Monday, September 23, 2013

Magical thinking about death

Anyone who has ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which used to be pretty much every boy in America, remembers the scene in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper attend their own funeral:

As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit.Everyone remembers the scene because it cannily expresses what is among the commonest of human fantasies—the dream of peeking back into life after death to gauge just how much one is mourned and missed.

It’s appropriate the scene should occur in a boys’ book, because the fantasy is destructive of human maturity and the reality principle (which amount to the same thing). Perhaps none of my opinions makes people angrier than my insistence that daydreaming about life after death, whether it takes the form of wish-fulfillment fantasies about one’s own funeral or the delusion that one can ever be released from suffering, is a self-indulgence the dying cannot afford. We don’t encourage our children to believe they can grow up to become superheroes capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and we should not encourage the terminally ill to pin their hopes upon something they will never experience in this lifetime.

To tell them that their suffering will be relieved by death—here, let me help you die—is a lie told for the benefit of the liar, because the dead do not know relief. They don’t know anything. They are dead. The relief is sought by those who must watch the dying suffer, and they will be the only ones to feel the relief. Relief of suffering, like funeral services, belong to living. The dead are excluded from them.

As usual it is Emily Dickinson, the poet laureate of death, who gets it exactly right:That short — potential stir
That each can make but once —
That Bustle so illustrious
’Tis almost Consequence —

Is the éclat of Death —
Oh, thou unknown Renown
That not a Beggar would accept
Had he the power to spurn —
Her first editors, Mabel Loomis Tood and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, assumed that she was describing a funeral, and hung the title like a wreath on the doorway of her poem. But Dickinson is not saying that a funeral is “the éclat of Death,” its moment of brilliant success, but rather that death’s only achievement, its “unknown Renown” (because no one who knows it can return to bask in it), is a “short potential stir.”

We think too much of death and not nearly enough of dying. There is a reason for that. Dying is a mental discipline, which entails many hours of training in (among other things) the renunciation of fantasies that death will be anything other than it is—the cessation of consciousness—and the bitter facing up to the reality of that fact. Those who prefer daydreams of impossible release from what awaits them will leave themselves (and those they love) tragically unprepared for the conclusive Bustle, which is “almost consequence.”

8 comments:

Unknown said...

Are you saying, or at least implying, that religious people (Christians, Jews, whatever) are guilty of magical thinking when it comes to dying and death?

D. G. Myers said...

Not at all. As an Orthodox Jew, I am constrained to believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah and the resurrection of the body. But what will happen in the mean time is something that no one can either know or return to tell about.

Bryan Appleyard said...

Whereof one cannot speak....

Lynn said...

Amazing! D. G. Myers, nice post!

R.T. said...

Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" ought to be required reading for anyone. (Perhaps I ought to get royalties from Thomas's estate since I so frequently recommend this poem to others.) When I think about death (or dying), Thomas's villanelle helps me a great deal.

R.T. said...

Postscript: I also turn to Job when I think about dying (and living).

Rand Careaga said...

@ Bryan Appleyard: I saw what you did.

Woody Allen famously observed that while he didn’t fear death, he didn’t want to be there when it happened. Most of us won’t be there: we’ll be “out of it” when it happens. Regarding the notion of consciousness after death, I’m no more qualified than any other human being to weigh in, and will accordingly weigh in: I think that time is not only stranger than we understand, but also stranger than we can understand. I also think that it’s likely a fundamental and inflexible element of the cosmos (a Bronze Age bedouin chieftain of a legalistic turn of mind writ very, very large does not figure in my conception thereof), and that our existences are constrained within. I suspect that the “immortality” of each of us dwells within the brackets of our lifespans, but also that, freed from the brute awareness that ties each of us to any given moment, we roam free throughout that period, perhaps unaware of that freedom. Or perhaps I am merely drunk, and no theologian.

Michael Connors said...

Franklin in his variorum edition of Dickinson's poems (1998) has a dash after Oh in the sixth line, and not a comma.