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Did Buffy have a deathwish?

27th October 2006 (18:01)
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I originally posted a version of this on alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer a few months ago, but thought that the different audience here on LJ might also be interested. (Plus, if you can't plagiarise yourself, what else can you do?)

It's prompted by a simple question: was Spike right?



"Every day you wake up it's the same bloody question what haunts you: Is today the day I die? It's a warrior's pain, a warrior's question and you ask it every time the sun rises. And every day you manage to survive, you're only partly relieved because you know - it's just a matter of time.

"Death is on your heels baby - and, sooner or later, it's going to catch you... And some part of you wants it. Not only to stop the fear and the uncertainty - but because you're just a little bit in love with it. Death is your art. You make it with your hands, day after day. That final gasp, that look of peace... Part of you is desperate to know... What's it like? Where does it lead you? That's also a warrior's question. A warrior's curiosity.

"So you see, that's the secret. Not the punch she didn't throw or the kick she didn't land. She simply wanted it. Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you."


My first problem here is that I'm not really sure what "a death wish" actually means.  It's a phrase that's used in casual conversation often enough, but what is the reality?

I don't think that Buffy's mental state can ever really be characterised as a death wish in Spike's sense, apart from, perhaps, a very brief moment; even though I do believe she's suicidal in 'The Gift'.  (Joss is on record as denying it; but what does he know about it, anyway?)

Suicidal feelings can come from anguish, despair and, maybe anger - all feelings that most of us experience from time to time, though hopefully never to the point of being suicidal.

Anguish: when the pain is too great to bear.  It can be physical pain; some crippling impairment that makes life not worth living; the loss of a loved one; or being forced to do or endure what cannot be endured.  This is what I think motivates Buffy in 'The Gift'.

Despair:
when life just doesn't seem to be worth the effort, and death is just easier.  This would be Buffy's motivation in the earlier part of Season 6.

Anger:
when someone believes that killing themselves is the only way to hit back at someone who has hurt them.  The "That'll teach them! They'll be sorry when I've gone!" response.  I'm not sure Buffy ever experiences this one, though: it's really the ultimate expression of powerlessness, which she rarely ever feels.

However, what Spike seemed to be talking about wasn't just accepting death as the least bad alternative in a horrible situation: it was about positively embracing it, seeking it out, accepting it as a lover.  According to Spike, the Slayer doesn't give up and die: she wants to die, to experience herself what she's given to so many others in her short life.  He almost makes it sound as if curiosity is the motivation - as well as the desire for peace after the struggle.  Did Buffy ever experience this?

Perhaps this ties in with what the First Slayer has to say: "Death is your gift."  It has lots of interpretations, of course: she gives death to the demons she slays, making the world a better place; she can use her own death as her gift to Dawn and to the world, saving both from destruction.  Indeed, for Buffy her own death was a gift: and she goes into it with open eyes.  "This is the work I have to do. Tell Giles I... I figured it out. And I'm okay."  And after that, she felt that "I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn't mean anything, nothing had form... but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved... and I was finished."  In that brief moment on top of Glory's tower, I would say that Buffy did have a deathwish.  She wasn't raging at the dying of the light; she was leaping joyfully straight into it, her arms open and a look of bliss on her face.

However, there's one very important thing we have to remember about the First Slayer: Buffy ultimately rejects every lesson she has to teach.  "You're not the source of me."  In 'Restless', the First Slayer tells Buffy she has to abandon her friends: "No friends, just the kill.  We are alone."  Buffy refuses to agree.  In 'Get It Done', the First Slayer tells Buffy that her own power is not enough - but again she refuses the extra power when it's offered and demands knowledge instead.

So why should 'Intervention' be the exception?  Death might be Buffy's gift - but ultimately, at the end of season 6, she rejects it and embraces Life instead, climbing out of her grave then turning around to give Dawn a hand up out of it too.

If you'll forgive me getting all Campbellian for a moment, Death, Apotheosis and Resurrection is an essential part of the Hero's Journey.  They die and achieve bliss; but the mark of a true Hero is that they return to the world, to share their gifts and knowledge with the people they left behind.  "Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live."  If Buffy had taken the easy way out and stayed dead, she wouldn't be a hero - but equally, she had to die first to gain the self-knowledge it brought.  She now knows the worst that can possibly happen to her - and that she can survive it. 

Or to be more prosaic, she's got over her Slayer death wish by dying, and then deciding she didn't like it after all.

Told you things would get Mythic...

(And my essay comparing Buffy's story to Campbell's Hero's Journey in more detail is coming soon...)

Comments

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 27th October 2006 20:58 (UTC)
bunnies

I like your prosaicism. A lot. On the whole though I'm more with Joss than Spike on this particular point so keeping in the spirit of self-plagiarism here's a rationalisation I prepared earlier:

I knew the only thing better than killing a slayer would be f-
Freud notoriously linked sex and death as the twin drives of the psyche. Which is not to say that Freud was right. His original idea of the death instinct was rather Buddhist a craving for peace, or respite from stimulation. Which can happen after sex but because sex is deathly is death necessarily sexy? Vampires, from Dracula onwards present the Freudian case.

I just wonder if you'll like it as much as she did.
So on an orgasmic scale from 1-10 how does that final swan dive rate? It doesn’t seem quite the right metric to use, if anything the resemblance is with Freud’s original conception of the death instinct but even that misses the mark. Freud and vampires both, completely focussed on the start and end points, never taking account of what goes on in the soft chewy centre. Cradle to grave, the newborn craving life and (erotic) satisfaction, the old man waiting for death, that look of peace that final gasp, completion. In between, however, we sometimes learn to set aside such solipsistic concerns. Buffy dies not for herself but for mother love and apple pie (where that pie is the world). Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 27th October 2006 21:20 (UTC)

Thanks for the fascinating reply! Lots to think about...

Buffy dies not for herself but for mother love and apple pie (where that pie is the world). Here endeth the lesson.

The fact that the lesson doesn't end there is rather the point, though, isn't it?

As you say, sex/death's not the only important thing in life, and life goes on even after an orgasm (unless you're a male preying mantis)... and that's the lesson Buffy has to continue learning, when she gets her next chance at life. The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.

(I'm not convinced that Buffy didn't have selfish motives for jumping: she may have been sacrificing her life to save the world, but I think there was also an element of 'she can't go on living in a world where she would otherwise have to kill her own sister to save it' - that such a world would not deserve to be saved. Not to mention her loneliness and feeling of being overwhelmed by life. I think her look of serenity and happiness there on the tower was because she'd found a way to save Dawn, and the world, and be a hero, and so on... but also, because she'd found a way to die.)


So on an orgasmic scale from 1-10 how does that final swan dive rate?

I've already answered this one. :)

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 28th October 2006 13:29 (UTC)

Hah! Clearly I should have put on my reading glasses for this icon. "Women's Orgiastics Qualifying Round"

I'd agree she had selfish momment for jumping and they were probably foremost before and after the leap but for the moment of it I like to think she was completely focussed on what it would achieve rather than what it might do to her. Just for that moment because epiphanies are beautiful things but by definition ephemeral. So very much in agreement about the lesson not ending there and I would have hated it if it had. I do wonder if Spike's words apply less equivocably to his own death in Chosen, which he did seem to relish for the experience more than Buffy did.

Posted by: AnarchAngel (anarchangel23)
Posted at: 27th October 2006 22:23 (UTC)

One other emotion that motivates suicide is shame: the feeling arising from the perception that other people are aware of some deep character flaw. (Not saying Buffy is motivated by this, just putting it out there).


It seems to me that Buffy was often motivated by despair mixed with some other emotion, maybe anger at the Demons whose existence made her current life neccessary, or maybe some other emotional state, such as determination that her inevitable death not be in vain or even acceptance of her fate as a slayer and the knowledge that another slayer will arise.

"Deathwish" usually just means "disregard for one's own safety". I think Spike is simply reading some sort of desire for death into an acceptance of death. In that, I'd say he's right, Buffy has a deathwise; however does she desire death, no.

Posted by: petzipellepingo (petzipellepingo)
Posted at: 27th October 2006 23:35 (UTC)
best show ever btvs by touristrgirl

When The First Slayer tells her, in Intervention, that “love will lead you to your gift” Buffy asks: “I'm getting a gift? Or do you mean that I have gift to give to someone else?” And what we find out in this episode is that it is both. Death is her gift, and it is a gift she both gives and gets. Her death is a heroic self-sacrifice and it is also a reward for same. She is leaving a world whose reality, she has come to realize, is much harsher than she knew:


· BUFFY: “I don't know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything just gets stripped away. I don't see the point.”

· BUFFY: “You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me.”


This episode full of graphic physical imagery is also full of representations of that which is purely intellectual – there are continuing images of welding and metallic construction, we see the Buffybot, and we hear many mentions of “calculations” and “factors.” Listen to Buffy describing her decision to jump:


BUFFY (to Dawn): “This is the work I have to do. Tell Giles- tell Giles I figured it out.”

She figured it out. She applied her intellect. I mentioned WB Yeats poem, Sailing to Byzantium, in my Spiral review, and its words come back to haunt me as Buffy leaps off the tower:



Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.



And



Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.



Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enameling



Buffy sacrifices herself for the world. Her tombstone reminds us: She saved the world. A lot. Her final act is one which proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the inestimably high value that Buffy places on life and on the world. But it is also an act of rejection of the same. This is a world where, eventually, everything just gets stripped away. She leaves Dawn to all the joys and the sorrows; she leaves Dawn to do the hardest thing. She is selflessly giving a gift, but she is also gratefully accepting her reward. Buffy is no longer caught in the sensual music; she is sailing into the artifice of eternity, out of nature, to Byzantium.


Spring Summer over at The Soulful Spike Society IMO says it best in her review of The Gift.

But you're right about this Or to be more prosaic, she's got over her Slayer death wish by dying, and then deciding she didn't like it after all.





Posted by: chianazhaan (chianazhaan)
Posted at: 1st July 2011 23:32 (UTC)
Too complex to simplify

This isn't the most coherent post. I'm not sure if you're trying to argue for one position or another. Or just exploring the various positions.

Anyway, I don't really think she was suicidal. There's a huge (emotional) difference between suicide attempts and ... suicide successes. I believe she was depressed, suffering from battle fatigue, angry at the world and a whole bunch of other negative emotions. But saying that she was suicidal conflicts with her desire to save Dawn.

Regarding Spike's statements, you have take into account that he is a poet. "A warrior's pain. A warrior's question. A warrior's curiosity." Spike's position is obviously wrong when you think about slayers that die young. They die because their opponent is just better than them. But Spike is talking about the slayers that live longer.

The message about "death is your gift" during her spiritual journey is complicated. She initially rejects it, because she considers it "advice". She accepts it later on, when she realises that the message is more like her prophetic dreams, which she seems to trust implicitly.

Personally, I believe that Buffy rejected a lot of the advice she was given, because it represented an extreme position. The First Slayer wanted her to fight alone. The Watchers Council wanted her to fight with the support of only her watcher. She rejected the hunter's position on werewolves. In fact, you have to conclude that she forged her own path. Curiously, when she was rejected by her friends, she did attack the Vineyard. Alone! Ironically rejecting both her friends' advice, and her own idea of not fighting alone. If only temporary.

I think that this commenter captured it wonderfully:

Posted by: petzipellepingo (petzipellepingo)
Posted at: 28th October 2006 01:35 (local)

Buffy sacrifices herself for the world. Her tombstone reminds us: She saved the world. A lot. Her final act is one which proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the inestimably high value that Buffy places on life and on the world. But it is also an act of rejection of the same. This is a world where, eventually, everything just gets stripped away. She leaves Dawn to all the joys and the sorrows; she leaves Dawn to do the hardest thing. She is selflessly giving a gift, but she is also gratefully accepting her reward.


In other words:

"Death is your gift."
"Your Death is your gift...to your sister."
"Your Death is your gift...to the world."
"Death is your gift; your ultimate reward."
"Death is your gift; your escape from this world."
"Death is your gift; the condemnation of your sister."

It's also interesting to think about Buffy's season 8 position of this event. Would she have sacrificed her sister? Or would they have jumped together?

Ultimately, "The Gift" is the best ending a television series could have. It's almost a shame it continued. Almost.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 3rd July 2011 00:06 (UTC)
Re: Too complex to simplify

This isn't the most coherent post.

Well, I wrote it five years ago, I was younger then. :) Also, I think this was a continuation of a previous discussion, which explains why some of it seems to jump around a bit.

My argument is really this: I don't think Buffy was suicidal in the sense of "I hate my life and want to end it." (It seems you agree). On the other hand, I don't think that's what Spike meant by a death wish: he seems rather to be talking about Slayers actively seeking death out of a positive desire for it; curiosity, or the idea that it will make their lives complete. I argued her that for a brief moment in 'The Gift' Buffy did indeed feel that way - but when he was returned to life again, she'd got over her death wish. (To quote Kaylee from 'Serenity', "Screw this: I'm gonna live!")

It's also interesting to think about Buffy's season 8 position of this event. Would she have sacrificed her sister? Or would they have jumped together?

S7 and early S8 Buffy probably would have sacrificed Dawn - or at least not stopped her if she chose to sacrifice herself. Late S8 Buffy, I suspect, would be back to sacrificing herself.


Curiously, when she was rejected by her friends, she did attack the Vineyard. Alone!

The difference is that when Buffy went back to the vineyard, she wasn't "attacking" it, not in the frontal assault sense at least. Instead she planned to use Caleb's strength against him, by getting him angry but dodging his attacks rather than fighting back, until he revealed his secrets. It's all very Zen. It's also something she could do herself, with her Slayer agility and superspeed, but a bunch of Potentials wouldn't have been able to keep up with her.

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