The preoccupation with the question of death is one of the surprising elements of both private and public thinking in our time. Until two decades or so ago, discussion of death was regarded to be morbid, and thus to be shunned as taboo. Such discussion was as greatly to be avoided then as was the subject of sex in the Victorian and post-Victorian eras. The fascination the subject of death holds for current thought is therefore a remarkable phenomenon.
That a topic which touches an issue so vital to human thought should in so brief a time cease to be taboo and become, in turn, a subject of such fascination, certainly calls for explanation. It is my purpose here to explore the reasons for this shift—a shift so drastic that it has led to the production of a body of significant literature, and has developed as well a sort of “-ology,” with its own rationale, its own metaphysics.
Some find a possible model for the drastic shift from taboo to preoccupation in the thought of Rudolf Otto. Two generations ago he suggested that human beings, when faced by the numinous (read, transcendent), tend to respond in a dual manner: in fear and in fascination. To Otto, these two elements occur simultaneously.
Thanatologists (those developing the current literature concerning death) use this formula, with the modification that these elements of fear and fascination are only theoretically juxtaposed. This means that they may be (and usually arc) evident in series or in alternation. Thus seen, the model may have its merits.
Thoughtful persons have speculated concerning the roots of this newer and disciplinary approach to the phenomenon of such a radical shift of emphasis. Certainly revised definitions of death have played a part. We have come a long ...1
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