It is one of the great paradoxes of solitude, that it offers us not an escape, not a paradise, not a dwelling place where we can haughtily maintain our integrity by ignoring a vicious and corrupt social world, but a way back to that world, and a new motive for being there. Moreover, it can enliven a new sense of what companionship means — and, with it, a courtesy and hospitability that goes beyond anything good manners might decree. Because, no matter who I am, and no matter what I might or might not have achieved, my very life depends on being prepared, always, for the one visitor who never comes, but might arrive at any moment, from the woods or from the town.
Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category
“Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” – Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist
“People living deeply have no fear of death.” – Anaïs Nin, The Diary Of Anaïs Nin, Volume Two
“Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs — the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.” – Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth
“I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind — and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.” – William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” – Helen Keller
“A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is ‘weak,’ ‘sinful’ and anxious for a ‘good time.’ Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.” – George Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”
“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
“The meaning of life is that it stops.” – Franz Kafka
“To be, or not to be, —that is the question:—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? —To die, —to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, —’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, —to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream: —ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know naught of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“For those who live neither with religious consolations 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.” – Susan Sontag
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” – Ernest Hemingway
“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.” – Marcel Proust
“No one knows whether death, which people fear to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.” – Plato
“The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me is: your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.” — Cheryl Strayed, DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #78: The Obliterated Place
“Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma. Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?” – Aldous Huxley
“I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?” – Voltaire, Candide
“Dying is a troublesome business: there is pain to be suffered, and it wrings one’s heart; but death is a splendid thing — a warfare accomplished, a beginning all over again, a triumph. You can always see that in their faces.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
“The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.” – Jonathan Franzen
“To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away.” — Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
Nothing, neither bronze nor iron,
fell to the dark earth. Flames flickered
in their curls and did not burn them. Then the villagers,
furious at what the women did, took to arms.
And there, sire, was something terrible to see.
For the men’s spears were pointed and sharp, and yet
drew no blood, whereas the wands the women threw
inflicted wounds. And then the men ran,
routed by women! Some god, I say, was with them.
The Bacchae then returned where they had started,
by the springs the god had made, and washed their hands
while the snakes licked away the drops of blood
that dabbled their cheeks.
Plato says that true and reliable knowledge rests only with those who can comprehend the true reality behind the world of everyday experience. In order to perceive the world of the Forms, individuals must undergo a difficult education. This is also true of Plato’s philosopher-kings, who are required to perceive the Form of Good(ness) in order to be well-informed rulers. We must be taught to recall this knowledge of the Forms, since it is already present in a person’s mind, due to their soul apparently having been in the world of the Forms before they were born. Someone wanting to do architecture, for example, would be required to recall knowledge of the Forms of Building, House, Brick, Tension, etc. The fact that this person may have absolutely no idea about building design is irrelevant. On this basis, if you can’t recall the necessary knowledge then you’re obviously not suited to be an architect, or a king. Not everyone is suited to be king in the same way as not everyone is suited to mathematics. Conversely, a very high standard in a particular trade suggests knowledge of its Forms. The majority of people cannot be educated about the nature of the Forms because the Forms cannot be discovered through education, only recalled.
Stories about aging have traditionally focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation, coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs and in relationships. Given that nothing could be done to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of mind.
Today we face a different situation. While we still lack effective means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions which might lead to the development of such means in the near future. So ‘deathist’ stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation: they are fatal barriers to urgently-needed action.
Apart from brief debates like these, immortalists seem only to be interested in the private position of individuals who, today, face the prospect of death and don’t want to accept it. This narrowly personal approach is interestingly different from the wider, political reasoning which led Bernard Shaw to call for a similar lengthening of human life in his play Back to Methuselah. What bothered Shaw was not the distress of the people who had to face death but the general folly of mankind – the confused, destructive arrangements by which humans are constantly wrecking their world. He thought that these follies were simply due to people’s immaturity, to their not living long enough to learn how to manage life responsibly. This belief that merely living longer would cure our childishness may show a certain credulity, a tunnel-vision which perhaps he shares with the immortalists. Like other Utopians, he was better at seeing what was wrong than what to do about it. But immortalists really aren’t in a position to ignore his wider questions about society as a whole just because they are planning to put the individual predicament of facing death out-of-date altogether. They need to consider what sort of a society individuals will find themselves in if they succeed.
So what would it be like for everybody to look forward to an endless death-free future? It is not a new thought that this prospect is actually quite alarming. Long before the New Immortalism arose people had suggested that we need death in order to give a shape to life and that, without that shape, life could become meaningless. Thus in Back to Methuselah Adam and Eve appear when they have just discovered that animals die. At first they are appalled to think that the same thing might happen to them. But then they wonder about the prospect of going on for ever without any possible end and they start to suspect that this would be even worse. Adam cries out that he can’t face “the horror of having to be with myself for ever… I do not like myself. I am tired of myself. And yet I must endure myself, not for a day or many days but for ever. That is a dreadful thought.” Similarly Milan Kundera, in his novel Immortality, remarks, “What is unbearable in life is not being but being oneself.”
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war – in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
In 1991, Georgia slew both Russia and its own Stalin complex after an intense outbreak of nationalism, when it threw off Soviet rule. Two presidents succeeded each other in years of drama and civil war. Then in Georgia’s peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution, U.S.-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, only 35 years old at the time, engaged in another act of patricide, ousting the man who had once been his patron, veteran Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili has said he was skipping a generation in Georgia and that the country needed to “start from scratch.” Out went virtually the entire former bureaucracy and its regulations. In came a group of 20- and 30-somethings educated abroad, forming the youngest government in Europe.
Now take a look at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Like the modern history of Georgia, Dostoyevsky’s plots are all about crisis and revelation, both real and imagined. The drama and its philosophical insights are made by romantic, impulsive, life-loving characters engaged in perpetual argument — surely Georgians!
In this novel a tyrannical father is murdered, and even if none of the man’s three sons actually committed the deed, each must confront his secret patricidal desire to see the old man dead. Dostoyevsky’s most fascinating creation is the fiercely intelligent 24-year-old student Ivan Karamazov. He is obsessed with utopian theories about how to end suffering in the world and ready to contemplate extreme measures to make it happen.
In the book’s most famous chapter, Ivan tells his fable of a Grand Inquisitor from 16th-century Spain rebuking Jesus Christ for granting humanity the “burden of free will,” which had brought only unhappiness. He envisions instead a small caste of enlightened rulers who will govern the masses in their best interest, while blinding them with deliberate mystification. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, “All will be happy, all the millions of beings, except for the hundred thousand who govern them. For only we, we, who preserve the mystery, only we shall be unhappy.”
Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do. From his earliest essays on aesthetics, history, and genius in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and Untimely Meditations (1873-76), to his experiments in philosophical aphorism in Human, All Too Human (1878)and The Gay Science (1882), to his later works assaulting Christian morality, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) and The Antichrist (1895), this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.
While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.
From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct. It would require a special kind of individual to thrive or even survive in such a world-a figure he called the “Übermensch” (“superman,” or, literally, “over human being”). In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), his most poetic, prophetic text, and the one that enjoyed the broadest readership in the United States, Nietzsche proclaims, “God is dead. . . . I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that shall be overcome. . . . All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. . . . What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Übermensch: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. . . . The Übermensch is the meaning of the earth. . . . I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!” The Nietzsche of Zarathustra conducted philosophy not with a hammer but with a divining rod, and in doing so sought to prophesy rare instances of human grandeur in a world after the death of God.
Nietzsche’s genealogy reflects not simply his own preoccupations, but also those of the age in which he was writing, not solely his own prejudices, but also the pessimism of the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche’s relationship to his age was deeply ambivalent. He was acerbically hostile to many of the major tendencies of his time, whether progressive or reactionary: imperialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, liberalism, socialism, Kantianism, utilitarianism. Yet he both nurtured and was nurtured by the ground soil in which many of these tendencies flourished. It was an age shaped not simply by a crisis of faith, but also by a ‘crisis of reason’ – the ebbing away of Enlightenment optimism, the disenchantment with ideas of progress, the disbelief in concepts of truth. And no one expressed that twin disenchantment more acutely than Nietzsche.
In one sense Nietzsche’s deicide completed the task begun by Spinoza and Hume, Feurbach and Marx. And yet Nietzche’s excoriation of Christianity was very different to the anti-clericalism of the Radical Enlightenment or the humanism of the Young Hegelians. For the Radical philosophes, opposition to God was rooted in their commitment to reason and emerged out of their desire for social progress. For Marx, too, challenging religion was only a sideshow to the task of transforming society and establishing it on a more rational basis. Nietzsche was as dismissive of the Enlightenment philosophes, and of socialist ideologues, as he was of God and of religion. He might have been the high priest at God’s funeral. He was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake.