Faces of Life and Death

“In the course of the nineteenth-century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one… In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living… Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in a sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs.” (Benjamin)

I’m afraid of death. I don’t think my brain can fully comprehend it. I have never had to fully confront or face it. There are people close to me who’ve had people close to them die. My grandfather died a few years ago and I saw the profound affect it had on my mother. The closest I’ve been to death, I guess, is when my nanny died of a heart attack at a bus station. It still upsets me to this day, thinking about that.

There seem to be two ways of understanding death: death as the simple end of life, in a biological return to nature; and death as a disappearance that is also a step towards of gaining something new. This latter concept of death can be seen in Christianity and many other religions, where the idea of death is seen as a step towards ‘direct contact’ with the truth, or death as a means to achieve a closer approximation to truth.

Even if we may not think about death every day, our whole existence is marked and characterized by our relation to death. This connection with death, therefore, determines the existence and the essence of knowledge. If we do not make sense of the time that is given to us as one limited by our own death, if we assume that we’re immortal and that our actions have no meaning, then we are existing in a meaningless coming and going of day after day, where our life cannot form itself into one whole and meaningful existence.

According to Hegel (ooh, philsophy so exciting!) human beings are defined by their ability to make choices; it’s what differs them from stones. ‘Being’ vs. ‘being able to’. Our choices for action always have something to do with knowledge. To choose to take action thus calls for an examination of your knowledge of your own life. And yet, I can never look at my life as a whole, since it has not yet come to an end, and is therefore still incomplete.

Therefore one can only ‘know’ the meaning of one’s life after death. It is a knowledge that remains completely unavailable and unattainable to me throughout my lifetime, since when it does become available, I will be dead. My life as a whole and its meaning will exist in the eyes of those that survive me. Only they will be able to judge whether my life has been truly worth living or not. Consequently, as long as I am alive, I cannot know myself, and when I am dead, I will not know myself either. Bummer. Instead, we have to settle for understanding our life from the viewpoint of others, and it is for this reason that we understand death as well as something that happens to others, which is to say to ‘everybody else, but not me.’ It is for this reason that we become habituated to mistake death for an abstract fact of life, rather than a concrete part of our existence. How often do you really think to yourself, “I could be dead right now. What if?”

In regards to using knowledge in order make choices which eventually lead to action: how does my life become something that I choose, rather than something that others choose for me? How do I live an authentic, individual life (and thus die an authentic, rather than mechanical, death?)? The whole of my life is still not a given; its meaning stretches out before me like an empty meadow. The way that this meadow will be filled is only in my control up to a certain point, because I have no way of knowing when and where and how I will die. Such thoughts brings all of us anguish and insecurity in us all (not just Woody Allen), the basic concept of not knowing what the future has in store. Ironically enough, only thing that any of us can know as a 100% given in our future, out of all the different possibilities and paths our lives may take, is that we will die. It sounds self-evident and kind of “duh” to say so… but in order to exist authentically, I must understand first that I am a temporal being. Easy say–hard do!! The meaning of my existence cannot be granted in terms of looking at it in terms of minutes, seconds, days, or years, but rather that the ‘meaning of my life’ can only be understood as a whole, as a concrete temporal span, as opposed to a series of moments.

If it were not for the presence of death, we would remain in the illusion that things could go on as they are and therefore we would not have to do anything about our lives. It is our knowledge of our deaths, then, that makes us make the choices to act. Death, while limiting the possibilities of what I can do with my life, is also simultaneously the source of all the possibilities of what I may or may not do with my life. It’s a negative that is also a positive. Moreover, it is only in death that I am truly unique. In everything else that I am, I can be substituted by another—Reed student, Corey’s girlfriend, etc. (not for biological sister though…hmm).

Where does this leave me? I’ve never been able to live according to the creed “Live each day as though it were your last.” Obviously if we all really lived by that creed, people would be rolling around in fields and jumping into oceans as opposed to going to class or work, I think the sentiment behind that expression is more in terms of “Make the most of your time each day, because it’s limited; be constantly asking yourself, ‘is my behavior right now truly getting me what I want?'”

I remember at my nanny’s funeral, somebody in her family gave me the candy and hair barettes she’d been carrying in her pockets, little gifts she often got for me and my sister. I remember how my sister and I just looked at each other wordlessly: I wouldn’t know how to explain in words even if I knew what it was, but we were definitely feeling the same thing. I also remember, at the wake, my mother asking me if I wanted to see the body in the coffin. I shook my ‘no.’ I remember feeling that very strongly, of emphatically not wanting to see the body (even typing “the body” feels strange… as though it wasn’t Angela, my nanny, who was dead and in the coffin, but rather “it”, the body, something separate, something different, a horrible mistake, a mix-up of the universe). I guess I felt like “it” would ruin my memories of HER as alive; I didn’t want them stamped out by the face of a gray corpse instead. The funny thing though, is I still try to picture and imagine what she would have looked like, anyway. That’s what I kept thinking about, looking at the link in the first sentence. The way everyone’s lips are droopy, the way the skin of everyone’s faces seems to be close to sliding off. I feel unnerved and disoriented right now, sitting in the living room with my computer warming my lap, a lukewarm espresso at my side. I don’t really know what to do next.

“The words outlive me, because in a certain sense I am irrelevant to them.” (Blanchot)

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Filed under death, truth, Walter Benjamin

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