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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 106-113
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To Die With Others
One dies as one dies—as anyone, everyone dies, as all that lives dies. Do we not know that when we lie dying—when, bedridden, hospitalized, removed from our home and workplace, we no longer exercise our skills, launch initiatives, are depersonalized, and can do nothing but wait for the end in increasing passivity and prostration? Did we not learn something of the death that will be our death from every death we witnessed or noticed about us? And when someone with whom we shared our life dies, do we not feel that something of ourselves has died too? In several senses of the word, we die with others.
My Own Death
It is strange then to see that in philosophy one's own death and the death of others have been separated. Socrates makes learning how to die the subject matter of philosophy and makes philosophy the daily practice of dying. He speaks of the relief he will feel when the opacity of his body will be broken. His last words—Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius—say that life is the sickness for which death is the cure. Did not Socrates here in fact claim to know two things that he did not know—what death is, that is, that death is a relief; and what life is, that is, that life is sickness?
Socrates had seen men die; he had committed himself to defend Athens in war, he had killed men in battle. He does not speak of how they died, nor of the relief he felt when they died.
Socrates died the way he did in order to demonstrate his belief that the soul is of its own nature immortal. Heidegger, proclaiming the end of the metaphysics launched by the Platonic Socrates, makes one's own death again the central topic it had been for Socrates. Heidegger is convinced that death is not an accident that befalls a life that of its own nature would endure like inanimate things endure. He sets out to show that we die of our own nature, that our life casts itself with all its forces unto its end.
Death and Nothingness Heidegger also claims to know what death is: that death is nothingness. He identifies it—it is this one thing, nothingness. Yet he also insists that my death is utterly my own. From the opening pages of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, Heidegger draws the affirmation that witnessing the death of others is not the source of my sense of my own mortality. At the wake, I have only seen the body of another immobilized, tranquilized, but still fully, completely, there. I have not seen annihilation. But annihilation is what my death will be for me. This I sense in anxiety, that sense of being cast adrift, the environment no longer supporting me, sustaining me—and which is a premonition of being cast into nothingness.
Death is ungraspable, unconfrontable; it has no front lines. Is it not too much to say that I know it is nothingness? Must we not rather say that death is the unknown? [End Page 106]
I cannot say, strictly speaking, that I die, since—dying a violent death or not—I am conscious of only part of the event. And a great share of the terror I experience at the idea of death derives perhaps from this: bewilderment at remaining suspended in the middle of a seizure whose outcome I can never know because of my unconsciousness. This kind of unreality, this absurdity of death, is (without taking into account the physical suffering by which it might be accompanied) its radically terrible element, and not, as some may think ("Après moi le déluge!" "Since there's nothing after death, why are you afraid?" "What's the difference to you, since you won't be here any more?" etc. . . .), what might make it acceptable. [Leiris 50]
We do not know that death is nothingness—nothingness is not some thing one knows. But nothingness is...