Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Me, I'm anti-death in a big, big way.
I know there are people out there who don't really worry about their own mortality, who either don't think about it, or who just regard it as a normal part of life. There are even people who feel that it is basically a good thing that human life is finite, because this enables us to create a narrative of our own existence, or because living forever would be "boring" or "tedious."
I know these people are out there because they say these things to me. "I don't really worry about it," they say. "I'm not sure I'd want to live forever," they tell me.
I don't understand these people. And I mean this in the deepest way possible. I can't imagine for myself what their inner lives are like; I can't see how they can hold on to these thoughts; I can't find a way to translate these words into my own idiolect so that they make sense.
My feeling is, how could the fact of death not be the worst thing imaginable? I don't mean that the process of dying is bad—though surely that is also true. I mean that the fact that one will exist only for a certain amount of time, a time rapidly approaching an end for all of us, how is that not the worst tragedy ever?
The only work of literature I know that treats this subject in any serious detail is Don Delillo's book White Noise. It's all about the dread and despair of dying. It is part of the genius of this book that this topic does not make the book depressing or sad.
In one crucial scene, the character Murray Jay Suskind gives the hero, Jack, a quiz on death, with several true-false and multiple choice questions. Here's one:
"A person has to be told he is going to die before he can begin to live life to its fullest. True or false?"
"False. Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life."
I'm in total agreement.
Here's another. "Do you believe life without death is somehow incomplete?"
"How could it be incomplete? Death is what makes it incomplete."
I couldn't agree more.
Eventually, Murray lays out Jack's options for dealing with his impending death. You can "put your faith in technology"; you can cultivate a belief in the afterlife; you can "survive an assassination attempt."
A final option is to become a killer rather than a dier. That's what people have been doing through the centuries, Murray says: storing up life-credits by killing others. Ridiculous as it may seem, it's "a way of controlling death."
But you know, I don't want to control death, or forget about it, or be distracted by surviving an attempt on my life. I just want not to die.