Facing down Thanatos: the road to recovery in a landscape of ruin

Annette Rose

I heard it said recently that “imagination has taken a rest”, but has it? A mask making project in 2010-11 for children affected by the Christchurch earthquakes suggests otherwise. Here is one of my favourite mask stories from the Quake Mask Collection: a mask that illustrates a young person’s dialogue with death. 

Road to Recovery Mask (Facing Down Thanatos)

One way to see if emergency mask-making really works as a potent healing is to look inside one of the quake kid’s journals and visit her pages of working drawings (with permission, of course).  Then consult the mask itself and ask: Does it work?  

Doctor DeathIn this drawing we can see Mr Death waiting like a big fat slug. Drawn in pencil, Mr Death appears large-as-life on page after page of working drawings, alongside brainstorming mind-maps.  Interestingly though, Mr Death does not feature on the final mask.

Mr Death is mysteriously missing.

So I ask this mask-girl, “Why isn’t Mr Death on your mask?”

She tells me she “ran out of time”.

But hang on, hasn’t her teacher just told me this girl is an artist?  Good artists always make sure they get down everything they want to say. I don’t believe for one second she ran out of time. Extra points go to this mask for taking something off! Notice how the road leads to a brand new horizon. Its owner says  “My mask is about the road to recovery in Canterbury. The cloud [missing] represents death and devastation.  The road is going through the broken buildings to the new future of the city”.

Road maskThis mask shows us that hope is a road.

Clever girl, she has managed to do the impossible: face off with what screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga calls the “tongue of death”. “Death is the limit of life”, says Arriaga, and this brave young woman has decided not to accept those limits. Her mask was not made from expensive art materials, but from deep defiant decisions.

The word symbol comes from the Greek symbolon, meaning ‘throwing things together’, so as to create an imaginative bond between them. The human brain is very good at making these links, especially when under duress.  Symbols are a good way of casting light on human experience and we can call on them when things go belly-up.  According to theologian Paul Tillich, a symbol points beyond itself to something sensed but not bounded or precisely defined. A symbol, he says, gives access to deeper layers of reality that would otherwise be inaccessible. In post-crisis situations, access to a richly symbolic visual vocabulary facilitates the transition from bad-here to better-there.

And surely no harder transition is to be made than facing down Thanatos. In Greek mythology, Dionysus faces down Thanatos, the daemon personification of death. Dionysus is responsible for two special states of being:

  • Enthousiasmos—when the god fills you;
  • Ekstasis—finding yourself by being outside yourself.

This ‘removal elsewhere’ is the mask doing Dionysus’ business. We can see in this particular quake mask how this young maker has been able to transcend menacing earthquake terrors by being elsewhere: inside her splendid work, making pictures out of symbols and metaphors to her heart’s content.

Once the disaster is turned into a metaphor it is understood, made known, and made to belong to the survivors, who thereby start to climb up the road to recovery, to resurface, replace, rebuild, and renew.  It is only when a disaster … is not acknowledged or recognized, examined or compensated, that the march, process, or cycle cannot continue.”  Jonathon Skinner [1]

She-who-faces-down-Thanatos knows full well that Death can never be organised out of the big picture entirely. Yet this mask illustrates what can happen when a bright young thing has the fortitude to look Death squarely in the eye. Mr Death falls off the quake mask, replaced by the road to recovery.

[1] Jonathon Skinner reviewing Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. Ed. Susanna Hoffman & Anthony Oliver-Smith. (James Currey, 2002.)

Annette Rose:  Annette Rose is a registered nurse, doctor’s wife, mother & grandmother, social anthropologist, creative entrepreneur & storyteller, and in the future she wants to be an angel investor. She is writing a book about her work with the quake masks. Her address for correspondence is multimask@orcon.net.nz

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