Death is a terrifying prospect because of the unknown that comes after it. Once we are dead, there seems to be nothing on earth that remains of us. We fade into oblivion. Yet literary masters believe the opposite. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” and Susan Sontag’s On Photography all describe the death of a man, and his continuation through either images or children, demonstrating that while death is the final end for human life and the true self, it is legacy, the optimistic characterization of a human, that lives on. Furthermore, Barthes’ and Sontag’s texts on photography show that death must preface legacy, and that legacy serves as a reminder of the dead for the living.
After death, humans leave not only their bodies, lives, and true selves behind, but also a trail of images and children. Whenever a photo is taken, the photographer creates another world, “an image-world that bids to outlasts us all” (Sontag). Photos build an immortal world in which the deceased still exist and are preserved in their best state, leaving a paper trail of who they were. Families create albums filled with family photos to “memorialize… [the] extendedness of family life” (Sontag). Sontag explains that as families die, only “a family’s photograph album… is all that remains of it.” Borges’ “The Circular Ruins” shows that what remains of a human is his offspring. the remains of a human in his offspring. In the story, the protagonist tries to create life and craft his son during his dream. His creation has the same “sharp features” as he does, and is interested in the same matters as he is (Borges). When he dies, the protagonist’s facial features and passion will live on. Images and children are all reminders of the person who are in them or created them.
However, photos and children aren’t true representations of a person. As Barthes explains, whenever he’s photographed, “[he does] not stop imitating [himself].” The photo taken of him is not his true self, but a polished version of who he is, a version he wants the world to see. When he dies, it’s not his true, innate self that continues to exist in the image-world; it is the Photo-shopped and curated reflection Barthes wants the world to see. In the case of Borges’ protagonist, his offspring’s “sharp features” merely “[echo] those of the man that dreamed him” (Borges). While the features are similar, they are not the same, simply a version of the actual face. Images and children only capture an aspect of a person, but not the whole person. The true self disappears with death.
When photographed and creating a legacy, a person must first experience death, causing the lines between life and death to blur. As Barthes’ explains, “I… experience a micro-version of death” whenever someone takes a picture of him. His real self dies whenever he sees a camera because he starts to pose, and groom his appearance into someone he is not. Instead of letting his real self be seen in the photo, he tries to reveal that he is “from a ‘good sort’… endowed with a noble expression — thoughtful, intelligent, etc.” “Death is the eidos of that Photograph” as Barthes believes. What is captured does not reflect the reality.
It is for the same reason that Sontag calls the immortal image-world “ghostly traces.” Photos only capture a faint image of the person, and often it captures only what the person wishes to be seen like. The real self cannot be portrayed because humans don’t want it to be seen that way. Humans pose, trying to look their best, trying to mask their flaws. What photos display is “unreal,” as Sontag describes it. It is why the subject of a photo is referred as “a specter” by Barthes, and the image-world as “ghostly” by Sontag. The irony of the situation is that for humans to remain in the world through images, they must experience a sort of death and be resurrected into its spectral and immortal world. Perhaps the only way to remain in the world is through death. Dying allows for new humans to exist and for offspring to flourish. Without death of the old, the new crop cannot grow. Only legacy has the place to exist after death because legacy is a watered-down, untenable reflection of the true person. It is often an echo of the person, usually an aggrandized or overly optimistic characterization of him/her. Legacy is not for the dead; it’s for the living to remember the dead. It’s for the living to remember the dead at their happiest, best moments instead of their saddest, most depressed times. To remain immortal in the world, a person must die and be reborn as his/her best self.
Death is the end of human life, but not of human legacy. In fact, a person lives on after death as a legacy for others to remember. What remains is not the true human self. On the contrary, it is a self that is carefully constructed through images and offspring. What remains is for the living to remember the dead at their best, not at their most authentic. So, what’s your final image?