I have a self-professed interest in “practical philosophy”, in the questions of life and the question of death. The latter I have written about many times. Most recently, in an essay called Near-Deathness, I proposed that peak-life is near-death. Not long after penning it, I came up with a visual complement to the piece involving Rodin’s thinker and a cliff edge.
But that was just the conclusion of the countless times over the past three years that I have entertained the idea of death and mortality. I wrote a series about ego death, about the countdown to death, about death as motivation for the Great Men of history, about mortality’s role in societal progress, about humanity’s true war, about the ultimate victory, and about the freefall. I’ve read about different philosophical systems that maintain that the contemplation of death and dissolution is key. I’ve read accounts of trials and tortures, from antiquity through to the concentration camps and the Soviet gulags. I’ve read fiction and non-fiction about people who fight death, ally with it and transcend it.
So, there I was, thinking I too had a firm grasp on the Reaper’s Scythe. Nope. I overlooked a fundamental distinction: death isn’t dying.
Reality has conspired to compel me to realise and consider this. First, I read Jean Amery’s At the Mind’s Limit. In it, Amery says:
“To put it briefly and tritely: just like his unintellectual comrade, the intellectual inmate did not occupy himself with death, but with dying. Then, however, the entire problem was reduced to a number of concrete considerations. For example, there was once a conversation in the camp about an SS man who had slit open a prisoner’s belly and filled it with sand. It is obvious that in view of such possibilities one was hardly concerned with whether, or that, one had to die, but only with how it would happen. Inmates carried on conversations about how long it probably takes for the gas in the gas chamber to do its job. One speculated on the painfulness of death by phenol injections. Were you to wish yourself a blow to the skull or a slow death through exhaustion in the infirmary?
For all that, if one is free it is possible to entertain thoughts of death that at the same time are not also thoughts of dying, fears of dying. Death in freedom, at least in principle, can be intellectually detached from dying: socially, by infusing it with thoughts of the family that remains behind, of the profession one leaves, and mentally, through the effort, while still being, to feel a whiff of Nothingness. It goes without saying that such an attempt leads nowhere, that death’s contradiction cannot be resolved. Still, the effort contains its own intrinsic dignity: the free person can assume a certain spiritual posture towards death, because for him death is not totally absorbed into the torment of dying. The free person can venture to the outermost limit of thought, because within him there is still a space, however tiny, that is without fear. For the prisoner, however, death had no sting, not one that hurts, not one that stimulates you to think. Perhaps this explains why the camp inmate–and it applies equally to the intellectual as well as to the unintellectual–did experience agonising fear of certain kinds of dying, but scarcely an actual fear of death.”
Second: not long after I read the above a colleague died of a heart attack. He was fifty-one and would definitely be classified by Amery as an “unintellectual”. I haven’t one single, negative memory of him, and as I absorbed the news in the quiet of my home I contemplated his dying—not his death. How did it happen? What was he doing? What was his last thought? Was it remorse for the things he had not done? Gratitude for the things he had? Or was it nothing so high—simply a commentary on the evolving pain in his chest, the shortness of breath, the fading of consciousness? Was it the panic of a cornered animal looking for an escape from the inevitable? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. The man was good and he went, as most do, too soon.
THE FREEZING RUSSIANS
Due to the combination of Amery’s essays and my colleague’s passing, I revisited my position on all things regarding mortality. And, unsurprisingly, I found my stances inadequate. For example, I had gone along with Montaigne’s famous idea that “to philosophise is to learn how to die”, and in the process I had determined that those who did not philosophise did not know how to die. Bizarre.
As I’ve noted before, history is remarkably opaque. So while I’m familiar with the heroic deaths of Warrior Kings and the noble deaths of the Senecas and the Catos, I managed to skip over the death and dying of the millions of nameless and faceless extras who took part in the dramatic episodes of history. These unknowns likely did not philosophise, but that does not mean they died in a manner any less glorious or heroic than the figures who grace the pages of our distorted and dirty history. Take the case of the freezing Russians, which I came across in “The New Order” chapter of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
“It was the worst experiment ever made. Two Russian officers were brought from the prison barracks. Rascher [the Nazi “doctor”] had them stripped and they had to go into the vat naked. Hour after hour went by, and whereas usually unconsciousness from the cold set in after sixty minutes at the latest, the two men in this case still responded fully after two and a half hours. All appeals to Rascher to put them to sleep by injection were fruitless. About the third hour one of the Russians said to the other, ‘Comrade, please tell the officer to shoot us.’ The other replied that he expected no mercy from this Fascist dog. The two shook hands with a ‘Farewell, Comrade’ . . . These words were translated to Rascher by a young Pole, though in a somewhat different form. Rascher went to his office. The young pole at once tried to chloroform the two victims, but Rascher came back at once, threatening us with his gun . . . The test lasted at least five hours before death supervened.”
These unfortunate Russians likely didn’t spend their time as I have, in material comfort ruminating upon the meaning and method of physical torture and refining their spiritual postures, but I suspect they died in a manner that surpasses anything I’d be capable of in a similar scenario.
A POOR IMITATION
Death can be contemplated, endlessly actually, but you only get one shot at dying. There aren’t really any rehearsals. In part, this is why I hold to the importance of experiencing physical discomfort. The concrete experience of pain is a poor imitation of what it is to die, but a poor imitation is better than no imitation, right? So I practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So I push hard when I weight train or cycle. So I take cold showers. So I fast.
It’s not much, I’ll admit. But since contemplating death is no guarantee of help when dying, what other option do I have?