Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Gift of Death(?)

I heard about this on BBC World Service yesterday, where the author of the study was interviewed at some length.

It was something I'd thought about before, having taught Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and asked my students to ponder what "death" means since we say someone is dead, has died, perhaps even is dying; but when we mention "death" we always mean the transitional moment (or seconds, or parts of seconds) between being alive and being dead.  And why did Tolstoy name his story "The Death....", when death only occurs in the last sentence (though Ilyich is dying for much of the story).  What, I wondered with my class, did Tolstoy mean about death, to title his story that way (If you haven't read it, or don't remember it, it opens with Ilyich's funeral, then jumps back to his birth (mentioned only in connection with his parents) and childhood, quickly through marriage, fatherhood, and his legal career, until he injures his hip in hanging a curtain in his new (and final) home, and slowly descends toward the end of the story, which creates the story's beginning.)

So now it seems death is not a moment, a sudden transition, but must be understood as a process, as something "smeared," perhaps, over time, like the cat in Schrodinger's diabolical box.  Well, not quite like that, because that thought experiment presumes death is an event, not a process.

But still, the interesting issue here is not that science has perhaps "discovered" life after death; it is that perhaps we need to redefine death.  It is an issue that plagued the 19th century (Poe got a great deal of mileage out of "premature burials," and it was a cottage industry in an age that suffered comas but didn't understand them medically); and now it seems it is with us, in another guise, again.

So what is death?  When are we dead?  Is this a brave new world?  Or just another scholastic diversion?

12 Comments:

Blogger rick allen said...

I've always been kind of intrigued by the title given by Caxton to Malory's round of stories about King Arthur: Le Morte Darthur. Probably an error of some sort. Still, it's a provocative title to give to something that covers the king's whole life, beginning with his conception.

5:45 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

My mother died over the period of at least a month, following her catastrophic and negligent last hospital stay, we didn't realize until she died that all that month she was preparing, life review - things we'd never heard of before, totally out of character references to her parents and others as if they could hear her in the room - she was quite lucid during most of it. Right up till the end when the visiting nurse told her her blood oxygen and pulse were excellent and she said there must be something wrong with her instruments - about half an hour before she actually died. Her last night was the best one of the month, she slept for thirteen hours and woke up to wonder if she'd been dreaming the awful stuff that had happened to her in the past month. She asked for a particular rosary and a St. Terese of Lisieux holy card and watched mass on TV for the last time. None of us had any idea - we were listening to the nurse instead of what she was saying. For some reason she kept saying that she was going to have trouble with the door and that we should make sure it was passable. She told her parents that she was going to need help with it - something of the sort none of us ever heard he say before.

Death is a mystery but I'm convinced through watching people die that it's no end.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

There's something of the elegiac in Malory's title, along the lines of the introduction of Heorot in "Beowulf," a description that begins with its construction but then the hall awaits "it's barbarous burning."

But that doesn't completely explain it, and the title has always intrigued me; especially since Arthur doesn't really die.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

"Death is a mystery but I'm convinced through watching people die that it's no end."

I've seen it enough to agree with you.

9:11 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...

Hmm. I've seen enough death to be convinced it is the end.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

ntodd---everyone draws different conclusions from the same evidence.

It is apparently become acceptable in scientific circles to speak of animal emotions and emotional behavior/response in animals.

I can remember when any such observations were dismissed as personification and anthropomorphizing.

It isn't the animals who have changed their behavior.

Change the frame, change the conclusion. And who is right, in the end? And who is wrong?

5:38 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I remember reading Thornton Wilder's little essay he wrote after Our Town, I thought he seemed overly eager to assure people he didn't really believe in the afterlife he presented in the play. I remember, as an Irish Catholic, being surprised to hear some ex-protestants talk about how self-serving and egomaniacal the belief in the afterlife was. Having grown up with an almost sure expectation of purgatory if not hell, I, at one point, considered obliteration to be the easier alternative. As the avoidance of extra guilt is the hallmark of my traditional framing, I remember my response to the possibility that we would all be simultaneously destroyed by a comet or media impact or through the artificial, human products of science, "No one can blame me for it".

There is one consolation if NTodd is correct, he won't be able to say "I told you so".

6:09 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...

ntodd---everyone draws different conclusions from the same evidence.

No, I'm being wholly objective and scientific. Duh. QED

There is one consolation if NTodd is correct, he won't be able to say "I told you so".

I'll have a special post to be published in the event of my death saying just that!

7:51 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

No, I'm being wholly objective and scientific. Duh. QED

Curses! Foiled again!

10:17 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...

*twirls mustachio thoughtfully*

8:24 AM  
Blogger JCF said...

THIS is what Thornton Wilder believed (Full-disclosure: me too!)---

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. "The Bridge at San Luis Rey"

2:01 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

which reminds me of the last sentences (spoiler alert) of Graham Greene's "Monsignor Quixote":

Why is it that the hate of a man—even of a man like Franco—dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence—for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end?

11:50 AM  

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