A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Ponders Life and Death: 'What Is the Point?'
Jan 14, 2020
In his 1996 book about death, Herbert Fingarette argued that fearing one’s own demise was irrational. When you die, he wrote, “there is nothing.” Why should we fear the absence of being when we won’t be there ourselves to suffer it?
Twenty years later, facing his own mortality, the philosopher realized that he’d been wrong. Death began to frighten him, and he couldn’t think himself out of it. Fingarette, who for 40 years taught philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, had also written extensively on self-deception. Now, at 97, he wondered whether he’d been deceiving himself about the meaning of life and death.
“It haunts me, the idea of dying soon, whether there’s a good reason or not,” he says in Andrew Hasse’s short documentary Being 97. “I walk around often and ask myself, ‘What is the point of it all?’ There must be something I’m missing. I wish I knew.”
Hasse, Fingarette’s grandson, turned the camera on the philosopher in the last months of his life. The two were very close—when Hasse was a child, Fingarette would invent stories and record them on tape to send to his grandson, who lived 300 miles away, so that he could listen to them before bed. “My grandfather was one of the most thoughtful men I’ve ever met,” Hasse told me.
Being 97 is a poignant film that explores the interiority of senescence and the struggle of accepting the inevitable. Hasse quietly observes the things that have come to define his grandfather’s existence: the stillness of time, the loss of ability, and the need to come to terms with asking for help. “It’s very difficult for people who have not reached a state of old age to understand the psychology of it, what is going on in a person,” Fingarette says.
In one scene, Fingarette listens to a string quartet that was once meaningful to his late wife. He hasn’t heard the piece since her death seven years earlier—“her absence is a presence,” he says in the film—and becomes overwhelmed with grief.
Hasse made the artistic choice to omit his voice from the film, so while he was filming the scene, he had to stifle the urge to comfort his grandfather. “It’s very difficult to watch anyone in that kind of pain and not be able to console them, especially someone you love so dearly,” Hasse said. “I found myself sitting just a few feet away from him, unable to reach out because there was a camera between us. All I wanted to do was put a hand on his shoulder, embrace him, be with him in his pain.” After what felt to Hasse like an eternity, the filmmaker handed his grandfather a tissue to wipe away his tears. The scene ends just before this happens.
Fingarette died in late 2018. Just weeks earlier, Hasse had shown him the final cut of the documentary. “I think it helped give him perspective on what he was going through,” he said. “He loved talking about what a mysterious process it had been to film all these little moments of his life and then weave them together into a work that expressed something essential about him.”
The day before he died, Fingarette uttered his final words. After spending many hours in silence with his eyes closed, Hasse said, his grandfather suddenly looked up and said, “Well, that’s clear enough!” A few hours later he said, “Why don’t we see if we can go up and check it out?”
“Of course, these cryptic messages are up to interpretation,” Hasse said, “but I’d like to believe that he might have seen at least a glimpse of something beyond death.”
In the film, Fingarette admits that there “isn’t any good answer” to the “foolish question” of understanding mortality. “The answer might be … the silent answer.”
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Author: Emily Buder
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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.