08 January 2012

Least of All

Another death in the community.
   It is easy to write about death, or even everything else that we don’t understand. We have only to speak or write those big and empty words we use when we want to define what really can’t be defined. The idea of death as ‘no more’ I find incomprehensible. Someone dies, and they lie as if asleep, but they will not awaken. Having always awakened from my sleep, I cannot imagine what not to awaken must be like. Of course, this wonder implies a consciousness of not waking, and the dead do not possess such capacity. I think. The dead do not dream, I believe. The dead do not feel, though the Rabbis are not firm on this opinion. Some say that they can only feel the sufferings of the living, and others deny even this sentience. Perhaps it is that the dead do not even know that they are dead. We are only a too, too solid flesh, soon to melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew, and that is all. “When the soul leaves the body, its cry [of anguish] goes from one end of the world to the other,” the Rabbis say, but I am wondering, what does the body say when the soul departs? Dust to dust. No more. Nothing. Absolute nothingness without even a realization of the nothingness. The notion appalls even more that it frightens, though it frightens as well by a complete absence of credibility.
The Torah keeps describing death as a return to kin; death there is portrayed as some kind of homecoming. Hamlet calls it an undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Death is a place. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas urges his father. Death is a darkness. Sometimes death is portrayed as a brilliant pure light; death is a blinding illumination. Death, where is thy sting: death is a poisonous creature inflicting pain and suffering, though ironically the suffering of the dying is often relieved by death. It is the living who feel death’s sting. Death be not proud: death is personified as a vain and unworthy human.
Clearly, death is all around me, but I understand it none the more because it is so proximate. I am familiar with its presence but fail to comprehend it. It is non-being, and this makes no sense to being. Who would know the hour of his death?  Koheleth cautions, “For the time of mischance comes to all. And a man cannot even know his time. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net, and as birds are trapped in a snare, so men are caught at the time of calamity, when it comes upon them without warning” (9: 11-12). “Mischance” and “the time of calamity” are the Rabbis’ euphemisms for death; even the wise Solomon had difficulty speaking the term itself. And though I am relieved by his restraint, I am not comforted that Solomon the wise understood death in such negative terms. The Sixties philosophy which I daily breathed taught me that today was the first day of the rest of my life, but the Rabbis say here to treat every day as if it were my last.  I suppose there is some coincidence between these two positions: if I live every day as the first day of the rest of my life, then everything is possible; but if today is my last day, then today everything is possible.  Actually, the Rabbis anticipated this dilemma: they suggest that the reason we are not given the hour of our death is to prevent us from lying abed awaiting it; they mean us to be up and about our doing. All is possible. Death is of course inevitable, even imminent, but its imminence should not deter us from living. Spinoza, (again) said that the free man thinks least of all of his death, but alas, I am not so free nor busy enough to keep my thoughts from death. Or perhaps it is that I do not know how to believe that the work I do in this life possesses enough substance to be called a life. I wish I could survive my death, but death comes always too soon and immortality too late.
Paradoxically, when I write about death it remains far from my thoughts.


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