Thursday, March 17, 2011

When one thinks of death

"There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks of death."

These words come from Thomas Bernhard's "Speech on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Austrian State Prize", which appears in full in the recently published My Prizes: An Accounting. Bernhard readers will have already been familiar with the phrase, or at least the second half of it, in some form. It is, after all, the kind of thing he would say, and often did. In his "Speech at the Awarding of the Georg B├╝chner Prize", for another example, he begins

"What we are speaking of here is unfathomable, we are not properly alive, our existence and suppositions are all hypocritical, we are cut down in our aspirations at the final, fatal conclusion of our lethal misunderstanding with nature, into which science has led us and abandoned us..."

And, for just one of many possible fictional examples, this blog's name, of course, is taken from a passage in The Loser, in which the narrator speaks of "the existence machine", into which we are thrown, without being asked; life is ongoing when we arrive, life chews us up, life continues when we are gone. We have no say in the matter. That is to say, all is absurd, when one thinks of death.

Some readers fixate on Bernhard's litanies of hate and despair, a vein through which one could look on the remarks quoted above and see a morbid, depressing writer. But it misses the fact that Bernhard is very funny. And, in fact, if we re-consider those remarks, they are kind of ridiculous. In the context of the book My Prizes, we get the impression he tossed the lines off in a hurry, as though they were meaningless to him, as he claimed the prizes themselves to be (except for the money, which he was more than happy to take). Words that we formerly encountered, most likely, in the context of a review or a profile of Bernhard, playing the role of characterization (like, dude, he's so hardcore, he scolded silly people about death at a frivolous award ceremony, that kind of color), become something more like a darkly comic practical joke. (Notice, too, how the word death is italicized in the first quote above. One can almost hear the hilarious contempt with which he no doubt spoke the word.) They serve the purpose of gratuitously puncturing the events at which they were delivered. So we must be wary of taking the remarks too seriously as a philosophy. Except insofar as it is absurd that humans toil and sweat and struggle and then just fucking die.

But this post wasn't supposed to be about Thomas Bernhard. Then what?

The fact is, I've been thinking about death. Not constantly; I'm not at all death-obsessed. But I've been thinking about our alienation from it. Mine anyway. An old friend of mine was in town recently. His mother died a year ago, so inevitably we spent some time talking about her and about how the last year had been for him. He'd also had a close friend die about a year previously, so he'd been confronted with death in a new way for him. He felt now that he no longer feared it. Whereas I've never had someone close to me die, other than grandparents, whose deaths made me sad in the abstract but which I was able to keep my distance from, because, I've always rationalized, they were old and had lived long, full lives. Of course, this is a blessing; I've been very fortunate. (It is also, to some extent, a function of privilege.) But I've thought a lot about how I'm not prepared for death, how I was sheltered from experiencing others' sadness and grief. Death is an intellectual thing, for me, distant. It happens to other people, in other places. To expand this "my" back out to a shared "our", it seems to me, though others have not been nearly so fortunate as me in their personal lives, that our culture operates in great denial of death. This is not an original idea, but it strikes me as important.

We've lately been attending a local Quaker Meeting with some regularity, and this past Sunday, some were moved to speak about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Death in this larger sense, then, was on everyone's mind. Unspoken, but on my mind at least, was the unfolding nuclear disaster. The terrible irony of this happening in Japan of all places. I thought about the different kinds of damages inflicted on impoverished countries, such as Haiti, versus the wealthier, more infrastructurally sound Japan, and about the reasons for those differences. Yet it is Japan that has nuclear reactors. Just now, writing this, this phrase from Bernhard, quoted above, appears more serious now, looms ominously: "our lethal misunderstanding with nature, into which science has led us and abandoned us". Science, our faith. Capitalism, our religion. Civilization, endgame.

The first time I read Blanchot I didn't understand. The second and third times, too, of course, but the first was a different sort of not understanding, I think, than the others, or than continues to attend my reading of him. In this case, it was the fiction Death Sentence. There was something about that work that I could not quite get. Perhaps relate to is a better way to put it—I couldn't relate to it—though I'm usually allergic to that kind of formulation. But it was the way death hovered over the text. I couldn't relate to it as an immediate concern. As a concern. It was a new kind of not understanding for me. It somehow made it difficult for me to pin the work down (as though the work needed to be pinned down; I oppose reduction, yet I reduce). Or was one of the difficulties.

I am not making sense. Let me try something else. In the past I have written about a) the decline of a shared symbolic language and b) the kind of writing I have associated with contemporary Anglo-American writing, writing, fictional or not, that I have called utilitarian (also), which others might call journalism. In this kind of writing, much concerned with the facts, and with argument, death is a fact. It happens, we know it happens, we're not fooled (we're nobody's fools). But somehow it's not a part of life. It is controlled. It is offstage. (Or perhaps it is gruesomely violent, clinically so, but distanced, reported, fact-like, uninvolved.) Anyway, I've written of this kind of writing in part to highlight that it has been my own default setting, at least in the sense of my expectations as a reader, expectations which have made reading certain European writers difficult, slippery. I've many times mentioned Blanchot, of course, and I've talked about Barthes and jouissance and so on. What I've left unmentioned so far has been the way that death seems to figure in the work of so many of these writers. I often can't get a handle on it; it helps keep the work at a distance.

I think that I've had trouble with such writing, in part because I have not shared in the literary or cultural concerns shaping the writing. I have no neat and tidy explanation for how and why I've been alternating talking about literature and life in this manner, except to suggest that one shouldn't be necessary. Except also to wonder whether to no longer be able to share in a common language is to be somewhat less than fully alive. We appeal to literature for many reasons, though in our culture we'd more often rather be entertained. We do not learn to understand death as a part of life, even if we "know" it to be the end of life. We deny it. Our scientific enterprise, medical science in particular, seems to be, to a large extent, a mass delusion in denial of death, a shared delusion that it can be resisted, that it ought to be. We are not supposed to die in our own homes anymore. Just as we are not supposed to be born at home either. The whole process must be contained.

I arbitrarily took Illness as Metaphor off the shelf yesterday and read it. In it, Susan Sontag writes, on cue: "For those who live neither with religious consolation about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." And later: "part of the denial of death in this culture is a vast expansion of the category of illness as such". So that disease can be explained, and death controlled.

But here's the thing. I have gravitated towards the writings of the French and German writers, who make the English and American writers seem so shallow. On the one hand, I am unable to access the language of death, for reasons suggested above. I resist the tendency of my own culture to separate death from life, to attempt to solve the problem. The United States and to a somewhat lesser extent England are merely the apotheosis of this general Western tendency (that is, I am far from excluding Europe from this, even as I oppose the continental writers to the Anglo-American). Those writers I refer to respond in part to this with some dismay; this is one of the problems of modernism. On the other hand, such writers do seem death-soaked. I am referring mainly to that set of writers that David Auerbach of Waggish recently, in his review of Lars Iyers' novel version of Spurious, called "deeply serious", "Creators who are searching, reaching, profound, bombastic". He goes on to quote a passage from Blanchot's essay "Literature and the Right to Death", which he says "could read as either pompous nonsense or the deepest truth, depending on the day." And, indeed, depending on the day, or week, or my level of sleeplessness, or whatever, I can read that passage and either glean something, or the beginning of something, deeply meaningful, or not understand it in the least. At times I have found it wearying having to work so hard against my not eradicated journalistic expectations. Bernhard is a tonic, of course, and perhaps a lesson, a reminder, that the others are not so po-faced as they may at times seem in translation, or at least on the surface. As, indeed, is Spurious itself (it is very funny). But even so, it is there.

And, as Auerbach notes in his review, they are unrelentingly male. This is not an unimportant point, and it brings me, finally, after much dithering, to my own point, or at least the point with which I will conclude these ramblings. I've suggested in the past that the history of philosophy would look a lot different if it hadn't been written almost exclusively by men, about men, for men, away from the concerns of women and children, away from the province of reproduction. I've similarly suggested that science would have come around to certain discoveries about childhood development if scientists had bothered to pay the least attention to children, and to the women who raised them. If such men hadn't been off doing Important Work, while life itself went on around and without them. In both cases we likely could have been spared a lot of nonsense about human nature (and perhaps, instead, have inherited other nonsense, but a healthier, more life-focused nonsense, I assert). But my point is that, though I gravitate towards those writers responding to the modern condition, now stretching back several hundred years (both the condition and the response to it), I resist the strong tendency in this tradition to see life itself as the misery. I wish rather, writing as the father of a beautiful little girl, to celebrate life. It is, at times, easy to do that. All I have to do is be in her company for a few minutes, and life is great. Life is great. But it doesn't take long, when away from her, when commuting, when reading about the problems of the world, to despair about the future world that awaits her. And I thus write with sadness and anger as I consider, as I often must, the death cult that is capitalism, its continued encroachment on and destruction of the natural world, and the immanent disaster "into which science has led us and abandoned us".


:-p said...

Great post. I think you have articulated here, via Sontag, something that has been bugging me for a while.

The obsession with health in certain segments of this society, which goes way beyond merely eating fruits and vegetables every day and making sure to exercise, seems to have an almost pathological characteristic, as if we were all immortal and anything one does that is self-destructive is what puts an expiration date on life, not life itself.

Ethan said...

Wonderful post, one I'm saving to reread and think over at length.

A brief response to your last paragraph, particularly this:

science would have come around to certain discoveries about childhood development if scientists had bothered to pay the least attention to children, and to the women who raised them. If such men hadn't been off doing Important Work, while life itself went on around and without them.

Just to mention that this reminded me of Jane Jacobs' argument (I actually haven't read her yet, but I have seen her words on this excerpted in several places) that one reason for the failure of city planning is that city planners were overwhelmingly men, and so didn't know (or, to be less charitable but probably more honest, didn't care) what went on in the neighborhoods they were planning while the men went off to do their Important Work, leaving the women and children to merely live in them.

David Auerbach said...

"po-faced" is such an apt adjective. I can't believe I didn't use it in the review, since it must have occurred to me dozens of times over the last few weeks.

To be fair to men though (not that they need it), I think Piaget and Winnicott, among others who don't come as quickly to mind, did pay very close attention to children. They are, needless to say, exceptions, but noteworthy ones. I will not include Freud, who perhaps should have paid less attention to children....

Richard said...

Thanks everybody. And thanks for mentioning Jacobs, Ethan. That's a good example.

Waggish, you're right to bring up Piaget (and, heh, Freud) (I'm not familiar with Winnicott) as an important exception. I might've written that sentence somewhat differently if I'd thought of him at the time. Thanks.

David Auerbach said...

Winnicott is strongly recommended. Strange, sensitive man with a sad life, and maybe the most endearing of the psychoanalysts.

I also should mention Vygotsky, who may have been more brilliant than Piaget.

Unknown said...

Lovely, Richard.


qohelet said...

Thank you. This is from The Instant of My Death:

Waiting to die, there was:

"a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) – sovereign elation? […] In this place, I will not try to analyse. He was perhaps suddenly in invincible. Dead – immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship."

The shots didn't come; he was told to run and thereby regained a life where, from then on, he writes, "the instant of my death [was] henceforth always in abeyance".