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?

“Devs” Is an Excellent Series, Except…

Devs is a science fiction series that’s streaming on the Hulu service. You have to pay for Hulu, but they usually have a free trial for new subscribers. If you have the right kind of Spotify account, Hulu is free.

The people who made Devs have done a brilliant job. The scripts are intelligent, the actors are talented. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s visually stunning. It’s a TV show that looks better than most big-budget movies. One reason it’s so good is that it’s written and directed by Alex Garland, the filmmaker hugely responsible for 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Another thing that sets Devs apart is that it concerns the nature of reality. Is the universe deterministic? What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics? Are there multiple worlds? Do you and I have free will? Should we be held morally responsible for our decisions if we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?

I haven’t finished the series yet. Maybe when it’s over, my opinion will have changed. I think Aristotle said we should judge a work of art as a whole.

What motivated me to write this post, however, was that one of the characters, Lily Chan, is now faced with what might turn out to be a truly momentous decision, possibly the biggest decision anyone has ever made. (A determinist would say I had no choice — the history of the universe made me start writing.) It isn’t giving much away about the show to say that Lily has been told she will be at a certain place later tonight and, assuming she is, things are going to go terribly wrong. She and her friend both think it’s crazy to think anybody could reliably predict such a thing, but at the same time she wants to make sure the prediction doesn’t come true. How should she make sure of that?

Here are two options:

(a) She and her friend, who are in the beautiful city of San Francisco, should get some cash, turn off their phones and start driving. They should drive as far away as possible from the place she’s predicted to be later tonight. They should definitely not stay in San Francisco, since it’s only a few miles from where the big, bad event is supposed to happen. Come on, Lily! Run away!

(b) Lily and her friend should stay in her apartment in San Francisco, but not go outside. That should be good enough.

If you were in her situation and you wanted to prove the prediction wrong, which option would you choose? Would you choose (a) or (b) to make sure the very, very bad thing didn’t happen?

This is a TV show. Which option does she choose?

I think we all know the answers to these questions.