And Death Shall Be No More
To welcome or to resist the dying of the light?
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, imploring us to violently resist the encroachment of death. Thomas would publish this work in 1951, a year before his father, for whom the poem is written, succumbed to illness and entered into that good night.
A common literary motif is the attempt to outrun death. Thomas rejects this creed, insisting on fight over flight. Yet what does it look like, this fading defiance, this assault on our own mortality? There is a night that comes for us all — we can no sooner stop its arrival than we can stop the Earth from turning. Yet we must burn and rave against it.
I am not sure there is an answer that applies to every life without qualification.
It may involve a refusal to surrender one’s joy. All of us have interests, projects, experiences infused with inner feeling, and to give these up too early is to entomb oneself alive, wrapped in a white flag.
It may come in a decision, against all medical and spiritual counsel, to let an increase in age bring with it an increase in recklessness. Before “carpe diem” became a kitschy frat boy mantra, before it became the preferred tattoo of those about to skydive, the term belonged to a tradition, Epicureanism, which used it to describe the importance of actively shaping rather than passively accepting the contours of the future. As our bodies decay, and our energies fade, this commitment to future-shaping needs to correspondingly increase, given that as we age the world slips ever farther from our grasp.
Or it may involve a sense, like for Tennyson’s Ulysses, that it’s not too late to seek a newer world, that it’s not too late to go on one final voyage, under the baths of Western stars, before the waves sweep everything away.
The common element in all of these is a refusal to yield.
Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist who is perhaps best known as one of the architects of Obamacare, says there is a specifiable point by which all of us should yield. He thinks 75 years is enough.
Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Tennyson had Ulysses euphemistically speak of the same decay:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are
Thomas died a year after his father, at 39 years old, falling far short of Emanuel’s target number. Might Thomas have agreed with Emanuel?
It is interesting that Thomas does not characterize death as a thief. He is not a guest you must invite, that is true, but he is an appointment you must keep. Thomas’ poem is not a dispute over death’s proper jurisdiction, but an emphatic reminder to roam free and wild until he comes.
When he writes that “wise men at their end know dark is right,” it is an affirmation of Emanuel. Yet it is only a partial one, since this sense of life’s completeness does not ultimately validate a welcoming of its end. Thomas understands that a life must end, but until it does, it must be vigorously lived.
The unstoppable march of death can paralyze; Thomas calls us to let it catalyze.
But I suppose it’s easy to view the end as thrilling when one’s frame of reference is The Odyssey, as it is for Tennyson. Does ordinary life possess the unrelenting adventurousness of a Homeric poem? It’s hard to see how nursing home arrangements provide the same opportunity for glory.
Thomas saw his father, blind and dying, and implored him to resist. But what was Thomas looking for? What would it have looked like, in this context, to see his father raise a clenched fist against death’s coming?
The problem seems to be that crossing a threshold of degeneration significantly reduces, and at times altogether eliminates, our capacity to enjoy life. This is argued by Ezekiel, cited by Tennyson, and understood by Thomas.
Charles Algernon Swinburne takes a different tack.
In “The Garden of Proserpine,” Swinburne uses springtime imagery and rapturous, elevated language in the service of nihilistic longing. The poem is a welcoming of eternal sleep.
Yet Swinburne’s apocalyptic urge, his eagerness for the dissolution of all things, is not anchored to our frailty. Unlike Emanuel, whose decision to set the boundary at 75 years is due to old age’s connection to various forms of decay, Swinburne just thinks an end to things is right.
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Then star nor sun shall waken,
Nor any change of light:
Nor sound of waters shaken,
Nor any sound or sight:
Nor wintry leaves nor vernal,
Nor days nor things diurnal;
Only the sleep eternal
In an eternal night.
Discussing his own poem, Swinburne describes this drive toward oblivion as the point at which “the spirit, without fear or hope of good things or evil, hungers and thirsts only after the perfect sleep.”
Homer calls sleep and death brothers, and I grew up listening to Nas repeatedly describe the two as cousins, but these are just particular instances of the broader literary connection, utterly pervasive within all traditions, to see sleep as an ideal metaphor for death.
It’s easy to see why this connection is always made. At the same time, there’s a sense in which it’s baffling.
Socrates once gave this argument:
1. Death is either like peaceful sleep, which is a good thing.
2. Or it involves joining a permanent community of heroes and philosophers, which is also a good thing.
3. Whichever of these it is, death is good.
Set aside (2) and (3) for the moment and focus on (1).
In the Apology, Plato records Socrates as arguing that if death is “a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness,” then death is like “the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams.”
Sleep and death, together as always. Ignore for the moment Socrates’ characterization of dreams as “disturbing” — which is slanderous. After all, dreams can be more life-affirming, more respectful of the strange delirium we call reality, than waking life. But here is Socrates’ main error: he thinks that if death is like peaceful, undisturbed sleep, then death is “an unspeakable gain.”
He reasons that if you were to ask a person to evaluate which nights have been the most restful, that person would point to those undisturbed, peaceful, dreamless instances of sleep.
But the problem with this reasoning is that the very element that makes an instance of peaceful sleep a good thing is the resulting experience of feeling refreshed, feeling well-rested, feeling re-energized. Apart from this, there is nothing about peaceful sleep that one can legitimately characterize as good, unless one thinks unconsciousness or lack of existence is good, a point of view that thus far only Swinburne has shown any interest in defending.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used perhaps the archetypal symbol of our biological fitness — the heartbeat — to describe the unavoidability of death.
Our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
Yet “life is real,” wrote Longfellow, “and the grave is not its goal.”
Is 75 years, or some number close to it, enough?
To me, it’s not enough. One hundred years is not enough. Four hundred years is not enough. Ten thousand years is not enough. Aristotle saw in living things an inner inclination toward immortality. That desire, like a throbbing heartbeat, permeates my being.
It is possible to see a wasting of our capabilities beyond a certain point as worse than annihilation, so there is a way to construe Ezekiel’s argument as one that is ultimately life-affirming.
In Psalm 23, King David flattens the distinction between life and afterlife. Isn’t that just an artificial division, in the end? What makes life supremely valuable, both David and Ezekiel would agree, is a goodness that must be present. This is the case no matter what plane of existence the life happens to exist on — whether on Earth or in heaven.
The Psalmist speaks for those of us who believe, through no achievement of our own, that the end will bring with it a far better state than the one we currently enjoy:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
But that does not mean we should go gentle.
To do so would be to elevate death, and death shall have no dominion.