Everyone Is Doing It


Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.

You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.

Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.

Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.

If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.

Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.

Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.

Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.

I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.

“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Everyone Is Doing It

  1. Apropos our recent exchange, and also what you write above, here’s Lucretius, as Englished by John Dryden (from Part 4 of “The Nature of Things”):

    What has this bugbear Death to frighten man,
    If souls can die, as well as bodies can?
    For, as before our birth we feel no pain,
    When Punic arms infested land and main,
    When heaven and earth were in confusion hurl’d
    For the debated empire of the world,
    Which awed with dreadful expectation lay,
    Soon to be slaves, uncertain who should sway:
    So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoin’d,
    The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
    From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
    We shall not feel, because we shall not be.
    Though earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost,
    We should not move, we only should be toss’d.
    Nay, e’en suppose when we have suffered fate
    The soul should feel in her divided state,
    What’s that to us? for we are only we,
    While souls and bodies in our frame agree.
    Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
    And matter leap into the former dance;
    Though time our life and motion could restore,
    And make our bodies what they were before,
    What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
    The new-made man would be another thing.
    When once an interrupting pause is made,
    That individual being is decay’d.
    We, who are dead and gone, shall bear no part
    In all the pleasures, nor shall feel the smart,
    Which to that other mortal shall accrue,
    Whom to our matter time shall mold anew.
    For backward if you look on that long space
    Of ages past, and view the changing face
    Of matter, toss’d and variously combin’d
    In sundry shapes, ’tis easy for the mind
    From thence to infer, that seeds of things have been
    In the same order as they now are seen:
    Which yet our dark remembrance cannot trace,
    Because a pause of life, a gaping space,
    Has come betwixt, where memory lies dead,
    And all the wandering motions from the sense are fled.
    For whosoe’er shall in misfortune live,
    Must be, when those misfortunes shall arrive;
    And since the man who is not, feels not woe,
    (For death exempts him, and wards off the blow,
    Which we, the living, only feel and bear,)
    What is there left for us in death to fear?
    When once that pause of life has come between
    ‘Tis just the same as we had never been.

    Too bad Hamlet never enjoyed such equanimity. He caught himself up in his own metaphor: to die, to sleep; but if to sleep, then, well, what dreams may come?

    To die––to sleep––
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die––to sleep.
    To sleep––perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause. There’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life.

    As you say, Ian, if fear of what may come post mortem brings one up short in religion, as it does w/ Hamlet, well, how and why are we to value piety? Lucretius shows us all how to get round that “rub.”

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Thanks, Mark. Could we still have had a Hamlet without a hell, I wonder? Fear of death could be made worse by fear of eternal punishment, but isn’t oblivion intimidating too? No creature naturally wants to die. Or perhaps that’s not quite true (I remember my great-grandfather at 102 asking why God didn’t let him die). But somehow Hamlet’s anxiety still feels more natural to me than Lucretius’s equanimity.

    Montaigne says in his final essay that we ought to be more concerned about what it is to be a living man than what it is to be a dead one. That’s pretty much what Spinoza says in the quote I paraphrased above, but I’d rather hear it from Montaigne. So maybe true piety is living this life well.

  3. Hi, Ian. You ask: “Could we still have had a Hamlet without a hell, I wonder?” That’s as good a question as I’ve heard put to the play in quite a while. My tentative reply is, Yes. Hamlet’s pretty good at second guessing. A more mischievous Frostian than I am (and one more illiberal) would chime in here and say that Hamlet’s too liberal to take his own side in a quarrel. (I like that about him: in those great soliloquies he embodies quarrels.) But let me open out your question: I wonder if we can have “tragedy” without Hell (or without some other sense of the providential, or of self-executing justice)? We can certainly have comedy and farce and whatever it is that modern drama amounts to.

    The second question you ask I consign to that heading William James cavalierly relied on (too cavalierly, some think): temperament. I have never found oblivion intimidating, nor ever felt the slightest need for either a Heaven or a Hell or for a CEO of both. But I cannot give reasons why. It just so happens, as the saying goes. Or I am just so made. I grew up in a place where believers, super-naturalists, metaphysicians-without-portfolio, and counter-oblivionists abound (a.k.a. the Bible Belt); many are my dear friends, and some I call my family (one of whom wound up an Anglican priest). But I can never remember a time when I talked myself out of assenting to any or all of these things. I can recall a time when, aged 5 or so, I wondered about the existence of Santa Claus. But God? Never. I wonder why. And then, all grown up, I started reading Darwin, Dawkins, James, and accounts of Epicureanism, and it all seemed like common sense.

    I’m in the midst of Judith Harris’s “No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality.” We’ll see if, for her, it all boils down to temperament––a term that sort of puts a let’s-throw-up-our-hands end to debate (in the manner of appeals to de gustibus non disputadum).

    Best,
    Mark

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