Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/05/2010

On Being a “None,” Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the Denial of Death

“none,” as in “none of the above”

This is one of those days when I am definitely NOT supposed to be writing. I have too many papers to grade and too much real work to do (laundry, for example).

Sooner or later you bathe in success
And your minions salute
They say nothing but “YES”
But your power is empty
It fades like the mist
Once you’ve been kissed

—Kander and Ebb, “Kiss of the Spider Woman”

The Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) has little to do with what I’ve already written this morning in my usual fit of writing just to get it over with. Or does it? Kiss of the Spider Woman, Manuel Puig’s novel, the film starring William Hurt, and then (I assume) the musical—which I have never seen or listened to as a recording because it was running on Broadway during a time I was running away—are about obsession, obsession with love, and, more importantly, with death.

I heard the title song of the musical on the radio last night on my way home from seeing another musical, the enchantingly silly The Drowsy Chaperone, which won the 2006 Tonys for best book and best score—not as impressive as Kiss’s seven Tonys, but pretty high praise. The two musicals have nothing to do with each other. Maybe.

So here I am writing away in my hypergraphic haze (or is it simply early-morning habit? who could tell at this point, it’s been going on for so long?), and I have Kiss of the Spider Woman on my mind, so I have to stop mid-stream in what I was writing, and fit Kiss in, or I will be squirrelly all day—perhaps I will be anyway. But your power is empty It fades like the mist Once you’ve been kissed.


Like everyone else, I am powerless over lots of things, most of which are, in our unconscious minds, substitutes for being powerless over death. We fill up our lives with things, with relationships, with busy-ness, with causes, with fantasies (Ah! a connection to Kiss), with food, with sex, with all manner of obsessions trying to avoid the issue that we are going to die. And then we die. Oh my, am I not being serious and morose this morning?

It’s fairly obvious that I know all about obsessions. Even after listening to a couple of movements of the Third Organ Symphony by Charles-Marie Widor (which I’m relearning from my high school days—I seem to be doing a lot of that lately) and spending time before I went to bed looking for another piece of organ music that I want to play, I still woke up this morning thinking about Kiss of the Spider Woman. You’d be morose, too. But what I was really thinking about was what I wrote yesterday.

According to James Allan Cheyne, 19,838,000 more Americans identified themselves as non-religious in 2009 than did in 1990 (1). Nineteen million more Americans have either given up worrying about being dead or have found some way to ignore the inescapable reality or to cope with it in some new way.

Most people did not give up being committed Christians because they became convinced that religion was false. It simply ceased to be of any great importance to them; they became indifferent. (2)

These are the “nones.”

In 2009 the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) released data documenting a protracted decline in religious belief and commitment in the U.S. . . . nonbelievers of all stripes . . .the so-called “Nones” (people responding None, No religion. Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, and Secular) . . .(3)

Apparently Bruce makes a good case for his assertion, and Cheyne uses his argument to make his own argument that those of us who have “give(n) up being committed Christians” are, in fact, still “religious” in some way, but we simply don’t follow (intellectually or in our living) the precepts of whatever brand of Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or, I suppose, any other religion) we inherited. We’re simply indifferent.

I don’t believe it.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present
. (4)

I don’t know if Steve Bruce is a Christian or not (unlikely as the chairman of the Sociology Department at a very secular U.K. university—Aberdeen), but, from my life-long association with church leaders, I’d say he sounds like one. The church leaders I know struggle more against “indifference” than against outright disbelief. Which is pretty much what James Allen Cheyne argues. In fact, that’s what church leaders, as Cheyne points out, hate the most.

What they don’t get—and what I think most people don’t want to think about—is that there is very little one can come up with to find comfort in if one faces squarely the fact that one will die. Of course, one will be indifferent to religion. It’s not much good for facing reality.

People (most of us) simply don’t want to think about death, so religions that are predicated on eradicating death are of little interest. What interests us is finding ways to cheat death.

The scientific project of life prolongation no longer assumes that a miracle needs to overrule the laws of nature to put death off indefinitely. It assumes that instead by deciphering the laws of nature on the microlevel, we will be able to change seemingly immutable laws on the macrolevel, like aging and death. (5)

I hope my therapist doesn’t read this posting. He will call out the minions to get me into some place where I will not be a danger to myself or others. This is two days in a row I’ve written specifically about the denial of death. My writing about death, however, is not dangerous. It is simply not socially acceptable.

Theorists have become very alert to the extent to which psychoanalytic developmental judgments are often nothing more than rationalizations of cultural stereotypes, prejudice, and preconceptions about the “natural” and the “healthy.” (6)

The socially acceptable is to believe in religions that deny death (I have not said I don’t believe in such a religion, only that I’m not sure—agnostic? No. Deeply confused and trying not to ignore the natural impulses that demand that I think about it). Or, we can, as I wrote about yesterday, take matters into our own hands. Since Darwin explained how humankind became human, we have been on a crash course in trying to figure out how to control the process.

And that, Strenger asserts, as I wrote yesterday, is what all kinds of body modification are about.

I’d add to that all kinds of mind modification, beginning with obsession.

But your power is empty
It fades like the mist
Once you’ve been kissed

(1) Cheyne, James Allen. “The Rise of the Nones and The Growth of Religious Indifference.” Skeptic Magazine 15.4 (2010), 56-60.
(2) Bruce, Steve. God is Dead. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, 235. Quoted in Cheyne.
(3) Cheyne.
(4) Eliot, T. S. “Buirnt Norton.” Four Quartets. 2000. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.
(5) Strenger, Carlo. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 166-171.
(6) idem.


  1. I find it curious that the Grim Reaper in your picture wears a spiral pendant, a symbol of all sorts of connotations and appears to be about to reap a white rabbit.


  2. I don’t know nuthin’ about no grim reapers.
    Just liked the picture. Poor little rabbit!


    • I did once wake to see such a figure standing at the end of my room…the grim reaper that is, not a bunny rabbit. Perhaps this is the rabbit from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and the grim Reaper is about to get his comeuppance!


  3. Ah! My first giggle of the day!



%d bloggers like this: