… poco maestoso
On Monday evening, May 20, 1968, Harvard Professor George Wald, a newly crowned Nobel laureate in Medicine and Physiology, contributed to the Centennial Celebration at the UC Berkeley with a public lecture titled “The Origin of Death” [Google this title and you will find the text of his lecture].
He demonstrated convincingly, as I recall, that death does not exist in the non-human world and must therefore have meaning only among humans, not as a chimera or illusion but as concept. Although it is not relevant to the expanding body of biological knowledge the idea of dying pervades human consciousness and exerts important influences over our lives.
In 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a young political dissident, was imprisoned in the Peter/Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg and came within hours of being executed. One can easily imagine how such a close call would inspire the great writer to create characters obsessed with death. For Ippolit in The Idiot—and to a lesser degree for Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers—suicide was an alluring choice; a man could rise above his natural state by killing himself because in doing so he’d be performing an act reserved only for God, the taking of a human life.
The burden of this essay is to use Professor Wald’s thesis and Dostoyevsky’s proto-existentialist theme—the non-existence of death, except as an idea, and death as an act characteristic of God—to shed light on my own end and by extension on yours too. Though I consider my approach to be philosophical, I am too much of a maverick to abide by its traditional norms or, indeed, by any other.
The arc of any human life can be traced and its features scrutinized using various and ever more sophisticated scientific disciplines—e.g. psychological for Dostoyevsky, physiological for Prof. Wald—and yet life’s critical points, its inception and termination, its take off and landing, once precise, have become indeterminate. Since the middle of the last century advances in biomedical sciences have increasingly destroyed confidence and blurred what was once very clear; we can no longer be sure exactly when a human life begins nor when it ceases.
It is clear that the moment of conception, a sperm penetrating an ovum, initiates the first tick of an individual biological clock but it disturbs us that the womb of a mother is no longer necessary for this initiation. Conception can now be reproduced in the laboratory.
Human life ends, the biological clock stops ticking, when cell growth ceases and decay starts. That slowing down or “dying” process can be arrested today with feeding tubes and respiratory devices.
In a manner of speaking, therefore, science has given rise to Science, the creator and sustainer of life.
Looked at from a rational and impersonal perspective a human life does not exist at or outside its end points (before conception or after decomposition) but does exist at every point in between. Human life is finite but open ended.
[Aside: A mathematically literate reader will recognize a geometric analogue: life’s span is like a closed line segment, continuous between fixed terminals. Paradoxically, although the segment contains infinitely many points none can be identified that is immediately next to any other; no point is adjacent to any other.]
All beings, including humans, are composed of the same stuff. In Genesis God revealed to Adam his worthless composition, “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Life at conception begins with pre-existing inert atoms and at death life ends leaving behind essentially the same inert atoms. The thing existing between these two clumps of inert matter is a living thing. Is life, therefore, that finite interval between two indistinguishable inert clumps?
Professor Wald cited several non-human species to illustrate this overlapping at the portals of life. He showed pictures of copulating preying mantis—immediately after conception the female kills her mate by biting off his head—and underwater photos of salmon at the end of their life cycle, decaying even as they spawned.
Deduced from the principle that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, Professor Wald made it clear that biochemical changes accompany the transformation from inanimate stuff to animate stuff and back again. Death, he surmised, must be an abstract notion peculiar to humans for it is incompatible with the life cycle of other living things and useless in understanding them.
Reflecting on the relevance of this “brave new world” to one’s own life, one may cry out with St. Paul: O death, where is thy sting. O grave, where is thy victory.
The will to live is universal and super-strong, but although it is suggestive it does not necessarily imply a fear of dying.
Throughout history people, regarding their own death, have sought to capture its meaning and importance in religious, metaphorical, and cultural language. In the 17th century John Donne wanted to subdue the fear of death by personifying it: Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and Dreadful, for though art not so…
People everywhere, with objective detachment, distinguish the living from the non-living, animate from inanimate – basically, live things react to external stimulus, non-living things do not. The difference between a carcass and a stone lies in the fact that the former consists of decaying cells whereas the cells of the latter are static. In common parlance we talk of “my life” and “your life,” as if life is a substance like money, an attribute like hair or a condition like pimples.
Logically considered, life and death are opposites; one cannot be understood independently of the other; one is light and the other is darkness, one is sound, the other silence. Life comes first and with age vital organs deteriorate and death eventually and inevitably follows.
Death is not a simple occurrence like a fall or a blow, nor is it a willful act like throwing, walking or eating. Common sense tells us that death is basically a state of permanent, irreversible unconsciousness.
Metaphorically, death is the end towards which life is directed, a land from whose bourn no traveler returns, a loss—you had something and now it’s gone and it’s never coming back. It is personified in the Grim Reaper; it is transmogrified by devouring monsters, prefigured by excruciating pain, euphemized as eternal rest (requiescat in pace). With innumerable rhapsodic images people strive to render unknowable death knowable.
And we fear death; some are advised to “not go gentle” and others feel such trepidation that they will not use the harsh sounding words and say instead, “He (or she) passed (or passed away),” conveying an image of death as a unique and final journey. Still others accept Donne’s cloak of religious piety as a shield against the fear of death.
A couple of millennia earlier, the Greek thinker Epicurus quieted fear with a nakedly secular observation. Noting the incompatibility of self with death, he wrote, “while we exist, death is not, and when death exists, we are not.” To an atheist or anyone not inclined to seek the shelter of religious faith fearing death is no more rational than fearing the devil or the boogy man or an earthquake.
Finally (so to say), if death is an invented concept then to define it is no more meanignful, nor less creative, than to define an angel or a Martian or a unicorn. Even so, it seems likely that it is precisely the fear of death that compels us to define it. To define something is to tame it.
Aristotle taught that we extract the universal from the particular—man from Socrates—and the non-material from the material—beauty from the Mona Lisa—and the spiritual from the physical—thought from brain. Since death implies the absence of consciousness, do I extract my death from my own consciousness? Can my non-existence be deduced from my existence? Ummm! Am I immortal?
On a Sunday in the fall of 1947 I entered Novitiate and looked ahead to a full year of spiritual training at the end of which I would be invested formally into the religious class. When it was over I vowed poverty, chastity and obedience and was forthwith transformed by the Church from layman to cleric.
On a day in March, 1954, I commenced military training that ended after nine weeks in the award of a shoulder stripe designating me a private in the US Air Force. The following September I started Officer Candidate School that, after six months of more hellish training, ended with the award of a gold bar signifying my commission as a second lieutenant.
I cite these periods of my life to emphasize a common experience: for all of us life’s continuity unfolds in periods or interludes, each framed between a start and a finish and each contributing its special something to our lives.
At the start we use our imagination to “foresee” the end and at the end we use memory to “record” what we went through. Imagination (not fantasizing or wishful thinking but experience-based vision) looks ahead. Memory, like a mental camcorder, looks back.
I am now in the first year of my ninth decade and thus without doubt nearing the end of my life; the final tick is not far off. At one time I believed with Dylan Thomas that “Old men should burn and rage at close of day” but not any more.
If my life is coincident with my consciousness, and as explained by Prof. Wald there is only inert matter before the Alpha of my conception and inert matter following the Omega of my death, then Ippolit and Alyosha were wrong about the divine significance of suicide. Furthermore, death is not a victory, nor is it dreadful. The inescapable truth is much simpler:
It is impossible to remember living before conception or imagine living after death.