Commentary Magazine

Death Takes No Holiday

“I am, upon the whole, a happy man, have found the world an entertaining place and am thankful to Providence for the part allotted to me in it.”

—Sydney Smith

On a bookshelf near the desk on which sits my computer are a number of Penguin classics, black bindings with yellow trim: Montaigne, Pascal, Stendhal, Cervantes, lots of Balzac, Turgenev, a two-volume edition of War and Peace. Am I likely to be around long enough to read War and Peace again? I have to wonder. My mother lived to 82, and my father to 91, dying of congestive heart failure, a fairly easeful death I think of as congestive heart success. So I hold decent cards, genetically speaking, but the Fates, as everyone knows, often deal off the bottom of the deck. People nowadays hope to make it past 80, at which point, honest people will acknowledge, they are playing on house money. If I were to peg out next month at 77, no one would be much surprised or remark that it was untimely.

In their development, human beings first grasp the concept of time, and not long after the certainty that it is running out. We are granted the mixed blessing of being the only species with foreknowledge of its mortality, an advantage in so many ways and yet one that complicates everything and, if allowed to get out of hand, can spoil nearly all one’s days.

Homer held it was best not to be born at all or to die early. Most of us beg to differ, and long for life to be prolonged forever and perhaps just a bit beyond. (What else, after all, is all that running and healthy eating about?) Others, reconciled to death, wish to get the most of the time allotted to them, and feel, as the old blues song has it, “you’re so beautiful, you’ve got to die some day/All’s I want’s a little lovin’ before you pass away.”

In reprinted versions of his best-known poem, “September 1, 1939,” W.H. Auden omitted the stanza containing the most famous line he ever wrote: “We must love one another or die.” We can love one another all we like, Auden concluded on further reflection, we’re going to die anyway. The Persian King Xerxes, Herodotus reports, witnessing his more than 2,000 troops massed for the battle to conquer Greece, wept at the thought that “all these multitudes here and yet in 100 years’ time not one of them will be alive.” Then as now the mortality rate remains at 100 percent, with no likelihood of dropping soon.

Best not to ignore the most famous passage of Pascal in his Pensées: “Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.”

Everyone will have had a different introduction to death. For some it comes by way of the death of a pet, or, more tragically, of a parent, or of a young friend. Once death is on the board, the game is never quite the same. Some people from a fairly early age are able to think of little else; others, gifted with a short attention span, are able to hold the crushing fact of death at bay for long stretches. I am in the second group.

“Death is an old joke,” wrote Turgenev, “that comes to each of us afresh.” Death is nothing if not democratic. We try to remove the sting of it through euphemism, so that people do not die but “pass away,” or “expire,” or “go to a better place.” All religions have had to accommodate the fact of death, some making more specific promises about its aftermath than others. Physicians are sworn to fight it off for as long as possible, though the phrase “pull the plug” by now qualifies as one of H.W. Fowler’s “Vogue Words.” The great writers have understood that it provides the most serious theme in all of literature. No philosophy is complete without an explanation of the meaning of death, not excluding that it is a brute fact of nature and might have no further meaning than that.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.) provided a four-step program that, in one swoosh, eliminates any anxiety about death itself and worry about the prospect of an afterlife:

1. Do not believe in God, or the gods. There is no good evidence for their existence, and worrying about them and their judgments is therefore a waste of energy.

2. Do not give any thought to what happens after death. Oblivion follows death, in which you will return to the same state in which you existed before you were born.

3. Take your mind off pain. Two things only can follow from pain: Either it will go away, or it will get worse and worse and you will die, after which oblivion will follow.

4. Do not seek fame, power, money, or extravagant luxuries. All disappoint, and none finally yields satisfaction.

Follow these steps, and serenity, Epicurus holds, will be yours. I have no doubt that it would be. Pity, I find I am unable to follow any of these steps. I am no Epicurean.

Oblivion is my problem. I cannot imagine it. Horace called it “eternal exile.” Schopenhauer, like Epicurus, thought oblivion to be no different than life before we were born into it. For Schopenhauer, death, not life, was the constant. “Life can be regarded as a dream,” he wrote, and “death as the awakening from it.” Changing metaphors, he also claimed that “our life is to be regarded as a loan received from death, with sleep as our daily interest on this loan.” Schopenhauer also believed that, on balance, suicide was not at all a bad idea. In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that “although the two [prenatal life and death] are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five-hundred heartbeats an hour).”

I write that oblivion isn’t easy to imagine, but I suppose what I really mean is that I have no wish to imagine a world without me in it. George Santayana claimed that one of the reasons older people tend to grumpiness is that they find it difficult to envision a world of any quality in which they will not play a part. Life after I am gone will, of course, be exactly the same as when I was still on the roster of the living. I can think of four people who will truly mind, genuinely mourn, my death, no more. My absence from life will otherwise constitute no more than the removal of a single grain of sand from the beach. My death will not, as the Victorians used to say, signify. The only question is, When it will occur?

Death, unlike the railroads, publishes no schedule. Untimely is the adjective most often paired with death, but what would constitute a timely death? One, perhaps, that rescues a person from grievous pain, hideous scandal, unbearable guilt. With the exception of those formally pronounced terminally ill, the rest of us do not know when we are going to die. Would it help if we did? Would we act differently if we had precise foreknowledge of our demise? Would it make death any easier to deal with? On this matter of a (literal) deadline, Santayana thought that, no matter one’s age, it is perhaps best to assume that one will live another decade. Yet, in his middle 80s, when his physician suggested he lose weight, Santayana noted that the man evidently wanted him in perfect health in time for his death. He died at 88 at the Convent of the Blue Nuns in Rome. Whenever I hear of someone who has died at 85 or above, I find myself saying, “I’d sign on for that,” but, who knows, once there I should probably do all in my power to renegotiate the contract.

Putting death out of mind as best one can is a mistake, or so Montaigne thought. Wiser, he felt, to think constantly about death, not so much to confront it—how, in any case, would one do that?—but to get used to the idea of its ineluctability, and also of the suddenness with which it may visit. “How can we ever rid ourselves of thoughts of death,” he writes, “or stop imagining that death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.” Better to familiarize oneself with the idea. “Let us deprive death of its strangeness,” he wrote, “let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.” Montaigne himself claims regularly to have been besieged by thoughts of death, “even in the most licentious period of my life.”

Montaigne had a continuing curiosity about how great men died, as don’t we all, down to wanting to know their last words. “When judging another’s life,” he wrote, “I always look to see how its end was borne; and one of my main concerns for my own is that it be borne well—that is, in a quiet and muted manner.” All learning, he believed, was to make us ready for the end, to prepare us for death. “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” is the title of his essay, and major statement, on the subject. He hoped that when death finally did appear, “it will bear no new warning for me. As far as we possibly can we must have our boots on, ready to go.” His death at the age of 59 in 1592 was by quinsy, a disease caused by an abscess of tissue around the tonsils, which can be painful, and in his case had the side effect of rendering him, this most articulate of men, unable to speak.

Can one follow Montaigne’s advice to keep death always in mind? I’m far from certain that any but a serious depressive can. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died at 44, wrote that a state of mild depression is perfectly sensible for a man of middle age; what he has to be depressed about, of course, is the recognition that the clock is running. Philip Larkin, assuming a normal life span of 70, wrote to a friend that if each decade be taken as a day of the week, he, then in his middle 50s, was already up to Friday afternoon. Larkin, who may well have been a depressive, usually an amusing one, wrote the darkest modern poem about death, “Aubade,” whose first stanza reads:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light.

Till then I see what’s really always there:

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,

Making all thought impossible but how

And where and when I shall myself die.

Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

Philip Larkin checked out at 63.

If I could think about death with greater regularity, it would probably drag me down. “Act your age” was an old exhortation of parents and grammar-school teachers, but I find that, now as then, I am not easily able to act mine, or even to keep it for very long firmly in mind. Of course I know I am going to die, rather sooner than later, but what does that have to do with my needing a haircut, that there is a Bulls game on television tonight, or that I have to remember to pick up my dry cleaning on Thursday?

In his diary Thomas Mann records the death of a friend named Jakob Wassermann, then adds, “No need to note the fact that the death of this good friend and contemporary raises with particular vividness the question of how much longer I myself will live.” Mann was 58 at the time he wrote this, and would go on living until he was 80. Many of my dearest friends have been six or seven years older than I, and several of them are now dead, which causes me to ask the same question Mann poses: How much longer for me?

Thomas Mann is one of the writers that Victor Brombert, the cosmopolitan literary critic, considers in Musings on Mortality (University of Chicago Press, 200 pages). Brombert, born in France, has for many years taught comparative literature at Princeton. The writers he considers, in elegantly summarizing essays, are, along with Mann, Tolstoy, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Giorgio Bassani (author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), J.M. Coetzee, and Primo Levi.

An odd lot, these writers, when one considers that two of them (Woolf and Levi) committed suicide, one (Kafka) longed for death, another (Camus) died at 47 in a car accident, and J.M. Coetzee does not seem a writer near the caliber of the others. Death in Venice, the main work taken up in his Thomas Mann chapter, strikes me as more about decadence than about death, though in the novella the one leads to the other. The suicide of Adrian Leverkühn in Mann’s Doctor Faustus is another artist’s death. Gustav von Aschenbach of Death in Venice is a writer too enamored by beauty, Leverkühn a composer who has made a pact with the devil to advance his art, both of which suggest that high art and death are somehow allied. In his published Diary, George F. Kennan, who lived to 101, notes that “there comes a point, in fact, where beauty, for its reckless devotees, becomes the advocate of death against life.”

The one writer relentlessly obsessed by death in Professor Brombert’s study was Tolstoy. The death of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace is surely the most powerful such scene in all of Western literature. (The worst is in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, about which Oscar Wilde remarked that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”) No stronger extended fictional account exists than Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Brombert writes: “Tolstoy’s singular achievement is that he conveys Ivan Ilych’s terror in the face of death not in philosophical or abstract terms but as a subjective and visceral experience.” Ivan Ilych’s death provides the lesson that we all deceive ourselves when we forget about death, and only death gives us true insight into the meaning, or want of meaning, in our lives.

Tolstoy’s own death came when he fled his family at the age of 82 over domestic turmoil between his wife and his disciples. He met his end in a station-master’s cottage at the Astapovo train station, a day’s journey from his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. His became one of the first celebrity deaths, with journalists and news cameras and gendarmes on the scene, hanging around awaiting word of his demise. A sad way to depart the planet, but then at the close of his own life, Tolstoy, who wrote a brief story called “Croesus and Fate,” might well have recalled the Athenian statesman Solon’s remark to King Croesus upon the latter’s bragging about his wealth and well being: “Call no man happy until he is dead.”

Some of the best pages in Musings on Mortality are those in which Brombert conveys his own thoughts on death. At 91, he is (as they say in the NFL) hearing footsteps. His first encounter with death, he reports, was that of his pet canary when he was a little boy. The revulsion never left him; so strong was it that while serving as an American soldier in World War II, he “averted [his] eyes even when the dead soldier was a member of an SS unit.” He went through the war with a heightened sense of his own vulnerability. He carries with him to this day the mental picture of the faces of his parents in their caskets. He refers to his réveil mortel, or mortal alarm clock, noting that he is the last survivor of all the men in the two units with whom he landed on a beach at Normandy. Each day he averages up the ages of those whose names appear in the daily obituaries.

I myself not only read the obits, but do so before all else in the paper. A good day in the obituaries for me is one in which everyone who has died is above 90; a poor one is one in which everyone listed is younger than I. Henry James remarked that, at the age of 50, someone he knows dies every week. With the increased longevity since James’s time to our own, I’d say the age currently is closer to 70. I cannot say, like James, that someone I know dies every week; someone I know dies every month is closer to it. Sometimes people I know die in clusters of three or four. My friend Edward Shils, who died at 85, used to warn on such occasions, “Be careful, Joseph, the machine-gunner is out.” I find myself thinking of the dear friends who have died, with foreknowledge that they will soon enough be followed by many more. If one turns out to be long-lived, part of the deal is that of the friends one most cares about more are likely to be dead than alive.

At the end of his book Victor Brombert writes: “André Malraux’s oracular pronouncements come to mind, as does his unverifiable, though inspiriting, notion that the first caveman who felt compelled to draw a bison on the stone wall of his cave knew that both he and the bison were mortal but that this first artificer also intuited that the act of depicting the perishable animal was somehow a way ‘to negate our nothingness.’”

Is art a stay of sorts against death, a consolation, a reprieve at least of a philosophical kind? Not for most of us it isn’t; it isn’t for me, for whom art has a high standing. Along with the absence of atheists, there are no aesthetes in foxholes.

The only consolation for death that I know is the belief that one is going on to something better. That conviction is not available to those who feel they have outgrown religion or who have never been able to achieve faith and have put what faith they possess in science. What comfort can a belief in science afford? In Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Professor St. Peter remarks to a student: “I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction.” Professor St. Peter continues: “Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins—not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away…I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance—you impoverish them.”

Professor St. Peter’s view is that in losing religion we have lost the “gorgeous drama with God,” in which men and women believed in “the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives.” The drama of which he speaks is that of salvation, revolving around the question of whether one will have been found good enough in the eyes of God to be worthy of a happy afterlife. I’m not sure how many people I know believe in an afterlife. Serious Catholics still do. Seven or eight years ago, a neighbor of mine, a woman who had never married, told me that she didn’t in the least fear death but only worried about dying with complications and in pain. As a Catholic, she was confident of her destination after death.

Without belief in an afterlife, there is only death, the anesthesia from which none come round. As for the dying, all one is left with is the hope against hope that one will have drawn one of the better exit cards, dying of old age, congestive heart failure, sudden heart attack, and not Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s, or Parkinson’s or one of those cancers that leave slack for hope that, after the best efforts of chemistry, ultimately doesn’t come to fruition.

Not always but often the people who most fear death are those who feel they have never begun living. These tend to be people who have not got much joy from work or who have little if anything invested in family life. The psychiatrist Leslie Farber noted that “death may be feared occasionally in maturity when life seems to have been unlived, when death would be seen as premature.” Children, who often bring worry and sometimes sadness, also give one a sense of futurity, the feeling that a part of one goes on after one has oneself departed the planet, that one has left something behind, a trace of evidence, however imperishable itself, that one was oneself here.

In the 1970s, death, you should pardon the expression, was a hot topic. Courses were taught in thanatology, therapy for those left behind was on offer, a woman named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book that told everyone about the five stages of grieving. Death was, in effect, being social-scientized. The point of all these exercises was to come to terms with death.

In a brilliant essay titled “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling-a-Ling?” published in these pages in 1977, Leslie Farber demolished the notion that it could be done. His distaste for the experts on death was owing to their hubris in thinking they could be able to “capture death—to tame it, domesticate it, draw it out of its absolute otherness into the realm of the living, where its mystery will be dispelled by the sweet, resolute counsels of enlightenment, and its significance will be revealed as just another, albeit a crucial, experience in life.” Death, Farber felt, could not be demystified.

According to Farber, “a death perspective, with its wholesale poignancy, cherishing everything temporal, therefore cherishing everything, will swallow up these meanings in an all-purpose ‘significance’ which, valuing everything, cheapens all.” Such notions, like those promulgated by Kübler-Ross, that death is little more than a transition from one form of life to another, he properly mocks. “For myself,” he concludes, “I don’t think death has been brought down from the mountain. I can hear it howling up there on some dark nights, just as all men everywhere have heard it.” The French philosopher Alain, visiting a friend who was suffering from depression after having recently undergone serious surgery, told him that it was natural to feel depressed. Surgery, after all, was an insult to the body, and it was perfectly natural to feel low after undergoing it. Alain advised his friend to give way to his depression, to let go, and feel as depressed as he liked—only, he added, not to let this depression get him down. Leslie Farber’s advice on death, were he alive today—he died at 68 of a heart attack, four years after writing that essay—might not be dissimilar. Perfectly natural to think about death, to be befuddled and anxious and even terrified of it, but it would be a mistake to let it spoil your day.

Truth is, most of us don’t. We keep our appointments, cherish our small victories, suffer our defeats; if moderately well-balanced, we recognize our true insignificance without letting it interfere with attempting to realize our dreams. If we are serious about our religion and we feel we have lived decent lives, the question of the afterlife will have been settled. For those of us—I include myself here—who do not closely follow the dictates of a religion yet believe in a higher power ruling the universe, we have to seek such wisdom on the subject of death where we can find it.

I must confess that I haven’t found much, or at least not much that is reassuring. Although Plato devotes many pages to the subject of the afterlife, he provides little in the way of solace in settling the question. The Phaedo, Plato’s main dialogue on death and the afterlife, remains unconvincing. The setting of the dialogue is the morning of the day that Socrates, having been found guilty by the Athenian democracy of undermining the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens, is awaiting the hemlock he is to take later in the day. Socrates, being the great philosopher he was, spends his last hours talking with some of his followers about the life he expects after being put to death, a life lived “more abundantly” than the one he is about to depart.

The argument of the Phaedo is that the man best prepared for death, by having “trained himself throughout his life to live in a state as close as possible to death,” should be the last to be distressed by death. Such a man is likely to have been a philosopher, who has been initiated and enlightened, purified, and he “shall dwell among the gods,” while “the uninitiated and the unenlightened shall lie in the mire.” Because he himself has been among those who “have lived the philosophical life in the right way,” Socrates says, “a company I have done my best in every way to join, leaving nothing undone which I could do to attain this end,” he is confident that in the next life he will “find there, no less than here, good rulers and good friends.” He will be in a place that is “invisible, divine, immortal, and wise” where, on arrival, his soul will find happiness awaiting and “release from uncertainty and folly, from fears and uncontrolled desires, and all other human evils and where, as they say of the initiates in the Mysteries, it really spends the rest of its time with the gods.” Further talk in the dialogue, all of it extremely vague, has to do with transmigration of souls. Plato’s eschatology is as richly complicated as it is unbelievable. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier, one thinks after reading the Phaedo, to believe in the Trinity or await the messiah and let it go at that.

‘Nothing concentrates a man’s mind more than the prospect of being hanged in the morning,” observed Samuel Johnson. I’m not so sure. The night before my triple-bypass heart surgery in 1997, I remember, with the aid of a Valium, sleeping decently. I awoke the next morning and showered with a special surgical disinfectant soap. My wife drove me to the hospital. I joked with the nurse who gave me preliminary anesthesia, and the next thing I recall is waking to be told by my heart surgeon, at 2:00 A.M., that I had to be returned to surgery owing to a blood clot. “This sounds like a very bad idea to me,” I remember saying. He answered that he was less worried about me than about my wife, who was terribly worried when he told her. This is of course a story with a happy ending, as you will have gathered, but, though I greatly wanted to avoid this surgery, when the time for it arrived I went through it calmly enough. Was more than the Valium behind this calm?

The truth is that I have been waiting to die for quite some while now. I do not wish to die, certainly not until, as Socrates says, “life has no more to offer.” I’ve not found that life has anywhere near run out of delight for me. I’ve never considered suicide, though I have, at different times, out of spiritual fatigue, thought I would welcome death. “All is finite,” wrote Santayana, “all is to end, all is bearable—that is my only comfort.”

Yet, though, contra Dylan Thomas, I hope to be allowed to go gently into that good night, I do not figure to welcome death when it arrives. Like everyone else, I take blood tests with my annual physical, and each year I expect the results to be disastrous, showing I have three different cancers, Parkinson’s, incipient Lou Gehrig’s, and what looks like Alzheimer’s well on its way. I am waiting, in other words, for both shoes to fall.

When they do, I shall not be shocked or even surprised, but disappointed nonetheless. I have had a good and lucky run, having been born to honorable and intelligent parents in the most interesting country in the world during a period of unrivaled prosperity and vast technological advance. I prefer to think I’ve got the best out of my ability, and have been properly appreciated for what I’ve managed to accomplish. One may regard one’s death as a tragic event, or view it as the ineluctable conclusion to the great good fortune of having been born to begin with. I’m going with the latter.

Unless the Dirty Tricks Department, which is always very active, gets to me, and makes my final years, months, days on Earth a hell of pain and undignified suffering, I shall regret my departure from life. On his deathbed, Goethe’s last words are said to have been, “More light, more light.” Gertrude Stein, on hers, asked, “What is the answer?” and when no one replied, laughed and asked, “Then what is the question?” I don’t have a final draft of my own deathbed words, but I do have a theme, which is unembarrassed thanksgiving.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, a longtime contributor to Commentary, is the author of A Literary Education and Other Essays (Axios Press).

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