Death

“Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.” I’ve always quite liked that one. Its vulgarity gives it impact and its concise simplicity drives its point home far more effectively than any elaborate argument could do. However, I don’t really agree with it. I suppose it depends on how you define “peace.” If by peace you just mean a lack of fighting then of course it is true. But are the enslaved really at peace? When I think of peace I think of being free and unthreatened. If my country were conquered and my people enslaved, I don’t think I would consider myself to be at peace. So, despite the clever slogan, not only is it possible to fight for peace but sometimes it is the only way to achieve peace. In a similarly superficially paradoxical manner, I believe death is vital to life.

One of the defining features of modern society is its tendency towards abstraction and sublimation. Living in a modern city, it is possible to be almost completely oblivious to the non-human world. With the exception of a few specially designated and carefully limited areas, the ground is made of concrete and tarmac. I spend most of my time in an office, air-conditioned with blinds covering the windows, or at home in my centrally heated flat. Only the most extreme weather conditions have any impact on my daily life. Neither the weather nor the seasons affect the shrink-wrapped foods that appear in my local supermarket. Everything is artifice. Everything is designed and built by humans. Presumably there is a real world underneath all this but I rarely see it. Not in the city, anyway. It is like being at the top of a large pyramid with no knowledge of the components lower down the structure. Whole sections could be moved, removed and replaced and no-one at the top would ever notice. Of course, this was the intention. The great technological project, born in the Enlightenment and matured in the Industrial Revolution, always hoped to conquer the physical world. Never again would humans be at the whim of chance events. Never again would we have to worry about disease or lack of sustenance. The natural world would be turned into an unlimited resource with which we could construct our own world according to our own design. Through the use of human reason, humanity would be freed from its physical fetters. Clearly, one of the cornerstones of such a project must be freedom from death. Our medicine has not yet reached such heights but, just as we are not yet totally free from the constraints of the natural world but we abstract our lives away from it, freeing ourselves from consciousness of the real world even if we are not yet physically free of it, so modern society tries to free itself from consciousness of death.

For most people in the West today, death is hidden. Despite all the talk about social decline, our society is still much less violent than in ages past. Our streets may not be as safe now as they were fifty years ago but they are considerably safer than they were two hundred and fifty years ago. Traffic accidents are relatively rare, even when they do happen we are unlikely to be at the scene ourselves. Illness is hidden away in hospitals. We even hide old age, shutting away our elderly relatives in “retirement homes” and “nursing homes.” Warfare happens in far away places, mediated by satellite television with neat and tidy graphics and snappy soundbites. Even our meat is slaughtered and butchered far from our sight, by the time it reaches us it is packaged into convenient pre-prepared portions.

Shutting out the non-human world may appear to bring us material benefit but it kills our souls. If we never experience something that is not of us, we begin to lose any real sense of what we are. If we never experience awe and majesty, we never develop a desire for more than our mere comfort. If you give a dog a warm home and a convenient food supply, he will stay there contentedly. If you give me a comfortable house near a supermarket, I will spend my spare time climbing mountains and camping in the snow. I have a desire to connect with the real world, to be a part of the world that has not been designed and shaped by man, that is stronger than my basic desire for material comfort. I do not wish to live in the wild like an animal but equally I do not wish to live at the other extreme, cut off from the wild like a character in a virtual reality simulation. Both extremes are unhealthy.

Similarly, suppressing consciousness of death is not healthy. An understanding of mortality is essential to a meaningful life. No-one thinks it is sensible when a bereaved person refuses to admit that their loved one has died. But that is exactly what modern people do when confronted by their own death. Death is so unfamiliar to them that it terrifies them in a way that it never could early man, surrounded by death every day of his life as he was. I know people who admit that they choose processed food because it doesn’t remind them of an animal. That amazes and horrifies me.

Heidegger had much to say about the importance of considering one’s death. He claimed that an authentic person must “run ahead” to his death. It is only by running ahead, by anticipating one’s death, that one really opens up possibilities for living authentically now. T. Birch elucidated some of Heidegger’s more obtuse language in a 1996 paper. If you are unfamiliar with Heidegger’s terminology, substitute the phrase “human being” for his term “Dasein.”

There is a very brief way of framing how Heidegger approaches an understanding of death: since death is not something we can experience (live through), there is really nothing at all to say about “death itself.” In this sense, death is not — it does not exist for an individual to experience. But since “death,” in the sense of the termination of all possible experience (at least as we presently know it) is inevitable, a given fact of human existence, we can say a great deal about the attitudes we do have, as well as the attitudes we ought to have, about this quintessential aspect of human existence.  We can say that what is important is not “death itself,” but dying, the manner in which the human being lives as it aims toward death.  “Death,” as our being toward it, is the focus of Heidegger’s analysis.  The old saying that as soon as we are born we are old enough to die, Heidegger notes, is not something we can ignore – for how we live in light of this fact makes all the difference (Being and Time, p. 158)…

Anticipation means confronting by actively revealing, disclosing, death as possibility… In Dasein’s disclosing of itself to itself in anticipation, certain phenomenological “results” come to the fore that Heidegger simply describes rather than “proves.” Compressed for brevity, these include the following. (1) Death individualizes Dasein, revealing that being-with others ultimately fails when one’s inmost potentiality of being is at stake. Dasein, in facing death is thereby freed from “the they.” (2) In becoming free from the inauthentic modes of the they, Dasein becomes freed for one’s own death. Further, Dasein comes to understand its own death, as imminent and not to be bypassed, opens up all the possibilities lying before it as possibilities to be taken up freely, apart from the influences of the they. (3) In taking up the certainty of death, Dasein confronts a form of certainty that belongs to something not of the order of objectively present things.  This certainty is in regard to Dasein itself, it understands itself to be of this “other” order of things. (4) Dasein does not ignore either the certainty or the indefiniteness of death. In anticipation, Dasein holds itself “in passionate, anxious, freedom toward death” (BT, p.  173). (5) In being freed from the they, and individualized in death, Dasein is able to understand “the potentialities of being of the others” and existing existentielly “as a whole potentiality of being” (BT, p. 172). In other words, the recognition of individual death does not separate us from each other, but forms the basis for authentic human interaction through mutual regard.

In slightly less convoluted prose, there is quite a nice line in the film The Kingdom:

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out, on your feet or on your knees?

You will die. It is going to happen. You will die. If you understand that, you will achieve a certain freedom that is denied to most by modern Western society. Death is nothing to fear. That doesn’t mean that I want to die any more than my desire to feel a part of the non-human world means that I want to live like a wild animal. There is a healthy, human balance to be found, perhaps rediscovered, between the two extremes.  Acceptance of the inevitability of your death gives you a freedom to do the right thing, rather than merely the safest thing.

I do not think it is coincidence that the only widespread and effective movements to abolish capital punishment arose in the post-Enlightenment era. Since the late eighteenth century, death has become more and more terrifying to the general populace. The more we have tried to suppress our consciousness of it, the more it has restricted and governed our lives. People in the modern West live with a crippling fear of death that would seem disgustingly cowardly to people of earlier times. For a particularly banal but insidious manifestation of this overwhelming fear, you need look no further than recent Health and Safety legislation. But far worse than that, consider the fear with which people limit their own lives. People are scared to walk around the city at night alone. Parents are too scared to let their children roam and play as they used to do. I do not doubt that crime rates are rising but people’s reaction to the danger is absurd and pathetic.

We should bring back public hangings. Not only would this allow true justice to be served (I am always disgusted when some bastard is convicted of the most base and vile murder but is sentenced to only a few years in prison while his victim rots) but also the spectacle would bring death back into modern life. And it should be a spectacle, it should not be hidden away in a prison. It should be simple and physical, not an automated lethal injection or an electric chair. Parents used to take their children to Tyburn to watch the public executions. It used to be family entertainment. Now they just watch television.

We should abolish the inhumane practice of transporting livestock to industrial slaughter machines and instead allow farmers to kill their own animals as they used to do. We should encourage local butchers and the eating of meat that looks like an animal part rather than shrink-wrapped processed food. Even better, go hunting. Let your prey live wild and free before it dies, then stalk it, kill it and prepare it yourself. We should decriminalise duelling and allow men to settle matters of honour by the sword. We should allow civilians to carry arms and to defend themselves and their community rather than abstracting that duty away to an increasingly political police force. At the very least we should bring back into fashion the art of memento mori.

We should not cower before death.

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Published in: on February 13, 2008 at 12:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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