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End-of-Self Help

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Generations of philosophers have contended that to live with death on the mind is to allay the anxiety of mortality. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Barnes somewhat tentatively takes up this assertion, convinced of the value of meditating on death but unconvinced that the end result of that endeavor could be anything like "coming to terms." He sides with Freud, who wrote, "It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators." Philosophers, in his estimation, are satisfied spectators of the self.

About the Author

Alexander Provan
Alexander Provan, a writer living in Brooklyn, is a founding editor of Triple Canopy and contributing editor of Bidoun.

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Critchley disagrees. "The philosopher," in his decidedly macho formulation, "looks death in the face and has the strength to say that it is nothing."

Barnes turns to melancholy, and Jules Renard: "The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word 'nothing.'" For most people, neither "nothing" compares with the succoring image of St. Peter presiding at the pearly gates.

In the future, we may be able to engineer our way out of death or at least buy ourselves a few hundred years. But for now, the coming-to-terms paradigm is still fairly close to what Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross prescribed in her book On Death and Dying (1969), which birthed the Conscious Dying movement and provided the Age of Aquarius with a thanatological gloss. Kübler-Ross's model of the five stages of dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance--is her most enduring legacy, still widely used by mental health professionals to explain how people with terminal illnesses, as well as their bereaved, confront and cope with death. Less remembered are Kübler-Ross's more radical, Eastern-influenced views about death: she encouraged her followers to devote their lives to "death awareness," viewing the end of life as a spiritual progression toward a transcendent, universal form of existence, an ascension made possible by the cool acceptance of mortality. Not only should the living envy the dead, she suggested; they should imitate them, abasing the self until nothing but an empty vessel remains. Then you could meet your maker in monastic form, just like St. Antony, who in Critchley's telling "stretched his feet out a little and looked upon death with joy."

But much later in life, after a series of strokes had left her paralyzed and scandals had damaged her professional reputation, Kübler-Ross proved herself just another backslider. "I love E.T.," she told a fellow aficionado of the paranormal in a 1997 interview, "because he represents everything I believe in: to prolong life--when they hook him up to the machines." By the time she reached her deathbed, in 2004, Kübler-Ross had convinced herself that death as such did not actually exist.

If "death is the limit in relation to which life is lived," Critchley writes, too few people today are willing to accept their limit; they deny it even as they suffer incontinence, deformation and what the novelist Lawrence Durrell described as "the slow disgracing of the mind." The biological sciences hint at a greater conundrum: Barnes observes that their major achievement over the past century has been to discover that the autonomous individual is, at root, a genetically determined package of cells. Our limits may be extendable, but in other ways we are even more limited than once thought. Not only must we eventually die; we must admit that the self is a clever fabrication, however it benefits us evolutionarily. Furthermore, we must assume that death as we know it will also expire: when the sun goes cold in a few billion years, it won't be Homo sapiens toasting it farewell.

Critchley argues that this reality should not impinge on our desire to die as we have lived--if we have lived bravely, drolly and with panache. For him, the best deaths are those in which a lifetime of fruitful rumination on the nature of mortality ends with gracious acceptance and perhaps a final-breath witticism to boot. Critchley relates the story of St. Thomas More, who while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting his beheading wrote a meditation on the pain endured by Christ on the cross; when the moment of his execution arrived, More calmly applied his blindfold and awaited the blade. John Locke also died at peace, declaring, "I have lived long enough and I thank God I have enjoyed a happy life; but after all this life is nothing but vanity." The ancient skeptic Anaxarchus made the mistake of insulting Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, who later deposited him into a man-size mortar and pulverized him with iron pestles. But he denied his materiality till the end, gleefully shrieking, "Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus, you do not pound Anaxarchus."

Then there are those who died in character, if not with dignity or slogans. Pythagoras' hauteur is said to have offended a powerful Calabrian, who sent his retinue to chase the philosopher. They burned down his house and pursued him as far as a bean field, which Pythagoras refused to cross--he and his followers had a prohibition against the testicular-looking legume--and then cut this throat. Later, the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius captured and tortured Pythagoras' acolyte Timycha in order to find out why her master would rather die than come into contact with beans; she bit her tongue off and spat it at Dionysius, taking the secret to her grave. Heraclitus died somewhat less nobly. In order to cure his dropsy, he covered himself in dung; either the dung was wet, causing him to drown, or it was dry, and the sun entombed him in adobe.

Perhaps we should all hope to die well, if not to enjoy the pleasure of a last line delivered with aplomb among loved ones, a bon mot denying the Angel of Death his satisfaction. But the point of Critchley's book is not so much to recommend any particular variation on the good death as to suggest that heightened attention to mortality increases our quality of life. His keystone here is Montaigne, who took pleasure in stories of ancient Egyptians bringing a skeleton to banquets and propping it up like a scarecrow. "Drink and be merry," its caretaker would call out, "for when you are dead you will be like this." The lesson Montaigne absorbed from this scene was to have "death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth." Critchley takes it further: "To philosophize, then, is to learn to have death in your mouth, in the words you speak, the food you eat and the drink that you imbibe." Chew on death, and the good life will follow.

But can the classical prescription still produce these desired results? Barnes recounts the story of a man who becomes aware of his imminent mortality and resolves to do his death justice: Eugene O'Kelly, the CEO of a major accounting firm who at 53 is told he has inoperable brain cancer and less than three months to live. Immediately, O'Kelly begins drafting ways to make his death "the best death possible," applying "the skill set of a CEO" to devising the "final and most important to-do list of my life." He creates "perfect moments" and "perfect days" during which he "unwinds" his relationships with friends and loved ones. For his daughter, he arranges a sojourn to the Arctic Circle via private jet so that he can watch her "meet and trade with the Inuits."

In Barnes's estimation, this is "not so much dying in character as dying in caricature," a tragicomic update of the classical ideal. O'Kelly reacquaints himself with God, learns to meditate and makes "a positive connection to the 'other side.'" He lays out detailed plans for his funeral--Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" arranged for flute and harp, "moving and unique" eulogies--and hires a ghostwriter to pen a memoir of his death, Chasing Daylight, which takes its title from a golf metaphor and reads like the ultimate case study from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Eventually, he dies in "a state of tranquil acceptance and genuine hope."

"O'Kelly was surely dying as he had lived," Barnes acknowledges, "and we should all be so lucky."

Given advance notice, a private jet and a stockpile of cash, many of us might meet our maker as calmly as O'Kelly did. But such an end is not in the cards for most people, who as likely as not can expect their death to be painful, protracted and undignified. O'Kelly's drive to "succeed" at dying repulses Barnes because it betrays a narcissism born of privilege, a sense of metaphysical entitlement. Nevertheless, O'Kelly is not a reprehensible person. He may be self-centered and oblivious, but he also strives quite genuinely to "come to terms," and by the end of his life he believes that he has. He is a fitting advertisement for the twenty-first-century good death and a testament to why men of his position may be the most likely to attain it.

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