Death and literature, religion/spirituality

Death is a powerful device employed in literature to create lasting impact on readers’ minds.

The human mind is not especially given to rational reasoning, but is wont to employ heuristics of association that practically lead to local near-maxima for goals important to the human organism, viz. happiness, security and so on, but are hence subject to biases. For example, the scarcity->value association is heuristically employed to sometimes conclude the wrong implication. For instance, people may
– value hard-earned wealth over bequeathed wealth.
– not think highly of a hypothetical futuristic pill which when swallowed provides all the health benefits of exercise.
Another example – people may use “short-cuts” of associativity by making choices that are based on a different criterion than the one immediately applicable to the issue on hand. For instance, people may
– use “likability” or “family values” as important criteria to elect a president.
Advertisers and politicians are aware of these associations and use them to their advantage. Thus, the attractively clad supermodel next to a sports car that needs to be sold, and campaigners offering voters rides to poll booths (illegal in a lot of democratic establishments).

Fascination with the mystery and awe of death, as well as its finality makes it an especially effective instrument to lend gravity to a literary idea. An eager mind may be induced to conclude that a cause that needs to be paid for with death must be an overarchingly important one, since it exacts the ultimate price. Morbid plot lines stimulate zones of fascination and mystery in the mind increasing the appeal of the subject-matter. Killing a character after painstakingly developing him/her makes the story more compelling by evoking such associative tendencies of the reader’s mind. Hence for instance the larger lasting impact of Shakespeare’s tragedies over his comedies.

Most religious and spiritual literature concern themselves with ideas of death such as “embracing death”, afterlife, reincarnation, salvation/nirvana as an escape from birth and death, the soul and its immortality, hell/heaven, eternity and so on. Hypotheses regarding death play a major role in the memetic survival quality and longevity of religious/spiritual credos. There are some who have explored this relationship. For example, consider this psychological experiment referred to by Wray Herbert, and see Umberto Eco’s philosophical take on another related topic.

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5 comments
  1. nice connecting lines between literature, death and religion! interesting psychological experiment.
    Research on death/NDE and afterlife would probably be helpful in weakening religion in its core. but easier said than done

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