Last Things

“To philosophize,” said Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, “is to learn to die.” And philosophize about death he did—as often as Seneca, his intellectual ancestor in the first century. Both the “French Seneca,” as Montaigne is sometimes called, and the Roman original believed in the paramedical responsibility of thinkers. They contended, as Seneca said in his famous letters to a young man named Lucilius, that “what philosophy holds out to humanity” is not intellectual acrobatics but “counsel”—“good advice” on life and death.

“What’s the point of concocting whimsies?” Seneca railed at the sophists who passed for thinkers in his day. “This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy. You’re pledged to bring succor to the shipwrecked . . . to the sick. . . . The person you’re engaging in wordplay with is in fear.”

The world, according to Seneca, is a “hospital,” and the people in it need to learn to confront death, the first reason being so they stop wasting time: “Even if you had a large part of your life remaining before you,” he wrote, “you would have to organize it very economically to have enough for all the things that are necessary. . . . We haven’t the time to spare to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that [Ulysses] ran into a storm . . . when every day we’re running into our own storms.”

The second reason to get one’s mind around death is that fearlessness in its face constitutes total freedom. Seneca, who heroically slashed his wrists, knees, and ankles and got into a bathtub to bleed to death when his relationship with the brutal emperor Nero collapsed, believed that mourning our future death is as silly as complaining that there was a time when we weren’t alive yet. “Wouldn’t you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than it was before it was lit was an utter idiot?” he argues. “Wouldn’t you think a man a prize fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to be alive a thousand years from now.”

Seneca reminds us of a truth easily forgotten: You didn’t exist in thenineteenth century, and you won’t exist in the twenty-second. Life is just a short spin across the ballroom floor: In front and behind are curtains, are shadows; outside is darkness. But this, precisely, is what makes that skid, that spill, that spin so dizzying and poignant: its utter unrepeatability—and its speed.

If death did not exist, we would have to invent it. If our lives did not have parameters—or endings—we would have to pretend they do, for the alternative is to cheapen time and feel nothing very strongly. The twentieth-century novelist Paul Bowles gets it right when he writes, in The Sheltering Sky, “Everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty.”

To remember this limitation is salutary. To forget, deny, or conceal it, as we tend to do in death-averse contemporary society, is wasteful. It causes a destruction of life, an underrating of experience, a deflation of emotional currency.

But is ours in fact a death-averse society? “There is a big problem with society, and that is that we fail to talk openly about death,” writes zoologist, blogger, and author Jules Howard, describing and soon endorsing the view of an archaeologist he interviews. Just a few years ago, Howard was publishing Sex on Earth; today he is publishing Death on Earth. Perhaps he has a finger on the zeitgeist. Certainly there is a recent wavelet of books to suggest as much. In part, it seems that a new generation is rebelling against their parents’ strenuous repression of morbid thoughts; in part, it is this older generation itself, the baby boomers, who are beginning to age, sicken, and die, and—as the prolific boomer writer and editor Michael Kinsley says—“wonder if there’s a book in this.” Indeed, the recent death-themed memoirs of Christopher Hitchens, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, and others seem to give credence to this suggestion. Twenty years ago it was Viagra. Now it is morphine.

Until Howard started writing Death on Earth, he admits, he would tell his two young children that the dead animals they encountered around their semirural home in England were merely “sleeping.” In the book, embarrassed at his own cowardice, he plays the cat and schleps a slain bird over to his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He gets her attention: “It’s dead,” he tells her. “It has stopped living.” Rather inexplicably, he caresses the bird’s neck to demonstrate this.

It’s little surprise that his child does not get it—and that when her great-grandmother dies shortly thereafter, she still passes her house and says, “Sshhhh . . . You’ll wake Great-Grandma!

If this were the only contradiction in this rambling, self-indulgent book, it would not bear mention. But it is one of hundreds. In fact, Death on Earth manages to be both routinely self-contradictory (e.g., later in its pages the author declares that “people who say death is taboo are mostly wrong. We love talking about death”) and numbingly repetitive. The latter shortcoming often proves even more irritating than the former. Howard is not exactly a hard-hitting prose stylist to begin with (“I love nature. I love evolution. . . . I love the diversity. The variety. The varieties”), but when he uses the word journey eight times in half a page and evokes his ever still-beginning “journey” innumerable times across the book (this after admitting that “‘journey’ in popular science is pretty much the most overused descriptive going”), we have license to nod off.

Which I did, despite my congenital insomnia and the occasionally macabre tales of rotting pigs on a “body farm” the author visits to gawk inconclusively at death. His anecdotes, most of which concern animals, are surprisingly unrevealing, and the science in his book will be old news to anyone who made it through junior-high biology class or has caught wind of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Philippe de Champaigne, Still-Life with a Skull, ca. 1671, oil on panel, 11 × 14 5/8". Wikicommons.
Philippe de Champaigne, Still-Life with a Skull, ca. 1671, oil on panel, 11 × 14 5/8". Wikicommons.

Far better if you want to contemplate death is Katie Roiphe’s beautifully written study of human death. The Violet Hour features six modern authors “especially sensitive or attuned to death” whose wildly differing final chapters Roiphe relates analytically and empathetically. From Susan Sontag’s passionate refusal to surrender to her damning diagnosis of myelogenous leukemia to Dylan Thomas’s theatrical quasi-suicide to John Updike’s quiet decision to be “ready” when death came for him, Roiphe paints affecting and eloquent portraits of writers who—despite being wise and “madly articulate”—do not know where they are headed. None of Roiphe’s subjects believed in the afterlife; all, however, seemed touched by mortality’s magic wand to savor their remaining slice of life more intensely.

Perhaps Roiphe’s own brushes with mortality have sensitized her to this transformation: As a very young woman, Roiphe, now in her mid-forties, almost died before half of her lung was surgically removed, and she has gone on to squeeze what seems like several lifetimes (together with a more-than-full complement of lovers, topics, experiences, and media roles) into one. Her career now spans date rape to death, Eros to Thanatos, memoir to biography, and she is as original and elegant on one subject as another.

Also elegant, though in a considerably less probing way, is clinician-writer Oliver Sacks, whose book on death—transparently called Gratitude—joins the renaissance of death literature on the top of my cluttered Parisian desk. (By the way, Roiphe’s book has an interesting organizational touch: Instead of head shots of the authors under scrutiny, she provides photographs of the desk spaces in which their immortality was gained.) In this slender volume, Sacks, who, at eighty-two, succumbed to liver cancer a few months before its publication, explains, perhaps too simply to be altogether credible, that his overwhelming emotion toward his waning life is thankfulness: “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” He says that he will no longer watch the news now that his days are numbered. He will no longer “pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.” It seems, indeed, that these self-imposed subtractions may contribute to Sacks’s Panglossian feeling that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. He is confident, he tells us, that “the future is in good hands.” It’s hard not to feel a rush of warmth at such sentiments, but can we honestly share them? Is a world in which both Donald Trump and isis are ascendant really in “good hands”? We are glad Sacks thinks so, but we remain awkwardly on the fence about it ourselves.

If Sacks’s book is attractively written but a little too feel-goody to be persuasive (almost like the morphine is talking rather than the man), sixty-five-year-old Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide comes across as downright mean-spirited, materialistic, and parochial. The book seems to lack any raison d’être, from Kinsley’s introduction about “us” baby boomers willing to buy ourselves “an extra five years even if your Maserati is in the shop the whole time,” to his contemptuous dismissal of a ninety-year-old man in a swimming pool grateful (like Sacks) for his remaining feistiness, to his discussion of his Parkinson’s disease, which he describes so breezily that the reader would be forgiven for thinking he’s in fine health—if it weren’t for the constant reminders that he’s dying. After chitchatting about this or that aspect of consumer culture, Parkinson’s, and yuppies for most of the book, Kinsley makes a particularly random move at the end and proposes that boomers stop “grind[ing] out more books” and start coming up with $17 trillion to offset the national debt. From a man who has ground out a book in which he admits he owns a refrigerator the size of a small SUV and has been spoiled by society’s “meritocratic machinery,” such advice seems both gratuitous and disingenuous. And indeed, Kinsley offhandedly concludes by admitting as much: “In case you haven’t figured it out yet,” he writes at the close of his last full-length chapter, “I’m not really pushing for boomers to raise $17 trillion and use it to pay off the national debt and related obligations. I have no idea whether $17 trillion is even close to the right amount. . . . Sure, it’s much more complicated than that.” So what has his point been all along, we ask, other than to brag about how well-to-do, worthy, and witty he is—in spite of Parkinson’s? I think it’s safe to say: Kinsley does not know.

A far more searching and substantial book—even if it shares certain vanities with Kinsley’s volume—is Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. At thirty-six, Kalanithi, a resident in neurosurgery married to a resident in internal medicine, feels he has “reached the mountaintop: I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends.” And then he’s diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. He knows he is going to die—at first he thinks death will come quickly, then he realizes he has a couple of years more to live and tries to plan out his days accordingly. Should he spend more time in brain surgery, or write a book, or have a child? In the end, Kalanithi manages to do all three in the time he is allotted; he also repairs his floundering marriage. In her epilogue to the book, Lucy Kalanithi wryly but movingly suggests that “the secret to saving a relationship is for one person to become terminally ill.” And indeed, her epilogue, in which she directly discusses their marriage in a way her husband rarely does, may be the most stirring part of the book. She draws forth lyrical pictures of their relationship—not least of which is her pouring of Madeira wine on his grave as she sips it and communes with him after his passing.

Kalanithi’s book is not as intimate as his wife’s epilogue—perhaps because he knew she would be publishing it for him and perhaps because he is a little too caught up with illustrating the rigors and triumphs of his brilliant medical career to veer into intimate revelation. Impending death does not open up everybody—neither in the sense of personal revelation nor in that of public pronouncement.

We still need Seneca. Never, over the course of twenty centuries, has he become redundant: His combination of personal and public-minded reflections—the fact that he tells us of his seasickness as well as of how we might conceive of and capitalize on our deaths—remains unique and indispensable. He does not simply bear witness to his own tiny truth. He generalizes pertinently; he empathizes actively with the rest of mankind. The world is a hospital, and we all—lung cancer or no lung cancer—need urgent care. Or perhaps, as Shakespeare says, the world is not a hospital but a stage and “all the men and women merely players.” Whichever the case, we had best perform our parts fully, richly, relentlessly. Since we can’t play God, we must play our humanity to the hilt.

“No one has power over us when death is within our own power,” writes Seneca. “Have you anything that might induce [fear of death]? You know what wine or honey-wine tastes like: it makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand flagons go through your bladder—all you are is a strainer. . . . What matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.”


Cristina Nehring’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.