I am currently reading Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice (Yale UP, 2018), which is a typical Eagleton book: breezy, opinionated, easy going down. Eagleton always gives me things to chew on. Yes, his late religious turn is annoying. So far, this book is built around the perverse effort to convince us that the crucifixion is not comic (i.e. leading to the happy ending of the resurrection), but the aufgeheben of sacrifice because it demonstrates how sacrifice leads to nothing. A quixotic enterprise.
But I want to think about something rather different here. Eagleton gives us his version of the idea that life is so precious, so valuable, exactly because we know it is temporary. Death, in other words, gives life value. Maggie Nelson quotes Elaine Scarry a few times in her (Nelson’s) book on the art of cruelty as saying that beauty calls forth our urge to protect it, to act justly toward it, precisely because the beautiful is so fragile, so vulnerable, so transitory. Nelson retorts that those same qualities can also incite cruelty and violence. The beautiful thing can enrage us in its helplessness, its forlorn fragility. Something in us wants to throw a brick through that beautiful plate glass window.
Can the same thing be said of life (i.e. that its fragility can call forth aggression)? I am not sure; my thought today is a bit tangential to that idea. Death, I think, is utterly meaningless. A simple, but total, void. It is very hard to process the idea that at death consciousness simply ceases; that there is nothingness beyond that door. It is not a passage into something else. It is just a complete and utter end. All darkness. In many ways, this fact is unthinkable. We are so used to consciousness, to processing our experiences, that the very idea of no experience and no consciousness is a void so complete that we cannot comprehend it. Various artists—those addicted to the sublime—can even find this void seductive. But more usual is to refuse to believe it. It is a truism that it is very hard to believe in one’s death. But I go further: it is very hard to believe in death at all.
Even though, at the same time, we process the death of others with remarkable casualness. Very, very few ever consider not carrying on themselves when a loved one dies. Certainly that thought doesn’t arise when a spouse dies. It is more likely to be the response to one’s child’s death. Even then, adding my death to my child’s is not very common. In short, death is both unthinkable and something we live through with relative aplomb. We move on—as the saying goes.
The meaninglessness of death heightens, clarifies, the meaningfulness of life. So that life is not just precious and valuable, but also replete with meaning. It is, in some ways, a task we are handed with life: make sure this life is meaningful, work at making it meaningful. But, in other ways, life is condemned to meaning, as Merleau-Ponty put it. We can’t avoid telling stories about it, examining it, imputing significance to its various incidents. That the void of death will be as blank as the void before birth is always hovering there as an incitement to meaning.
But—and here is the scary thought—if the value of life is heightened, highlighted, by the nothingness of death, then the value of life is perhaps best demonstrated by the embrace of death. I don’t quite know how to make that logic lucid. It’s a statement I want to flesh out, but don’t know quite how to do so at this moment.
Here’s a cousin of that thought that is easier to explain. Since life is so valuable and its value disappears with death, then the most potent way humans have to dramatize the value of something else (i.e. something that is not life, but which a self also insists is valuable) is to lay down one’s life for that other thing. This is the power of martyrdom. Freedom (to take one example) is so valuable, that I will trade my life for it—even though, of course, my dead self cannot enjoy the freedom I have sacrificed my life for. I guess we can reverse the formula: an unfree life is not valuable, is not worth living.
Why this thought is scary is because it traps humans into what comes to seem an inescapable game of chicken. You claim something is valuable? Then prove it. Lay down your life for it. Not a game that anyone can win. It just creates devastation, meaninglessness, death all around it. They create a desert and call it noble belief that some things are so valuable, so sacred, that they are worth dying for. The problem is that life is the ultimate standard of value—and so humans are pushed to place it on the table as their wager in disputes over what is valuable. You are not really serious, the logic goes, until you put your life on the line. And other humans are all too ready to take that life when it is wagered in that way.
A final, different, thought: it is also always shocking for one of my sensibilities, one to whom my own life and the lives of those around me feel utterly precious, to witness the casualness with which others give up their lives. Soldiers come first to mind, but there are also the ranks of the reckless, the thoughtless, who put themselves in danger’s way. Either they are suffering from a delusion of invulnerability (usually the explanation offered for the foolhardy behavior of males between the ages of 14 and 24) or (what I suspect is more usually the case) they have never believed their lives are worth much. Nothing in their world has introduced or reinforced that idea. To forfeit one’s life heedlessly is an indictment of the world that has not bred into your bone the belief that one’s life matters, that it is significant, that its unfolding and its continuance is full of meaning.
Yet another perspective on these themes: sacrifice functions as a way to make the meaningless (death) meaningful. Since the sacrifice aims to extract something of value from death, to make death something that provides “a return,” it can be seen as an attempt to bring death into a narrative that confers meaning upon it. Thus, sacrifice not only enacts a control over death (i.e. that humans, through their social order and its institutions get to decide the time, place and manner of death in stark contrast to the usual fact that death is visited upon us from without), but the death also bears fruit, has a purpose, is not the stark and simple end of life, but a contributor to life.
More radically—or perhaps it is more phantasmagorically—sacrifice can be seen as the dissolution of identity, of self, required to pass into a new, transformed (presumably better or more desirable) self. This is the logic of baptism—a feigned death by drowning—taken literally. The stale status quo must be put to death in order to clear the stage for the appearance of the new. Violence as a midwife, as a creator. The trouble, of course, is that this seems a Pyrrhic victory. Unless the death is not literal, but some kind of staged representation (thus the dramatic art of tragedy), the dead person is not around to enjoy his or her new identity/reality. In short, such thinking is way too close for my tastes to the oft-heard notion that a good war is just what this decadent society needs to “cleanse” it of its ills. This idea is no more attractive when it takes a left-wing form (imagining the end of capitalism through a violent revolution) than it is in its right-wing variants.
In sum: the attempt to make death meaningful may prove much, much worse than an acceptance of its full meaninglessness. Making it meaningful stands as a sore temptation to inflict it or embrace it—in order to secure the meanings one claims it can contain and, even, unlock. Better it seems to me to maintain that life is the locus of value and death the dissolution of that value—and thus to shun death until it proves itself unavoidable. Anything that encourages humans to aid death in its work should be viewed with suspicion.