Mortality & Meaning
Stanford Commencement Address, text and video in Stanford Report (June 12, 2005).
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.
Herzog (Viking Press: 1964), p. 290.
But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks — and this is its thought of thoughts — that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that.
The Tragic Sense of Life (Courier Dover: 1954), pp. 110-11.
A rabid mania for originality is rife in the modern intellectual world and characterizes all individual effort. We would rather err with genius than hit the mark with the crowd... This violent struggle for the perpetuation of our name extends backwards into the past, just as it aspires to conquer the future; we contend with the dead because we, the living, are obscured beneath their shadow. We are jealous of the geniuses of former times, whose names, standing out like the landmarks of history, rescue the ages from oblivion. The heaven of fame is not very large, and the more there are who enter it the less is the share of each. The great names of the past rob us of our place in it; the space which they fill in the popular memory they usurp from us who aspire to occupy it. And so we rise up in revolt against them, and hence the bitterness with which all those who seek after fame in the world of letters judge those who have already attained it and are in enjoyment of it.
Carol Zaleski on Dualism said...
First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 36-42.
As for dualism, much has been said of the violence it does to our unity as psycho-physical creatures, but this is questionable. Multiplicity and disunity are as strong a feature of our existence as psychosomatic unity. We are legion, as the demons say. It is a marvel that all our different parts work together. At best, we are a symphony; but the second violins have quarreled with the wind section, and as we age these quarrels increase. Why should it surprise us if at death the soul separates from the body? Separating is the order of our lives as we tend toward death. If a man's jowls can sink down while his brow stays up, why can't his soul rise up when his body sinks down? All of our flesh is being pulled downward by the gravity of the grave; every day our skin is sloughing off cell by cell; at each stage of life we slough off the skin of a previous stage; and at death we lose what was left of those skins. Perhaps that will be the chance to emerge as the person one was meant to be.
"Dying on Stage: 'The Act of a Dreadful Thing'" in Resurrection, Porter, Hayes, and Tombs, eds. (Continuum: 1999), pp. 297, 301.
Crucifixion demands entombment. And entombment generates drama. Who is hiding in the cupboard of French farce? Who is behind the screen on Blind Date? What is the bran tub, or the cracker, or the long awaited letter when it drops in the letter-box? Open the box! The drama of entombment is there literally in the stage illusionist's repertoire. It might have died with Harry Houdini, but it hasn't. I saw it only the other day on television: the comedian Freddie Star, bound and shackled and then submerged in a fish tank. Curtains drawn round the tank. Lights dimmed. A roll of drums, the lights flash, and then the lights go up and the curtains are drawn back to discover... an empty fish tank. And a few minutes later, Freddie is discovered somewhere else, damp but unharmed and smiling, the Starr reborn. ... I come back to death, 'nothing more terrible, nothing more true'. We go to Shakespeare's tragedies, go to sit in the dark in our boxes at the theatre, to confront what 'we can't escape'. And Shakespeare shows us the mutilated bodies in a stage spectacle. And he portrays death as final, 'the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always'. But the ritual of theatre-going won't allow it to rest there. We are obliged to remain incarcerated while another stage-spectacle is enacted, the resurrection before our eyes of the actors who are dead. The curtain call. It is a cheat. Like death. Something I know I can't escape, yet can't accept. Tirez le rideau.
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 3.
If a thing makes no difference, it is a waste of time to think about it. We should begin, then, with the question, What difference does Heaven make to earth, to now, to our lives? Only the difference between hope and despair in the end, between two totally different visions of life, between "chance or the dance." At death we find out which vision is true: does it all go down the drain in the end, or are all the loose threads finally tied together into a gloriously perfect tapestry? Do the tangled paths through the forest of life lead to the golden castle or over the cliff and into the abyss? Is death a door or a hole?
Growing Up (Congdon & Weed: New York, 1982), p. 61.
For the first time I thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told Bessie that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful and I had no more use for Him. ¶ Bessie told me about the peace of Heaven and the joy of being among the angels and the happiness of my father who was already there. The argument failed to quiet my rage. ¶ "God loves us all just like His own children," Bessie said. ¶ "If God loves me, why did He make my father die?" ¶ Bessie said that I would understand someday, but she was only partly right. That afternoon, though I couldn't have phrased it this way then, I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted. ¶ After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone's God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic . . .
Roy Batty on Death and Meaning said...
Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, writers Philip K. Dick and Hampton Francher (1982).
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams ... glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost ... in time, like tears ... in rain. Time ... to die.
Life After Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), 21-25, 181-84.
Despite the wide variation in the circumstances surrounding close calls with death and in the types of persons undergoing them, it remains true that there b a striking similarity among the accounts of the experiences themselves. In fact the similarities among various reports are so great that one can easily pick out about fifteen separate elements which recur again and again in the mass of narrative that I have collected. On the basis of these points of likeness, let me now construe a brief, theoretically "ideal" or "complete" experience which embodies all of the common elements, in the order in which it is typical for them to occur. ¶ A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a low ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval. ¶ After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a "body," but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before — a being of light — appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences.
The Plague, (New York: Vintage International, 1948, 1975) 214-7.
They had already seen children die — for many months now death had shown no favoritism — but they had never yet watched a child's agony minute by minute, as they had now been doing since daybreak. Needless to say, the pain inflicted on these innocent victims had always seemed to them to be what in fact it was: an abominable thing. But hitherto they had felt its abomination in, so to speak, an abstract way; they had never had to witness over so long a period the death throes of an innocent child. In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there. Paneloux gazed down at the small mouth, fouled with the sores of the plague and pouring out the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind. He sank on his knees, and all present found it natural to hear him in a voice hoarse but clearly audible across that nameless, never ending wail: "My God, spare this child!" But the wail continued without cease.