Thursday, 20 August 2009

Is it Necessary to Die?

As a child or reluctant adolescent, whenever I asked, "Do I have to ...?" or "Must I ...?", my father used to say, "The only things you 'have to' are to be born and to die." Or, in other words, "You 'must' nothing but birth and death." As you can imagine from the two clumsy renderings, the original Finnish sentence is hard to translate from one idiom to another. "Pakko ei ole kuin syntyä ja kuolla," that's the Finnish phrase. See, for instance, the Wiktionary entry for the Finnish noun pakko and you can realize the difficulty. We could try yet another translation, using one or rather several of the very approximate, context-dependent equivalents suggested by Wiktionary, "obligation, force, necessity or compulsion": "Your only obligations are birth and death." "Birth and death are the only necessities." "The only compulsory things are birth and death." "Only birth and death come by the force of necessity." None of these translations is satisfactory. "Il ne faut que naître et mourir." That might be more accurate, I think, but not any more faithful to the Finnish formula than the English versions. Yet: "Abtrünnig erst bin ich treu." More than one language may be necessary for translating "necessary" from one language to another.

I find the question "Is it Necessary to Die?" both compelling and highly suspicious. The adjective "necessary" seems out of place. "Necessity" implies "need" and this notion makes the question sound like a category mistake.

What is "necessity"? What is "necessary"? I take the liberty of citing the OED's etymological explanation – click on the thumbnail image below to see a screenshot of OED Online:

Death is hardly something "[t]hat is needed," in the sense of "[i]ndispensable, vital, essential; requisite." OED adds: "Also with to or for (a person or thing). In the 16th and early 17th centuries the sense freq. approaches ‘useful’ without being ‘absolutely indispensable’." It is hardly something "required" or "imperative," even though it seems meaningful to say "You must die." Here the "must" is, however, used in a different sense than, for instance, in the formula "You must perform the act A in order to achieve the result B."

Yet, what is necessary is also something "[t]hat must be so; inevitable." Death is inevitable, a necessary consequence of being mortal, or rather – more seriously speaking – analytically inherent to the concept of mortality – and thus la condition humaine. Perhaps it is not simply incidental that mortality provides a classical example or the classical example of a premise in a syllogism ("Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Socrates is a mortal.") Death is an inevitable consequence of being born. "Inevitably determined or fixed by predestination or the operation of natural laws; happening or existing by an inherent necessity" (OED). And so on.

In the strictest "transcendental-phenomenological" sense of evidence, death is not "certain," however. No one can face death as a certainty inasmuch as we consider the situation from a purely egological perspective and lived experience. What is more, death does not belong in the sphere of ego cogito. Death never happens "to me," "in person," as an experience in the living present.

In Heidegger's terms, death is the possibility of impossibility. Death is indeed "necessary" (for Dasein), necessary and inevitable or necessary as inevitable, but only in this sense of possibility, an imminent possibility of the impossibility of "being there."

The gift of life is the gift of death. (I cordially recommend Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ for a heart-rendingly profound statement of this observation.) Inasmuch as "necessity" implies need, requisite, prerequisite, action to be taken, compulsory task, death is beyond necessity. It is none of our concern. It is something that's been taken care of. Birth and death lie beyond our powers. One's birth is an immemorable event – thus it is paradoxical to call it an event in the first place – and none of us lives to tell about their death, for one's own death is by definition something that will not be survived and does not allow for an afterlife. Birth and death are not life-events to be told in memoires.

If there is an afterlife, there is no death. If there is just life and no afterlife, there is no death, either, inasmuch as only that which can be experienced (and thus "survived," "in person") really is in a strongest sense of evidence.

* * *

We should continue by quoting and discussing Blanchot, but I shall leave that for another time.

"Another time" remains necessary. Another time, an other's time, always another. Always, ad infinitum.

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