Tag: death


The “Triangle of Death” is an area in Southern Italy, a region between three different municipalities where the local population’s life expectancy is two years lower than in the rest of the country. The cause? Trash.
For years, the region’s trash collection had been slow and inefficient, resulting from a mix of maxed-out landfills and government inertia. Then the mafia stepped in, began to offer speedy and cheap collection. And the trash disappeared: They burnt in illegal dumpsites and with very little regard to the hazardous fumes or contamination. Today, with the garbage crisis still ongoing, the resulting pollution has started to take its toll on locals, with more and more of them dying from related diseases.
The story is a poignant reminder that trash doesn’t just go away – it lingers, in one form or another, somewhere out of sight. But even the way we talk about it shows how little we think about that: We speak of “throwing something away”, without addressing the away, blindly counting on the fact that anything we want to get rid of can be put into a bag, thrown into a bin, and get carted off.
In chemistry, the principle of mass conservation states that in a closed system, mass cannot be destroyed but only be rearranged in space. When you think about our world and all the undesirable objects in it, that law seems to apply quite well: We may have constructed intricate systems to get rid of stuff, but that stuff only ever goes somewhere else: A bin, a landfill, or into the hot Italian summer air.
So it’s really our struggle to combat this reality which needs to be looked at. Trash is a trail we leave in the world: Showing not what we want but precisely what we do not want. We find it so abhorrent that it has even become synonymous with anything undesirable: Bad books, terrible movies, or even entire groups of people.
The dictionary lists “refuse” as a synonym for trash, and that term indeed seem to fit better: Refusal stands for the unwillingness to do or to accept something. And trash is exactly that: A very elaborate way of saying no.

A Friend of the Devil

The story of a musical genius, made at a crossroads one night.

Black road long and I drove and drove
I came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson
With a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back
Lookin’ for a tune

Well here comes Lucifer
With his canon law
And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw
He got the real killer groove
Robert Johnson and the devil man
Don’t know who’s gonna rip off who.

Nick Cave – Higgs Boson Blues
The story of Robert Johnson is vague. It is built on rumors, half-truths, fading memories and flat-out lies. It is the story of a black musician in white-supremacist America. It is the story of Delta Blues. It is a story fueled with envy, hatred, passion, genius and awe. But above all, it is a story of inner and outer demons.
Born 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi to relatively prosperous parents, Robert Johnson was a calm and shy young boy, noted for playing the harmonica and the jaw harp, just like so many other African Americans of the time. The boy had a keen interest in music and the strong determination to one day become more than that. In the American South, there were only so many things that a young black adult was able to do and being a musician was one of them. After Johnson married his first wife, Virginia Travis, at the age of 18 – she was 16 at the time – he became more and more determined to turn his passion for music into their means of livelihood. His young wife and her parents were shocked that an educated black man like Johnson would not use his good fortune and favorable position to strive for a reputable job. When Virginia died during childbirth, shortly after their wedding, relatives of the young girl interpreted her death as a divine punishment for Johnson’s decision to choose his music career over a settled life as family father and for singing non-religious songs. Doing so amounted to selling his soul to the devil, they thought. But to young Robert, the loss meant that he only had one love left in his life: music.
In 1930, legendary blues guitarist Son House came to the Mississippi delta. Johnson went to see him perform and was taken aback by the raw energy and the power of Son’s music. Son played music that had more to it than rhythm: he played songs that expressed the harsh living conditions and the daily struggles the suppressed black community faced in this part of the United States. Johnson realized, that he could not express these emotions with the harp or the harmonica, but that the guitar was the musical instrument most apt to set his feelings to a tune. Not long after, Johnson began traveling around his hometown Robinsonville with a cheap guitar strapped to his back. But unfortunately, as Son House recalled in interviews about the young Johnson much later, he did not appear to be very talented on the 6-string instrument and would literally scare off audiences. “They would come out and say ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy?’”, Son remembers.

A genius in the making

Making barely enough money to get by, Johnson left the scene around Robinsonville and relocated to the nearby town of Hazelhurst where he – a nobody – played in taverns, on street corners and during Saturday night dances. During one of these performances, he became acquainted with Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman, a well-renowned blues guitarist who would change Johnson’s life.
As with most of Johnson’s life story, the details surrounding their first encounter and their following meetings are vague at best. Most accounts were passed on over generations, from mouth to mouth, but were never properly documented or verified. What we know today, is that Zinnerman was famous not only for his guitar skills but also the way he acquired them. Rumor had it, that Zinnerman learned to play the guitar supernaturally, by visiting local cemeteries at night and strumming tunes on top of graveyards. Most chroniclers of Johnson’s life are positive, that Zinnerman was Johnson’s tutor and helped him to perfect his playing. How he did that, remains a topic of much speculation and the source of the myth that became almost synonymous with Robert Johnson himself: his deal with the devil.
There are many accounts of a dark night – some place it in a hot summer, others in a stormy winter – in which Robert Johnson went to a crossroads, the precise location of which is still widely debated, to meet a tall, dark man who would wait for him at midnight to tune his guitar and thereby bestow upon him superhuman guitar skills in return for his soul. The first one of these accounts goes back to Tommy Johnson, potentially a distant cousin of Robert and a Delta blues musician himself. Apparently Zinnerman also made a pact with the devil and told an ambitious Robert Johnson that this was the only way he could master the instrument like his role models Son House and Willie Brown did. Other accounts claim that Johnson heard of the deal after one of his gigs. Most of the accounts, however, lack precision or conflict with others. The only indisputable thing is that something happened in Hazelhurst. That when Robert Johnson returned to his hometown Robinsonville, shortly after having left as an embarrassingly untalented guitarist, he returned as the musician that would later become the unrivaled king of delta blues.
Johnson’s guitar playing had improved so drastically over such a short time that many of his contemporaries thought black magic or some other supernatural power was at work. To musicians like Son House, it seemed abnormal that the guy they had laughed about only two years ago would now outplay them. Johnson’s hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle, paired with his dirty-sounding and energetic music, further boosted his reputation as a musical daredevil. His play was too perfect, too different, to be man-made. Even decades later, musicians listening to his recordings would marvel in awe at his skills. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously asked “Who’s the second guy playing?” when he first listened to the king of delta blues, disbelieving that one man could play both chords and riffs like Johnson did. At the time, the idea, that pure ambition and discipline were Johnson’s formula for success, seemed preposterous. There had to be more.

A devilish pact

The history books are filled with stories of people making deals with the devil and trading in their soul for power, money or success. Goethe’s Faust is likely the most prominent example but by no means the only one. It was rumored that the mother of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini sold her son’s soul to the devil in order for her son to become the world’s greatest violin player. Throughout Europe, there are many bridges that became known as “devil bridges” because people during the Middle Ages considered such constructions to be beyond human capabilities. It seems that in most cases when devil’s help has been added to a story, it was for human disbelief in human talent or achievement. The things that are too perfect, too flawless to be true, that almost exceed our imagination, are explained by the intervention of a product of our imagination: the dark lord. Religious beliefs tell us, that things have a god-given order. Religion tells us what is possible and what is not. Often, pious, bible-loving people do believe in the miracles of scripture, but consider man-made miracles simply implausible.
Especially in music, religious beliefs have a tradition of discrediting or accusing everything that does not appear to be in line with the imagined harmony of the universe. For example: during the Middle Ages, the tritone between C and F sharp became known as “diabolus in musica” (the devil in music). This tritone – a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones, sounded dissonant and was believed to summon the devil if played out loud. Centuries later, the tritone would become known as “the blue note” – a fundamental part of the “devilish” Jazz and Bebop of the 1940s.
In the case of Robert Johnson, as with Paganini, it’s fair to say that jealousy and malevolence lie at the heart of the devil legend. It was easier to believe that Johnson had acquired his skills by cheating rather than through talent. Johnson would travel the Mississippi delta, that wedge of land bordered by the waters of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, and a stronghold of Southern white supremacy, for the rest of his career as an itinerant musician, recording his landmark album King of the Delta Blues Singers that would secure him his status as musical genius decades later, when guitarists in the 1960s re-discovered his work and let themselves be influenced by it.
On August 16th 1938, aged just 27, Johnson died in Greenwood, Mississippi. The exact circumstances leading to his death remain as mysterious as the man himself. Some accounts have it, that he was stabbed by a jealous husband of a white woman that Johnson had been flirting with. Another version of the events has it that the husband poisoned him. Typical for his times, Johnson was buried in a homemade coffin provided by the county and laid to rest in an unknown grave. What remains is his music, which inspired so many later generations of musicians, and the myth of a man willing to do everything to achieve his life goals.
In Me and the Devil Blues, one of Johnson’s most famous songs, he sings: “Me and the Devil was walking side by side”. Maybe they still are – somewhere at a crossroads, somewhere in the Mississippi Delta.

Telephone Angel

Museum für Kommunikation, Bern (Schweiz)

What if you could talk to the dead?

Consider the box. Slick black, a shoebox-sized container made from waterproof polyurethane. It is tastefully minimalistic. And it has the word “TelefonEngel” written across it in reassuring white letters.
The box contains a mobile phone. No contemporary one, but one of those trusty old Nokias from before the advent of the smartphone. This is an invention from 2005, after all, and phones back then were unobtrusive little devices with small screens and ever smaller keys. Devices with a standby time of up to a week. How futuristic that sounds today.
The phone in the box has been modified. Its standby time is a year, thanks to a much larger battery. Hence the size of the box. And it has been set to automatically accept incoming calls. All that makes the phone in the box a modern-day grieving assistant: Meant to be buried alongside of a loved one, it allows you to literally call them up and talk to them in the grave. Or rather talk at them, since they are unlikely to respond. The “Telephone Angel”, as its name translates from German, is a simple idea meant to ease the burden of grief.
Why, then, does it feel so wrong?

Museum für Kommunikation, Bern (Schweiz)

Museum für Kommunikation, Bern (Schweiz)

The phone in the box was conceived by a German engineer called Jürgen Bröther, who created it after having suffered the loss of his mother. In a press report following the product launch, he said that there had been so much he had still wanted to tell her. The “Telephone Angel” was his attempt to fix that dilemma for others by injecting some technology into a field in which it is conspicuously absent.
“People who are sick, have little time, or live too far away to visit their loved ones’ graves, can now call them up”, Bröther told the magazine “Stern back in 2005. And while I could not track him down for a conversation, let’s just consider the implications of his invention, which cost 1500€ and reportedly sold a handful of times – meaning that a number of burial sites across Germany briefly contained slick black boxes with rigged Nokia phones that served as a hotline between the living and the dead.

I want to be bullish on the idea of making dying less depressing

For technophiles, a frustrating aspect of life is that despite all human advancements, the overall paradigms of existence have remained unchanged. People are born, they age, they die. Some sooner than others, some tragically, some after a long, fulfilling life. And while we might have become better at curing diseases and preventing accidents, it has proven hard to significantly extend life, or “disrupt death” with technology. In other words: We may have gained fancy phones, but still experience the same suffocating feelings of grief and loss that our ancestors have for thousands of years.
Earlier this year, The California Sunday Magazine published a fascinating article by Jon Mooallem about the famous design think tank Ideo and its attempt to “redesign death”. The quest wasn’t about abolishing death but about making the experience itself less unpleasant. An audacious task, for sure, but also one that makes a lot of sense: After all, the experience of dying, one of those aforementioned paradigms of existence, has remained virtually unchanged in the past 200,000 years.
In the article, Mooallem writes about a conversation with Ideo inventor Paul Bennett:

The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed — a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle — he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.

Although I am less optimistic about the “beauty” part of that statement, I want to be bullish on the idea of making dying less depressing through ideas and technology. It is a nut Ideo has been unable to crack, and the Telephone Angel never became a commercial success either. That doubtlessly has to do with the feelings it invokes. In the article about “Redesigning Death”, Ideo’s designers remark that death feels very analogue – and I can’t help but think that the phone in the box is the polar opposite of analogue. It feels not just digital, but as though technology has gone a step too far, as though it has penetrated a sector it shouldn’t.
Feeling unease about change is nothing new, but it appears to have a special quality when death is concerned. The Telephone Angel has stuck with me for ten years precisely because it exposes the feelings we attach to death and the moral boundaries surrounding it. More recent examples like the app that keeps tweeting after a user has died prove that these boundaries are hard to see – until something crosses them.
No matter how noble the intentions, any equation containing technology and death seems to come with a significant unknown: Us. When feelings are concerned, the true black box is our mind.
Many thanks to the Museum für Kommunikation in Bern for letting us use its photos of the TelefonEngel for this article.

Everything ends

There’s a feeling that swells up your veins and chokes your senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out all thought. That’s the awareness of your own mortality.

My Grandmother faced the same fate as a biodegradable shopping bag. Both made of molecules, of atoms, controlled by thermodynamic systems intrinsically complex. With entropy, no worldly item is more special than any other.
The formal definition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics states:

The total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.

Entropy is represented as an abstraction – something intangible – but its effect is very real.
I have often thought that thermodynamics might be the Universe’s real God. We all bow down to the same master in the end, whether a star, a galaxy or a slug. Coaxed through life by the forever deceitful and cunning time, we tumble through the world blindly, as if the laws of thermodynamics had enlisted time as a servant guiding us to the bittersweet.

There is something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death

Contemplation of life has led many of us to study: Theology and philosophy, metaphysics, future technologies and even their role in a supposedly promised Singularity. Time is dripping. Time destroys all things. And to think about it – to blank out all worldly thoughts and think about man’s demise, to concentrate and connect with our fortune of a vast nothingness, of the absurdity of it all, of your own existence, of your own thoughts – creates an intense emotional paralysis. A feeling that runs through your entire body, swelling up veins and choking all senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out every other thought as if you’ve been paralyzed by a stroke. That’s the awareness of your own mortality. Some feel they could die in end that very moment, completely humbled by their own inferiority. Perhaps that is the last experience we feel when we do actually die. Completely overpowered. Gone.
But there is value in invoking that emotional uneasiness. To feel it deeply but then use it as a motivator, a call to action. For regardless where science takes us, regardless what the future holds for the lifespan of ourselves and our descendants, there will always be something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death. For a lover to overpower you is a minor prelude for what one day we imagine death might do. The French got it right with le petit mort. We each only have one real relationship, and it’s between us as individuals and time. In the end death consummates that relationship into an eternity. One day, time will ravage your body, she will destroy you, physically and mentally. Evolution may be the greatest artist but she paints a cruel beauty of destruction. All us creatures, harmonizing or contrasting with each other. None of us holding Dutch the value of the eternal whole, none more important than the other – although perhaps naively thinking we are.

Each of us, roaring to disturb the universe

To think about these things – love, consciousness, life and death – leaves us humbled by the histories of all those who have lived before us, and of all those who will live after us. To realize the unimportance of ourselves in the sequence of the eternal everything. Forever impressed by the genuine role of human anonymity, the universe doesn’t and won’t ever really know who we are, other than just one of many dots in the vast space-time spectrum. Each of us as individuals, roaring in our attempts to disturb List the universe. We roar! We roar! It’s imperative for the human condition. For change, for progress, for the advancement of our species.
Contrast that with the lives of less conscious animals and how they carry their humbler paths in the evolutionary sequence: At the end, they seek to find a secluded spot to hide and die quietly. They rot to the ground and into the circle of life. There is no fanfare. No quest for immortality. No funeral procession. And there’s a strange Lancement sort of sublimity in the minimalism. It came. It went.
Imagine if we had the capabilities to experience both our own birth and death. Man would be a different creature. By the time his consciousness has fully developed, he has often already taken much of the world around him for granted. With death there is no chance for post-experience reflection. From a positive, a something, we become a negative, a nothing. I feel my own fragility in moments of sickness, the starkness of my own decay, and I think to myself “How lucky you are to normally keep this complex atomic mix so together.”
Even though I have no desire to die, even though it’s imperative to extend and expand human lifespan, I feel lucky for what I already have. Grateful and humbled that out of all the randomness, out of all the complexity, out of all the cells and out of all the stars and out of all the processes, out of this mad unique palette that makes up this universe that I have a chance to experience. It’s a feeling that makes the mundane beautiful, because in reality there is no mundane. The simplest thing in our regard is laden with sublime complexity. It’s near impossible to not become awestruck, once you start paying attention to the details. And at the end of a long day, tired from work with restless worries, to again have the chance to be in bed remembering that it’s another night under the Milky Way. Another day that has bred a lovestruck fascination. Another day of life.