The following three descriptions are to be taken as examples of another's death. They cover "cases" which, as happens in legal matters, can be considered "precedents."
The first "case of death" I witnessed was that of my maternal grandmother. She was not "just a relative." I was bound to her not only by blood but also by "togetherness," in the original, and hopefully deeper, sense of this much too dilapidated word. We had lived under the same roof, often seen the same objects, talked about the same persons, followed similar schedules. All this I call "participation in (or sharing) the same circumstances" or, more plainly, "sharing things in common." Now, to participate in the same circumstances means that some part, large or small, of the experience of one person is shared by another. But if one of the "participants" can no longer "share things in common" because he is dead, does, then, the participation of the survivor become exclusively his own? No doubt, this is the case to a great extent, and this explains, by the way, the "feeling of loneliness in the very presence of death" to which I shall later refer. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to believe that when a member of what I may be allowed to call "a community of participation" dies, the survivor is merely "present" at his demise. What was shared in common—objects, persons, even feelings and projects—still remains, often for quite a long period of time. It is still what it was, but at the same time it is no longer exactly what or how it was. It has been, as it were, "amputated," and, as happens with some physical amputations, a deep pain is felt where there should be no pain at all.
It may be argued that all this is a "mere question of feelings," and, thus, something "purely subjective." The deceased person is, indeed, deceased, namely, is no longer. On the other hand, we are still alive. Can it be said then that we are, or have been, "experiencing" his death in the sense of somehow "sharing" it? It would be preposterous to give this question an affirmative answer if the death in question were a "purely external event." Now, such would be the case if the deceased person carried with him, so to speak, to the grave whatever he had shared with another person. It is not the case, however, because, as intimated above, "what was shared" still remainsand it remains precisely as "something which we had shared with the deceased person." Therefore, there are times when we are not merely "watching" someone die but we are, or are also, "sharing" his deathat least to the degree in which we had "shared things in common." The obvious fact that we are not dead, but alive, does not in the least indicate that we have been totally unaffected by the beloved person's death. It is not, however, a "mere question of feelings"such as sadness, anguish, resignation, despair, and so onbut a more fundamental question. Something which belonged to uswe may call it "a common stock of experiences (including projects of further experiences)"is now irrecoverable and, for that matter, objectively, and not only subjectively, irrecoverable. To conclude from this that we are actually "sharing" another's death would be to go too far. But we may be allowed to say that we have in many cases an experience of another's death which is not reducible to the sheer fact of "just being there" when the beloved person died.
An experience of another's death is a complex affair. In fact, it is made up of a number of contrasting, or seemingly contrasting, elements. Thus far we have emphasized "what is left behind," even if, as has been surmised, "what is left behind" has been "amputated." Yet it is also characteristic of death to be final and irrevocable. To experience a beloved person's death is like a departure. Now, human existence is made up, to a considerable extent, of situations in which we depart, or someone departs and takes leave of us. As a rule, departures are only temporary and seem to be somewhat fictitious. One takes leave of a lover whom one will see soon again. One sees a child off to school, and expects him to return home early in the afternoon. But, are departures and "leave-takings" always temporary? As a rule, we are certain that they are notso certain, indeed, that we do not even raise the question of whether the person whom we left will be seen again; confidence and routine take care of the question. Nevertheless, as soon as we think about it, we realize that any departure could be final. One leaves behind the house where one has spent his childhood. One wonders whether one will ever see it again. In some cases it looks extremely improbable, but then uncertaintya different kind of uncertaintyfloats before the eyes; won't there be a possibility of coming back and taking one more, perhaps final, look? All is possible, which means that all is uncertain. Now, leave-taking is final, and truly definitive, with those who die. Farewells are farewells; no matter how final they may seem, they are never definite. Therefore, those who take leave do not feel their being diminished insofar as their relation with whoever is left behind is concerned; after all, there is always the possibility that a personal relationship among living persons can be resumed. With that final and irrevocable "farewell" called "death," however, there is no such possibility. As a consequence, the being of the person who is "left behind"in the present case, the "survivor"is irretrievably diminished, and thus actually diminished. Not even the aforementioned possibility of continuing to share what remains of the personal community, of the "common stock of experiences," compensates for the absence of that person. Continuing to live in the deceased person's house, continuing to see the same people he knew, remembering him, paying homage to his memory, and so on, prove to be poor consolations, for in no case will the deceased person "return." This is one of the reasons why death seems to be so incomprehensible, so "unreasonable," even so "unnatural." It is not perhaps an unfathomable mystery, but it is certainly a most disquieting puzzle.
To be sure, habit and common sense soon come to the rescue. There seems to be nothing more "natural" and "reasonable" than for someone to die, especially when, as in the case I am now trying to elucidate, the deceased person had reached an advanced age, and the premonitory signs of her impending death were unmistakable. There was no doubt that her "hour" had come. But, why precisely that hour? This is what seems "unnatural," inexplicable, and, of course, "unreasonable." In order to explain why such and such a person died last Monday rather than last Tuesday, at eleven o'clock in the morning rather than at noon, many reasons can be adduced and many causes can be listed: the remedy did not produce the desired effect, the heart was too weak, and so on. None of these reasons and causes can completely obliterate the "surprise" caused by the person's death. Could not death have taken place some other day, which is the same as saying any other day, which in turn may mean no day in particular, that is to say, never? Perhaps this is not what we "should" think, but this is what we actually do think. Death was expected, and yet not expected, but when it finally took place, it was really and irrevocably "the end."
The experience of another's death is tinged with the idea of finality and irrevocability. It may be contended that such is not always the case. For those who believe in an eternal life, in which they will rejoin their loved ones, there seems to be nothing "unreasonable" in death. Death can be explained, and justified, as the "wages of sin," but also as a necessary condition for a later reunion free from any further partings. Yet it is far from true that the belief in an eternal life, even when such a belief is firmly and deeply rooted, not a half-hearted conviction or a search for comfort, solves the puzzle of death for those concerned. Whether he believes in an eternal life or not, the person who experiences another's death cannot repress a feeling of bewilderment: death is obvious, yet elusive; it puts an end to the life of "the Other," as well as to something in usour "common participation in life."
Among the teachings we derive from the experience of a beloved person's death is an understanding of the peculiar relation between the deceased and what we may be allowed to call "his world." This world does not solely consist of the objects which had surrounded him, for the manner in which he was related to them also make up his world. Since a living and changing relation is no longer to be expected, everything that had surrounded the deceased appears to be temporarily immobilized. On the one hand, things still seem to respond to the presence of the deceased. This strange feeling has been described by Jules Romains in his Mort de quelqu'un. "When the janitor, discovering Godard lying in bed, is about to draw the window shades, an impression crosses his mind. A gesture coming from the dead man had drawn the shades. He was not, then, completely dead, for things happened because of him." It may be argued that this is only metaphorical, and that, in the last analysis, inanimate things may produce similar effects. We could say, for instance, "I drew the window shades because of the wet paint in the room; too much sunlight might damage it." Now, although there is no real difference between the effects, there is in their meaning. We expect nothing from the deceased and yet we are ready to accept certain changes as taking place because of his former living presence. On the other hand, from the moment a person dies, the thingsand, in general, the "circumstances"which had surrounded him begin to fade away. This explains, by the way, the very common wish on the part of those who survive the loved one to keep, at least for a while, things the way the decedent had kept them, or to leave them the way they happened to be placed during his last moments, as if this could delay the final separation. The survivors would not act in this way if they considered such things as "mere objects," if they did not look upon them as a world of meanings. Thus, the actual displacement, removal, and dispersion of things symbolizes the demise and is, in some respects, a kind of delayed reenactment of it. For this reason, the experience of another's death may continue for some time, until the experience itself fades away.
The experience of death just described awakened, among others, the feeling of loneliness; I felt I was, as it were, "alone with death." Nevertheless, it did not produce the bewildering feeling of solitude which emerged so forcefully on another occasion, when I witnessed the sudden death of a man whom I did not know personally and who was, therefore, "just a fellow human being." It happened one day when, in the midst of battle, I saw the body of a man fall, mowed down by a bullet. I experienced neither grief norexcept in a very general wayanguish. It would seem then that another's death was merely the death of "the Other." Something happened "outside there," something, so to speak, "objective," a mere fact. Was it not, to begin with, only the body of an unknown fellow creature that fell, like a marionette whose strings had suddenly been cut, with a dull and muffled thud, on the stone covered field? Enhancing this impression was the somewhat dramatic setting in which the event occurred: the dim light of dawn, the abrupt crack of rifle fire, the desolate landscape, and, within my gaze, as if lit by an invisible projector, the quiescent shape of the fallen man. Ever so gradually, there arose in my mind a myriad of impressions and thoughts which began to give meaning to the event just witnessed. There was no grief striking and gripping the soul, no anguish rising in the throat and rendering one helpless, yet the death of a nameless stranger was as enlightening as that of a close relative. In a way, it was even more enlightening. Paradoxically enough, that sudden death seemed entirely meaningless. The life of the unknown man had been snuffed out during a skirmish, in precisely that moment when it displayed unusual strength: when fighting. The fallen man had rushedunless he had been rushedinto battle; he had probably hoped that he would weather the storm of steel and fire and come out alive. Strength and hope were imprinted on his body during and after his brief agony: the former showed in the compulsive twitching of his hand clutching the rifle; the latter in the remarkable serenity of his face. His fall gave the impression of having been at once expected and unforeseen; it had taken place in the course of a battle where life is always at stake, and yet it seemed to be the result of chance. This death left me perplexed. I experienced it as an event at once totally alien to me and in some ways also "mine." He had died; I might have died instead. I saw his death as a symbolic threat to my own life. I looked upon it as the death of a "martyr," that is to say, of a "witness" testifying to the universal and overwhelming presence of death. Precisely because he was no man in particular, he was a symbol of all human beings as mortal beings.
Yet, no matter how "symbolic" this death may have seemed, it was still meaningless. Let it not be said that his death could be accounted for in terms of a "cause," good or bad, for which the man, either voluntarily or by compulsion, gave up his life. Such "causes" can explain perhaps man's history, but not, or not entirely, man's existence. At most, one might know from what he died but not for what he died. This death appeared "unfair"just ashes, dust, and silence. In the presence of this death, I felt more alone than ever, as if face to face with death itself, pervaded with disquietude and perplexity.
The meaninglessness of this death was revealed to me primarily in the form of a question: "Death, what for?" Such a question became even more pressing when I witnessed another deathor rather, many deathsas a consequence of an air raid. I saw an indeterminate number of anonymous human beings slaughtered by an equally anonymous force which, seemingly, was directed against no one in particular and which could therefore be supposed to be directed against everyone. Death loomed strange and uncanny, almost without warning or, at best, with too sudden a warning, and hence with no time for anything other than fear and trembling, fright and flight. In this sense, this anonymous death in pursuit of an anonymous human multitude was unlike my grandmother's and even very different from the fighting soldier's. There was neither expectation nor commitment on the faces of the countless victims buried under the rubble. Resignation, distress, even painall had given way to an overwhelming and omnipresent sensation of terror, the terror felt when one is faced with impersonal mass extermination, the kind of death that gives no warning, neither choosing its victims nor making any distinction between them. It could not even be said that the rush to escape was the result of cowardice, for the latter is usually manifested before "something" or "someone." On the other hand, this was the terror before pure and simple annihilation, the kind of annihilation that leaves behind no trace, neither sorrow nor anguish, but only destruction. The air raid victims were not "martyrs," "witnesses." They were not "ready to die," but they died nonetheless fortuitously, indiscriminately, meaninglessly.
In such a case, can we still speak of an "experience of another's death"? It would seem that we cannot, for here death was truly faceless and anonymous. To be sure, I knew little about the relation between my grandmother and her death, and still less about the relation between the man shot down in battle and his death. My experience of these "cases" was, therefore, considerably limited. As to the air raid victims, my experience of their death was so restricted as to raise the problem whether there was any experience of another's death at all. Nevertheless, I think that not only was there an experience but a particularly enlightening one: it was the experience of the bewildering meaninglessness of death.
The moment has now come to ask this question: Can the various experiences of another's death yield some general idea which can apply to all possible cases of human death? The answer is, "Yes," provided that such an idea is supported by experience and can eventually apply to further experiences. I now proceed to unfold this idea.From the experiences described and analyzed we can conclude that human death is meaningfulin varying degreesinsofar as we view it as an event capable of molding some fundamental structures of human life. This is not to say that death completely determines life, because if it did there would be no difference between life and death: to live would be, in the last analysis, to die, which is manifestly gloomy; and, conversely, to die would be to live, which is notoriously absurd. It is only to say that death must partly shape and complete a person's life. The adverb 'partly' must be taken literally. In fact, death never completes anyone's life; otherwise, everyone would die 'at the right moment," and, as far as I know, no one ever does. On the other hand, death is never entirely alien to life as if it were something totally external to it, as a more or less deplorable "accident." Sartre was correct when he pointed out that we could not compare death to the final note of a melody. He was only wrong in adding that, whereas the final note of a melody is not absurd, death is. To be sure, there are cases when death seems completely absurd. I have described and analyzed one such case, that of the victims of the air raid. But this was so because we were unable to discover any relation between the victims and their death: the anonymity of the deceased made death equally anonymous and thus engendered the impression of meaninglessness. It did not seem to be their death, but death purely and simply. Now, a death which is not the death of anyone is not, properly speaking, death but only "cessation."
In other words, human death is never completely meaningful, nor is it entirely meaningless. It is meaningful and meaningless in varying degrees. Insofar as death, or rather its possibility, is meaningful, it leads us to understand it. Insofar as it is meaningless, it leads us to rebel against it. Now, understanding of, and rebellion against, death are equally significant ingredients in human life. We may choose the ingredient we like best, or the one we dislike the least; in any case, our choice will disclose the basic structure of our existence, which includes our attitude before the possibility of death. As far as I am concerned, I hold that life would be scarcely worth living were it not for the hope of being able to fight against death. On the other hand, I believe that such hope would be mere wishful thinking if we did not realize that, when all is concerned, death still remains one of the possibilities of human life. Human life is largely, if not exclusively, made up of projects with which life anticipates itself. Nevertheless, these projects are constantly threatened by the possibility of remaining unfulfilled. Indeed, they are projects only insofar as they might not be accomplished. We have already intimated that human existenceand perhaps all realitymust be finite in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, human existence is finite not only "externally" (by circumstances, chance, and natural causes) but also "internally" (by the very nature of the human projects). As a constant possibility, death molds our behavior, whether we know it or not: anything we want to do must be accomplished within a certain, constantly decreasing, period of time.
Curiously enough, the basically finite character of human life helps to destroy the idea that the human person is, ontologically speaking, a thing of naught, a kind of "incarnated nothingness." For death bestows upon the human person a unique nobility. "The dead," says one of the characters in Marcel Ayme's novel, La rue sans nom, "have the right to have done all sorts of things. A dead man is not something to be cheerful about; nothing is left in him except what he has done." This idea is, by the way, the reason behind the respectful attitude in front of the dead adopted by the survivors. To be sure, sometimes the survivors despise, ridicule, discredit, or desecrate the dead. But then it is because they do not look upon the dead as dead but regard them as if they were still alive, as is the case with men who died in the name of a still vehemently hated cause. As a rule, however, all of a person's most objectionable deeds are forgotten the moment he dies. A unique nobility then emerges: the nobility which consists in having lived and "accepted," whether consciously or not, the possibility of death (29, ad finem) having "accepted" it while rebelling against it, for what is "accepted" here is not so much the sheer fact of death as the human condition which carries with it the possibility of mortality.
29. "Literary" Testimony
The author's own experiences of another's death are, of course, limited in number and scope. For a more ample understanding of the nature and forms of human death we must have recourse to some accounts of other, similar experiences. We can find them in "literature," and thus we can speak of "literary testimony."
In Book IV of his Confessions, St. Augustine describes his state of mind upon hearing of the death of a friend in Tagasthe. He informs us that everything he had experienced in the company of his friend suddenly acquired the opposite value. What had been happiness was turned into grief. "All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him." Everything seemed intolerable and hateful in a world from which his friend was absent, because (as Landsberg has noted in his analysis of this passage) his friend's death was to him not a mere absence but a symbol of the universality and omnipresence of death. "Wherever I looked," St. Augustine writes, "I saw only death." As is often the case with St. Augustine, his account of a personal experience is permeated by metaphysical preoccupations. Thus, in the present case not one particular man but man as such appeared to St. Augustine illuminated by some kind of soul-subduing mystery. To be sure, in the mind of St. Augustine his "mystery" already had an explanation: it was not a matter of raising philosophical questions but of testifying to the existence and glory of God. Yet in the experience of another's death St. Augustine could not help toppling over some kind of "existential mystery": death made its appearance under the guise of an atrocissima inimica, as something unjust and "unfair," without which, however, life itself could not be adequately explained. Furthermore, in experiencing the death of his friend, St. Augustine experienced at the same time the possibility of his own death. Witnessing another's death seemed to drain him of his own vital form and substance. Hence, the death of "half his soul," in the word of Horace, was to St. Augustine a step toward the experience of the death of any man, including, of course, himself. At some point Augustine felt that death served no purpose. Later on he was convinced that he had found the ultimate reason for death: when he was able to view his friend's death, or for that matter any death, as the result of a decree of the true God, who should not be questioned but worshipped.
According to St. Augustine, only after God has become manifest and the human heart purified can the death of a friend, as well as human death in general, acquire its true meaning. Grief and anguish should then be relinquished as manifestations of individually but humanlyhumaniter. Such is the insight gained from the experience of another's death: each and any man can "be," at a most decisive moment, "everyman." Viewed in this manner, death is absolutely personal and yet completely universal; it is a fact, a symbol and a meaning all in one.
A similar insight can be found in a more recent "literary testimony." Andre Gide also described the death of a friend. He begins by warning us that "this time it is not the same thing," because the one who passed away was "somebody real." His friend's death was for Gide, as it was for St. Augustine, a crushing experience. He describes it in his own style, clearly and serenely. "There he lies, so small on a large linen sheet, dressed in a brownish suit; very straight, very rigid, as if waiting for a call," The mere presence of the body, so quietly stretched out in repose, generates an enormous and overwhelming vacuum. Around it, all emotions and gestures crystallizegrief, depression, despair, the urge for an impossible dialogue. These emotions and gestures are as individual and interchangeable as the very friend who has passed away. Some consolation is sought by substituting the environment of the deceased for the deceased: this house was his house; this town, his town; this table was the table where he worked. Can we, then, speak of a man and his death instead of referring to a particular man and his particular death? Gide seems at first to oppose such a suggestion, and yet he ends up by fully accepting it. "I hardly admire those who cannot bear definition, who must be deformed by being seen askance. Philippe could be examined from all points of view; to each of his friends, to each of his readers, he seemed one, but not the same one." Thus, the late friend was truly a human person and, as such, he could not be replaced by any other person. At the same time, he had something disturbing and surprising within him which Gide describes as "something lasting." We can give it a name: "his attestation of human death as a human being." Upon his death, Gide's friend ceased to be a particular person in order to become a symbolparadoxically, "a living symbol"of man as man.
We do not fall short of "literary testimonies" of human death, but the two above will suffice for our purpose. As we go over other "literary descriptions" of someone's death, we notice that they often exhibit a most characteristic feature: they serve as points of departure for gaining an insight into the meaning of human death in general. The same happens with many descriptions of different "types" of decedents and "kinds" of deaths. Sometimes it is the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. Sometimes death is described as caused by illness, at other times as caused by an accident. The "type" described may have faced death with resignation, repentance, fear, even (as if abiding by the rules set up by many eighteenth-century "libertines" in order to "enjoy a good death," with arrogance and a hint of irony. In all these typical cases, the description of human death serves as the basis for an understanding of the nature of death in general. It is not surprising, then, that most authors agree in the main points.
Two points of agreement are quite obvious. On the one hand, there is a tendency to regard death as a sort of "fulfillment of life," even when death is considered premature and, as it were, "unfair." Before it occurs, and often immediately afterwards, death seems to be incomprehensible and meaningless. But once it is accepted as a fait accompli, against which there is no appeal, it tends to be regarded as one of the inalienable "possibilities" of human existence—a possibility which is both immanent and imminent. On the other hand, there is a tendency to view the death of any person as an event so truly "ultimate" as to be capable of investing the deceased with a certain irretrievable dignity: the dignity usually ascribed to a "martyr" in the original sense of a "witness." The deceased person testifies, willingly or not, to the constant presence of death as the setting of human life.
It would be unwise to consider any descriptions, and subsequent analyses, of human death as strict "proofs." They are not, however, entirely worthless. Reduced to their essentials, they make us notice the paradoxical character of human death: it is absurd, unjust, inexplicable, and yet it is somehow inherent in life, molding it. The conflicting statements of Heidegger and Sartre (27) can now be reconciled and integrated. Death itself is meaningless, and yet it endows life with meaning. Death is, to a considerable extent, a "pure fact," totally contingent and completely outside my scope, and yet without it my life would not exhibit "contents" (thoughts, actions, decisions, etc.) essentially different from the mere "process" of living. It is not necessary to be always on the brink of death, or to be "unto death" in order to live authentically, but neither is it necessary to "choose" the moment in which our life will end in order to acknowledge that death belongs to us. Life does not derive its full meaning from death, but neither does life lose all meaning because of death. Death, in short, is one of the "possibilities" of life, but to live is obviously not the same as to die.
30. The Attitudes Regarding Death
Up to this point we have described and analyzed experiences of another's death. Is it possible to discourse on the experience of one's own death, or, as it is sometimes said, "my death"?
Death is the suppression of life and consciousness. It is obvious that no person has an experience of his own death. Nevertheless, in some sense we can speak meaningfully of "our own death." First, we can "anticipate" our death insofar as we can think of it, and even "imagine" it. Second, we can use analogy, and conceive of our death in terms of another's death. "Everything that applies to me," Sartre has written, "applies to the Other." If we turn this sentence around, we obtain the following plausible statement: "Everything that applies to the Other applies (or can, in the principle, apply) to me." Finally, and above all, we can tackle the problem raised here within the framework of our ontology. According to this ontology, there is no clear-cut distinction between "Absolutes," for the simple reason that there are no such "Absolutes." Accordingly, we must refuse to admit that there is "something" called "pure (or absolute) subjectivity" and, of course, that there is "something" called "pure (or absolute) objectivity." Another's death is both a subjective and objective event. The same must be the case with one's own death. Therefore, if it is true that we cannot experience it exactly in the same sense in which we can experience love, friendship, sorrow, and so on, we can place ourselves, so to speak, in front of it (of its possibility). This I call "an attitude regarding death." A description and analysis of some typical attitudes regarding death can then cast some light on our subject.
Many of the attitudes regarding death are the product of reflection. A case in point is Epicurus' well-known argument against the fear of death: when death exists, we no longer exist; when we exist, death does not. Epicurus seems to deny that there can be any experience of one's own death; the total impossibility of such an experience is precisely what makes it possible to face death fearlessly. Yet there is no denial of the fact that Epicurus is describing a (possible) experience of one's own death: the experience of a death without fear and trembling.
Another attitude regarding death ensues from the feelings experienced by those who have been on the point of dying: those who have been on the verge of drowning, those who have faced a firing squad, and so forth. It has been said that during the moments immediately preceding death (or at least its imminence) there is something like an automatic release of memories, as if his whole life were passing before the person concerned in rapid cinematographic succession. Without necessarily subscribing to Bergson's theory of memory, we could certainly explain, or at any rate discuss, the aforementioned automatic release of memories in terms of the relations between consciousness and life. It seems quite probable that, when consciousness is on the point of losing its foothold on life, it becomes particularly receptive to memory. Thus, one attitude regarding death may consist of what we may call "a recapitulation of one's own life." To be sure, such a recapitulation may not take place. The moments immediately preceding impending death may very well demand all of a man's vital energy. Instead of despair, abulia, indifference, paralyzing fear, recapitulation of memories, and so on, there may be a renewed, and maximumly increased, "will to fight." But then we would still be confronted with an "attitude regarding death." No doubt, an "attitude" is not exactly the same as an "experience." We are not claiming, therefore, that we can have a direct experience of our own deaththat we can, for instance, "see" death in the same way in which we "see" a shape, a color, and so on. We are merely claiming that we can conceive, even if it is a tergo, of an experience of the possibility of our own death. We see our death somehow from the outside, but 'somehow from the outside' is not the same as 'completely from the outside.' In some respects we are looking at our death (or its possibility) from the inside; otherwise, we could not even take "an attitude" in front of our death (or its possibility).
Some readers will argue that we are going too far in examining the (possible) experience of one's own death from the point of view of the (possible) attitude regarding one's own death. Some readers, on the other hand, will complain that we are not going far enough. Among the latter are those who surmise that we can experience our own death by simply being always "prepared" to die, living as if each moment were the last moment. Stoic and Christian thinkers have developed this theme with verve and vehemence. Thus, for instance, Seneca wrote that death merely interrupts our life without taking it away from us. According to many Stoic philosophers, "the door is always open," so that the wise man can reasonably step across the threshold when the burden of life becomes intolerable. Many Christian writers tell us that our death is in the hands of Providence, so that there is nothing for us to do but await it with both resignation and hope, endeavoring to live in such a manner that we will always be ready to face the fatal yet unpredictable moment. Curiously enough, similar attitudes have been adopted, or at least preached, by writers who have been neither Christian nor Stoic, as is the case with those who have relied on reasonsome kind of "Universal Reason"to convey the idea that death is always "around the corner," so that "the reasonable man calmly walks down the gentle, easy slope which should lead him to eternal rest." Bertrand Russell has come close to the idea that death is, so to speak, "constantly approaching." The best way to face death, Russell argues, is to convince yourself that with advancing age one's interests gradually become less "individual" or "personal" and more "general." Russell compares individual life to a river which at first rushes violently from its narrow source, and finally overflows, thus abating as it flows into the proverbial "sea of death." We may not think of "preparing for death" when we are young, but as soon as we grow old, or simply suspect that we are, we cannot help but conclude that death and life are beginning to walk hand in hand.
This brief examination of various attitudes regarding death has had a twofold purpose: first, to show that, properly speaking, one cannot have an experience of one's own death; second, to surmise that, when all is said, one can have an experience of the possibility of death, and thus, to a certain extent, of the imminence and immanence of death. The problem remains now whether we can talk meaningfully about an individual's death as "his own."
31. The Problem of One's Own Death
As a natural being, as a member of society, as part of a social family, or community group, man never dies completely alone. Furthermore, man's actions and above all, man's creationshis "cultural achievements"often endure and, as it is said, "transcend" his life and, consequently, his death. Therefore, when we use the expression 'one's own death' we do not thereby imply that a human being is an "impenetrable" and "incommunicable" monad; we confine ourselves to pointing out that the death of a human being is "his own" in the sense at least that it isor, more cautiously, constantly tends to bea truly personal and nontransferable event.
Since there is no scarcity of reflections on the theme that "the death of a human being is his own," we do not have to restrict ourselves to quoting Heidegger or Kierkegaard. We can go as far back as Seneca, who writes to his friend Lucilius, "Be convinced that all ignorant men err when they say, 'It is a beautiful thing to die your own death,' for there is no man who does not die his own death (Nemo moritur nisi sua morte). Besides which, you can reflect on the following saying: No one dies in any but his own way [in his own day: nemo nisi suo die moritur]." Granted that Seneca does not interpret "his own way" in the manner of many modern philosophers. After all, Seneca's main purpose is to convince his friend and, through him, all men that "to live in conformity with Reason (and Nature)" is the same as "to relinquish everything that does not belong to me." Thus, all the so-called "external goods" must be forsaken in order to prepare ourselves to become one with the Cosmic Soul, the all-pervading pneuma. Nevertheless, we find in Seneca, as well as in other ancient writers, a penetrating insight into the nature of human death as "our own," that is to say, of human death as man's inalienable "property." One does not simply fuse with the Cosmic Soul or Universal Reason; one joins it by incorporating oneself into it and by the acceptance of one's own death.
In addition to philosophical reflections, and at times even more enlightening, are "intuitions" of human death as "one's own." Many writers, and in particular poets, have touched upon the subject. In an imaginary conversation with his late friend Seytres, Vauvenargues writes, "Death slid into your heart, and you carried it in your breast." The first part of this phrase refers to the ineluctability of death; the second, to its "authenticity." Many contemporary poets have been more explicit and vehement than the concise and often elliptic Vauvenargues. Jules Supervielle, for example, writes, "The death which I shall become already moves in me freely." Garcia Lorca describes a bullfighter who walks courageously to meet his death, "Ignacio goes up the gradins / His death so heavy on his shoulders." Whether for reasons of literary technique or of poetic "vision," death is portrayed in the last two examples as "someone" who is waiting outside, as a "thief"a "thief of human life"who is easily recognizable and whose presence is accepted without questioning. A poetic vision of human death as a more internal "reality"or "event"is found in a poet who is particularly fond of "things," "objects," namely, Pablo Neruda. He has compared death with "an inward shipwreck"; death is "like drowning in our hearts / Like falling from our skins into our souls." Although death "moves inward," it is still seen as a "subtle thief"; it glides silently with its "green face" and its "green look," with its penetrating dampness like that of the leaf of a violet / And its somber color like that of an exasperated winter." The "vegetality" of death does not, however, impair its "inwardness." After all, man's nature is also somewhat "vegetal"comparable to a plant, to a leaf, to a tree—so that man and his death finally sink into the same abyss. Death, writes Neruda, "lives recumbent, and suddenly exhales." Not recumbent, however, outside, but within man, like ivy twining around the human tree.
The above are only a few among the many examples of poetic descriptions of "one's own death"; literary scholars are liable to find the subject inexhaustible. These examples would suffice here, however, were it not for the fact that we have not yet said anything about a writer who has been rightly called the "poet of death," namely, Rainer Maria Rilke. A few words on Rilke's views are inescapable.
"I have found it puzzling," Rilke has one of his characters say, "that men spoke about death in a different way from all other events." Death is a very strange thing, but it is not necessarily something sinister or uncanny. It exerts a mysterious attraction, which explains why most men "go somewhere to find it and, unknowingly, load it on their shoulders." Yet, what they look for is not death in general, but a particular death, their own. That is why the poet asks God to give him his own death. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke offers us not only a poetic insight but a detailed description of what he believes to be one's own death. The death of Chamberlain Brigge is not like any other death because, strictly speaking, there is "no death like the others." Even children, writes Rilke, die as to what they are and "as what they would have become." For this reason, Chamberlain Brigge "closes in upon himself" in order to die, so that his death and the end of his life can coincide. For Rilke this means that death always comes "in time," since even "what one would have become" or "what one might have become" is, as it were, "compressed" and "abridged" in the instant in which death strikes.
It is most unlikely that Rilke wished to prove that people always die at the very moment in which they "ought to die," so that death would be then thoroughly explained as well as "justified." All that Rilke means is that we always carry death within us, in such a manner that "the solemn death that each of us within him has / That is the fruit around which all revolves." We should not confuse "the right time" with "our own time." No matter when a man dies, even if he dies prematurely, he dies his own death. Death does more than simply end a man's life; it realizes his life and reveals its ultimate structure. If this self-realization and self-revelation discloses a person's being as free, then it can be said that one's own death brings one closest to freedom.
32. The Essence of Human Death
The foregoing descriptions and reflections are as enlightening as they are provocative. They help us to realize to what an extent the death of each human being is, whether he knows it or not, his own death. Nevertheless, these descriptions and reflections must be taken neither literally nor unconditionally. We should avoid the temptation of thinking that the nature of each human being can be grasped fully only in terms of his death, for we would end by concluding that there are no bonds linking each man to his fellow man, as well as no bonds between humanity, as a whole, and Nature. This conclusion would be totally incompatible with our philosophical system, which strongly emphasizes both the peculiarity of the human being and his "continuity" with the rest of reality.
If the degree of mortality runs parallel with that of "inwardness," there is little doubt that the highest degree of mortality and the highest degree of "inwardness" coincide. On the other hand, since "maximum inwardness" is equivalent to "property" in the sense of 'property' discussed above (24), it can be concluded that man, as the most mortal of all realities, is a being whose death is maximally "his own."
Now, as I have so often remarked, inwardness is never absolute. First, there are no "Absolutes," and hence no absolute properties. Second, if death were absolutely "internal" in each human being, it would end up by being completely external to him. In dying his own death, and nothing but his own death, it would seem as if each person achieves absolute freedom. But what kind of freedom is it that forces us to die our own death? It can only be an external compulsion and, for that matter, a general or universal type of compulsion, not an internal and completely individual property.
If I accept the idea of human death as "one's own death," I do so with important reservations. Some of these I will now point out.
First, the characteristic of human death called "property" does not stem solely from the supposedly unique and totally autonomous character of human life. Human death is ontologically linked to other forms of cessation; indeed, cessation "culminates" in human death. Therefore, the cessation of nonhuman realities can cast some light on human death. The reverse is, of course, also true: the phenomenon or process called "human death" can cast some light on other modes of cessation, including that of inorganic nature. Inorganic, and even organic, entities do not cease to be in the same manner as man does; their cessation is, to a considerable extent, external to them. It is not, however, completely external, and in this sense we can say that nonhuman entities die, however minimally, "their own death" or, more properly, "undergo their own type of cessation." The intercrossing of two ontological directions (9) is here apparent. From the point of view of inorganic entities, man ceases to be maximumly. From the point of view of man, inorganic entities cease to be minimumly. All entities, however, whether human or nonhuman, cease to be within a "continuum of cessation" which is strictly parallel to the "continuum of reality." Thus, the characteristic of human death called "property" also stems from some of the characteristics which we ascribe to "cessation as such."
Second, the idea that each human being is in possession of his own deaththe idea, namely, that death is man's "property"must be understood in the light of the meaning of "property" to which I have referred at the beginning of the present section. Thus, to say that man achieves his very being by means of his death is not to say that his being is only, or even primarily, "a being unto death," as if man's life hinged upon his death and nothing else counted. Nor is it to say that man has his death at his disposal, as a servant whom he can summon or dismiss at will. The apothegm, "Die at the right time," and the eulogy of one's own death as the "voluntary death, which cometh unto me because I want it," have little to do with the concept of "property" proposed here. To affirm that death "is mine" simply means that death "belongs to me"; it does not mean that "I belong to death." Only in this sense can it be said that man makes his own death. In fine, man makes his own death only to the extent that he makes his own life.
Third, no human death is absolutely "his own"; it is only a limiting event which he can try to make completely his without ever entirely succeeding. Moreover, the degree of "success" in this respect is not only an individual matter; it is also historical.
As man begins to make himself in the course of his own life, which is historical, he also begins to make his own death historically. At certain periods men have viewed themselves as "duplications" of other men to such a degree that they were not certain of whether or not they were "themselves," and whether or not they themselves had performed such and such actions or had such and such thoughts. Thomas Mann vividly portrayed this uncertainty in the first part of Joseph and His Brothers, when he described the Beni-Israel as a people who felt deeply immersed in a tradition created by the entire community and which no one in particular had helped to produce. No one can claim that he, as an individual, has done something all by himself. El Eliezer, Joseph's preceptor, considers himself the same Eleizer who, for Isaac's sake, had gone after Rebecca. There is a startling resemblance between being a member of a closely knit social group and being a member of a biological species. For this reason, the relative "deindividualization" and complete "depersonalization" of death which is characteristic of a biological species seems to reappear in such a social group. Just as in a biological species, the death of an individual seems to be an accident, so in a group or clan, the death of one person may appear as a "repetition," and sometimes as a "rehearsal"; what counts here is primarily the species, the group or the clan, and not the individuals. On the other hand, when a particular death is intimately related to a particular person, then the death of such a person is never a "repetition"; his death is entirely different from the death of any other man. Proust probably had this idea in mind when he wrote: "The death of Swann! Swann, in this phrase, is something more than a noun in the possessive case. I mean by it his own particular death, the death allotted by destiny to the service of Swann. For we talk of 'death' for convenience, but there are almost as many different deaths as there are people . . . " If we keep well in sight the role played here by the adverb 'almost,' we cannot help but acquiesce.
We can understand now why an excessive weakening of what might be called the "human tension"the effort exerted by each man in order to continue to be a man, and especially a particular mancan result in such a marked subordination of an individual to his group that their ensuing relationship almost duplicates that of an individual organism and its biological species (21). On the other hand, the excessive strengthening of the above "tension" could cause an individual to forsake completely his own humanity for the sake of supposedly impersonal and absolute values. In either case, man would cease to be man, and accordingly would cease to die as such. Now, to live as a man is to exist "between" organic reality and so-called "spiritual reality." The human "tension" that characterizes man's life is similarly reflected in his death.
Can we ever disclose the ultimate essence of human death? If we are asking whether we can ever offer a final and irrevocable definition of 'human death,' then the answer must be negative. Just as with anything real, the nature of human death can be grasped only by means of a "dialectical process" which must continually move from one polarity to another, from one absolute to another, from one limiting concept to yet another, with the hope that they can finally be integrated. Without relinquishing our distrust of "final definitions," we now offer a few conclusions.
Human death includes inorganic cessation as well as biological decease. Man does not die unless his body, and the material systems of which his body is composed, dies. Nevertheless, man's body is not just "a body," but "a way of being a body" (20). To a considerable extent, this way of being a body is made up of "possibilities" which may or may not be fulfilled, but which in any case are "real." Now, a moment may come when all of a human's possibilities become closed to himwhich is the same as saying that a man may become aware that he had no future before him. For a few instants the past and all its memories might fill the resulting vacuum. This can happen only because the individual still regards the past as a future or as something which points to the future in some way, "filling it." To live, then, basically boils down to reminiscing about things past. When even the image of the past projected toward the future fades, man has nothing left but his organic existence. When this happens, man ceases to be a man; he is then only a member of a biological species. At this point, then, he dies as a man. In other words, death hovers over us when our possibilities of living as men vanish. The man contemplating suicide, who sees his future as completely devoid of any and all possibilitieswho has no future at all, and no longer finds any meaning in his life, or even in his deathdoes not really need to carry out the final and supreme act: he is already dead before perishing. On the other hand, when new possibilities which transcend biological deathsuch as creations and "cultural achievements" which are likely to exert an influence upon a future in which we are no longer presentoffer themselves, then death seems to withdraw even if it has biologically annihilated us. The paradox is as obvious as it is startling: in some really limiting cases, it is possible to die without ceasing to be, or to cease to be without dying.