“The Magical Mystery Tour is dying…”1
Traditionally, political theories and ideologies have given primacy to the mass as a social entity, whose motives and actions are determined by economic considerations, to the detriment of the analysis of drivers of individual behaviour (eg, love, lust, and fear).2 And yet beyond immediate personal economic concerns (eg, can I pay my rent this month?), many people’s most intense moments of lived experience derive from such ‘irrational urges’. It is partly in this spirit that the following discursive musings examine the question of death.
The phenomenon of the world’s indifference3
Buddhist philosophy tends not to fear death, but to welcome its opportunity to be free of worldly attachments and return to the void whence we came. In an attenuated form, the desire for ego self-annihilation through orgasm4 or the use of mind-stimulants5 represents the same impulse. It also suggests that our objective individual existence is an irrelevance, and so sweetens the pill of the world washing over us and continuing its course in our absence once we have died.
However, we live on in the minds of the living, not only as text, paintings, or songs, but also as memories, and retain our status as essentially social beings. It is noteworthy that in some small-scale societies, the most severe form of sanction is expulsion from the community, which not only increases the objective risk of death (eg, from predators), but is also a form of social death.6 7
The Impossibility of conceptualising death in the mind of someone living7
There is a fundamental ontological problem with an individual confronting the fact of their own demise, namely that our consciousness (often reduced to a psychological phenomenon, but which also encompasses our corporeal selves, as anyone who has suffered physical pain will attest) uses its intellectual dimension to plan, imagine, and predict its own future course. But how can we conceptualise the total and final disappearance of the phenomenon that we use to measure it?
Arguably, this is impossible without reaching a point of sublime, ‘mystical’ acceptance, and is also likely to explain Christian and other religious models of an afterlife. However, for secularists, who do not rely on such consolations, it is arguably a form of intellectual laziness not to fear death, an ultimate transition whose outcome is not only outside our control, but unknown.
1 With apologies to Lennon & McCartney.
2 An honourable exception is Raoul Vaneigem, whose Revolution of Everyday Life discusses sexual relationships(notably monogamy) in a post-revolutionary society, and powerfully depicts the slights and humiliations that play such a large part in the lives of individuals under capitalism.
3 Please refer to Leszek Kolakowski’s ‘Religion’ for a discussion of this issue.
4 Known in French as ‘le petit mort’ (the little death).
5 Particularly opiates.
6 Cats are reputed to seek solitude before death, and the funerary rights of elephants are well documented. Such activities open up the wider question of the boundary between animals and humans, and the degree to which non-human animals have ‘self-consciousness’, ie, the ability to step outside oneself and assess one’s behaviour. Self-consciousness is generally considered to be one of the defining features of being human, but both these examples suggest a social rather than purely individual consciousness that transcends basic Maslovian urges, one a withdrawal and the other ‘commemorative’.
7 The problem is made complicated in shamanic cultures where expulsion and simulated death journeys are pre-conditions for protecting and curing the wider community in the face of cosmic danger, resource scarcity, or illness. Hence the ambivalent perception of shamans on the part of the collectivity simultaneously feared, ostracised and needed.
8 To paraphrase the title of an artwork by Damien Hirst’.
Fulano de Tal