman notes, for example, that the fundamental quality of images is their movement. If an image comes to mind, and you focus attention on it, you’ll see that it morphs, staying in motion, until it finally comes to rest or disappears. During Semana Santa, this process is literally externalized. People are partying in the streets when there’s a sudden blare of a horn or powerful whiff of incense. An enormous float, hundreds of years old, comes into view and the partying stops. The float, borne by dozens of men hidden under it, lumbers down the street, occasionally stopping to literally dance to the music its accompanying band is playing. People reach out to touch the float in silence. Then it passes, and the partying resumes. It’s a mysteriously compelling aesthetic ritual — in Sevilla the city literally becomes a theater — that demonstrates how death requires our acknowledgment, even in the most pleasurable moments of life. It’s also about the way the transcendental visits us, even if we don’t set out to visit it. Images have autonomy. We cannot control them.

Day of the Dead serves much the same function, although there’s the more conscious intention of contacting our personal ancestors. Both my parents died in the last few years and it amazes me how often I find myself thinking about them and actually conversing with them during reverie or dreams. With my mother, the process is mainly pleasant. With my father, who disinherited me, it’s painful. I keep asking why he did that and get no response. This month will be a year since he died and not a day passes that I still don’t feel the stabbing pain of his rejection.

I don’t really believe in a literal afterlife. I feel that spirits are personal images of archetypes whose function is to reveal psychic reality to us. The sting of my father’s rejection — and it was a lifelong rejection, although I don’t doubt that part of him also loved me — informs me in ways too complex to take up in this post.

My point here is that it seems to be natural not to just remember the dead, but to interact with them through the imagination. Coming face-to-face with the underworld, to use Hillman’s term, makes life sweeter.

(By the way Malcolm Lowry’s book Under the Volcano is a fascinating tale of an alcoholic’s experience during Day of the Dead. The movie, directed by John Huston, is good too.)

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