BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
The past two years have seen so-called ‘green’ and ‘egalitarian’ politicians attempt to ward off that most green and egalitarian thing: death. The pitiless debt collector for whom our every heart murmur, every latent lump, and every shadow-ridden scan serves as a reminder of our outstanding balance.
When it came to Covid, politicians thought they could write this debt off, but in doing so they merely offloaded it onto other debtors: cancer, suicide, alcoholism – lockdowns saw all three of these often-treatable maladies go untreated.
Why was this refinancing of death even attempted? In an age where it’s felt almost any ailment can be staved off with a pill or prescription, do we have the hubris to think ourselves too sophisticated to die? More importantly, can death be evaded without evading life?
Death in Ancient Greece
The philosophers of ancient Greece regarded death with a sort of serene indifference. ‘There is either an afterlife, or death is an eternal sleep’, mused Socrates. It should be noted that Socrates faced being eased into that eternal sleep with the poison of common hemlock. Were his mirthful musings on death simply a way of coming to terms with the fact that he had been sentenced to it?
Despite never witnessing it, Plato documented Socrates’ death as if it were the final act of some achingly tragic Greek play: drinking poison, surrounded by friends and waxing philosophically until the poison took effect.
It’s interesting how all ancient philosophers have different accounts of other philosophers’ deaths. Cicero claimed Plato died romantically at his writing desk; others claimed he died the rather unromantic one of succumbing to a lice infestation.
They may have been guilty of romanticising death, but that’s not to say Greek philosophers didn’t try to avoid it. Heraclitus, after suffering some form of edema, demanded to have the treatment – which was perhaps considered quite a cosmopolitan one at the time – of being covered in cow excrement, only to then suffer the accidental and unceremonious death of suffocating in it – personally, I’d have rather have taken the hemlock.
Epicurus had it said that death was simply the ‘cessation of sensation’. But that makes death a hard sell in an age where sensations abound. Sex, violence, horror: all three of these primordial instincts now come at the touch of a button – risk-free.
The Son and the Holy Snapshot
Our lust for fame condemns us to hauntings from the stars who survive in the secular afterlife of the silver screen.
Every wannabe Love Island heartthrob must now contend with the 91-year-old James Dean whose face remains forever 24. A beauty that smoulders like the Porsche Spyder that immortalised it. Dean’s car crash was romantically modern in that he died still beautiful, in a beautiful machine, and with the cameras there to capture it.
His female contemporary, the minimally gifted Marilyn Monroe, was told by producers that if she were to model for the camera then there’d have to be a certain kind of remodelling done to her. And so a chin implant was fashioned from bovine bone. Upon her death, coroners observed that this implant had all but disintegrated: I’m sure there’s some sort of poetic metaphor in that, but I just find it a faintly disgusting example of the lengths some will go to in order to attain fame.
Fame has now become as fast and fleeting as the devices that capture it. In an age where science has all but superseded God, it’s felt that the only route to immortality is to be immortalised on film. Social media sites are replete with talentless teens trying to become the next big thing. In this age of narcissism, credulity is celebrated and the credulous are celebrities. In the 50s, celebrities like Monroe could at least cloak their intellectual inadequacies in a vague sense of mystery. It’s a tragic feature of our time that the beautiful are now not only seen but heard.
The Healthy Unliving
‘Healthy living’ has now come to mean a sort of strict asceticism, not really ‘living’ at all. So many campaigns aimed at prolonging life often seem to be fuelled by a hatred of it: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t eat sugar, be careful who you meet on a night out – all misanthropic tosh. Personally, I think alcohol is a wonderful drug – without which Marx almost certainly wouldn’t have written the Communist Manifesto – smoking is almost as good as sex, and sex is almost always better when had with a stranger.
But it’s hard to feel alive when faced with the constant memento mori of the newspaper front page. Death never lingers far from the headlines, directing us towards some new danger from old vices. Choked by caution and gripped by neurosis, people increasingly expect their governments to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about these headline horrors. And so it has become a feature of modern politics to try and legislate against death. But according to The Nanny State Index (nannystateindex.org) the European countries who legislate the most against smokers and drinkers now contain the most of them.
Popular or not, state paternalism doesn’t appear to work at guiding its people towards more healthy or wholesome lifestyles. Perhaps all these hedonists have concluded – and perhaps concluded correctly – that when it comes to life, quality comes above quantity.
Bargaining with Death
Those who engage in death delaying tactics – those who bargain for a ‘long-term payment plan’, as it were – run the risk of dying before their body. Priggish healthiness creates a kind of species of living dead: cadaverous scorns who exist on a diet of dates and dust while passing judgment on those less abstentious than themselves.
And then there’s those who attempt to evade Death with ridiculous disguises. Skin pulled taut as a trampoline, lips plumped like tumours, and vacant yet permanently startled stares. They sit there, with faces as if Picasso had tried his hand on them, seemingly saying to Death: ‘You’ve got the wrong guy.’
Whether it be a pathological zeal for healthy living or the lockdown measures imposed to fight Covid, these death delaying tactics act as a sort of amnesia. How many memories, if any, will people retain from lockdown? Perhaps it was, as Phillip Larkin described of his childhood: a forgotten boredom.
Death and Phillip Larkin
‘Aubade ’, Larkin’s 1980 poem published 5 years before his death is not only the poet’s final word on the matter, but a culmination of all his ones that came before it. Death, or rather, the fear of it, shaped much of Larkin’s poetry, along with the further fear of having lived a life wasted:
Larkin could have led a more glamorous life if he wished. He was that rare commodity of a poet whose poems were celebrated while he was actually alive. But Larkin didn’t need celebrity, he needed squalor, sequestering himself in the ‘fish smelling dump’, as he put it, of Hull. The truth is, the almost debilitating drudgery and misery of Hull acted as a muse for that deliciously dour voice for which Larkin was, whether he welcomed it or not, celebrated: ‘What a hole, what witless, crapulous people.’
If cynicism were a British sport, Larkin would be regarded as one of its top players.
‘Well, I’m late in life now’, Larkin remarked in a recorded conversation to his mother, before adding, glumly, ’20-40 is what you might call the fillet steak of life. You’re getting onto the poorer cuts after that.’
It was a lie to say that Aubade was Larkin’s final word on death – his actual final words were whispered to a nurse moments before his own one: ‘I’m going to the inevitable.’
13 years of my life were spent thinking about the inevitable, that my father, with mantle cell lymphoma, could die on any day of them. It really would have been days and not years were it not for the experimental drug trails my mother found for him. It’s a strange and sickening fact that thalidomide, the drug that was responsible for ruining so many lives, was so successful in sustaining his.
But there came the inevitable time when the success would wane, and I’d be summoned to his bedside. We had been speaking by text for the last few weeks of his life. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me to see him – that is, until I saw him. And what a sight it was. What I saw was not my father, but something skull-faced, something scared, and something ashamed to be seen.
Was this prolonging life, I asked myself as I observed the strange contrast between his etiolated torso and swollen legs, or was it one prolonged torture?
My father may be gone now, but I obviously inherited part of his psyche. And in that sense, could it not be said that part of him survived death? Is procreation not a secular form of the afterlife?
I think the tragedy of my father’s death was that he was intelligent enough to have done so much more with his life than he did. I suspect a part of him always wanted to be, or resented his brother for being, a successful lecturer and professor of York University.
It is for this reason that I often find Larkin’s words whirling round in my mind: life ‘whether or not we use it, it goes.’