Getting into Death

blackout francoise janicot

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts
of our body is death.
So beautiful appeared my death – knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died.
‘Die before you die,’ said the Prophet Muhammad.
Have wings that feared ever touched the Sun?
I was born when all I once feared – I could love.

attributed to Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī, a Muslim saint and Sufi mystic credited with setting forth the doctrine of Divine Love

According to my last medical I seem to be in relatively rude health. Short of a technological miracle, this will not continue. In a decade, perhaps less, I expect that my body will be less capable and more susceptible to potential killers like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s or some other horror. I might not make it that far. I might fall down the stairs and break my neck, be hit by a distracted lorry driver, die suddenly from some unsuspected anomaly in the heart or other vital organ. Perhaps a crazy will abduct me and kill me in some hideous manner of his devising. I could be burnt alive in a crashed car or locked in by motor-neuron disease, dying later of respiratory complications.

Everyone is undergoing seemingly inexorable processes of cellular and biological senescence resulting in increased susceptibility to disease and organismic failure. Some people I know have died from aggressive cancers or similar diseases. There are no exceptions. At some point you and I will die.

Sometimes it’s hard not to wish that one had a mortality cure that would allow our little lives and relationships to persist indefinitely. To no longer be susceptible to harm and pain. Many would argue, of course, that this fragility is what gives our lives and relationships value. If so, then sealing oneself in eternity with an immortality elixir would be to lose the intensity and desire that comes with our vulnerability. When we mourn a lost friend or lover, or when we anticipate their death on learning of their terminal illness, we testify to the loss of something intense and irreplaceable. Yet perhaps death does not furnish value, but only discloses it through privation. This might mean that our lives could be eternal while retaining their value. It is far from obvious why the value of a thing should depend on the possibility of its destruction.

Even so, organisms are necessarily fragile – it’s what allows them to adapt and grow. And being in time means that every moment is split by an absence, as the present decays into the past, as the notes of the tune sink into the moraine of memory. So time seems like a kind of serialized death, piercing each moment with its abscess.

Thus the thought of death may not be of something that exists in opposition to life, but that haunts and instils life. Perhaps we feed on this blackness in our bones. To be sure, many of us are also fascinated by death, by the desire for death. Those who do not believe in posthumous life, think of death as the end of our conscious existence. We will have a death, undergo it, without ever experiencing or understanding it. It is the dark finale we can never attend. So also a splinter of transcendence, a beyond of thought.

However, an immanent, ‘full’ death stands in opposition to this empty symbol. A death we inhabit. Life, not so much the opposite of death, but its deferral – as Freud suggests in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” – the gradient of our dying, a “drive” implicated in the impermanent chemical bonds keeping us in play.

In Nihil Unbound Ray Brassier avers that reality is already dead since the physical world is both inimical to life and utterly recalcitrant to value. Rational agency is thus a self-extinguishing process of understanding oneself as dead. Philosophy a thanatropic perversion.

If so, then the desire for death is not aberrant, so much as the structure of desire itself. Subjectivity is self-extinguishing, so as a symbol or fantasy, death instils our lust.

Imagine a blade or gun, or other weapon, cold against your skin, I always think of the skin or the body rising up against its killer, super-dense with time at the lip of the void. Perhaps the masochist who dreams of death, or pain, wants to live in a kind of mirror, when the skin finds its dark inversion, the moment of breaking when the body becomes its echo.

2 thoughts on “Getting into Death

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