Naked Life

Once my father wanted me to draw the life cycle of a human being. It was a time when people still used transparent plastic films on overhead projectors for presentations. So I drew the cycle with coloured indelible markers on a plastic film.

The task was to draw the stages of life in form of a spiral, beginning with the birth in the center, ending with death on the perimeter. I don't know why it was to be a spiral. And I didn't think much of it then.

Usually the spiral is a symbol for cyclical time in which the same or very similar events occur in each cycle again and again. In the spiral these similar events come to lay spatially near to each other.

But there is nothing cyclical in the stages of one single life. It could equally well be drawn on a line (maybe a curved one).

There is a possible interpretation though. The spiral I drew looked like a snail shell. Inside a snail's shell is its body, which the snail can retract on danger, pulling it back into the shell. In the drawing, you could have, from the perspective of death, looked inside the opening of the shell. The placing of the idea of death at the opening of the shell enables the thought of drawing back into it, towards the secure caverns of earlier life stages.

I'm sure that interpretation wasn't intended. But looking over Freud's shoulders it makes sense: We tend to shy away from the idea of death and retract from it to secured places of life.

However cautious the snail might be though, eventually its body is going to die and dissolve. What remains is a shell, secreted chonchiolins, ripple by ripple over time, made sturdy by argonite.

Some people work hard on their shells representing their lifetimes' achievement, already precociously imagining it to be put on a pedestal for the purpose of admiration.

Why did Franz Kafka want to have his work burned?

Not all snails got shells. Slugs reduced them away during evolution. Some retain a tiny vestigial shell. Some people are more like slugs. If I get the choice I'd rather prefer to be a slug.


p. s.

The Bargain1

Some queer unshaped uncolored animal,
much like a moment's pause of smoke or mist,
was yet so made that nothing less
than this hard perfect shape involving it
would do to speak its meaning in the world.

Out of its birth it came with this.
The smallest spiral holds the history
of something tiny in a sea of size
that carried on its obstinate gathering
till the years swelled in it to one last perfect
ballooning curve of color laid by color;
and all implicit in its hold on time.

Say that the thing was slave to its own meaning
and the unconscious labor of its body.
The terms were these, that it could never guess
how it conspired with time to shroud itself;
a splendid action common to its kind
but never known in doing.

Not even the end of making gave the meaning;
the thing it made was its own self, enclosed it
and was the prison that prevented sight.
But though death strands its emptied spiral,
that sweet completion puts a term to time,
and that, I take it, was the bargain.

  1. Judith Wright: The Bargain. In: The Bulletin, vol. 77, no. 3978, May 9, 1956, p. 2. Digitized: