Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Memento Mori

Thinking about my death rubs me up against the limits of language. I cannot stretch beyond these limits in thinking about my death. While it is true, if reincarnation be factual, that ‘I’ may have died before, if I did I did not do so as the creature that I am now but only as a different creature.

Nothing is more certain than that I will die. I may not die, of course, just as the sun may not rise tomorrow. Yet, my immortality in this flesh and the sun not rising tomorrow will only happen if unprecedented alterations in the nature of reality occur. These cannot with any confidence be expected. For this reason, sanity dictates – in so far as certainty can mean anything – that I will die and that the sun will rise tomorrow.

In dying I will return to the state of non-existence I occupied before I was conceived, or at least before I was born. Non-existence, therefore, is not unfamiliar to me. But there is a difference, surely, between non-existence preceding and non-existence succeeding my existence as this creature that I am. That difference, however, is only of significance to me and to those who have known me. To the universe as a whole, both these states of non-existence are identical. In both these circumstances, my interactions with the universe – my taking from it, in oxygen, in food, in impressions, my giving to it, in exhalations, in excreta, in activities - do not occur. From its perspective, in both scenarios, my non-existence before and after my life, I constitute an absence. I constituted such an absence before I was born (or conceived) and such an absence I will again constitute after I die.

The universe does not depend upon me. It has its own agenda, its own business to attend to. I became a part of that business in the early 70s and one day, be it tomorrow, next year or decades from now, I will stop being its business, except insofar as I may leave behind trace afterglows in the memories of those who have known me or, perhaps (ha!) in something objective and enduring that I might create (for example, a child, or else some other feat of noteworthy creativity – I make no promises).

It is uncanny to think about my own death. Uncanny because all I have ever known is life. Moreover, it has always been as someone who is alive that I have known anything at all. Therefore with regard both to the object and the subject of knowledge my knowledge on all sides has been enveloped by life. While it is true that I am aware of death, having seen dead animals and indeed lost to death people I have known and loved, this death that I have known has nevertheless been a feature of life, my life; this death has represented the boundary of life, its limit, or rather this death has constituted a doorway to death, behind which death is unknowably located, to which it merely refers. Death, the death of others that is known in life, is not death, but death’s signature written in life. The only way, even potentially, to know death is to oneself die. And yet, if it be true that there is no awareness after death, no existence of any kind, this death even then will not be known since I will not be anyone to know it.

If, on the other hand, there is something for me on the other side of death I will indeed have come to know death, but only as a portal to a new life. Even then I will not know death as we envisage knowing it, as an end, but only as a beginning. And then it remains to ask: What kind of life will this be? It will not be life in any sense that I have known it. I will be very different, if for no other reason than that I will no longer wear this body, which witnesses will see buried in the Earth or more likely turned into ash; this body which I have always worn; no, more than that, which I have always been. And beyond this, I will no longer be the being-in-this-world that I have always been – embedded in multifarious relations with other embodied beings, human and animal, traversed around by innumerable, very uniquely specific and unrepeatable spatio-temporal associations and interactive contacts with the Earth.

The inescapable strangeness and otherness of death is the central fact about death. We deny this strangeness when we say ‘death is a part of life’. Yet, of course, at the same time to say this about death is true, since, as far as we know, every being that has ever lived has died, and every being now alive will die. But that commonplace typicality, that universality, of death makes death not less strange but more strange. For normally, what is strange is also rare; but death is not rare, not at all but is as common as life. Death, then, represents the intimate, necessary marriage of life with the strange, the uncanny. For about death, as an experience, we can know nothing; yet that ineffability is the destiny of us all. Encircled by the strange as life’s limit, heading towards the strange ourselves, we are indeed strange.

Is this why we fear death? Because we fear the strange?

I’ll let you know about death when I die, if I can. But I make no promises

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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