BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In his justly famous 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes this luminous passage on the sacredness of human life:
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life: it is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
In a way, Baldwin is presaging Bob Dylan’s sentiment, to come in 1965, that “He not busy being born is busy dying.” But we are all busy dying, as Baldwin makes clear. The important thing is to do the work that builds a meaningful life, else we are busy only dying. I’m pretty sure that’s what Dylan meant too.
The myth that we will not die is not just an idle reflection of a childish wish, I believe. It does actual harm. It is a fantasy that decent, thinking people ought to avoid, threatening to lure us into all those diversions that Baldwin says can make us “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives.”
And it can do worse than that.
Consider the family of one rural Missouri teenager who shot and killed himself on Christmas day 2014 after being snubbed by a girl. In his 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, Jonathan Metzl, records an interview with the boy’s aunt. The boy’s family is coping with the unimaginable trauma, says the aunt, by reflecting on “the fact that we know my nephew is in heaven.”
The fantasy of heaven is infinitely useful. It can divert our minds from almost any kind of loss or tragedy. One of the difficulties the dead boy’s family had to cope with was that he killed himself with one of two handguns lying loaded near his parents’ bed, put there for “home defense.” But, the boy’s suicide “absolutely has not changed [the aunt’s] view about guns,” Metzl reports. Nor were the boy’s parents moved to change their views.
I do not mean to sound uncharitable, but using the fantasy of never-ending life to erase one’s share of responsibility for the death of one’s child–as the parents did in this case– is inexcusably sordid and wicked. It is a shameful indulgence in the kind of demeaning religious escapism Orwell notes in his wonderful 1949 essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”:
Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life.
No need to tell that family in Missouri that life is mostly suffering. I imagine it suffuses their whole existence now. But how much wiser and better prepared for life they would have been had they taken seriously the idea that their guns could very well end the only life each member of their family would ever have. “The meaning of life is that it ends,” wrote Philip Roth. Imagine life going on forever, and it means nothing.
The fantasy of immortality robs life of moral seriousness. It teaches us, among other things, that we’re all bound for a court date in the real life to come, so a great deal of thoughtlessness, recklessness, and a brutish disregard for the sanctity of this life are permissible and normal, so long as one’s pieties and religious prejudices are kept intact.
Ivan Ilyich is in physical anguish as he lies dying in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But more traumatic is the mental realization that he had let his whole life pass by unexamined, hypnotized into believing the mass delusion that death does not exist. When he eventually senses the dishonesty in this dogma, it devastates him. At several points in his last, bedridden month of life, Ilyich rages against being “enmeshed” in a web of lies–an intricate deceit constructed by everyone around him that neither he nor they are dying.
The most heartrending part of Ivan Ilyich’s death is the depth of his estrangement from his family. At the end, when death is certain, he openly hates his wife and is coldly distant from his children. On rumination, he sees this horrible, decisive separation had its insensible germ in the decades of his “ordinary” past, as he and his family built separate, self-serving lives. They could have been building real connections based on love. (Ilyich had married for rank, his wife for money.) All those years he could have been busy being born, he was busy dying.
The prospect of dying urges us out of a transactional attitude toward others. “Only connect!” it tells us. E.M Forster knew this.
Forster’s best novels show us that binding our lives with others is not just our noblest purpose on earth, but that the act of connecting realizes life’s highest beauties and most abiding passions–the things we count as worthwhile on our deathbeds. In A Room with a View, the freethinking Mr. Emerson tries to kindle a spark between his reticent son George and pretty Lucy Honeychurch in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. There is much more at stake than young love and concupiscence (but don’t discount those!). Love is the best, possibly only way of striking out against finitude’s meaninglessness. “We know that we come from the winds,” Mr. Emerson tells Lucy, “and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.”
But sorrow surely comes, for all of us. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a tragic reminder of what happens when death arrives unannounced. One lesson is clear. If you are going to earn your death in the way Baldwin means it, you must begin to do so in the thick of life. You cannot wait for the ravages of the dying process to strip you of this capacity.
When Baldwin says in “The Fire Next Time” that too many of us are willing to sacrifice the beauty of our individual lives for some trumped up, death-denying ideology, he is actually understating the case. Some of us are so eager to believe that an eternal amusement park awaits us in heaven that we positively long for not just our own deaths, but a species-wide extinction that is said to be necessary to clear the ground for the fun-filled Kingdom of Heaven.
In a 2007 essay that has somehow avoided wide publication, “End of the World Blues,” Ian McEwan dissects the religious fundamentalist’s lurid fascination with apocalypse and extinction. The apocalyptic frame of mind, McEwan observes, responds to an anxiety we all must eventually feel–that (1) the world will go on existing after we die, and (2) its existence will not be fixed to any particular endpoint or purpose that gave sense to our lives (like the ones usually defined in holy scripture, such as the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem and the reign of Christ on earth). In other words, life is, and will remain, higgedly piggedly. No one knows what it is leading up to, if anything.
As Mr. Emerson puts in in A Room with a View, “There is no cosmic plan.”
This prospect is awfully hard to take while one is poised at the edge of an all-enveloping destiny that approaches with unfeeling determination–the dark eternity that will take one back into the same vastness from which one came. One wants a good story instead. I was was the star of my show for so long, we feel, it cannot be that there was never really a show to begin with. “What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time,” McEwan suggests, “than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is.”
In other words, if I am bowing out, then the whole story, stage and all, must come to an end. As patently childish as this attitude is, end-of-the-world fantasies are ubiquitous and have had impressive staying power. Almost all “civilizations” still nurse dreams of apocalypse that exert significant control over the human imagination. “Our secular and scientific culture,” McEwan writes, “has not replaced or even challenged these mutually incompatible, supernatural thought systems.”
It is no surprise that religions provide climactic, end-of-the-world stories. That’s sort of what religions do. Oddly, though, when we occasionally see cults and other fanatics acting out their own squalid apocalypse narratives in the real world, we can easily espy the wickedness and delusion inherent in them. When Jim Jones brought his followers to drink poison in Jonestown or Joseph Goebbels killed his five children and then himself as the scenery of the Nazi pageant was collapsing around him in Berlin in May 1945, we clearly perceive their acts as evil incarnate. But when we blithely send our children off to Sunday school or Bible camp to have them imbibe bloodier, more comprehensive visions of apocalypse (replete with “earthquakes and fires, thundering horses and their riders, angels blasting away on trumpets, magic vials, Jezebels, a red dragon, and other mythical beasts,” as McEwan catalogs), we catch not the slightest whiff of the death wish wafting from them.
The idea that the whole world must end with my death, McEwan observes, is a way of resisting the revocation of meaning that looms as one’s demise comes clearly into focus. If for several decades my life meant everything, how can it simply (“absurdly” is Camus’ word for it) slip back into the eternal nothingness that preceded it?
Thus we come back to Baldwin and the idea of death as a gift. If death must come into focus, wouldn’t it be nobler, more hopeful, and altogether better to use it in the service of wisdom rather than dramatize it as part of a tawdry fantasy? Isn’t the wise use of death exactly what we have in mind when we draw up bucket lists or conjure up scenes of our deathbeds to clarify our big-picture priorities?
Dogmas of immortality would have us believe that the eternal bliss that awaits us is all that really matters: whatever slings and arrows assail us in the here and now are to be discounted as mere nothings. Jorge Luis Borges draws a fundamental paradox from this view in his short story “The Immortal.” Imagine yourself living forever in heaven or hell–and Borges means really try to imagine it, eon upon eon of foreverness. Whatever your experience is in this eternity, it was determined by an infinitesimally small segment of your total existence, an aburdly, vanishingly small flash of a microsecond when compared with the cosmic span of your eternal repose. Doesn’t this make it clear, Borges writes, that even the religiously-minded person knows instinctively that it is this life that has ultimate value?
I close with his words:
I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.