Barnes combs through the details of O'Kelly's story hoping to find some answer to the questions animating his book--questions that Critchley ignores. Has the good death ever truly existed? Should we moderns emulate what we think the ancients might have said or done?
We are programmed to fear death, and for Critchley the ancients offer a way to deprogram ourselves, overcome our basic instincts and thereby transcend both our animal nature and the degradation of contemporary life. It isn't hormone therapy, but the point nonetheless is to become a kind of superman, if in spirit rather than flesh. In some ways, Critchley's book falls under the popular ars moriendi literary genre inaugurated in 1415 with Tractatus Artis Bene Moriendi (The Art of Dying Well), which was not philosophical in its objectives but instructional, a manual on preparing oneself for a good, Christian death--what might be termed an end-of-self-help book. Critchley clearly aims to be provocative rather than didactic, but like that of the Tractatus, his agenda is ultimately one of self-actualization. As Critchley quotes Montaigne, "He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave."
But a slave to what? To biology, yes, but also to what Critchley derides as our culture's "countless new sophistries," which offer knowledge of self for a fee and are to us today what religion was to Marx: the "sigh of the oppressed creature." He never names these specifically, but he does contrast their promises of "Knowledge (capital K) of something called Self (capital S)" tricked out in "expensive, brightly colored wrappings" with the free and radical skepticism afforded by philosophy. Critchley allows that he wrote most of the book in Los Angeles, a city characterized by a "peculiar terror of annihilation," where "death, darkness and desperation lurk behind the various screens that human beings use to block access to the outside world: vast wrap-around sunglasses, Venetian blinds at every window and tinted glass in the black, usually German, SUVs."
The strange neon surreality of Los Angeles seems a fitting backdrop for Critchley's meditation on how we might improve our relationship with death, and his desire to penetrate the opaque surface of our plastic desires is commendable. Unfortunately, the story he tells his readers about LA is no more credible than his stories about philosophers. They are all myths that contain elements of truth and suit his purposes. Critchley's account of the death of Pythagoras, for instance, is prefaced by an admission that, "sadly, it is now almost universally assumed by classical scholars that Pythagoras never existed.... But let's not allow Pythagoras' mere non-existence to deter us, as the stories that surround him are so compelling." Socrates, whose trial and death Critchley describes as marking the beginning of philosophy, could hardly have died as Plato says he did, calmly relaying bits of wisdom to his followers even as the poison gripped his veins, seeing as how hemlock tends to induce vomiting and violent convulsions as it courses through the body and stills the organs.
Critchley's style is pithy and anecdotal, and he is more concerned with the morals to be gleaned from these philosophers' deaths and last words than the finer points of how, when and why. The power of their stories transcends fact, as does the story of Los Angeles as a depraved cultural wasteland populated by surgically augmented seekers of eternal youth. What is important is the tincture of truth and the ease of extrapolation. But these dead thinkers are not just players on a stage to Critchley. He argues not only that the "philosophical death" is a noble idea but also that it is, in some fashion, achievable, an assertion that is undermined by his casual conflation of mythology and history, ideal and real.
Critchley may not put forth a viable antidote to Suzanne Somers and Rick Warren, but then again, the sophistries hawked by New Age gurus, life-extension enthusiasts and televangelists have been around since, well, the Sophists, and are likely to endure for as long as we do. And while many of Critchley's philosophers seem intent on conquering death, some are simply humbled by it, teaching us that "it is only in grief that we become most truly ourselves." Still others are flummoxed by death, and "despite the lofty reach of their intellect," they "cope with the hand that life deals them like the rest of us."
Between the example of Cicero and the likelihood that he will expire without grace or glory in a hospital bed, slowly deprived of his faculties, Barnes assiduously avoids any conclusion--perhaps, in part, to ward off his own. He weighs the fear of dying against the fear of not existing, considers the consolations of religion and literature and contemplates the words of philosophers and family members. He takes solace in the thought that he won't really die until his last reader does. And at the conclusion of his book, he wonders what he has accomplished with all this, whether he has "got this death thing straight--or even a little straighter."
The frivolous things with which we fill our lives may well leave us anxious, old and wanting hormone therapy, God or both. But if there is to be salvation for us on earth, we must come to terms even with those things. Or we must come to terms with not coming to terms, and move on.