Friday, April 7, 2017

Deaths that Matter

Eric Schliesser responded to my post about the “problem of death” and raises issues that I can perhaps elaborate upon. 

One of the issues Schliesser raises is that many philosophers “may well think that grief is best left for the self-help section or the bio-chemical industry.”  I think that perception correct, though I despair of it.  I once gave a talk at a conference on death.  The conference had two full days of papers, with multiple sessions running concurrently.  Mine was the only paper on bereavement.  In the questions that followed, one colleague asked skeptically, “But what is there to say about grief?  It doesn’t seem there’s anything to say.” Here are a few things I would say, in addition to what I’ve already said.

Schliesser catches a version of my meaning by noting:  if we have lived well, our deaths are not so much a loss to ourselves but a loss to our friends (and community,) and loved ones. Saying you'll miss me when I am gone may well be the most truthful thing one can say about one's own death.”  The Chinese philosophical version of this (and my version) is stronger still.  Where we love our companions well and eschew that hopelessly, bloodlessly abstracted individuated self so common to much philosophy, we recognize that the phenomenon of death does not easily individuate.  In looking at those for whom I care, I can attest to myself:  “You will take me out when you go.”  On this, the best way to capture the phenomenon is to appeal again to Zhuangzi and his reaction to passing his friend Huizi’s grave.

The friendship between Zhuangzi and Huizi is one of more enlivening and comic in any philosophical corpus.  They argue, they contest, they quarrel.  Huizi is committed to logic while Zhuangzi regularly skewers him for this.  They argue over whether fish can be called happy, whether Huizi should better appreciate “useless” things, and when Zhuangzi is widowed, Huizi arrives to comfort him, only to quickly descend into their familiar pattern of argument.  It is an exquisite scene for one feels that the best Huizi can do for Zhangzi in his grief is to quarrel, their disagreement itself the consolation announcing that while Zhuangzi has been fractured by grief, not all is lost.  Arguing with Huizi gives purchase and stability where the ground has slipped from under Zhuangzi’s feet.  But here is what Zhuangzi says in melancholy to Huizi’s grave:

There was a man of Ying who, when he got a smear of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing on the tip of his nose, would make Carpenter Shi slice it off.  Carpenter Shi would raise the wind whirling his hatchet, wait for the moment, and slice it; every speck of the plaster would be gone without hurt to the nose, while the man of Ying stood there perfectly composed. 

Lord Yuan of Song heard about it, summoned Carpenter Shi and said, ‘Let me see you do it.’ ‘As for my side of the act,’ said Carpenter Shi, ‘I did use to be able to slice it off.  However, my partner has been dead for a long time.’

‘Since [you, Huizi,] died, I have no one to use as a partner, no one with whom to talk about things’ (Graham, 124).

This is, I think, the most exquisite and concise statement of an orientation ubiquitous in early Chinese philosophy:  The sociality of persons is such that the loss of intimate, beloved others constitutes a loss of self.  We come to be selves by way of others and in dependence on those others.  As Zhuangzi makes plain, even skills we might incline to consider “mine” are shared, developed in relation with and to others.  So it is an altogether too simple conception of skill and of human beings that would have us think Carpenter Shi is, himself and by himself, the actor in wielding his ax.  Likewise, Zhuangzi does not merely lose a friend, nor merely a shared language of disputation in friendship, he loses that Zhuangzi he can be with Huizi.   Lest this seem an idiosyncrasy of early Chinese philosophical views, this is caught in what is surely the most melancholy poem of bereavement ever penned, W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” which reads, in its entirety, “Who would I show it to?”  This is the poet gone mute without his reader, the poet who cannot write a poem and so be a poet without his reader.

If selves are social, so will death be.  Yes, we “die alone,” in the altogether trivial sense that the biological phenomenon of death happens to one.  But no one cares about this – it is not, in the phrase of Thomas Lynch, another poet, “the death that matters.”  Because the Chinese philosophers took this seriously, they argued hotly and long about what to do in loss.  Should one, as Zhuangzi implies, seek to greet the radical fracture of self induced by loss by cultivating a capacity to turn on a dime, developing a fluidity of self that accommodates change and (tries to) resolve on cheerful, playful acceptance of one’s own transformations in loss.  Or, as the Confucians suggest, ought one develop distinctively social mourning practices that will place the bereaved in company with others in sorrow so that reparative relation can close the perilous gap in self-understanding and personal identity wrenched open by loss.  These, then, are some of the “things to say” on the subject about which some would doubt there is anything to say.  And they cut right to the heart of how we understand personal identity.  Such is to say that where personal identity is concerned, me-without-you can, in some relations, no longer be the me as was, nor will I be able to achieve that future me-I-aspired-to-be without you.  If we want our accounts of the self to have traction in lived experience, this, then, is something formidable to consider.

I confess that much of this, as I intimated in the original post, is so intuitive to me that I struggle to articulate it other than evocatively.  I find myself impatient with any philosophy that fails to recognize that the lived experience of oneself is so tightly wound into the well-being and continued existence of others that talk of any self apart from this reads as utterly abstract fiction.  I simply do not recognize anything of my own experience in it, so perhaps I am constitutionally ill-equipped to make philosophy of this, left as I am with conviction that cannot shift.  And this is part of why I struggle to make sense of philosophy that makes so much of my own end.

Relative to my own, other deaths matter so much more in terms of how I will live and understand myself.  My parents are alive, and when they die, I will live in a world I have never inhabited before, a world in which I am orphaned and which, for me, is wholly unprecedented.  I mercifully do not yet know any world that does not have them in it, that does not have the me that is daughter-of-them in it.  The Confucians get this – this is one reason Confucius observes that one of life’s most demanding experiences is the deaths of one’s parents.  For it is here in human experience that one enters into the uncharted terrain that lies beyond all of the maps of experience one has already constructed.  However difficult this stands to be, there is of course worse.  Consideration of some deaths utterly transforms thought of my own death into an affirmative good I can embrace without reservation.  Put less obliquely, I will count it the finest piece of good fortune to die before my daughter does.  In any reflections on deaths that matter, thinking of hers is one from which I so utterly flinch that I will say no more.  Suffice it to say that what I prize in philosophers such as the early Chinese thinkers is that they exhibit a finely wrought understanding of the fragility of the self.  They speak to a self that can be shattered, and speak of what this means to us, and about how we might pick up the shards and carry on as life demands we must.  

It is true that one can retrieve commentary about grief and even some consolatory philosophy out of the western tradition.  I do not deny this.  However, one must retrieve it.  It is not typically there on the surface.  The few who are on available on the surface are too often committed to identifying relationships with others as “external goods.”  So for consolation we could turn to Stoics who compare friends to tunics that get stolen and must be replaced (Seneca), or one’s own children to vases that can break (Epictetus), even as some of them (Seneca!) can’t quite seem to persuade themselves of this.  We can look to philosophers who characterize friendship as a skill (several of the ancient Greeks and Romans) that one exercises and so retains even in grief, though this again declines to imagine skills as seated and sourced in more than an individual agent.  We can hypothesize that Plato writes his sorrow into and through the dialogues, with these as memorializations ruefully written into the silence of Socrates’ voice and the impossibility of Socrates making any response.  We can even excavate the slight and subtle signs that much lies under the surface, asking, for example, why, if Socrates wants to liken the body to a cage, he couples saying so with affectionately touching one of his interlocutors, a bodily gesture that may say much.  And of course we do have Montaigne, though not enough read him.  Montaigne is, from what I have read, the closest we come to courting the idea that bereavement may do much to unsettle the human being and, along the way, longstanding ideas about personal identity.  But, again, few read Montaigne.

My point is not that the western canon is without resources, but that one has look harder than one ought to find them.  They must be retrieved and sometimes excavated from the barest indications.  The ones easy to find are works that I at least judge insensate to how I in fact live.  To me, this intellectual poverty reads as testament to an impoverished tradition for addressing the complexities of the self, or at least the self that actual people walk around with.  Should philosophers care that people do not live like the entities described in our philosophies?  Obviously, I think we should.  But I think that means we need to care about bereavement.  I said that philosophy should help – I do think, perhaps archaically, that philosophy ought equip us to reflect upon and manage well common human struggles – but let me emphasize the obverse of this coin for the skeptical.  Philosophy itself will not be very good if it cannot entertain the complexity of experiences people attest to finding exceptionally complex where their lived personal identities are concerned.  It likewise will not be very good if it decides, in advance of substantive inquiry, that we can learn nothing from one of the most significant and painful experiences in human life, bereavement.


For what it’s worth, the early Chinese sources do suggest that the Chinese philosophers themselves did die well, in line with the courage and equanimity we see in figures like Socrates.  Tellingly, though, this just isn’t counted a very interesting aspect of who they were, how they lived, or what constitutes their wisdom.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Philosophical Undertakings


Digging a grave is not like digging a hole.  Some of the difference is quickly discovered.  A grave wants to be tidy, the sides cut smooth and corners keen.  The work is careful, not quick, and it is much physically harder than I expected.  For in digging I discovered why the cemetery sits where it does on our family farm.  It rests on a rise of land overlooking an expanse of lower pasture and, beyond that, hills that push away west and show the last of the sun in evening.  It’s beautiful, yet this is but coincidence.  The cemetery sits where it does because its soil is so leavened with rock as to make farming untenable.  This, then, is the prudent logic of location in the always sorry economics of farming.  We bury our dead in our loveliest spot, but this is because we bury them in the worst of our dirt.


In digging, I remembered too well that tombstones have purpose beyond serving sentiment.  We mark graves to announce human significance, the tombstone a tangible sign that our dead lived and we rued their loss.  But we also mark graves for the ones who must dig next.  My grandfather recalled his boyhood experiences digging graves in our cemetery, with its several unmarked graves.  What stones there were for these were long ago lost, so “sometimes,” my grandfather would say, “we’d be digging and hit coffin, and we’d have to move over and start again.”  An unmarked grave evokes sorrow for dead completely forgotten, but it also makes potential trouble for the next gravedigger.  When I dug a grave, I hoped against this trouble.

But grave digging just is trouble, and trouble of the worst sort.  Grief is dirty and it is work.  One doesn’t want it easier – that just seems, as Dostoyevsky might say, false to the fact – but help would be nice.

I’ve always thought that whatever else philosophy does, it should help.  I expect many people have thought so, but the ones we study most are little help with grave digging.  To be sure, they have much to say about death.  Philosophy itself, if we heed Plato, is training for death, the mental discipline that readies its practitioners to die well, without fear and anxiety.  Plato was schooled in this by Socrates, that philosopher whose death perhaps marks the genesis of all philosophy in the west.  Socrates died with fierce defiance – of the shortsighted contemporaries who persecuted him, but more ambitiously of death itself.  He would not fear it, insisting instead upon the power of reason to overmaster anxiety.  But he is not a philosopher with whom I could bear to dig a grave.

Much of philosophy in the west simply takes it as obvious that the problem of death is that I will die.  It was so for Socrates and Plato, and remains so now:  Pick up any recent philosophy collection on death and you will find much to school you on your own end, much that will work away at whether you ought count your death bad and attempt to sort your mortality into rational order.  For in most of our philosophy still, the death that matters is your own.  This is why most philosophers would make poor gravediggers, poor companions in grief. 

I will die – of course I will – and I suppose that represents a challenge of sorts.  But the problem I have with death is that other people die.  Whatever trouble my own death poses is but dull afterthought to more potent longings against loss.  Where one wants help with this, one must look elsewhere, to poets, memoirists, or novelists.  If one wants a philosopher, though, best look to China.  There one finds philosophers who feel the trouble of graves. 

When Confucius buried his parents, he built a mounded grave, one that would be visible and stand above its surrounds.  Great care was taken to build it well, for its height would be the way he would find it again when he would wish to return.  The fates were against him, however, and under the weight of uncommonly heavy rains, the mound collapsed.  When his students informed him of this, they had to repeat the news three times, Confucius unable to take it in.  As understanding broke upon him, he wept openly, wrecked by the failure to make some modest symbolic good out of sorrow. 

In my own digging, I felt the force of Confucius’ distress.  One wants so badly in grief to exercise what pitiably small control one can, to make something go right where all has gone wrong.  So too, one wants to do for the dead, not because they’ll know what we do in laying their graves, but because it feels, however modestly, something like life once did.  When they lived, the dead took what we could offer – conversation, affection, shared experiences – and they gave back in kind.  Death puts them beyond reach of our doings, but in mourning we pledge ourselves against this, telling the fates that not all is altered.  We hold in remainder the power to do for them just a little bit more and a little bit longer.  And, since it is all we can do, we want this bit of doing to go right and well.  To have it go badly or, worse, to have failed to make our efforts the best we could, is to suffer a redoubling of loss.

The Daoist Zhuangzi is in many ways a foil to Confucius.  He describes sages cheerfully singing beside the corpse of a dead friend, reveling in nature’s endless transformations.  Sometimes he rejected the idea of graves altogether, suggesting that burying the dead but arbitrarily favors worms over birds as nature has her way with our remains.  Zhuangzi’s happy sages come to prize death precisely because they prize life, understanding that change, including the dramatic change of death, is where we find whatever beauty, interest, and meaning life can afford.  Without it, much that makes our happiness would be lost.  Still, even Zhuangzi could not pass the grave of a friend without melancholy.  Seeing his companion Huizi’s grave, he speaks to Huizi, ruefully observing that he now has no one with whom to talk. 

Zhuangzi’s vision of a world without graves is tempting, as if giving up the burial of our dead could lay to rest our grief.  It would also be a valuable admission of human vanities, a check on all the ways we strive to make monuments in life and out of our lives.  Efforts to make that which will last are a folly in defiance of how the world works, its endless capacity to forget and, in the dreadful phrase, “move on.”  But even Zhuangzi saw the wide difference between vainly heroic aspirations to defy mortality through our memorializing actions and wishing one’s own dear friend was not dead.  In the latter, one cares not about monuments to human significance, but about the lost chance to have one more ordinary word.  A grave can’t fix this, but it gave Zhuangzi a place to talk when death had shut the ears of the one he wanted to listen.  However sorry a substitute, a grave may save the interchange between friends from becoming a dead language.  Or, at least, provide a place to speak of languages lost. 

Another Confucian, Xunzi, meditates on the problems our dead present as corpses.  Dead bodies are not like living bodies, but neither are they terribly different when they belong to one’s own.  We want to keep our dead, save them from the nullity of death, even as the blunt facts of decay insist that we must take leave.  The trouble then is how to balance longing with fact, how to separate ourselves from what used to be when the present is emphatically not as we would wish.  Xunzi apprehended that where death is quick, leave-taking wants to be long.  Our efforts at tending our dead, digging their graves, and ritual exercises of remembrance are actions undertaken in the gap, the gap between what has happened and our hesitant, unwilling adjustment to it.  We need to do something, so we do what we can to make it seem as if they recede from view rather than bluntly disappear:  We dig, we weep, we memorialize.  In this, Xunzi understood the irrelevance or, perhaps more kindly, impotence of the merely doxastic in taking leave of our dead.  What we believe about our dead matters far less in grief than what we do.

Like many contemporary philosophers, Xunzi assumed that the dead are just that – gone, from us, from life, from existence.  But Xunzi did not imagine that this stone cold fact signified much.  Fact pales before desire and desire wants translating into action, into doing. In early China, one form of doing was the soul-summoning ritual.  Upon the death of a beloved, the bereaved would take to the rooftop to beg their dead to return – ritually pleading, “Come back!” – no matter how impossible one knew this to be.  Because, Xunzi might say, the longing is the thing.  What matters most is not that our dead cannot come back to us but the helpless, hopeless, and most important desire that they could.  The wish too is a fact and it is one of the more exquisite human facts, the felt power of our longings to go on a little longer with those we love.  If we are not to be false to this more important fact, we need somewhere to go with it, to give it its due, and the rooftop seems as good a place as any.  As does the graveyard, digging through layers of rock to make a place that is not a hole.        

As I age and accrue the losses that age brings, philosophers who think their own deaths the most challenging breed in me a certain contempt. People like mine, who historically lacked the leisure for philosophy, have long died stoically themselves but only uneasily bury their own in country cemeteries, graves we’ll also maintain if they are to be maintained.  People like mine do not so much dispose of the dead but hold them in our charge.  And this perhaps works a fundamental difference in consciousness of death.  When I die, my kin will bury me alongside our other dead.  They’ll sing “I’ll Fly Away,” even as I lay manifestly grounded beneath the rocky soil, because announcing that melancholic hope is what we have always done, and done most when we believe it least.  And, at long last, mine will be one more grave alongside which they'll picnic on Decoration Day, perhaps sometimes sparing my grave a lonely word.  In all of this, for me, my own death really figures little.  I’ll not be doing anything in dying my ancestors have not already done.  Its banality is the consolation, if some is needed.


The trouble I discern is that the death that matters to me is not my own.  It does not sit on a distant horizon, nor will its coming be singular.  It will instead come and keep coming, a serial experience belonging to me by way of others I would not lose if I had power. The problem isn’t death, but deaths.  It is not dying, but grave digging, and that requires raw and muscular work too easily lost in philosophy’s most indolent abstractions.  To grieve and mourn, one does not want those who will too ably measure and make tidy life’s alarming collapses.  One wants philosophers who fall apart, who come undone with weeping, talk to graves, and cry out for the return of souls that don’t exist.  One wants those who tarry in the trouble because they feel it and know it has no ready resolution.  If it will ever yield to reason and reflection, these will come late and incompletely, and only after digging is done.