Death Mort Tod :  A European Book of the Dead   text by  Steve Finbow  images by  Karolina Urbaniak  (Infinity Land Press, 2019)  Reviewed by  Tomoé Hill

Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead
text by Steve Finbow
images by Karolina Urbaniak
(Infinity Land Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Tomoé Hill

In Julio Cortázar’s eighth guest class on literature at Berkeley in 1980, he draws a distinction between eroticism and pornography in literature: in essence, the former encapsulates the personal, while the latter reflects the impersonal, or as he puts it, commercial. While the nuances and sometimes necessary integration of the two in successful writing may be argued, generally speaking what can be applied to the writing of sex can also be said to apply to the writing of death. In its most unsuccessful iterations, death on the page translates either to indifference or else to a spectacle in the Debordian sense: as numbing as it is violent, or saturated with misjudged emotive overflow, neither making any point beyond the act itself—regardless of any degree of passivity or activity. Even though there is no such thing as a predictable response to death in everyday life, on the page such imbalances end up showing what could be called the “ultimate authentic experience” as one stripped of its humanity. And so attempts at writing the end of life become fraught with the paradoxical problem of imbuing it with too much.

Steve Finbow’s Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead both divides and harmonizes Europe (Eastern, Southern, Central, Western, and Northern are represented here) in a series of death-vignettes, each accompanied by the spare and symbolic imagery of photographer Karolina Urbaniak. Finbow is no stranger to the question of how one writes death or the taboos associated with it—while his earlier Grave Desire is a more straightforwardly critical approach to the subject, here his writing takes on the form of a multitude of voices: the historical narrator, the observer, the ill, the damned, and the forgotten are all lent an impartial ear. This perspective stands out in our contemporary landscape of all- saturating media determined to emphasize death and its sister horrors of sickness, war, and abuse as an increasingly detached spectacle rather than as human tragedy. From the agony column letters in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, the televising of the Vietnam war, and to streamed suicide, media suffering symbolizes an appetite for image (whether imagined or actual) where our eyes are larger than the capacity of our hearts.

Death is no longer a rite of life but an entertainment, regardless of the monstrosities attached to it. To repurpose Cortázar, it is now pornography, so abstracted that it is almost incomprehensible. Philosopher Eugene Thacker, who wrote the foreword to this book, states in the preface of his own book In The Dust of This Planet, that “the world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics . . . and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part.” He speaks in the context of philosophy and horror as applied to film, music, and other media. But his remarks are no less applicable here. The constant loop of seeing and having to imagine death—possible deaths, actual near and distant deaths, imaginary deaths (such as in gaming), and the complete and total death of everyone in a single event—renders us immobile when it comes to the necessity of contemplating death in itself.

As such, Death Mort Tod could certainly exist, say, as video performance piece that presumably would carry far more impact than any news item. But the meta-spectacle in this presentation, in fact, tends to backfire because it is presented as opposed to offered as a consume-what-you-want cycle; instead of droning, it is a moral drone remote-piloted by privilege, as well as it being impossible to ignore the commercial-pornographic underpinnings of any major global exhibition. As a result, the original purpose—to highlight and humanize the tragedy of lives lost, is itself lost.

That Finbow’s work exists as text allows the reader to occupy a place that’s both uncomfortable and distantly familiar, without the placid droning of headlines or the buzz of other people’s moral positions. The mind is underscored as the only place left for true private or public human reckoning. When there is nothing to face but one’s interiority and its response to the varied degrees of human suffering, the spectacle dissolves into specter—the real is more terrifying when terrors are stripped to their essence and the only moral compass is your own. It seems equally uncomfortable to take Cortázar yet again and refer to Death Mort Tod as a sort of eroticism of death, but the truth is that its simple vignettes offer the kind of intimacy that a truly thoughtful consideration requires. It is the speaker and their subject—the voice on the page, the anguish, which deserve complete attention. As an aside, each country’s page lists the word(s) for death in its official language(s), so on the Swiss page, it is Mort/Tod/Morte in recognition of French, German, and Italian. (In Romansh, the fourth official language: it is “mort” as well.) Whether unintended or not, these translations function as another voice—a chant—underlying the rest of the text.

Switzerland and Monaco serve as excellent examples of how Finbow takes preconceptions of death and culture—e.g. that even death can be nationalistic—and subverts them. The Swiss section consists of an explanation of and letter to, presumably, Dignitas, the assisted-suicide provider. The absurdity of such an organization requiring membership—of an applicant being accepted before being able to die an “unnatural” death—verges on inconceivability. The author lists seemingly real, documented guidelines and information as well as a letter pleading for consideration, but replaces “Dignitas” with “Death.” The result is a nightmarish hybrid of IKEA suicide instructions and a Dear Santa letter—blackly sterile but genuinely devastating:

The last document to be signed by the member is the “declaration of suicide,” which states that the member is voluntarily ending his or her own life, that they want to use the services of Death, and that Death has clearly outlined to him or her all the risks involved. This means that Death cannot be held responsible for any problems that arise during the assisted suicide despite the most careful preparations.

“Dear Death. My name is S**** F*****. I am fifty-seven years old and live in Langres, France. I suffer from severe pain . . .” A few pages later, “I only wish that my country was humane enough to let a person die. Please consider my letter, I hope to hear a response soon.” To live with dignity. To die with dignity.

Dignity here resonates with alienation: to read the word is to recall its presence—even in its absence—within each vignette. In almost every one, from a visceral story of abuse (in which there seems to be no end but death) in the United Kingdom to the last hours of Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy, Finbow manages the feat of reminding the reader without moral admonishment that death and its kindred suffering at the hands of humanity (as opposed to “natural” death) necessarily removes dignity, regardless of intent; that a death without dignity ceases to become part of the essential human experience.

In Monaco, the complexities of spectacle as national identity are revealed in the narration of Princess Grace of Monaco’s fatal car crash in 1982. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say what is being done here is a dissection: the words Optical Car Crash open the piece, the title of a work from Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. According to a 2013 article on the Sotheby’s website by Roger Kamholz,

This loosely connected group of seventy-odd artworks take as their subjects car accidents, suicides, electric chairs, even tainted cans of tuna fish. Warhol appropriated source material from newspapers and police photo archives and used the silk screen as a means to mechanically repeat these lurid images across broad swaths of canvas. Whether Warhol intended to intensify or blunt the menacing content of these pictures via repetition is an open question.

Monaco, in this book, is not just any country or principality, but one whose very identity is rooted in a specific kind of artificiality, another, more appropriately Ballardian example of meta-spectacle. Ballard retained an almost clinical literary fascination with the twinned ideas of celebrity and destruction as applicable to the acceleration of modernity. Whatever Monaco was in its beginnings, there is no question that what it has indelibly become and will most likely remain is a super-state of celebrity and speed, its miniscule size amplifying the wealth that makes it possible. While elsewhere in the book San Marino is dedicated to the death of racing driver Ayrton Senna, Monaco surely endures in general thought as the most glamorous—and therefore visible—of Grand Prix circuits, so the Ballardian car-crash fantasy is perpetually equatable with the country.

The details of the crash itself are fairly well-known—Grace is driving back to Monaco, her daughter Stephanie in the passenger seat. A sudden headache—later to be determined a stroke—occurs, resulting in a brief loss of concentration. That is enough to trigger disaster in the tight, winding roads of the Côte d’Azur: the car, in its lost control, goes through a barrier down the mountain. Stephanie survives almost untouched; Grace, twenty-four hours later, does not. Her Serene Highness was of course the movie star known as Grace Kelly prior to her marriage—a life moving from one spectacle to the next, ending in yet another. Finbow cuts the text with more Death and Disaster titles: (Green Burning Car I), Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), (White Car Crash 19 Times), creating his own Warholesque text-image in the mind of the reader, a repetition of repetition and spectacle that also brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But it also asks the question of this country, what part of it is original and authentic? Hollywood is a business of celebrity and image reproduction. Royalty, it could be said, is not much different in its necessity of perpetuating lineage. Money, yet another kind of reproduction of itself that makes both possible. Death here is simply a natural—or unnatural—extension of these reproductions.

But with this assemblage of art reference and retelling, Finbow subverts the idea of identity-reproduction yet again: Grace becomes truly original at the moment of her death, that non-time between a relentless life of image and mythology. The final drive is a literal and unconscious Todestrieb. To loop back to Ballard from a 1970 Penthouse interview with Lynn Barber reprinted in Extreme Metaphors: “the car crash is probably the most dramatic, perhaps the only dramatic, event in most people’s lives apart from their own death, and in many cases the two will coincide.” Coincide? Yes. But in a life of full of the repetition of drama and vice versa, the car crash and subsequent death symbolizes a finally achieved authenticity and dignity of one’s own.

Roger Kamholz on Warhol also makes the point that in the Death series, he “took the senseless tragedies of his time, ones that expressed the fractures and failures of the American dream and presented them as history painting” with a “grave, human theme.” What Steve Finbow does in Death Mort Tod is not dissimilar: he treats examples of death and suffering in Europe as found objects, removing their lurid mythologies and assumptions by (re)presenting them without the noise that accompanies media revelations and accounts of death now. Each has its humanity restored post-death, the way a forgotten grave is tended by a stranger with nothing more than respect for a presence that is no longer. This quiet and thoughtful handling of a difficult subject calls Cortázar to mind again as eroticism in literature becomes, here, equally applicable to death: just as he says, “the erotic life is as important and fundamental as a person’s mental, intellectual, or emotional life. When I talk about eroticism in literature, I’m talking about something that is profoundly ours, that belongs to each and every one of us,” so does Finbow take death and re-imbue it with the personal and the intimate—no matter how hard the horrors of life have contrived to strip them of it—so that we can remember that beyond the spectacle there is always human frailty that demands sensitivity. The voices of each country’s vignette do not simply disappear after reading; they remain, so by the last, Europe is a song of death in the most beautiful sense: a choral piece that rises and falls with varied notes of its stories, ending with the silence of a held breath, of dignity regained.


Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in 3:AM Magazine, Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, and Berfrois, as well as in the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes), and forthcoming in Trauma (Dodo Ink). She lives in London. Twitter: @CuriosoTheGreat