October 6, 2008

Of dying and being dead

Just read a NYT Sunday Book Review by Garrison Keilor of Julian Barnes's recent book Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.
As an agnostic myself, I think some day I will be in a similar position. For now, I muse about Death and my own mortality in the shadows of the grief of my own experience with it this year vis-a-vis my father's death earlier this year. His death made me more acutely aware not merely of my own mortality but also of path till that door is finally shut some day.

Or in
Barnes's words:
For me, death is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever -- including the jug -- there is no context to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave.

The Dying Gaul, of which Lord Byron wrote:

He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one...
- Childe Harold, Canto IV (1818), stanzas 140-141.

So, what does it mean to die? What does it entail for those of us who do not believe in an afterlife? These are not questions that are as overwhelming as the 'What is the meaning of life' angst that 20-something year olds ponder about (sometimes!) but is as unanswerable as we muse over it in our late 30s (me) or early 60s (like Barnes.)


1) T
he book, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

2) Aubade a beautiful poem about mortality and death by Philip Larkin (from which I took the title of this post):

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare.
Kinda related:
a) A short story called Revolving Door by T. C. Forrester that I ran into this morning. (PDF at the bottom of the link has the story. The link itself is to an interview with the author.)
b) Julian Barnes had a short story, East Wind, in the New Yorker earlier this year.

1 comment:

Laju K. said...

Liked this one; sorry to read about your dad, Sanjeev.

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