A good slice of great literature (and even greater percentage of myth) concerns our relationship with death. How can we cope with the inevitability of it? Or, how can we trivialize it? Or, better yet, avoid it?
Sometimes, this literary grappling with death takes the form of a trip to the underworld, the land of the dead. Some such ventures are heroic – Heracles goes as part of one of his labors, Orpheus visits to rescue Persephone. Some seek information – Odysseus wants to know how to get back home, back to Ithaca; Aeneas wants to know his destiny. Some represent a pilgrimage for wisdom – like Dante in the “middle of life’s journey.” Virgil both gets to write about the underworld in the Aeneid and to accompany Dante on his perambulations through heaven and hell. More recently we have Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Each story is trying to make sense of life and death, trying to come to terms with mortality.
Many of such stories begin when a young person is scared by an encounter with death. The Buddha was frightened into leaving his royal palace at the sight of a corpse. For the young Siddhartha death was a “divine messenger.” Gilgamesh was completely undone by the death of his friend Enkidu, and ventures out to find the secret to immortality. And, in the Katha Upanishad, the teenage Nachiketa is sent by his father to find out “the secret of life and death.” In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, a trio of young men set out to find Death in a spirit of revenge after the demise of one of their companions.
Poetry too deals with how to conquer death in a metaphoric fashion. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 is an admonition to elevate the soul above the body, and ends: “So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, /And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.” John Donne also vanquishes death at the end of one of his Holy Sonnets: “Death, thou shalt die.” Oh, that it were so easy.
Sometimes, the initial fear of death prompts the protagonist to explore methods of immortality. This is where Gilgamesh starts, in search of the magic plant that will allow him to stay both young and immortal. In legend (if not in fact), Ponce de León searched high and low for the fount of immortality. In the 16th century, Cranach painted a wonderful representation of it – old naked bodies going into the fountain and young bodies coming out. Silicon Valley is obsessed with immortality projects. But most of literature and myth (with notable exceptions) does not ultimately deal with death by denying it will happen. Most – like even the saga of Gilgamesh – end with a reconciliation with death rather than the annihilation of it. Thomas Merton’s goal was “to face the real limitations of one’s own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate or disguise them.” And yet, the 21st century slogan seems to be “no limits.”
When we were waiting for the News Hour last night on PBS, our local channel was advertising two shows about aging – one was called “Aging Backwards” and the other was “The Longevity Paradox,” both apparently how-to shows about avoiding aging and prolonging life. Those PBS folks know their News Hour audience. Is there such a thing as reverse aging? I admire those who try to keep us old folk limber with yoga, functional through diet, and positive with mindset suggestions, but where is the show on coming to grips with the fact that all is not going to end well?
I cannot remember when I first recognized the fact of death. I vaguely remember when my great-grandmother (whom I hardly knew) died – the same year I found our canary Billy (whom I was very fond of) belly up in the bottom of the cage. We lost pets, I heard adults discuss the demise of others, and I guess I slowly realized the animals and people die. But when did I realize that this applied to me? Freud would say that I probably never did. There have been moments – just before surgery, just after having a close call in a car accident – when death has seemed real, when the fragility of life realigned my thinking, but these moments did not endure.
Jorge Borges wrote a story, “August 25, 1983,” in which he imagines his own death. Using his format, I did something similar and found it an interesting exercise. I highly recommend it. What do you think you will have to say at the end of your life? What was important, transformational, disappointing? Borges drafted his story just a few years before he died, and it is amazing what we learn about him in just a few pages.
And what would it mean to you if you knew you were dying, that there was a determined date for your termination? Of course, we are all headed toward death, but what difference would it make if you could actually see the end coming? There is a wonderful book by Stephen Levine, “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last.” It inspired this week’s story, “Encore.”