Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 09:31
Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xii + 297pp. illus: 30 halftones. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-59195-3). $22.95 (Pap; ISBN 0-521-64460-7).

Reviewed by
Christopher Braider
University of Colorado at Boulder

Karl Guthke's The Gender of Death surveys portrayals of death in European art and literature since the Middle Ages. As the title indicates, the organizing theme is gender. In both literary and visual images of what Guthke styles the "unimaginable"—a misleading term in that, unknowable as death may be, it is hardly unimaginable—a means of choice has been personification, giving death a human form. One consequence of this prosopopeic humanation is to assign death a gender reproducing the gendered state of humanity itself. So are there definite rules, codes, or regularities governing which gender death takes? More specifically, to cite the theoretical question that opens the book, "is Death a woman?" And if death is not always a woman—and Guthke's survey amply documents that it is not—what determines which gender is chosen in any given instance? Is it, for example, a function of grammatical gender—the fact that death is a "feminine" noun in some languages and "masculine" in others? And once the mass of historical evidence Guthke marshals has compelled us to acknowledge that there is in fact no fixed correlation between grammatical gender and the gender of death, what other cultural influences might explain the relative emphases observed as we move from one culture or period to the next?

The answer to this last question yields Guthke's "cultural history." As a history, the book naturally (and rightly) emphasizes the diversity characterizing the successive epochs of Western literature and art. What is more, the author is admirably sensitive to the diversity observed within each epoch itself.

In chapter 2, on the Middle Ages, Guthke notes that a tendency to assert death's irresistible power over human life (King Death) privileges masculine over feminine incarnations in that medieval culture projects power as a broadly male prerogative. Nevertheless, King Death belongs to a wider family embracing the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, God's "myghty messengere" (Everyman) calling humanity to moral account, and the courtly personae of hunters, falconers, and knights. But death is also the Grim Reaper, an image whose class connotation is linked to "the degradation of Death, familiar from Dante and even Chaucer, as ‘vilain,' as failing to live up to the knightly code of courtly highmindedness" (50). And as in the late-medieval genre of the Triumph of Death (68–81), death may emerge as a noble Lady or Queen (Petrarch's "Donna La Morte") riding her classical chariot over mangled mortal remains: a female embodiment associated, during the fifteenth-century revival of classical learning, with Harpies, the Furies, and the Fates, and especially with a reimagined Atropos already invoked in the thirteenth-century Roman de la rose ("atropos ce est la mort") or Pierre de Michault's La Dance aux aveugles (77). To the extent that gender operates as an identifying principle, this too reflects cultural differences keyed to theological debates as to the identity of the author of original sin, and thus of the mortality humanity's primal Fall brought in its wake: a culprit denounced now as Adam, in which case death assumes a masculine persona, and now as Eve, in which case death is feminine (58–68).

In chapter 3, on the Renaissance and Baroque, the variety of personifications is if anything greater still. In the danses macabres with which the period abounds, death is assigned a rich multiplicity of guises, poses, and social conditions: as a fiddler, hunter, warrior, drummer, herald, or fool; on horseback, as Revelation's fourth horseman, but also as a knight or King Death; as a reaper, executioner, nobleman, or courtier; as a pilot, gambler, tobacconist, trencherman, groom, chamberlain, actor, wrestler, or butcher (85–92). While masculine embodiments outnumber feminine, it is again difficult to see gender itself as a determining factor. Guthke notes (and perhaps overemphasizes) an important shift related to the theology of sin whereby the Devil (rather than Adam or Eve) is held chiefly responsible for original sin and its mortal fruit. Accordingly, death is increasingly imaged as the Devil incarnate (123–27). But the Devil is of course notoriously protean, adapting himself to whatever role serves his purpose. Whence in particular the shape-shifting observed in the chapter's main test case, the "death and the maiden" motif. Stressing the Christian linkage of death with sin, and sin with sex, the motif portrays death as a seducer undoing a young woman in the prime of carnal life. But the image readily switches poles, producing male victims betrayed by a female luxuria variously represented as a venereal goddess, a mistress, a bride, or a bawd (92–114).

Chapter 4, entitled "The Romantic Age: ‘How Wonderful Is Death"," is of most interest to readers of this website, featuring valuable readings of Herder, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, and Novalis among the Germans, and of Baudelaire from the French, with occasional glances at Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats for England. Unfortunately, as the notable absence of Wordsworth suggests, this is also where Guthke's coverage begins to grow thin. Given his exemplary insistence on diversity, it is surprising that, as he progresses to the Romantic era and the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, his examples lose variety. Chapter 4 largely reduces the Enlightenment to its late, sentimental, "pre-Romantic" phase. The author thus fails to comment on the nonetheless capitally interesting fact that the triumph of "reason" and "experience" associated not only with Enlightenment literature, philosophy, and art, but also with deistic "natural religion" actively discourages personifications of death. But Guthke's concomitant focus on the late-Enlightenment and Romantic sentimentalization of death as "Freund Hein" (147–55) or as bittersweet Thanatos in the guise of the "youth with the downturned torch" (134–44) leads him to underestimate the late eighteenth century and Romantic Gothic, one of whose great contributions to the representation of incarnate death is the Vampire—a figure the book completely overlooks.

Similarly, in chapter 5, Guthke's thematic stress falls almost exclusively on Decadence and an undefined "postmodernity," both of which favor portrayals of death as a prostitute, coquette, or Lulu-like femme fatale—though here again the Vampire is surely relevant, and some notice of representations of the AIDS epidemic (e.g., Tony Kushner's Angels in America) would have been welcome. This stress drives out much else of significance. Though Freud is adduced at one stage (albeit, curiously, as a theoretical authority more than as a period exemplar), Guthke cites the minor essay on "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (192) rather than Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the doctrine of the "death drive." But we further note that Guthke discusses no major surrealist other than Dalí, and that the existentialist contribution (most notably in Heidegger, for whom death constitutes a basic structure of consciousness itself) is entirely omitted. The chapter also neglects figures like Mallarmé, Blanchot, and (apart from a brief cameo appearance) Celan, all of whom give death a signal textual embodiment as the ground of art and language as such.

Still, by chronicling the immense historical range of personified expressions of death, the book performs a valuable service. In particular, it provides an antidote for the overdetermining influences exerted by the ideological commitments and prepossessions critics bring to topics like this one. But this also highlights the book's main weakness. If Guthke has chosen gender as his overarching theme, an underlying reason seems to be irritation with certain postulates in contemporary theory, and especially the feminism of, say, Elisabeth Bronfen's Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992) or the "sociology" derived from Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (briefly debated on 190). When one adds that such theories are chiefly relevant to those cultural developments (the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Decadence, postmodernity) on which Guthke's account is thinnest, the wide-ranging historical survey looks like a red herring. Guthke's true subject is not in fact the "gender of death" in general, a question he successfully shows to be far less compelling than one might expect. The real issue is the gender of death since Kant, and grappling with that question demands both a quite different and a far more elaborate theoretical framework than the author's otherwise useful "cultural history" provides.

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