The Inevitable Impossibility
by E. John Winner
Born to die
Some German theorist came up with the idea that primitive peoples approach death as always a mysterious, even incomprehensible, visitation to the tribal community, requiring avoidance and always met with fear. He must have been thinking of the faculty at his university.
Actually, the archaeological and anthropological records are quite clear. Primitive peoples know what death is, prepare for it, and deal with it with ritualized burial routines. It is simply another event in a universe filled with events, and eventually, as the individual well knows, every individual of the community will die. It is the community’s survival that gives meaning to the individual’s life; performance of one’s duties for the good of the community prepares a person for a death worthy of the community.
In our culture, however, some are so convinced that death will never touch them that one suspects the fear of death is the primary motivation behind their choice of what is essentially a hedonistic lifestyle. One quickly discovers their fierce opposition to any mention of the possibility of anyone’s demise: “I don’t want to think about that!” “It’s morbid!” One wonders why we don’t simply outlaw any mention of death, and to some extent we do: it’s why so many Hollywood movies have happy endings, even when the logic of the narrative points inexorably towards the hero’s death. People don’t die, they “pass away,” “go to a better place,” and “are no longer with us.” At the very worst they “breathe their last breath.”
Of course in such narratives, one’s enemies are allowed to perish in the most gruesome ways imaginable: shot, hung, stabbed, beaten to a pulp, strangled, immolated, crucified, blown to smithereens, beheaded, disemboweled, impaled, drawn-and-quartered , whacked, gassed, nuked, wiped from the face of the earth, and killed, killed, killed. Grammatically, such narratives cannot speak of an enemy without asserting he or she as (at least in potential) the direct object of the verb ‘kill’. It is here that we see the denial of the selfhood of other human beings most graphically displayed; when thinking along these lines, one cannot imagine oneself dying, but it is easy to imagine the death of the enemy who is perceived as merely and only a thing to be destroyed.
This trenchant opposition to the possibility of one’s own death structures the worldview of many, like the operating system of a computer always running in the background, regardless of what other programs are in use. It determines how we meet every moment of our existence, how we raise children, and how we prepare to leave the world to those children, once they are grown. The terrible truth, of course, is that we never really prepare the world for the next generation, since we deny the possibility of our own death. We tacitly assume that we will outlive their children who, after all, are only brought into the world as a source of entertainment. No wonder we so cheerfully send their children off to war: even the death of the child is but the performance of a theatrical tragedy that we learn to live with; even, perhaps, secretly enjoy, as the catharsis of our own fear of death.
Such people live each moment not as if it were the last (although they frequently assert as much), but as if there would never be a last moment; as if this were the only one that ever existed and the only one that ever could exist and as if it could not end. This is the “eternal now” that we often hear described as the time for our greatest enjoyment in life, something frequently claimed as being derived from “Oriental” philosophies such as Buddhism. But, a Buddhist doesn’t deny the passage of time or its culmination in death. Rather, he learns to live with it. The “eternal now” is the wet dream of one who is in love not with life, but with the fear of death. A reflective, reasoning person learns to live life on its own terms; the hedonic recidivist refuses to learn to live. One can imagine someone replying, “We don’t need to learn how to live, we just do it,” but this can only be true of animals, incapable of rational self-awareness. Human beings must always must learn how to live. Our infancy is too prolonged, our self-sufficiency outside the womb too inadequate, to assure our survival. If we become individuals, it is thanks to the community that raises us and to which we consequently are thus obligated. We are not and cannot be, by nature, individualists, except within a social domain. The supposedly “free,” isolated individual is doomed to an early death.
The claim to self-centeredness is thus denial of one’s own childhood and of the process of maturation. Maturation is a temporal process, and its inevitable stopping point is death. No wonder some deny it. Their existence would be perceived as wholly atemporal, if it weren’t for the inevitable frustrations and crises of survival. Life thus reduces to a meaningless sequence of immeasurable enjoyments, randomly sectioned by annoying events of purposeless frustration and disappointment. Too many believe that such a life – with as few frustrating events as possible – constitutes “happiness.” Yet, paradoxically, this is not really living, it is the mere passage of time. Every period of unbothered enjoyment is but an intermission between crises. Those not attending to their own history may not remember a spouse dying or even deny that spouses ever die (one psychological benefit of belief in an afterlife). But they can no longer cherish the remembered pleasures of the espousal. These pleasures were expected as their due and consequently were as meaningless as the pleasures of defecation (which comparison I think a Warhol acolyte once actually asserted). Although they yearn for atemporality, the inevitable crises of life assure that their existence is the mere counting of empty time. And yet, despite this, the final moment of the last count remains denied. But for some, better the meaningless count of “eternal nows,” than the complex, and tentative, living of time as the making of meaning, which we always find among those who acknowledge and accept their own mortality.
To finde Deeth, turne up this croked wey. (Chaucer)
Death is a certainty. To this we all agree. But what do we mean by that?
Death happens to all living entities, but what is our thinking in this? How do we see it? We stick a needle in the back of an ant. It struggles in vain to escape or, somehow, to counterattack. Its legs and mandibles writhe erratically. Something in us is moved to pity. For now, it would seem that the ant has an imminent awareness of its own demise. Perhaps it also feels something we would recognize as pain, were we able to communicate with it properly. If a one-cell creature responds in like manner to a threat, we cannot tell by way of microscopes. Neither could we see a tree shudder in pain as the ax-blade carves into it, if in fact it does. So, we can think of the ant as having imminent awareness of its own life only because it responds to a threat in a manner similar to the way we know we would, were we to be impaled. And that, of course, is why we feel something akin to pity when we watch the ant die, pierced by our needle.
Yet this still remains only an assumption on our parts. We don’t really know what the ant feels. We don’t have the slightest idea of its experience of this threat and inevitable demise. After all, we do know that the ant cannot know that its demise is inevitable. We can ascribe pain to it, and we can characterize its behavior as responding to a threat, but this threat could only be “perceived” – if one could even call it that – in the most vague and general way. In order to “recognize” a threat as potentially fatal, an intelligence has to be able to make a reflexive connection between three significations: ‘living’; ‘intervening threat’; and ‘not living’. Even if the ant could connect the first two significations, it could never make any connection with the third. What could “not living” possibly “mean” to an ant? And how would this happen?
It is not enough to say here that “not living” is the signification of an abstract idea. In fact, it is no idea at all, but rather, a negation. Within its temporal and spatial domain, living does not happen; there is no possible intelligence there capable of having any ideas, and there are no knowable entities to have any ideas about. While its own occurrence is possible (indeed, inevitable), once it occurs, possibility comes to an end. Its potential is not realized; it cancels out all potential. To die is to enter the realm of the impossible.
We have a very difficult time thinking about this, our inescapable future as suddenly becoming impossible. What could it possibly mean? “A hundred years from now, whatever else happens, I will be impossible by then,” a sentence the grammar of which appears silly, even absurd. Yet, it happens to be as true a sentence as any making claim on a future reality, for any person speaking it. The individual human being dies and thus becomes impossible. No wonder so many believe in an afterlife! If my future is impossible, what status has my past? how could I ever have been born?
Accidents happen, of course. It always strikes me as comical, the enormous amount of ideological babble spewed across eons and continents, from innumerable people, asserting that human life and intelligence could not occur by accident. Why not? Those saying such things seem to think that the assertion itself answers the question, but that’s not even begging the question – it’s simply ignoring it.
Our deaths are a function of our animal nature and consequently, they must be of a kind with the deaths of other animals. We can narrow this classification a little, by remembering that we are a certain species of primate, all of whom are mammals. Thus, like it or not, we will die as all primates die. Our blood pressure rate soars or drops; our heart beats rapidly as though escaping the confines of our chest (or it ceases all together); or breathing becomes an irregular, choking gasp; sometimes our mouths fill with blood; sometimes their mucous membranes dry out and crack. We know that it will become difficult to focus our vision at the last, because the dying person’s gaze becomes fixed and non-responsive to light. We will either feel so much pain that life becomes intolerable, or we will feel nothing at all. And then, “the rest is silence.”
I do not for a moment accept the veracity of those reports of so-called “near-death experiences,” concerning those who have “died” – in a medically technical sense – and yet have survived to talk about it, usually claiming to see some light at the end of a tunnel, or hearing some voice of a long-dead loved one, etc. The problem with these reports is actually grammatical: there is no such thing as a “near-death experience,” there is life and then there is death, the undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns. No mortal entity, once dead, can ever live again, and thus, whatever can be reported by the living to the living must have been lived; must have occurred as an experience of life. The “near-death experience” is thus revealed as the experience of one particular mode or moment of living. “Oh, but that is just semantics!” (I.e., it is just a grammatical remark.) But grammar determines the knowable. If it cannot be said, it cannot be known, in any communicable manner. “Near-death” is a term of art for referring to some moment which is obviously and undeniably not-death. “Well, but I am trying to communicate the incommunicable.” Trying to square a circle will meet with as much success.
Are there any experiences beyond the range of the communicable, beyond the range of language? Actually, no. Every human experience can be communicated to another human, by reference to analogues embedded in shared experience. We should remember that this is one of the important missions for the poet and the storyteller; that they help to generate the language with which we communicate our experiences to others, even and perhaps especially, when the experience has never been communicated before.
(Well, but is there anything at all we can know about that is beyond the range of the communicable? Yes, indeed; too much, perhaps. Unfortunately, there’s no way to refer to any of it except to say: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” Or something like. So, whatever could be “known” of whatever follows death itself, must remain moot to us, and we mute to it.)
Every human death is the same. Male or female, old or young, decrepit or fit, by way of accident or intent or mere process of aging. Death comes to each and every one of us. Many people find this intolerable. How many monarchs have forced their subjects to build for them magnificent mausoleums, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt; enduring evidence of human hubris and stupidity? Open any of these and discover the same decayed remains one finds in the grave of a peasant. “But we are not to be identified with our bodies,” so begins the argument that the living experience of each individual being, so the experience of death must be different for each of us. But this simply evades the real issue: it is not the final moment of individual, living consciousness that defines the “experience of death,” it is the first moment afterward, which, I’ve already noted, no one can experience and then report to the living.
In Being and Time (1927), Martin Heidegger attempted to make a distinction between “authentic death,” i.e., death as experienced by an individual of courage and intellect, perhaps the very culmination of life, the event granting it real meaning, and “inauthentic death,” just the run-of-the-mill, household variety of death happening while no one pays attention to it. Reading back through Heidegger to the ancient Greeks, we understand that an “authentic death” would be that confronted by a civilized person, while an “inauthentic death” would represent the curse of cowardice. But while I respect Heidegger’s evidently civilized desire for a civilized confrontation with one’s own mortality, I must reject the distinction as attempted poesis of myth. Death’s arrival is inevitable, but always surprising. Preparing for it, as the culmination of one’s individual living, is simply impossible. The most we can do is try to effect what others might say of us after our demise. But that preparation (which is really the preparation Heidegger is discussing, although he is unaware of it) can never be finished, because death itself always cuts it short. That can only mean that such preparation is irrelevant to death. And, indeed, such is the case; what could it possibly matter to one what others say of one, after one has become impossible? And although Heidegger doesn’t want the “authentic” individual to confront death as does the otherwise nameless “one” of generic subjectivity, I’m afraid this is unavoidable. Any individual human dies in just the same manner as dies any “one” (the “Man” or “They” of Heidegger’s text).
Whatever it is (which we living can never know), death is the same for all human beings. Someone who has attained any awareness of this accepts it and devotes his or her life to doing what can be done for others, and finding personal satisfactions in community with them. There’s no real point in doing anything on one’s own just for oneself, which is doomed in the first instance. Even an effort to contribute to a future – which is always closed off to the individual – must be undertaken as an effort to contribute to the future presence of others.
The end comes at last
We close the door on death (temporarily), but perhaps open the door to a new way of looking at life. I suppose one could get all evolutionary here and remark upon the necessity of continuing the species, but this is a weak argument for those who care little whether their species continues or not. But simply living with others generates obligations, which can be taught, enforced by social behaviors (or by law when necessary), and which demand of us contributions to the good of others. We owe it to them. We were nurtured by their forbearers, and we nurture them in turn.
The denial of death that leads to the pursuit of momentary pleasures, especially those that cause others harm (as well as oneself, eventually), neither generates an “eternal now,” nor sustains itself within it. This “now” repeats itself incessantly, becoming a predictable, and rather boring, pattern of seeking pleasure, enjoying it, loss, dissatisfaction, forgetting, seeking all over again.
To accept our own mortality is neither morbid nor despairing. It means that we have a moment to recognize that what we each do in life will always have consequences, but it also means that the future, in which such consequences are realized, is not ours individually. It belongs to our progeny and our community. Those who have children owe it to them, having burdened them with the possibilities, risks, and responsibilities of life, to provide for their future and not simply their passing fancies. And those without children share precisely this same debt to the children of others. We enjoy the community’s benefits, and we share its responsibilities. There can be no greater responsibility to the community, than to work for the continuance of that community.
The end of life is death, which means that while we know where we are going, we won’t know anything once we’ve gotten there. The great challenge, then, is to forge our learning into a purpose for the journey. Our lives cannot but be shared, and it would seem the broadest and deepest purpose that we can build for ourselves involves always reaching out to others, not to get something from them, but to contribute to their own efforts to create purpose. We do not learn for ourselves, but for others; what we know is always contribution to the shared experience of community. The search for meaning finds its goal within itself, as the continuing search for the meaning we share with others.