Our society views dying as being in questionable taste despite the fact that ten out of ten still do it. Perhaps it is part of our emphasis on eternal youthfulness as opposed to maturity. The life-span expands, and we have chosen to put the stretch on the early part. We apparently like to think of ourselves as being young or youngish right up to the moment when we proceed with bouncy step to retirement communities, there to live on forever in spry clusters of ranch-style death houses.
The word “death" is almost never employed nowadays except as a legal term or for intentional shock. I note the increasing use of “passed on,”a usage confined until recently to Christian Scientists and others who deny death categorically.
It is therefore not surprising that our funerals are no longer scenes of terrible public grief, nor are there purging wakes, celebrated from the dawn of history, to confirm that we are still alive Overt performance of death rituals is not considered good form unless televised nationwide. But this, too, has diminishing returns. Over the years from J.F. Kennedy to Eisenhower we have seen that a TV formula can turn even death into a bore.
This refusal to recognize a threatening phenomenon, or even to utter its name lest it gain power over you, is magical thinking of a primitive order. One of the choicer recent examples is the substitution in many newspaper horoscopes of “Moon Children” for the zodiac sign Cancer. A sardonic friend of mine was recently cornered at a cocktail party by one of those horoscope-spouting sibyls. He was asked, “How did your mother go?" He replied, “She was taken by Moon Children”; thus passing on two birds with one stone.
The price we pay for this pastel-washed denial of the only inevitable experience of life may be higher than we know. Our abnegation, as a people, of death may be the chief reason we seem to get so little genuine joy out of everyday life. For when life stretches out indefinitely, world without end, there is no yardstick for momentary pleasures, and passing pains are blown up out of all proportion.
One might say that this never-never thinking is a natural evolution of the Greco-Judeo-Christian ethic, but this is not supportable. The ancient Greeks did not hold with a personal, defined afterlife, nor does Judaism even now. Christianity, since it does believe in a hereafter, necessarily recognizes life as a prerequisite. However, it is notable that the more specific a given religious society’s acceptance of death as a finality, at least of life as we know it, the more importance its members are likely to assign both to funerals and to day-to-day living. Whatever else may be said of this mode of thought, it is apparently not boring. A modern Greek, a Spaniard, an Irishman-in-Ireland will still put on a funeral worth going to. At the same time their countries have the lowest suicide rates in the world and an enviable relish of dinky temporal joys.
As an aside, the ancient Egyptians, because of their notable death rituals, elaborate preparation of bodies, and staggering devotion to necropolises, are popularly supposed to have had a morbid preoccupation with dying, so that it hung over their entire lives like an immense pall.1 I think, however, just the opposite must have been true: that the Egyptians, because they had death so well sorted out, must have led vigorous, rewarding, and even sunny lives. It is hard to imagine how a civilization could have lasted for all those thousands of years— much longer than anyone else’s—unless life itself had been purposeful and worth the living.
In spite of my citing these national and cultural examples, I don’t think that dying is or ever has been a mass phenomenon; it is something that each man ought to do for himself, without assigning a proxy. What a society can do is grant him permission to die so that he need think no more about it, but can go ahead and live until the time comes— staving it off as long as possible, of course. In America, we seem to walk around this subject entirely, so that with the passing of old-time religious sureties—and the stretching-out of life so that three score and ten is no longer a goal, but a mere norm —we simply do not know how to think about death at all. Nobody has given us permission to die, or to live, for that matter. So what we do is sort of happen until one day we sort of stop happening.
In our culture dying has a vocabulary, surely, but it is mostly expressed in figurative terms and by euphemistic rituals derived from popular art forms. Nature imitating art is no new thing, but thanks to mass communication, it is probably more pervasive today than at any other time in man’s history. It extends to acts so commonplace that one would suppose they had always existed as they are. The matter of closing one’s eyes when kissing, for example. I understand that it became a social convention only with the birth of motion pictures. Some early director must have noticed that his actors looked funny kissing while staring at one another, so he told them to close their eyes. If you find this hard to believe, observe how small children as yet unimpressed by movie love scenes will kiss eyeball-to-eyeball. Seventy years ago presumably everybody did; at any rate, it was not considered bad manners to do so.
I had graphic proof of this conditioning-by-media one time when I was informed that I had contracted a fatal disease. “Contracted” seems a strange word to use in this connection; it sounds as though you have to sign up for it, with codicils, and all. Well, codicils is what I had, all right, terminal codicils, with maybe six months to live.
On the basis of this one experience I found out where doctors acquire their graveside manner. There were two of them in there to break the news, and from the first clearing of the throat it was pure dejà vu. It was uncanny. I knew exactly the words they were going to say, and I made the responses automatically.
Then it dawned on me why. They had picked it up the same place I had, at the knee of old Auntie Procter & Gamble. What we were enacting was an amberized sequence from an antique episode of Helen Trent or Young Dr. Kildare. Honest to God, I found myself saying at one point, “Tell me, Doctor, will I be active right up to the last?”
Not to keep you on tenterhooks, the deal was stalled off before the deadline. On that day, however, neither I nor the doctors suspected that the cavalry was going to gallop up waving a reprieve.
I believed it was a moment cast in bronze: it still is: there is nothing like it.
I believed it, but had no intention of abiding by it, and began thinking how I could turn this disaster to an advantage. This quick reaction (the soap opera dialogue was still going on) was due to lifelong conditioning, I suspect, for I have made a career out of the notion that if you are stuck with a lemon, make lemonade. Still, I recall that the part of one’s brain that observes such things was surprised and even pleased at this unexpected burst of objective activity. It may have illustrated Bertrand Russell’s thesis that “all unusual energy is inspired by an unusual degree of vanity.” But the line that passed through my thoughts just then was Samuel Johnson’s, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
None of this prevented me from feeling perfectly happy. Bertrand Russell describes this sensation, though it sprang from an obverse experience, as I shall try to explain. He had been given up for dead (at about the age I was, fifty), but was making an unexpected recovery. He says: “Lying in my bed feeling that I was not going to die was surprisingly delightful. I had always imagined till then that I was fundamentally pessimistic and did not greatly value being alive. I discovered that in this I had been completely mistaken, and that life was infinitely sweet to me. ... I have known ever since that at bottom I am glad to be alive. Most people, no doubt, always know this, but I did not.”
I question the long-term endurance of this gladness-to-be-alive unless it is preceded and accompanied by an equally poignant revelation that one will die; whether soon or sometime is academic. I have found that the gratitude for life that follows mere escape from death, however vivid and narrow, is not likely to stick to one’s ribs. I am sure you can confirm this from your own experience: in the glorious, shaken aftermath you swear never to worry about anything trivial again; you do, of course, usually within hours. On the other hand, it is possible to acquire and retain this bone-deep feeling of life because there is no reprieve, for one is alive now. Lord Russell, no doubt, has always known this; I did not.
Let me try to clarify this uncomplicated awareness by separating it from two other types of lifebefore-death recognition which, unlike the other, are familiar even to those who haven’t experienced them personally—possibly because they are not usually private, but involve other people. Also, both are perversions of real life and are therefore mote recognizable. The first occms when the doctor assigns what John Steinbeck calls “one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age, and with it a lecture that ends, “slow down.” You know that you’re going to die, but it doesn’t make you feel more alive. You do cut down, but these diminutions of activity are not limitations which concentrate energy, but are truncations of manhood. It is, in fact, a reversion to babyhood, and is encouraged by others, especially wives. It is all extremely comfortable, for “who,” Steinbeck asks, “doesn’t like to be a center for concern? A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span.”
The above is from Travels With Charley, and was the reason he took the trip. “I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby. And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.” This was no mere retroactive dress-up. And he was complimentary enough to assume the same attitude in others. When I told him of my own prognosis, he looked at me gravely and said, “If you tell your friends you’re going to die in six months you’d better do it or they’ll be pissed off at you.”
The second variety of death recognition to he sorted out from the above is, in fact, a ghastly parody of it. Flat acceptance that one is going to die does constitute a proof of one’s own uniqueness as a man distinct from others; is not unpleasant, even heady; and lends immediacy and importance to matters that were routine before. But what I am talking about is a perversion, a monstrous contained exultation. It is manifested in certain daredevils, paranoid psychopaths who, after nebbish lives, suddenly feel themselves invulnerable in the certain wooing of sweet death: or it can be the Götterdämmerung complex that gripped the Nazi mind. Such a delusion may arise because life appears so meaningless that some significance must be assigned to it, even it is is only death. In turn, death must be justified to remove it front nothingness and give it certain worth. The commonest of the resulting delusions is called martyrdom, for whatever cause. If this seems an unusually harsh judgment, recall that it is invariably on a volunteer basis. A drafted martyr is not a martyr, but a victim. Gibbon recounts that one of the more exhausting aspects of Roman soldiering was a shooing off of hordes of early Christian volunteers. I’m not sure that being men of goodwill had much to do with it at bottom. People to a man regard themselves as men of goodwill; even a Hitler, especially a Hitler, for how otherwise could he have justified such dreadful acts? And he, in the end, showed martyrdom, the only glorious form of suicide.
The key notion here, and the common thread in the two examples of death anticipation I have just cited, seems to be the scampering after certainty. In each instance the scamperer is metamorphosed into a subnormal or abnormal creature. The trick, it seems to me, lies in the opposite direction. Bertrand Russell, again, states it well: “Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.” He proposes as an ideal, “to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation,” and suggests that this admirable state may be attained through the study of philosophy. When I first read these words many years ago, I thought them the noblest view of man I had ever seen, but thought it probably unrealizable except through the toughest selfdiscipline. I have since found, to my surprise, that it is attainable and that whatever portion one gets through discipline or logic is subject to backslide without notice, for it is a very fugitive state of mind. It is something like an account I once read of a game Tolstoy and his little chums used to play at Yasna Polyana: they would sit around the nursery trying not to think about the Great Bear who sits on top of the North Pole. They found this difficult.
If there is any doubt that to leant to live without certainty is a worthwhile aim, it’s not as though we had any choice about it: it’s another of those tenout-of-ten things. And the problem is fiercer in outage than in any which has preceded it. The basic reasons for this, I think, are neither as confused nor hopeless as we are led to believe. They are really quite simple, but, nevertheless, have never existed before in the history of man. I shall get around to them in a minute , . .
- As I write this it occurs to me that “pall” cannot possibly mean coffin, as in “pallbearer.” Checking the dictionary, I find this to be so: the pall is a cloth, usually black, purple, or white velvet, lofted over the coffin by six attendants. So, whatever those men carrying the box are, they are not pallbearers. ↩