Do you know what I am strongly not about? The entire motif of Memento mori in Western art history. You’re familiar with the general premise, right, where supposedly Roman generals being fêted in the streets during a Triumph were followed about by servants whispering “Remember you will die” in their ears mid-fête, and then medieval artists picked up the theme and bunged a lot of skulls into their paintings of maidens in case anyone who wanted to look at a tapestry in the middle of the bubonic plague had forgotten about death for like, eight seconds. Memento mori is the worst. I already know I’m going to die and that there’s nothing I can do about it, why on earth should I give paintings of skulls the satisfaction of knowing they’re bothering me during the brief flicker of time when I’m still alive? Nuts to that.
Oh, figs to this. Because there are skulls, I shouldn’t waste my time reading books or looking at flutes or having an expensive pocket-watch? You’re going to have to do a better job of persuading me that the pursuit of all interests is dust and vanity if you can’t even draw a withered laurel wreath. That laurel wreath is still good! Glory never fades!!!
“Oh, look at me, I’m Cézanne, don’t eat pears because human heads have bones in them.” Those are PERFECTLY GOOD PEARS and I would eat all of them.
YOU SHOW THAT SKULL WHO’S BOSS, LADY. Guess who’s not a skull yet? YOU.
What are we supposed to do with this? “Oh, Death is lurking behind me, better not enjoy life”? You stand on that corpse, you naked babe. You’re not the corpse yet! Tell corpses to suck an egg!
Those hourglasses! “Time is running out”! Okay, well, they clearly still had enough time to sit for this portrait, so I’m not sure what your point is. Don’t yell at time for me, Death. You can have me when I’m done, but in the meantime I think it’s frankly sour grapes to keep reminding me of how you’re gunning for me down the road. I’m keeping my skull in my head until the last possible second.
LADIES. You show those bones who’s boss! It’s you, alive and riddled with blood and humours and whatnot!
You know what’s one thing the living have over the dead? We can just pick up your stupid bones and have portraits drawn of ourselves. Can you pick up my head, anonymous grinning skull? Didn’t think so. So where, then, Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, thy sting? When it comes to fine motor skills, it’s THE LIVING: 1, THE DEAD: a big old goose egg.
Remember, O Man, Look who you are / How unequal Dead and Alive are. Yes. Unequal because alive is clearly better. Look at the alive half of this painting! We’ve got: skin, hair, a shirt on, no arrows, etc. Quit trying to scare me into conceding the victory to skeletons. I AM BETTER THAN A SKELETON, until I become one.
Skulls! YOU’RE NOT SO GREAT. Quit thinking you’re so great, sneaking into the backs of portraits of severe Dutch merchants and being all proud of yourselves for reminding us of the inevitability of the grave! That doesn’t teach me anything!
Death, you get to come for me ONCE. You can’t follow people around and remind us that you’re coming over later. Get out of here, Death, and take off that toga. “In the midst of life we are in death”? More like, People keep being alive no matter how many of us Death kills, so who should be remembering whom here, guy? Think about that for a minute.
Et in Arcadia ego. Well, congratulations, Death, I’ve been to Arcadia too. It’s great. Everyone loves Arcadia. What do you want from us? “Everybody go home, Death’s been to Arcadia, better stop visiting Arcadia or herding sheep and composing pastoral verses to convince shepherdesses to give up their virginity”? Sucks to that! Go jump on some graves and yell at the dead about how alive you are. See how they like it!
Listen, SKULLS, I’ve had just about enough of this. I don’t swan around mausoleums loudly proclaiming how not-dead I am. Could you please extend the living the same courtesy we extend to you?
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.