Death and Fear

In the final episode of the DEVS series, which kind of made sense in the context of the show, a thoughtful software developer named Stewart stands in a corridor for no apparent reason, reciting poetic words about death. Stewart suggests to an important passerby that the words might have something to do with Mark Antony, perhaps spoken that time Antony came to bury Caesar, not praise him.

The words Stewart is reciting are actually from the poem, “Aubade”, by the 20th century English poet, Philip Larkin.

An aubade can be a poem about lovers separating at dawn or simply “a composition evoking daybreak”. This is most of Larkin’s poem (the whole poem can be found here).

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse …
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused— …
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out …

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse….
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Note: Doctors going from house to house? It’s a poem from the 1970s.

One of the things that struck me about “Aubade” is that Larkin says “what we fear” is death’s nothingness. I don’t doubt that some people fear the nothingness, but such a fear is hardly universal. Some of us only fear the suffering that can precede death. Some, unfortunately, fear eternal damnation.

Shall I quote Nietzsche from Human, All Too Human? Why not?

Paul thought up the idea, and Calvin rethought it, that for innumerable people damnation has been decreed from eternity, and that this beautiful world plan was instituted to reveal the glory of God: heaven and hell and humanity are thus supposed to exist — to satisfy the vanity of God! What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up first, or second.

Yes, and I’ll add that thinking up and then spreading around the idea of eternal damnation, period, even without the curse of predestination, were rotten things to do.

There are other things about death that we fear. One of the most common fears is that our loved ones will suffer as the result of our deaths.

Here’s another fear, no doubt much less common, from an anonymous contributor:

I dreamed that I died, but was still conscious. Whatever was left of me was floating in a vast, black emptiness. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing at all except my thoughts.

I was shocked, suddenly realizing that their stories were true. There is an afterlife after all.

But this afterlife will be almost empty. I will remain in this state forever, condemned to ruminate, ponder and regret for all eternity.

It was the worst, most unforgettable nightmare I’ve ever had.

Is that the same nothingness Philip Larkin had in mind? I don’t know. But the idea of nothingness and the idea of being in a void without anything to do but think and remember don’t sound the same to me.

So much for that. On a lighter note, here is the Irish novelist Kevin Barry imagining two aging gangsters speculating about the afterlife, seemingly without any fear at all. They think it might be more like a vacation:

I’m not seeing a meadow full of flowers…. Not seeing a moonful bay neither. With all your old birds there, and they lined up, waiting on you, one after the other, in the peach of their youths. Their rosy cheeks and their glad little eyes. I’m not seeing that by any means. But what I am imagining, Maurice, is a kind of…quiet. You know? Just a kind of…silence.

Lovely, Maurice Hearne says. Restful.

When you think what we put up with in our lives? Noise-wise?

It’s a cacophony, Mr. Redmond.

My own feeling is that when we go, we’re “out, out, brief candle” gone. There is nothing to fear except the timing and mode of our departure and how our passing will affect those we leave behind. One day though their troubles and joys will be behind them too, since nobody lives forever. And who would want to?