The Dying Self: Death and Awe

How does death affect the way in which we search for meaning? Does the fact of death negate or take away what we will have accomplished in our lives?

 It is 1970.  I am four years old.  My goldfish does not want to swim anymore.  I bring it to my mother.  It is very tired she says.  It is there that I make the connection between death and sleep and become afraid to fall asleep, even now. Either death is the road to awe or it is a disease in need of a cure.

I think I was five years old when I saw my first corpse. I remember going up the casket with my parents who offered prayers. Even then, I believed that Death is a horror. To cease to exist is horrible.  I can achieve peace with impermanence, but non-existence remains a problem for me. Some argue that we do not simply disappear but are incorporated by other things. Here we jump from corpse to corpse and are reduced to a prosthetic mechanism. My son Noah, from a very early age told us that he chose to come to us and that prior to his being born he was in baby heaven with Holly. I would like to believe this.

Psalm 89 asks:  “Who can live and never see Death?’  This question is troubling.  If we pay attention, dying can be seen at every moment.  It is as if we are walking corpses.  Dying is seen but Death does not seem to be so simple a matter.

Psalm 103 informs us “As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone.”  Here human beings are compared to dry grass and to flowers whose delicate petals are strewn by the wind.  One could ask what the link between flesh and grass is.

The Latin world gramen or grass is related to grow and green.  Life sprouts.  It shoots forth.  If we are like grass then what is it that grazes us?  What eats at us?  What scrapes us?  What bruises us?  What makes us fall?  Sometimes saying, “It will be OK” may be a lie.

We bloom.  We may flourish or not.  All of us will be gone.  Perhaps in the very next second.  Wouldn’t that be funny; if I were to die in the next second while giving a lecture on death?  The word gone in Greek means womb and generation.  It is related to the English world gonad.  The link between sex and death is clear.  Birthing is like a dying.

What is it in these ancient Hebrew words that may trouble us?  Has anyone of us actually seen Death?  Is it possible to see Death?  I have seen living things die:  plants, animals and humans but I have never seen Death.  The question of how death may be overcome has haunted human beings.  Can death be overcome through religion or science?

In his text the Phaedo, the Greek philosopher Plato has Socrates define death as “simply the departure of soul from body.”  Being dead, “consists does it not, in the body having been parted from the soul and comes to be by itself, and in the soul having been parted from the body, and being by itself.”  Though I would like to believe Plato there is no evidence for such a division between body and soul.

According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, to live is not something that one learns from either life or from oneself.  The question, “How should I live?” does not receive an answer from life.  How should I live is never taught by life.  The question to this answer arrives, “only from the other and by death.”  Why only from the other and by death is this question of life answered?  Learning to live is never something one does alone, all by oneself.  We can look at how others have died and perhaps we moved to live our lives differently.

Dying haunts us.  The accumulation of memories can be compared to a community of ghosts.  Learning to live would mean learning to leave things behind even as you move forward.  Following Derrida, learning how to live would involve,

To learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company and companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts.  To live otherwise, and better….  And this being with specters would also be, not only, but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.

For Derrida, it is essential that these ghosts are welcomed.  I will consider two definitions of the ghost effect.  The first is taken from The Ear of the Other.  In this text, Derrida defines the ghost as “the effect of another’s crypt in my unconscious.”  Derrida provides a rough schematic of how this crypt within me may be formed.  For example, if I lost a loved one and fail to mourn properly, the dead person would continue to live inside me, “but as a stranger.”  I want to keep the memory of the dead person alive but to mourn properly I have to let go of that person.  Grief or mourning is caught up in an economy of betrayal.  One reason we cannot accept death is that we desire permanence.  We believe in the statement, “I will always be here.”

In “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” Derrida provides another definition of the ghost.  There he writes, “Ghosts:  the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the stadium, the dead other alive in me…” The word punctum taken from Barthes’ text Camera Lucida is that which “pierces, strikes me, wounds me, bruises me, and, first of all, seems to look only at me.”  Life is a punctum.  We live on a point that pierces us.  Life decorates our bodies and our faces.  It may mutilate us, disease us, cause us conflict and yet there may be room to learn how to love this life.

The studium is my “haunted space,” where the punctum of the other resides in me.  To be haunted is to be possessed, burdened or in other words to live with accountability and responsibility for the dead other.

The punctum, according to Derrida, “points to me at the instant and place where I point to it… .”  Life asks the question “Where is it that you hurt?”  And we may answer “Everywhere.”  Life as it is lived etches and tattoos us.

The punctum, according to Barthes, is that which is “poignant to me.”  Poignant:  intense, powerful, passionate:  the eruption of the blaze of the dead other in me, as my mourning is composed together in words which remember. Memory is for those who have forgotten. The perfect according to Plato have no need to remember or mourn.

Thomas Nagel has an interesting point in What Does it All Mean. He writes, “ If one thinks about it logically, it seems as thought death should be something to be afraid of only if we will survive it and undergo some terrifying transformation.” A person brought “back to life” after a car accident may live to lament his current physical state because he can no longer pursue the goal he had in mind before the accident took place.

Who is that we remember when we gather around a corpse?  What takes place in the communication of a funeral oration?  It is of course written for the dead other, but according to Derrida, “this is of course a supplementary fiction” precisely because, “it is always the dead in me, always the others standing around the coffin, who I call out to.”  Calling out to the dead, to the dead in me, to the others who have their dead in themselves, what may be heard except the sound of tears and talk that flow freely?  This graveside talk is supposed to teach us the ethics of how to live, finally.  Yet how?  Have you ever walked away from a funeral and radically changed the way you lived your life?  That person died from lung cancer and as you leave the funeral home, you light up a smoke.

In Section 51 of Being and Time the German philosopher Heidegger points out that death understood in an everyday manner is “known as a mishap which is constantly occurring—as a ‘case of death’.”  In our everyday way of being, and through idle-talk, they understand death as something indefinite, in other words, as something that did occur to others whom we read about in newspapers or notices but not something that can or will occur to me now.  This inauthentic understanding of death ignores that “death is a way to be.” In his book Courage to Be, Paul Tillich writes, “ The reality of death is excluded from daily life to the highest possible degree. The dead are not allowed to show that they are dead; they are transformed into the mask of the living.” 110

According to Heidegger, “the dying of Others is seen often enough as a social inconvenience, if not even a downright tactlessness, against which the public is to be guarded.”  Even if one knows that death is certain, often we are not “authentically certain” about our own death and dying.  In other words, we live inauthentically in our fear of death.

In a certain sense, when another dies we can only be “there alongside.”  At the moment of watching and waiting and crying we will eventually encounter a corpse, which according to Heidegger is “something unalive, which has lost its life.”  What remains behind according to Derrida, are memories, impressions, traces, photographs, and the ash of mourning.

In Aporias, Derrida explores the question “My death—is it possible?”  he asks whether death can “be reduced to some line, crossing, to a departure, to a separation, to a step, and thereof to a decease?”  Derrida asks, “What, then, is it to cross the ultimate border?”  Death is precisely an aporia or the impossibility of what cannot pass.

Death is the non-passage, the uncrossable border.  Throughout our tradition, death has been defined as a border or limit.  In Hamlet’s words, death is “the undiscovered country, from whose region no traveler returns….”

The Tibetan Book of the Dead employs the technical term bardo to describe the experience, which slides between death and birth.  Bardo is a gap.  The word bar is defined as that which is in between, while the world do designates an island.  What if we are the bardo?  Or the landmark which stands between two things?  If so, death would be nothing more than losing one’s ground.  Death means to become ungrounded.  To become spectral; to live-on spectrally.  Death would be the space without a ground; where no path exists because no path is required to exist.

If Derrida defines death as the aporia as the possibility of the impossible, there might be another definition of death, of being-human, and of living-on.  Such a definition would show us that death is not the aporia; we are the impossibility of what cannot pass away.  We who live spectrally.  We who are both guests and ghosts, held hostage in each other’s arms through our universal mourning.  Not the corpse that will have been. Here I follow the insights of Edna St. Millay who knew that we will become “ one with the dull discriminate dust.” But Millay writes, “ I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”

I am looking at a faded picture of my grandfather’s family. My father is five years old in the picture. Here is a past where I was not yet present. My father’s hand is on his father’s knee. Most of those in the picture are now dead. My father still stands works and writes. I cannot imagine a time when I will be without him.           

It is said that the difference between being alive and being dead is a single breath.  If you exhale and you do not inhale, you are dead.  My death, is it possible?  No one can experience his or her own death.  No one can experience the other’s death.  We experience our living, which is already a dying.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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7 Responses to The Dying Self: Death and Awe

  1. rexsty says:

    “We experience our living, which is already a dying.”
    Philosopher Alphonso Lingis in his Preface to his translation of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible writes, quoting M-P,
    “Walking is not a ‘repeatedly-compensated-for falling;’ from the first step already a style of walking, a gait, is initiated, a rhythm of movement that propagates itself.(…)This generation of schemes of unity across time and space, this “instability instituted by the organism itself,” this ‘fluctuation organized by it, and consequently dominated,’ this auto-schematizing is the very essence of the living body.”
    Similarly our personal death has meaning apart from its inevitability.

  2. onnajourney says:

    We believe in the statement, “I will always be here.” From where did the idea arise that anything has or should have permanence? Contemplation of death brings the realization that life is not permanent. But that should not surprise us. All evidence points to a cyclical pattern in the universe of creation, existence, and death followed by transformation of the dead/decaying material into new creation and the cycle starts again. There is wisdom in the notion that permanence is not necessary for life fulfillment.

    • zlomislic says:

      I cannot accept the cycle you speak of. I would much rather be human than have my matter become a tree etc.

      • onnajourney says:

        “How does death affect the way in which we search for meaning?” That is the right question.

        I would love to believe that we live on spectrally as being-human. It is a lovely thought but one that seems too optimistic. If it’s true we can find meaning in preparing for what is to come. If it’s not, can we still find meaning, fulfillment, and joy in this life? Where do we look for meaning if our destination is nothingness? That is what preoccupies me.

      • zlomislic says:

        This question of nothingness is important. It preoccupies me as well. I think most people have the impression that they will live on spectrally as being human. Yet, there is little evidence for the view. How did your journey begin?

  3. onnajourney says:

    It began with a religious conversion experience I had as a teen, a “born again” experience to the Christian faith. For years Christian theology satisfied me, I even graduated from a conservative evangelical seminary. But as I look back I always had nagging doubts about teachings I just could not accept. Like the notion that a loving God would torment some people eternally, not just the Hitlers of the world but ordinary good people as well. I guess I eventually just owned up to my doubts and admitted that many aspects of Christian theology do not make sense. The problem is I have yet to find a satisfying replacement for the Christian beliefs I used to hold on to, at least tenuously. Most recently I have become struck by the fact that modern theoretical physics (i.e., quantum mechanics, string theory, etc.) may not be incompatible with some other “dimension” of life. That still doesn’t deal with the issue of nothingness and that’s what I need to grapple with. Can I be OK with the idea that I will someday be nothingness? How does it feel to fully accept that? Perhaps philosophy provides a path, which is what intrigued me by your site.

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