Death and Philosophy
December 18, 2010 Leave a comment
DEATH AND PHILOSOPHY
Thinkers such as Camus and Heidegger brought the idea of death to prominence in the twentieth century, but death as a topic has preoccupied philosophers since Greek times.This collection brings together well-known writers both from within philosophy and outside, providing a range of perspectives from the philosophical to the personal(including one account of a ‘near-death experience’) and the literary to the aesthetic.Death and Philosophy is a collection that encompasses a range of different approaches. Many of the essays show the influence of recent continental philosophy, the rejection of merely technical accounts of death, the idea that death in some sense givesvalue to life, the contrary idea that death renders life ultimately meaningless, the idea that death is part of a narrative that can be retold in many different ways. Several essays are concerned with Heidegger’s notion of ‘Being-unto-Death’; others are strongly influenced by Asian philosophy, bringing in Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan thought. Still other writers consider the analytic tradition, trying to get clear about a subject whose very nature invites denial and lack of clarity. For many of the essays in this volume, the significance of death is not to be found somehow in the cessation of existence but in the relation between death and a vital and fulfilled human life.
Death and Philosophy is written with the general reader in mind. However, it will beof particular interest to philosophers, or those studying religion and theology. Jeff Malpas is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Murdoch University, Western Australia; he is currently Humboldt Fellow at the University of Heidelberg. He is the author of Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning and editor of Philosophical Papers of Alan Donagan. Robert C.Solomon is Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published widely, including The Passions, In the Spirit of Hegel, About Love, A Passion for Justice, Ethics and Excellence, Up the University, and coedited with Kathleen M. Higgins the Routledge History of Philosophy volume on German Idealism.
DEATH AND PHILOSOPHY
Jeff Malpas and Robert C.Solomon
There is an ancient tradition that says that philosophy is essentially concerned with death—whether with understanding it, reconciling oneself to it or preparing oneself for its inevitable arrival. But if that is so then it seems much contemporary philosophizing has failed to fulfil one of its essential functions, since death is a topic that is seldom addressed in contemporary philosophical discussion. There are exceptions, of course. One of the reasons that a philosopher such as Martin Heidegger figures so prominently in this collection is that Heidegger is one of the few philosophers who has indeed had a great deal to say about death. For the most part, however, death appears as a subject for contemporary philosophical discussion only at the margins—say in the context of bioethics where technical definitions of death (for example, ‘brain death’) have become important in the negotiation of several legal and ethical issues. This collection is not, however, about death as it might figure in such ‘technical’ contexts. The concern of all the contributors, whether they are expressing their own thoughts directly or discussing the thoughts of others, is emphatically personal. Their concern is with death—one’s own death—as it figures in human life and in contributing to, or perhaps even detracting from, the meaningfulness of such life. In this respect, the idea that philosophy is somehow essentially concerned with death need not reflect some peculiar morbidity on the part of the philosopher who advances such a view nor in relation to philosophy in general. Instead, it can be taken to express a view of philosophy as a form of enquiry centrally concerned with the question of what it is to be human and with the nature and meaningfulness of human existence. Certainly death or the experiences and feelings that cluster round the concept of death— experiences, for instance, of loss and sadness, of fear and foreboding, sometimes of release and thankfulness—seem to be at the heart of what it is to live a human life and of what it means to be human. Thus, whether or not we accept the claim—present not only in Heidegger, but captured also in the ancient characterization of human beings as ‘mortals’—that to be human is indeed to be destined to live a life of only limited span, still we can appreciate that, as a matter of empirical fact, human lives are indeed lives in which death plays a central role. The question is: what are we to make of this? How should we understand the relation between death and human life? Is death a source of meaningfulness or does it represent the destruction of meaningfulness? Is the effect of death to render life as nothing but an absurd show—‘A tale/Told by an idiot…/ Signifying nothing’1—or might the absurdity of life in the face of death itself provide a source of meaning?
These are the sorts of questions that take centre stage in the discussions that make up this collection. We might say of such questions that they are ‘existential’ in character. Certainly it is characteristic of many of those writers and philosophers who are often bundled together under the existentialist label (though not all—Sartre is a notable exception) that they have taken the question of death as a central and defining one just in virtue of their preoccupation with human existence. But existentialist approaches are not the only approaches that figure in the following pages. Indeed, the range of approaches is large—including approaches that derive, not only from the work of philosophers such as Heidegger and Camus, but also English-speaking ‘analytic’ philosophers such as Bernard Williams, Derek Parfitt and Thomas Nagel; non-Western approaches such as are exemplified in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and in Daoist thought; and approaches deriving from the writings of figures within the history of Western philosophy such as Lucretius, Epicurus and Nietzsche. This collection thus includes a variety of different philosophical perspectives on death— in some cases perspectives strongly informed by literary and aesthetic considerations and, in one case, by especially close personal experience. The first essay by Tem Horwitz recounts one case of so-called ‘near death experience’ as undergone by someone with philosophical training and sensitivities. Although in some respects a personal memoir the essay is an especially appropriate starting place for the collection, for whatever else death may be, it is first and foremost something personal. Indeed, whatever our philosophical viewpoint, the personal face of death is something that cannot be avoided. Elias Canetti’s rejection of death, the subject of Reinhard Steiner’s essay, provides an instance of an extreme and very personal reaction to the fact of death.
Canetti’s position bears comparison with Dylan Thomas’s exhortation to his dying father ‘Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light’2 (though Thomas’s use of the phrase ‘good night’ to refer to death would seem to go against Canetti’s utterly uncompromising rejection of death). Canetti would have us rage against death and sets his face against those—Heidegger amongst them—who seem to want us to somehow ‘accept’ death and make it our own. For Canetti death is not impersonal, but represents the very destruction of personhood, of what is human and what is valuable. Of course the extremity of Canetti’s reaction against death is matched, at the other extreme, by the attitude of those philosophers—notably Lucretius—who have argued that death should be accounted as of little or no consequence. It is this tradition that is the focus for Ivan Soll’s discussion—does such an attitude, asks Soll, amount to anything more than a futile whistling before the darkness comes? Of course even those philosophers who would have us dismiss the significance of death as an event still emphasize, if sometimes only implicitly, the absolutely central importance of arriving at an appropriate understanding of death for a proper understanding of human life and for the proper living of such a life. In this respect these first three essays all share an affirmation of the possibilities of life that arise precisely out of our attitude towards death. Indeed, for many of the essays in this volume, the significance of death is not to be found in the mere fact of the cessation of existence that is death itself, but rather in the relation between the fact of death and the possibilities for vital and fulfilled human life. Thus Kathy Higgins’s skeleton is much more the merry figure to be seen in the Mexican festival of the dead than the ossified melancholic of Gothic horror or melodrama. Higgins’s essay also introduces a theme that is common to a number of the essays here—the idea of human life as constituted in terms of a narrative or story that, like all good stories, at some point comes to an end. Betty Sue Flowers picks up this idea in one form—as a source of creative possibility in the shaping and directing of a life. According to Flowers death itself brings its own stories with it and the narratives with which we present death to ourselves are narratives that also shape who and what we are or could be. The variety of narratives within which death can be presented is exemplified by the variety of different ways in which death is understood within different cultural settings. Thus Roger Ames provides us with a discussion of Daoist perspectives on death as they arise within the Chinese tradition—perspectives strikingly different from some commonly assumed ‘Western’ attitudes or, at least, from some commonly assumed accounts of those attitudes. Bob Wicks gives us an insight into the understanding of death—and the understanding of enlightenment—within Tibetan Buddhism as exemplified in the Tibetan ‘Book of (or for) the Dead’. Graham Parkes’s essay provides another opportunity to explore and compare different ways of thinking about death as Parkes juxtaposes Montaigne, Nietzsche and Heidegger with Dōgen, Shōsan, and Nishitani. The variety of ways in which death is understood and the variety of forms death may take on in different cultural or social contexts need not imply, however, that there is nothing to be said about death from a more purely ‘metaphysical’ perspective. Indeed, the essays of Ames, Parkes and Wicks are as much concerned with understanding death, as with understanding different attitudes towards death. The essays by Kraus and Young focus much more closely on death as such, however, and on the way in which death figures in the work of the philosopher who is often taken, at least in his early work, to exemplify a preoccupation with death, namely, Martin Heidegger. Kraus and Young both examine the role played by death in relation to a number of other central concepts in Heidegger’s thought. Kraus is primarily concerned with the relation between death,
nothingness and being, and with the idea that the very possibility of metaphysics might itself be intimately tied to the possibility of death. Young focuses more directly on the relation between death and the Heideggerian notion of ‘authenticity’. In some respects Malpas’s essaycontinues the Heideggerian theme. Yet it does so by calling upon arguments to be found in the work of philosophers other than Heidegger, including those within the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition, in an attempt to clarify why death might be necessary for any properly human life. This is also an idea taken up, without the Heideggerian connection, by Peter Loptson. Combining Kantian and Darwinian ideas, Loptson argues that while death is surely an evil, it is an evil that is probably unavoidable for creatures constituted as we are. The final essay in the collection, that by Bob Solomon, returns us to some of the themes present in the earlier essays of the collection—to questions of how death should be approached, how it should be represented—and to the matter of the implications for our understanding of ourselves and the sorts of lives we live of our attitudes towards the fact of our dying. As an essay that is itself concerned to undermine a certain form of fetishism about death (a fetishism that may be thought to be expressed in the very idea that death somehow has a pivotal role in giving sense or meaning to life), Solomon’s discussion is not an instance of melancholic brooding on the fact of death nor of its heroic aggrandizement. Instead, as with all the papers collected here, it attempts, in its own way, to place death in the context of life and in so doing to render a view of death that paints it in the only colours available to us—colours that derive from a thoroughly human set of concerns, values and commitments. In this respect, too, Solomon’s essay can be taken to reassert a central theme throughout this collection—that the connection between death and philosophy is a connection established through recognition of the philosophical project as fundamentally concerned with the nature and meaning of what it is to be human.
Reflections on my journey into non-being
It was perfectly clear to me what was happening. I was dying. Yet at the time of my death in September of 1995 there was no fear, no struggling, no desperation, no confusion and no bewilderment. Yet as I sit here reading my wife’s account of my death I am filled with terror. In the middle of the night, during the Labor Day weekend, I went into anaphylactic shock. Later, it would appear that this was induced by exposure to excessive moulds in the air in our country house, and by drinking beer preserved with sulphites. In my middle years I have become acutely sensitive to both. Our second home sits on high dunes above Lake Michigan on a lot that is a mile deep, heavily wooded and remote. A spectacular and private spot. A mile from a paved road. Ten miles from town. Waking up in the middle of the night, having great difficulty breathing, I realized that I was in trouble. I woke my wife and told her succinctly, ‘We have to go.’ She understood immediately. She jumped from bed, put on a few clothes, grabbed her backpack, and helped me as we stumbled in total darkness toward the parking lot. I told her to take her car. Her car has a car phone, mine does not.
In the car I fought for my breath, for my life. I withdrew into myself. I knew that I was in the process of dying. I watched it happening. There was no fear; the experience itself was too compelling. During this period of time, which was probably less than ten minutes, all of my attachments to this world dwindled to nothing. Susan’s voice was distant, remote, removed from my experience. I could hear her talking to me and then I could no longer make sense of the words. ‘Hold on.’ ‘Holeone.’ ‘Hoooooooo.’ As I sat there struggling to breathe I watched the dashboard in front of me lose its definition. The lights lost their brightness. Everything turned a dark grey, and then black. My body began to feel very heavy. I could feel the weight in the middle of my back. I let everything settle down into my centre, not struggling with this feeling of heaviness. I responded weakly to Susan, partly because of the physical state that I was in but largely because I was totally absorbed in the process of dying. My head felt huge and heavy like a boulder. I felt my body toppling. I could not tell in which direction I was falling. Falling.
My last breaths were shallow with long exhalations, and finally no inhalationsbut a long final exhalation that felt, from the inside, like a Disney cartoon of a fiery dragon belching fire followed by overpowering sound effects. Roaring. Thunderous. Tolstoy, in ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’, writes as Ilych is dying ‘all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial…’1 For me the experience was not of watching the rest of my life become ‘trivial’ but of having my attention totally focused on this experience.
Tolstoy appears to have understood a great deal of what I experienced. Ivan Ilych, as he approaches death, watches as the external world of his home, family, doctors, retainers starts to fade away. There is an indifference to the world, and to his life as he had lived it. It ‘was all dropping away’. So for me, in a much shorter time frame, my life dropped away from me. It was remote and distant. Let me return later to the indifference. Ivan Ilych’s dying was slow and painful, yet as he gets closer and closer to death Tolstoy writes—‘“And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you pain?” “Yes here it is. Well what of it? Let the pain be.”’2 So for me too, there was pain and discomfort—after all I couldn’t breathe—however, it was isolated and detached from my experience of dying. Though I shared with Ivan Ilych his death rattle I did not see the ‘light’ and experience the death of death as Tolstoy writes. Perhaps here Tolstoy was wandering off into the theological, or conjuring up death as he would have liked it to be. It is ironic, as I sit here writing, that I am going to put my experiences into a chronology. I am about to write about the ‘dissolution of time’, yet I find myself organizing my experiences in time so as to make sense of them for you, and for me in the telling. As I stopped breathing and felt myself retreating further and further into another realm I was conscious of feeling tremendously heavy. My body accumulated a weightiness that was not attached to any sensation of solidity. There was just heaviness and the feeling of being down, down, down. My body was dissolving, leaving me free of any physical constraints. Was this the moment of my death rattle and the moment when I toppled over in the car beside Susan? I do not know. Though I was not conscious of it at the time, the experience of dying was so engrossing that it left me totally alone. There was no one present at my death—albeit Susan was at my side. This was a solitary journey. No company allowed. The part of me that has always stood aside as an observer of myself, as well as of the world, was left alone—free of distractions—to observe the process of death. This part of myself is quite familiar to ‘me’—excuse me, to whom? As a child I spent a great deal of time hovering between life and death. I was severely asthmatic, and at that time the treatment for asthma was extremely limited. The treatment consisted of medication designed to relax my lungs, cut with speed to keep me up there and a downer to ensure that I didn’t go too far. This is when I came to know intimately this part of myself and to become comfortable in this detached state. I remember many hours spent staring through lace curtains at the sky and at the branches and the leaves of an old, majestic maple tree outside my window.
In later years when I began to take psychedelic mushrooms I was at once at home, having returned to a very familiar world—a world in which my consciousness was detached from my body and was free to roam about. As a young, healthy adult experimenting with drugs I had much more mobility, companionship and stimulation. I recall tripping with friends recently returned from spending three years in New Guinea, the first outsiders to live with a previously unvisited tribe. They had spent their time learning the language and studying with the local shamans and participating in the tribal rituals and ceremonies. As we stared at the shaman’s shield—a triangular shield, perhaps 3 feet tall with black and pale red triangles painted on it—we each had the experience of having part of ourselves drawn through the negative spaces in the shield into another world. There was an elasticity to our consciousness, we went through the shield and were pulled back into the room by conversation, music, movements. It was too scary for any of us simply to leave and possibly not return through that shield. Nevertheless it was too exciting and magical not to be drawn back into it. This consciousness or spirit or whatever we want to call it was the same observer who was present at my death.
Digressing a little more, as a graduate student in the late Sixties at Columbia, in New York, I recall joking with some very bad Puerto Rican gang members in New York on 110th Street who had a knife at my throat and who wanted my money. I again experienced a splitting off of my consciousness from my body. I can still feel the sharp, cold point of the knife in my throat—it was a winter evening with light snow falling— while I joked around with them and explained why I wasn’t going to give them my money and why in fact they shouldn’t even want to take my money. After an eternity or a minute or a few seconds one of them removed the blade of the knife from below my jaw…The guy raised his head up in a sign of recognition, a sudden and complete relaxing of the tensions that had built up. Laughter. They turned and continued strolling down 110th Street. I continued on my way in the opposite direction. I was yanked back into time and my consciousness and body were in their everyday relationship, one to the other.
More of this consciousness later. Let me keep up with my chronology. Sounds. There was only one sound component of this experience. At what I take to have been one of the stages of my biological death there was a tremendous roar that came from out of nowhere. It felt like I was hearing my body from the inside, listening to the roar of my heart and my vital organs. There was no beat, like the beat of the heart, just a tremendous all encompassing roar. The sound of water rushing through a gorge. I felt the fury and the rage and the potency of death, not my awareness of death, but the thing itself.
At this point the heaviness changed to a feeling of immersion in a liquid far heavier than water, a blue-black solvent that seemed to dissolve the substantiality of the material world so there was no longer solidity, stability or substantiality. This medium, this solvent, dissolved the very adhesive that heldmy world together. This was the universal solvent. All of the connections in the physical world disappeared. Here I was in this great nothingness—no longer black or void or silent or heavy— nothing, nothing, nothing. The part of me that was experiencing this state was again too curious to be fearful or confused. There was nothing terrifying about this geography. I supposed that this is what death is—a realm without space, without time, without definition, without stimulation. In this realm there was no longer a sense of self, ego, consciousness, body. There was no longer the same observer to observe for there was no distinction between the me and the it, the place or non-place, the me or the not-me. Sorry. Still no feeling of bliss, of great peace, or of love. Emotionless. It was what it was. No boundaries, no beginning, no end, no starting point, no definition. Infinite, limitless, uncompounded, simple, clear unrestricted Space. When I was a child I had two dreams that recurred over and over for many years. In the first the creatures that appeared at the foot of my bed as day turned into dusk would try to abduct me in the middle of the night. They would drag me from my bed toward the stairs and then down the stairs. They would wrestle with me and I would struggle until I forced myself from sleep. In the beginning I would awaken myself by screaming. As time went on I learned to force myself out of sleep without screaming. The contest in my eyes was one of life and death. If they succeeded in dragging me down the stairs I would die. Some nights I would wake to find myself standing at the head of the stairs or part of the way down the stairs. Over time the struggle continued to have life or death as its end point, but it no longer had the component of fear. At times I would piss down the carpeted stairs as a sign to myself that I had triumphed. ‘Piss on them’, marking my turf, leaving a reminder to them that I had survived and was contemptuous of them. A warning to them to stay away. For better or worse this is how I learned to live my life. All contests involve life and death.
All battles in life are to the death. That is the way it is for me. When I was 18 years old I stopped playing tennis. My father believes it was because I was not competitive enough. I will never be able to explain to him that tennis for me was a life and death contest, as was chess, or ping pong. At 18 it no longer seemed worthy of that intensity. The contest was not worthy of the prize. The second dream took place in unlimited space in which there was only myself and a massive ball. It was a ball whose mass far exceeded its size, like a giant ball-bearing made out of a dense and exotic metal. It moved without sound through a space that was undifferentiated—no foreground, no background. It moved without friction. Its presence was menacing in a non-specific way. It felt like all of the energy of the universe was contained within this sphere. The ball either drew me to it or prevented me from moving because of its mass and presence. Nothing more happened in this dream. There was no other activity, no passage of time, no differentiation of the space. There was no way to ignore the force of the ball nor the immensity of the universe in which it existed. It was a world that was menacing without being frightening. Let me return to my tale. It is very difficult to describe time through this sequence. It ceased to be the medium through which I was moving. There was no forward, no backward, no future, no past—only a present that contained everything. All eternity was in that present.
Next. When? In time? In sequence? In space? Next, colours. One colour at a time. The colours blending into one another. Each colour occupied the entire field of my perceptions. Much like the space that was filled with energy that was in my dream, but here colour dominated. Each colour had a physical dimension and presence as well as a visual dimension. These colours were not bright primary colours, but the colours that you see, faded, on old plaster walls in Central European apartments. Muted colours. But energized. Absorbing colours—I was part of them, undifferentiated from them. There was no emotional content to this universe. The colours were complete and compelling and unrestricted. Each phase passed with no differentiation, no distinctions, and no boundaries.
There both was and was not an observer. There was no distinction between the me, the perceiver, and the it, the place. I’m certain that there is some more elegant way of describing this experience which highlights the fact that wherever it was that I was, was part of me and yet not part of me. Perhaps not. There was something basically wordless about the experience. It was an environment, a universe—let me call it that—that was complete and all encompassing and yet the perceiver was part of the perception. It was some place, not ‘no place’, not an undifferentiated world of blackness, not a void, nothingness. What is the time frame with which we measure our lives? How do we account for time? The answer is slightly different for each of us. But death adds a potency and focus to this question. Our relationship and perceived proximity to death adjusts our clocks. It is the clock we watch to find out when the exam is over, when the workday comes to an end. ‘Lay down your pencils!’ Lay down your lives. Grab your lunchbox. Hold on for dear life. How does the world ‘feel’ once we have given it up, or once we have relinquished its delights and pleasures, its pain and irritations? Dying removed me from the clutches of time. There was no present for me—transient or otherwise—during this period. How can I describe it. As we sit here and as you read this you are aware to some degree of the passage of time. As post-industrial creatures we are always, on some level, aware of time. Even those of us who are habitually late are in fact habitually late. With my friends and associates I can tell when they are going to arrive at a meeting—some are on time, some are early, some are predictably late. How is it that most of us can wake up when we want to or need to? How many of us awaken exactly two seconds before the alarm goes off? Even my first wife—who amazed me, and others, for years, with her lateness—was predictable. We don’t encounter manypeople who are 5 or 6 hours late for a dinner party that they have gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange and to host. People generally don’t go away for the weekend and return six months later. This woman had a great deal to teach on the relativity and manipulation of time, and perhaps of people too. To describe time as I experienced it requires that I compare it to the ordinary time in which we lead our lives.
Each state or place that I visited lasted forever. Look at this paper with these words printed on it for a moment and try to keep the image from changing. Not possible. My experiences were not experiences that were subject to time or change or transition. The colours and sounds were not diminished by time. The changes from one frame to the next were unconditional. There were no slow fades into another scene. What was, was—and that is all that there ‘was’—and then it was something else. Coming back I had great difficulty adjusting to the world of activities and time and appointments and schedules. I could not pay attention to clocks, to the time of day, to the light and darkness of the world. My life was out of the reach of time. Perhaps this is why after thirty years of not wearing a watch I now wear one—precisely to keep me attached to this world of time and schedules and activities. My death had the effect of placing me squarely in the present. What I experienced while dying or dead were ‘presents’, slices of time. On my return to the land of the living I retained this sense of the ‘present’. The first two days were perfect, clear, timeless states. The people around me came and went. The nurses changed. Susan was there and was not there. For the most part I was awake. The transitions from waking to sleep were seamless. Sleep was dreamless. Awake I was free of dreaming, wondering, speculating, fantasizing, analysing. My thoughts would rise up slowly and clearly. They would then dissolve into nothing. No residue. No recycling. No tapes playing the same thoughts over and over. Initially there were abysses between thoughts. Vast empty spaces between thoughts. Peace.
There was a tremendous sense of freedom. These moments were what they were. They lacked nothing. They were complete in and of themselves. I could conceive of no happiness outside of these moments. There was no future. I could not for that first week focus on what was to happen the next day, the next week, the next moment. Without a future to think about there was also nothing to worry about. I could feel no anxiety because I was where I was, comfortable, healthy, warm, well fed. Trips to the hardware store, bank accounts, letters left unwritten all seemed remote and irrelevant. There was nothing that I wanted to do or felt that I had to do. There was no vestige of self-importance left. It felt like death had obliterated my ego, the attachments that I had, my history, and who I had been. Death had been very democratic. It had eliminated innumerable distinctions. With one bold stroke my past had been erased. I had no identity in death. It didn’t stay erased—some would say that this was the real tragedy—but it was erased for a time. Gone was my personal history with all of its little vanities. The totality of myself was changed. The ‘me’ was much smaller and much more compact than it had been. All that there was, was right in front of me. I felt incredibly light. Personality was a vanity, an elaborate delusion, a ruse. Let me describe it in another way. My clock had been reset. Time had stopped for me. I had died. I was no more. Time restarted when I was pulled back into this world in the emergency room of the hospital. Suddenly someone was calling my name, talking to me, I could feel the tube inserted painfully in my throat. Susan was present. From the sublime to the emergency room. On the one hand I felt that I had a glimpse of eternity and had abruptly been drawn back into a world in which time is measured from moment to moment, from breath to breath, from day to day, from year to year, from pay-cheque to pay-cheque.
How does it feel once the elusive pleasures of the future have been stripped from us? Removed from time for those first days after my death, I felt a wonderful lightness. A feeling of relief at being able to drop the heavy bags that I had been carting around on an endless, repetitious voyage. Not even a backpack was required. I had been delivered from the petty aggravations and anxieties of my life. It was not glorious, filled with a love of all things great and small, or a world consumed by grace. It was emotionless, liberated from memory, light and airy. Things were what they were as they appeared to me in time and space.
Having lost touch with the past, and not daydreaming into the future, I was lodged in the present. This present was peaceful, free of anxiety, free of discursive thinking, no tapes playing and replaying in my head. I was simply content to lie around in the emergency room, in the hospital, to sit around the house going about my business. My days were filled with a quietness and stillness and sweetness. Clear and timeless. There was nothing outside of the sweep of those days. I had caught a glimpse of eternity, and I was content to dwell in its embrace. I still feel touches of that embrace in my daily life, now, a year and half later. This may not be the ideal personality type and state to be in for a real estate developer, or it may be. I find myself spending more time waiting in the field of time for the players and events to approach me, in the proper configuration, before I take the trouble to act. Some things I feel that I can no longer accomplish. They require too much energy of a sort that I am not willing to expend and are far too aggravating. Many other things get done quickly, and cleanly, and seemingly without effort.
My death clarified thoughts that I have had about time and human achievement since I was a child living in the shadow of my own death. My old life was over—it had come and gone and was no more. It was no longer mine, as it had been before dying. When I died it was the end, it was all that she wrote, the fat lady had sung. All of my work, my family, my creations and constructions, my achievements seemed of little consequence to me. They would continue to exist or not with or without me. They were not dependent on my presence any more. They were gone from me, beyond my grasp. They were no longer mine.
Time, my time, was consequently as it was when I was a child without serious obligations and responsibilities. I could never conceive, when I was a child how it could ultimately matter if I lived or died. Life would go on without me. A few people would grieve. Then they too would be gone. I could not differentiate between dying as a child and dying as an adult. They both seemed like they would be the same after I had died. I remember thinking as a child that in either case I would still be dead for the same amount of time. I can still remember my mother’s shocked and perplexed look when I asked her, during one of my medically altered states of consciousness, if I wasn’t going to be dead for the same amount of time if I died now or in fifty years. In the eyes of eternity, and through my eyes as a child, a short life and a long life looked the same. Having come through the ‘cuisinart’ of death, for a time the world looked and felt more uniform, blended, undifferentiated, and much less substantial than it had before, and than it does now. People and things had an air of impermanence or permeability. I felt as if I was looking through things as much as looking at things. The space between and around people had as much definition and substance and importance as the people themselves. The emptiness had form and significance. I had a difficult time attaching the appropriate significance to the highly differentiated people and things in the world. The hierarchy was lost. I was still immersed in the whole and could not concentrate sufficiently on the parts. My sight, the way I saw the world, was radically altered. The material world no longer appeared to be solid. My perceived world was full of holes, empty spaces. The people around me, the walls, the chairs, the windows were no longer substantial in the way that they had been before my death. Months later I saw a cheaply printed black and white poster stapled to a telephone pole advertising a Seurat exhibit. The image from one of his paintings had been enlarged so that the gaps—the black holes between the dots that constituted the image—were prominent. This was very similar to the way that the world had looked to me in the period just after my death. Over the course of the next several weeks the world started looking more like a pointillist painting—dots of colour with smaller spaces between them. I wondered if it was my mind that was filling in the gaps between the dots, if part of this landscape was being created by me. Over a period of months I began to see more or less—more or less—as I had before my death. However, as I sit here writing, it is still possible to look at the scene in front of me and allow it to deconstruct. As a consequence of watching people deconstruct before my eyes, my attachments to the people whom I love are now to a lesser extent to their physical bodies. Indeed the whole physical world looks and feels much less substantial that it did before my death. Deep feelings remain but with less direct connection to loved ones’ physical manifestations and embodiments. I find myself looking at people with a curious detachment, trying to figure out what the connection is between their bodies and their non-body selves. In the process of dying I felt my attachments slipping away. I was alone. On my return I was free for a time of the cares and concerns and anxieties of this world. There was a lightness, which I have described, but there was also an indifference, a detachment from my world.
Sartre, in ‘The Wall’, describes how his principal character loses interest in everything around him as he gets closer to his execution. Indifference replaces emotions like anger or hatred. He realizes that he is not even going to miss the things to which he thought he was most attached in this life. ‘Death had disenchanted everything.’3 Looking death in the eye, the world was no longer ‘enchanted’ or fascinating. Once he realizes that he is going to die, that he is not immortal, time loses significance. What is the difference between living a little while longer or a lot longer? He looks at his executioners and sees men, like himself, who are going to die despite their petty vanities and self-importance. Everyone is going to die. Everyone is dying, awaiting only the moment of their death. His fate, like ours, turns on a dime. The man whom he has tried to save is found where he was not supposed to be, and is killed, and he lives. He laughs till he cries recognizing the absurdity of what has happened. My experiences parallel these. But not completely. Indifference replaces other emotions, like anger and envy. The presence of death is an eraser that clears off much that is filling the blackboard. When life gets too cluttered and confused, when you have somehow strayed from the path, consult with death. Thoughts of death clarify and clear the blackboard of unimportant material. When I was in my mid-twenties and experiencing the angst and despair that sometimes appears at that age I took comfort in the thought that I was going to die, that no matter how horrible things felt and no matter how miserable I was and how filled with anxiety, there would one day be an end to the pain. The thought of death, and the relief that it would bring, always cheered me up. All pain was endurable if I knew that there was going to be an end to it. Much that had been grim or disagreeable or distressing could be viewed as scenes from the theatre. I was moved by events, but no longer so deeply attached to them. From this perspective most of life simply became live entertainment. Seeing the worst of it as enter- tainment allowed me to begin to discriminate and to see for myself what was of some significance and what was mere human folly. A different consideration of life began for me at this point. I had discovered the consolation of death. This great insight, which I felt compelled to share with my friends, appeared to leave them unmoved, confused or depressed. I concluded that the manner in which people try to understand death and life is dictated as much by temperament as by logic.
My counter-phobic temperament is one temperament among many, but one which was very much at play in my experience of my death. Camus, in a style, or with a temperament, that strikes me as very French, looks at the ‘naked reality’ of this world and finds no consolation, no hope, no solace from the crushing certainty of fate. There is no reprieve in religion or in the philosophical thought that he has known. The answer for him to this central philosophical question about the meaning of our lives, lies in man’s revolt against the absurdity of his fate in this remorseless world. Revolt, creation, defiance, pride are the conqueror’s attitude and constitute the only triumph for man. Man triumphs over his fate by his lucid indifference to it, and exults in the freedom that comes from accepting life on these terms. The liberty of living life wilfully. This thought strikes a chord, though it does sound very tiring. Think of poor Sisyphus and his triumph—‘There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.’4 Creation, revolt, pride, will, freedom. Exhausting! Brilliant! Useful? To some, I suppose. Given Camus’s understanding of the vastness of time and space and the limitations of human achievement, he is forced, because of his own personal ambitions and seriousness, to create a dramatic juxtaposition in which heroism, romanticism, drama and a certain posturing provide the emotional and intellectual solution to the problem. Whatever else, Camus is never easygoing.
For most of us it is not enough to think of ourselves as an infinitesimal part of a vast universe with an existence in time that is absurdly small. Because we find no consolation in this vastness, we attempt to find meaning in our lives that is somehow outside of our lives. When we begin to question seriously the meaning of our lives we are usually consumed by doubt as to its meaning. We confer meaning to our lives, we continue to work and to live beyond the requirements of providing a roof over our heads and food for our stomachs, because in addition to being creatures of habit our actions give us some pleasure. Our reflections and our scepticism add their own particular spice to each of our lives be it a gravity, a remoteness, an anger, an irony, a bitterness or a sense of humour. Each of these is a plausible response to our consciousness of the limitations of our existence. For myself, fear was never part of my thinking about death. I recognize that this is not a conventional response. Mention death and dying to people and you will see a good deal of cringing. As my mother was dying I recall the simple clarity of the situation. She was old, her body was worn out, and she was ready to die. For virtually everyone else there was a medical solution that was going to solve the ‘problem’. Somehow medicine was to grant her immortality. There was no fear in her, just a desire to die at home and not in a hospital hooked up to grotesque life support systems. All of the pithy homilies in the world may not be enough to eliminate a fear of death that is embedded in each of us to varying degrees and at varying depths. But an easy familiarity with death may be a fine relationship to have with this adviser. When we are the most despondent about our lives, we can look to death as our liberator and mentor. Nothing cures a diseased life as definitively as death. After my mini-death, overcome by feelings of emptiness and indifference, finding myself living in a body that was miraculously free of aches and pains, I wondered to myself, ‘And now what?’ What was to happen next? There was not much left to which to cling. With less to cling to I felt surprisingly strong and considerably less vulnerable. My only vulnerability, or sadness, or retroactive sense of loss, was that I might not have been able to watch my children grow up—largely selfish. And that they would not have their biological father around to bounce their identities off of, and to challenge through adolescence into adulthood. My feeling of indifference combined with a sense of sadness as the days wore on. I couldn’t look at anyone or anything without reflecting on impermanence. I saw my children growing old and decrepit and dying. I saw the buildings which I have constructed being torn down, or worse, becoming old and rundown and shabby. I kept thinking that all of our achievements, all our creations, all our labours, all our hopes and dreams of at least some limited immortality—all of this perishing in this vast ocean of existence. My sadness was in turn replaced by an old familiar sense of the simple enjoyment of life. I could love this life because I knew that it was rich in pleasures and whatever pain or deterioration or anguish or infirmity I was going to face, it would end. It would be extinguished by death. I had witnessed how my life could end at any moment. It was this fact that gave pleasure to my daily life filled with its trivial actions. Life is not ordinary or boring because of the mystery of death. My activities had meaning and were complete in themselves without reference to any external reference or justification because I was not immortal, because I was not going to live forever. I was alive and living my life. I needed no more. What makes my life interesting and confers some purpose to it is that my actions, any of which may be my last, are manifestations of my will in the face of my death. My battle with death is one that ultimately I will lose. All of my struggles are indeed struggles for life, but the ferocity of the struggle and the exercise of my will is what bestows interest and poignancy on life. I exercise my will in my struggle to live so as not to be taken by death passively or due to carelessness. All of my battles are indeed battles for life. My creations are the record on my journey into nonexistence. Any inattentiveness can result in death. Death adds a potency and concentration to life. It is a most reliable counsellor.
To be continue, UNDER CONSTRUCTION