The Death of Death

A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

The death of death has long been foretold. In John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (1609), the metaphysical poet chides Death for being proud and concludes that Death will be as good as dead once human souls are resurrected in paradise. Donne was merely drawing on a biblical reckoning for the Grim Reaper, 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” One is tempted to interject: how can Death die if he never lived?

Today, such prognostications about death’s demise are likely to take a more technological tone. The death of death means life, forever. Mortality is an irksome biological fact that will eventually be overcome by science. Technology will find the way; it always does. So go the certainties of the entrepreneurially-minded, usually billionaires in Silicon Valley who have the ego and money for such a Grail quest, and a vested interest in prolonging their sybaritic lives.

And perhaps history is on their side: technology has, after all, overcome the physiological barriers to breathing underwater and in outer space. Instrumental rationality tends to be short-sighted, though. It achieves its goals without considering what to do afterwards. The death of work through increasing automation demonstrates such thoughtlessness. Who among the engineers is considering what they will do when total automation is complete? Science doesn’t think, suggested Heidegger. Then again, how many novels have been set in a utopia? What do people do there all day?

Cryogenics is big business for those who can afford to put immortality on ice until the time is right. One wonders how many brains sit in vats awaiting a new lease of life. What if the money runs out before the Eureka moment? What if the storage company goes bust? I expect that Death will have the last toothy cackle here, and these perfectly-preserved encephelons will be left to perplex android archaeologists millenia hence.

That just leaves digital immortality. The death of death may soon be available to all. Even this blog post will outlast me. One day soon, all your lifestreams and Tweets and Instagram selfies will be pulled together by an algorithm, an app called This Immortal Coil (a cute nod to Shakespeare by the software programmer), and you will exist as a functioning pseudo-interactive virtual self. The temptation to tweak it will be immense – Photoshopping out that chicken pox scar on your nose once and for all or making all your responses perfect bon mots. As long as the power stays on and nobody pulls the plug on your server, you can exist in a digital eternity, where the alchemy of algorithms creates an ageless unchanging you, a simulacrum for the ages, haunting the messageboards of yore, Tweeting automated responses to the latest Tory outrage, posting virtual selfies of your virtual self, locked into a prescribed cycle of responses to stimuli, which, ironically, is how the determinsts say your real life was lived anyway.

I return often to Nietszche’s On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense – this short essay is filled with a wisdom that no dataset could ever proffer. He reminds us that ‘nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts’, and our naming and personifying of death is one such form and concept. Beware the many metaphors and anthropomorphisms of man! Of course, Death has died regularly in various ways in various cultures, by being confronted rather than avoided as a topic, from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the Stoic and Buddhist engagements with life’s brevity. The Victorians were bejewelled in reminders of death, memento mori skull rings, Latin inscriptions on their fob watches (vulnerant omnes ultima necat – all the hours wound, and the last one kills). Earlier centuries contemplated vanitas paintings depicting the vanity of material possession and cultural pursuits, such as this one by Harmen Steenwyck.

Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life (1640, oil on oak panel)

Each of these various attitudes possess a grace in accepting the ontological fact of death, what Heidegger terms an authentic being-towards-death in Being & Time, especially when compared to the clientele of the snakeoil ‘life extension’ merchants. Naturally, his more nihilistic predecessor Nietzsche had already taken this one step further, demonstrating what might be called an authentic being-towards-extinction. He begins the aforementioned essay on truth and lies as follows:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.

It is a fact few are prepared to face: mass extinction events don’t discriminate between the species they kill off. Yet Homo sapiens keeps convincing itself that it will be the exception to the historical rule. Our so-called ‘extinction cinema’ – The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Interstellar- would be better termed ‘survivalist cinema’. This is what makes Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) so impressive. It doesn’t blink in the face of representing the lifeless void. When the melancholic protagonist Justine proclaims that ‘Life is evil’ and calmly accepts the approaching planetary impact that will destroy Earth, she also demonstrates an authentic being-towards-extinction.

So the human species and its attitude towards death is ultimately doomed, but where does that leave death itself? Taking the long view, even death is humbled on a cosmic scale: when the universe dies out, death dies out with it. The only catch is that there will be no life around to experience that fact.

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