We Love Dying
Popular culture loves the act of dying, and hates the fact of death.
In our visual entertainments, for example, dying is usually either instantaneous or sadistic, in either case it’s hardly ever realistic, and it happens far more frequently onscreen than in our actual lives (unless we’re dictators or undertakers or the like.) Dead bodies? We’ve got piles of them, either hideously eviscerated or too-neatly dispatched; plenty of shooters and stabbers to produce those bodies; a plethora of detectives to make heartless jokes over them; and a surfeit of pathologists who chew on turkey sandwiches or otherwise act ostentatiously blasé while they perform their colorful dissections and conveniently easy deductions.
Our love of dying is on display in every episode of CSI, Bones, and other wildly popular mysteries of the same ilk, where the emphasis has increasingly and disturbingly shifted from ratiocination to mutilation – the clues in these shows are moronic, though prettied up with a patina of science, but the bodies, and the horrifying manner in which they’re chopped, shattered, burned, plugged, flayed, and violated, are displayed with astonishing and loving verisimilitude.
But what of death itself: the way we perceive it as it actually is happening; or how we contemplate the form it might take; the manner in which we cope with the passing of others close to us; and the way we imagine we will experience our existence, if any, after we die? These subjects are far less common in our contemporary popular culture, where, once the murder mystery is afoot, the deceased doesn’t much matter for the storyline.
There are some exceptions, like the lately and regrettably canceled Pushing Daisies, featuring a protagonist who could temporarily “awaken” and converse with the recently deceased, but that was a colorful fantasy with some detective elements, and hardly an attempt to engage in a serious way with death.
Medical dramas such as House and ER are a bit better about meditating on mortality than detective shows, but even so, they traffic in false hope, last-minute miracles, and indefinitely extended reckonings. In our literary fiction, where unsparing depictions of senescence and death are not uncommon (Philip Roth’s recent short novels, Exit Ghost, Everyman, and The Dying Animal are memorable contemporary examples), there is still a widespread reluctance to engage in explorations of the afterlife, because in our overwhelmingly secular literature, the eternal is an embarrassment.
Which is odd, considering that a great many of us think about our own deaths, and what might happen to us after our deaths, all the time; nearly all of us face the death of others; and all of us will die. Though I can’t help but think of the hilarious Ali G. bit where he’s “interviewing” the humorless and definitely-not-in-on-the-joke “main man of medicine” C. Everett Koop, and in the process says, “Let’s talk about a big thing—death. D-E-F. I’s talkin’ about da thing that happens to you, you know, a few weeks after you was alive. Dat’s bad, innit! So what is da chances dat me will actually die? I like to think dat four out of five people is definitely gonna be have da death thing happen to dem. One out of five? (referring to himself.) Jah bless, keep going. Keepin’ it strong.”
C. Everett, Jah bless him, looks as if he’s just swallowed a stethoscope, but manages to intone, “You will eventually find that you are wrong.”
There are undoubtedly others besides Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G. who believe, with various degrees of conviction and seriousness, that they might somehow escape the scythe. The playwright and novelist William Saroyan, for example, once facetiously said (though many a desired truth is said in jest), “everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” And, of course, the percentage of people worldwide who believe in some form of afterlife or metempsychosis is quite large; if various readily available surveys and studies are to be believed, the number could be 80 percent or more. (In the United States, for example, about 75 percent of adults believe in life after death, and an approximately equal number profess a belief in heaven, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)
But that rough estimate obscures the fact that human conjectures about death and the afterlife comprise an impressively wide range of beliefs. That isn’t all that surprising; no matter what one’s faith, the ultimate truth is empirically unknowable, so it leaves an enormous amount of room for speculation for those of us still on this side of the Great Divide. In his recent “memoir on mortality,” Nothing to Be Frightened Of, the English novelist Julian Barnes comes at the issue from the perspective of an open-minded non-believer but manages, along the way, to give voice to some of these more interesting conjectures.
Being an agnostic and former atheist, Barnes hastens to note, doesn’t make him any less likely to dwell on death. In this regard, he divides people into four categories:
...and it’s clear which two regard themselves as superior: those who do not fear death because they have faith, and those who do not fear death despite having no faith. These groups take the moral high ground. In third place come those who, despite having faith, cannot rid themselves of the old, visceral, rational fear. And then, out of the medals, below the salt, up shit creek, come those of us who fear death and have no faith.”
Barnes is one of those who are “up shit creek”, something he acknowledges good-naturedly. He even speculates on what might happen if he turns out to be wrong: “The fury of the resurrected atheist: that would be something worth seeing.”
If the concept of a “death memoir” seems a little odd—what could there be to report on, after all, if “from that undiscovered country… no traveller returns”—Barnes turns it into a relaxed, though far from reassuring, tour of his own life’s attitudes toward death, and those of his friends, relatives, and writers throughout time.
Barnes, the author of Arthur & George, A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, Flaubert’s Parrot, and a previous (and wonderful) short story collection on the topic of mortality, The Lemon Table, proves here to be both erudite and, in an odd way considering his subject matter, rather affable. The erudition is worn with a decent degree of lightness, as he skates from one death-dwelling writer (Montaigne) to another (Phillip Larkin), with stops along the way for various favored French authors:
Phillipe Arles observed that when death really began to be feared, it ceased to be talked about. Increased longevity has compounded this: since the matter seems less immediately pressing, it has become morbidly bad manners to raise it… In (Montaigne’s) day, the question was constantly in front of you – unless you took the remedy of the common people who, according to Montaigne, pretended that it did not exist. But philosophers, and the mentally curious, looked to history, and to the Ancients, in search of how best to die. Nowadays, our ambitions have grown more puny. “Courage,” Larkin wrote in “Aubade,” his great death-poem, “means not scaring others.” Not back then it didn’t. It meant a great deal more: showing others how to die honourably, wisely, and with constancy.
Barnes’ affability takes the form of the relaxed metaphysical speculations that people (mostly college students and, more rarely, writers and intellectuals) like to engage in over drinks in the wee small hours of the morning:
Would you rather fear death or not fear it? That sounds an easy one. But how about this: what if you never gave death a thought, lived your life as if there were no tomorrow (there isn’t, by the way), took your pleasure, did your work, loved your family, and then, as you were finally obliged to admit your own mortality, discovered that this new awareness of the full stop at the end of the sentence meant that the whole preceding story now made no sense at all? That if you’d fully realized to begin with that you were going to die, and what that meant, you would have lived according to quite different principles? And then there is the other way round, perhaps my own: what if you lived to sixty or seventy with half an eye on the ever-filling pit, and then, as death approached, you found that there was, after all, nothing to be frightened of?
But of course, for the self-consciously mortal Barnes, that isn’t the end of it all: What he’s frightened of is, in fact, death’s nothingness, which he says he thinks of “(a)t least once each waking day… and then there are the intermittent nocturnal attacks.”
Taking his cue from a phrase, la réveil mortel, from the critic Charles du Bos, Barnes describes one kind of night attack as akin to “being in an unfamiliar hotel room, where the alarm clock has been left on the previous occupant’s setting, and at some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.”