Conversation — March 30, 2015, 2:45 pm

On Death

“I think that the would-be suicide needs, more than anything else, to talk to a person like you, who has had to fight for life.”

A conversation about death between Clancy Martin, a Harper’s contributing editor, and Adam Baer, a Los Angeles-based writer and musician who wrote about having cancer for the May 2011 issue of the magazine.

Clancy Martin: The first time I thought about death was when my stepbrother Paul committed suicide. I remember the funeral dimly, but I have a vivid memory of my little brother and me standing in a corner of the dining room during the wake. I was eight, and he was seven. One of us made a joke about something, and I remember our mother dragging us into the kitchen. “You two are laughing?! Your brother just died! This is a funeral! There is nothing funny about this!” Of course, we were kids, and we weren’t laughing about my stepbrother’s death. We were laughing out of nervousness and awkwardness and whatever the joke was about (probably one of our stepsisters).

Death, like the other fundamental experience of life, sex, can be very hard to talk about. Who hasn’t felt the terrible anxiety of trying to talk to a friend who has just lost a partner, a parent, or a child? You once told me that one of your doctors had said: “I honestly don’t know what I would do in your situation.” If physicians can’t speak to us about death, then who can?

You’re my closest living friend who has wrestled with death in an immediate way. I have tried to kill myself several times in several different and clumsy ways—I won’t be talking about that here—but I’ve never had a near-death experience, and all of the death I’ve experienced in my life has been crucially secondhand. In some ways, I think that the would-be suicide needs, more than anything else, to talk to a person like you, who has had to fight for life, which is in part what created the idea for this conversation.

Adam Baer: If the appropriate preparation for talking about death is having had a near-death experience, I am not exactly qualified. But like many who have experienced medical problems and the late effects of experimental treatments—in my case, chordoma, lymphoma, stem-cell bone-marrow transplants, neuropathy—I am perpetually near death simply by continuing to exist. That’s why I despise the term “cancer survivor.” It treats health as a static state. In reality, no human will completely recover from even one near-death incident. Everything we experience continually changes us. And this is especially true if a diagnosis requires the prolonged use of medicine and the possibility of everything horrifying that Big Pharma must legally disclose in fast voice/fine print.

Over time, I’ve noticed that some people, including my friends and family members, think I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about death. But I contend that I don’t. In my doctor-sphere, the conditions that could lead to death are discussed with me as such hyperreal possibilities that I see dying as a boring bodily (dys)function. (And anyway, what is the morbidity rate of thirtysomethings who live in Los Angeles, on my trafficky street, with my mutated DNA and risk factors, who’ve had a boatload of chemo and radiation and who spend a lot of time in the sun but sleep on untreated latex, occasionally eating El Pollo Loco but also drinking kale?) I’ve often considered worrying about death to be a sort of theatrical game, like exaggerating the already paranoid Woody Allen character in a community-theater adaptation of Crimes and Misdemeanors

Of course, I fear death for being categorically bad, but for all of the oncology wings and I.C.U.s that I have visited I cannot conceive of it happening to me. In this sense, perhaps, training or practice (facing death so often and feeling as if I have escaped it) keeps me living my days without crumbling to the floor and sobbing. The anxiety of existence continues, but I’ve made peace with it, and it fits me as someone who sees living as a performance. I am by trade a musician who was raised to practice scales and arpeggios with a mighty discipline, such that playing them in the course of a musical composition is mindless. When impossible-seeming passages present themselves, I either glide through them, have trouble, or let them stop me in my tracks. An unimpressive performance is always possible, but I’ve learned to keep my eye on a menacing melodic line and keep trying. Not to get a part right by any standard measure but just to play it. However it ends up sounding.

CM: You mentioned Woody Allen. The story about my first encounter with death—my stepbrother’s suicide—also reminds me of one of my favorite death quotes, from Woody Allen’s only kids’ movie, Antz. The ant played by Woody Allen is, through sheer luck, the lone survivor of a terrible battle—a massacre. He is congratulated by General Mandible (Gene Hackman):

“You’re an ant after my own heart, an ant who looks death in the face and laughs,” the general tells him. 

“Actually,” Allen’s character replies, “I generally just make belittling comments and snicker behind death’s back.”  

The reason I love this exchange is that it acknowledges two attitudes we have to embrace if we are going to speak honestly about death: fear and humor. When Kierkegaard writes about death, he insists both that it gives us our most immediate experience of fear and trembling and that it demands a comic, rather than a tragic, response. (Kierkegaard also thought that the attitude of faith was much closer to comedy than tragedy.)

This is not to say that there is anything funny about death —although it’s been the source of more comedy than almost any other subject besides sex. (A good sex and death joke: The difference between sex and death is, death you can do alone, and nobody laughs at you.) When someone we love is threatened by death—or worse, dies—the last thing we do is laugh. My first real experience of depression was after my father died, and if someone had suggested to me that the appropriate response to death at that time was comic, I think I would have punched him in the nose.

But as Socrates pointed out in both Plato’s Apology and Phaedo, there is something strange about the profundity of our fear of an experience about which we really know nothing—even those of us, like you, who have come so very close to it. Socrates insists: “For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.” Then, after being condemned to death—although he could have chosen exile, he prefers death. 

Montaigne famously had a near-death experience when he fell off a galloping horse. Rather than feeling panic and fear, he reported bliss, pleasure, which he likened to drifting into a delightful sleep—just the sort of things Socrates at times anticipates in Apology. And when he is subsequently asked about death, he is cavalier to the point of comedy: “Don’t bother your head about it,” he advises us. This recalls Spinoza’s rather more earnest admonition: “A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”

So what might be the role of comedy in a philosophical approach to death? It is silly braggadocio to laugh in the face of death, but there is an unmistakable appeal to snickering behind His back. Can philosophy help us to deal with death, as Socrates insists? 

AB: In my case, yes. The summation of my personal experience with death—I’ve witnessed the dying of friends and family members but also cancer-ward teammates—has helped me as a reader of philosophy. And determining a personal philosophy has given me something to shoot for, intellectually speaking—something for which there is no correct answer, not unlike some of my health or musical problems, and that has helped me understand complicated ideas that had eluded me as a young philosophy student. Along with absorbing your preferred basics of death philosophy—Plato, Socrates, Kierkegaard—I am drawn to the death-philosophers who have lived, and may continue to live, during my lifetime. I want to know what people who experience something close to my world think about death. Such that their work may, on demand, overlay my consciousness like the operating system of a smartphone (and this early adopter with perhaps less time on the life clock than others wants the newest philosophy-software updates in beta). 

Bernard Williams, the British philosopher who passed away in 2003, was a great synthesizer of complex texts from his philosophical ancestors. Hence he argued plainly: “Death gives the meaning to life.” I’m not sure if that’s true in practice for some of us who live in the moment: I think that living—whatever that means to you—gives meaning to life. But death can definitely put the fear of science in you. 

In “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” an essay that appeared in Problems of the Self in 1973, Williams disagrees with the existentialists who say that we should fear death. For him, death is basic. It’s about losing categorical desires—such as a reason to live, a drive to experience more. But calling life in itself desirable is mere transcendental thinking. To consider life desirable in its own right is to think that it might be pleasurable to live as the last person on earth. And Williams seems to agree. “Boredom in eternity would have to be unthinkable,” he writes. I’m not afraid of losing boredom, though. I’m afraid of losing the chance to be with my loved ones and other souls who may want to join my life as chamber music collective. This is why I long to remain around, an unconditional, categorical desire if ever there were one. 

Still, William’s doesn’t welcome the prospect of death. On the desire for immortality, he turns to the lesser-known existentialist Miguel de Unamuno: “I do not want to die—no, I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever. I want this ‘I’ to live—this poor ‘I’ that I am and that I feel myself to be here and now, and therefore the problem of the duration of my soul, of my own soul, tortures me.” How millennial, in the best of ways, is that?

As Williams explains, Unamuno “salutes the true idea that the meaning of life does not consist in the management of satisfactions in a body or in an abstract immortality without one. . . . His desire to remain alive extends an almost incomprehensible distance beyond any desire to continue agreeable experience.” This now nearly forgotten Spanish philosopher born in the late 1800s leads Williams to admit that he does not want to die so long as the “categorical desire” keeps him wanting to live, even if he knows that “an eternal life would be unlivable.” Williams feels, I think rightly, that at some point he’ll become sick of himself and that depending on how terrible life gets he could be one very lucky human to meet his demise.

For that reason, Williams ultimately depresses me (sometimes, like a good postpunk song). The philosopher Thomas Nagel, on the other hand, has a more practical approach that puts my occasional worries of death in order. Nagel’s attitude toward death runs parallel with what we’d call common sense: we’re afraid of dying precisely because it’s something we know nothing about. That jibes with someone who feels that there is too much not-knowing in his or her life. That said, I often wish that I had less knowledge of what might happen to me, and in that spirit, I have taken to minimizing my exposure to medical test results. Give me the broad strokes. My computer’s autocorrect changes the word Nagel to “Angel.” I might suggest “bagel.” I like consuming Nagel, but I don’t feel well afterwards, and I’ve almost certainly put on weight that will hang around for a lot longer than I might think.

CM: There is something very compelling about the idea that at any given moment when we are not dying or immediately dealing with the death of a loved one, life is where we should focus our attention. And I think the direction you are taking us—Thich Nhat Hanh argues the same position in his brilliant book No Death, No Fear—is that the awareness of death should refocus our attention on the experience of life. In one of his few meditations on death, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche is characteristically dazzling in his synthesis of these two positions:

The Thought of Death. It gives me a melancholy happiness to live in the midst of this confusion of streets, of necessities, of voices: how much enjoyment, impatience and desire, how much thirsty life and drunkenness of life comes to light here every moment! And yet it will soon be so still for all these shouting, lively, life-loving people! How everyone’s shadow, his gloomy travelling companion stands behind him! It is always as in the last moment before the departure of an emigrant ship: people have more than ever to say to one another, the hour presses, the ocean with its lonely silence waits impatiently behind all the noise—so greedy, so certain of its prey! And all, all, suppose that the past has been nothing, or a small matter, that the near future is everything: hence this haste, this crying, this self-deafening and self-overreaching! Everyone wants to be foremost in this future—and yet death and the stillness of death are the only things certain and common to all in this future! How strange that this sole thing that is certain and common to all, exercises almost no influence on men, and that they are the furthest from regarding themselves as the brotherhood of death! It makes me happy to see that men do not want to think at all of the idea of death! I would fain do something to make the idea of life even a hundred times more worthy of their attention.

Here I think Nietzsche, like you, captures the deep and paradoxical comedy about our attitude toward death: that despite its certainty, and in fact because of its certainty, thinking about it forces our attention back onto life. We don’t know when death will strike. But where does that put us? Not brooding about death—don’t worry, one way or another, you’ll have that opportunity, however brief it may be—but insisting on life! What we can’t do is fall into the all-too-familiar position of taking life (or death) for granted, of allowing ourselves to slip into the benumbed world of procrastination and Facebook and showing our loved ones that we care about them tomorrow rather than today.

Perhaps that is going too far—that part of living is just accepting the humdrum aspects of conscious life. This was the conclusion that Camus, who died so young and unexpectedly, was driven to: It’s not quality but quantity of life that matters. The comic aspect of death is that it both means the end of life and makes us demand more of it. It’s better to laugh at ourselves and our situation than to despair or even—as Camus sometimes argues—to have scorn for the strange, contorted, and uncomfortable position our consciousness of death has knotted us into. If we can laugh at our situation, we can perhaps even celebrate it, as Thich Nhat Hanh does in No Death, No Fear:

Breathing in, I see the birth of my body. Breathing out, I smile to the birth of my body.
Breathing in, I see the death of my body. Breathing out, I smile to the death of my body.

AB: Nagel, in discussing the inevitability of death, pointed out that “blindness is not a misfortune for a mole, nor would it be for a man if that were the natural condition of the human race. . . . The trouble is that life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us.” That we’ll all die at some point, he added, “cannot by itself imply that it would be good to live longer. If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.” To which I say, brilliant: I am every day fighting for a chance to experience fun and fulfillment, even if that has to happen in a waiting room at Cedars-Sinai hospital, as twenty-three patients watch a CNN item on a terminal brain-cancer patient who ended her life instead of having to suffer longer. 

Oliver Sacks recently wrote an article about his terminal cancer in the New York Times, which is more intellectually pleasurable, more poetic, than a Nagel transcript. But how do you share such sentiments with the people sitting next to you in doctor offices as they worry about their achy spines? Sure, we’re all in a stuffy room that is peppered with Purell stations, but we could be having a lot more fun by simply engaging with each other. For if my favorite death-philosophers have taught me anything, it’s that I don’t try hard enough to make categorically bad situations better. I have come to see a medical professional in order to stave off that which would keep me from ever having good experiences again, and I ought to continue to seek them out, even when I think that I’m doing as much as I can.

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More from Clancy Martin:

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