Death Comes Alive

Jonathan Strauss

in Human Remains

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print February 2012 | ISBN: 9780823233793
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780823241262 | DOI:

Series: Forms of Living

Death Comes Alive

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This chapter examines the most influential of the early nineteenth-century theories of death. Death, from the hygienic viewpoint, was a material presence: not a concept or abstract limit, but a state. Its essence, it seemed, could be located in putrescence, which was understood, in turn, as a form of fermentation. From a close reading of key pathological texts, an ambiguous image of death emerges, however. And this ambiguity opened a rich imaginative zone in which the living and the dead could share characteristics, a zone from which emerged the notion of an inanimate sentience hidden in the material world and vestigial present in human consciousness. This sentience was particularly closely related to the sense of smell, through which human beings retain an experiential access to it. The sense of smell revealed, moreover, a capacity to reorganize the significance of mortality in its structural relation to the city.

Keywords: putrefaction; Paris; miasma; life; death; sentience; Louis Pasteur; Claude Bernard; smell; Walter Benjamin

Chapter.  12750 words. 

Subjects: Literature

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