I am five years old. My goldfish does not want to swim anymore. I bring it to my mother. It’s very tired she says. It is there that I make the connection between death and sleep and become afraid to fall asleep.
Psalm 89 asks: Who can live and never see Death? Psalm 103 informs us " As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone". What is it in these ancient Hebrew words that troubles us? Has anyone of us actually seen Death? Is it possible to see Death? I have seen living things die: plants, animals, humans but I have never seen Death. Why does the word "gone" frighten us so much?
In his text the Phaedo, the Greek philosopher Plato recounts the conversation between Socrates and his friends in the death cell during the last hours of his life. Socrates begins to explain why it is that a philosopher should look forward to death: "Other people don’t seem to realize that those who pursue philosophy in the right way are actually working at readying themselves for dying and for being dead". The true philosopher, Socrates declares, strives to free himself from subjection to the pleasures of the flesh. He strives to separate body from soul: to purify his mind from the distorting influences of pleasure and pain. Socrates points out, that there is no hope of our attaining to knowledge of anything until we are liberated from the body by death. So long as we live, if we are serious seekers for truth, we must engage in a determined process of purification.
Philosophy for the Socrates of the Phaedo is a systematic self liberation from the influences of pleasure and pain . He has transcended the fear of death and has freed himself from attachment to physical things. Liberated from the obsessive and deluding powers of pleasure and pain, the philosopher can face the worlds as he knows it to be, freed from the desires and fears in which most of humanity are trapped.
Socrates defines death as "simply the departure of soul from body". Being dead, "consists does it not, in the body having been parted from the soul and comes to be by itself, and in the soul having been parted from the body, and being by itself". The body is a hindrance to the attainment of truth. Socrates states: "While we are alive we shall, it would seem, come nearest to knowledge if we have as little as possible to do with the body, if we limit our association therewith to absolute necessities, keeping ourselves pure and free from bodily infection until such a time as God himself shall release us. And being thus made pure and rid of the body’s follies we may expect to join the company of the purified, and have direct knowledge of all truth un-obscured".
To fear death is to be a lover of the body: "Then if you see a man about to die complaining, is not that good evidence that he is not really a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, but what we may call a lover of the body? And probably he will be a lover of riches too, or honors, or maybe of both".
Socrates asks, "What must come to be present in a body for it to be alive?" The answer is: SOUL. The soul always brings life along with it to anything that it occupies So when death approaches a person, his/her mortal part dies, but their immortal part gets out of the way of death and takes its departure intact and indestructible. The soul which is the life principle cannot become its opposite; the death principle.
According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, to live is not something that one learns from either life or from oneself. The question, "How should I live?" does not receive an answer from life. How should I live is never taught by life. The question to this answer arrives, "only from the other and by death". Why only from the other and by death is this question answered? Learning to live is never something one does alone, all by oneself. Following Derrida, learning how to live would involve,
To learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company and companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better….And this being with spectres would also be, not only, but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.
For Derrida, it is essential that these ghosts are welcomed. I will consider two definitions. The first is taken from The Ear of the Other. In this text Derrida defines the ghost as "the effect of another's crypt in my unconscious". Derrida provides a rough schematic of how this crypt within me may be formed. For example, if I lose a loved one and fail to mourn properly, the dead person would continue to live inside me, "but as a stranger".
In "The Deaths of Roland Barthes", Derrida provides another definition of the ghost. There he writes,
Ghosts: the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the studium, the dead other alive in me...
The word punctum taken from Barthes' text Camera Lucida is that which "pierces, strikes me, wounds me, bruises me, and, first of all, seems to look only at me". The studium is my "haunted space", where the punctum of the other resides in me. To be haunted is to be possessed, burdened or in other words to live with accountability and responsibility for the dead other. The punctum according to Derrida, "points to me at the instant and place where I point to it...". The punctum, according to Barthes is that which is "poignant to me". Poignant: intense, powerful, passionate: the eruption of and blaze of the dead other in me, as my mourning is composed together in words which remember.
What takes place in the communication of a funeral oration? It is of course written for the dead other, but according to Derrida, "this is of course a supplementary fiction" precisely because, "it is always the dead in me, always the others standing around the coffin, who I call out to". Calling out to the dead, to the dead in me, to the others who have their dead in themselves, what may be heard except the sound of tears and talk that flow freely? This grave side talk is supposed to teach us the ethics of how to live, finally. Yet how?
In Section 51 of Being and Time the German philosopher Heidegger points out that death understood in an everyday manner is "known as a mishap which is constantly occurring- as a 'case of death'". In our everyday way of being, and through idle-talk, they understand death as something indefinite, in other words, as something that did occur to others whom we read about in newspapers or notices but not something that can or will occur to me now. This inauthentic understanding of death ignores that, "death is a way to be, which Dasein or the being which is there ( which is Heidegger’s definition of human being) takes over as soon as it is.' As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die", according to Heidegger. Furthermore, in this inauthentic way of talking about death through our idle-talk, "death is understood as an indefinite something which, above all, must duly arrive from somewhere or other, but which is not yet present- at- hand for oneself, and is therefore no threat". Thus, the dying which is essentially my death and my dying "is perverted into an event of public occurrence which the "they" encounters". Furthermore, according to Heidegger, "the dying of Others is seen often enough as a social inconvenience, if not even a downright tactlessness, against which the public is to be guarded". Even if one knows that death is certain, often, we are not "authentically certain" about our own death and dying. In other words, we live inauthentically in our fear of death.
In Section 47 of Being and Time, Heidegger makes a distinction between the deceased, (Der Verstorbene) and the dead person (dem Gestorbenen). Another distinction is made between perishing (Verenden) and ending. We turn to the first distinction between the deceased and the dead person. According to Heidegger, the deceased is that which "has been torn away from those who have remained behind". The second distinction concerns perishing and ending. We never experience the coming-to-an-end of the deceased. We only experience the loss of the loved one. However, according to Heidegger, "in suffering this loss... we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man 'suffers'" In a certain sense, when another dies we can only be "there alongside". At the moment of watching and waiting and crying we will eventually encounter a corpse, which according to Heidegger is "something unalive, which has lost its life". What remains behind according to Derrida, are memories, impressions, traces, photographs, and the ash of mourning.
In Aporias, Derrida explores the question "My death- is it possible?" He asks whether death can "be reduced to some line, crossing, to a departure, to a separation, to a step, and therefore to a decease?". Derrida asks, "What, then, is it to cross the ultimate border?". Death is precisely an aporia or the impossibility of what cannot pass. Death is the non-passage, the uncrossable border. Throughout our tradition, death has been defined as a border or limit. In Hamlet's words death is "the undiscovered country, from whose region no traveler returns...". The Tibetan Book of the Dead employs the technical term bardo to describe the experience which slides between death and birth. Bardo is a gap. The word bar is defined as that which is in between, while the word do designates an island. What if we are the bardo? Or the landmark which stands between two things? If so, death would be nothing more than losing one's ground. Death means to become ungrounded. To become spectral; to live-on spectrally. Death would be the space without a ground; where no path exists because no path is required to exist.
If Derrida defines death as the aporia as the possibility of the impossible, there might be another definition of death, of being-human, and of living-on. Such a definition would show us that death is not the aporia, we are the aporia, we are the impossibility of what cannot pass-away. We who live spectrally. We who are both guests and ghosts, held hostage in each others arms through our universal mourning. Not the corpse that will have been.
In terms of the physiological self we can notice the following things. Our life is fragile. We do not worry about the present moment. We worry about the future. Perhaps we should develop this attitude. I will die. I do not know when. I do not know how. Death is unavoidable. Nothing lasts. No matter where we look in this world we find nothing that is permanent. Life does not wait. It is like a waterfall that is continuously flowing. Every moment we are drawing closer towards death. We can understand this intellectually but we do not live it. We are like a tree that appears to be growing but is decaying on the inside. We could keep this thought in mind. I have to do something worthwhile. I cannot waste my time. It is a miracle that we wake up each morning. It is said that the difference between being alive and being dead is a single breath. If you exhale and you don’t inhale, you are dead. My death, is it possible? No one can experience their own death. No one can experience the other’s death. We experience our living which is a dying, perhaps.