Death is some scary shit, no doubt. But death is not nothing. This is a mistake I often made in my life, in both my thinking and my living. I readily conflated death and nothingness, nihilism with a death wish. But death is not nothingness. Fear, anxiety, despair: they tends towards nothingness, towards an erasure of life that is not death per se but is a kind of living death, a zombieism. As Kierkegaard would say, the anxious don’t live and can’t even die — which is precisely the source of their despair.
The death of the body, for Kierkegaard, is not the sickness unto death. Anxiety is the sickness unto death. It keeps the living self away from living, at a distance, caught up in what has been or could be, in worlds that don’t exist. For many, including myself, it feels better to retreat into anxiety and the life of possible worlds, however awful those worlds might be — especially if they’re awful. Oh my god, I could do really badly at my job! The plane could crash! I could get sick! I could shit my pants! None of these have happened but, for some insane reason, we enjoy the misery of living through them virtually. And then experiencing all the dread and horror as if they were real. It’s truly nuts.
No, death is not nothing. Anxiety tends towards nothing as it veers away from the now. But death is always now, an event to beat all events. It’s anything but nothing. If thinking about whether the plane will crash is a non-event, the plane actually crashing and your body being obliterated is certainly an event.
Death, while being an event that changes everything, is certainly not the end. Yes, it’s the end of the living body as well as all it’s mortal accoutrements — ego, mind, subjectivity. But that body is not the limit of who we are. I don’t say this in some glib, pseudo-religious way. I say it because it’s so obviously the way of things, something we experience every day, all the time.
A step toward rational immortality, William Burroughs writes, is to break down the concept of a separate personal, and therefore inexorably mortal, ego. This opens many doors. For instance, you can live in, on, and with other people. In fact, this is always happening. There is no pure being distinct from others: we are made up of tics and tricks, gestures and licks from other people. You live in other people and other people live in you (WSB). (Read Burroughs’ incredible, hilarious essay, “Immortality.”)
The other day, I was spending time with a friend and every time I chuckled, she’d say, That’s your brother! That’s his laugh! Think about what an insane thing that is to say. I wasn’t quite sure I knew what she meant but I do know the experience of being possessed by my brother. Usually, I feel it when I’m holding forth. Oh, lord, when I was teaching, I’d be mid-lecture when all I could hear, all I could feel, was my brother spouting — sprouting — up through my mouth. I was a Ouija board.
My brother lives in Manila, in the Philippines. But he also lives right here — in me, as me, with me, at least a little. My sister is dead and she, too, lives right here — in me, as me, with me. Death, the Philippines, across town, it doesn’t matter: our possession of and by other people transcends time and space, transcends body and ego. This can, of course, be to our dismay. I have familial forces working in me that I’d sure like to dispel. In fact, in order not to be a total asshole of a father — the key word here being total — I have to wrestle, stifle, and muffle the paternal voices that live in me, that live as me, that haunt me all the time.
We live with ghosts. This is not some supernatural thing, some mystical claim. Events are not discrete. When something happens, it doesn’t just begin then end. It continues to happen more or less intensely. This is called, amongst other things, memory. Memory is not a card catalog of snapshots. Memory is the presence of the past, here and now. It’s me tying my shoe, craving rice noodles for dinner, knowing the way to my son’s school. It’s also the smell of my childhood house; it’s falling into a pile of dog shit at the depressingly spare PS 165 playground and then my five year old ass being asked to strip for a bath by the Jamaican nanny I could never understand; it’s the wide, radiant, true smile of my sister as well as her confused, sad, skinny face days before she died; it’s the daily screaming of my parents that still echoes in my skull. It’s everything that’s ever happened to me and is still happening to me, right here, right now.
We are events, each of us. We continue just as the things that happen to us continue. Sure, they seem done and gone but they — but we — persist in various ways, as echoes and sentiments, as shadows and gestures, as scars and dreams.
Burroughs says the way to immortality is through writing. Writing is a powerful and highly effective way of transcending your body in order to possess others — much more effective than mummification. I can’t think a thought — not one thought — without hearing and feeling the presence of a veritable symphony of others — Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Plato, Foucault, my brother, Derrida, Gadamer, Marc Lafia, Paul Ricoeur, even Paul de Man! This is what happens when you write a doctoral dissertation: you let yourself be possessed by a bunch of philosophers until they’re all speaking out your mouth (not to mention other orifices).
We all write. Not necessarily words but we write on the world, write with the world, write the world itself. This is what it is to be alive — you are always necessarily leaving your mark. It might be a relatively slight mark, a small etch in the earth, an inflection of the flavor of carbon dioxide from your particular gut, a way to hold strangers’ eyes on the subway gleaned by an attentive teenager sitting across the aisle. These are all forms of writing. Sure, they don’t have the usual grammar and they don’t travel as well as words do. But they are all inscriptions on the surface of the universe. We are all writers; we are all immortal.
But what about the experience of the dead person? Well, the experience of the self is not limited to the experience of the mind, thought, and body. We exist as, and on, different planes of existence. While I’m in the body, I am limited by my body but also by my mind and its demands for certainty, clarity, knowledge, understanding, social productivity (in its sundry, insidious forms). I am this guy who has done this, who says that, who has this value in the social and financial economy. But I also live in, with, and amongst a certain cosmic consciousness, an infinite self that bleeds with the universe rather than with blood.
We get glimmers of this aspect of ourselves, this infinite, cosmic becoming that we are in addition to being body, ego, and mind. Some people work to experience this as much as possible and find it in different ways — meditation, psychedelics, hiking. In these moments, our ego dissipates. It can be scary, for sure. I’ve seen people lose their proverbial shit on acid, watched as their egos melted and they became stammering, mumbling, idiots, at once beautiful and distressing. I’ve also seen people lose their egos and become ecstatic. This is the Dionysian experience that people have sought for millennia — in raves, at Burning Man, in Roman orgies, in sex, at Dead shows.
As Burroughs writes, The tiresome concept of personal immortality is predicated on the illusion of some unchangeable precious essence: greedy old MEEEEEEEE forever. But as the Buddhists say, there is no MEEEEEEEE, no unchanging ego. We are immortal just not as ourselves; we are immortal as we are the cosmos, this piece of the Big Everything, this inflection of things which shifts the very register of the entire universe forever. The farthest reaches of the universe are different, however imperceptibly, because you lived. And you are different because of that super nova, that black hole, that asteroid, that flicker of cosmic crap, those solar flares, that child’s cry, that butterfly’s wings. We are the world, as it were, and as such are inscribed in it forever — or at least as long as it lasts.
That might not be a consolation, I know. The straw man image of the afterlife — living as our ego-driven selves in the blissful cloud planes — is absurd, even if quite reassuring. I see Larry David, his hair gown back, giddy as he’s about to meet Marilyn Monroe. Some religions do a great job — albeit areligious — of making you feel comforted by the best of all possible worlds: you’ll still be you, ego and all, only minus the annoying parts.
But isn’t the promise of death — and it is a promise — reassuring precisely because we get to shed all this bullshit, all these hang ups and anxieties, all this worldly crap? Living forever as this would be downright exhausting. How many times can I choose what to eat for dinner? How many dishes can I wash? How many bills can I pay? So, yes, a heaven that promised none of that while letting me still be me sounds pretty good. But then I’d still have to be me. How long can anyone, including me, endure this shnoz?
This is not to poo poo life; this is not my nihilism. On the contrary. While I’m in this body, with this mind, I’m going to try and enjoy it. I’ll think, drink, screw, love, hate, stress, eat, text, write. But, in death, I will be done with all that. I will be done with my petty ego nonsense. I will be done with thought and mind. I will be ether, not subjectivity. In all honesty, does this scare the shit out of me? Yes. But I’m beginning to think it sounds mighty fine.