It is time to take far more seriously our universal lack of emphasis on the event of death, which seems – of course – a direct reversal of asking why life occurs in the first place, but which is not a corollary at all, for life is a given. Being is undeniable. So when, for example, Albert Camus cried:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
He was well wrong. We are already extant and will die anyway, regardless of his ‘freedom of choice.’
I am inclined rather to concur with a writer like Ray Brassier, who tells us that in fact that it is precisely because there is death and ultimate extinction, that there is any life at all, thus any philosophy at all: “that it is only because life is conditioned by its own extinction that there is thought at all” as he scribes in his seminal tome Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007.) Philosophy is more truly a partner to non-Being. The truly serious philosophical problem transmutes to dealing with Death.
So, why do we all eventually, some far too soon, depart the scene? Why is there the deterioration of age and the often sad slink into Nothingness as opposed to Being, given that biologists will explain this as the inevitable degeneration of cells, and evolutionists will proclaim the need for death so as to encourage the next batches of life and as to maintain some living space for such?
My question is, however, a meta-question, seeking to override physiological descriptions of this bodily degeneration and asking ‘Why is there Death, with a capital D?’ Why do we not look at others and see that in every living moment and with absolute clarity that one day they will no longer Be, and then not recoil in shock, in dread? Why are we also so damnably reluctant to self-acknowledge that our own death is inevitable? On a related or micro level, to even talk about it – our own death – down at the local? To draw up specific death plans for our beloved to refer to when we do drop? We are necessarily contingent, to paraphrase Quentin Meillassoux, but don’t seem to existentially internalize this..
People die. At times their passing (to what? to where?) is recorded or mourned – and indeed, in the cases of ‘celebrities’ lengthy, often obsequious, obituaries are penned – but there is no serious questioning as to ‘Why is this person dead?’ The living all too often seize upon the occasion of death more to festoon themselves in pity, to self-gratify, as opposed to fully cognize the finality involved and declare an honest empathy for another’s departure once and for all. Sometimes a media medium also leaps onto a bizarre way of dying as a news item worthy of soliciting a wider gratuitous readership. More, certain other agencies actually profit from the proliferation of death: funeral directors, firearm sellers aka ‘merchants of death’, some bloodthirsty egotistical generals and politicians. They don’t want death to die out at all.
Worse still, if mass death occurs – particularly if it took place in non-Western countries – it is soon forgotten and quickly papered over by Western media sources, if it even covered at all in the first place. Yet the departure of some long-forgotten Hollywood ‘star’ still rates a mention in TIME magazine. 1000 Filipinos wiped out in Mindanao scarcely rates a mention in its white pages.
Death has become as undervalued as Life and is all so easily accomplished via – for example – a reckless handgun or for a helmet-less motorbike rider; through a mass-stoning or an immolation; in the midst of a suicide bombing (itself an aberration whereby one death leads to many deaths, supposedly to avenge still more deaths) or a state-sponsored execution, whereby another death somehow atones for earlier instances of same. All somewhat nutty behaviour.
We have become as desensitized to Death – witness the number of ‘kills’ racked up in any typical video game extravaganza – as we have to the preciousness of Life. Death is merely ‘accepted’ in passing and we quite literally quickly pass on to the next topic.
All rather odd. We should be fighting this death business as it is a manifest cop-out to be living for a certain amount of time, to accomplish a range of sometimes splendid activities, to love, to hate, to emote, to form strong bonds with loved ones and friends, and then to depart for good. This is the ‘true’ absurd, really. We should be placing far more serious attention on living, living longer, living better, fighting this death machinery. We are returning a gift to the store before it is fully appreciated. Here is where Colin Wilson, for example, clearly pointed out where ‘traditional’ Existentialism – a la Camus as one example – ‘failed’: it assumed suicide was somehow a freedom from death.
Now several thinkers have attempted to adumbrate prescriptions as to gaining more life, going further into life. Colin Wilson, again, comes to mind as a prime example – with his Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966) as just one earlier manifestation of his credo. However, Wilson only goes so far and ignores completely bodily death, indeed bodily presence per se. Indeed his whole thrust is purely a ‘mental’ one (I had pointed out in my own work, for example Wilson as Mystic, 2001 and more comprehensively in my earlier thesis, that Wilson writes as someone who tends to diminish, even detest body functions, as shown in his early novels in particular.) More, he also of course totally ignores death (and disease and destruction in a wider social realm) to the absurd degree – especially early in his career – that he frequently proclaimed his own self-belief that he would live, if not forever, at least to age to run well over any human ‘norm’. Brassier – again – would claim that humanity has many ‘conceits’ such as this, that require dismantling.
Sadly, Wilson never had a completely holistic approach to flogging death into submission, although all credit to him for stressing the impellation to far more life, to plunge more fully into the lifestream. However sheer mental strength or willpower is not simply going to defeat death, thus boost longevity.
Yes, there are also some historical approaches to this death business. A plenitude of ‘traditional’ religions such as Christianity and Islam have endeavoured – not particularly convincingly for this writer – to generate myths about Heaven (and Hell for that matter) and souls as a sop to the living, as a quasi-rationale for being here in the first place. But they don’t actually convince anyone with a modicum of sense that there is a need for death in the first place. They all too often grate as fairy tales told by school kids. These tales do not rate as serious rationalizations as to why we should die and indeed give the lie to what actually does eventuate when we die – we rot away. Simple as that.
Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad are long gone, R.I.P. They are not coming back. They are dead. Ironically, however, some of the living are also making capital from them – priests, pontiffs and prelates. As well as imans and insurrectionists.
Then there are the parapsychological parrots who prate the ‘existence’ of near-death and return-from-death and reincarnation experiences as ‘evidence’ that in fact bodily death is not the be all and end all of existence. Leaving aside the huge miasmatic glob concerning bodies as opposed to something non-physical and nominated as ‘minds’ – itself a contentious and increasingly unlikely divide – there remains still no defining and cogent evidence that such ‘death’ experiences prove anything whatsoever and that – in fact – the sheer amorphousness of such ‘experiences’ serve to completely cloud the issue as to their veracity. There hasn’t ever been a 50% – let alone a 100% verifiable case –of a returned ‘departee’ and/or an extant ‘eternalee’, given – once again – the emphatic words of Colin Wilson in his account of afterlife.
It is a major – no, I would go further and state that it is the prime concern that we all should face far more front-on – that in 2013 we still have no final consensus as to any proven post-biological-death existence in any field whatsoever. Quite the opposite, in fact, as science and neuro-physiology in particular narrow the gaps in our knowledge, toward a completely physiological construction of the human frame. Both body and mind decease as one. Do you know anyone who has actually been resurrected, other than via electric shock therapy or strenuous heart massage? Do you know the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? Enough said.
All of which leads us back to the beginning of this essay: why is there Death as opposed to Life and why aren’t we far more mystified, concerned, in alarm, confused, aware than we most evidently are? We all require an immediate epiphany as to our impending demise at any given moment, whereby questions of ‘personal identity’ as to who/what actually dies are superseded immediately as irrelevant. Why aren’t we in awe that we all will die, that some of us will die in an alarmingly surprising and unpredictable way, and more wondrously, that we waste so much of our time actually encouraging our respective and unnecessary demise through idiotic dietary habits and smoking, through stupendously stupid testosterone-fuelled warfare, through a belligerent turning a blind eye to the millions starving to death and dying of curable diseases and to the thousands being blown up by the landmines left behind after another failed ‘liberating mission’? We – or at least many of us – also steadfastly destroy our environment so as to hasten our own contingent obliteration. We seem to encourage our own demise! We go out of our ways to actually increase the chances of death, yet are inevitably very wary of our own individual extinguishment. Obliteration will happen to us all anyway – so why hasten it?
For no one – with the exception of the clinically depressed or the heavily euthanasiac – wishes to die. When that final curtain is being drawn down, we do our utmost to keep it open, given our bodies have not been too enfeebled to even resist.
So, why don’t we have departments of Death Studies in all of our educational institutions right now? International forums and colloquiums? Commissions of enquiry? Prizes for coming up with some actual answers to what should always be the main question: why do we (need to) die? Why is Death such a prime overlooked component of our Lives? Why do we basically ignore it, yet are happy enough to watch the F.A Cup final in its incessant shadow? Death is not retreating, it’s not going away. It’s just outside our windows. It’s on the soccer pitch. It lurks in the grandstands and in the pubs outside after the match.
What are we doing here is not asking a question pertaining to why we are alive. Rather it is this query: why do we die and why aren’t we staring this BIG question in the face?
Do not accept another death without at the very least questioning it, fighting it, killing it. By confronting this dragon we may well slay it once and for all.
Life is a given. Death can be otherwise. Don’t let Death kill you.
Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. W. Somerset Maugham
Vaughan Rapatahana’s life has been a swill in death. Death had always been a shadow, losing parents and children far too early and unnecessarily. And he can certainly vouch that Albert Camus’ ‘solution’ didn’t work for him.
Now he wouldn’t wish Death on anyone, anywhere. Life is for seizing forever.