Tuesday, 15 March 2011

On Death

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death,  thou shalt die.
Death Be Not Proud John Donne
Death is a subject that has come up for me a lot of late for all sorts of reasons. I am no longer afraid of death and now I have embraced the inevitability of it. Death has a contradictory nature to it that to me is like politics. When it does not concern you directly, in the abstract, they both seem romantic, idyllic even. However, when they directly affect you it is in a gruesomely slow and painful way. Lately, I’ve been thinking about death in the abstract. Where I thought there was something noble in dying with dignity, I have now come to realise that there is absolutely no dignity in death.


This realisation came to me like all good ones: through a piece of art; specifically through the movie Wit starring Emma Thompson who also co-wrote the screenplay with acclaimed director Mike Nichols. The plot is as follows: 

Vivian Bearing, a demanding and uncompromising professor of 17th century English poetry specializing in the holy sonnets of John Donne, is diagnosed with advanced (stage 4) metastatic ovarian cancer. Being an academic, she treats the news with a certain matter-of-factness much like she would her own research. Indeed, her medical team - the renowned Dr. Harvey Kelekian and his fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, who happens to be an ex-student of hers - do treat her solely like a research experiment, with a "live at all cost" mentality. The doctors recommend an experimental treatment of aggressive chemotherapy, to which she agrees. In part out of her own choice but in part out of her own personal circumstances, she decides to go through the treatment alone. But as her treatment progresses, she wishes she had some more truly caring human interaction from people who see her as a person and not just a research experiment.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Margaret Edison, this film is a tremendously harrowing experience and is uncomfortable viewing throughout, as the story chroniclles Vivian’s slow march towards death. Like me, she uses her intellect to rationalise her life’s journey, but it provides cold comfort. At the heart of the film lies the question of whether death is a triumph or an obstacle to be endured?

In the film’s most crucial flashback scene, Vivian as a student is discussing Death Be Not Proud with her professor, E.M Ashton. Vivian failed her essay on the poem because she used the wrong text and not the proscribed one.
E.M. Ashford: Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation. 
E.M. Ashford: And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark!

E.M. Ashford: If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare.

E.M. Ashford: Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar.

E.M. Ashford: It reads, "And death shall be no more" comma "death, thou shalt die." Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

E.M. Ashford: Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause. 
E.M. Ashford: In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.
'Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.'

Death is a part of life. Life is a part of death. Death has no grand meaning, it is just a breath: the end of one stage of being and the beginning of another.

There is something profound to this, but if I am entirely honest I have not figured out what that is yet. Life is to be endured, sometimes enjoyed, as is death I suppose. Like life, no one has any idea what death holds. So the question that leaves me intrigued remains:

If we are not scared of living, why are so many scared of dying?

Some would take this to mean that I am being fatalistic. I would argue that I am merely being philosophical. The process of dying itself is often grim, horrific and torturous, but what happens after is highly contentious and debatable. Many scores of religions have profited from what they teach others about the eternal afterlife. Are these teachings necessary?

Instead I find transformative art like Wit to be great for the soul.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that you cannot be happy in death unless you are happy in life.

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